Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” (21:43–44)
With those straightforward, unambiguous words, Jesus removed whatever uncertainty may have remained in the minds of the chief priests and elders about what He was saying to them. In the first half of verse 43 and in verse 44, the Lord reiterated the judgment on unbelieving Israel and her ungodly leaders; in the second half of verse 43 He reiterated their replacement by believing Gentiles.
“Therefore I say to you,” the Lord declared, no doubt looking intently into the eyes of His adversaries, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you.” In their stead the kingdom would be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.
When he first began preaching the kingdom, John the Baptist demanded that the Pharisees and Sadducees who wanted to be baptized first “bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). The fruit of the kingdom is the demonstrated righteousness produced out of a life turned from sin (see Phil 1:11; Col. 1:10). The unbelieving religious leaders would not turn from their sin and repent, and therefore they could not produce kingdom fruit (genuinely righteous behavior). They were spiritually barren, and because of that willful barrenness they were cursed, like the fig tree that had leaves but no figs (21:18–19).
By grace through God’s unconditional promise, Israel will one day return to God and bear fruit for His kingdom. “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew,” Paul assured his fellow Jews. And when “the fulness of the Gentiles has come, … all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob’ ” (Rom. 11:2, 25–26).
But in the meanwhile God has chosen another people to be His own witness. He had long ago declared “I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’ and her who was not beloved, ‘Beloved.’ And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God” (Rom. 9:25–26).
Ethnos (nation) has the basic meaning of “people” and seems best translated that way in this verse, as in Acts 8:9. The nation, or people, who produce the fruit of the kingdom is the church, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). As the only citizens of God’s kingdom, only believers are equipped by the Holy Spirit to bear kingdom fruit. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said; “he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
And he who falls on this rejected stone, that is, Jesus Himself, will be broken to pieces. The Jewish leaders who, as it were, fell on Jesus and put Him to death would themselves be broken to pieces. And on whomever it, Jesus the stone, falls, it will scatter him like dust. For those who will not have Jesus as Deliverer, He becomes Destroyer. Just as the Father has given all salvation to the Son (John 14:6), He has also “given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22).
“If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed,” Paul declared (1 Cor. 16:22). To put that truth in the language of this text, let such a person be broken to pieces, crushed into powder and scattered like dust, just as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself had warned. God’s enemies are destined to be pulverized into nothingness. To try to destroy Christ is to assure one’s own destruction. Through Daniel the Lord predicted Christ’s ultimate coming in judgment against the unbelieving peoples and nations of the world, represented by the magnificent and seemingly invulnerable statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay. As the “stone … cut out without hands,” Jesus will one day strike the statue of unbelieving mankind, and “then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold [will be] crushed all at the same time, and [become] like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind [will carry] them away so that not a trace of them [will be] found” (Dan. 2:32–35).
The Parables of the Two Sons and the Wicked Tenants
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.…”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Jesus was a superb teacher. He often used a striking action and then, after he had gained the attention of the people, explained what his action meant. We see this frequently in John’s Gospel, in which Jesus first performs a miracle and then provides a long discourse to explain the symbolism. The feeding of the five thousand is followed by his teaching on the bread of life, for instance. The raising of Lazarus is followed by his discourse that he is the resurrection.
This pattern has not always been so obvious in Matthew’s Gospel, where the teaching tends to stand on its own more than in John. But the pattern is apparent in Matthew 21 and the first part of Matthew 22. In the first half of Matthew 21, Jesus performed three symbolic actions.
- He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, thereby presenting himself as Israel’s true King and Messiah.
- He cleansed the temple, restoring it to its God-given function as a “house of prayer” rather than a “den of robbers.”
- He cursed the fig tree as a symbol of God’s coming judgment on the nation for its failure to produce spiritual fruit.
We understand what those actions meant because we have the Gospel’s explanation of them. But they would not have been readily understood by those of Christ’s day, not even by the disciples, which is why they are followed by the teaching in the remainder of chapter 21 and the first part of chapter 22. The teaching is in the form of three parables: (1) the parable of two very different sons (Matt. 21:28–32); (2) the parable of the wicked tenant farmers (Matt. 21:33–46); and the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1–14). It is obvious that these stories are intended to explain the earlier actions, because the second parable concludes with the judgment, “Therefore … the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matt. 21:43). This is what the withering of the fig tree was about.
