The Message to Bethphage

Matthew 21:1-3
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away."

Mark 11:1-8
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.'" They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, "What are you doing, untying that colt?" They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields.

After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it.'" Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They replied, "The Lord needs it." Luke 19:28-34

It was now six days before the Passover. Our Blessed Lord, after a brief sojourn at Jericho, had spent the Jewish Sabbath previous to His death, at the mountain home, in the endeared society of the Family of Bethany. He reached it, probably after sunset, on the day of the week corresponding to our Friday. The Sabbatic hours which followed, formed the last hallowed day of complete seclusion and rest preparatory to the dreadful and momentous events of the week on which He was about to enter. As the evening shadows of that Sabbath were falling, multitudes, attracted by His culminating miracle in the raising of Lazarus, were flocking out from Jerusalem to see with their own eyes this wondrous Conqueror of death, and the visible trophy of His power in the person of the restored villager. The morning brought fresh additions to these enthusiastic crowds, who were thus, as we shall find in next chapter, unwittingly preparing to fulfill an ancient prophecy of one of their own seers, by forming a triumphant body-guard and retinue for the royal entrance of Zion's King.

The procession, probably after midday, was preparing to set out. We may imagine it had already left the little village embosomed in its groves of palm, branches of which may have been already cut down, in anticipation of the coming acclamation. The crowd, alike from Bethany and from the city, is swollen by the caravans of pilgrims, hastening to the feast from Perea and the Jordan valley. All at once there is a pause. Two of His disciples are dispatched to a nearby village, by name Bethphage, in order to fetch a donkey and its colt, for purposes not at first defined in the message. To a certain extent the site of this village is conjectural, but we can with confidence include it in the Olivet memories, as occupying a ridge of 'the Mount,' and close, also, by the track which the procession was about to pursue. The disciples, without remonstrance, execute their commission. On the sole plea addressed to the owners--"The Lord has need of them"--the two animals are led to the spot where the procession waited their return.

This embassy was strangely at variance with the usual manner of their Heavenly Master. On no other occasion in all His public ministry, do we find Him courting publicity; nor, indeed, so far as we know, did He ever before even employ the help of an animal in His long and tedious journeys under a Palestine sun. There seemed the less necessity for any such adventitious aid at the present time--as Bethany had just ministered to Him a Sabbath-day's physical rest, and Jerusalem, the place of destination, was scarcely three miles distant from where He sent the disciples on their mysterious errand. We shall not now anticipate, but leave for the following chapter, the reasons which led the Divine Redeemer, in the present instance, to depart from His invariable preference to remain an unpretentious wayfarer. The enthusiasm of the people gathered from all parts of the land, was stirred to its depths, and He did nothing to repress or discourage it; on the contrary, as we shall find, He seemed rather to court the plaudits of that exulting throng. Meanwhile, however, let us, also, pause for a little, and gather a few lessons from this interesting incident, before we proceed with the jubilant crowd along their path of triumph.

Let us advert to the testimony this portion of Scripture offers, alike to the earthly humiliation and to the divine glory of Jesus--to His Humanity and His Divinity.

It is remarkable how frequently, in the course of His public ministry, these two are combined. Indeed there are comparatively few events of importance, during His Incarnation, but in which we have this juxtaposition of majesty and lowliness, the attributes and evidences alike of Godhead and manhood. "The Child born," the "Son given," yet "the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father;" "Immanuel, God with us"--'our God yet our Brother, our Brother yet our God!' When He came into the world--it was an infant of days, a helpless babe in a lowly cradle--yet, at that nativity hour, a mystic star, the symbol of royalty, was seen in the skies, and choirs of angels descended to Bethlehem's valley, to sing "Glory to the new-born King." At His baptism in Jordan, we see an apparently humble Galilean, 'receiving a sinner's rite at a sinner's hands;' but, lo! the heavens are opened, and an audible voice attests His Deity.

At the well of Jacob, we behold a travel-worn Pilgrim resting His weary frame "as best He could," and asking for a cup of cold water--but that Samaritan He has redeemed with His blood, bears witness to His omniscience, as one that "told her all things that ever she did." At the grave of Lazarus, we behold, one moment, a weeping man--the next, the omnipotent Lord of life summoning back by a word the dead. At the final scene of all, we see a tortured martyr transfixed in agony to the bitter tree, apparently powerless to rebut the scoffer's taunt--"He saved others, Himself He cannot save;" yet nature awakes to rebuff the insult, and to vindicate His dishonored glory--the sun puts on robes of sackcloth, and the earth heaves convulsed, as if it trembled to support the cross on which its expiring Creator hung.

