Mark 12:1-12 “He then began to speak to them in parables: A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them 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. Haven’t you read this scripture: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.”
To this city of Jerusalem, centuries before the Lord Jesus cleansed its temple, a young prophet named Isaiah came, filled with the Spirit of the Messiah. He stood before the hostile people of Judah preaching in the name of Jehovah, and this is the story he told them in one famous sermon; “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.
Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” (Isa. 5:1-7).
Isaiah preached that searching sermon of God’s coming judgment on an unjust people. Seven hundred years later the Messiah himself amplified that same message as he spoke to the dwellers of Jerusalem and to the men of Judah. He told them another parable and as he mentioned the buzz word ‘vineyard,’ they immediately knew he was talking about Israel, that is, about themselves, because the vineyard had been the national symbol for Israel for centuries. In fact near to where Jesus and this group of men were standing at that very moment was the vast door in the temple that led to the Holy Place and sculpted around it was a grapevine over thirty metres in length covered in gold leaf. The bunches of grapes which hung from it were made out of jewels. It was frequently embellished by rich Jews who would add another grape, or an additional leaf. The vine had become the symbol of the chosen precious people of God. When the Jewish Maccabees ruled in Jerusalem over a century and a half earlier the coins they had minted had embossed upon them a bunch of grapes or a grape leaf. When the people of God sang praise to the Lord in Psalm 44, they acknowledged, “With your hand you drove out the nations and planted our fathers” (Psa. 44:2). The people of Israel during old covenant years had been God’s plantation in this world, his own vineyard. So this parable was about them, and how different it is from the first parables which Jesus had spoken. There is nothing enigmatic or hidden here. This was ‘in your face’ stuff. The teachers of the law, chief priests and elders flinched at the conclusion of Jesus’ words because they knew that they didn’t come out of this parable well. Nobody said, “What does all that mean?” as the disciples had asked almost three years earlier at the end of Jesus’ parable of the sower. Rather the men in the temple “looked for a way to arrest him because they knew that he had spoken the parable against them” (v.12).
1. GOD WAS EXTRAORDINARILY GOOD TO ISRAEL HIS VINEYARD.
When God established his kingdom in the world during the Old Testament dispensation he didn’t choose to set it in eastern Siberia or western Alaska on the fringes of inhabitable life where the Eskimo peoples eke out their existence. He didn’t put his kingdom in the heart of the Kalahari desert amongst the Bushmen as they cling to their nomadic life there, or near Ayres Rock in the centre of Australia amongst the Aborigines. God set his kingdom in the fertile Middle East along the seashore of the Mediterranean with the Sea of Galilee and the valley of the Jordan river in the heart of the country, amongst the fertile plains and hills of Israel. It was a place of inventiveness, literature, architecture, music, engineering, languages, wine-making, cattle and olive farms, sheep rearing and mining. That is where God planted his vineyard.
Consider this lord’s attention to detail as Jesus tells this parable; he put a strong wall around it (v.1) to keep the wild boars from rooting up everything he’d planted, and to discourage thieves making off with his crops. He dug a pit for the winepress (v.1), one shallow pit where the bunches of grapes were crushed, and one deeper pit to hold the juice as it flowed in. He built a watchtower for shelter, storage and as a vantage point from which men could see the whole vineyard. He thought of everything; all provision was made for a great harvest and prosperity for the farmers. This was Israel in the holy land he had promised to Abraham when he left Ur. This was the land flowing with milk and honey to which he brought Israel after redeeming them from slavery in Egypt. Under Joshua he planted his people in this land. There he left them for 1,400 years, or as Jesus says it in this parable, he “went away on a journey” (v.1). It was a long trip, but he always knew what was happening and kept in touch with them by sending them his messengers.
Would I be wrong in saying to you that the same Lord has been so gracious to you? What blessings you have had from him – families, health, prosperity, intelligence, friends, peace, success. Haven’t you much for which to give thanks to God? Aren’t you debtors to God? He has dealt so kindly with you. You’ve not had a bread and water existence, have you? He’s given you peaches and cream. He’s been a good, generous and patient God to you. Would you complain at his dealings with you?
