The Kingdom of God in the Gospels - 6:
The Kingdom Citizen's Changed Relation to God
Scripture Reading: Mark 1:1-23; I John 1:5-10
Text: Matthew 21:28-32
Suggested Songs: 25:1-4; 222:6,7; 228:1,5,9; 390:1-4; 305:6,7
Sermon by Rev. Harry Van Dyken
Minister in the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 21, No. 11
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Congregation, beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ:
Let us look at one more relationship in which man stands; and what meaning it has for us as we see ourselves no longer as children of Adam, but as children of God in Jesus Christ. We have seen that when one is a child of God and has known the prodigal’s entrance into the kingdom, that he stands in a changed relation to the world. He is no longer a part of that world. In the world he is a salting salt and a lighting light. We have seen too that one’s relation to Christ is not one of theorizing and philosophizing about Him, but one which clearly witnesses and gives testimony that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Standing in that relationship to Christ, one then also stands in a new relation to God as Father.
We see that the faith by which we are in Christ, which brings us back to the Father, does not them let us alone. It is not a momentary thing that touches merely our life; it places us in a new, changed relationship to God. We see an example of the opposite of this in King Saul. Saul was an anointed of the Lord. He was equipped by the Spirit of God to fulfill the task which God had given him, yet he refused to walk as a child of God. He sought his own honor and the meaningfulness of his kingship in competition with the kings of the world, rather than to stand in an antithetical relation to them. He refused to have that kind of relation to the world and to God. This refusal came because he did not really know the Christ whom he was to typify. However it is in knowing that Christ that we would consider with you the kingdom citizen’s changed relation to God. I would have you notice:
1. Its Previous Pattern;
2. Its Rebellious Past;
3. Its Pharasaic Perversion; and finally,
4. Its Utter Necessity.
Jesus is nearing the end of His ministry. He has labored for almost three years proclaiming the Word and working miracles to support that Word. Now in the last week of this ministry, shortly after the triumphal entry, the Jews come and say to Him, "By what authority dost Thou these things?" They want to try once more to trap Him in His words. They seek once again to make clear to the multitude that He is an imposter. They would prove that He cannot validate or make clear the authority by which He does these things.
In answer to their question, the Lord asked the scribes and Pharisees, "What is the baptism of John? Is it of God or is it of men?" He said, "I will answer your question if you answer me a question. I will tell you by what authority I do these things if you will tell Me by what authority John the Baptist baptized." But they saw that the trap which they had endeavored to lay for Him had become a trap for them. So with seeming piety they say, "We don’t know." Therefore Christ answers them, "Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things. But, what think ye...?" In effect Christ says, "I am not going to tell you, but look: A certain man had a vineyard and he had two sons. He said to these sons, ‘Go work in my vineyard today. These sons had a two-fold reaction.’"
I want to pause a moment in the story and look at the setting in which Christ gave it. Why is it that Christ drives us back to see the Father as He speaks of His sons? He is pressing us to see the previous pattern of all this. It is striking that Christ chooses to answer such a simple question in this way. He is asked by what authority He does these things, and He could have answered so simply. Instead He tells a parable — a parable which places the family relationship squarely before these Pharisees. Why does Christ use this to answer the Pharisees’ question? Beloved, there is one reason, and one reason alone. It is because God had so made man.
Christ is looking back to paradise. He is saying once more to these Jews that God made man in His own image and placed him in the garden, and they had the fullness of communion. Then when the Father in heaven said, "Go cultivate My garden," Adam said, "I go." And he went. There was a beautiful harmony between the word of Adam and the work of Adam. There was a beautiful harmony between the work of Adam and the responsiveness of the garden in which he worked and cultivated. You can see the beauty of that harmony and responsiveness when God told Adam to name the animals. The animals came appearing before him that they might receive their names — names which were true to their natures.
