Matthew 21:1-22 • Three Signs for Israel


As discussed in other Walk with the Word lessons, by Jesus’ time the Hebrew scholars had determined from Scripture that there were two great pictures of the Messiah to come which they called “The Suffering Servant” in the character of Joseph and “The Conquering King” in the character of David. They recognized that in the first picture of “The Suffering Servant” the Messiah addresses the issue of sin and in the second picture of “The Conquering King” He comes to establish His reign on earth. Their main difficulty, however, was reconciling how He could possibly do this simultaneously at one coming, something we now understand as “One Messiah, Two Comings”. We now see these to be Christ’s distinct roles in His First and Second Comings. This is an important distinction because Christ establishes that He is indeed the King of the Jews, but not according to their desires. Today as it was then, Jesus must be accepted first as “The Suffering Servant” through His work on the cross and resurrection before we can realize the benefits of His work to come as “The Conquering King” at His Second Coming.

Read verses 1-11

Q: What might be the significance of riding on a donkey? What is the greater spiritual representation?

A: A willful person who continues to live according to their own ways rather than in subjection to God’s Word and ways is often portrayed in Scripture as a donkey or ass. Both donkeys and willful man is repeatedly identified in Scripture as “stiff-necked” and must be broken either in the process of becoming subservient or in judgment for continued disobedience. Jesus riding on the donkey is a very powerful testimony that only those truly spiritually obedient on terms with God’s Word and ways and not their own can accept Him.

Q: Why is this a particularly powerful statement where the Gospel of Matthew is concerned?

A: The primary purpose and theme of Matthew’s Gospel is establishing Jesus as the Messiah and King of the Jews. This is not just a sign that Jesus is literally fulfilling the Scriptures but providing a clear indication of who exactly will accept or reject Him. Will they continue stiff-necked in their own ways or submit to His?

Q: What is the clearest evidence that He is not being accepted on His terms?

A: The use of the palm branches.

Q: Why would that prove anything about the people’s attitude and expectations concerning Jesus?

A: This is Passover, representative of Christ’s First Coming as the Passover Lamb to be sacrificed for sin. The custom at this ceremony was for the people to wave their hands. At the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles) representative of Christ’s Second Coming to conquer the earth and usher in His Millennial Kingdom, the custom of the people was to wave palm branches. In other words, they are not recognizing the Messiah at His First Coming but wanting Him to be the King of the Second Coming. They are putting the work of the Messiah’s Second Coming in front of the work of His First Coming.

Point: Churches to this day reinforce this wrong teaching by celebrating “Palm Sunday”, a day which was actually a day of rejection and willful blindness rather than legitimate celebration.

Q: What is another contradiction in the crowd’s testimony as to the identity of Jesus?

A: Some proclaim Him to be “the Son of David” (v.9) which is directly points to Jesus as the Messiah, but others call Him “the prophet Jesus”, which identifies Him as someone spiritually important but falling short of being the actual Messiah.

Q: How is this issue of recognizing Jesus as the “Suffering Servant” of His First Coming vs. the “Conquering King” of His Second Coming reinforced by Matthew’s quote from Zechariah?

A: Matthew only quotes that portion speaking of His First Coming; Matthew omits the part which speaks of His Second Coming.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your king is coming to you;

He is just and endowed with salvation, [This is omitted.]

Humble, and mounted on a donkey,

Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

— Zechariah 9:9

Q: How does Scripture contrast Jesus the Messiah, the Conquering King at His Second Coming to His First Coming?

A: Instead of a donkey, He comes on a white horse with justice and salvation (victory) for Israel. (Rev. 19:11-21)

Application: Christ’s first sign to Israel is to present Himself as King in literal fulfillment of Scripture. But because He came in the character of “The Suffering Servant”, someone meek and humble and willing to sacrifice Himself for sin, He was rejected because they wanted Him to jump ahead to being “The Conquering King” and establish His Millennial Reign. The ultimate work of Christ at His Second Coming cannot be realized until we first accept His work on the cross at His First Coming.

Read verses 17-22

Note: A full and proper study to understand the meaning of the fig tree is a much deeper undertaking than can be provided here. It is highly encouraged to study not just fig trees but all trees throughout Scripture.

Q: What is the basic meaning of this teaching in this particular instance?

A: Combined with the parallel accounts in Mt. 24:32-22 and Lk. 13:6-10, this is mainly a picture of Israel having an outward “show of religion” as expressed by a fruit tree with all leaves and no fruit. It is an illustration of faith or the lack of it.

Q: Is this the first time Christ expressed this teaching in this way? In the course of Christ’s earthly ministry, did this teaching come as a complete surprise?

A: In Luke 13:6-10 Jesus provided a parable indicating God gave Israel three years in which to bring for fruit but failed. In reality this brings to conclusion something established much earlier in Jesus’ ministry.

Q: Given what we know of Israel’s spiritual condition at the time, what is being expressed here?

A: It is what Paul called, “a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2 Ti. 3:5). It is works which do not actually bear spiritual fruit as represented as having “nothing on it except leaves only”. (v.19)

Q: Is there another group of people to which this might be applied?

A: The principle may be applied to those Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, those who claim to prophesy and do miracles in Christ’s name but are rejected by Him. They may have leaves, but no fruit. (Mt. 7:21-23)

Q: Many commentators have noted that this was not the season when fruit would have been expected to be available on the tree. If so, what is the greater teaching Christ is illustrating?

A: That He “will come on day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know”. (Mt. 24:50)

Application: Christ must be accepted on His terms, not ours. It is the difference between being religious versus entering into a personal, spiritual relationship.

Overall Application

Where Israel is concerned, these three signs revealed her true character at His First Coming:

Where everyone is concerned, the requirement is to not just accept Christ the King on His terms and particularly through the work of the cross, but to then live a completely change life thereafter, bearing fruit in accordance with His Word and ways. Faith is proven by following it up with exclusive obedience to God’s Word and ways which not only changes us on the inside (like the work in the Temple), but producing visible fruit for the Kingdom (like the fig tree).