Israel’s Formal Rejection of the King, Part 1 (Matthew 21:18–22:14)

It’s wise to learn from others’ errors. A child, seeing their sibling punished, can learn obedience. A student, observing a peer caught cheating, can learn integrity. An athlete, watching a teammate fail, can learn of strategy. Whether in business, dating, gaming, or home renovations, it’s wise to learn from others’ errors (see, for example, 1 Cor 10:1–11; 1 Tim 5:20). That that’s what we re going to do this morning.

As we draw nearer to Matthew’s account of Jesus’s death, the abject failures of Israel become increasingly obvious and official. While the King has been formally presented to his subjects (20:29–21:17), he is now formally rejected by his subjects (21:18–22:46). And, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are going to learn from their mistake, avoid the consequences that come with such a misstep and, instead, be propelled forward in our personal and corporate pursuits of God-pleasing and God-glorifying maturity.


It’s been said, “Learn from others’ mistakes because you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” It’s a good plan. In fact, it’s a godly plan (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:1–11 and 1 Timothy 5:20).

It’s wise to learn from others’ errors. A child, seeing their sibling punished, can learn obedience (or sneakiness!). A student, seeing a peer caught cheating, can learn integrity. An athlete, seeing a teammate fail, can learn of strategy. Whether in business, dating, gaming, or home renovations, it’s wise to learn from others’ errors.

That’s what we’re going to do today. As we draw nearer to Matthew’s account of Jesus’s death, Israel’s failures are becoming increasingly obvious and official. A couple of weeks ago, in his so-called triumphal entry, we saw the King’s formal presentation to his subjects. Today and next week, we’re going to see the King’s formal rejection by his subjects. And, with the help of the Spirit, we’re going to learn from their mistake, avoid the consequences that come with such foolishness and, instead, be encouraged in our pursuit of godliness.

The passage before us begins with a proclamation by Jesus about the faithlessness of Israel. This is followed by an account of rejection, the nation’s faithlessness on display. Finally, we’ll hear an invitation—a gracious call from God to learn from Israel’s mistake.


First, the proclamation. Jesus has just cleansed the temple, an act that was met with opposition which, in turn, prompted him to withdraw to Bethany for the night (21:18–19).

This isn’t “hangry Jesus.” This is a prophetic proclamation that Matthew uses as a title for the next two chapters of formal rejection. The fig tree represents that generation of Israel. From afar it looked healthy but, on closer inspection, was actually fruitless and useless to satiate hunger.

Similarly, Israel may have appeared healthy, full of religious life with active leadership and a busy temple. But as Jesus came closer, hungry for fellowship through their repentance, he found her to be fruitless and useless to satisfy.

And what is the fruit that’s lacking? We’ll see it throughout the passage but we’re immediately given a hint (21:20–22). Faith is the missing fruit. In spite of all he had done and said, Israel didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah-King. They were missing the fruit of faith, something so powerful it can wither trees and move mountains.

This is the proclamation: Israel’s faithlessness. They may offer sacrifices, obey laws, and celebrate feasts, but the one thing that’s powerfully useful, the one thing that can bring the promised kingdom, is faith. And it’s missing.

The same danger remains today. Christians can spend more energy curating an impressive appearance than cultivating a useful core, becoming more worried about the leaves than the fruit. As one pastor has lamented, “Far too many of us [Christians] …. look spiritually ‘well-done’ on the outside, but we are ‘raw’ on the inside” (Tony Evans, Victory in Spiritual Warfare, 74). We forget too often what David remembered (see Ps 51:16–17). God wants our hearts, not just our hands; our trust, not just our toil. God wants the useful fruit of faith, that which Israel lacked. They were “raw on the inside.” 


This is the proclamation: Israel’s faithlessness. And what follows describes the rejection, a look at Israel’s massive mistake and the consequences of that mistake. (A mistake we’re looking to learn from!)