In this parable the Lord tells us that he rented out the vineyard to some farmers whom he really liked, and the day came when he sent one of his servants to collect the agreed rent, “some of the fruit of the vineyard” (v.2), say, a tithe of the grapes would be his portion. It usually took about four years for a newly planted vineyard to produce a harvest. One day one of the farmers on duty in the watchtower saw a stranger coming down the road who called for attention at the gate of the vineyard announcing who he was and why he’d come. This was no servile slave; he was a man under authority from his lord, officially visiting them to collect his lord’s due. The farmers looked at one another, grabbed the man, beat him up and threw him out. He returned home to his master with his tail between his legs empty-handed. The master sent another servant to them, this one with a bit more maturity and dignity about him. The farmers kicked his head in and mocked him in his pain. The master was shocked as he saw this man limping home and heard what had been done. So he sent another and when they saw this man heading for the vineyard gate they were ready for him. They got our their axes and machetes and they killed him. But the master kept sending men, and these farmers kept half-killing them or in fact murdering them. The lord seems to have sent almost every one of his servants and they were all treated in this merciless manner. He really loved those tenants of his, and he was giving them chance after chance to repent and give him his due.
About whom is Jesus talking here? God’s servants the prophets, men like Elijah who was driven into the wilderness; Zechariah stoned to death near the altar; Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks. Uriah was killed with a sword; John the Baptist had his head cut off; the writer to the Hebrews writes of those who were tortured, “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword” (Hebs. 11:36&37).
That was the life of Israel in most of the Old Testament times. These were the shameful ways in which the messengers of God sent by Jehovah to the people of God were dealt with. Let me take a moment to establish this pattern of hatred for God’s servants. In Jeremiah 7:25&26 the Lord says, “From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their forefathers.” Again Nehemiah sees the same horrible pattern; “They were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs. They killed your prophets who had admonished them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies” (Neh. 9:26). Or again in 2 Chronicles 36:15&16 we read of the same contempt for God by the people of his kingdom: “The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.” That is how the people blessed by God treated God.
Now let me bring this message home for a moment, and let me ask you again, hasn’t God been good to you? What blessings you owe to him, yet you’ve been resentful and bitter to God throughout your life. You’ve been the recipient of abundant kindnesses – those wonderful parents you had, then marrying the husband or wife of your dreams, your children and grandchildren, the son who came back from the war, your long years of health, the prosperity you have known – all has come from God. Perhaps once you were going along in the car and suddenly that van came round the bend on your side of the road and there was that awful crash – but, incredibly you’re none the worse for it. You had that serious operation, but you pulled through it. You got over cancer; you’ve lived to old age; you’ve had your golden wedding. What mercies you’ve had from God, but will you go to church? Will you read the Bible? Will you pray? Will you obey God’s laws? Will you confess your sins to God? Will you seek the provision of the blood of Christ to protect you? No. Yet God continues to be good to you. Will you love the Lord? You don’t pay your dues to God. Will you repent of your wrong attitude to him? You speak scornfully of Christians; you remember that funeral service when the sermon seemed to speak just to you but you shrugged it off. Your parents prayed for your salvation even before you were born, but that means nothing to you. Your daughter went to university and became a Christian but all you’ve said for the last thirty years is that it won’t last. You despise the message of the gospel. You find every excuse for disdaining the truth that God has given us. Yet God has been so good to you. When people come to your door and give you literature and an invitation to church you say no thanks and close the door on them. When God sends his messengers to you by the people who invite you to special services you refuse. You are just like these farmers in this parable of our Lord, recipients of so much kindness but repaying it with contempt.
