Those who are familiar with the gospels know there are traditionally two donkeys associated with Jesus’ life story. Scenes depicting Mary, the mother of Jesus, traveling to Bethlehem riding a donkey being led by Joseph are common, but nowhere in the Bible does it indicate that Mary actually rode a donkey on this trip. Jesus did ride a young donkey into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His crucifixion and resurrection, events that took place later that week. We call this Palm Sunday, because the crowds waved Palm branches while shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” as Jesus rode into town.
The significance behind the use of the donkey cannot be overstated. Here is the story of Palm Sunday as told by John:
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.
John 12: 12-16 (ESV)
John quotes the prophet Zechariah who, 500 years earlier, somehow looked ahead in the corridors of time and forsaw that the coming Messiah would ride into Jerusalem on a young donkey upon whose back no one had ever sat (Zechariah 9:9). The only explanation for this is that it was supernatural foreknowledge given to Zecharaiah by the God who is eternal and who exists independent of time. We should not interpret Jesus’ choice of riding the young donkey as Him doing it intentionally to try to follow what Zechariah wrote so as to make a big impact. Jesus rode the donkey, and Zechariah was able to see into the future and record it before it actually happened. And the amazing fulfillment of prophecy did impact the disciples later when the Holy Spirit gave them full insight into who Jesus actually was…the Son of God.
Why a donkey? When the people shouted “Hosanna,” they were reciting a Psalm with which most of them were familiar. Hosanna literally means “God, save us!” Psalm 118, from which these words are taken, is a chorus which describes a festive procession into Jerusalem after some great deliverance. The victorious King is coming into the city which he has saved through his courageous leadership. But normally the king would be riding a powerful, well-trained war horse as the crowds shouted their praises. Jesus, as the humble King of Peace, instead chose to ride what seems to be the polar opposite, a young, untrained beast of burden upon which no human had ever sat. Only days later this humble king, instead of taking lives in conquest, would offer His own life as a sacrifice for many.