If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 21. Last week, as we looked at Matthew 21, verses 23 through 27, we saw the religious rulers of Israel challenge Jesus' authority to teach. They had no success in undermining His teaching so they dropped back and asked for His credentials: “Who gave You the authority to be teaching these things that You are teaching?” And we saw Jesus respond to them with a question, not to be evasive, but actually in an explicit way to get right at the question, or the answer to the question which they had asked Him. He asked them the question 'what do you think of John the Baptist's ministry? Was that from God? Was John actually called by God? Was he an approved prophet and minister of God, or did John just make that thing up on his own?'
By asking that question, He was asking them to rule – to give their opinion – on John the Baptist's ministry. And by giving their opinion on John the Baptist's ministry, they were going to get an answer to their question. If they said, “Oh, John, John was a little bit touched in the head.” Then, that indicated what they thought of Jesus, because John had testified of Jesus that He was the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. And if they admitted that John was indeed a prophet of God, and that was of course, the popular opinion, then they had an answer to their question. If John was a prophet of God, and if John testified that, indeed, Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of David, the Lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world, then they had their answer as to the question, “who gave you the authority to teach?” Jesus knew that, and Jesus also knew that these men were basically politicians, and that they did not want to say out loud something that would be unpopular, because they care more about what men thought about them, than what God thought about them. and so, interestingly, He takes the initiative now and He asks them a question in the context of a story.
Now before I read this story, I want to mention that some of you may be reading out of a New English Bible, or a Today's English Version, or some other version, and you may find that the story comes in a different order; that one son says first that he will not go and then later the son says, “Yes I will go” and then the second son says “I will go,” and then he doesn't go. Some of you will find that the order is reversed in your passage. That's because the manuscripts, the oldest copies of the New Testament that we have, stretching back all the way to the first century itself, in some manuscripts these two sons are in a different order, and we'll just have to find out when we get to heaven, which is the proper order. But our New American Standard has it with the first son saying ” I will not.” It doesn't change the thrust of the story. The story is perfectly clear, but if you find when you are reading your version that the order of the sons is in a different order, its not because it was a printer's error. There is a genuine textural difference and some Bibles work off some manuscripts and some Bibles translate from other, and that's why there's that difference. And having said that as a preliminary, let's hear God's holy word, here in Matthew chapter 21, verse 28:
Father, this is Your word, and we ask that by the Spirit you would open our eyes to see the truth of this word for ourselves, that You would hold it up as a mirror to our souls, O Lord, and if there is in us, O Lord, hypocrisy, convict us of it and by the Spirit, change us, so that we might not be only hearers of the word, and professers of Christ, but that we would be doers of the word, and friends of Christ. We ask these things in Jesus' name, amen.
This story, this parable of Jesus, is unique to Matthew. You won't find it in the other gospel writers. It sets forth beautifully the comfort of repentance to those who have sinned and yet have seen their sin and turned from it and come to Christ. But it also has in it a very straightforward, powerful warning against hypocrites and the danger of their position.
We see in this passage Jesus' typical pattern of teaching, by the way. There are three parts to that teaching. If you'll look at verses 28 through 30 and you'll see Jesus tell a story, a parable. A parable usually has one main point. In the next parable we'll study, we'll see that many parts of the parable have different points, but normally a parable had one overall point that it was trying to drive home. So Jesus opens with a parable, not simply to interest the people who are standing around him and listening to what He has to say, but Jesus used stories to draw people into the message that He is preaching. He uses these stories in order to involve them and to apply more powerfully the truth that He is bringing home. Let me give you an example. When Nathan went to speak to his friend, David, after David had committed heinous crimes against Uriah and Bathsheba, Nathan did not begin his conversation with David by saying, “David, you're a murderer and an adulterer.” He started off by telling David a story. He told David a story of injustice, and it got David mad, for it took David's eyes off of himself for a moment and looked at someone else. David's conscience, his moral sensibility, told him that this man who had all these sheep, who took the one sheep that this other man had, his moral sensibilities told him that is absolutely horrendous, its horrible, that man deserves to die. So having drawn David into that judgment, then Nathan turns to him and says, “By the way, David, you're the man I'm talking about.” So he gets David on his team, and then he turns David's own conscience against him in order to convict him of his sin; and Jesus used parables in just that way. He's doing precisely that in this setting. He's saying to these leaders of Israel, “I want you to look at this situation and I want you to tell Me what you think about it.” And then when He gets their opinion, Jesus turns that back upon themselves as a mirror in order to convict them of their sins. So the first part of Jesus' teaching here is the parable itself.