The rejection section opens with a confrontation (21:23). In other words, what gives you the right to say what you’re saying, claim what you’re claiming, and do what you’re doing? Jesus answers their question with a question (21:24–27).

Knowing they’re faithlessness, illustrated by the fruitless tree, and that they’re malicious in coming to find him, Jesus traps Israel’s leaders in their own lack of conviction. Why would he tell them (again!) where his authority comes from when they don’t have ears to hear (see 7:6)? Jesus is being confronted by dogs and swine, leafy but fruitless, ready to trample the pearls of his identity and authority. This is rejection of the King by Israel’s leadership on behalf of the nation.

What follows are three parables given to those faithless leaders (21:28a, 33a; 22:1). We must keep these parables in the context of this confrontation. When we do that, we see they’re teaching Israel’s failure, the results of that failure, and the judgement that’s coming because of that failure.

Parable #1: The failure

The first parable illustrates the failure of Israel’s leadership (21:28–31). Jesus is highlighting the hypocrisy of the priests and elders. They said they’d serve God, but they didn’t. In reality, it was sinners—like tax collectors and prostitutes—who ended up serving God even though originally they had rejected him. Notice again that faith is the issue (21:32). We’re still talking about the missing fruit on the leafy tree. Israel’s leadership, representing the nation, failed. They went down in hypocritical, unbelieving flames.

Parable #2: The results

The second parable illustrates the results of that failure (21:33). For clarity’s sake, the landowner is God, the vineyard is the kingdom, and the vine-growers entrusted with the vineyard is Israel (21:34–36). God sent messengers to his people throughout the centuries, calling for repentance and reform. They were often mistreated (see 23:37a).

The leaders condemn themselves and demonstrate again their faithlessness and cluelessness (21:37–41). Jesus is the Son sent to do the Father’s work. Jesus tells them as much by quoting Psalm 118, a messianic prophecy (21:42). Jesus is the heir Israel’s going to kill, the stone these wretches are going to reject. Yet, it’s through their rejection he becomes the chief corner stone.

But here comes the point of the parable, the result of their failure (21:43). What’s the fruit in the context? Faith! Belief in Jesus as Messiah-King. And what’s the result of lacking faith (21:44–46)? They know exactly what Jesus is saying about them: they’ve faithlessly led the nation astray and the result of their failure is the retraction of the kingdom offer and national brokenness and scattering.

Parable #3: The judgement 

The third parable is the summit of this rejection section. The elders and priests have confronted Jesus, demonstrating their faithlessness. In response, the Lord illustrates their failure and the results of that failure. Starting at 22:1, Jesus now illustrates the judgement that’s looming (22:1–3).

Notice that the invitations had been sent out in advance. Those invited had plenty of time to prepare. But when the time came and emissaries were sent to collect the invitees, they refused the king. How insulting and disrespectful!

So, the king tries again, showing much grace and patience (22:4–6). This time he tries to get their mouths watering but it was again ignored and opposed, even to the point of murder. Now the king’s angry (22:7). So, the rejectors are punished, but the seats are still empty. What’s a king to do (22:8–10)? The show must go on. The party must be enjoyed. The wedding must be celebrated (22:11–14)!

Is there anything worse than showing up at an event and realizing you’re underdressed? You immediately know it. The people around know it and you know they know it. It’s awkward and obvious. The man in the parable knew he wasn’t dressed right. That’s why he had nothing to say when confronted. In fact, the language in verses 11 and 12 suggest his attire was intentional. He knew what was required and purposefully went without. 

Now, what’s the clothing he’s missing? Well, what was the fig tree missing that brought a curse? What was the leadership missing that brought judgement? Faith! This man refused to be dressed in the one thing required to partake in the feast. Faith. And, thus, he’s punished and removed from the celebration.