In the passage we are now to consider, we have the same conjunction of greatness and condescension--the majesty of the Divine and the lowliness of the HUMAN. We shall presently note the unmistakable proofs and tokens of Deity. But even in this hour of temporary triumph--the only occasion on which a halo of earthly glory encircles the brow that is soon to be crowned with thorns--He appears before us "as one that serves." Though, as Jehovah, He had an indisputable claim to all the possessions of His creatures--though His were "the cattle on a thousand hills"--at the very outset of the royal procession He puts himself in the position of a poor RECIPIENT, sending two of His disciples to get from a lowly villager the loan of two lowly animals.

By one omnific mandate, Mount Olivet might easily have been made, like the mountain at Dothan, as seen by the servant of Elisha, full of horses and chariots to grace the triumph of a greater than "Solomon in all his glory." But as the humble Nazarene--who had a borrowed cradle at his birth, and is soon to have a borrowed grave--He is content, on this occasion also, to dispense with dazzling pomp of circumstance. Though it is as a "King" He is foretold as "coming;" it is also "meek and lowly," a 'Pilgrim among pilgrims.' No emblazoned banners wave over His head, no jeweled crown, no sacred oil, no golden scepter or spangled vestments proclaim His royalty; no prancing steeds, no richly ornamented war horses convey Him along in triumphal chariot. An ignoble lowly animal, belonging to a neighboring villager, serves the purpose of Him who came "not to be ministered unto, but to minister." As a servant of servants, the Lord of all sends "two of His disciples, saying, Go into the nearby village; in the which, at your entering, you shall find a colt tied, whereon yet never man sat--loose him, and bring him here," (Luke 19:30.)

But this incident affords also an attestation to the DIVINITY of Jesus.

It tells, first, of His omniscience. In sending His disciples to the owner of the animals at Bethphage, He gives minute particulars as to how and where they were to be found. It was to be "at the entering in of the village." There was to be "an donkey and its colt." They were to be "tied"--"tied outside, by a door;" and the spot was further marked as being "at a place where two ways met," (Mark 11:4.) He forewarns of the question or challenge with which the request would be received, and the success which would attend it.

Note further, in conjunction with the omniscience, the sovereign power of the Savior. He swayed the heart of that owner at Bethphage. It was in itself a startling, an unreasonable demand made to a stranger, to give up his property at the bidding of two unknown men of Galilee. But "the Lord has need of them." That was enough. Instead of demurring to the request, or treating as an insult the peremptory demand for what was his and not theirs, he cheerfully assents, and sends the two animals along with them. And observe, moreover, the present was unlike many of Christ's other miracles. In these, He was Himself personally present, His own mighty utterances forming part of the scene--as, for example, at Cana of Galilee, at the funeral of Nain, and at the graveyard of Bethany. But here, He remains at a distance--leaves the interview to His disciples--influences the will of the owner through the intervention of others.

How comforting to us is this combined Omniscience and Omnipotence of Jesus! and more especially now that He is at a distance from His Church, and acting through the instrumentality of His ministers on earth. He appeared purposely Himself to withdraw, and delegated others to transact with this villager, in order to assure His people in every age, that distance does not limit or impair His sovereign power! And He would seem desirous, by several of His miracles, to establish this same truth, that His will and word are as efficacious afar off as they are near.

See His power at a distance over matter, when He hung upon the cross--the veil of the Temple was rent in twain, the rocks were riven, and the sun was darkened.

See His power at a distance over the animals--summoning the fish with the coin in its mouth from the depths of Gennesaret; or, as in the present instance, leading the donkey and its colt to "the place where two ways met."

See His power exercised at a distance over the human body--in the raising of the centurion's son, or of the Syrophenician's daughter.

And see, as the culminating exercise of this distant power, His influence over mind, in swaying the will and heart of a Bethphage villager, to surrender in a moment his property at the summons, "The Lord has need of them."

We know how apt we are to indulge the thought, how privileged we would be, were Jesus now moving in the midst of us--were we allowed to hear His loving voice, and to behold His wondrous deeds--how many more tears would be dried, and sorrows soothed, and death-beds averted, and careless hearts touched and melted. But though withdrawn from sight on the heavenly Mount, His omniscient eye is still upon us. He knows our frame--He marks our trials--He puts our tears into His bottle--He speaks, and it is done. The disciples themselves--these humble, uncouth fishermen--could have had poor success in making so startling a demand for the surrender of property. But there was a mightier Power influencing that stranger's soul. "The Lord, who had need of them," turned his heart even as He turns the rivers of water.