2. THE SON IS SENT TO THIS WICKED PLACE.
Then what does the master do as he grieves over all his bloodied, broken and murdered servants? What would you do? Luther said, “If I were God and the world treated me as it treated him, I would kick the wretched thing to pieces.” What would you do? You’d send the troops in. You’d round up your militia and march on those knaves and butcher the lot of them. You’d say, “Whosoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed,” and you’d raise your sword against them. “An eye for an eye,” you’d cry. But this lord doesn’t behave like this at all. Listen to what Jesus says; “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son'” (v.6). What man would ever do that? Send half a dozen armed servants, maybe with some hunting dogs, or send in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers or the marines, or even call for fire from heaven to fall upon them, but this lord doesn’t do anything like that. Jesus tells us that his son was sent. It was not that he was forced to go. One morning he was sent for by his father, the mission with all its dangers was outlined to him, the fate that would await him (of which he knew already) was made transparently clear, but he delighted to do his father’s will, and so his father sent him. Jesus was the sent one, the apostle of God, the man with a heavenly mission to fulfil – as he himself would say, “as the Father sent me . . .” He was commissioning Jesus to certain death at the hands of these evil men; God sent him to Golgotha.
Theologically what do we find here at the heart of Mark’s gospel? The doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ. Before his birth in the stable at Bethlehem he was God the Son. “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all,” wrote Cecil Francis Alexander in one of her hymns for children. The apostle said it most clearly; “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gals. 4:4). Again he writes, “God . . . sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Roms. 8:3). Paul is not content to say his Son but his own Son (‘the Son of himself’) emphasizing the special intimacy of the bond between him and the Father. He was his own Son, so precious that if God decided not to withhold him, then a fortiori, he would withhold nothing. The language is reminiscent of John 3:16, that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Christ was God’s Son before his mission and was dispatched as God’s delegate and representative. The whole marvel of Calvary considered as an act of God the Father lies in the unique preciousness of Christ. The sending is immeasurably diminished if there were no love before. The delivering him up loses most of its majesty if the relationship between ‘father’ and ‘son’ was of only a few years’ standing. Golgotha might them be a monument to the heroism of Christ, but it would cease to speak to us of the Father’s love.
Notice also in our text how Jesus adds this interesting phrase, “last of all” (v.6). Jesus is the last of the prophets. No more prophets were ever again sent from heaven. No Mohammed, no Joseph Smith, no Charles Taze Russell, no Ted Armstrong, no Sun Myung Moon, no Ron Hubbard, no Maharishi Yogi, no Emanuel Swedenborg, no Mary Baker Eddy, none of them was sent from heaven. Jesus is the last prophet of all. He left nothing unsaid that his Father gave him to say. No other prophets were needed. The Lord Jesus is the all sufficient prophet. He ends the old dispensation; he becomes the foundation stone of the new one to be built. If you reject his messenger there isn’t another one.
Last of all the Lord sent “a son whom he loved” (v.6). There never was a more loving Father, and there never was a more loved Son. There had never been a time when the Father did not love the Son; he was the eternally begotten beloved one. In the beginning, before anything else began, he was there and he was loved infinitely and unchangeably and immeasurably by his Father. They were always together, being loved and loving in return. When God sent him into the world it was the loved one whom he sent. When he began his public ministry at his baptism God wanted the whole world to know, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and he said those words aloud like thunder. All though his life he loved the Son he had sent on this deadly mission. He was sent to offer these murderous farmers another chance of obeying their Lord.
You can’t understand such love, especially you moralists. You can’t make head or tail of it. How could he send his beloved only son? You can’t understand how such a person’s mind is working. What a terrible risk he is taking, because surely they will turn on his son, and murder him and claim the inheritance for themselves. The lord has lost his income from the vineyard after all the work he has invested into it; he has lost his servants, and now will he lose his beloved son? And we all sit and nod our heads gravely and conclude that we wouldn’t do it, that our sons are far too precious to us for such a mission. We’d never love such evil men so as to give them seventy times seven opportunities to come to repentance. We’d say, “Send the son in, yes, but at the head of a thousand armed guard. There must be safeguards. It would be indecent and unjust for it to be done any other way.” That’s how the natural heart thinks. But God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. You reject God and he stretches forth his hands to you in forgiveness. Your stick your finger in his eye and he weeps for you. You wound him and he bleeds out redemption. If you kill him he dies to save. If you bury him he rises again to bring resurrection.