This parable describes the judgement coming upon Israel because of their failure. God’s people had been invited to the kingdom. The OT prophets came to get them, John the Baptist came to get them, and the apostles, before and after Christ’s death, would come to get them. “The feast is ready!” But every time, the messengers were ignored, abused, and killed. So, the King’s enraged. He’s going to set their city on fire. And, in AD 70, God sent armies and Jerusalem was burned.

But the feast remains and the chairs are empty. So the King is going to send his messengers to gather all who are willing, whether people of good repute or bad (maybe some tax collectors, prostitutes, and *gasp* gentiles). And they’re going to come by faith and celebrate. This is judgment upon a fruitless—albeit leafy—Israel: Destruction and exclusion from a feast that was supposed to be theirs.

Invitation: Accept it by faith!

This passage began with a proclamation which was followed by a rejection, the failure of Israel’s leaders and the results of and judgement for that failure. But, as we said, we want to learn from their mistake. And so, as we close, I want us to notice, woven through this sombre scene is an invitation. While national Israel rejected it, the invitation still stands for any and all who accept it by faith.

In the case of parable #1, even those who originally scorn the father can turn back in faith and take him up on the invitation to work in his vineyard (21:3).

In the case of parable #2, while many abuse the grace of the landowner, the privilege of serving will be given to those “who will pay him the proceeds at the proper season … a people producing the fruit of it.” A people of faith. Who believe in the Boss and respect his Son.

In the case of parable #3, though the King was offended, disrespected, his patience tested, and his worthiness questioned, he determines that the celebration must go on. So, he sends an indiscriminate invitation to all who are willing to come and be dressed the right clothes. All that’s required to celebrate is to accept the invitation by faith.

This is grace, friends. The invitation still stands to one day work, live, celebrate, and feast in the coming kingdom and, in the meantime, to live in light of its coming. The invitation stands. Let’s learn from Israel’s mistake. Let’s avoid the hard-heartedness and pride, the judgement and exclusion. Let’s be a people who accept that invitation by faith, a faith useful enough to satiate and powerful enough to move mountains. 

I want to suggest three ways that we can do that going forward.

First, you can accept that invitation by faith today by trusting in Christ for the first time. Reserve your spot at the banquet right now. Don’t wait. It doesn’t matter your reputation, your status, your past, or your leafiness. What matters is whether or not you have the fruit of faith. What matters is that you hear the invitation and get dressed in the right clothing. 

Second, you can accept the invitation by faith today by praying for Israel. In spite of what many Christians think, God’s not done with the nation of Israel. In spite of their faithlessness, rebellion, and idolatry, God’s not done with the nation of Israel. They are still a people with whom he’s made promises and he will keep them, not because they deserve it but, because he’s a promise-keeping God. (That’s good news for us, by the way!)

While first-century Israel formally rejected Jesus, there is coming a generation in the future that won’t. There is coming a generation that will see him as the Messiah he is, that will turn back to God and usher in the promised kingdom over which Jesus will reign. An exercise of faith today is for us to pray for Israel, for their repentance, for their protection, for their calloused hearts.

Third and finally, you can accept the invitation by faith today by asking God to strengthen your faith (see Mark 9:24). Identify an area in your life where you may be struggling to believe in the character and promises of God and take that specific area to God, asking him for help. Lord, I want to be dressed rightly. I want to show off the useful fruit of faith. Help me, Lord.

It’s wise to learn from others’ errors. We want to do that, learning from the mistakes of Israel. They were faithless, scorning God’s gracious invitation. You and I have the opportunity to accept that invitation by faith, to walk in faith, to watch for Jesus’s return in faith, to pray for strength, to share the gospel.


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Josiah has served the Oakridge Bible Chapel family as one of its elders and one of its pastoral staff members since September 2018, before which he ministered as an associate pastor to a local congregation in the Canadian prairies. Josiah's desire is to be used by God to help equip the church for ministry, both while gathered (edification) and while scattered (evangelization). He is married to Patricia, and together they have five children—Jonah, Henry, Nathaniel, Josephine, and Benjamin.

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