The Father's Will Unto the Kingdom of God
When you read a sacred Scripture of God, is it your first impulse to find all the ways the passage does not apply to you? Or do you read the Word and conclude either (1) this Scripture means to say that I’ve been doing it all wrong in this way and that way, or (2) I don’t know yet if I’m failing to meet the demands of this Scripture, but I’m going to meditate on it to find out? In other words, “I may be failing miserably, I just don’t have the insight yet.”
Which of those best defines the way you see yourself and read the Bible? Read with me Matthew 21:28-32:
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
I want us to come at these five verses from three different angles this morning and next Sunday. The first angle is to gather from the passage everything that makes us different from the audience Jesus addressed. The second angle is to look at one of the two sons and learn from his mistakes. And the third angle is to learn from the successes of one of the sons. We will tackle that third angle next Sunday.
Now, before we get into it, let me just add a parenthesis: If you find yourself reading a Scripture and try to make application immediately, there’s a good chance you’ll lead yourself in the wrong direction, primarily because, often, commands do not directly apply to us. Everything in the Bible either directly or indirectly applies, but many applications are indirect. And you can’t know what the application is if you don’t first resolve what things don’t apply to you—or, rather, what makes you different from the original audience.
For example—and this is an oversimplification—but when you read Genesis 6:14, “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood,” you don’t need anybody to tell you this command doesn’t apply to you—directly. Why not? Because you aren’t Noah! Well, maybe you are Noah; but you aren’t the Noah who lived thousands of years ago in a pre-flood world. So let’s reason together to find out just exactly what parts make us different from the audience Jesus’ addressed.
Living Under the Authority of John (Angle 1)
The most obvious and significant difference between our setting and theirs is found between verses 31-32: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”
What’s the main difference? This audience was bound under the authority of John the Baptist. Now, I want to say three things about John the Baptist:
(1) He was an authoritative prophet from God, to whom the whole nation of Israel was expected to submit.
In Matthew 3:1-3, it reads, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.”
So what made John an authority in his demand for all Israel to repent? He’s a prophet from God! Through Isaiah, God promised the nation of Israel that John would come. Jesus, in Matthew 11:9-10, said, “What then did you go out [to the wilderness] to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”
So John’s message to repent and be baptized carried all the authority of any prophet who ever served God in Israel.
(2) His purpose in his prophetic work was to prepare Jews for Jesus.
In Matthew 3:3, Isaiah is quoted as having said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his path straight.’”
Jesus said of John the Baptist, “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”
So the primary work of John was to stir the nation of Israel out of her spiritual slumber so that they wouldn’t completely miss it when Jesus came to save them. John was not the Savior, but he bore witness about the Savior (cf. John 1). And if somebody didn’t obey the one making way for Jesus, would they likely accept Jesus?
(3) His authority ran its course until after Pentecost when the church had begun and Jesus was glorified.
In Acts 18, long after Jesus' death and resurrection and the initiation of the church, a Jewish man named Apollos was teaching in Ephesus. The text says this of him, “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.”
So, Apollos, after Jesus’ glorification, still taught the baptism of John as the authority for Christians. But notice the exchange that happens shortly after this in Acts 19: “And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:1-5).
There’s a lot that can be said about all that, but because of a lack of time, the passage is sufficient to show that John’s baptism and John’s authority is no longer directly applicable because its primary purpose was pre-Christ. And we are now post-Christ.
So, back in Matthew 21:28ff, we know that verses 31-32 don’t directly apply to us. Because, Jesus was saying, “Tax collectors and prostitutes are going to heaven because they’re obedient right now to John the baptist! And you Pharisees are not going to heaven because you rejected him.”
So that’s the biggest difference between their setting and ours. But another difference is that the two sons in Jesus’ parable directly correlated to two specific groups. To which group did the first son correlate? The first son was initially disobedient, but he ultimately obeyed his dad. Who was that? That son relates to the tax collectors and prostitutes, because, though they lived wild lives and had no mind to obey their father, they repented when their authority, John, told them to repent!
So, the second son relates, then, to the chief priests and elders with whom Jesus had been speaking in the temple. In verse 23, the chief priests and elders came and asked him a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” they said. And remember, Jesus didn’t answer their question directly; he asked them a question: “I also will ask you one question. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
And after some deliberation, they said, “We don’t know.” So Jesus ignored their question. So, knowing that, why do the chief priests and elders fit the description of the second son? Because they’re the ones who signed up to serve God. They’re the ones who taught the people. They believe they’re obedient to God. But because they disobeyed John, by extension, they disobeyed God. They’re the son who said, “I’ll go into the vineyard to work, God.” But they never did. So Jesus says to them, “Tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
So I’ll ask you: Since John is no longer our direct authority, and since the two sons here represent sinners and religious elitists, what would you say is the crossover for today’s application? And keep in mind, John spoke and preached to a whole nation who knew God, knew his law, were circumcised, and were classified as God’s people.