When God said to Adam, "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth," Adam said, "I go." And he went. There was never a discrepancy or a contradiction between heart and life. There was never a contradiction between word and work. There was the beauty of this family relationship — the Father and His children — which God had established in the covenant in the Garden of Eden. It is to that which Christ looks as He draws this illustration. The image of God shown in all its brilliance and beauty in Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam was a prophet, priest and king. He prophesied in truth; he offered himself and God’s whole creation as an offering which sang forth the glory and the honor and praise of the God who had made him; and he ruled in righteousness. This is the basis of this story.
It is not just a nice, incidental story. It is not the expression of a beautiful thought — wouldn’t it be wonderful if God in heaven were our Father? It would indeed be wonderful, but that is impossible. It is impossible unless it is an act of God, founded in God’s own work. But thanks be to God, that is precisely the case! Our Lord and Savior picks this story, out of the reality of God’s creative work. Now the Redeemer, the Son, is speaking from the background of the work of the Father in His creation.
Tragically, it did not continue that way. We know that there came a day when Adam heard the voice of his Father in the Garden of Eden as his Father said, "Work in My vineyard today." He said, "I go," but he did not go. He did not go because he heard the voice of Satan and heeded him instead. Then the Father came into the garden and called the name of His son, and His son was not there! The Father said, "Where art thou? Where is the faithful son who hides himself when the Father appears?" The beautiful harmony of the garden and the family of God was destroyed because rebellion had taken root.
It was not long before the word of this son, "I go", was changed. He no longer said, "I go," and did not go. Instead he said, "I will not go!" He refused! It was complete rebellion against the Father. This has so taken root that the whole meaning of the history of this world is summed up in this: "I will not! I will not listen to the Father in heaven as He tells me who I am, and what this world is. I will not listen to the Father in heaven as He tells me to go forth into this world."
This was a completely radical change, church of Christ. There is need of another complete and radical change if the original, natural in God’s family is to be restored. We are all rebellious by nature. We cannot and we will not change ourselves. Yet there must be a change back again to that previous pattern of paradise, from which Christ draws in this illustration. He does not draw the whole illustration from there. The fullness of the illustration is drawn from this world in rebellion. But the origin of the illustration is from paradise. There is a father who has children whom he tells to go forth into his vineyard. In presenting this, Christ speaks of the rebellion that was in Adam, and which is ours. It is a rebellious past!
Here is the picture before the change that must be brought about, necessitated by the fall. The father said to the first son, "Go, work in my vineyard today." He answered, "I will not!" I realize that when Christ asked the question, "Who did the will of his father?", that it was this son who had done so. But that is not in this answer. Again it is true that here you do not have the polished, suave man. You do not have the one who goes to church and goes through all kinds of religious exercises and performances and says, "Father, I’m going." No! Here you have the one who probably does not even come to church once on a Sunday. He probably does not even shop around to see which minister will best tickle the fancy of his appetite most satisfyingly. No. What Christ pictures here, beloved, is the gross sinner. This is the man we would not choose for a companion. This is a young man who would give us grave concern if our young people kept company with him. Most likely he is one who doesn’t even have the decency to speak of his father as father. He probably refers to him as the old man. When that old man says, "Son, go to the vineyard and work today," he says, "I will not!" We see them every day, and keep a respectful distance from them. The Pharisees did the same thing; they kept a respectful distance. They realized that Christ was talking about publicans and sinners, and they were ready to concur in His estimate.
These are the people who say, "I will not." They have open rebellion against God’s authority! This is the picture of the first son, a son of fallen Adam carrying on the heritage of the fall. It is a picture of every one of us by nature, unless the grace of God has worked in our hearts to change us from this awful state. It is a picture of us unless there has come a real and meaningful change in our relation to God the Father through Jesus Christ. If that is not true then it is still the rebellious past in the present. Then it has not changed at all. It may look a little different and may even be a little polished on the outside. That, in fact is the Pharisaic perversion, the Pharisaic alternative.
