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38.1 The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46)

The Parable of The Wicked Tenants

Matthew 21:33-46

Message by Pastor Eric Chang

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We continue our study in the Word of God in Mt 21:33-46. This parable is known as the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, the Wicked Tenants. It reads as follows:

Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.

Fruit: Key Idea of the Parable

First of all, what is at the heart of this parable? The Lord Jesus spoke this parable to the religious leaders of Israel, as you can see in v45. Even the chief priests and Pharisees, the religious leaders, understood that the Lord Jesus was speaking about them.

What is the key idea in this parable? Well, the key idea hinges on one word which keeps coming back in the New Testament; it is the word ‘fruit’. The key idea of this passage has to do with the matter of fruit. Why would you plant a vineyard? A vineyard is where you grow grapes. Well, you plant a vineyard because you want fruit. You want to have some return on your investment. The whole purpose of planting a vineyard is to get fruit.

Here immediately, we see the spiritual lesson of it all because as you look at this passage, you realize what the vineyard represents. To see what it represents is quite simple. All we need to do is compare two statements within the same passage. First, in v40-41, the Lord Jesus asks his hearers, “What will the owner do to those tenants who did not give him his fruit but instead put his servants to shame and to death?” They said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants.” He will let out his vineyard to other tenants. Compare this with v43, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” By this simple comparison, the vineyard represents the kingdom of God. In this parable, the kingdom of God is pictured as a vineyard. And this vineyard is taken away from those who do not produce its fruits and given to those who do.

So back to the question: Why does anyone plant a vineyard? In order to have fruit! Translating this question to its meaning, then we see why God establishes His kingdom. In order to have spiritual fruit, of course! This seems pretty clear except when we come to reflect the question onto ourselves. Did we realize that God establishes His kingdom in order to obtain spiritual fruit? Do you realize that if you are in the kingdom of God, God expects to have spiritual fruit from you? If you are in the kingdom of God, you are in the same position as the tenants. The tenants are in the vineyard. What are they there for? In order to look after it and to produce the fruit that the owner expects. If you are in the kingdom of God, you must understand why you are there for. God entrusts the kingdom of God to your care that you may produce the fruit that He desires. This is a concept of salvation which is often all too foreign to us.

We think of salvation, as it were, that God established the kingdom so that we can go in there and eat the fruit and enjoy ourselves and get to heaven. That is not at all the concept of salvation in the Bible! In the Bible, you are saved by the power of God in order to produce fruit. This is most important to understand. What that fruit is we shall consider in a moment.

Preparations for the Vineyard

First let us try to get a clearer picture of this parable. This parable begins in v33 about someone who is called the owner, the householder, who plants a vineyard. And what does he do? Well, he sets a hedge around it; he builds a fence around it to protect the vineyard, to see that it is secure.

Then he digs a winepress in it because the fruit are then going to be crushed in order to produce wine. Wine is a symbol of joy – to give joy not only to the people in the vineyard but also to bring joy to others. This is a task which the Church has significantly and manifestly failed to fulfill in its generation.

And then a tower is built. On the one hand, it will give shade to those who work in the vineyard, especially from the noonday heat. On the other hand, it will give a lookout post to watch out for thieves or animals that might come in to steal the produce or harm the vine. So the tower serves both as protection for those within from the heat of the day, as well as for the defense and protection of the vineyard.

Why did the Lord Jesus include these details? The point of all this is to show that the vineyard was very well laid out. It was very well established. It was conceived and prepared wisely in order that it would be able to produce fruit. Therefore, if there were to be any lack of fruit, it would not be due to the fault of the owner, that he did not make adequate preparations for the vineyard to be fruitful; that he was careless in its protection; that he built no fence around it and therefore the vines were quickly damaged; that he did not prepare a proper winepress in it so that the fruit could not be processed; or that he did not provide it with a tower so that those who worked in it had no rest from the noonday heat; and that they had no lookout post to see that the vineyard was well kept and well preserved. The whole point then of this first verse (v33) is to say that if the tenants were unfruitful, it was no fault of the owner, and it was no fault of the vineyard itself, because the vineyard was perfectly conceived, planned and prepared.