And though now removed to a distance from His Church on earth, "His hand is not shortened that it cannot save." All that concerns us and ours is at His disposal. If He could thus act on a poor man's heart, even in what was comparatively a small matter--if He condescended to employ His power through others, even to the inducing to part with two lowly animals, how much more will He delight to exercise His sovereignty in controlling higher things for His own glory and for His people's good! "A sparrow falls not to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing of it. Fear not, therefore--you are of more value than many sparrows."

Let us not, then, in our unbelief, "limit the Holy One of Israel," or imagine because Christ is not personally present with His Church and its members, He must be less intimately acquainted with their sorrows, and less able to minister to their needs. Let us not say, in the spirit of the bereft sisters of Bethany, 'Lord, if you had been here, this my brother--my friend--my child had not died.' By the present miracle on Olivet, He tells us, He is never "far from any one of us;" that He is still, though invisibly, yet really near the sick man in his chamber--the mourner in his tears--the stricken sinner in the agony of conviction. Distance is nothing to an ever-present Savior. Seated on the everlasting hills, "crowned with glory and honor," there is no change in His heart of everlasting love. The parting legacy He bequeathed to all time, still rings its endless and multiplying echoes, "Lo, I am with you aways, even unto the end of the world."

Let us now, for a little, pass from the consideration of our Savior's part in this episode in the triumphal entrance, to the conduct of the Villager who owned the animals. He seems at first to have remonstrated, "Why are you untying the colt?" He thought it (as well he might) a strange demand. But when he heard the argument, "The Lord has need of them;" his objections were silenced, and, without hesitation, he "loosed them, and let them go."

It is impossible to say whether or not that owner at Bethphage was a disciple of the Redeemer's. By the term "The Lord," it is generally supposed he may have simply understood the Lord God of Israel--the God of his fathers. As a Jew--a worshiper of this God--he acknowledged "His sovereignty over him and His propriety in him." The man felt that the animals, in the earthly sense of "property," were his own--that none had a title to challenge his right to them. But as a pious Hebrew, he acknowledged that, in a nobler and higher sense, they were not his--that he had them on lease from a Mightier than earthly proprietor. They belonged to Him who says, "All the beasts of the forest are mine." When Jehovah's interests were mentioned, by a beautiful faith he at once owned the superior servitude, and "rendered to God the things that were God's."

What a lesson here for us! How apt we are to live independent of the Divine hand, as if our blessings were our own--health, wealth, friends, substance, instead of entering into the spirit of the king of Israel, when, at the consecration of the Temple, he uttered the sublime confession over the munificent offerings, "All is from you, and from your own, O God, have we given you." Seek to realize and to acknowledge, in all you have, the ownership of a Greater. Have you wealth? God has given it you; and when it is demanded, regard it not as your own, but needful for His cause, and immediately "send it." Is your substance taken away? Let this comfort you, "The Lord has need of it"--need of it for your sakes, to wean you from earth, and lead you to lay up your treasure in Heaven.

Or, is it dealings more mysterious still? Why is that life of consecrated activity suddenly paralyzed--noble resolves and nobler deeds repressed and arrested by years of familiarity with the darkened chamber and pining sickness--the bird, soaring once on buoyant pinion and singing up to Heaven's gate, now with broken wing struggling in the furrow? 'Oh how willing,' many such a one is ready to exclaim--'how willing should I be, to join in that triumphal march, to spread my garment, cut down my palm-branch, and shout my Hosanna! Sad to hear these notes of praise preparing to ring around the valleys of Zion, while I am debarred from having any part in the festive throng. "When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me--for I had gone with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday,"' (Ps. 42:4)

No, sick one, whom Jesus loves, 'the Lord has need of you,'--yes, need of just such mute worshipers as you are. Remember, He can listen to the heart-song, though no branch is waved in the hand, and no hosanna vibrates on the tongue. The trophies of His triumphal march are not confined to the palms and garments which strew the highway of Olivet. Those who tarry at home may divide the spoil. He who thus enters the gates of Zion will not forget the lowly dwellings of Jacob; therefore, comfort one another with these words, "This sickness is--for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby." While He "has need" of some strong-handed and trumpet-tongued in His Church to fight His battles, proclaim His praise, and prepare His way--He "needs" others, also, unarrayed in festive attire, unequal to the fatigues of the public procession, curtained within "the tents of Kedar"--He needs such--He loves such, to glorify Him. Undemonstrative, passive resignation; unfretting, unmurmuring submission to His will, is as grateful to Him as the jubilant shout of the great congregation.

