Nov 29, 2015

Jesus’ Authority & the Parable of the Tenants

Luke 20:1–18

When the chief priests and Pharisees opposed Jesus and challenged His authority, Christ gave them a crushing parable. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, warning of the grave danger that comes with rejecting the Son of God.


We will continue this morning with our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 20:1–18. I ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And 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 destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

Sober and ominous words from the lips of our Savior, words given and superintended for our edification by God the Holy Spirit. I pray that we would receive them as such. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, we ask that You condescend to our weakness, our fragile understanding, and give us clear understanding of these words spoken by Jesus. Attend them by Thy Spirit. For we ask it in the name of Christ. Amen.

Jesus’ Credentials

Chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel begins with an account of Jesus teaching and preaching in the temple. He was visited by members of the Sanhedrin, the leaders of Israel, including the chief priests, the former high priests, the higher echelon of the Sadducees along with the scribes—that is, the theologians among the Pharisees—and certain elders of the Sanhedrin.

Together, these men approached Jesus with this question: “By what authority do You do these things?” They came to Jesus and said: “Who do you think you are, coming into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, allowing these people to call out, ‘Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’? Then, the next day, You come into this sacred place, the temple, and call it a den of robbers. By what authority do You do these things? Let us see Your credentials.”

When I look at this confrontation between Jesus and the members of the ruling body of Israel, sometimes I let my imagination roam. I ask myself why it was that Jesus did not say this or that, or why He did not give some credentials that were plain before them. I speculate for a moment and think of what He might have said: “You want to know by what authority I say these things? Do you remember, about thirty-three years ago, the astronomical phenomenon seen in the skies that drew wise men from five hundred miles away to come and inquire of King Herod, saying, ‘Who is this who was born King of the Jews?’ Do you remember that? Some of you were certainly alive when that appearance in the sky was made manifest.”

Or, He might have said: “When I came riding on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, and appeared to you as the King of Israel, this was My authority. I am your King—this is My authority, and I can say to you, ‘So let it be said, let it be done.’”

Or maybe: “Just three years ago, you may recall the phenomenon when a man appeared out of the wilderness, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ He called all of Israel to the Jordan River to be baptized in repentance for their sins. You must remember that because you sent a delegation all the way to the Jordan to see what John the Baptizer was doing and what he was all about.

“Maybe, when you were visiting, you saw Me, when John ushered Me into the water and poured water on Me, and maybe you witnessed the Holy Spirit like a dove coming down and resting upon Me. If that didn’t convince you, perhaps you heard the voice of God Himself audibly when He declared, ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’ Maybe you were there.

“Just a few days ago, when I was starting My journey from the north of Galilee down to Jerusalem, I met with My disciples at Caesarea Philippi and said to them, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ They told Me what they had heard, and then I asked, ‘And who do you say that I am?’ My disciple, Simon, looked at Me and said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ You want My credentials? My credentials are that I am the Messiah, and it is by the authority of the Holy Spirit resting upon Me in that messianic office that I do and speak these things.

“You remember when John the Baptist was thrown in prison and began to have second thoughts? He sent a message to Me saying, ‘Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?’ I sent a message back to John and said: ‘John, read your Bible. What does it say in Isaiah? The Spirit of the Lord has come upon Me. He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.’ That’s the authority by which I do these things. My Father has given Me all authority on heaven and earth. It’s by that authority that I speak and act.”

Those were not the answers Jesus gave. Instead, as a typical Jewish scholar, He chose to answer a question with a question.

A Question with a Question

It was not simply an act of evasion that any time Jesus was in these kinds of debates He would use the technique of answering a question with a question, confounding the opposition and leaving them in ruins. Jesus said: “I have a question for you. John the Baptist, by what authority did he baptize?” He knew what the rulers would say.

If the rulers answered, “His authority was from God,” then Jesus would reply to them: “Then why didn’t you listen to him? Why didn’t you pay attention when he looked at Me and said, behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?” If the rulers answered and said, “His authority was from men,” what kind of a reaction would that provoke? Jesus understood that if they said, “It was human authority only, not of God,” the people would revolt against them and possibly stone them to death.

The rulers saw that the better part of valor was diplomacy. They said, “We don’t know.” But of course they knew. They knew that John the Baptist was sent from God, but they lied right in the face of Jesus, trying to dodge His penetrating question. They said, “We don’t know.” Jesus responded, “Then I won’t give you My answer to your question.” Instead of answering their question, He turned the tables on them.

God’s Vineyard

Jesus proceeded to give a parable. Remember, the word parable comes from the prefix para which means “alongside of.” Then, the root of the verb bole which means “to throw.” If Jesus wanted to illustrate a point, He would throw a parable along the way; He would tell a story. He proceeded to give a parable as part of the broader answer to the question.

Jesus said, “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while.” Anybody who was a student of the Bible, which these men obviously were, would be well aware of one of the most vivid metaphors used in the Old Testament by the prophet Isaiah.

At the beginning of Isaiah 5, God likened His people Israel to a vineyard. God said: “I have made a vineyard for my beloved. I have cleared the stones from the earth. I have planted, pruned, and nurtured, but my people allowed this vineyard to grow wild grapes, to go unattended and become desolate.”

Jesus freshened the Old Testament metaphor and spoke of the man who planted a vineyard and went into a far country while he hired tenants, or sharecroppers, to work the vineyard for him. In those days, these tenant farmers would have to pay anywhere between 25–50% of the profits back to the owner at the appointed time.

Murderous Tenants

When the harvest came, the owner of the vineyard sent a messenger and sought to collect what was owed by the tenants. What happened? The tenants beat the messenger and sent him away empty-handed. The messenger came from the owner of the vineyard. They fell upon him, and they punched, choked, kicked, bruised, and wounded him. They sent him back with empty pockets, giving not one penny of the return owed to the owner.