Isn’t this all so typical of the Lord from heaven? Imagine that God decided to display redemptive mercy to Saul of Tarsus, that murderous proud torturer. Who would be surprised if a bolt of lightning from heaven had struck him dead on the road to Damascus. That would have taught him and the Pharisees not to mess about with God’s people. Imagine, rather, God pardoning him for all his cruelty and hatred and using him to preach the gospel. There was nobody but God who believed Paul had become a Christian when he was saved. It was just an impossibility: “We’ve heard from many about this man of the damage he’s done to the church in Jerusalem.” Don’t we know that spirit? We’ve watched a Christian student befriending some street persons, virtual alcoholics, and we’ve thought, “A waste of time. They’re only getting what they deserve.” We’ve heard of a notorious criminal claiming to have become a Christian, and we’ve thought, “How long will that last?” We never think, “How long will I last?” We take for granted our goodness and stickability, and go on to complain about the folly of showering love and effort on others. “This alabaster box of ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. What is she doing pouring it out over Jesus’ feet?” We are shocked at God’s extravagance. We are incapable of entering into God’s love for murderers. There is doubt; there is suspicion; there is anger, but this lord, in the glory of this amazing love, says, “Maybe my son can save those sinners. I’ll send him. They might respect him.”
If ever there was a group of men whom the lord would reject it would be these men. If ever there were people whom God would refuse it would be the rotten people of this world, that Gadarene demoniac, that Saul of Tarsus, that John Newton that ‘son of Sam.’ They’re not ordinary sinners, they are utterly evil men who count human life lightly. They come to us climbing out of the cesspool their filth still all over them. These are the sort of men who would kill, and then video their act of murdering, and then sell the video of their killing. What unspeakably horrible men, and you and I would think of them and we’d dismiss them, “The time for mercy has ended. The time for justice has begun.”
All of heaven is looking at this lord with his dilemma. All his servants have been attacked and a number have been killed; the angels are wondering what he will do next. They are thinking that these men are the worst bunch of rotters that the world has ever seen. Whom will he send in next? They are ready to draw their flaming swords of vengeance at his command. Then they look in amazement as the lord takes his son to the door of the mansion and they say to one another, “Surely he isn’t going to send Jesus!” Then they see him wave his son good bye. “He’s sending our Lord,” they whisper to one another in awe, watching him ride off on his great white stallion, “Boldly he rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of hell.”
What power Christ had, to calm a storm, and raise the dead, and feed five thousand, and cause a group of soldiers to fall before him when he said, “I am” and yet he never put forth that power in his own interest. In particular he never used his power to protect himself from the implications of receiving his Father’s commission. Never once on his journey to the farmers in this vineyard does he in his own interest or in his own defence break beyond the parameters of his humanity. When he had no place to lay his head he never built himself a house. When he was thirsty he provided for himself no drink. When he was assaulted by all the powers of hell he did not call for legions of angels. Even when he approached the vineyard and saw the hate-filled faces, and the drawing of the hammers and spears to use against him he asked for no rewriting of the script. The power which carried the world, healed the leper and cast out demons was never used to make his own obedience to his Father’s mission easier. He had enjoyed such prestige in heaven as the Son, but he never exploited that to relax the rules of engagement with the farmers in the vineyard. He faced them as flesh, and triumphed as man.