That is the other son, who says, "I go sir." His answer was just as good as any son’s answer could be. It was wonderful, in fact. "Son, go work in my vineyard today." "I go sir!" Here was respect and proper understanding of the relationship between father and son. Here was a son who did not call his father, "My old man." He talked about his father in tones of deepest respect, and properly so. But somehow, something is wrong. He said, "I go sir," but he went not! That is all Christ says about him, beloved, and yet those few words speak volumes.
Here was a son who thought he was honoring his father, and was careful in his choice of language. He wouldn’t think of speaking to his father in any other way. Here was a son who no doubt thought the other son would be disinherited because he had refused. He was quite sure that he would receive the inheritance. He was a good and respectable church member. I’m sure that he came twice to church each Sunday to tell God how much he loved Him, and to tell God what great things he had done for Him. But it was all words! That is why Christ said just before this, as you read in Mark 7, "It is not that which goes into the man that defiles the man, but it is that which proceedeth of the heart of a man that defiles him." It is not the words which we speak alone, but it is the words which eventuate in deeds. It is the harmony of life. That is not to say, of course, that as God’s children we should not live this kind of life. These things we must do. But if it is only polish and a mere exterior, if it is only to hide a heart that is rotten, then the words of Christ come as they came on a previous occasion, "You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah the prophet write of you saying, ‘This people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. In vain do they worship Me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.’" And again, "Woe unto you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and cumin and every herb, and pass over justice and the love of God. These things ought ye to have done and not to have let the other undone. Woe unto you, for you are as tombs that appear not, and men walk over them and know it not." They thought that by all this they were members of the kingdom of God, and were indicating a changed relation to God. But it was all of their own making. It did not proceed from the Spirit of God. It had not radically changed the life that was theirs in Adam.
So they went to church, and they prayed and prayed. They made long skirts which indicated all kinds of religious things, as the Word of God makes clear. Christ says, "The picture of the second son is the picture of you." Which one did the will of his father? They say, "The first." Not the one who was kind and respectful, but the one whose heart, though it had rebellion in it, was changed. But their rebellion continued. It was covered up with a nice exterior but the rebellion continued. Christ exposed their ruse, this game of the Pharisees. It wouldn’t work at all.
They had said, "By what authority doest thou these things?" Now He says to them, "By what authority do you lay claim to a life that belongs to God? By what authority do you lay claim to life when you continue to say, ‘I go sir,’ but you go not!?" For all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. That is the alternative — that is the Pharisaic perversion. It is the alternative to the first son who said, "I will not", but when his heart was changed, he went. This is the alternative of the second son who said, "I go sir." The Lord makes clear that this second son represents the Pharisees.
There is not a basic change in one’s relation to God in this way. The heart in its relation to God has not changed at all. As that man carries on in this way and persists in this relation to the Father, really thinks that he is fooling the Father. He thinks that the Father does not know and has not seen into his heart. He has never known himself as a prodigal. He has never seen that he has wasted all his Father’s goods and has taken this creation of God, into which the Father sent him forth, and tried to use it for his own selfish interests, apart from the Father who owns the vineyard. He tries to use it apart from the Father who sent him as a son, into it. So he puts this nice polish over it and says, "I go sir." But he did not go in the way that the Father directed him. He was not truly a son!
People of God, I know that salvation is not by works. Christ made that very plain. The Word of God makes it very plain. Salvation is only ours by the power of the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ, who makes us sons again. As sons, we stand before our Father in heaven and listen as our Father says to us, "Go work in My vineyard." That is what Christ is talking about. He is asserting that salvation initiates a changed relationship to God. He is our Father. We are back in the family. And now what do we do in the family? That is why Christ makes clear the absolute and utter necessity of this changed relation to God. Notice that the first son expressed the feeling of his heart as he said, "I will not go." But a change came and he repented and he went. It was not that this son did not mean his "No." It was not that this man respected his Father so much that this "No" was just a slip of the tongue. He meant it; he was a rebel. But he repented, as a child of Abraham, as one within the covenant.