Why, above all, that deathbed? Why that Isaac laid on the altar of sacrifice? Why that Lazarus, in the pride of youthful manhood, stretched on that mysterious shroud? Why that loving and useful life lost prematurely to the Church and the world? The seared and withered leaves of autumn drop in their season to the ground; but why this withering of the early blossom--this abnormal falling of the green and tender foliage? "The Lord has need of them." Are there no flowers needed to waft their perfume and swing their censers in the gardens of immortality? Are there no "ministering ones" needed in the Sanctuary above? Yes. If there are no battles there to fight--no armor to prove--no "Harps on the willows" forbidding to sing the Lord's song as in the strange land below--there are noble embassies of active service in which are embarked the unresting energies of the glorified.

Christian mourner! who, it may be, are now lamenting over your withered flowers--the blanks at your table--the music of cherished voices hushed for the forever of time--too truly you may feel, day by day, in the depths of your lone, aching heart, how ill you could spare--how much you had "need" of 'the loved and lost.' But take this as the explanation--let all murmurs be stilled to silence by the higher claim and claimant, "The Lord has need" of the crowned and glorified. At such deathbeds of those we love, we are too apt, like Jacob with the angel at Jabbok, in the agony of nature's fond struggle, to say, "We will not let you go"--oh, as the wing is pluming for its immortal flight, let the gentle whisper come to us rebuking all tears, "Let me go, for the day breaks"--let me go, for the Lord has need of me"--"If you loved me, you would rejoice because I said, I go unto my Father."

Would, then, there were always such simple acquiescence in God's will, as in the case of this owner of Bethphage! He asks no questions--he pries no further into the reasons of the Lord's "need;" he raises no fresh doubts or difficulties. The providential messages of God are often puzzling and perplexing. Severe afflictions at times come, like these two apostles to Bethphage, asking us to make surrender of what flesh and blood is unwilling to part with. Often to our poor blind, short-sighted vision, we can see no reason for the sacrifice--no call to give up what we fondly prize. Alas! we only have the one-sided view. We cannot judge of the infinite reasons hidden from our gaze, and known only to the Infinitely wise One.

We never should judge prematurely and rashly of an uncompleted plan, even on earth. Why disturb those lovely fields, and make crude gashes in those smiling valleys? Wait with your verdict until science finishes her work, and thousands are seen to speed along the iron highway. Why disturb the virgin marble slumbering in earth's bosom, leaving unsightly seams and scars in its native quarry? Wait until you see that unwieldy block a piece of breathing sculpture in the artist's studio. Why does Hiram send his hewers to deface and mutilate the glories of Lebanon? why should the inhabitants of her forest fall to the merciless axe? Would not these cedars have been, better far, left as a diadem of glory on her majestic brow--for the birds of the air to nestle in the branches, or the panting gazelle to slumber under their shadow? No, "the Lord has need of them." They were beautiful in the Temple of nature, but He has a higher need of them in the Temple of grace--His holy and beautiful house at Jerusalem.

And, Reader, if, with regard to us, the axe be laid to the root of some favorite tree--if the Lord, according to the expression of an old writer, 'has His tools upon us'--let us remember, in the words of the apostle, "He that has wrought us for the selfsame thing is God." For "all things work together for good to those who love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose," (Rom. 8:28.)

The passage further teaches, that each of us can, in some humble way, do service to the Savior. We cannot all give Him magnificent offerings, or have our names associated with magnificent deeds for the furtherance of His cause and kingdom; we cannot all be equipped with apostolic zeal and fervor; we cannot all, with a Luther spirit, be "heroes in the fight"--but we can leave "footprints," to give heart and hope to the "shipwrecked brother." We can give the mite to the Treasury when we have neither the pound nor the talent; we can give the lowly animal when we have no other royal tribute. If we have not this, we can strew the garment on the way--and if even the garment be unworthy, poverty can cut down its own palm-branches--and with these, poverty's own offering, the symbol of willing spirit and loyal heart, we can swell the jubilant Hosanna!

It might have been (let us make, at all events, the supposition for a moment) that, with a stern and churlish negative, the disciples returned to their Lord from their unsuccessful mission to the dweller at Bethphage. Had it been so, what an honor would that villager have missed! What an opportunity would he have forfeited of doing humble but acceptable service to the world's Redeemer! But at the summons, "The Lord has need of them," he readily assents, "immediately" he makes the surrender--his name is added in the Heavenly records, to the roll of those who are "faithful over a few things." What does it matter that his was a lowly offering? He was asked to contribute but little. It may be he could only contribute that little to the service of the Savior. His was not the honor which appertained to other followers of Jesus; his was not the noble self-surrender of the men of Bethsaida and Capernaum, who left their all for a life of undivided consecration. It involved no risk of name and reputation, worldly interests and social position, as in the case of Nicodemus, who came, not in the hour of hosanna and triumph, but in the hour of apparent defeat and despair, to beg from Pilate the body of his Lord; not even was it the constant devotion of the women of Galilee, who, like guardian angels, tracked His steps and ministered to Him of their substance; nor the costly proof Mary gave of her love, when, as we found at Bethany in the house of the restored leper, she broke her vase of precious nard--the most treasured of her possessions--and poured it ungrudgingly on His feet.

