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THESE verses contain a conversation between our Lord Jesus Christ, and the chief priests and elders of the people. Those bitter enemies of all righteousness saw the sensation which the public entry into Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the temple, had produced. At once they came about our Lord like bees, and endeavored to find occasion for an accusation against Him.
Let us observe, in the first place, how ready the enemies of truth are to question the authority of all who do more good than themselves. The chief priests have not a word to say about our Lord’s teaching. They make no charge against the lives or conduct of Himself or His followers. The point on which they fasten is his commission: "By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?"
The same charge has often been made against the servants of God, when they have striven to check the progress of ecclesiastical corruption. It is the old engine by which the children of this world have often labored to stop the progress of revivals and reformations. It is the weapon which was often brandished in the face of the Reformers, the Puritans, and the Methodists of the last century. It is the poisoned arrow which is often shot at city-missionaries and lay-agents in the present day. Too many care nothing for the manifest blessing of God on a man’s work, so long as he is not sent forth by their own sect or party. It matters nothing to them, that some humble laborer in God’s harvest can point to numerous conversions of souls through his instrumentality. They still cry, "By what authority doest thou these things?" His success is nothing: they demand his commission. His cures are nothing: they want his diploma. Let us neither be surprised nor moved, when we hear such things. It is the old charge which was brought against Christ Himself. "There is no new thing under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9.)
Let us observe, in the second place, the consummate wisdom with which our Lord replied to the question put to Him. His enemies had asked Him for His authority for doing what He did. They doubtless intended to make His answer a handle for accusing Him. He knew the drift of their inquiry, and said, "I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or of men?"
We must distinctly understand, that in this answer of our Lord’s there was no evasion. To suppose this is a great mistake. The counter question which He asked, was in reality an answer to His enemies’ inquiry. He knew they dared not deny that John the Baptist was a man sent from God. He knew that, this being granted, he needed only to remind them of John’s testimony to Himself.—Had not John declared him to be "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world"? Had not John pronounced Him to be the Mighty One, who was to "baptize with the Holy Ghost"?—In short, our Lord’s question was a home-thrust to the conscience of His enemies. If they once conceded the divine authority of John the Baptist’s mission, they must also concede the divinity of His own. If they acknowledged that John came from heaven, they must acknowledge that He Himself was the Christ.
Let us pray that, in this difficult world, we may be supplied with the same kind of wisdom which was here displayed by our Lord. No doubt we ought to act on the injunction of Peter, "and be always ready to give a reason of the hope that is in us with meekness and with fear." (1 Peter 3:15.) We ought to shrink from no inquiry into the principles of our holy religion, and to be ready at any time to defend and explain our practice. But for all this, we must never forget that "wisdom is profitable to direct," and that we should strive to speak wisely in defense of a good cause. The words of Solomon deserve consideration: "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him." (Proverbs 26:4.)
In the last place, let us observe in these verses, what immense encouragement our Lord holds out to those who repent. We see this strikingly brought out in the parable of the two sons. Both were told to go and work in their father’s vineyard. One son, like the profligate publicans, for some time flatly refused obedience, but afterwards repented and went. The other, like the formal Pharisees, pretended willingness to go, but in reality went not. "Whether of them twain," says our Lord, "did the will of his father?" Even his enemies were obliged to reply, "the first."
Let it be a settled principle in our Christianity, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely willing to receive penitent sinners.—It matters nothing what a man has been in time past. Does he repent, and come to Christ? Then old things are passed away, and all things are become new.—It matters nothing how high and self-confident a man’s profession of religion may be. Does he really give up his sins? If not, his profession is abominable in God’s sight, and he himself is still under the curse.—Let us take courage ourselves, if we have been great sinners hitherto. Only let us repent and believe in Christ, and there is hope. Let us encourage others to repent. Let us hold the door wide open to the very chief of sinners. Never will that word fail, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9.)
THE parable contained in these verses was spoken with special reference to the Jews. They are the husbandmen here described. Their sins are set before us here as in a picture. Of this there can be no doubt. It is written, that "He spake of them."
