Matthew 21(28–46)


We’ve been working our way through Matthew’s gospel since the beginning of 2022. And at the beginning of this month we reached the beginning of chapter 21 and the story of how the Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey and the crowds welcomed him as the Son of David and their King.

However, if they thought he had come to lead an army into battle as David had done, then they were mistaken, because this King had come with gentleness and in peace. And he did not come to kill, but to be killed on the cross to deliver his people, not from the Romans, but from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life in his everlasting kingdom.

And after he came into Jerusalem, he went to the temple and cleansed God’s house of prayer from those who had turned it into a den of robbers. But the chief priests and teachers of the law were indignant because of the things he was doing and because of the reaction of the children. And in this way those religious leaders demonstrated that they were Christ’s enemies, because instead of praising God for him, as the children did, they were angry with him. And later they questioned his authority, because they did not believe in him. And therefore they were like the fruitless fig-tree which the Lord saw and cursed.

So, the Lord saw a fig tree with leaves on it. He went up to the tree, expecting to find fruit on it, because leaves normally indicate fruit. But despite the leaves, there was no fruit on this particular tree. And so, he cursed the tree and it withered. And by cursing the fruitless fig-tree, the Lord was warning the chief priests and the teachers of the law and all those whose lives are fruitless that they need to turn from their sinful, fruitless lives and they need to seek forgiveness from God and the help of God’s Spirit to live lives which are full of fruit. That is, lives which are full of good deeds: deeds which come from a true faith in Christ and which are done in obedience to God. And lives which are then full of the fruit of the Spirit: love and joy and peace; and patience and kindness and goodness; and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. And so, we all need to examine ourselves to see whether there is — under all the leaves of our church activity — genuine fruit being produced in our lives.

And now we come to today’s passage which contains two parables. The first is the parable of the two sons; and the second is the parable of the wicked tenants. Both parables apply in the first instance to the people of Israel, and especially to the chief priests and teachers of the law, who were like the second son in the first parable; and who were like the wicked tenants in the second parable. But they also apply to people in every generation who neither obey nor believe.

Verses 28 to 32

And so, the Lord tells the story of a man who had two sons. He asked the first son to go and work in the vineyard. But the first son refused. ‘I will not’ he answered. What a terrible son, we think. How disobedient! How ungrateful! How disrespectful! And yet, this son later changed his mind and went. So, at first he was disobedient, but then he repented.

The man went to his second son and asked him to go and work in the vineyard. This son agreed. ‘I will, sir’ he answered. But even though he agreed to do what his father said, he did not do what his father said. He did not go into the vineyard. He was disobedient.

And so, which of the two sons did what his father asked? That’s the question the Lord put to his audience and they answered correctly: The first son did what his father asked. Although he refused at first, he later repented and did what his father wanted.

And in verses 31 and 32 the Lord makes clear the meaning of his parable, because he’s not really talking about a father and his sons and a vineyard. He’s really talking about God and those who enter his kingdom and those who do not enter his kingdom. The tax collectors and the prostitutes — those who were regarded as the worst kind of sinners — are like the first son in the parable who was disobedient at first, but later repented. And the chief priests and teachers of the law — who made a show of obedience to God — are like the second son in the parable, who did not do what his father wanted.

And the Lord explained that John the Baptist came to show them the right way. And the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed what John said about the coming Saviour. And they therefore repented of their sinful life and they entered God’s kingdom where there is forgiveness and eternal life. But the chief priests and the teachers of the law — even though they saw the impact John’s ministry was having on the people — did not believe what John said.

And it’s the same in every generation, because many sinners who hear about the Saviour believe. And they repent of their sinful, unbelieving lives and they trust the Saviour for salvation. But there are many people — and they might be good people and upright people and religious people who say they want to do God’s will — and they hear about the Saviour. But they refuse to believe. The message of the cross is offensive to them, because they refuse to believe that they’re sinners who deserve to be condemened; and they refuse to believe that they’re unable to save themselves by their good deeds. And so, they refuse to repent and they refuse to trust in the Saviour. And therefore they shut themselves out of God’s kingdom.

And the reason the Lord says things like this is not to insult us. We can imagine the chief priests and teachers of the law feeling insulted. But the Lord does not say these things to insult us, but to warn us that being good and upright and well-respected like the chief priests and teachers of the law is not enough. It’s not enough. And that’s because entrance into God’s kingdom and into eternal life is only for those who turn from their sins in repentance and who trust in the Saviour for life.

Verses 33 to 46

And so, we come to the second parable. A man planted a vineyard and took care of it by building a wall around it and by digging a winepress in it and by building a watchtower. And then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went off on a journey.