Then in the very first part of verse 31, we see the second element of Jesus' teaching. That is the question. Having told the story, He turns to them, and He asks them, just like Nathan asked David, He asks them to give their judgment, their ruling on who was the better of these two sons. They give their answer – that it was the son who had initially said ‘No’, but had repented and had followed his father's commandment. They answered correctly and then Jesus basically says to them, “I want to tell you that you are not that son. You are the other son. You're the other son who said he would go but didn't.” And so we see there the three parts of Jesus' teaching: first the story, then the question and then the explanation of the parable. And even as Jesus is explaining the parable, what is He doing? He's applying it and He is applying it painfully right to the religious leaders of Israel. Now, I'd like to look at two things with you today as we look at this great passage.
I. A Picture of Israel's State.
In the first one you'll see in verses 28 through the first phrase of verse 31. There we see in the parable, in the story that Jesus tells, a picture of Israel's spiritual state. Jesus is telling the parable in order to show Jewish religious leaders what Israel looks like in terms of its spiritual condition in the weight of John the Baptist's and Jesus' ministry. He's saying basically there have been two responses to John's ministry, and these are two responses. And so the parable is closely connected to Jesus' question to them that we found in the last passage. In fact, if you'll skip ahead and look down at verse 32, Jesus explicitly brings up John the Baptist’s name, again. In other words, He's saying to them, by telling them this parable and giving them the explanation, He's saying, “Now, by the way, since you won't tell Me whether John's ministry was from God or from man, I'm going to tell you. It was from God. He was a prophet. He came to show us the way of righteousness and you didn't listen to what He said.” So Jesus' statements in His explanation of this parable are directly connected to His exchange which He has just had with these religious leaders.
Now, the story itself would have evoked a strong response from the Jewish audience. Respect for parental authority was one of the fundamental moral sensibilities of the Jewish community. We know from the Testament, for instance, that obstinate, unbelieving, disobedient children, who rebelled against parental authority were to be punished with the strictest kinds of punishment under Moses' law. So respect and honor for father and mother was at the very bedrock of Jewish society, and for two sons to respond to their father's command in the way that these two sons did would have evoked a very strong response, not only from the Jewish community in general, but especially from the Jewish leaders who no doubt preached very strongly on the fifth commandment: to honor father and mother. So Jesus tells the story of two sons here who both disobey. One, when his father asked him to go work in the fields said, “Oh, yes. I'll go do that, father. I'll be obedient to your command.” And then he didn't do it. And the other son said, “No, I'm not going to do it.” He utterly rejected his father's commandment, and then later he was remorseful about it and he regretted what he'd done, he'd repented of his action and he went and he did what his father had commanded him to do in the first place.
Now, Jesus, by showing this picture is not saying that one of those responses was right and one of those responses was wrong. Jesus is actually saying that the responses of both sons were wrong. One said he was going to do it and he never did. The other one refused his father's command. Both of those responses were wrong. So Jesus is showing us there, by the way, a picture of the foolishness of sin. The father's commands to us are for our own good. Think of it in this circumstance. This father is telling his sons to go out and work in the family vineyard. It was going to be to their benefit to work in the family vineyard. It was family property, it was part of their family inheritance. It would have enriched them as well as the rest of the family. So the father is not commanding them to go work in somebody else's vineyard. He's commanding them to do something that is going to directly benefit them as part of the family. And yet both of these sons refused the father, and Jesus, as an aside, is showing us here the foolishness of sin. Sin is not going to do what God says, because sin thinks it knows how to take care of itself better than God does. And yet the foolishness of sin is that when we reject God's commands, it doesn't help us; it hurts us. And so Jesus has a picture here of two disobedient sons, and then He says, “and let Me tell you about one of those sons. One of those sons realized that he had done wrong and he regretted it. He repented of it. In fact he went back and did what his father commanded him to do in the first place.” And then Jesus asked the question, “Which one of these two, which one of these two did the will of his father?”