That grace of God that spared not his own Son from such a death means that for you and me today we can never say, “The likes of me could never be saved.” We can’t say that we’re so unique, so extraordinary, so guilty, so depraved, so abandoned, so far gone, that there’s no hope for us, because in these farmers in this bloody vineyard of murder and mayhem we’re meeting the worst possible scenario. We are confronted with the most abandoned, and dissolute, and God-hating bunch of men this world has ever seen, and God is sending his Son to them! Where we are told never to walk – in the counsel of the ungodly, or to stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of the scornful – that is where Jesus comes, where men crucify other men. It is an argument from the greater to the lesser. Here is the lair of the chief of sinners, and God commissions his Son to go right into the midst of them, as the innocent, and unarmed lamb of God. Wherever you or I stand today, in the depths of our own depravity, in our arrogance towards God, whatever wreckage we have left behind us in the train of our meanness and greed, to wherever we are, to wherever you are, to wherever I am, there is a Saviour coming now, a prophet, a priest and a king, and God hasn’t sent him to condemn you but that you might be saved. That is the offer God makes to you now.
What a breathtaking risk the Son took – from the point of the obedience of Jesus. He put his destiny wholly in the hands of the Father and willed to join the ranks of the Lord’s servants who had gone before him, beaten and killed. He was willing to die unrecognized, disgraced and accursed. He staked everything on the belief that his Father, a God of absolute integrity, governed in the interests of moral order. The Son came forth touching the very brink of danger, feeling all the horror of the precipice, but without falling over. He looked at his Father; he had seen him send his servants one by one to the farmers to obtain what was rightly his, and every mission had ended in failure and so Jesus went forth with that thought, too fearful to name, even while he knew that it could never happen, his Father’s counsels and purposes being defeated, and his Godhead desecrated.
The reaction of the farmers as they saw the son coming was true to their characters: “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” (vv. 7&8). They took him and killed him, and he didn’t fight back. He didn’t resist; he didn’t curse and swear at them and tell them they’d better watch out. He prayed for them, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” So Jesus died; they killed the blameless one. They killed the Prince of Life. They killed the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. They killed the one who raised Lazarus from the dead. They killed the Master of ocean and earth and sky. The killed the Way and the Truth and the Life. They killed the lamb of God. They killed the only begotten Son of the Father full of grace and truth. They killed the one who said, “I am meek and lowly of heart and you shall find rest to your souls.” They killed the one who held the children in his arms and blessed them. They with wicked hands crucified and slew him. They nailed him naked to a cross and hooted at him in his pain. He was God the Son and that is how men dealt with him, and men have not changed. They go into a school in Beslan in Russia, both men and women carrying bombs and guns, and they kill hundreds of children, and we’ve forgotten about it already because it was a month ago, and we are not shocked by the cruelty of men and women. Next week something worse will happen. Nothing has changed in the heart of man since Herod ordered the murders of the children of Bethlehem. We now make bigger bombs.
J.C.Ryle, preaching on this passage, said, “Men never saw God face to face but once, when Jesus became a man and lived on earth. They saw him holy, harmless, undefiled, going about doing good. Yet they wouldn’t have him, rebelled against him, and at last killed him. Let’s dismiss from our minds the idea that there’s an innate good in our hearts. Let’s put away the common notion that seeing and knowing what is good is enough to make a man a Christian. The great experiment has been made in the instance of the Jewish nation . . . nothing but the Spirit of God can change the heart. We must be born again” (J.C.Ryle, “Expository Thoughts on Mark,” Banner of Truth, p.250).
The seeds of the sin of deicide, the murder of God the Son, are in every heart here today. That is the vastness of the human problem. We would stand with the mob in Jerusalem and shout, “Crucify him!” The natural man is at enmity against God. It would kill God if it could. I am holding a mirror up to your heart, and I am showing you yourself. Will God give you grace to bear the sight? If you’d have been raised in other circumstances you would be cutting off the head of an innocent man before the cameras. You would. You would be going into a school with bombs and murdering children. You would. You’d be that bearded general practitioner who poisoned two hundred of his elderly patients. You would see a blameless young man knocking on the door of a vineyard and you wouldn’t merely kill him you’d then throw his body out unburied; “let the beasts have a meal.” You would. The seeds of those enormous sins are in everyone’s heart here today. Those merciless men and women whom we read of all have the same nature as yourself. You see that lovely little girl in the arms of her mother or father today, and you’d better remember that her heart has the seeds of every sin known to man and God, and only a birth from above can save her. My sinful nature and my sins killed the Son of God.
