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22. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

 

Chapter 22

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Matthew 21:33-46

Eric H. H. Chang

Montreal, March 8, 1981

 

Today, we continue our study in the Word of God in Matthew 21:33-46. The Lord Jesus told another parable known as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants or Wicked Husbandmen and we will read it together.

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

I. Why does God plant a vineyard?

Key idea of this parable: Fruit

Now what is the heart of this parable? First of all, as you can see in verse 45, even the chief priests and Pharisees, the religious leaders, understood that the Lord Jesus was speaking about them. What is the key idea in this parable? The key idea hinges on one word which keeps coming back in the New Testament, and it is the word “fruit”. It all has to do with the matter of fruit.

Saved by the power of God to produce fruit

As you look at this passage, what does the vineyard represent? All we need to do is compare two passages to see what it represents. First, in verses 40-41, the Lord Jesus says, “What will the owner do to those tenants who did not give him his fruit, but instead, put his servants to shame and to death?” They said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and will let out his vineyard to other tenants.”

When we compare this with verse 43, we see the same thing: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that produces fruit.” By this simple comparison, the kingdom of God is pic­tured as a vineyard in this parable, and this vineyard is taken away from those who do not produce His fruits, and given to those (another nation) who do.

So coming back to our original question, Why does anyone plant a vineyard? It is in order to have fruit. Translating this question to its meaning in the parable, we see why God establishes His kingdom. It is in order to have spiritual fruit, of course. Now this seems pretty clear except when we come to ask the question, did we realize that God established His kingdom in order to obtain spiritual fruit? Do you realize that if you are in the kingdom of God, you are in the same position as the tenants? Why are the tenants in the vineyard? In order to look after it and to produce the fruit that God expects. If you are in the kingdom of God, you must understand why you are there. God entrusts His kingdom to your care that you may produce the spiritual fruit that He desires. This is a concept of salvation which is often all too foreign to us. We think of salvation as God establishing the kingdom, so that we can go in there and eat the fruit, and enjoy ourselves, and get to heaven. That is not the concept of salvation in the Bible at all! The concept of salvation in the Bible is that you are saved by the power of God in order to produce fruit. This is most important to understand, and we shall consider in a moment what that fruit is.

A good vineyard to produce fruit

First, let us try to get a clearer picture of this parable. This parable begins in Matthew 21:33, by speaking about the owner, the householder, who plants a vineyard. And what does he do? Well, he sets a hedge around it, that is, he builds a fence around it in order to ensure that the vineyard is secure. Then he dug a winepress in it, because the fruit of grapes are going to be crushed in order to produce wine. Wine is a symbol of joy; it brings joy not only to the people in the vineyard but also to others. This is a task which the church has significantly and manifestly failed to fulfill in its generation. And then a tower was built on the one hand, to give shade to those who work in the vineyard in the noon-day heat as they need the shade; on the other hand, to give an outlook position in order to watch out for thieves who come in to steal, or watch out for animals that might come in to harm and destroy the vine. So the tower serves both as protection from the heat of the day for those within, as well as for defense and protection of the vineyard. This is to show that the vineyard was very well established. It was prepared wisely in order that it would be a good vineyard to produce fruit.

Tenants not producing fruit is not the owner’s fault

Now what is the point of saying all this? The whole point of this first verse is to say that, if the tenants were unfruitful, it was no fault of the owner, that he did not make adequate preparations for the vineyard to be fruitful. It would not be that he was careless in its protection; that he built no fence around it, and therefore the vines were quickly damaged; that he did not prepare a proper winepress in it, so that the fruit could not be processed; or that he did not provide it with a tower, so that those who worked in it had no rest from the noon-day heat, and that they had no outlook position to see that the vineyard was well preserved. And it was no fault of the vineyard itself, because the vineyard was perfectly conceived, planned, prepared.

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

This parable is based on an actual situation

Now I will not go into detail for the legal implications of this parable. For those of you who are interested in the legal background of this parable, you can refer to Professor Darrett’s work on Law in the New Testament. I say this especially for the benefit of those in the Training Team. This will give you some background as to the legal position of the tenants and of the owner.

