Bethphage appears to have been located on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, close to Bethany. Both in Mark 11:1 and Luke 19:29, Bethphage and Bethany are linked with the conjunction “and” when referring to Jesus as coming to or near “Bethphage and Bethany” at the time of his going to nearby Jerusalem. (Luke 19:28; see the Notes section regarding Luke 19:28.) Matthew 21:1, however, refers only to Bethphage, and it likely was the unnamed village to which Jesus sent two disciples to get a donkey’s colt. The two disciples may have been Peter and John, for they were the ones whom Jesus later instructed to make the needed preparations for the Passover observance. (Compare Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13.)
Jesus told the two disciples that, in the village, they would find a donkey and her colt, which they were to untie and then bring to him. (Matthew 21:2) The accounts in Mark (11:2) and Luke (19:30) only mention the colt on which no one had ever ridden. This may be because the colt was the animal on which Jesus afterward rode into Jerusalem. With the donkey being led or guided, her colt would have followed calmly.
Jesus anticipated that an objection would be raised when the disciples began to loosen the animals. They were then to reply with the words, “The Lord needs them,” and add the assurance that the donkey and her colt would soon be returned. (Matthew 21:3; Mark 11:3; Luke 19:31; see the Notes section for additional comments on Matthew 21:3.) Possibly the owners of the animals were disciples and would have understood that Jesus needed them. Understandably, with their exclusive focus on the colt, the narratives in Mark and Luke give no indication that two animals were involved.
By arranging to have a colt for riding into Jerusalem, Jesus publicly revealed himself as the promised Messiah. This fulfilled the prophetic words of Zechariah (9:9; Matthew 21:4), which referred to the king coming to Zion, “gentle” (praús) and riding on a colt. Jesus did not ride to Jerusalem seated on a horse or a war mount but on an animal used for carrying burdens and performing agricultural labors. This pointed to the peaceful nature of his coming as king, which opened up the opportunity for reconciliation with his Father for all those who believed in him.
In Matthew 21:5, the quotation from Zechariah 9:9 is a condensed version of the extant Septuagint text and, though differing in other respects, preserves the basic thought. The term praús, found in both Zechariah 9:9 and Matthew 21:5, means to be “gentle,” “mild,” “meek,” or “humble.” It is descriptive of an unassuming disposition, the very opposite of the manner in which those who are unduly impressed by a sense of their own importance conduct and carry themselves.
When the two disciples arrived in the village, everything proved to be as Jesus had said. On one of the streets in the village, they found the colt tied near a door. When they untied the colt, bystanders (the “owners,” according to Luke 19:33) asked why they were loosing it. As Jesus had instructed them, the disciples replied, “The Lord needs it.” No objection was then raised, and the two disciples brought the donkey and her colt to Jesus. The disciples placed their garments on the colt and Jesus seated himself on the animal. (Matthew 21:6, 7; Mark 11:4-7; Luke 19:32-35; for additional comments on Matthew 21:7; Mark 11:7, and Luke 19:35, see the Notes section.)
As Jesus headed for Jerusalem, an increasing number of people began to accompany him. Many placed their outer garments on the road ahead of him, and others laid down leafy branches they had cut from nearby trees. (Matthew 21:8; Mark 11:8; Luke 19:36) When word reached Jerusalem that Jesus was coming, a large crowd, with palm branches in their hands, went out to meet him. One of the reasons for doing so was their having heard about his having resurrected Lazarus. (John 12:12, 13, 18)
When Jesus reached the location where the road began to descend over the western slope of the Mount of Olives, his disciples and many others joyfully shouted, “Hosanna,” and acknowledged Jesus as one who came in God’s name (or as representing the Most High) and as being the king of Israel. Among the expressions the extant accounts represent as coming from the lips of those who walked ahead of him and those who followed were, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” “Blessed [be] the one coming in the Lord’s name,” “Blessed [be] the coming kingdom of our father David,” “Blessed [be] the king coming in the Lord’s name,” “Hosanna in the [highest] heights,” and “In heaven peace, and glory in the [highest] heights.” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9, 10; Luke 19:37, 38; John 12:13; see the Notes section regarding “hosanna.”)
These expressions greatly disturbed the unbelieving Pharisees in the crowd. They told Jesus to stop his disciples from acknowledging him as king. He responded that the stones would cry out if they remained silent. (Luke 19:39, 40)
At the time, the disciples did not understand that the prophecy of Zechariah was then being fulfilled. After Jesus was “glorified,” or after his death and resurrection as the one who had conquered the world and had been granted all authority in heaven and on earth, they recalled what had been written in the Scriptures and what had been done when Jesus rode to Jerusalem. (John 12:16)
From the Mount of Olives, Jesus looked at Jerusalem, thought about the future suffering the people would face, and began to weep over the city. If the people had only recognized the things that would have led to “peace” or secured their well-being, they could have escaped the calamities that were certain to befall Jerusalem. As Jesus said regarding the things pertaining to peace, “they have been hidden from your eyes.” Most of the people refused to accept him as the promised Messiah, losing out on the reconciliation with his Father and all the blessings associated therewith. In view of the course the unbelievers would pursue, Jerusalem would be destroyed. Enemy forces would lay siege to the city, surrounding it with a palisade. The people inside the city would experience great distress and be crushed. After capturing Jerusalem, the enemy would raze it to the ground, not leaving a stone upon a stone. All this would happen because the people failed to recognize the time of “visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44; see the Notes section regarding what Josephus wrote about the siege and destruction of Jerusalem.) The Son of God was then in their midst, and the time had come for seizing the opportunity to gain an approved standing with his Father, the one whom he represented.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the inhabitants of the city were stirred up, and they asked, “Who is this?” “The prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee,” came back the reply from the crowd that had accompanied him. (Matthew 21:10, 11) Among them were persons who had been present when Jesus resurrected Lazarus, and they added their testimony about what they had witnessed. (John 12:17) Seeing the multitude around Jesus, the unbelieving Pharisees were at a loss as to what they could do, saying to one another that the “world has gone after him.” (John 12:19)
After entering Jerusalem, Jesus headed for the temple and there looked around the entire precincts. It was then late in the day, and Jesus returned to Bethany with the twelve apostles and probably stayed for the night at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. (Mark 11:11)
In the condensed narrative, Luke 19:28 mentions only Jesus’ going up to Jerusalem. The events that took place between the time Jesus related the parable about the minas (Luke 19:11-27) and his entering Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt (Luke 19:29-44) are not included.