When it was time for the harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. Presumably this was part of the agreement between the man and the farmers and the fruit was the rent they owed him.

However, the farmers seized the servants and beat one and killed another and stoned a third one. The man therefore sent more servants, but the farmers did the same with them. And so, finally, the man sent his son. ‘Surely they will respect my son!’ he said.

But when the farmers saw the son, they decided to kill him too. After all, he’s the heir. The vineyard will one day belong to him. But if we kill him, then the vineyard will belong to us. That’s what they were thinking. So, they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

When the owner of the vineyard comes, what do you think he’ll do with those farmers? That’s the question the Lord put to his audience. And they replied that he will bring those wretches to a wretched end. And he’ll rent his vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop.

That’s the parable. But once again, the Lord is not really talking about a vineyard and farmers. When I preached on Mark’s version of this parable, I explained that the Lord’s parable is a summary of the history of Israel from the time of Joshua until the coming of the Lord Jesus. You see, in the book of Isaiah, God compares the people of Israel to a vineyard which he planted and tended. And the Lord Jesus is making the same comparison. The people of Israel are like a vineyard which God has planted and tended. He planted them in the Promised Land, which was a land flowing with milk and honey, where they had all that they needed. And so, God took care of them and filled their lives with good things. But instead of gratefully obeying the Lord, the people turned away from God and became unfaithful and disobedient. They did not give him the fruit he desired.

And so, just as the man in the parable sent his servants to the farmers, so God sent his prophets to the people of Israel to warn them about their unfaithfulness and disobedience and to call them back to himself. But they refused to listen to the prophets and they even killed some of them. Again and again God sent his prophets, but again and again the hearts of the people were stubborn.

And so, finally, finally, God sent his Son. He sent the Lord Jesus to the people of Israel. ‘Surely they will respect my son!’ But instead of respecting God’s Son, they despised him and rejected him. In fact, it wouldn’t be long until they took him and nailed him to the cross and killed him. Even though everything the Lord said and did while he was on the earth made clear that he had indeed come from God, they refused to believe in him. And instead they hated him and killed him.

And so, the parable is about Israel and how they rejected God’s prophets and they rejected God’s Son.

And in verse 42 the Lord quotes from Psalm 118 where the psalmist refers to a stone which the builders rejected, but it later became the capstone of the building. So, we’re to think of builders in those days, examining the stones in front of them, selecting some to be used on the house they’re building, and rejecting other stones. And here’s one stone which has been rejected by the builders. They don’t want it. It seems useless to them. They throw it into the dump. But along comes another builder who knows better than the first builders. And he takes this one rejected stone and lifts it up and uses it as the capstone. The capstone was placed at the top of the building. And so, this builder lifts the rejected stone up and places it above all.

And the Lord is applying that psalm to himself, because he’s the stone the builders rejected. He’s been rejected by the people of Israel. And they’re about to crucify him. But God the Father is the other builder who takes the rejected stone and lifts it up. God the Father will take his rejected Son and raise him from the dead and exalt him to the highest place in heaven. And when it happens — when Christ is crucified and then exalted — it will be clear that the Lord has done it and it’s marvellous.

And the Lord warns the people in verse 43 that God will take his kingdom away from them and he will give it to a people who will produce its fruit. So, he’s referring once again to the parable. Just as the vineyard was taken from the wicked farmers, so God will take his kingdom from all those in Israel — like the chief priests and teachers of the law — who rejected him. In fact, they will be broken to pieces and crushed by the one they rejected, when he comes with glory and power to judge the living and the dead.

He will take the kingdom from them and he will give it to others who will produce its fruit. In other words, he’ll give his kingdom to the church which is made up of believing Jews and believing Gentiles from every nation in the world. It’s made up of all those who, instead of rejecting the Son, believe in him and trust in him for salvation. And they will produce the fruit God desires, because they will live obedient lives and lives which display the fruit of the Spirit. And they’ll live obedient lives, because Christ the Saviour not only saves us from the penalty for our sins, but he also saves us from the power of sin in our lives, by giving us his Spirit and helping us to do God’s will here on earth.


And so, this is God’s will for us. His will for us is that we believe in his Son, who was rejected by the people he came to save, but who was raised from the dead and exalted to heaven by God the Father. — The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. And so, we’re to believe in him and we’re to keep believing in him. And we’re to produce the fruit he desires which is an obedient life and a life that displays the fruit of the Spirit. And so, as you go about your daily lives — in the home or out at work or in the community or here in church — you’re to do these two things: you’re to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you’re live a life of obedience to God.