“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee,
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee;
I crucified Thee.” (Johann Heermann, 1585-1647, tr, Yattendon Hymnal, 1899)
The nails that nailed Christ to the cross are in the pocket of your jeans.
Yet God brought redemption out of the evil of men. Those farmers owed God so much by way of rental and also costly repentance for how they had treated those he’d sent to them. What a vast debt they had to discharge. They could never repay it, but the Son himself came and he paid all their debt in his dying love. All my obligations to God for the years that have gone by during which I gave God nothing that I owed him, Jesus Christ has paid it all; I am indebted to him for everything. My sin had accumulated a vast debt. He cleared it all on Golgotha. To the dying Son of God the Father imputed the debt of our guilt and shame, and the Son received it all willingly. He bore my sins in his own body on the tree. To thee thou dying Lamb I all things owe. He died in my place. He answered for my guilt to God. He took the condemnation that I merit. Here’s a simple poem sent to me this week. It says what I’ve been preaching but so sweetly. I don’t disdain its simplicity because we’re not a sophisticated people:
He came to the place called Calvary,
The matchless Son of God.
And many stood round and mocked and scorned
As he bore his awful load.
He’d climbed that hill, and he died alone,
What wondrous love for me,
The sinless one for sin atoned,
On the hill of Calvary.
I came to God by Calvary,
There’s simply no other way;
Jesus alone can set men free,
And take their sin away.
The price of my guilt I could not pay,
His gift of redemption was free,
Every penny he paid; he cleared my debt
On the cross of Calvary.
I came to the place called Calvary,
But I come back again and again,
For the world creeps in, and my heart grows cold;
My sin gives him grief and pain,
And I need to return with my broken heart,
To the one who gave all for me,
And ask to be cleansed again in the blood
Of the death of Calvary.
Won’t you come to the place called Calvary?
For Jesus will meet you there.
Come with your guilt, your past and your pain,
To learn of his pity and care.
Come with your need and your burden of sin,
His mercy and grace are free,
Come! Find the peace that can only be found
In the Christ of Calvary. (Anon.)
But one thing more; if God does not warm you by his love will he arouse you by his justice?
3. GOD REQUIRES A DAY OF VINDICATION FOR HIS SON.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this scripture: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (vv.9-11). They thought the owner was a weakling, that he was a doddering old fool with a white beard, and they could do whatever they wanted. Many think like that. It’s God’s job to forgive, without grief, without confession, without repentance. I was reading an interview with Michael Aspel who presented the TV programme, “This is Your Life” for many years. At 71 this handsome millionaire, married three times and now living with someone else, looks back through his life with regret. “I’m basically not a happy person,” he says. Regret is not evangelical repentance. Brownlow North, converted at 44 years of age, said the night he was converted, “What will all my years of following the devices of my own heart profit me? In a few minutes I shall be in hell, and what good will all these things do to me, for which I have sold my soul?” Michael Aspel acknowledges that he has no religion, though sometimes he prays. He looks at Roman Catholicism and he says, “It’s a very handy religion. You can sort of clear your card along the way.” You ‘follow your heart’ and then you clear the card. That’s how those men felt. Keep the proceeds of the vineyard for themselves, and then clear the card. Kill the servants, and clear the card. Kill the Son, and clear the card, but God has said that the end of all that had come. Cards can’t be cleared any longer. Jesus Christ was his ultimatum. They’d killed him and shown no repentance, and so God the Judge of the living and the dead was coming to destroy them and give his vineyard to others. They had filled up their iniquities to the brim and the day of reckoning was at hand when God was going to condemn them in the second death. That is how it is. You live without God and against God, and he shows years of longsuffering towards you, giving you opportunities to repent, but in the end you face the day of vengeance of our God. Shall not God avenge his own servants? He shall indeed.