The Irrefutable Way of Righteousness (Matthew 21:28-32)
Every child of God on earth falls into one of the following categories: Either they’re a son or daughter who does what the Father tells them, or they’re a son or daughter who fails to accomplish what the Father tells them.
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.
That’s how Jesus divided the sons of Israel—there were Jews who said, “I’ll follow you!” but failed to do so, and there were Jews who said, at first, “I won’t follow you!” but ultimately came around to obedience.
Now, last week we spent time looking at two of three angles found in this text, namely (1) what things separate us from the audience to whom Jesus spoke, and (2) what can be learned by the son who said, “I’ll go, Father,” but failed to go.
A very brief recap looks like this: The authority of the day for the Jews to whom Jesus spoke was John the Baptist, and our authority is Jesus, not John the Baptist. The two sons Jesus had in mind were tax collectors and prostitutes, on the one hand, and disobedient Jewish leaders, on the other hand. The broad application for today is, who stands disobedient to God this morning, yet ultimately obeys him? And who thinks, “I’ve got it all together!” but is failing to do his will?
We learned about that second group last week. For our modern setting, the ones who believe themselves to be doing the will of God, though fail to do it, are those who (1) have a false confidence in self, (2) extend half-hearted efforts, (3) maintain false expectations and fail to count the cost of being a Christian, and (4) procrastinate, thereby failing to ultimately do what God called.
So we can learn a lot from the son who believed he was obeying God, though lived outside his will. This morning, however, I want to spend our time looking at the third angle produced in the text, which is to gain insight from the triumphs of the first son in Jesus’ parable.
The Four Phases of the First Son
Let me begin with a question: How did the first son’s behavior change so radically in so short a time? In other words, what happened to the first son to where he could look his Father in the face and say in complete defiance, “I won’t go!” but then did go?
Can you imagine? The father in the story is God! And right to his face, brazen and without pause, his son said, “No!” He had a total and utter disregard for his father, who just so happened to be the Creator of the universe.
So what in the world happened that, in a relatively short period of time, he said, “Okay, I’ll go?” From the text, there are four phases of development. In other words, four things transpired between his rejection of the Father and his entry into the kingdom of God. And I want us to learn from his successes this morning. But before we look at these four development phases unto salvation, I want you to notice something quite powerful.
In application, Jesus said the first son represented people like tax collectors and prostitutes. “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” So what this means is, your past is not, in any way, determinant of your salvation. Tax collectors were notorious for taking more money than belonged to them—they were thieves. Prostitutes were women who sold their own bodies to shameless men, in order to make a profit.
And Jesus says, when a person is living like that, they are saying to God, “I will not do what you say to me! I have no regard for you! I’ll make my wages by dishonesty and thievery. I’ll make my wages by sex.”
And the very next thing we see is these defiant, rebellious, self-willed infidels being welcomed into the kingdom of God where only righteousness dwells! That should be a powerful word of encouragement for each of us this morning! Because I’ve done some bad things, I’ve thought some bad things, I’ve, at times, been defiant to the will of God, but those things are not obstructive to future salvation. Why not? Let me tell you what the four phases of development unto salvation are, after which I’ll explain each of them in detail.
Seeing the way of righteousness
Changing your mind on account of what the way of righteousness revealed
Believing God on account of the change made in your mind
Obeying the Father’s will
This order is not arbitrary. These four developmental stages are successive and chronological, and I know that by the very word from Jesus. Look at verse 32: “John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did believe him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
Look at that last sentence and break it apart: (1) Even when you saw it (the way of righteousness), (2) you did not afterward change your minds and (3) believe him.
So, seeing the way of righteousness can, if you let it, change your mind, which prompts belief, which ultimately (4) causes one to obey the will of the Father.
So the steps are (1) seeing the way of righteousness, which (2) changes your mind, which (3) initiates belief, which (4) spurs obedience to the will of God. Let’s talk about these in order.