The owner saw his first servant limping back empty-handed. He said: “I’ll give them another chance. I’ll send them another one.” He sent another servant, and what happened the second time? They also beat him, treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. Strike two.

Still, in his patience and benevolence, the owner of the vineyard said: “Maybe they didn’t really understand the message. I’ll tell them again: ‘You have an obligation to me. I own this vineyard. I built this vineyard. I leased it out to you to share in the profits. Now, it’s time to collect what you owe me.’”

A third time, the owner sent a servant. This time, they wounded him and cast him out. At that point, the owner asked a question: “Strike three. Now, what do I do? Every messenger I sent to these workers they attack, and they won’t pay what they owe me. This time, I’m not going to send a servant to simply be a spokesman. I’m going to send my own son, the heir of the vineyard. I will send him, and surely, they will listen and pay what they owe.”

What happened? When the tenants saw him, they said to themselves: “This is the heir. Let’s kill him. We’ll not just beat him up and send him away empty-handed. We’ll kill him and bury him, and we will then possess the vineyard. It will be all ours.” They threw the son out of the vineyard, and they killed him.

There was not a Jew in Israel who did not get the point of this parable. It was so simple and basic. Every one of them understood the history of Israel and how God, who was the owner and builder of the original vineyard, had sent His prophets to His people. Every time He sent the prophets, they would beat or kill them. Now, He sends His beloved Son, and they murder Him in order to take for themselves the vineyard.

Given to Someone Else

Jesus said: “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do now? I told you the story. He sent three of his servants, and they beat them up and left them empty-handed. He finally sent his beloved son, and they killed him. Let Me ask you a question: What do you think the owner of this vineyard will do now?

“Do you think he’ll give up? Do you think he’ll let them rob him? Do you think he won’t make them pay what they owe him? No. He will come and destroy the sharecroppers. He will come and destroy the tenant farmers. He will come and take that vineyard that he so lovingly planted and cared for and He will give it to somebody else.”

There is a change from the original teaching of the prophet Isaiah, who said that when the disobedient tenants of Israel ignore the beautiful vineyard that God the Father made, He will let it go into ruin and desolation. But now, the land will not just be desolate, but rather He will give it to someone else, that they would care for it and bring its fruit in its season. When the people heard this, they said: “God forbid. It can’t be. Surely not.”

The Rejected Cornerstone

Stop for a second and listen to what Luke says. Jesus looked directly at them. Can you imagine being in the audience that day, listening to that parable? When Jesus finished the story, He did not just say, “And so it goes,” and walk away. He looked them in the eye—the scribes, Pharisees, priests, Sanhedrin, the ones who asked Him by what authority He did the things that He did—and He quoted Scripture and said: “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’?”

Think about going to Rome and seeing the ancient city or going to Florence and seeing the craftsmanship and the work of the artists of the Renaissance. Look at the monumental achievements of the Renaissance sculptors that marked the landscape in those days. If you look at the geniuses of that art, their names are as long as my arm. Think of them. Just a few: Donatello, Bernini, and the master of all, Michelangelo.

Have you seen those artists’ magnificent work? Have you read the life story of Michelangelo, how as a young man he would go to the quarries at Carrara, where the most beautiful white marble in the world could be found? Have you seen his unfinished work called the Prisoners? Michelangelo said, “I see the figures within the stone, and my task as a sculptor is simply to take my hammer and chisel and free them from their captivity in the stone.” When he selected marble at Carrara, he would inspect the marble meticulously to see if he could detect the tiniest blemish or flaw, perhaps what would seem to be almost a totally hidden crack in the surface. Unless the marble met his expectations, he would pass it over and leave it to lesser mortals to practice their craft.

Some people say that Jesus was not a carpenter but a stone mason, because most of His allusions come from stone masonry rather than from carpentry. In any case, He was certainly familiar with the work of the mason.

Before the mason would build a house, he would look for the supplies he would use to erect the building. He would examine each one of the stones that he would mold together and shape into a beautiful edifice. Like Michelangelo, if they did not meet his expectations, the builder would throw them on the pile of rubble and reject them. The Bible said that the stone which the builders rejected would become the chief cornerstone.

Do Not Stumble on Jesus

Remember Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 53 of the Suffering Servant, when he described in these terms: “He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He had no form or comeliness. He was despised and rejected of men, and we turned our faces away from Him like so much rubble.”

But the stone that the builders rejected, God shaped as the chief cornerstone for the church that He would build. In so many images of the church in the New Testament, the church is a body, but the church is not just made up of individual stones. The foundation would be the prophets and the Apostles, but the chief cornerstone would be Christ. That stone became a stumbling block to the Pharisees and to many people today. They trip over it. They stumble. They fall on their faces because they reject Him.

Surely, there are people hearing me who have rejected Christ. One of the consequences of that, Jesus said, is that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, and everyone who falls, trips, or stumbles from that stone will be broken in pieces. If it falls on anyone, it will crush him. If you trip over Jesus, He will crush you.

Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees: “You despise Me. When I was twelve years old, I was here as a young boy. Do some of you remember that day, when a prodigious young boy astounded all of you in your brilliance in the temple? What would you expect from someone who was sinless, who knew more theology in His little finger than the best scholars among the Pharisees and Sadducees knew in all their brains? I’m that boy you’ve rejected. You’re tripping on Me, and My Father will crush you.”

God forbid that anybody hearing me would stumble upon Jesus and end up being crushed by the Father. Though you might despise and be hostile to Him, this is the Father’s beloved, in whom He is well-pleased, of whom He said a second time on the mount: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.