The name Bethphage occurs three times in the Gospels, but all the references are connected with the same event, so it may be said that we are concerned with but one mention of the village. See Matthew 21:1, Mark 11:1, and Luke 19:29.
Bethphage is a little village on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, very close to Bethany and reckoned to be the limit of a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem, about 2,000 cubits. It is universally agreed that the name means “The House of Figs,” and the locality does indeed abound with fig trees, but perhaps the associations with the village are rather more significant than the meaning of the name, as will be seen.
At each mention of Bethphage it is noted that the Savior was on His way to Jerusalem. The events which are associated with Bethphage are quite remarkable but nothing will, or can, deflect the Lord Jesus from His pathway to Jerusalem. There may be much adulation and apparent rejoicing as He leaves Bethphage, but He was on His resolute way to the city which would eventually be the place of His final suffering and rejection. He knew, before the time, all about the noisy welcome that there would be between Bethphage and Jerusalem, and He knew that this day would later be remembered as the day of His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But determinedly, “He went before, ascending up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28). It has been well said that
No unforeseen event
E’er took Him by surprise;
Toward the cross with fixed intent
He moved with open eyes.
-I. Y. Ewan
In the pursuance of His plan He sent two of His disciples ahead, commissioning them to bring back to Him an ass with her colt. In His omniscience He knew exactly where the two animals would be, tethered at a door where two ways met (Mark 11:4). The ass which He would use was one upon which never man had sat. It was an unbroken colt but it would, without resistance, carry Him on His way. He was after all, the Lord of creation and if men did not recognize this, the creatures would. For 40 days just prior to the commencement of His ministry He had been with the beasts in the wilderness, and, as has been said, they left upon Him no mark of tooth or claw. The wild beasts had been His companions during those lonely desert days (Mark 1:13), and now an unbroken colt would carry Him obediently on His way to Jerusalem.
Notice again that instance of His omniscience. He knew who owned the ass and its colt. He knew where they would be, and He knew too that there would be an initial objection to the disciples loosing them and bringing them away, apparently without permission. But in His omnipotence, He was in complete control and instructed the disciples as to how they should answer any objection. “Say ye that the Lord hath need of him; and straightway he will send him hither” (Mark 11:3).
Then, there is that interesting little notice of our Lord’s compassion and tenderness. How thoughtful He was. They would find an ass tied, and a colt with her. He said “Bring them to me.” One animal would suffice to carry Him into the city but He would not separate the ass from her young and so they “brought the ass, and the colt” (Matt 21:7).
Albert Barnes has a helpful comment on this and writes “In Judea there were few horses and those were chiefly used in war. Men seldom employed them in common life, and in ordinary journeys. The ass, the mule, and the camel, are still most used in eastern countries. To ride on a horse was sometimes an emblem of war; on a mule and an ass the emblem of peace. Kings and princes commonly rode on them in times of peace; and it is mentioned as a mark of rank and dignity to ride in that manner (Judges 10:4; 12:14; 1Sam 25:20). Solomon, when he was inaugurated as king, rode on a mule, (1Kings 1:33). Riding in this manner, then, denoted neither poverty nor degradation, but was the appropriate way in which a king should ride, and in which, therefore, the King of Zion should enter into His capital – the city of Jerusalem.”
What a privilege these people had when they put their garments upon the ass and set Jesus thereon, and others, not to be denied this privilege, spread their garments along the way, while yet others did the same with branches of palm trees (John 12:13). Palm branches were emblems of victory and peace, and they spread these in the way. They carpeted the dusty road which descends the Mount of Olives from Bethphage to the Kidron Valley and Jerusalem. It was a literal fulfilment of the injunction of John Baptist when he cried, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). If only there had been a similar preparation morally! But, sadly, the hearts and lives of most people remained totally unprepared to receive Messiah.
In emotional scenes of joy the multitudes left Bethphage and crowded the narrow road which led to Jerusalem, the city of the great King. Though most would not be aware of it, prophecies were being fulfilled that day. It may have indeed seemed like a triumphal entry for Jesus into the city, but it would be short-lived, for soon He would be brought out of the city again bearing His cross, rejected, and on His lonely way to Golgotha.
We must however, consider those ancient predictions which were fulfilled so literally on that memorable journey from Bethphage to Jerusalem. But this will be for another meditation.