But we must not flatter ourselves that this parable contains nothing for the Gentiles. There are lessons laid down for us, as well as for the Jew. Let us see what they are.
We see, in the first place, what distinguishing privileges God is pleased to bestow on some nations.
He chose Israel to be a peculiar people to Himself. He separated them from the other nations of the earth, and bestowed on them countless blessings. He gave them revelations of Himself, while all the rest of the earth was in darkness. He gave them the law, and the covenants, and the oracles of God, while all the world beside was let alone. In short, God dealt with the Jews as a man deals with a piece of land which he fences out and cultivates, while all the fields around are left untilled and waste. The vineyard of the Lord was the house of Israel. (Isaiah 5:7.)
And have we no privileges? Beyond doubt we have many. We have the Bible, and liberty for every one to read it. We have the Gospel, and permission to every one to hear it. We have spiritual mercies in abundance, of which five hundred millions of our fellow men know nothing at all. How thankful we ought to be! The poorest man in England may say every morning, "There are five hundred millions of immortal souls worse off than I am. Who am I, that I should differ? Bless the LORD, O my soul."
We see, in the next place, what a bad use nations sometimes make of their privileges.
When the Lord separated the Jews from other people, He had a right to expect that they would serve Him, and obey His laws. When a man has taken pains with a vineyard, he has a right to expect fruit. But Israel rendered not a due return for all God’s mercies. They mingled with the heathen, and learned their works. They hardened themselves in sin and unbelief. They turned aside after idols. They kept not God’s ordinances. They despised God’s temple. They refused to listen to His prophets. They ill-used those whom he sent to call them to repentance. And finally they brought their wickedness to a height, by killing the Son of God Himself, even Christ the Lord.
And what are we doing ourselves with our privileges? Truly that is a serious question, and one that ought to make us think. It may well be feared, that we are not, as a nation, living up to our light, or walking worthy of our many mercies. Must we not confess with shame, that millions amongst us seem utterly without God in the world? Must we not acknowledge, that in many a town, and in many a village, Christ seems hardly to have any disciple, and the Bible seems hardly to be believed? It is vain to shut our eyes to these facts. The fruit that the Lord receives from His vineyard in Great Britain, compared with what it ought to be, is disgracefully small. It may well be doubted whether we are not as provoking to Him as the Jews.
We see, in the next place, what an awful reckoning God sometimes has with nations and churches, which make a bad use of their privileges.
A time came when the longsuffering of God towards the Jews had an end. Forty years after our Lord’s death, the cup of their iniquity was at length full, and they received a heavy chastisement for their many sins. Their holy city, Jerusalem, was destroyed. Their temple was burned. They themselves were scattered over the face of the earth. "The kingdom of God was taken from them, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof."
And will the same thing ever happen to us? Will the judgments of God ever come down on this nation of England, because of her unfruitfulness under so many mercies? Who can tell? We may well cry with the prophet, "Lord God, thou knowest." We only know that judgments have come on many a church and nation in the last 1800 years. The kingdom of God has been taken from the African churches. The Mohometan power has overwhelmed most of the churches of the East. At all events it becomes all believers to intercede much on behalf of our country. Nothing offends God so much as neglect of privileges. Much has been given to us, and much will be required.
We see, in the last place, the power of conscience even in wicked men.
The chief priests and elders at last discovered that our Lord’s parable was specially meant for themselves. The point of its closing words was too sharp to be escaped. "They perceived that he spake of them."
There are many hearers of the Gospel in every congregation, who are exactly in the condition of these unhappy men. They know that what they hear Sunday after Sunday is all true. They know that they are wrong themselves, and that every sermon condemns them. But they have neither will nor courage to acknowledge this. They are too proud and too fond of the world to confess their past mistakes, and to take up the cross and follow Christ. Let us all beware of this awful state of mind. The last day will prove that there was more going on in the consciences of hearers than was at all known to preachers. Thousands and ten thousands will be found, like the chief priests, to have been convicted by their own conscience, and yet to have died unconverted.
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Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on Matthew 21". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13