The teaching concerning these parables was not lost on the Pharisees and priests who heard it. The chapter ends by saying that “they knew he was talking about them” (v. 45).
Two Very Different Sons
The first story was about two sons. Each was told by his father to go and work in the vineyard. One said he would not, but afterward he repented and went. The other said he would but did not go. Jesus asked, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” (v. 31).
They answered, “The first.”
Jesus then added this conclusion: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (vv. 31–32).
The son who said he would obey his father but did not actually do it represents the chief priests and elders; they had a reputation for being God’s servants, but they rejected the prophets. The son who rejected his father’s command but later did what his father wanted represents the tax collectors and prostitutes, who had been in rebellion against God’s standards but who in many instances repented of their particular sins and came to Jesus.
Moreover, since the command of the father was to work in the vineyard, this is a parable not merely of salvation—that is, of believing on Jesus—but also of Christian service. It asks, “Who are those who truly serve?” as well as “Who are God’s children?” Or we could put it this way: “What is the fruit of true religion?” Christ’s answer is in terms of doing or failing to do the will of the father, rather than other matters.
Take the case of the second son. He said, “I will, sir,” but did not go to the vineyard. A person might reason from this that Jesus suggested it is improper to make promises to God, since we may not keep them. He might conclude, “I will make no promises, no profession of discipleship.” That would be wrong, of course. Jesus is not against profession. On the contrary, the Bible links profession to true belief in Jesus. Paul wrote in Romans, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10:9–10). What Jesus denounced is an insincere profession, the profession of one who cries, “Lord, Lord …,” but who does not do what Jesus says.
Are you in that category? You cannot answer by saying that you have joined a church, affirmed the creeds, have a reputation as a good Christian, or even that you are a Christian worker or minister. You can do all those things and still be disobedient to God, just as the religious leaders were. They were active in all sorts of religious matters, but they did not believe on Jesus, and they were not working in God’s vineyard. They were working in a little vineyard of their own, building their own reputations and erecting their own little kingdom. You can only answer that question properly if you have trusted Jesus as your Savior and are now engaged in the specific work to which he has called you.
There is also the case of the other son. He said no to his father but afterward repented of his disobedience and went to the vineyard to work. We must not think that Jesus approved of everything about him. Jesus did not approve of his initial disobedience. But there was this good thing: Although he had defied his father at first, he later repented and did his father’s will.
I mention his early disobedience because people today, often young people, think that it is all right for them to go their own way as long as they go God’s way at some later point. They want to have fun now and serve God later—when they are too old to be of much use or when their opportunities for sound preparation are gone. Granted, it is better for them to sin now and repent later than for them to sin now and not repent at all. But the best way is to come to Jesus early and serve him both early and late. It is best to give your entire life to his service.
Besides, if you delay now, you have no guarantee that you will be able to come to Jesus later. You may, but sin takes its toll, and one of the things sin does is trap us so that we cannot get free even if we want to, and usually we do not even want that freedom. If God is speaking to you and you are saying no, you should know that although it may be hard for you to say yes now, it will be even harder to say it the next time around—even assuming that God speaks to you again. The only safe thing is to give prompt and sincere obedience to God’s call.
The Story of the Tenants
There is a connection between the parable of the two sons and the parable of the wicked tenant farmers because each has to do with a vineyard, representing God’s kingdom or the church. But there is also a progression from the first to the second. In the first parable the fault of the second son is his hypocrisy. He said he would obey but did not. In the story of the tenants the disobedient spirit of the religious leaders is worse than mere hypocrisy. Their spirits are so hardened by evil that they murder the landowner’s son, who is obviously Jesus.
The parable of the wicked tenants tells how men who had been selected to manage a vineyard for its owner mistreated the owner’s servants and at last killed the owner’s son. The father is God; the son is Jesus; the servants are the prophets. The story shows that sinners are so virulent in their hatred of others, including God, that they murder God’s servants and would murder God himself if he stooped to place himself within their grasp. What are the two great commandments? The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39; see Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5). But on the basis of this story, it is correct to say that man in his natural state does precisely the opposite. He hates God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind, and he hates his neighbor even as he hates himself.
Jesus began by telling how a landowner planted a vineyard, put a wall around it, dug a winepress, and built a watchtower. He was speaking clearly to his Jewish audience. Israel was the “vine” of God, and everything Jesus said in that opening picture was known to have applied to Israel in the Old Testament. Isaiah had written, “My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well” (Isa. 5:1–2). The psalmist had written beautifully, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches” (Ps. 80:8–10; see also Jer. 2:21 and Ezek. 19:10).