Basically, Jesus is asking this question: both of these sons responded wrongly in the first place, so which of them was right with God at the end of this scenario? The one who said that he would but didn't, or the one who said that he wouldn't but later did? Jesus is showing us a picture of a repentant son and a hypocritical son. The repentant son is the one who had first rejected God's commands, but then later had a change of heart and did what his father told him to do. The hypocritical son is the one who pretends to be very concerned and obedient to his father, but then never does his father's will. Jesus, in telling this parable, is showing these Jewish religious leaders themselves in talking about the son who says, “No, I will not.” He is showing them a picture of sinners in Israel – people who had committed open crimes against God's commandments, and yet, under the preaching of John the Baptist, had heard His message. Remember what John's message was? “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus is saying, “these sinners, these vile sinners, these people who have done things which are not only socially unacceptable, but which are offensive to God, these sinners who have seen their sin and responded to John's message 'repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,' they have done the will of their Father, while you, religious leaders of Israel, you have claimed to be willing to do the command of your Father, but you have not done it.” And so Jesus is showing us a picture of those in Israel who have repented at John's message and those in Israel who claim to be godly, but who are not. And so we see a beautiful display in this passage of the Father's heart for repentance.
As we said before, the natural reaction to this story on the part of hearers would have been horror at both of these sons. They were both disobedient, but the story tells us that the son who repented had done the will of the father.
Now, Jesus isn't preaching something new here. Jesus is in fact preaching something here which Ezekiel had preached about 600 years before. You'll find it in Ezekiel chapter 18, beginning in verse 20. There Ezekiel says, “The person who sins shall die.” That is basically Ezekiel's version of Paul's words that go: “The wages of sin is death”. And so, Ezekiel says (Ezekiel, 18, verse 20) “the person who sins shall die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes my statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live. He shall not die. All the transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him. Because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?” Ezekiel is saying there to Israel that God will judge sin, but those who sin and repent of those sins and turn back to God, God will receive them. The message is, of course, that God is more willing to receive repentant sinners than sinners are to repent of their sins. Jesus is saying to us in this parable that the father is far more ready to receive you than you are to let go of your sins. His message to those in Israel, even to those Pharisees, is that if they would but relinquish their sin and cast themselves on the mercy of God, they will find the favor of God, the mercy of God, the grace of God. He will receive them. And so we learn here that God delights when the wicked turn from their sin to him. That's the great message here – the priority of repentance.
II. Jesus condemns hypocrisy.
But what you see in the background of this parable is the wickedness of hypocrisy. The parable is showing us that God desires repentance, but at the same time it is showing us the hypocrisy of those who do not act as though they need to repent of their sin.
And that's the second thing that I'd like you to see. We saw the picture of Israel's spiritual state. We saw the hypocrisy of the religious leaders on the one hand and yet the repentance of sinners on the other hand who had responded to John's message. Now, in verses 31 and 32, we see Jesus apply and explain this parable condemning the hypocrisy of Israel's religious leaders. He teaches us here that God will exclude from His kingdom all those who are right in their own eyes. God will exclude from His kingdom all those who are right in their own eyes. Why do you think Jesus is so strident when He speaks about the spiritual danger of hypocrisy? Let me tell you why in one phrase. Hypocrisy immunizes you from grace. Hypocrisy immunizes you from grace. The hypocrite wants to pretend he is right. He wants to pretend to be righteous. He wants to pretend to be in right relationship with God, even when he's not. And therefore, He immunizes himself from the grace which God is waiting to shower upon everyone who will simply admit that they are in need of a Savior. You see, if you don't think you need a Savior, then the offer of a Savior means nothing to you. If you don't think you need forgiveness of sins, then some preacher standing up and preaching on for half an hour about the glories of forgiveness of sins in Christ means nothing to you because you don't think you need it, and so Jesus is strident when He speaks to the sin of hypocrisy because it's a soul-killing sin. It immunizes us to the message of grace. Now, He uses a very striking work as He speaks to them.
Notice what He says in verse 31, “Truly I say unto you the tax collectors and the prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.” Now, tax collectors who generally were not only seen as agents of an alien authority – the Romans who were occupying Israel – but they were also very often dishonest. They would skim a little bit more off the top for themselves than they ought to, so they were seen to be somewhat dishonest. They were swindlers, plus they were working for the occupying forces. Tax collectors and prostitutes would both have been despised by the Jewish people of their day. They would have been seen as people who were outside of the boundaries of practicing Judaism, having turned their backs on the commandments of God. And, not only Jewish religious people would have had a problem with tax collectors and prostitutes.