Having made such excellent preparations for the vineyard, of course the owner had the right to expect some fruit. The next verse (v34) tells us, when the season of fruit came, he sent his servants, his representatives to ask for the fruit that was rightfully his, but not only did the servants get no fruit, they got a beating instead. And more than that, some of them even lost their lives in the process. Such was the aggressiveness and hostility of the tenants towards the owner.

Legal Background of the Parable

I need to give you the legal background of this parable, but I will not go into too much detail. For those of you who are interested in the legal implications of this parable, you can refer to Professor J. Duncan M. Derrett’s work on “Law in the New Testament”. This will give you some background as to the corresponding legal positions of the tenants and of the owner.

In those days in Galilee, there were many foreign owners of land in Israel. They were, you can say, ‘absentee landlords’. They owned a piece of land and with this piece of land, they did provide jobs for the local people, but also made some profit for themselves. According to Jewish law, the owner had to send representatives every year. If he failed to do so for three consecutive years, then under Jewish law, he would lose the right to claim the fruit of that vineyard. Thus, by sending his servants year by year, he established and exercised his rights of ownership.

On the other hand, we see the attitude of the tenants from their actions. They wanted to take possession of the vineyard. They wanted to dispossess the owner and take the vineyard for themselves. This is why they set about killing the servants and finally also the son.

You may wonder why the owner sent his son as a last resort. This is easy to understand from a legal point of view. It is because by the fourth time, that is, after the fourth year, if the fruit had not been given, then of course the owner of the vineyard had to take legal action. And the only way he could take legal action was by a representative that had the legal right to act on the owner’s behalf. Slaves, of course, do not have that right, but the son, being the heir, has the legal right to act on his father’s behalf in any court of law.

This is the legal background which Matthew and the other evangelists leave out because they are concerned with the spiritual message; they are not concerned with the legal technicalities. But without the legal background, we would find it difficult to comprehend the way the tenants or the owner behaved. For example, it seems strange that the owner would risk sending his son after the tenants had killed his servants. Clearly, the owner had no alternative because his son was the only one who had the power to act on his behalf. And this is the reason why he says “they will respect my son”; they respect the son because the son has the right of legal action.

On the part of the tenants, they were trying to use the law to work in their favor. For example, if they could claim that the vineyard was unfruitful and therefore they could not produce any fruit to give to the owner, they could then pass the blame legally to the owner, saying that because the vines were inferior, the vineyard was ill-equipped or unproductive and they were put into a position of bankruptcy. Then the owner would owe the tenants compensation. If the tenants indeed could prove this for three consecutive years, they could even lay a lien on the land, that is, they could lay a claim upon the land.

More than that, if they could kill the heir and claimed that the son arrived with a body of men to forcefully evict them without legal proceedings then they acted in self-defense and in the skirmish that followed, the son was killed. Before the law, they might have a case. It would be very convenient at law for them to say, “We acted in self-defense.” Once the heir was dead, they could claim the land as their own possession.

I briefly sketch on the legal background so that you can see that the parable of the Lord Jesus was not conjured up in a very fanciful manner but this kind of situation could have actually taken place. The Lord Jesus uses such situation to draw a spiritual lesson from it.

Spiritual Meaning of the Parable

Let us attend to the spiritual meaning of this passage. Anyone somewhat familiar with the Old Testament will see a close parallel to Isaiah Chapter 5. The words in Is 5:1-2 appear in the Greek text of Matthew. All this indicates that we have a means of expounding this parable without resort to guesswork. In Isaiah Chapter 5, the vineyard is Israel; the keepers or the tenants of the vineyard represent the people of Israel, particularly the leaders of Israel, as we can see from Mt 21:45. So, the parallel is quite clear.