In those days, there were many foreign owners of land in Israel. They were, you can say, “absentee landlords”. They owned a piece of land, and with it they provided jobs for the local people and also some profit for themselves. Under Jewish law, the owner had to establish his right of ownership by sending his servants to establish his claims year by year. If he failed to send representatives to his vineyard for three consecutive years, he loses the right to claim the fruit of that vineyard. You can see from the tenants’ actions that they wanted to dispossess the owner and take the vineyard for themselves. This is the reason why they set about killing the servants, and finally, also the son.

The reason why the son was sent as the last resort is also easy to understand from the legal position. If some fruit were not given within four years, the owner of the vineyard had to take legal action. And the only way he could take legal action was by a representative that had the power to take action. The son being the heir, had the legal right to act on his father’s behalf in any court of law, which the slaves could not do.

So this is the legal background which Matthew and the other Gospels simply leave out, because they are concerned about the spiritual message, not the legal technicalities. If we find it difficult to comprehend why the tenants behaved in this way, or why the owner behaved in that way, it is because we don’t understand the legal side. For example, it seems very strange that if your tenants killed your servants, why would you risk the neck of your son? But the owner had no alternative because only the son had the power to act legally on the father’s behalf. The reason why he says they will respect his son is because he has the right of legal action.

Tenants can legally blame the owner for no fruit

The tenants, for their part, were also trying to use the law in such a way that would favor them. For example, if they could claim that the vines could not produce any fruit to give to the owner, they could then pass the blame legally to the owner. They could say that he had entrusted them with vines that were unproductive, therefore they had put them into a position of bankruptcy. In fact, the owner would then owe the tenants money, because he had given them a vineyard which was planted with inferior vines, not properly equipped, and therefore could not produce the necessary fruit. If they could prove this for three consecutive years, they could lay a claim upon the land.

More than that, if they could kill the heir—which they did—in a “legalized way,” for example, if they claimed that the son arrived with a body of men to forcefully evict them from the vineyard without legal proceedings, so they acted in self-defense, and in the skirmish that fol­lowed, the son was killed. This would be very convenient at law, because then they would be able to say, “We acted in self-defense. Now, the land has no owner, because the son, who is the heir, is dead, and the land will pass into our possession.”

I’ll only briefly sketch the legal background, so that you can see the parables are not conjured up in a very fanciful manner, but this kind of situation could have actually happened. And the Lord Jesus uses an actual situation to draw a spiritual lesson from it.

God entrusts His kingdom into the care of His people

Let us attend to the spiritual meaning of this parable. When we look at this passage, anyone somewhat familiar with the Old Testament will see a clear parallel to Isaiah 5:1-2. In fact, the words in Isaiah 5:1-2 actually appear in the Greek text of Matthew. This indicates that we immediately have a means of expounding this parable without resort to guess work. Why? Because in Isaiah 5, the keepers of the vineyard represent Israel. Israel, and particularly the leaders of Israel are portrayed as the keepers or tenants of the vineyard in this parable, as we can see from Matthew 21:45.

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

But what did the people of Israel do to the prophets? Well, they started out by ignoring them, sending them away empty-handed, then finally, going still further, beating them up, insulting them. The prophet, Isaiah for example, was martyred, sawn into half. Jeremiah was dropped into a well and nearly died there, if he were not rescued by a friend at the last minute. Both of them were constantly persecuted by the Jews. This is the way the Jews treated the servants of God. And we can see time and again, that when God sought some fruit, not from unbelievers but from His people, He got nothing but rejection.

There is one further point to bear in mind, and that is, in the last part of Matthew 21:33, where it says that when the owner, that is, the householder had planted the vineyard, he went to another country. Of course, you cannot say that God went to another country, because that would make no sense. Then why does the Lord Jesus include this state­ment here? The going away shows that the owner—God—completely entrusts the welfare of His kingdom to the care of His people in this pres­ent age. If God were present, He Himself would have the responsibility of the care and production of the vineyard.