You can imagine tax collectors and prostitutes would come in for a lot of censure in the midst of sermons by Jewish religious leaders. And so Jesus, standing up and saying to these Jewish leaders that tax collectors and prostitutes who had, by implication, responded to John's message of repentance, that those kinds of people were going to get into the kingdom of heaven before them. Well, you can't imagine something as offensive as that. I've been trying to think for the last week, how in the world could Jesus have said something that offensive to us, and the closest thing that I can get is this: Jesus would stand up in front of the congregation of First Presbyterian Church and say, “Let Me tell you, drug dealers, pedophiles, and liberals are going to get into the kingdom of heaven before you.” I think that is somewhat of the force that this would have had upon the religious leaders of Israel. What is Jesus saying? Jesus is saying, “these people realize that what they have been doing was wrong, and so they repented of it. But you think you are right with God, and you're not and so you are totally immunized to His grace. Your soul is shriveling.” These tax collectors and prostitutes, you see, had said “I will not” to God's commands. God had commanded, “don't steal,” and so these dishonest tax collectors were breaking God's commandment, and God had commanded, “do not commit adultery,” and these prostitutes were committing adultery, but under the preaching of God, they had rejected their sin. They had repented of it and they had flown to the arms of Christ, and so Jesus is saying, “they have been accepted by God.” Don't miss what He's saying. He's not saying that they are going to have a little better view in the kingdom than the religious leaders I. He's saying, “no, they're in the kingdom. You're not!” The kingdom of God belongs to them but not to the ones who are hypocritical.
On the other hand, these Jewish leaders claimed to be outwardly obedient. They made a lot of confession with their lips, but their lives, their hearts, were not right with God. They were shutting themselves out and they were shutting their followers out of the kingdom by their hypocrisy. Their pride, their hypocrisy had two or three elements that I'd like to explore. The root sins connected to their hypocrisy were as follows: first, pride. These religious leaders acted like the kingdom was theirs, not God's. They didn't realize that they were merely God's appointed ministers in that kingdom; they had acted as if that kingdom belonged to them and not to God. We'll see that even more clearly in the next parable that Jesus sees, but its very clear that pride is at the root of their hypocrisy.
Secondly, however, they had a false understanding of God's love. They thought that they needed to look in order to obtain God's grace. They thought that there was something that they could do which would establish God's favor toward them. They thought that there was something that they needed to do in order for God to love them. They were wrong about that. God was far more willing to show them mercy and grace than they were to let go of their sin.
Finally, they desired more than anything else not to be shamed by their sins. They wanted to be respected and honored amongst the people of God, but they did not want to own up to the shame of their sin, and because they did not want to face the shame of their sin, they were hypocritical and they pretended as if their sin was not there. And Jesus laid a frontal assault against these leaders. And I want to tell you that I am certain that Jesus' strong words to these religious leaders were not mean-spirited in their intent. In fact, I am certain that Jesus desired to shake them out of their spiritual sloth. By saying in the sharpest possible way these words of warning, Jesus desired to win these men for the kingdom of God, and there is proof of this in the book of acts when we find that many Jewish leaders converted to Christianity. We see it in Nicodemus already, at an early stage, beginning to see that Jesus was not just a teacher from God, He was the very Son of God and Savior of sinners. And he began to be drawn to Christ. Jesus is showing His love for the Pharisees by confronting them in their hypocrisy.
We must be careful to care more about the reality of our relationship with God, than about other people's perception of our relationship with God. We need to care more about God's opinion of us than man's opinion of us. Hypocrisy is a soul-killing sin, you see, just because it cuts us off from the grace of God. Repentance leads us to obedience into the ways of righteousness. But hypocrisy insulates us from obedience. It makes us work very hard to look one way on the outside that we're really not on the inside; and that is not the way of righteousness that John taught.
Jesus is speaking to us in this passage, to us, today and He has so many messages and we don't have time to do them justice, but let me just close with these two: to those who are sinners, who have done things that they think that there is no way that God can ever forgive them for that, Jesus is once again saying, “God is far more willing to receive you than you are to let go of that sin. God's mercy is greater than your sin.” And to those who are attempting to look one way on the outside without having the reality of God's grace and love in the heart, Jesus is saying this: “Don't defraud yourself. Don't fool yourself. Don't deceive yourself. At the last day it will not be those who look righteous, who appear to be righteous, who will stand. It will only be those who have rested in my righteousness alone, for I have born the shame of everyone who trusts in Me, and you need not fear your shame ever again before the almighty God, because I have born it for you. So trust in Me.”
Let's pray: our Lord and our God, let not our shame keep us from everlasting life. Remind us of the one who bore our sins and shame in His own body on the tree that we might be the righteousness of God in Him, and help us to cling to Him both now and forever more. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.