The Parable of the Vineyard
This world simply cannot understand the living church of Jesus Christ on earth. The world has never understood the church. Let me give you an example. After the death of the final apostle, the apostle John, who died near the end of the first century, the apostolic era (the age of the twelve apostles) came to a close and the second century began with a new generation—a post-apostolic generation. In other words, the early church continued after the days of the twelve apostles, and these new leaders were persecuted and threatened like the apostles had been. But the church kept growing. The authorities didn’t know what to do with the church. It was starting to transform the Roman Empire from the inside out.
One of the earliest descriptions we have of the church was a letter written just after the days of the apostles (about A.D. 111-113) by a governor in Bithynia (in modern-day Turkey) to Emperor Trajan in Rome. The governor’s name was Pliny, and he simply did not know what to do with Christians. So he described them to Emperor Trajan.
This non-Christian governor asks Emperor Trajan, “What do I do with these people?”
They (are) accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not to do crime, not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not to be dishonest. When this (is) over, it (is) their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food — but ordinary and innocent food.
The governor went on to say he had captured and tortured some of these Christians, and he couldn’t find anything wrong with them except they would worship only their God.
The matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered (by the spread of this faith). For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.
It reminds me of something Vance Havner once said. I can’t quote him exactly because I didn’t write it down when I heard it years ago, but it was something like this.
What can the world do with Christians?
- They can’t take away our wealth, because it’s stored up in heaven.
- They can’t take away our freedom, because we are free in Christ.
- They can’t take away our happiness, because our joy is within us.
- They can’t defeat us, because we are more than conquerors.
- They can’t silence us, because the Word of God cannot be chained.
- They can’t kill us, because we have eternal life.
What can you do with people like that?
The Parable of the Vineyard
Well today, in our series on the parables of Jesus Christ, we’re coming to a very important teaching, which Jesus gave during the final week of His life. As always, the setting is important. So turn with me to Mark 11.
This is the story of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His crucifixion. He had left Galilee for the final time and now He was coming to Jerusalem for His last few days.
Mark 11:1ff says: As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of His disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which on one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
And so they found this young donkey. Jesus sat upon him, and He entered the city offering Himself as the king of the Jews as the people cried:
Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David. Hosanna in the highest heaven” (Verses 9-10).
Notice those words—Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David….
Here was the King of the Jews offering to bring the kingdom to the people of Israel. But look what happened in verses 27: They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
In other words, although the crowds cheered Jesus and celebrated His coming, their leaders rejected Him and they rejected His authority.
This is when Jesus told His story of the vineyard in chapter 12:
Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: A man planted a vineyard….
Israel is and always has been famous for its vineyards, because its Mediterranean climate is so perfect for grapes. Archaeologists have found the remains of the second oldest known vineyard in the world, and it’s in Israel. Today there are upwards to 300 vineyards or wineries in Israel, and they were very common in Jesus’ day. The Lord actually told several stories or parables that were set in vineyards and were about grapes and vines and branches.
(So this man) put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some famers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from the some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.
Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, “They will respect my son.” But the tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours.” So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
Now, on the face of it, this seems simple to interpret. God entrusted His vineyard to the nation of Israel, but they rejected Him in the days of the Old Testament. He sent them Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the Old Testament prophets. And they beat them and abused them and killed them.
And last of all God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, whom He loved—and they were going to kill Him too.
But now we have something odd.
When I preach, I usually begin with the Scripture text and proceed to explain it. I say, “Turn with me to Psalm 118 and let’s study this text.” I read the Scripture and I give the explanation. But once or twice I’ve heard preachers reverse this process, that is, to preach the sermon and then to bring it all together and end with the key text. Well, that’s what Jesus did here. He gave the sermon in the form of a parable, and He ended with his text from Psalm 118:
Look at verse 10: Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes”?
This is a passage from Psalm 118. It has nothing to do about vineyards and grapes. So why did Jesus use it? Because the principle is the same. Whether you’re talking about a vineyard or a rock quarry, in both cases the most important element has been rejected—the Son of the owner of the vineyard; the cornerstone of the temple.
Mark continues in verse 12: Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left Him and went away.
Now, I have a feeling most of us have just gone through that parable and we missed the most astounding phrase in the whole thing. It’s a very simple parable with a very simple point. But it’s not quite as simple as it seems. There was a critical, astounding phrase we passed over without seeing its importance.
In other words, as we read Mark 12:1-12, we missed something that is so important that once we see it we’ll wonder how we could ever have missed it. For you and me, the whole key to this passage is found in six words that we read right over without noticing them. Maybe you did notice them, but if not let’s look at them together.
Look at verse 9 again: What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill these tenants and give the vineyard to others.
And give the vineyard to others!
Now in this account in Mark’s Gospel, we aren’t told what the vineyard refers to, but in Matthew’s account of this same parable, we’re told that the vineyard is the kingdom of God. Jesus was coming to offer Himself as a King, and they rejected His authority. They rejected His kingdom.
And Jesus said that God is going to take His Kingdom from these people and give it to another group. He is going to take the work of the Kingdom from Israel for a time, for a season, for a dispensation—and He going to entrust it to someone else. Who would that be?