That imagery was so well known to Christ’s hearers that when he referred to the vineyard, there could be no doubt in their minds that he was talking about them and those who had the responsibility for their spiritual oversight and development. We may be tempted, therefore, to dismiss the parable, thinking it applies only to them and not to us. But if that is the way we are interpreting it, we are utterly misreading Jesus’ words. Jesus told the story in that way because he was speaking to Jews. But would he not have made it equally pointed if he were telling it to us? He may have used another image, or he might simply have said that we too may be compared to vines, as Israel was. Has he not planted us in our lands, whatever they may be? Has he not fenced us in? Has he not watered and cared for us? Has he not built a watchtower for us? Has he not sent his servants to care for us and present our choice fruits to him when he returns for them? He has done all these things. Yet we have not been faithful any more than Israel was faithful. We have also hated God and would destroy him if we could.
We Are Naturally God’s Enemies
Years ago the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards developed this theme at length. His sermon was entitled “Men Naturally Are God’s Enemies,” and it was based on Romans 5:10 (“For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son …”). Most of us, when we take a text such as that, focus on the good part—in this case, the wonder of the death of Christ. Edwards did not go about things in that way. He saw that no one could appreciate the death of Christ, the second part of the verse, until he understood that he was an enemy of God, the first part. In this discourse he examined how we are God’s enemies until regenerated.
We are God’s enemies in several ways, says Edwards: in our judgments, in the natural likes or dislikes of our souls, in our wills, in our affections, and in our practice.
- We are God’s enemies in our judgments. We have mean opinions about God. Edwards used an illustration here, asking, What do you do when you are present in some gathering and a friend of yours is attacked? The answer is, you go to his or her defense. And how is it when an enemy is praised? In that case, you introduce negative factors to put down anything in the enemy that might be thought good.
So it is in people’s judgments of God, Edwards argues.
They entertain very low and contemptible thoughts of God. Whatever honor and respect they may pretend, and make a show of toward God, if their practice be examined, it will show that they certainly look upon him as a Being that is but little to be regarded. The language of their hearts is, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?” (Exod. 5:2), “What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit should we have if we pray unto him?” (Job 21:15). They count him worthy neither to be loved nor feared. They dare not behave with that slight and disregard towards one of their fellow creatures, when a little raised above them in power and authority, as they dare, and do, towards God. They value one of their equals much more than God, and are ten times more afraid of offending such, than of displeasing God that made them. They cast such exceeding contempt on God, as to prefer every vile lust before him. And every worldly enjoyment is set higher in their esteem than God. A morsel of meat, or a few pence of worldly gain, is preferred before him. God is set last and lowest in the esteem of natural men.
- We are God’s enemies in the natural relish of our souls. Relish is an old-fashioned word that we use today only to refer to condiments for the table. In Edwards’s day it meant “likes” or “desires,” so what he means here is that we do not naturally like God. In fact, the opposite is the case. By nature we find him and his attributes repugnant. Edwards discusses our hatred of four great attributes of God—his holiness, omniscience, power, and immutability—which I have referred to in other messages, picking up on Edwards’s insights.
He says of unsaved people:
They hear God is an infinitely holy, pure, and righteous Being, and they do not like him upon this account; they have no relish of such qualifications; they take no delight in contemplating them.… And on account of their distaste of these perfections, they dislike all his other attributes. They have greater aversion to him because his omniscience is a holy omniscience. They are not pleased that he is omnipotent, and can do whatever he pleases, because it is a holy omnipotence. They are enemies even to his mercy, because it is a holy mercy. They do not like his immutability, because by this he never will be otherwise than he is, an infinitely holy God.
That explains why men and women do not want much to do with God, why they try to keep him at such great distance. I had a neighbor once who was so adverse to God that I could not even begin to witness to her. The moment the name of God came up, she cried out, “Don’t talk to me about God!” She was even adverse to letting her six-year-old daughter hear God’s name mentioned. This is why people will not go with you to church, will not read Christian books, will not pray. It is why even Christian people have such a difficult time with these matters.
- We are God’s enemies in our wills. The will of God and our wills are set at cross purposes. What God wills, we hate, and what God hates, we desire. That is why we are so opposed to God’s government. We are not God’s loyal subjects, as we should be, but are opposed to his rule of us and this world. These rebellious desires were expressed well by the psalmist when he quoted God’s enemies as saying, “Let us break [God’s] chains … and throw off [his] fetters” (Ps. 2:3).