[The late Ken Howard once spoke at the 400th Anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France which took place on August 24 in 1572 when 8,000 of God’s servants were murdered for doing what Christ told them to do. What follows is adapted from our late brother with gratitude.] This principle of God avenging his own elect is inevitable. It is certain from his character, because he is a just God. It is certain from the fact that he hates sin. It is certain from his own ineffable and unsullied holiness, that he is of purer eyes than to behold evil. His avenging of his suffering servants is certain from his covenant engagements and commitments with his people, and from the efficacy of prayer. He teaches them as he sends them to act for him and take his message to the world that they must cry to him in their dependence upon him. He hears them, and when these farmers in the lord’s vineyard murder them he will avenge his faithful servants. If the people of God suffer, they will never suffer without being avenged, no matter what the suffering be. For that matter, no victory of evil, or should I say, apparent victory of evil over good, in the life of the child of God or the church of God, is ever anything more than a pyrrhic victory, that is to say, a victory that turns sour on the victor, and leaves him at the end of the battle worse off than he was before he started. So it was with these farmers in the vineyard. A temporary victory but then the second death. No intrigue against the godly succeeds in the long run, however painful it may be in the short term. “Ill that he blesses is our good, and unblessed good is ill,” and we know that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
These servants, one after another, went to the vineyard obediently as he had told them. They cried to him for his protection but they were beaten up or killed. All that their master seemed to be doing was to send another soldier over the top into the enemy’s fire, and there they hung on the barbed wire. God may delay long before he shows his avenging hand. Our lord has gone on a lengthy journey. This is something which is in his sovereign disposition. Sometimes God does avenge his servants swiftly for all to see. Sometimes his judgments stalk the lands of the earth, that men may see, know, and fear the living God, and realise that vengeance not only belongs to him, but he certainly exercises it. More often, God defers his vengeance and judgment until the end of time. But you see, by contrast with the eternal perdition of the farmers, who assaulted God’s servants, the vindication of God’s people is speedy. “Shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you he will avenge them speedily.”
Those farmer-thieves were standing waiting in the vineyard, and along came these servants one by one and they were all rejected. What fine obedient men they were serving so great a master, but their demands for payment for their Lord were all rejected, and even the Son was despised and killed. Those farmers were just like these chief priests and teachers of the law and elders listening to Jesus. They were rejecting John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus. They despised our Saviour and wanted him dead. They were like a bunch of stonemasons, Jesus says, who thought a stone was useless. They glanced at it and decided that it was the wrong size and the wrong shape and the wrong materials: “Discard it!” they said, and they turned their backs on it, but it turned out to be the capstone, the most important stone in the building, but they could never see that. They put a big stamp on it, “REJECTED.” They thought Jesus was a fake, a servant of Beelzebub, a friend of the ungodly, and they despised and rejected him. But in fact he is the capstone.
When will it be seen by all that Jesus is the capstone? When will he be vindicated? He will do so when his long journey is over and he returns to earth again in his kingdom and with all his Father’s glory. He will be avenged speedily when he comes. Then God will be known as a just God, and a true Saviour of all who believe on Jesus. It is in the day of his Son’s appearing that every adversary will be finally humiliated, and every lying mouth will be stopped, and the righteous will be vindicated for ever, and shine like stars in the glory of their God and Redeemer. God will avenge his own elect; he will avenge them in the coming of the Son of Man.
