As we come then to this passage of scripture, Mark 11, we find that a weighty matter is laid before us. For the main theme of this chapter rests in the exceedingly grave judgment that the Son brings upon the Jews of his day, expressing the words of John 1:11 “He came to his own and his own did not receive him.”
For at the first, in verses 1-11, Mark treats of the incident most commonly known as the “Triumphal Entry”. In v1, he notes for us the time of this occurrence, as they, being Jesus and the disciples, drew near to Jerusalem, which he then further specifies, as Bethphage and Bethany, near the mount of olives. Our whole setting then, is governed by the approach to Jerusalem, which has been spoken of several times by Jesus, and in the middle act of the Gospel, from the confession of Peter in Mark 8:27-30 onwards, Jesus has thrice distinctly declare to them concerning his passion and subsequent resurrection in Jerusalem no less, though the disciples have been slow to hear it.
As then Jesus approaches, he gives instructions to two of the disciples, unnamed, whom he sends and tells. The instructions are quite specific, and should certainly be understood in that Jesus has made arrangements beforehand, so that the whole scene is stage-managed by Jesus. They are to go into the village, and they will find there a colt, tied up, unridden and unbroken, which they are to loose and bring. Furthermore, if anyone (quite understandably) should enquire as to their seeming theft, they shall speak as their master has taught, “The Lord has need of it” and will return it. Such a statement implies nothing especial of Christ’s divinity, but only of his greatness and his arrangements, such that he requisitions such supplies as are necessary. Indeed, perhaps the specific village is that of Bethany, where Jesus is well-known, as it is the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but recently raised from the dead. The moral is this: when the Lord has need of things, we are to render them up to his service without question.
In vv4-7a, the disciples do as Jesus has commanded, and things turn out according to his precise declaration: they go and find the colt, tied up, and loose it, and are interrogated, and answer as instructed, and then they bring it to Jesus.
Now, what is the significance of the donkey, and why does Mark labour over the point so much? It is this, Zechariah 9:9 speaks clearly of it:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey
So it is a prophecy of the coming messianic king. The context of Zechariah 9 has much more to say on the matter, but I will leave that for another time. Most specifically, Jesus is making a bold, declarative statement as to his true identity: the King of Israel and Judah, the King of Jerusalem. Yet, he is not a King like Herod was, nor like the Caesars. He comes not riding a warhorse, with prisoners in his train, leading a triumph of victory, but lowly, on a donkey. There is, perhaps, a more obscure reference here to Gen 49:11. In Genesis 49 Jacob is prophesying oracles for the 12 tribes and their futures, and the Oracle of Judah points forward to the Davidic King,
8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
9 Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
11 Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
he has washed his garments in wine
and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth whiter than milk.
Verse 10 points clearly to the enduring kingship in Judah that will not rest until it comes to Jesus, the everlasting king, whom the nations will obey; v11 then is a reference, somewhat darkly, to the colt that Jesus rides here, and to garments drenched in wine, perhaps a hint of Jesus’ coming death.