- We are God’s enemies in our affections. Our emotions also flare out against God. In prosperous times, when God seems to leave us alone and our plans are not disturbed, we manage for the most part to keep our evil affections hidden. We may even be a bit condescending at such times, as if from the throne of our own universe we might throw God a tip. But when we are crossed, when something goes wrong, our malice burns against him. “This is exercised in dreadful heart-risings, inward wranglings and quarrelings, and blasphemous thoughts, wherein the heart is like a viper, hissing and spitting poison at God. And however free from it the heart may seem to be, when let alone and secure, yet a very little thing will set it in a rage. Temptations will show what is in the heart. The alteration of a man’s circumstances will often discover the heart,” Edwards says. He wrote that these hatreds will be seen most clearly when people are cast into hell.
- We are God’s enemies in our practice. Here Edwards gets close to the main point of Christ’s parable, for he says that although men and women cannot injure God, because he is so much above them, they nevertheless do what they can. They oppose God’s honor, persecute his prophets, attempt to thwart his work in this world, and, in general terms, “[en]list under Satan’s banner” as willing soldiers.
Judgment Is Coming
What is to be done with such persons? That is the question Jesus asked those who were listening to his parable. He could have given the answer himself, but instead he turned to the very people he was accusing of being the bad tenants and asked them what the owner would do when he returned. He asked them to render judgment. What is the proper response to such wicked and inexcusable behavior? he asked. The people replied rightly, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time” (v. 41). That was correct. It was the only answer anyone could possibly give. However, in rendering that judgment the leaders of the people pronounced their own doom.
What would you say if Jesus asked you that question: “What should the owner of the vineyard do?” Unless you are an utter hypocrite or completely ignorant, you would answer as the Pharisees did, and, like them, you would also render judgment on yourself.
After listening to their answer Jesus concluded, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed” (vv. 42–44). The quotation is from Psalm 118:22–23. But when Jesus added to it by speaking of sinners being “crushed” by “this stone,” I think he was referring to the vision King Nebuchadnezzar had in the days of the prophet Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he saw a statue representing four successive world kingdoms. At the end of the vision, a stone that was not cut by human hands came and struck the statue, grinding it to pieces, after which it grew and became a mountain that filled the whole earth (Daniel 2). The stone is Christ. The mountain is his kingdom. Jesus was telling the people of his day, “You can be part of my kingdom and thus grow up in me and fill the earth. That will happen by the decree of God my Father. Or you can stand against me and my kingdom and be broken.”
The judgment of God should not be taken lightly, because God should not be taken lightly. God is our Judge. The God who offers salvation now is the God who will judge in righteousness hereafter. Therefore, if you will not have Jesus as your Savior now, in the day of his grace, you will have him as your Judge when you stand before his throne at the final day. Remember that as he spoke those words, Jesus was on the way to the cross to die for such as would believe on him. You can be one of them. Why not come to Jesus now and become a part of his advancing kingdom?
The Climax of the Story
Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Matt. 21:23–27)
Jason Bourne is a fictional character of action films and novels who faces the most basic riddle: “Who am I?” When fishermen pull Bourne from the Mediterranean, he has serious wounds and no memory. He thinks in English, but discovers that he can speak French, Russian, and German whenever convenient. He has a dizzying array of skills: he can dash for half a mile at seven thousand feet, tie exotic knots, create sophisticated electronic devices from a bit of this and that, disarm a policeman in an instant, and memorize the city map of Paris at a glance. He knows all this, but he doesn’t know his name. The audience wonders beside him—who is he and why is someone trying to kill him?
Long before, the Gospel narratives asked the same question of Jesus: Who is this and why do some people want to kill him? Of course, if Jesus’ identity baffled his contemporaries, he still knew who he was. Indeed, during this phase of his life, he was performing a series of symbolic acts and teaching in public to show who he is and what faith in him means.
Three Symbolic Actions
The first half of Matthew 21 describes three of Jesus’ symbolic acts. First, he entered Jerusalem on a donkey that no one had ever ridden, amid cries of praise: “Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna in the highest.” As people laid their cloaks before him, waved palm branches, and called for deliverance, and as Jesus accepted their acclaim, some realized that Jesus came as Israel’s peaceful king, as the prophet Zechariah had foretold (21:1–11).
