Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption. In the parable of the wicked tenants, however, Jesus revealed that He would receive the same treatment as the Old Testament prophets who proclaimed His coming: He was unrecognized, and even threatened, by His own people. Alistair Begg reminds us that we are as just responsible as the Israelites for rejecting God’s Son. When God acts in our hearts and we receive Jesus as our captain, though, He gladly claims us for His own.
We’re going to read from the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 20. Luke 20:9:
“He”—that is, Jesus—“went on to tell the people this parable: ‘A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.
“‘Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? [I’ll] send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.”
“‘But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. “This is the heir,” they said. “Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill [these] tenants and give the vineyard to others.’
“When the people heard this, they said, ‘May this never be!’
“Jesus looked directly at them and asked, ‘Then what is the meaning of that which is written:
‘“The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone?”
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.’
“The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.”
I invite you to turn to John chapter 1, and we’ll read for you from verse 10, just a couple of verses:
“He”—that is, Jesus—“was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
And may I remind you again of what John tells us towards the end of his Gospel. In John 20:31 he gives us his stated purpose in writing as he did; he said, “These [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” And the reason that the Gospels have been given to us is not so that we might become students of history, but in order that we might be converts, that we might be converted, we might become believers in the name of the Lord Jesus, that we may become those who receive Christ as our Lord and Master.
And so, if your Bible is open there, you will notice that in verse 5 he has told us that “the light”—namely, Jesus, “the light of men”—that this light has been “shin[ing] in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” And John might have remarked parenthetically, “And that is why I’m writing my Gospel.” The light has come into the world, and this light has been shining in a world that is dark—remember, “the people [that were] walking in darkness have seen a great light,” the prophet looking forward to that day now finding its fulfillment in Jesus. And despite the fact that the light is there and shining brightly, the darkness itself has simply “not understood it.” And so John says, “Of course you would realize that there is good reason for me to write my Gospel as I do.”
He then goes on to introduce us to the one who was the forerunner to Jesus—namely, John the Baptist. And he tells us in verse 7 that God had a particular purpose for John the Baptist in that he was “to testify concerning that light,” “that light” being Jesus himself. And the reason he was “to testify concerning that light” was, we’re told, in this hina clause, “so that”—so that—“through him”—through Jesus—“all men might believe.” And God’s purpose in sending John the Baptist is “so that through him all men might believe.”
And there in verse 9, notice the universal nature of the gospel witness: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” The idea that this was some kind of exclusive and esoteric little venture is more than blown away by these clear statements concerning the universal appeal of the gospel as John provides them for us here.
And what I’d like for us to do is simply to note together that God has graciously taken the initiative in sending his Son. Later on, in John chapter 3, we’re going to come to what has been perhaps the best memorized verse in the whole of John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And there, encapsulated in that one memorable verse, is the fact that God has graciously taken the initiative—that he has come in the light, he has come in he who is both light and life, and he has opened up to men and women the opportunity of the gospel.
And it is this fact which makes the response of people to this wonderful initiative all the more surprising, and indeed, we might say shocking. God has come out of eternity and into time in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus, in order that men and women might be introduced, living in darkness, to the light, and in order that that light may become for them their very life, and as a result of that new life within them, they may not only live a fulfilled life in time, but they also may live with God for all of eternity.
And what has the response been? Well, the response has been not only that folks have not understood it, but also, as we’re going to see, this very light who has come was an unrecognized light and also an unwelcome light.
I wonder this evening, since I don’t know all of you, I wonder what your response to Jesus has been. I wonder what your response to Jesus is. I wonder if you have understood who Jesus is. I wonder if you have thought about why it is that he went to such great lengths to make himself known to you. I wonder if your eyes and your heart are still dark, and although there are elements of the truth concerning Jesus about which you are familiar, still you would have to say that by and large, you do not understand it.
Well, that’s why we have the Gospels, and that’s why God has given to some of us the privilege of teaching the Bible, so that men and women who do not understand might come to understand, and in coming to understand might recognize, and in coming to recognize might welcome, and in welcoming might be converted and saved.
And I hope you understand that ultimately, when we put this little phrase around on all of our material concerning the overarching purpose of Parkside Church, we mean it absolutely with all of our hearts: that it is our express longing to see unbelieving people—which is what all of us are by nature—to see unbelieving people becoming the committed followers of Jesus Christ. I wonder tonight what your response to Jesus has been, and I wonder tonight if there isn’t someone here whom God has brought expressly so that the response which up until this point in your life has marked you may be changed as a result of being here for this simple study.