God’s kingdom, that is, the vineyard, has been entrusted to Israel in the first place; but God wanted some spiritual fruit from Israel, so He sent His servants. These servants, of course, represent the prophets that God sent to His people down through the centuries. Again and again He sent them, reminding them of their obligations to God. As you read the Prophets, you can see that the language of the prophets is constantly calling for spiritual fruit, reminding them that they are God’s people, that they are in God’s vineyard and that they must produce the kind of fruit that God expects.

But what did the people of Israel do to the prophets? They started out by ignoring them, sending them away empty-handed and then finally going still further to beat them up, insulting them. You know what happened to Isaiah and to the many prophets who were insulted and beaten. Jeremiah, for example, was dropped into a well and would have died there if he had not been rescued by a friend at the last minute. He was constantly persecuted by the Jews. [Jer 38:4-10] Some of the prophets were in fact put to death. This is the way the Jews treated the servants of God. And we can see time and again that when God sought some fruit from His people, not from unbelievers, but from His people, He got nothing but rejection.

God Entrusts the Kingdom to His People

There is one further point to bear in mind. It says in the last part of v33 that after planting the vineyard, the owner went into another country. Of course you cannot say that God went into another country; that would make no great sense. What then is the significance of this statement? If you observe the Lord Jesus’ teaching elsewhere, you will see that it is very easy to understand. [Mt 25:14, Mark 13:34] If the master or the owner were present, then of course he himself would be directly responsible of the care and production of the vineyard. The ‘going away’ shows that God has entrusted the welfare of His kingdom completely to His people in this present age.

In the Old Testament period, the kingdom of God was then entrusted completely to the care of the Jews. They were made fully responsible for His kingdom. The same is true of us as Christians. Today, we are fully responsible for the kingdom. Therefore we must act responsibly. We cannot pass the buck onto someone else. God has put the kingdom in our care. He took it away from the Jews, as we see here, and put it into the care of the Church.

When I look at the performance of the Church, I find that we not only have not done any better than the Jews, I fear that we have done an awful lot worse than the Jews. Where have we returned to God the fruit that He desires? What kind of fruit is the Church producing today? Where is the Church that is supposed to glorify God with its purity and with its holiness and with its love? Where is the Church that the world is to look on in wonder and say, “Truly, we can see God’s light shining!”? Where is this kind of people today? Where is this kind of Church today?

My heart is very heavy when I ponder this. What have we done! Alas! We have done so badly in offering to God the fruit that belongs to Him! Like these tenants, like the Jews, we want to have all the benefits of God’s kingdom. We want to have His hedge protecting us all around. We want to have this winepress that produces the wine of joy. We want all the wine to ourselves. We do not want to share it with anyone else, even less do we want to give it to God! We do not care about giving God any joy. We use all the things that He has prepared for us – the tower, the hedge, the winepress, even the vines themselves – for our benefit. Just as the tenants wanted the whole vineyard, we want to do however we please. We have reduced Christianity – in all these ways – to a pitiful thing! We must return to the high standard of excellence. We must press forward.

This parable is speaking powerfully to us. Why did God plant a vineyard? Why did God establish His kingdom? Because He will have His fruit! And He has entrusted His kingdom to our care. Therefore He is going to expect an account from us. Not just me, my friends, not just me, brothers and sisters. You too are tenants in His vineyard. He is going to ask an account from you, not just from me. I may have to give a bigger account perhaps, having a little bit more responsibility. But all tenants have responsibility, not only the one who has some degree of supervision to do. Are you producing any fruit? If not, consider well the consequences of fruitlessness! Be prepared, as the Old Testament prophet said to Israel, “Be prepared to meet your God.” [Amos 4:12] Be prepared to give Him an account of your actions.