Second, Jesus threw merchants and money changers out of the temple, temporarily closing it. In doing this, Jesus acted as king and high priest, exercising authority over the temple (21:12–17).
Third, the next day, acting like the prophets of old, Jesus cursed a fig tree, full of green leaves, but without fruit. The fig tree was a symbol of Israel, which so often resembled that tree. Like the tree, the temple looked healthy, but bore no fruit. When the tree withered, it symbolized God’s judgment on the fruitless leaders of Israel (21:18–22). As the Lord told Ezekiel: “My people … sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but … to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice” (Ezek. 33:31–32).
Isaiah and the Lord Jesus say the same thing: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8–9).
The Bible warns of dead religion more often than it warns against lust or murder or many other sins. As J. C. Ryle said, “Open sin and avowed unbelief no doubt slay their thousands. But profession without practice slays its tens of thousands.”
The three symbolic actions all carry the same message. The king of Israel has come to call his people to repent. A little later he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together … but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Matt. 23:37–38). The judgment of the temple and the curse on the fig tree had a point: judgment is coming—although it is not too late to repent. Israel can still say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and Jesus will restore them (Matt. 23:39).
Will Israel take the offer or will pride and external religion stand in the way? For most of the leaders of Israel, pride did stand in the way. We see this first in a double question the leaders ask Jesus.
Questions from the Authorities
When Jesus cast the money changers and merchants out of the temple, he appealed to Scripture, their common authority, to explain his action: “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer [for the nations],’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’ ” (21:13). Some time later, the chief priests and elders came, apparently as an official delegation, to investigate what Jesus had done. (Mark 11:27 says “the teachers of the law” were also there. This means the three groups that constitute the ruling Sanhedrin were present.)
Jesus had moved on and was now teaching, but the priests and elders felt free to interrupt. They did not ask “Is he right?” they asked, “Who gave you the right?” To be precise, they said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” (21:23). Leaders are always tempted to respond to criticism this way. They think, “I am in charge. I earned the qualifications and was duly appointed to my position. What standing does this person have to criticize me?” To this day, we are prone to say things like “I’m the boss” or “I’m your mother [or father] and you will do as I say.”
The authorities think they have trapped Jesus with a dilemma. If he says he gained his right to criticize from a human authority, they will say, “But we are the human authority.” But if he says his authority came from God, they will accuse him of blasphemy. So they decided in advance to reject both possible replies.
But Jesus answers their question with a question and their dilemma with a dilemma. He will answer their question “By what authority are you doing these things?” (21:23), if they answer his: “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things? John’s baptism—where did it come from?” (21:24–25).
This question poses a problem for the leaders: “ ‘Was it from heaven or from men?’ They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will ask, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” But if we say, “From men”—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ ” They cannot say “From heaven” because John’s prime message is that Jesus is the Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So if they say “John’s message was from heaven,” Jesus will say, “From heaven John said I am the One, the Messiah, and that is my source of authority.” Thus they cannot say “From heaven.”
But they cannot say “From men” because everyone believes John is a prophet. If they deny that, they would lose authority! So they stand in embarrassed silence. They refuse to answer Jesus and he refuses to answer them: “So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Then he said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things’ ” (23:27).
We know the source of Jesus’ authority, of course. He is the king of Israel, the great high priest. Jesus always had authority. When he spoke, people marveled “because he taught as one who had authority” (Matt. 7:28–29). When he healed, he did it “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (9:6). When he commissioned his disciples, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18–20).
Authority problems afflict most of us. Remember: the disciples were prone to ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” (18:1), and “Who will have seats of honor in the kingdom?” (20:20–28). The desire to be in charge, to have authority, is common. But selfishness often leads us astray. We want to seize authority when it isn’t ours.
During Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus because he threatened their authority. The Romans also viewed Jesus as a threat; they had the power to kill Jesus and ultimately they did. Yet Jesus’ popularity gave him a kind of power. Meanwhile, many Israelites hoped Jesus would lead them to overthrow Roman power.
But real power has other sources. We remember that when Jesus cursed the fig tree, the disciples asked how he did it, for they wanted the same power. Jesus replied, “If you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done” (21:21). By “this mountain” Jesus meant the temple mount, with its false religion. That mountain, Jesus said, can be moved only by faith and prayer.