Seeing the Way of Righteousness
This first point is drawn from verse 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 [i.e., the way of righteousness], you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
So the very first stop between a person’s disobedience and their salvation is initiated by God! God sends people in the way of righteousness. There is a way that is right, and God puts it out there into the world through prophets, apostles, Jesus, the Bible, missionaries, evangelists, and so on. God puts it out there because he wills for all men to be saved. So he puts in front of them this way of righteousness, and when they see it, it is irrefutable. If it weren’t irrefutable, Jesus could not have righteously indicted the Jewish leaders for not believing it.
Just for a moment, let me put this verse in contradistinction to Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
First of all, do you see the parallel between that passage and this? John came in the way of righteousness! There is a way that seems right! What’s the difference between those two? In Proverbs 14:12, the Hebrew is more literally, “There is a way right to a man.” The word “seems” is supplied because it’s implied, but the main thing is, there is a way right to a man! And the way that man thinks right is the way that actually brings his eternal damnation.
So by holding these two passages side by side, you have, on one hand, a way that is right to a man, and you have a way that is right—period. So, if there’s a way that is right to a man, then where do you think the way that is truly right originated? God! That’s why the parable is about the command from the Father!
If you wish to know, what is the right way, then just go to the Father! Listen to what the Father has said. Here I have in my hands a book that was entirely breathed out by the Father! So, God has gone to great lengths to reveal the way of righteousness to all mankind, and for us, it is totally revealed in this book.
Now, even for those who don’t have a Bible, elements of the way of righteousness are self-evident. What I mean is, the way of righteousness is so irrefutably true, that when face to face with it, you can’t honestly discount it in a way that will excuse you from God.
Here’s just a very very basic example: If the way of righteousness is from God and it stands in contrast to the way that is right to man—his children—then you ought to be able to observe what is common among most men and conclude that it is probably at odds with God. For example, when you look at the Islamic faith and see that men can have four wives, but in the Christian faith, Jesus says, a man can only have one wife—and further, he said, “don’t be thinking about or looking at other women in your mind, either” (Matthew 5)!
Which of those two ways is obviously from the mind of a man? The islamic faith! Because men want women! So here’s a plain example of a manmade religion. “In our religion, you can have sex with four women, as often as you’d like, and God approves.”
So, see the way of righteousness. Just start looking about with spiritual eyes and you’ll see everywhere the way right to a man and the way that is truly right. And it’ll confound you.
Changing Your Mind on Account of What the Way of Righteousness Revealed
In verse 32, Jesus says, “when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds.” So, seeing the plainly right way of God generates a compulsory change of mind. It should.
The second son did not change his mind based on the way of righteousness—though he saw it and knew it was right. The first son did change his mind based on the way of righteousness.
As far as I can tell, there are three changes of mind characteristic of a person on his way to belief in God—all of them are implied by the text.
1. The first change of thinking involves a new perspective beyond this life.
What was the message of John the Baptist? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
Where did the tax collectors and prostitutes go—ultimately? The kingdom of God!
This can only happen if we take our heads out of the sand and recognize that this life—this momentary affliction—is a blip on a scale of eternity. So, learn to look beyond this life! Don’t let your decisions be based fundamentally on how this or that will affect you here on this earth. Look to your eternal destination and ask, “Where do I want to be?”
The way of righteousness should change our thinking in three ways: (1) learning to differentiate between the way that is right to man and the way that is right, (2) seeing the way of righteousness as authoritative, (3) looking beyond this life to the next.
2. The second change of thinking involves seeing the command as authoritative.
What was the attitude of the prostitutes and tax collectors to their father before John came? “You can’t tell me what to do!” Defiance. They didn’t recognize the authority of God over them.
Now, when John came and showed them that their way was wrong and that God’s way was right, they could’ve just dismissed it—“Who made you a judge or arbiter over me??” But they changed their thinking and recognized John’s word as having authority.