I want to draw your attention just to three factors that we’re told, and they’re there plainly in text; you will be able to see them, and I draw your attention to them. First of all, we recognize that in verse 10, Jesus “was in the world,” and although he was the creator of the world in which he found himself, “the world did not recognize him.” He moved around the streets, he moved among the people, and the people to whom he spoke and amongst whom he moved did not recognize him.
By the time Paul writes his great treatise in the book of Romans, he says this: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and [his] divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” In other words, as a result of God’s common grace, there is enough in the world to at least bring us to the point of becoming theists. There is enough in terms of man’s conscience as a moral being, there is enough in terms of the ordering of the universe, there is enough in terms of the great framework of life as we encounter it, to create within a man or a woman the awareness of God the Creator—so much so, says Paul, that there is nobody who can claim any excuse. And then he says, “[But] although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor [did they give] thanks to him, but their thinking became futile … their foolish hearts were darkened. … They claimed to be wise, [actually] … became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”
Now, you say, “Well, this is quite remarkable. If John is able to write like this in the first century, surely he would be quite in line if he were to come now in the twenty-first century.” Because the word of Jesus and the truth of Jesus and the story of Jesus has been made available in this country for hundreds of years now. And by and large tonight, men and women are going about the business of the first day of the week completely without any recognition at all of who Jesus is. The hymn writer says,
Jesus is Lord! Creation’s voice proclaims it,
For by his power each tree and flower was planned and made.
But the Creator steps down into his creation and is unrecognized.
The second thing we’re told is in the next verse: not only that he was unrecognized by the world, which is still true, but he was also unwelcome by his own. The way it’s translated here is, “He came to that which was his own.” We could actually translate it, “He came to his own home.” He came to his own home, and his own people “did not receive him.” That is actually historically accurate in relationship to his brothers and sisters. And certainly it is true in relationship to his own people. He comes at the fulfillment of all of the prophecies that have been given to the children of Abraham throughout all of these years. They have had every opportunity to hear everything that God has said through the prophets. They have been waiting for the Messiah; they have been looking for the one who is to come. And he comes to his own home, he comes to his own people, and his own people do not welcome him.
That’s why I read from the parable in Luke chapter 20. It’s a very striking parable, isn’t it? What a thing for Jesus to say to these scribes and Pharisees! You understand that all of grace is in Jesus, but all of truth is in Jesus too. He doesn’t back off from the hard sayings, does he? It’s because of his grace that he speaks so straightforwardly. It’s because he is so gracious that he’s not about to be mealymouthed concerning the facts.
And so he tells this story of the tenants. You can flip back to it if you want; I just make reference to it for a moment or two. And he’s telling the people a story of a vineyard. And the Jews were fast on their feet; they knew that the vineyard in Isaiah 5 was a description of the people of God themselves. And as he begins to work his way through this parable, they begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This vineyard has been planted by someone, and Jesus is referring to God himself, who has planted the vineyard. The one who has planted the vineyard has sent his servants. Who are the servants? The servants are his prophets. And the prophets have come down through the years, speaking to his people, saying, “Turn from this and turn to that; turn away from sin and turn to God; prepare for the Messiah who is to come.” But the tenants, they just beat the prophets up.
Who are the tenants? Well, the tenants are the leaders of Israel. The tenants, actually, in one express way, are the people who are listening to him as he tells the parable. And Jesus was very brave. Because the chief preachers and teachers of the law, who had actually begun this little scenario by asking a question in 20:2 concerning the authority of Jesus—“We’re here to ask you, Jesus, about your authority.” It’s amazing, isn’t it? Quite presumptuous on the part of these people. They come to the Lord of glory, they come to the King of the universe, and they ask him to justify his existence and to explain what it is he’s doing. You know, every actor thinks he can play Hamlet—and can’t, in the majority of cases. And every man or woman thinks he can play God or she can play God, and we can’t. It is a congenital inability to do so, and yet, despite the fact, we still want to be God. And we want God to answer our questions: “By whose authority are you doing this? By whose authority are you saying that? Why do you think you can speak in this way?” That’s what they were doing to Jesus.
But underlying their question, as Luke tells us just two verses up, at the end of chapter 19, “the chief priests, [and] the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people” were doing what? They “were trying to kill him.” They were trying to kill him. They were waiting the opportunity where they could finally silence the Son whom the Father had sent. And Jesus says, “Let me tell you a parable. Let me tell you a parable about a vineyard.” Whew, that’s a little close! “Let me tell you about the servants who came speaking to the issues, like the prophets. Let me tell you about the tenants; they’re a little like yourself.” And, of course, they put the pieces together, and they realized, as Luke tells us in verse 19, that “the teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately.” Why? “Because they knew [that] he had spoken this parable against them.” And the only thing that stopped them was that “they were afraid of the people.”