Notice also that this kingdom is entrusted to the tenants until a specific time. V40 is quite specific about the return of the owner: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” We see the consequence in v43. You and I are now entrusted with the welfare of God’s kingdom. And when we are faced with this kind of responsibility, we dare not be slack, if we are not foolish.

A Vineyard Is Not Expected to Be Productive until the Fifth Year

There is another legal technicality that we need to understand. In v34, it says, “When the season of fruit drew near…” Lev 19:23-24 sets a law concerning the growing of fruit trees and the planting of a vineyard. According to this law, which is also mentioned in the Mishnah, the Jewish Book of Law, we learn that a vineyard is not expected to be productive until the fifth year. It takes time for vines to establish themselves to produce fruit. The owner does not expect to get very much fruit from the vineyard until the fifth year.

However, it must be noted that within the compass of a typical vineyard, other fruits are grown, not only vines. Anyone who knows something about agriculture knows that you do not just plant one thing in a field. Many times, you get better results by planting other things as well. In the same way, a Jewish vineyard often had cucumbers, pumpkins, melons and other such fruits. So, although the owner of the vineyard could expect no grapes and no wine until the fifth year, he could expect other kinds of fruit, such as those mentioned, within the first four years. Thus we read, “When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants,” to look for some return from his vineyard.

There is also another point according to Jewish law that in the first four years, an owner may receive only one tenth of the produce of the vineyard. But in the fifth year, he is entitled to receive one half of the produce because by that time, the vineyard would be in full-scale production. But before that, he could not demand more than one tenth, as the legal provision saw to it that the economic pressure on the keepers of the vineyard would not be too heavy and too ruinous.

God’s Expectations from Us as Christians

The spiritual lesson of this also is quite evident. If you are a very young Christian, in the first four years or so, God expects much less from you. He is much more patient. He is much more understanding in His dealings with you. But as you go on in the Christian life, He expects more and more from you. Following this analogy, by the fifth year, He expects a lot from you, the demand jumps from one tenth to one half.

When you are a young Christian, you are like a spiritual baby. We do not expect too much from babies. They babble and can hardly say “Daddy” or “Mummy”. They spill milk and they make a mess with their food. We don’t get too upset, because we know their time has not yet come. But by the time he is five, we expect much more from the child, we expect him to behave much better. If he is still pouring his milk all over his shirt, throwing all the food on the floor, you are beginning to get much less patient with him because you expect a lot more at that age.

Notice the details of the background to such a parable that in the first four years, the expectations from the vineyard are there but much less. In the same way, when you are a very young Christian, God treats you far more gently, far more patiently. He expects some fruit from you; certainly He does. But when you fail, He is much more kind to you, much more patient. But as you go on in the Christian life, the standard gets higher and higher. When you reach the place of those who are committed to full-time service, then you expect a very high standard of excellence. When you reach the position of being a servant, such as a pastor, you expect even more from such a person, and rightly so. You would expect a pastor to behave in ways far more glorifying to God than you would expect of a young Christian. You have the right to expect that, and God has the right to demand it. And when those who serve God in a fully committed sense fail to live up to these expectations, the discipline will be much, much more severe. And this is exactly true as a principle of the Word of God, “…to whom much is given much will be required.” [Luke 12:48] Because you have been given so much, the demands are very much higher.

Let me say to you, on Judgment Day, the pastors will be judged far more severely than anyone else. They are the ones who are going to meet with the judgment of God far, far more severely. That is why the apostle James says, “Don’t be too eager, don’t be too much in a hurry to want to become a teacher or a pastor because God’s requirements from you will be that much more severe.” [James 3:1] I have good reason to fear and tremble, as you can see. There is no reason to feel proud, or even less, to be complacent, because what God will expect of me is enough to make my knees shake. The apostle Paul understood this matter very well. He said in Phil 2:12, “We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” The apostle Paul speaks of fear and trembling because he knows that if God’s mercy was great to him, so will God’s judgment be, if he fails in the employment of that mercy.