I suspect there are a host of people in our world today who hear words from the Bible, and in their deepest heart of hearts, they think, “I know that way is right…” but they don’t change their mind to seeing the authority that truly exists in it. We fool ourselves if we don’t see the authority that exists right now. The consequence for dismissing it is often deferred to a later date, but the authority stands now. Change your mind to knowing, “This word is authority!”
3. The third change of thinking involves the ability to differentiate between what you think is right and what is right.
The tax collectors were robbing people, and when John came in Matthew 3 and said, “Repent!” what did they do? They stopped robbing people.
The prostitutes were giving away sex for a profit, and when John came to them and said, “Repent!” what did they do? They stopped giving away their bodies.
A change of mind was the initial force in bringing about that change. They were going in the way that seemed right to them, but when they saw the way that was right, they changed their thinking! “Wait a minute, I’ve always thought this way was best; because it provides for my family and it puts food on the table; but I see now that it’s wrong!” That’s the first change of mind—differentiating between the way man sees right and the way that is right.
So, for us, the challenge is, learn to differentiate between that which is right to a man and that which is right to God. And learn to say, “God’s way is the right way.”
Believing God on Account of Your Change of Thinking
According to verse 32, belief comes after a change of mind. So, after we’ve learned to differentiate between right and wrong, and after we’ve learned to recognize the way of righteousness as authoritative, and after we’ve recognized the importance of the next life, belief should follow.
Belief, therefore, is the moment of decision, after the mind has been enlightened, where a person resolves to bring himself under God in submission to the way of righteousness he has revealed.
Let me say it again: Belief is the moment of decision, after the mind has been enlightened, where a person resolves to bring himself under God in submission to the way of righteousness he has revealed.
All of the head knowledge in the world means nothing apart from belief, because belief is the resolve to act accordingly with the new way of thinking.
Did you know there are those who don’t act according to their new way of thinking? They’re called hypocrites. The reason Abraham and Moses and Sarah and Samson and Samuel and Jephthah and David and Rahab were justified before God by faith is because when they recognized truth, they resolved in their minds to submit to it! That’s belief! That’s the faith that justifies.
In Hebrews 3:12 and 16-4:2, it reads, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God…For who were those who rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”
What’s he saying? These people saw the waters of the Red Sea parted in two; they saw the powerful might of God as he brought ten plagues on the Egyptian nation; they were led by Moses in the wilderness; and ultimately the good news of God was also given to them. Their minds were totally opened to the reality of God, but the message didn’t ultimately benefit them because they didn’t believe. They didn’t resolve to bring themselves under the submission of God. They didn’t like the demands he had for them. So they chose to ignore it. That’s unbelief!
So there must be a resolve to let all of this head knowledge come in contact with the human will that says, “I’m resolved to bring myself under God in submission!” And every time there is a resolve in the mind to submit to the way of God we’ve come to know, action follows.
Obeying the Father’s Will
“A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward changed his mind and went.”
He went! What drove him to go? Well, he saw the way of righteousness; he let the way of righteousness change his mind; he resolved to believe the way of righteousness by submitting himself under the God he knew to be true. And when all of that happens, you go. When all of those things are prerequisite, you go where God said, “Go!”
How do you think Abraham was able to take his son up onto the mountain to sacrifice him to God? He knew the way of God to be the only way, and he resolved to submit himself under the way of true righteousness in belief.
To what is God calling you this morning? Will you see it as righteousness? Will you let it change your mind? Will you resolve to follow it by belief?
God said in Acts 2:38, through Peter, “Repent [of whatever way is right to man] and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Maybe this morning, you’re still counting the cost. Maybe you’re still exploring what it means to repent. But when you come face to face with the word of God, be like the first son. Do what God tells you to do.
Everyone who does this will enter into the kingdom of God. It is an everlasting kingdom. It is a righteous kingdom. It is a kingdom with peace and perpetual, holy leadership.
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