Well, why do you think that’s even in the Gospel? Is it here as some kind of anti-Semitic diatribe? Of course it isn’t! The only reason that Jesus is able to speak so factually as he does and to tell a story that is so poignant in its implications and explications is on account of the fact that history’s on his side. They could go back to the prophet Jeremiah, they could go back to the Chronicler’s record, and they would see that, time and again, what Jesus is saying is true.
No, the reason that it is so apropos is because we’re no different from they are. By our very nature, we don’t want to receive the Son whom God has sent. By our nature, we’re not predisposed to God. By our nature, we live in darkness, and we quite like darkness. It actually suits us not to recognize the light. John, later on, in chapter 3, says, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world.” And then he says, “But the fact is, men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.”
So the idea that everybody is just sitting around waiting for the opportunity for the light of the gospel to dawn upon them and to be welcomed into their hearts is not the case. And as Jesus puts his finger on the issue for his own people, he’s pointing out to them that they’ve had multiple opportunities, and the prophets have come again and again and again, and the longer they put their fingers in their ears, the worse their predicament becomes.
And the same is true for you tonight. The same is true for a man or a woman this evening. The longer that somebody is able to sit in Parkside Church and listen to the gospel and continue unconverted, despite the clarity of the Scriptures, despite the promptings of the Spirit, despite the exhortations of the preachers—the longer a man or a woman sits in that position, the greater their eternal danger. That is why the Bible always speaks in the “now”: “Now is the accepted time; behold, [today] is the day of salvation.”
In that little story, their ultimate resolve is that they will kill him: “Let’s kill the son, then we’ll get the thing squared up the way we want it. I don’t want this individual to rule and reign in my life.” And Jesus speaks very strikingly—it’s not our purpose to expound the parables, so we must turn away from it—but Jesus speaks very strikingly concerning the judgment that will fall on such individuals. And the judgment of God will fall; about that we need be in no doubt. But the judgment of God has not as yet this evening fallen upon us. We’re still alive; we still have opportunity.
And why has the judgment of God not descended on us? Well, Paul tells us that part of the answer is that God’s kindness is representative of his patience and of his tolerance, so that when we realize how much we deserve his punishment, and when we recognize how in his grace and his mercy he has not meted that out upon us but has meted it out upon his Son, then perhaps his kindness will lead us to repentance. I wonder, has God’s kindness led you to repentance?
Well, that brings us to the third and final aspect of the verses. First of all, you will notice that he was unrecognized in his own world; he was unwelcome by his own people. Therefore, a warning to those who are his own: the warning is, you shouldn’t presume that because of your ethnic background, you’re in, because you’re not. And a wonderful word of encouragement to those who are not, by ethnic background, Jews, because the appeal of the gospel extends beyond the boundaries. Because the promise of the gospel that was made to Abraham was that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And so you notice that while he came to the world and it didn’t recognize him, he came to his own and they didn’t receive him, but “all who received him”—“all who received him”—“who believed in his name” became what by nature they couldn’t be: namely, God’s children.
Now, I know it’s routine to speak about the universal fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and we understand what that means. Paul alludes to it by quoting the prophets when he addresses the Athenians in Acts chapter 17. In one sense, it is true that we are the children of God by dint of creation. But the way in which the New Testament speaks about becoming children of God, or being the children of God, is not in that way at all. What it says is that we’re actually the “children of wrath,” that we are the children who are bereft and lost and need to be adopted into the family of God.
And the way in which this happens is not in the way in which normal children are born. It doesn’t come about as a result of natural process. You’ll notice there in verse 12, “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right,” or he gave the authority, “to become children of God.” And these children weren’t “born … of natural descent.” You don’t become a Christian as a result of your parents or through human genes. And they weren’t born as a result of “human decision” or human effort; it wasn’t as a result of the decision of “a husband’s will.” No, the way in which the individual becomes a child of God is not by natural process but by supernatural process. This is a divine transaction, as a result of a divine initiative. It is something that God in his mercy and his grace does.
This, of course, is what Jesus goes on to address in John chapter 3 with this religious individual Nicodemus. He tells him, “You’ve got to be born again.” And Nicodemus said, “Born again? How do you get born again? I mean, we can’t reconfigure this.” Jesus says, “No, we’re not talking about being physically born; we’re talking about being spiritually born.”
Oh, I remember when I was born. I remember before I was born. I remember it exactly. I remember saying to myself, “I’d like to be born. And I would like to be born, I’d like my father to be called John, and I would like my mother to be called Louise. And I’d like to be born in May. I like May; I think I’d like to start off in May, and I’d actually like to be born on the twenty-second of May, and 1952, just after the Queen’s coronation.” I remember I just ordered that all up.