In the Old Testament period, the Jews were made fully responsible for His kingdom. God has now taken it away from the Jews as we see here, and put it into the care of the church. Today, we as Christians, are fully responsible for the kingdom. Therefore we must act responsibly. We cannot pass the buck to someone else. And do you know something? When I look at the performance of the church, I find that we not only have not done any better than the Jews, but I also fear that we have done an awful lot worse than them. Where have we got this fruit that God desires to return to Him? What kind of fruit is the church producing to­day? Where is the church that so glorifies God with its purity of holiness and with its love, that the world looks on in wonder and says, “Truly, we can see God’s light shining from this person, or from this church”? Where is this kind of church today?

My heart is very heavy when I ponder this very thing that we have done. Alas! We have done so badly in offering to God the fruit that belongs to Him! Like these tenants, like the Jews, we want to have all the benefits of God’s kingdom. We want to have His hedge around us for protection. We want to have this winepress that produces the wine of joy. We want to drink all the wine of joy ourselves, and we don’t want to share it with anyone else, even less do we want to give it to God! We don’t want to give God any joy so long as we have the joy. That is good enough for us. And we use all the things that He has prepared for us—the tower, the hedge, the winepress, even the vines, so that we can do with them however we please for our benefit, just as these tenants wanted to do with the whole vineyard however they pleased! We have reduced Christianity in all these ways to a pitiful thing! We must press forward to a high standard of excellence! So this parable speaks powerfully to us.

Why did God plant a vineyard? Why did God establish His kingdom? Because He will have His fruit. He has entrusted His kingdom to our care, therefore, He is going to expect an account from us. It is not just me, brothers and sisters, you are also tenants in His vineyard, in His kingdom. He is going to ask an account from you, not just from me. Having a bit more responsibility, I have to give a bigger account. But all tenants have responsibility, not only the one who has some degree of supervision to do. So, as the prophet Amos said to Israel, “Be prepared to meet your God” (Amos 4:12). On the Day of Judgment, be prepared to give an account of your actions to God. Are you producing any fruit? If not, consider well the consequences of fruitlessness.

Vines produce fruit in the fifth year

Now until when is this kingdom entrusted to the tenants? Verse 40 in today’s passage, is quite specific about this: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” You and I are entrusted with the welfare of God’s kingdom until He comes to judge. If we are not foolish, we dare not be slack when we are faced with this kind of responsibility.

It says in verse 34, “When the season of fruit drew near.” Again, here is a legal technicality, and we need to understand a law concerning the growing of fruit trees and the planting of a vineyard in Leviticus 19:23-24. This law is also mentioned in the Mishnah, the Jewish Book of Law. From it, we learn that a vineyard is not expected to be productive until the fifth year. It takes time for vines to produce fruit, and the owner is not expected to get very much fruit until the fifth year.

Within the compass of a vineyard, not only vines are grown, other fruits are grown, too. Anyone who knows something about agriculture knows that planting other crops or fruits other than just one kind of crop gives better results. In the same way, in a Jewish vineyard, often cucumbers, pumpkins, melons and other fruits were planted. So although the owner of the vineyard could expect no grapes and no wine until the fifth year, he could expect other kinds of fruit, such as those mentioned, within the first four years. Therefore during the season of fruit, he comes to look for some return from his vineyard.

Also under Jewish law, an owner receives only one tenth of the produce of the vineyard in the first four years. But in the fifth year, the vineyard is in full-scale production, and he can receive one half of the produce. Before the fifth year, he may not receive more than one tenth, so that the financial pressure on the keepers of the vineyard is not too crushing.

God is patient, but expects more as you go on in the Christian life

The spiritual lesson of this is quite evident. God is much more patient and understanding in His dealings with you if you are a very young Christian in your first four years or so. But as you go on in the Christian life, He expects more and more from you. If you would like to follow this analogy, you can say that by the fifth year, He is beginning to expect more from you—jumping from one tenth to one half.

When you are a young Christian, you are like a spiritual baby, and you don’t expect too much from babies. If he talks rather unclearly and can hardly say. “Daddy”, “Mommy”, you don’t say to the child, “What’s the matter with you? Are you stupid? Can’t you say “Mommy”, “Daddy” after one year?” because you know his time has not yet come. But by the time he is five, you will expect that he is going to behave in a much more educated manner. If he still pours his milk all over his shirt, you are beginning to get much less patient. When he was a baby, and he dropped the milk bottle, knocked everything over and the food was all over the floor, you are still smiling, because after all, he is only a baby. But if at five years old, he is still throwing all the food on the floor and dishing half his lunch over his shirt, you are not going to be quite so patient, because you expect a lot more at that age.

