While the Pharisees built monuments to the prophets, they rejected what the prophets taught. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the book of Mark to consider Jesus’ confrontation of these unfaithful leaders.
This morning, we will continue our study of Mark’s gospel. We begin chapter 12, and I will be reading Mark 12:1–12. I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some. Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.
“Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others. Have you not even read this Scripture:
‘The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the Lord’s doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them. So they left Him and went away.
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, once again we look to You for help by Thy Spirit of truth, that He may enable us to hear this parable of Jesus that we might understand it in its fullness. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
A Provocative Parable
Last time, we looked at the end of Mark 11, in which the authority of Jesus was being challenged by the rulers of Israel, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the members of the ruling body of the Sanhedrin. Immediately after this episode, Mark tells us of the parable that we just read.
You may be aware that almost all of Jesus’ parables are found either in the gospel of Matthew or in the gospel of Luke. We have not seen a parable in Mark’s gospel since the fourth chapter. They are rare indeed in Mark’s narrative.
We also must take note that this parable is not designed to hide some truth of the kingdom of God from those outside the kingdom of God, who have no eyes to see or ears to hear, but the meaning of this parable is plain and easy to understand. Those to whom it was targeted, namely the religious leaders of Israel, understood it clearly.
We might also add that on this occasion, when Jesus spoke the parable of the vinedressers, He deliberately provoked His enemies to greater enmity against Him. John Stott once wrote a book called Christ the Controversialist. Jesus had no idea of political correctness. When sin was blatant in front of Him, He did not hesitate to call attention to it, although we notice differences in the tone by which our Lord rebuked sinners.
To the rank and file, to the lowly of heart, Jesus was gentle, tender, and mild. To those in seats of religious authority, when they corrupted the things of God, Jesus pulled no punches. We see on this occasion one of those episodes where our Lord used a parable that only thinly veils His and the Father’s wrath against the rulers over Israel.
The Valuable Vineyard
Let us look now at the content of this parable: “He began to speak to them in parables: ‘A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower.’” With that brief introduction, Jesus indicates His knowledge of a major industry in Israel, the wine-growing industry.
Farmers would set about planting their grapevines, and in addition to the vines, they planted a hedge around the entire vineyard. Following that, they would build a wine press and vats to contain the squeezed juices, which would ferment over time and produce various vintages of wine.
Characteristically, the wine growers in Palestine grew several different levels of wine. The cheapest wine was given to slaves, but the rest was taken to market and offered at various prices. Also, a tower was built in every vineyard, and the purpose of the tower was to have a watchman stand on its top to watch for the invasion of animals that might destroy the crops or thieves who might come in and steal the wine. Visiting tenant farmers often stayed inside these towers as their place of temporary residence.
I might add in passing that this process of growing vineyards had its roots in antiquity among the Jews, and the purpose of growing the vine was to make wine, not grape juice. One would have to completely distort the text of sacred Scripture and be in the clutches of some contemporary cultural bias to engage in the hopeless task of trying to say that the Jews did not make real wine, that the Jews did not use real wine in the Passover, or that Jesus did not make real wine at the wedding feast of Canaan. All you have to do is look at one of the most ancient vintners of Israel, Noah. He planted a vineyard, overindulged in the fruit of the vine, and as a result, became drunk. The Jewish moral code was very strict against drunkenness, considering it a profound, gross, and heinous sin. That drunkenness was always there as an option was basically a direct result of the overindulgence not of Welch’s grape juice but of real wine, which as the Bible says, “Makes the heart glad.”
What I want us to notice about this introduction to the scope of the vineyard is the extraordinary care given to the vines; the protection, tending, weeding, and care of them. If you have ever been to wine-growing countries in Europe or California, you might have looked at the long rows of grapes and seen how precisely and neatly they are trimmed and cared for, how careful they are in the way the juice is stored in metal vats or wooden containers. It is so expensive to do it right that even with modern technology, the care is extraordinary to keep from losing the crop.
We have been told by wine growers in the United States that when a person is involved in wine growing, they can make a small fortune if they start with a large fortune. That was also true in the ancient world because the wine-growing industry was one of the most important agricultural endeavors for the entire nation, right up there with the olive oil industry. So, I labor the point that the care of the vineyard is of great concern to the owner.
The story in this text is that the owner must go away to a far country, and in his absence, he leaves his vines and his enterprise in the hands of vinedressers. The vinedressers were tenant farmers. They would correspond to the community of shepherds, to those who were hired to watch over the sheep. They were hirelings, notorious for not having the same care and love for the sheep that the owner did.
Something different about the tenant farmers of the wine industry from other agriculture was that tenant farmers of other forms could alternate the crops from year to year as they chose, but not so in the wine industry. It takes years of meticulous preparation to get a vintage crop, so the same things were done year in and year out. The owner would always be on pins and needles to see how the latest vintage of wine would taste. So, at the time when the vintage was produced, the distant owner sent messengers back to his vineyard to get samples of the wine.
Listen to what happens: “Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.” The story proceeds. Jesus says: “Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.”
Do you see how the cruelty against the servants of the owner escalates? First from a beating, second to a stoning, sending the man away in shame and disgrace, and now the next servant that comes is killed, and many subsequently thereafter. Then the text continues, “Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”
God’s Anger at Corruption
Think for a moment: You are in the crowd. You are a Pharisee. You are near the temple mount in Jerusalem. You see the statues outside the wall commemorating the great prophets of the Old Testament, who were stoned, ridiculed, and rejected by the household of Israel. Now you hear Jesus telling this story. How easy is it to see that the vineyard represents Israel? The vineyard is owned by God.