He saw the awful judgment of God, that apart from Him who took the awful judgment upon Himself and completely fulfilled it, there could be no restoration with the Father. He saw that only in this promised One of God there was hope of receiving for himself the promises of God. He saw that there was not any possibility of saying, "I go sir." The only possibility was that of saying, "I will not go!", unless he was converted by the power of God in Christ.
Remember, beloved, Christ does not condone or place a stamp of approval on what this young man said. Surprisingly, we hear that at times, surprisingly. "Oh yes, I know all these people who go to church, who engage in Bible study and in various religious exercises. They are a bunch of hypocrites. I’m a sinner, but at least I admit it and live that way. I don’t try to put on." Don’t believe it! Such people do not really believe that they are sinners. What they mean is something quite different. They mean that, "I know I’m good, because when I feel like doing bad things, I just do them. I’m no hypocrite." But it simply becomes an excuse for doing all kinds of evil. Being open about sin does not make sin even the slightest bit better. Such a person is saying, "I will not." And that is rebellion. The Lord clearly identifies it as rebellion.
The only way out of rebellion is repentance. The son who said, "I go not" repented. He repented of that rebellion and he went to the vineyard to carry out the command of his Father. Repentance involves deep sorrow. Repentance causes one to say, "What have I said to my Father? I’m sorry! It is sorrow not first of all because of disinheritance, but sorrow for having talked that way to my Father." Children, that is true in our lives, as families, and it is true in the family life of the kingdom of God. It is true in the family life of our own covenant families, for it is a god-ordained relationship. How much more is it true within the family of our Father in heaven, as we, His children, stand before Him.
Therefore this young son not only repents, he goes and works. This young man does not only say, "I should not have talked that way. I’d better go and tell my Father I’m sorry," — and then let it go at that. No, this is repentance which produces works! This is repentance which changes the relationship with the Father from one of active rebellion to one of active obedience. It is not that salvation is by works. Were that true none of us could become children of God. It is not that we can become children of God because of what we do. It is rather that we do these things because we are children of God.
We could never restore our relationship with our Father in heaven by some activities which we carry on. However, having been restored in that relationship by grace through our Lord Jesus Christ, we then, by that same grace, must live as children. Sad to say, we do speak like the first son. We forget our real changed relationship to the Father as His children and we say, "I won’t do it!" It is not surprising. The old man of sin is very real within us. But that does not mean that God casts us off as His children. He brings us again to repentance.
Christ asked the Pharisees, "Who did the will of his father?" It is the first. And Christ said, "You are right!" Now He says, "Let’s go back to that matter of authority."
"You heard John the Baptist say, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent of your evil works!’ You answered John and said, ‘That is not the way.’ You refused him. You decided concerning the baptism of John. You decided whether it was from God or from man. This is evident for your voice is constantly and consistently the voice of the second son who said, ‘I go sir.’ You thought you did not have to repent!"
But it was the first son who saw himself as a true son of Adam and didn’t argue about it. He didn’t equivocate. He saw it and repented and turned to his Father. "Verily I say unto you that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." "That is why you reacted the way you did to the preaching of John. For he came to you in the way of righteousness, and you said concerning his preaching, ‘We don’t know.’ But I say, ‘You did not believe him.’ You said this change of heart was not needed. But the publicans and the harlots received him and believed him. And when you saw that they had learned to do that which they had not even said, you still did not repent."
"You saw the work of the Holy Spirit as He effected a change in the hearts of these whom you call the worst of sinners. You saw the operation of the power of God unto salvation. You saw the way to a truly changed relationship to the Father, through repentance, but you go on with your pious ‘I go sir.’ You go not because you cannot. Because in your heart you hate the Father and His commands. You want to live your own life. You want to say that the Father must be made in your image, rather than you in His image. And the Father says, ‘Son, go work in My vineyard!’"