I wonder how long you have been a Christian. Let me tell you, God is very patient but He has very high demands. And if you intend to be a wishy-washy Christian, then I say to you right from the beginning, “Forget it! Because you are dealing with the living God! His standards are very high.” As the Lord Jesus said to his disciples in Mt 5:48, “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” That is the standard! That is a very high standard to meet. We cannot be perfect in the sense of being sinless but we must be perfect in the sense that our devotion and our commitment to God must be without question, complete and absolute.

If you say that the standards of being a Christian are too high, then you are quite right. Just read the Sermon on the Mount and you will see that it is so. But shall we then flee from being a Christian because the standards are high? Not at all! Do people shy away from the Olympics because the standard of the Olympics is so much higher than the school track meet or the local town track meet or provincial track meet? Of course not! It is precisely because the standards are so high in the Olympics that people rise to the challenge, or at least those who are worthy will rise to the challenge. And what’s more, we are not left in our own strength to accomplish what is put before us. God has provided us with all that is necessary that this vineyard will not fail.

What Is the Fruit that God Seeks?

Let us ask a number of questions as we proceed. We have already asked the first question: Why does anyone plant a vineyard? Why does God establish His kingdom? It is because God expects to have His fruit, the spiritual fruit of His people.

The second question is: What is the fruit that God seeks? What does He want from us? From a vineyard, it is very easy to understand what is expected – grapes, of course, or wine, or both. But what is the spiritual fruit? I think that is not hard for us to understand because the Scripture leaves us in no doubt about it.

First of all, the fruit that He wants or expects from us is faith. Faith: not just one act of believing, but a continuing believing; that is, faithfulness. He expects faithfulness from His people. We see that in Luke 18:8.

The second thing that God expects from us is stated plainly in Isaiah Chapter 5, the parallel to this passage. In Is 5:7, it tells us what God expects of the Jews. He expected Israel, His vineyard, to produce justice, but instead there was bloodshed. He expected from them righteousness, but instead He got deceit. What God wants then is justice and righteousness.

What God expects from His people is again plainly stated by another prophet. As tenants of God’s vineyard, the Jews could not say that they did not know what God wanted. “What does the LORD require of you…?” asks the prophet Micah in Mic 6:8. Micah was one of these servants of God who was sent to look for the fruit and found none. “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love faithfulness” (the word in the original can be translated as steadfast love, a faithful love, a true commitment) “… and to walk humbly with your God.” What does God want? He wants justice. He wants faithfulness. He wants our humble communion with Him.

Coming to the New Testament, if we take this on a fourth point, what does God want from Christians today? Well, He wants the fruit of the Spirit! And you know the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22-23 is a nine-fold fruit which is exactly like a bunch of grapes. It does not say the ‘fruits’ of the Spirit, but the ‘fruit’; it is one bunch of fruit all joined to the same stem like a bunch of grapes. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, and all these other things!

We can see a fifth point in 1 Thess 4:3, the apostle Paul says, “This is the will of God, that you be holy.” “This is the will of God, your sanctification”.

Now, you may have noticed that it seems as though God is very demanding, expecting fruit from us because He wants the fruit. But think on this carefully: The more fruit you produce, the more you will have for yourself. Remember the law? The landlord is entitled to one tenth in the first four years; and in the fifth year, he takes half. But depending how great is the quantity, if the quantity is very great, your half is also very big, isn’t it? So you are getting the blessing in the very process of giving!

It is foolish to suppose that God takes everything from us. Much of the fruit that you produce is to your own blessing as well as to the blessing of others. In fact, the owner can hardly consume all the fruit, but the bulk of the produce goes elsewhere to the markets for the blessing of others.