It was, in the case of this man of Bethphage, a loan--no more. But it is enough--he has done what he could. "The Lord loves a cheerful giver;" and wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, there shall also this, which this nameless benefactor has done, be told for a memorial of him!

Reader, God's messengers come also from the Great Master to us, with the demand for lowly service. Each of us may recall the time of their mission. It may have been the accredited ambassadors of the sanctuary; it may have been Providential voices requiring from us what possibly would involve sacrifice, but the doing of which would redound in glory to the Savior, or--for the good of His people. What have we done? What in each case has been our response to the demand? Have we accorded a welcome to the messengers and their message? or have we spurned them away--and are we now in the position of those who might have done good service to Christ, but who have once--and, it may be, in some specific instances, who have forever--missed the opportunity? Whether it be honoring the Lord with our substance and with the first-fruits of our increase; or whether it be simply giving the cup of cold water to a disciple in the Savior's name in lack of other substance, it matters not. It is motive, which, irrespective of mere degree, dignifies action.

The opportunity has come and gone--gone neglected. "You did it not to me," stands recorded against us in the Great Book. "You gave me no water for my feet--You gave me no kiss--you did not anoint My head with oil," (Luke 7:44-46.) That Bethphage villager had but the one chance--no more. Had he denied the solicited boon, the possible willingness and regrets of tomorrow could not have atoned for the refusal of today. So with us; many are the opportunities which, neglected once, may not come again. The Savior waits the passing hour; but if we deny, if we even postpone His claim, the Hosanna crowd may meanwhile sweep on, the occasion demanding the service is over--we have lost the one chance, forever!

Let us again be warned by the case of His faithless guardians at Gethsemane, in an hour near at hand, whose drowsy vigils drew from the loving heart they had wounded, the words of deserved reproach we have commented on in a preceding chapter, "Sleep on now, and take your rest." 'Sleep on! the time was, when you might have watched--when your wakeful sympathies would have given Me support and solace--when your words of heart-cheer would have been of priceless value in the midst of My soul-struggle--but the fight is ended--the victory is won--your opportunity in sharing it is past--Sleep on now, and take your rest.'

Oh, if at no other season, to how many do these reproaches for lost opportunities come at a deathbed! how many, even of His own true followers, leave the world with the tear in their eye and the throb in their heart--that, for the dear Lord who died for them, they have done so little, and might have done so much more!

And if there be yet one other lesson, before we close, it is to those who are appointed as ministers of the everlasting Gospel; never to despond--never to shrink from apparent impossibilities--but to go fearlessly on, at the word, and in obedience to the command and authority of their great Master. Never apparently was there a more fruitless, hopeless errand than that of these two disciples--going to ask a stranger to surrender two animals at the simple bidding, "The Lord has need of them." They, also, might have been tempted to remonstrate--to shrink from this strange unwarrantable interference with another man's property, and to plead the almost absolute certainty of a refusal. But they went, because Jesus bade them. "The Lord gave the word"--and they forthwith proceeded on their embassy.

What an encouragement to all of us who are the heralds of salvation, never to allow the hands to hang down or the knees to become feeble--never to deem any heart beyond the reach of divine saving power, or of a loving reception of the truth. He who sent His apostles with the sovereign message, still employs human instrumentality, and makes the very same "word" mightily efficacious. Vain, indeed, would many an embassy be, if we went on our own charges. But we are commissioned, like the disciples, by our Divine Redeemer. We are His heralds--His ambassadors; and He who influenced the will of that Bethphage villager, can subdue the most obdurate, and bring the most selfish and grasping, to glorious self-surrender to His own cause and service.

"Is anything too hard for the Lord?" In our moments of despondency, when the work at times seems vain and fruitless, may we have faith and boldness to say with Peter on another occasion, "Master, we have toiled all night, and caught nothing--nevertheless at your word we will let down the net." We will go with Your message, Lord; and though the world may scorn it, and the pride of reason reject it--and the pride of self-righteousness treat it with disdain, we shall trust the sure warrant, "My word shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it."

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