The greatest powers are spiritual and moral. Forty years after Jesus’ resurrection, Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem for trying to obtain her freedom through the power of armed rebellion. Christians never tried to conquer Rome. They told the truth, they loved, and they prayed, and the gospel conquered Rome. The gospel, love, and prayer are the great powers, then and now. If you want to conquer, if you want to win someone, tell the truth and love people.
The Crusades, by contrast, were designed to advance the gospel by force, and we count the Crusades as one of Christendom’s signal failures. The Bible calls our faith “the gospel of peace” for it brings peace with God, family, and neighbors (Eph. 6:15). If you are at war with someone, don’t nurse your anger, but seek to make peace, as best you can (Rom. 12:18). Pray for an opportunity to move what might look like a mountainous problem. Then seek dialogue, confess your part of the problem, and ask questions instead of making accusations. Mountains can move.
A Question for the Authorities: Which Son Is Faithful?
Jesus then put a second question to the leaders, in the form of a simple parable:
There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.”
“I will not,” he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, “I will, sir,” but he did not go.
Which of the two did what his father wanted? (Matt. 21:28–31)
The answer could hardly be more obvious; the first son obeyed. What counts is not words, but deeds—not promises, but performance. Jesus drew the conclusion: “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (21:31–32).
The lesson is easy to decipher. The son who promised obedience but did not give it represents Israel’s leaders, who did not believe John’s testimony. They seemed willing to serve, but even as Jesus speaks, they refuse, for the priests and elders oppose Jesus.
The son who refused to obey but repented represents Israel’s sinners. In that culture, tax collectors got rich by collaborating with Roman oppressors. Prostitutes hardly require comment. Both seemed to be “the wicked” par excellence. Their way of life entailed constant sin and made them outcasts. But they repented and believed and gave up their sin. Therefore they will enter the kingdom first, ahead of the priests and elders.
The parable teaches two lessons. First, anyone can come to Jesus through repentance and faith. Second, it is never enough to make promises to God, or to claim to believe, or to recite a creed. What counts is actual devotion: love of God, worship, and loving service to others. In almost every church there are pretenders. Pastors rarely know who they are, but the Lord knows and he will reveal the truth to all who are willing to hear.
It is simple enough if the Lord is nudging someone to give up his or her charade. They need only repent of their pride and deceit, then heed his call to love and serve him. Why should anyone wait? There may never be a better time to get right with God. Let no one think he will repent later. If anyone chooses to deafen himself to God’s call, later may never come.
The Vineyard and the Tenants, or the Climax of Israel’s Rebellion
Jesus’ challenge for the Jewish leaders continues with a larger parable that tells the history of Israel from a prophet’s perspective. In this parable, Jesus sounds like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Asaph in Psalm 78. Here is how the parable starts: “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey” (Matt. 21:33). God called Israel to life and gave his nation all it needed. The owner’s well-provisioned vineyard represents God’s provision while the rest of the story describes Israel’s response. The land, hedge-wall, winepress, and tower amount to everything a farm needs. In the real world, the Lord gave Israel land, gave them his love and his law, and ordained kings and prophets to protect the people. Everything was in place.
When harvest time approached, the landowner rented out his vineyard as an investment and went away. The rent would be paid in the fruit of the vineyard. It would not produce much in the early years, but the law required the owner to collect rent to establish his interest and ownership. So the landowner “sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit” (21:34). Oddly, the tenants refused to pay. In fact, when the servants came to collect the rent, “they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third” (21:35). When the master “sent other servants to them, more than the first time, … the tenants treated them the same way” (21:36).
The parable is clearly an allegory. The owner represents God, the tenants represent Israel at its worst, and the servants represent the prophets. Indeed, the leaders of Israel generally rejected and tried to kill God’s prophets.
The Crowning Offense
The owner gives the tenants one last chance to repent. He will send one more messenger, one who is like the others, yet different: “He sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.” The landowner thinks that because this is his only son, his beloved, surely they will respect him (21:37, cf. Mark 12:6; Luke 20:13)! But no, the sight of the heir heightens their rebellion. They say, “This is the heir … if we kill him, the vineyard is ours.” They rouse each other to violence, “Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves” (21:38 NLT).
What happens next in the story foretells what happened in four days in the real world. The tenants took the heir, “threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (21:39). Just so, the Jewish leaders laid hands on Jesus, the beloved Son and heir. When the farmers throw the son out, they are saying “The vineyard is ours.” As in the story, the rulers said, “The vineyard is ours.” This sounds like the moment when they asked Jesus who gave him the authority to act in their temple. Too soon they would do as the parable predicts; they would take Jesus outside the city and kill him.