God’s People Fail to Give the Fruit to God

The third question we need to ask is: Who are those who refuse to give this fruit? And here we come to the painful answer: it is God’s people who fail to give the fruit to God. It is the same story all the time in history. It is not the non-Christians who failed. God is not putting the blame on the unbelievers. The blame goes to the Jews, and in this generation, to the Christians. It is the religious leaders who fail.

We have to be hard on ourselves because if we are not hard on ourselves, God is going to be very hard on us. As the Word of God says, “He that judges himself will not be judged by God.” We have been too easy on ourselves. Whenever we exercise discipline in the church, people are amazed. “Oh! That’s being too tough. That’s being too hard.” Let me tell you that if you do not exercise discipline, God will exercise it, and that would be an awful lot tougher. We need to be hard on ourselves if we are going to have the mercy of God upon us.

So when we look at this parable, we see that those who fail, of all people, are the people of God! That is the great tragedy in this generation, and indeed in every generation in the history of the Church. If we are not to fail, we must learn to be harder on ourselves, not so easy-going, not so complacent.

The Root of the Problem – Self-Interest

The fourth question is: In this parable, why do the tenants of the vineyard fail to produce the fruit and treat the servants of the owner so badly? The answer is right here in v38. “When the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’” Can you see the reason? They wanted to have the vineyard for themselves. They wanted to be able to do with the vineyard and to do with the fruits just whatever they please. Alas! It is exactly as they did to God’s servants. For example, look at what they did to John the Baptist in Mt 17:12-13. The Lord Jesus said there: When Elijah came, (that is, when John the Baptist, the servant of God, came) “They did to him whatever they pleased.”

This is the root of the problem in the Church! This is the root with every Christian that will fail! It is individualism. It is self-centeredness. It is: “I want to do what I please; this is the way I want to have it!” If we come with this kind of attitude, insisting on our own way and on our own interests, you cannot be a Christian like this! Let me say it to you very bluntly.

Anyone who is thinking of becoming a Christian and thinks that by becoming a Christian, you can simply get all the benefits of God’s kingdom – you can get salvation, you can get all the blessings, and you can just go and do your own thing, you even have a song to sing about and it is always “I did it my way”! Let me tell you: In the Judgment, you would wish you had never learned such a song in your life. When God starts doing things His way, then those who do things their way will find the whole thing very unpleasant. The most pitiful thing of all is: when you do things your own way, you are going to bring nothing but disaster and unhappiness upon yourself. So, why do you persist in this? Yet there are those who want to serve God and who want to do things their way. I beg of you to ask yourself this question very honestly: Am I really living the life of a Christian in God’s way? If you are a tenant in God’s vineyard, if you are a Christian, if you are a disciple, are you really living the life of a Christian in God’s way? If not, then see what is going to happen to you – you will not be producing fruit, and you are not going to give God the fruit that He desires from you; you will be treating God’s vineyard and God’s blessings and God’s mercy in whatever way you want to do it.

I see this in the life of Christians all the time! It is the rejection of the lordship of Christ – not in words of course, but in practice. It is a rejection of his lordship! Consider the way you make your plans. Consider the way you do things. Consider the way you think. In which of these ways have you put God’s interest first? Be very honest in replying to this question. When have you ever put God’s interest first? In practice! I do not mean in theory, I do not mean in words, but in practice. If you love the truth, you can answer this question honestly, that might just save your soul. You might just not end up like those tenants, coming under God’s judgment.

What Happens to Those Tenants Who Failed to Produce Fruit?

The fifth question to ask is: What happened then to those tenants who failed to produce the fruit? If you think that because you are in God’s kingdom, that because once you are in God’s kingdom, you will always be in God’s kingdom and you will always be safe, then you have not read the Bible, my dear friend.