Let me go back for just a moment to the Old Testament, to the prophetic book of Isaiah, about which these religious leaders were knowledgeable. In chapter 5, listen carefully for a moment. The title in the New King James Version is “God’s Disappointing Vineyard.” It reads, “Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard.” God is speaking of His beloved, who owns a vineyard:
My Well-beloved has a vineyard
On a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up and cleared out its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
He built a tower in its midst,
And also made a winepress in it;
So He expected it to bring forth good grapes,
But it brought forth wild grapes [the Hebrew says “stinking grapes”].
“And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes?
And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will lay it waste;
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.
He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help. (Isa. 5:1–7)
Notice in this prophecy that God’s anger is directed against the vineyard because the vineyard that is owned by the Lord’s beloved is barren. The vineyard brings forth rotten grapes after the choicest vines had been planted and all the care of tending the vines had taken place. In the end, the fruit is worthless. So, God says about the vineyard: “I’ll burn down the hedge. I’ll burn down the vines, and they will not produce any fruit. I won’t let any rain fall upon them.” This is a prophecy, beloved, of God’s judgment on Israel.
When Jesus borrows from the very language of Isaiah 5 in the parable in our text, the judgment is not directed at the vineyard. It is not the vineyard that is going to be destroyed. It is the wicked vinedressers, the clergy. God is not going to destroy His church but rather His corrupt clergy who were placed in charge of it to nurture, feed, and tend it.
The Son Sent and Killed
The servants sent to the vinedressers were the Old Testament prophets, who came speaking the Word of the Lord to the leadership of Israel, as Jeremiah did in his temple speech, saying: “You say this is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord. You trust in lying words, words that do not profit. I say that this temple will be destroyed. Go to Shiloh and look at it, and you will see the ruins there of that sanctuary, and that’s what Jerusalem is going to look like because the leaders were false prophets and would not respect the Word of God.”
So now, in the parable, the owner decides to send his son, who is the only one who has legal claim to the vineyard. The son is the heir. The son is not just a servant who comes to tell the owner’s message to the vinedressers. When the son comes, the hired hands must submit to his authority because he is the son of the owner. He is called here, just as he was in Isaiah’s prophecy, God’s beloved.
Clearly, the owner is God. It was obvious to every Pharisee there that Jesus was talking about the care of the people of God. It was clear to those standing by that the vinedressers and the tenant farmers were the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin, who had rejected the Word of God that came from the prophets. Now the owner had sent His Son, His beloved.
Remember, at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, He was identified by the Father Himself with the voice from heaven as He came up out of the Jordan River from His baptism, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Later the voice from heaven came again: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him.” The beloved Son was now speaking to the clergy, and they were enraged.
Jesus says: “Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.”
“Let us take him and kill him.” When have you ever heard those words before spoken about a beloved son of somebody? The brothers of Joseph conspired among themselves because of their jealousy that their father favored Joseph. They said, “Let us come together and kill him, and we will divide his inheritance among ourselves.” But this parable is not a plot to kill a brother. This is a plot to kill the beloved Son of God.
Hatred for God
Understand, dear friends, that when the Son of God walked the earth, there was not a moment from the time of His birth until His execution that His life was safe among human beings. Nobody wants to hear it, but our basic fallen nature is such that we are not simply indifferent to God. We hate God. God is our mortal enemy, and fallen human beings will stop at nothing to rid themselves of the sovereignty of their Creator.
If God Himself as the Father came to our city, and power were given to the people of the city to destroy Him, His life would not last for sixty seconds. Do not believe this attitude of tolerance and indifference that the world says they have towards God. There is such a hostility in the human heart that if God’s life were made vulnerable to human beings, He would be destroyed.
I am not just speaking theoretically, because it happened. It happened just as Jesus said it would happen. They would take the son, kill him, and cast him out of the vineyard, just as days later they took the Son of God and killed Him outside of the city, outside of the camp, outside of the vineyard of God.
The Rejected Cornerstone
Jesus asks the question, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” Unlike the prophecy in Isaiah, He does not say He will come and destroy the vineyard. Rather, He will come and destroy the vinedressers and give the vineyard to others. He will destroy the temple. He will destroy the whole Jewish sacrificial system. He will destroy the Jewish priesthood, the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, and give the vineyard to the Gentiles, which is one of the great mysteries of redemptive history that Paul elaborates in Romans 11.
“Have you not even read this Scripture: ‘The stone which the builders rejected’?” God was building a building—another metaphor here—and the stones were His people. The builders were the construction workers, the contractors who were responsible to build that building on a foundation, a firm foundation of the prophets and the Apostles.
Instead, the builders built their house on sand, and they took the chief cornerstone, tripped all over it, and rejected it. But that stone which they rejected became the chief cornerstone in God’s church. “This was the Lord’s doing,” the text says, “And it is marvelous in our eyes.”
The text continues: “And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them. So they left Him and went away.” They left only to continue their deliberations, only to continue their plans in secrecy, only to continue their conspiracy to destroy Jesus, which as you know, they did. He was murdered not by thieves or robbers, not by Roman soldiers, but by the clergy who had been given the task of caring for the vineyard of the beloved. They killed God’s only beloved.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.