This tells us something about the character and nature of God’s avenging of his elect. When we think of vengeance, we so easily think in human terms, of someone getting his own back. That is not divine vengeance. That is a misconception and a misconstruction of vengeance. It is not just to restore temporal and material things and positions. Have the people of God lost money and goods for Christ’s sake? His vengeance is not just to restore a lost bank balance. Have the people of God lost name, repute, and esteem among men for Christ’s sake? God’s avenging is not intended simply to give them back the esteem of people and the plaudits of men. Have the children of God, the men of Jesus’ parable, laid down their very lives for Christ’s sake? The day of vengeance is not simply to return them to bodily life. When God avenges his servants, it is to do something far greater than that, and you see the crux of the matter. Surely it is this, that the coming of the Son of Man will be God’s own avenging. The coming of the Son of Man will be his vindication. Is not the Son of Man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the elect servant of God, par excellence? Has he not suffered more for God’s sake and God’s people than any of God’s servants? Has he not suffered in a vicarious way, in which none other could suffer? Because these things are so, God has already exalted his Son by raising him from the dead, and seating him at his own right hand in the glory, and God has vindicated his Son in his own estimation and opinion.
But God has not yet vindicated his Son in the sight and understanding of men. The world still hates him and his servants. They do not know who he is and what he is. So there is one final stage of the exaltation of the blessed Son of God yet to come, and that is, when his journey is ended and he comes back to the world. He will be visibly revealed with power and great glory, and every eye shall see him. All shall know to their eternal glory or shame that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. What they now refuse to hear about him, they will then be compelled to know in their own eternal conscience. Now, among the children of God, there is weeping day and night, but then he will come, and those that sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him. We who are alive and remain shall be caught up …. to meet the Lord in the air; the stone the builders rejected will be the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing and it will be marvellous in our eyes. God will avenge his own servants when he finally completes the avenging of his own beloved Son.
The angels in heaven and the devils in hell, and the men on earth, will all behold, by constraint and compulsion, that the farmers in the vineyard were all the most evil of men, while the godly believers of every land, who have suffered and died unburied and shamed were called by grace in Christ Jesus, and will be welcomed into God’s presence, by God’s merciful and loving favour. The day shall declare it. By the raising of his Son from the dead, and the lifting of him to his own right hand, God has vindicated his Son, but the day is coming when he will avenge his own Son in the sight of angels, devils, and men. God will avenge his own suffering servants on that same occasion. God does not settle all his accounts on the same day that his people suffer. God keeps long accounts, as one of the old writers said, and God keeps precise accounts. The day is coming when the books of his accounts are going to be opened, and he will fully, gloriously, and finally avenge his own men, and give unto them crowns of glory that fade not away, and they, when they have them, will delight to cast them at the feet of him on whose head are many crowns, and who has all the preeminence. “Shall not God avenge his own elect?” I tell you he will avenge them when the Son of Man returns.
In the light of our Lord’s words, surely we must learn this: that there is something within the darkness of our times that must fill the godly with hope and comfort. Can you receive that, men and women? As the Saviour says, “Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door” (Mk. 13:29) Your God is about to avenge his Son. Your Saviour is about to take his power and reign. Far from the flood of persecution resulting in the overthrow of God or his cause or his people, it is the very stage on which he is setting the final drama of all history, the stage on which he will confound his enemies, the stage upon which he will confuse those that raise themselves against him, against his Son and against his servants who suffer for him. “When you see these things happening,” despair? Give up? No! “Lift up your heads; for your redemption is near.”
So the deaths of these servants sent by their lord were not in vain. No suffering of the blessed Son of God is ever in vain, because when he is finally avenged, and all his people are gathered in and vindicated before angels, men and devils, then he will see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. His people will be satisfied in that he is satisfied, and his people will rejoice, in that he rejoices. His people will be glad that his heart is then ravished to its fullest and final degree by the bride that God presents to the Bridegroom at the marriage of the Lamb. May God graciously write these things on our hearts. May he garrison our spirits whatever things may begin to come to pass upon the earth, and may he give us, if need be, to glorify him in the fire, whatever form the fire may take, knowing that: “Our light affliction worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are unseen are eternal.”
10th October 2004 GEOFF THOMAS