Look carefully at what it says here. It doesn’t really matter what I say. Listen to what the Lord Jesus says. In fact, he solicited the answer from the mouths of his hearers. He said, “You tell me what the owner will do when he comes. What do you think?” Do you think that because they are tenants in his vineyard, they are spared from his judgment? On the contrary! It is precisely because they are his tenants that he judges them. This is precisely what God said to Israel, “Because you and you alone of all the people of this world that I know – you are my people, therefore I will judge you. If you were not my people, I would not judge you. But because you are my people, I will judge you.” [Amos 3:2]

In a sense, of course, we are all God’s people – in the sense that you are God’s creature; you have been created by God. He will judge you simply because you are His creation. If you belong to Him in a two-fold sense – both by creation and redemption – then He is going to expect a great deal more from you.

And so what is the answer to this question? The Lord Jesus solicited the answer from the mouth of his hearers. In v41 it reads, “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death”. The Lord’s hearers knew the answer! The owner has every right to demand what is due to him – he will certainly come. We are dealing with the living God and He will certainly come! Here you have a phrase which is translated as “miserable death”. It is very hard to translate into English. In the Greek, it is “bad badly” or “terrible terribly”, that is how the owner will put the tenants to death. He will put them to a terrible death. Such will be the judgment that these tenants deserve.

God is a God of love but never make the mistake to think that because He is a God of love that He does not exercise judgment. That is a mistake that many people make. It is precisely because love cannot tolerate this kind of selfishness, God cannot tolerate this kind of evil that He will certainly deal with it.

And what is more, v41 continues to tell us that the vineyard will then be taken away from them and let out to others. More plain than these words one cannot get! Unless one is deliberately deaf and deliberately blind! The people in the vineyard had the vineyard taken away from them! Not only that, they were put to death. They ended up in destruction!

We have today the strange doctrine in the Church that tells us once you are in the vineyard, you are always in the vineyard, and the vineyard will never be taken away from you; that once you are in the kingdom, you are always in the kingdom, and the kingdom will never be taken away from you. Now if we want to invent doctrines to suit our fancies and to tickle our ears, we are doing the very thing that the Word of God warned us that we would be doing in the last days. [2 Tim 4:3] We invent doctrines to lull ourselves into a false sense of security.

The apostle Paul says the same thing to the Christians in Rom 11:21: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you.” To change the metaphor – but cut them off – “neither will He spare you” unless you abide in His kindness and except you live in such a way that you produce the kind of fruit that He expects. The whole thing hinges on this fruit.

Holiness: Criterion of True Servant of God

Let us learn another lesson by asking the sixth question, looking from the point of view of the servants who were sent there. They got beaten up and got killed. Why? Why is a true servant of God hated by the leaders of the kingdom of God? Why were the true servants of God hated by the Jews? Why are true servants of God hated in this generation, rejected by the Church? Why is this so?

What is more, we can ask a subsidiary question to this: How can you tell whether a servant of God is true or false? How do you know if a person coming to preach is really a servant of God? Well, from this parable, we have a very plain and clear criterion. It is simply this: a true servant of God comes and demands the fruit. That is why he is hated. If he did not demand anything, nobody would hate him! If the servant came to the tenants and said, “Oh, you don’t want to give any fruit to the owner? That’s okay. Once you’ve got the vineyard, you’ll always have the vineyard. So you don’t need to worry. This is okay!” Certainly the tenants will not stone him. They will say, “Oh, you are our friend! Come in! Come in! Come with us.” If you preach like that, nobody is going to stone you because you are not demanding anything.

Every true servant of God, like the Old Testament prophets, who come demanding fruit from the people of God would say, “God will have His fruit. You must live a life of righteousness and holiness.” “You must turn away from your sins.” “You must not only just make one repentance and thereby secure eternal life.” “You must live a life of continuing holiness.” What will happen when you preach like that? Surprise, surprise! The church will throw you out. I know it from experience.

When John Wesley came along to the Church of England and preached holiness, he was thrown out of the church! One would have thought the church would understand the necessity for holiness. John Wesley was an ordained preacher of the Church of England. Yet he was forbidden to preach in any of the parishes of the Church of England, not even in the church where his father had been the pastor. He was made to stand outside the church in order to preach. What was his crime? His crime was that he preached holiness. Surprising, isn’t it? How strange! Remarkable indeed! Strange indeed!