It is not anti-Semitic to say that the rulers of Israel led the effort to kill Jesus. Of course Jews led the effort. Jesus was a Jew living in Israel. Both his greatest supporters and his greatest foes were Jews. The point is not “See what the Jews did.” The point is “See what people do.” No people, no nation would have done otherwise. Apart from God’s grace, we all resent the Lord’s authority and we all rebel. We don’t mind if God gives us advice, but we want the last word. We want to control the vineyard for ourselves.
Their Just Punishment
The tenants imagine that they have the vineyard at last now that the servants and the heir are gone. But the owner is more resolute than they imagined. He is coming, in force. Jesus lets the leaders draw the conclusion: “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (21:40). Caught up in the story, they condemn themselves: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time” (21:41). The NIV captures a play on words in the Greek, which roughly reads “bad ones he will badly destroy.” So Jesus now says what he previously showed when he closed the temple and he cursed the fig tree: judgment is coming.
This Fulfills Scripture
Jesus accepted their answer and saw it as a fulfillment of Scripture: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matt. 21:42; cf. Ps. 118:22–23).
Hear the parable: A woman went to market seeking ripe melons. Coming upon a display of cantaloupe, she sniffed and prodded them all. Finally, she came upon the perfect fruit, with sweet bouquet, and firm yet yielding flesh. But she tossed it to the floor and chose a hard and blighted melon in its stead.
Jesus’ parable uses builders, not shoppers. In his parable stone masons search through a pile of stones, looking for the right one to complete their building. The builders examine and discard (apodokimazō) stone after stone. They test each for the size and shape necessary to complete their project. Yet the builders lack discernment. When they see the best stone, they reject it.
As the parable showed, Israel’s leaders examine Jesus. Some think he is the Messiah. “Is he,” they ask? No, they conclude, he does not act as the Messiah should. He is a sinner. Yet since he draws crowds, he is dangerous to the people. Since he also threatens their leadership, they resolve that he deserves to die.
Yet, Jesus announces, there is a high price for rejecting him: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed” (21:43–44). Again, this is not a rejection of “Jews.” The kingdom is taken from Israelites who reject Jesus and given to the apostles and all who follow them, whether Jews or Gentiles.
Jesus says God will create a new people, a new nation, without borders, speaking every tongue. They will bear the fruit God seeks. Indeed, the Lord will take the leaders’ rebellion against God and turn it to great good. He will use the rebellion of Israel to keep his promises to Israel. Long ago, the Lord told Abraham:
I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing …
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. (Gen. 12:2–3)
This is a message from the Jews to a pagan world. The God of Israel is the God of the world. He sent his Son, his only Son. Jesus, the true Israelite, offers God perfect love and devotion. He is the light of the world, as Israel was supposed to be (Deut. 4). He is the true man, the second Adam, the man we were supposed to be (Rom. 5:12–21). Israel was always supposed to become a house of prayer for the nations (Mark 11:17). The nations were to stream in to taste God’s blessings. Now Jesus will make it so.
The Lord has unlimited capacity to take evil and turn it to good. He uses harsh teachers and insensitive bosses to teach us that outsiders’ opinions are not the measure of our worth. He uses illness to teach us to find our strength in him. And he takes the greatest evil, the crucifixion of Jesus, and fashions the greatest good—the resurrection of Jesus and our new life in him. The rejection of Jesus brings his gospel of God to the world.
The priests and Pharisees grasp enough of Jesus’ parable to realize that Jesus is “talking about them” (21:45). They resolve to arrest Jesus, if they can. A few days later they succeed. They reject the foundation stone. But, Jesus warns, those who fall against that stone “will be broken to pieces.” When they attack Jesus, they will break themselves and “be crushed” (21:44).
Despite all this, the scene ends with hope. “The people” still judged “that he was a prophet” (21:46). Matthew drops hints that even the judgment on Israel leads to hope. The prophecy about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone comes from the celebrative Psalm 118. Israel’s families sang it as they traveled to Jerusalem. It begins, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (v. 1). Later it says, “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.… This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (vv. 6, 24). Thus, paradoxically, the rejection of this stone—and its subsequent acceptance—is actually the hope of Israel.