You say, “Now you’ve completely lost your mind. You’ve been talking too much today.” Well, no, I’m making the point. I didn’t order it up, and neither did you order it up. How much control did you have over your birth? That’s right: absolutely none.
So when God regenerates somebody, how much control do you have over it? That’s right. So when God turns the lights on in your heart and you suddenly recognize it, and you suddenly become—against all odds and against your background and against your nature—you suddenly find yourself saying, “Yes to this Christ, yes I welcome him, yes I receive him, yes I believe in him,” it bears testimony to the manifold initiative of God in coming to you by his Spirit and in the person of his Son, and it humbles us.
Well, I wonder tonight if you’ve ever encountered this supernatural, life-changing believing in his name. What does it mean to believe in his name? Well, his name is all that he is. His name speaks to all that he is. It means believing in him as a Savior, thereby recognizing I have sinned, from which I need to be saved. It means believing in him as Lord, recognizing that I have no right to believe anything other than that which he teaches; that I have no right to behave in any other way than that which he demands; that I have no right to live in isolation from his people, because he has called me to belong to a family. And it means believing that he is King, and that I am his subject, and that he is sovereign over all these affairs.
Well, just one illustration and a prayer, and we’ll proceed to the baptisms.
I came across an illustration in reading the late James Boice this week, and he told a story of Napoleon the emperor, who in a campaign was seated on his horse. He drops the reigns of his horse in order to read papers, and as he does so, the horse rears up and almost unseats the emperor. A young corporal of the grenadiers, a very lowly soldier, seeing what’s happening, springs forward and grabs the bridle—takes hold of the bridle of the emperor’s horse, and in a matter of seconds he brings the animal under control. Napoleon turned to the corporal and said to him, “Thank you, Captain,” to which the lowly soldier replied, “Of what company, Sire?” “Of my guards,” answered Napoleon. In an instant, the man walked across the field to the headquarters of the general staff, tearing off his corporal stripes as he did so, entered into the headquarters, and took his place amongst the emperor’s officers. Someone came and asked him what he was doing, and he replied that he was a captain of the guards. “By whose authority?” said the man. “By the authority of the emperor,” said the lowly soldier.
Now, if one of his friends had called him captain, wouldn’t have meant a thing. If he’d begun to call himself captain, it would have been a joke. The issue was in the one who conferred authority.
See, I’m not really interested in whether you want to call yourself a Christian, or whether I call myself a Christian, by whatever mechanism you or I want to engineer for fitting under that designation. The real question, the question of this passage, is whether the authority of God himself has so been stamped upon our lives that he has changed our status and made us members of his family.
By whose authority? By his authority. Who is Jesus? He is “the captain of [our] salvation.” Is he your captain? Are you saved? Are you still living in darkness? Does he remain unrecognized? Is he still unwelcome? Or do you fit within that great, wonderful, expansive invitation list gathered under the three-letter word “all”: “to all who received him … who believed in his name, he gave [them authority] to become the children of God.”
Well, that’s something of the gospel. And I urge you “on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
Father, thank you that your Word shines like a lamp on our footpath. Thank you that Jesus is full of grace and truth—this wonderful initiative-taking grace, this wonderful truth telling that marks his life.
We’re very familiar with the idea that there was no room in Bethlehem, but the fact is, there’s no room in Cleveland. And in many of our hearts, to this point at least, there has been no room. And we pray, Lord, that you will come by your Spirit and quicken us and enable us, in order that we might believe, in order that we might receive, in order that we might be prepared to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I am weaker and more sinful than I ever actually believed, but I recognize that through you I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared to hope. And I want to thank you for paying my debt and bearing my punishment and offering me forgiveness. And I turn from my sin and receive you as my Savior.” And if somebody asks, “Well, why then are you saying these things, and why are you calling yourself a child of God? On whose authority?” just tell them, “On the authority of the King of Kings.”
We come to you, Lord Jesus, and we seek you now, and we seek your blessing on what remains of our time together. In your lovely name. Amen.
 John 1:4 (NIV 1984).
 John 1:5 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 9:2 (NIV 1984).
 John 3:16 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 1:20 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 1:21–23 (NIV 1984).
 David Mansell, “Jesus Is Lord! Creation’s Voice Proclaims It” (1974).
 Luke 20:2 (paraphrased).
 Luke 19:47 (NIV 1984).
 John 3:19 (NIV 1984).
 John 3:19 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 6:2 (KJV).
 See Romans 2:4.
 See Genesis 22:18.
 Ephesians 2:3 (KJV).
 John 3:3–5 (paraphrased).
 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John: An Expositional Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 89. Paraphrased.
 Hebrews 2:10 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 5:20 (NIV 1984).
 See Psalm 119:105.
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.