Beloved, what is our answer? Is it an outward answer of church attendance, of a certain amount of polish, of religious exercise in which we are trying to say, "I go sir"? And yet, at the same time, to say to the Father, "But you can’t tell me what to do with my leisure time. I’m willing to go to church twice on Sundays if I have to — if I have to — already a strange way for a child to talk of the worship of his Father — but Father is not going to tell what to do with my leisure time. He is not going to tell me that I may not waste my life which He has given me. He is not, for example, going to tell me not to see such movies as continually depict the breaking of God’s commandments, movies which find their theme precisely in this, that we can be entertained if we watch the breaking of God’s commandments. He is not going to tell me that I cannot invest, for my own pleasure, some of my money into that institution which is and has proven to be an institution of the devil. ‘I go sir.’ But that does not mean that I send my children to a school that is dedicated to teaching my children how they must obey their Father in heaven, that, as they go out into His vineyard, they understand what that vineyard is — that they learn to understand how to cultivate it. ‘I go sir, very respectfully.’ But I’ll send my children where I please and where it does not cost me so much, where it is not so much trouble. ‘I go sir.’ But of course, that does not mean that I may not drink to excess and have a merry time with my friends. ‘I go sir.’ But that does not mean that my business practices are going to be carried out strictly according to the Word of God, if I can make more money the other way. ‘I go sir.’ But that does not mean that my labor policies will be dictated by the Word of God and by the Word of God alone, and not by the world. ‘I go sir.’ But that does not mean, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things will be added unto you.’"
"Oh no! My Father does not understand these things so well. So I will go out and seek these things first and then see if I can add the kingdom of God to it. God promised He would take care of me — but I don’t need that, for I have so wonderfully provided for myself. I just don’t need God to add all these things to me. I’m arranging it all very well myself! ‘I go sir.’ But not in my daily life. You see, I’m too busy with the things of this world. I’m too busy settling myself here. I’m too busy with things and gadgets and what have you, for humble service in the kingdom. ‘I go sir.’" But he went not! He was too busy to take time out to study the Word of God with God’s people. He did not have time for study groups or societies of God’s children who wanted to know their Father better, to know more fully what His Word means. "I go sir." But he went not!
"I go sir." Christ speaks here, church of Christ, of a changed relationship to God that no longer knows these reservations, but repents and goes! Christ speaks of one who has seen the previous pattern of paradise. He has seen man as he came forth from the hand of his Father in covenant with His Father in heaven. He has seen his rebellious past in Adam in all its nakedness, as God exposes it to him and says, "Father, that’s right." I’ve been saying, "I won’t go!" I’ve gone out into the world and I’ve talked about the old man, about this long-bearded old man who in the Old Testament had all kinds of strict things to say to His people. I’ve seen my rebellious past and I repent.
Christ speaks of one who also has seen his Pharisaic perversion of the answer, "I go sir," but the heart was far from Him. He sees it and turns and repents of his hypocrisy.
Christ is speaking of one who has seen the utter necessity of this: that if we are children of God, then we are children of God! I know that is just repetition, but I mean it. If we in Christ have been brought back to Him, we are no longer our own. We are no longer the master of our fate, the captain of our soul. We listen to our Father in heaven and, even though sometimes in our heart that old rebellion arises and we say "I will not," yet, when the Word of God comes to us and probes into that life and shows us what we’ve done, we repent and we go and work in our Father’s vineyard.
That is what God is speaking of, a life that is His, of life in the family that listens to Father in repentance. "By their fruits," said Christ, "ye shall know them."
The veneer wears off soon — it shows its ragged edges. But the change that is wrought in the heart by the Spirit, that change which from the heart issues into life, can never wear off. It may be clouded sometimes. It may even be covered with the dirt of children wandering away and rebelling for a time. But it is washed clean again by the powerful working of the Spirit of God as He brings us back. He brings us down on our knees before God and sends us forth in His vineyard. It is His vineyard… not ours! Amen.