Matthew 21:3 could be translated to mean that the one who raised the objection would then send the animals immediately. A number of translations make this explicit. “If anyone asks why you are doing that, just say, ‘The Lord needs them.’ Right away he will let you have the donkeys.” (CEV) “If anyone says anything to you, answer, ‘The Master needs them’; and he will let you have them at once.” (REB) “And if anyone says anything, tell him, ‘The Master needs them’; and then he will let them go at once.” (GNT, Second Edition) Mark 11:3, though, specifically indicates that the Lord would return the colt. So, in Matthew 21:3, it appears preferable to regard the Lord as doing the sending or sending back. “The Master needs them and will send them back at once.” (NJB) “The Lord needs them and will send them back immediately.” (NRSV, footnote)
Mark 11:5 indicates that bystanders asked the disciples about their loosing the colt, whereas Luke 19:33 says that the owners did so. Possibly the owners were among the bystanders, or the bystanders and the owners may be understood as designating the same persons.
According to the oldest extant manuscripts of Matthew 21:7, the disciples placed their garments on the donkey and her colt, and Jesus seated himself on “them.” It is inconceivable that he sat on two animals as he rode into Jerusalem. So it would appear that “them” refers to the garments. In his expanded translation, Kenneth Wuest, for example, added “the garments” in brackets. Perhaps because the disciples did not know which animal Jesus would ride, they placed their garments on both of them.
A number of later manuscripts use the singular pronoun, indicating that Jesus sat on the colt on which the disciples had placed their garments. This reading would harmonize with Mark 11:7 and Luke 19:35, but there is insufficient manuscript evidence to establish that this is representative of the original text of Matthew 21:7.
The expression “hosanna” means “help, I pray,” “save, I pray,” or “save, please.” If regarded as an exclamation of praise, the words “hosanna in the [highest] heights” may denote “praise be to the Most High.” Luke 19:38, when introducing the expressions of the disciples, does refer to their joyfully praising God concerning all the works of power they had seen. Another possibility is that the words “hosanna in the [highest] heights” serve as an appeal for the angelic hosts to share in joyfully crying out, “Hosanna!” In that case, “hosanna” (linked, as it is, to Jesus) could convey a meaning comparable to “God save the Son of David.”
Luke’s account does not include the term “hosanna” but concludes with an expression of praise that would have been more understandable to non-Jews, “In heaven peace, and glory in the [highest] heights.” (Luke 19:38) It appears that the exclamation, “In heaven peace, and glory in the [highest] heights,” parallels the words, “Hosanna in the [highest] heights,” which words appear as the concluding expression in Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:10.
The crowd that acknowledged Jesus as the “Son of David,” or the rightful heir to the kingship in the royal line of Judah, used the words of Psalm 118:26, “Blessed [be] the one coming in the Lord’s [YHWH’s, Hebrew text] name.” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9, 10; John 12:13) Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel psalms with which the waving of the lulab (lulav) is associated during the Festival of Tabernacles. According to the ancient Jewish sources, the palm branch or frond used for the lulab had to be in its unopened state. The Tosefta (Sukkah 2:7; Neusner’s translation) says that it could not be “shaped like a fan.” So it appears likely that the spontaneous response of the multitude was influenced by the joy linked to the Festival of Tabernacles, with the recitation of the words of Psalm 118 being accompanied by the waving of unopened palm fronds.
According to Josephus, Titus, in an effort to bring the protracted siege of Jerusalem to an end, proposed building a wall around the whole city, thereby either forcing a surrender or weakening the defenders by extreme famine. A spirit of competition, coupled with a desire to please their superiors, energized the soldiers, making it possible for them to complete the project in “three days.” Josephus added how incredible it was for something that would normally have required months to finish to have been “done in so short an interval.” (Wars, V, xii, 1, 2)
Commenting on the results of the siege on the people inside the city, Josephus wrote: “Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those that perished during the whole siege eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army, which, at the first, occasioned so great a straitness among them that there came a pestilential destruction upon them, and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly.” (War, VI, ix, 3)
As for the city, Jesus had said that no stone would be left upon a stone. Describing what happened, Josephus reported: “Caesar [Titus] gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as were of the greatest eminency.” The objective of Titus, when preserving a part of the fortification, was to show how well fortified Jerusalem was and thus demonstrate what “Roman valor had subdued.” “For all the rest of the wall,” Josephus continued, “it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe [the city] had ever been inhabited.” (War, VII, i, 1)