How do you tell a servant of God? Very easy! There is no complicated trick by which you have to assess if this is a true servant of God. Just listen to his message. If he comes along and says, “Everything is fine. Just relax. Everything is okay. No problem at all.” “Peace, peace”, when there is no peace, you know he is a false prophet. That is what it is said in the Old Testament in Jer 6:13-14. In fact, you can tell a true servant of God simply by looking for one element: whether in his message he is looking for holiness.

John Sung is another example. Anyone who reads John Sung’s messages will know he was a true servant of God. He is preaching holiness everywhere! God used this man so mightily. But when John Sung was preaching in China, the missionaries rejected him, the other Christian workers rejected him and the pastors rejected him. Today we are all praising him after he is dead. Just like the Jews! Their fathers had killed the prophets, now they were decorating, whitewashing the tombs of the prophets. That is what the Lord Jesus said to the Jews, “You hypocrites! You beautify and adorn the tombs of the prophets that your fathers put to death.” [Mt 23:29-32] Yet they are still going to put to death the prophets of this generation. They worship the prophets of the past generation because they can’t touch them anymore, they cannot speak to them anymore; they cannot condemn them anymore. So they can say, “Oh, wonderful man! Wonderful man he was!” Today, they are all saying what a wonderful person John Wesley was because John Wesley is not here anymore to thunder against the evils of the Church, to thunder against the pitiful moral conditions of the Church. He is not here anymore. So we can talk about him so nicely because he is dead. Thereby as the Lord Jesus says, we prove ourselves to be the hypocrites that we are.

So understand one thing: whether you read a book or listen to a message, just look for this element – holiness – the fruit that God seeks from His people.

Importance of Bearing Fruit for God

Let us conclude with the last question: What is the importance of this fruit? This fruit is of the very essence of the Christian life! I beg of you to understand. We are not talking about some unimportant element; I mentioned to you right at the beginning that fruit is a very important key issue in the New Testament. In fact, the word ‘fruit’ occurs 66 times in the New Testament as a noun, and the verb form occurs another 8 times, and so altogether we have some 74 times in the New Testament. Fruit is very important!

The apostle Paul makes a very interesting statement in Rom 7:4. He tells us that the whole point of our becoming a Christian is in order that we may bear fruit for God. Paul understood this point perfectly; that is the whole point of our becoming a Christian! Why did God make us His own? Why did God redeem us with the blood of the Lord Jesus? Why did Jesus die and rise again from the dead? So that we may bear fruit for God! This is the crucial element. This is the key issue.

Are you a true Christian? Then ask yourself, “Am I bearing any fruit? Is there any holiness in my life?” That is the question. It is very easy to establish whether you are a true Christian or not. It does not take some complicated device to find out. Just look at your life. Is there holiness there? Is there some fruit that you are offering to God? Then you will know whether you are a true Christian or not.

Do you experience God’s closeness? Do you experience God’s power working within? Again, it is very easy to see. Just ask yourself, “Is there any fruit coming forth?” Are you conducting yourself like a true Christian – in your home, in your school? Is there beauty in your life? Fruit is very nourishing, it is delightfully fragrant, it is very satisfying – so you can ask yourself, “Is my life bringing joy and delight to others? Is it bringing nourishment to others?” Or are you forever causing stress and conflict, getting on everybody else’s nerves? I mean you may love the Lord, no one contests that point. The question is not whether you love the Lord or whether you think you love the Lord, but whether your life is producing any fruit? That is the only question that you need to ask. Then you will know whether you are a true Christian. You will know whether God’s power is working in you or not, because one cannot produce this fruit except by God’s power, except by God’s life working in you. Consider carefully then this important question of fruit.

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