The same holds for the stone that crushes (21:44). The image is from Daniel, when Babylon oppressed Israel. The king of Babylon dreams that his kingdom will fall, smashed by an enormous stone. Daniel explains, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed.… It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will … endure forever” (Dan. 2:44).
So then, the rejection of Jesus inaugurates the eternal kingdom of God, a kingdom that offers the blessings of Israel to the world. Paul develops this theme in Romans. He cites the promises God made to Israel, and, one by one, says they are ours by faith in Jesus, the risen Lord. In Romans we find these:
Romans 4:1–8 Justification by faith (Gen. 15:6)
Romans 4:1–8 Forgiveness of sins (Ps. 32)
Romans 5:1 Peace with God (Isa. 53:5; 32:17)
Romans 5:5 Hope in hardship (Ps. 23:6; 25:20)
Romans 5:5 Giving of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2; Acts 2)
Romans 5:15 Abundance of grace (Ps. 136, passim)
Romans 6 Spiritual liberation (Isa. 53:11)
So the parable describes God’s plan for the world’s spiritual history. When the leaders of Israel and Rome rejected Jesus, they scattered his gospel through the world. Yet it is personal history too. The parables put to us the questions they put to the Israelites long ago.
Jesus asks us, What kind of son are you? Do you say you will work for the Lord, then refuse? Or have you said yes and kept to it? Do you know that Jesus is the foundation stone for God to bless mankind? Have you examined him? Do you know who he is? Have you made him the cornerstone for your life? Are you part of the nation without borders that lives and bears fruit for him? We know who he is; we have heard his call to follow and bear fruit. It is right for us to give him the fruit he seeks.
43. Therefore I say to you. Hitherto Christ directed his discourse to rulers and governors, but in presence of the people. Now, however, he addresses in the same manner the people themselves, and not without reason, for they had been the companions and assistants of the priests and scribes in hindering the grace of God. It was from the priests, no doubt, that the evil arose, but the people had already deserved, on account of their sins, to have such corrupt and degenerate pastors. Besides, the whole body was infected, as it were, by a similar malice to resist God. This is the reason why Christ denounces against all indiscriminately the dreadful vengeance of God; for as the priests were inflated with the desire of holding the highest power, so the rest of the people gloried on the ground of having been adopted. Christ now declares that God was not bound to them, and, therefore, that he will convey to another the honour of which they rendered themselves unworthy. And this, no doubt, was once spoken to them, but was written for the sake of all of us, that, if God choose us to be His people, we may not grow wanton through a vain and wicked confidence in the flesh, but may endeavour, on our part, to perform the duties which he enjoins on his children; for if he spared not the natural branches, (Rom. 11:21,) what will he do with those which were ingrafted? The Jews thought that the kingdom of God dwelt among them by hereditary right, and therefore they adhered obstinately to their vices. We have unexpectedly come into their room contrary to nature, and therefore much less is the kingdom of God bound to us, if it be not rooted in true godliness.
Now as our minds ought to be struck with terror by the threatening of Christ, that those who have profaned the kingdom of God will be deprived of it, so the perpetuity of that kingdom, which is here described, may afford comfort to all the godly. For by these words Christ assures us that, though the ungodly destroyed the worship of God among themselves, they would never cause the name of Christ to be abolished, or true religion to perish; for God, in whose hand are all the ends of the earth, will find elsewhere a dwelling and habitation for his kingdom. We ought also to learn from this passage, that the Gospel is not preached in order that it may lie barren and inoperative, but that it may yield fruit.
43 This verse, found only in Matthew (cf. van Tilborg, Jewish Leaders, 54–58), further explains the parable. Up to this time, the Jewish religious leaders were the principal means by which God exercised his reign over his people. But the leaders failed so badly in handling God’s “vineyard” and rejecting God’s Son that God gave the responsibility to another people who would produce the kingdom’s fruit (cf. 7:16–20). For a somewhat similar explanation, see Stonehouse (Witness of Matthew, 230). Strictly speaking, then, v. 43 does not speak of transferring the locus of the people of God from Jews to Gentiles, though it may hint at this insofar as that locus now extends far beyond the authority of the Jewish rulers (cf. Ac 13:46; 18:5–6; 1 Pe 2:9); instead, it speaks of the ending of the role the Jewish religious leaders played in mediating God’s authority (see comments at 23:2–3; so also Ogawa, “Paraboles de l’Israël véritable?” 127–39, though he unsuccessfully questions the authenticity of v. 43).
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 3, pp. 37–38). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.