Read John 12:12–19.
It was a BMW, certainly not a budget car—at least it wasn’t when it was new. But that was a long time ago. The car was twenty-three years old and had been driven well over two-hundred thousand miles, but you really couldn’t tell. It had been kept in immaculate condition, so it still looked new. It belonged to my boss.
One day in the office, I was trying to make small talk and asked him about the car. I assumed that since he kept it so pristine, he must be really into it. He just smiled. “That thing? Oh, it’s just a way to get from point A to point B.” Then he told me why he kept the car in such good shape: “Years ago, my supervisor told me I needed to look the part when I went out to sales meetings with clients. He said I needed to drive something that communicated success, so I bought the BMW. I spent way more than I ever wanted to spend on a car—and I don’t ever want to spend that kind of money again, so I make sure it always looks great.”
Like it or not, the vehicles we drive tell the world a lot about us. They communicate our socio-economic status, our values, and our lifestyle—or at least the lifestyle we aspire to have. These signals can be misleading, of course, as plenty of people drive cars they don’t really own outright, while others don’t care about image at all and choose to drive their cars until they’re little more than rust and duct tape. Still, it’s hard to deny the world is watching and taking note.
Jesus knows this, so when He enters Jerusalem the week before Passover, He chooses His ride carefully. He comes into the city on a donkey, providing His supporters and opponents with a powerful image they can understand. About five hundred years earlier, the prophet Zechariah proclaimed this day would come: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Matthew tells us that the donkey Jesus selects is indeed a foal, so young that he can’t be separated from his mother (Matthew 21:6–7). Jesus rides slowly into town on this baby donkey who is still more or less tethered to his mama. Is there any less threatening way to enter Jerusalem?
Contrast that image with another: Sometime that week, Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem to take up residence in Herod the Great’s old digs for the duration of the festival. He hadn’t come to celebrate, of course. He came to town to keep an eye on his subjects, just in case there was trouble. Scripture doesn’t record the scene, but there can be little doubt Pilate came in a chariot with many, many soldiers all around. Or perhaps he came atop a war horse, fitted and ready for battle. Either way, the governor of Judea would have wanted to make a statement with his coming, to let the Jewish people know any challenge to his authority would be met with immediate and crushing force.
Jesus’ mission is different. He comes not to control people through the threat of violence, but to bring peace to Jews and Gentiles alike. That was the picture painted by Zechariah all those years earlier. The King would enter the city victorious. “He will proclaim peace to all nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10).
John is quick to note Jesus’ disciples “did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him” (John 12:16). This is justifiable, given that the atmosphere in the city was certainly not peaceful. The Romans (loosely) maintained order at the point of a spear, and the Jewish people themselves were divided into several arguing factions. Jesus’ presence inspired fear in those groups that had some measure of authority, even as it inspired hope in the crowds who believed in Him.
The disciples do not realize the victory Jesus is bringing is not against a nation or a religious sect, but against the supernatural forces of evil, the principalities and powers in the spiritual realm. Only when they are subdued will a worldwide kingdom of peace be possible. Only at the cross can such a victory be obtained (Colossians 2:15).
On that lowly donkey, Jesus is more powerful than any governor or emperor. In His humble submission to the Father, He is exalted above all earthly thrones and powers. In His death on the cross, He secures victory over sin and every dark power. So while Jesus might not be entering Jerusalem armed to the teeth, His coming isn’t in weakness. He has His enemies right where He wants them.