Here’s the crossover: Within the church, there are two groups of professed Christians; there are those who, when they hear a challenging word from the Lord, repent and obey it, and there are those who, when they hear a challenging word, either (1) ignore it or (2) fail to look into their lives to see how it applies to them. Those are the two sons!
Remember my opening question? With which son do you most identify? When a challenge from the Lord comes, do you search it out to see all the unique ways its a challenge to your life? Or do you conduct a surface examination, leaving yourself justified?
Let’s analyze the second angle of the passage, learning from the second son’s mistakes.
Learning from the Second Son (Angle 2)
A Christian Pharisee will read the passage, and without hesitation, they’ll conclude, “I’m the first son. Thank God I’m not the second son!” And just why exactly do they make this conclusion? Because (1) they wear the name of Christ; (2) they’ve been baptized; (3) they’ve read their Bibles; (4) they’re a part of the earthly kingdom, the church; (5) only non-Christians are represented by the second son.
But, the reasoning is faulty, because the second son wasn’t exempted by virtue of a failure in those regards. The second son wore the name Jew—God’s person; the second son had been circumcised on the eight day; the second son knew his Bible deeply; the second son was an inhabitant of the kingdom of Israel. The father’s primary beef with the second son wasn’t that he failed to be a son, or that he failed to know the father’s instructions, or that he failed to live in the father’s household! What was his main charge? The second son didn’t do the will of the father.
“Which of the two did the will of the father?” There’s a world of difference between calling yourself a Christian and doing the will of the father. So, in truth, the second son is anybody—even a lifelong Christian—who ultimately fails to accomplish the will of the father.
Jesus said all of this earlier, remember? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
So, saying, “Jesus, you’re my Lord!” isn’t the securing duty unto salvation! Reason being, you can say Jesus is Lord, but unless you do the will of the father, he isn’t Lord.
Let me give you an idea of what the second son looks like in the church today, and then next week we will learn from the triumphs of the first son, who ultimately gains salvation. And I purposely ordered it in that way (discussing the first son last) because I wanted to finish out this section on a positive note.
First of all, four common attitudes that may keep a Christian from accomplishing the Father’s will. And I’m gonna try to order these from the most dangerous to less dangerous. Don’t get me wrong—all of these will damn a person; but some are perhaps less subtle, and therefore the odds of recognizing such an attitude may prove easier.
(1) False Confidence — There are tons of stories throughout the Scriptures whereby the power of God is granted only to those who are humble in demeanor and who recognize that salvation is by God alone, not by any prowess I have within me.
The most powerful example of this is found in Judges 7:2 when Israel was preparing to battle the Midianites: God said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, sayng, ‘My own hand has saved me.’”
So God went about cutting down the Israelite army from 22,000 eligible men to only 300. And he did that to prove not only to Israel but to the 21st century Christian that salvation is gained through the power of God! Therefore, if you’re working to secure salvation by your own strength, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The most profound and life-changing Scripture I ever read or preached is Matthew 5:3 — “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom belongs to those who don’t have a false confidence. And therefore it does not belong to those who think they can do it by their own strength and personal goodness.
(2) Half-heartedness — And this is a bit unorthodox, but I’m simply going to read a medley of two Scriptures to demonstrate this point (see if you can tell where they’re from): “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, naked…the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?…Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments…Who knows whether he will not turn and relent’” (Revelation 3:15-17; Joel 1:15-16;2:12-13a, 14a).
If we muster a bit of strength to walk through the doors, but our heart isn’t fully in it, God will spit us out, and his destruction will come upon us.
(3) False Expectations — In Matthew 8:19-20, it reads, “And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’”
There are a lot of people who come to Christ looking for a cheap fix. Cheap grace. And I pity them, because they see the truth of Jesus! They just may not stick around for what all he demands—everything. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
(4) Procrastination — “Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’”
That was a cultural way of talking, but the guy was basically saying, “I’ll follow you when my dad dies. Wait for me.” And Jesus just said, “Follow me—now.”
False confidence, half-heartedness, false expectations, and procrastination are common among saints, and each of them, if not checked, will hamper the will of the father in our lives.
Jesus said to the second son, “John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
What’s he saying? He’s saying, they saw and recognized the truth. But something, namely pride and unbelief, kept them from obeying it.
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