In the Old Testament, God entrusted His kingdom to the people of Israel. He intended for Israel to be the center of the world, a place of blessing, a place from which the glory of God was cast on all the other nations like sunshine. He intended people from all over the world to travel to Israel to learn about Him and to discover how to live. Israel was to be the model nation on earth—a priestly nation to the entire globe. Israel was to be a blessing to all the world.
But that chosen nation turned from God and rebelled against Him, rejected His messengers, and killed His prophets. Finally the very Son of God came, and they rejected and killed Him too. They rejected the Cornerstone.
In this parable. Jesus was announcing something. God was going to take His kingdom—the work that He wants done in this world—and shift it from the oversite of Israel to the oversight of someone else. He will give the vineyard to others. He was entrusting the stewardship of His earthly kingdom to somebody else.
Who? Well, He doesn’t tell us. You cannot find the answer in this chapter. It was too soon. The unveiling of that information came later; it came progressively in the Gospels and in the book of Acts and in the New Testament letters.
The Function of the Church
The apostle Peter who was there listening to every word Jesus spoke in Mark 12 gave us the fuller explanation near the end of the New Testament in his first letter.
So let’s turn to 1 Peter 1:1ff: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia—
Bithynia—remember that? That’s where Governor Pliney lived. All throughout Turkey, there were followers of Jesus Christ.
…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with His blood….
In other word, there is a group of people in the world that are different from all the others. They have been chosen by God, sanctified by the Spirit, and they are obedient to Jesus Christ. Who are these people?
Well, let’s go to the next chapter—1 Peter 2, beginning with verse 7
Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
Does this sound familiar? Peter is reaching back to that moment in Mark 12 when Jesus told the parable of the vineyard, and he is using our Lord’s text from Psalm 118.
He said, in effect: God has taken His kingdom from the nation of Israel for a season and has entrusted it to “you who believe.”
In the original Greek, the word “you” is plural. He is referring to all of us who believe and to whom the Lord Jesus Christ is precious.
And look at verse 9, where he describes the church in four ways: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness and into His wonderful light.
Who is He talking to? He is talking to the worldwide family of Jesus Christ. And Peter uses four names to describe us.
1. A Chosen People
We are a chosen people. This was a phrase Isaiah used about Israel. Of all the people in the world, God has chosen His church to proclaim His glory and His redemption and His salvation and His hope. There are those today who want to dismantle the church and consign Christianity to the dustbin of history. But that has been tried before. It was tried in Nero’s Rome. It was tried in Stalin’s Russia. It was tried in Hitler’s Germany. The church isn’t just an organization that can be tracked down and destroyed. We are God’s chosen people to do something special on this earth.
2. A Royal Priesthood
The word “royal” has to do with the King, and we are His priests on earth, to minister salvation and to represent God to the world and the world to God.
3. A Holy Nation
In Exodus 19, Israel was described as God’s holy nation. But they rejected that designation, and now the followers of Jesus are a nation in this world—a holy nation. We are not a nation in the geopolitical sense of our world, but we are an invisible nation and an imbedded kingdom that infiltrates on the nations of the planet. And we are to be characterized by holiness. All the other nations are unholy. They are not sanctified by God’s purity and presence and pardon. But we are an invisible nation.
4. God’s Special Possession
And finally, we are God’s special possession. So many people suffer mental anguish because they think they’re not special. But you are special. You are special to God, and we are His precious possession. We’re special because we belong to Jesus.
I read this week about a man who paid a million dollars for one baseball bat. How could a piece of wood be so valuable? The answer—it belonged to Lou Gehrig. He used it as a college player and in his early seasons with the Yankees. It’s value is derived from the person to whom it belonged. Our value and self-image in life is based on God’s love for us. We are His special possession and we are valuable became of to whom we belong.
And why are we all these things? Verse 9 goes on to say: That we may declare the praises (that is, eminent qualities, excellencies) of Him who called us out of darkness and into His wonderful light.
We are the stewards of God’s kingdom in this present dispensation, and He has imbedded His children all over the world to proclaim to the world His excellent qualities, including His grace that is found in Jesus Christ.
The world doesn’t know what to do with the people of God, but our Lord does. He has a plan and He is in control. We are workers in His vineyard, and He will use us in these days if we don’t lose our courage or let the world intimidate us.
You and I have our faults and failures, and so does this church and every church. But…
- We have the best philosophy the world has ever heard.
- We have the best theology the sages have ever recorded.
- We have the greatest system of ethics ever codified.
- We have the brightest hope ever imagined, the deepest love ever felt, and the most passionate mission every conceived.
- We have the world’s best book in the Bible.
- We have the world’s best symbol in the cross
- And we have the world’s only Savior in our Lord Jesus Christ.
- And we have done more to improve this world than this world will ever acknowledge. There has never been a force for good on this planet like the family of Jesus Christ.
So what’s to be done with the church? What do you do with a group of people like that?
That’s an easy question to answer: You join them! You turn from your sins, confess Jesus Christ as Lord of your life, and begin seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.