You see the beauty of the details in such a parable. In the same way, when you are a very young Christian, God treats you far more gently, far more patiently. He certainly expects some fruit from you, but when you fail, He is much more patient with you. The standard gets higher as you go on in the Christian life, so that when you reach the situation of committing to full-time service, God expects a very high standard of excellence.

And when a Christian reaches the position of being a servant, such as a pastor, you expect even more from him, and rightly so. You would expect a pastor to behave in ways far more glorifying to God than you would expect of a young Christian. You have the right to expect that, and God has the right to demand it. When those who serve God in full-time service fail to glorify God, you also expect the discipline to be much, much more severe.

This is exactly the principle in the Word of God: “To whom much is given, much is required” (cf. Lk. 12:48). The demands are very much higher because you have been given so much. Let me say to you that on the Day of Judgment, the pastors will meet with the judgment of God far, far more severely. That is why the apostle James says in James 3:1, “Don’t be too much in a hurry to want to become a teacher or a pastor, because God’s requirements of you will be that much more severe.”

I have good reason to fear and tremble as you can see. There is no reason to feel proud, or even less, to feel complacent, because what God will expect of me is enough to make my knees shake. The apostle Paul understood this very well as he said in Philippians 2:12, “We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” The apostle Paul speaks of fear and trembling many times, because he knows that if God’s mercy was great to him, so will God’s judgment be if he fails in the employment of that mercy.

So, the expectations in the first four years of the vineyard are there but much less. I wonder how long you have been a Christian. God is very patient but if you intend to be a wishy-washy Christian, I will say to you right from the beginning, forget it, because you are dealing with the living God, and His standards are very high. As the Lord Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” That is a very high standard to meet. We cannot be perfect in the sense of being sinless, but we must be perfect in the sense that our devotion and our commitment to God is absolute; it is without question.

Now if you say that the standards of being a Christian are too high, you are quite right. Just read the Sermon on the Mount and you will see that it is so. But shall we flee from being a Christian because the standards are high? Indeed not! Do people run away from the Olympics because the standard of the Olympics is so much higher than the school track meet, or the local town track meet, or the provincial track meet? Of course not! It is precisely because the standards are so high that those who are worthy will rise to the challenge in the Olympics. We are not left to our own strength to accomplish what is put before us. Rather, God has provided us with all that is necessary, so that this vineyard will not fail. So, we can see the picture of the parable evermore clearly.

II. What is the spiritual fruit that God seeks?

We have already asked the first question, Why does anyone plant a vineyard? Why does God establish His kingdom? It is because God expects to have the spiritual fruit of His people. Then we need to ask the second question: What is the fruit that God seeks? If it is a vineyard, then the fruit you want are grapes, or wine, or both. But what is the spiritual fruit? I think that is not hard for us to understand either because the Scriptures leave us in no doubt about it.

First of all, the fruit that He expects from us is faith that is not just one act of believing, but faith that is a continuing believing, that is faithfulness. He expects faithfulness from His people. We see that in Luke 18:8b—“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Isaiah Chapter 5 is parallel to this passage. Verse 7 tells us God expected the Jews to produce justice, but instead, there was bloodshed. He expected from them righteousness, but instead, He got deceit. What God wants then, is justice and righteousness. What He expects from His people is plainly stated, so that the Jews, or these tenants, could not say that they did not know what God wanted.

The prophet Micah was one of these servants of God who came to look for the fruit and found none. He said in Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” What does God want? He wants justice. He wants a merciful love like His. He wants humble communion with Himself. He wants a true commitment.

Or coming to the New Testament, what does God want from Christians today? He wants the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 is a nine-fold fruit, one bunch of fruit all joined to the same stem exactly like a bunch of grapes. Paul does not say the “fruits” of the Spirit but the “fruit”. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

In 1Thessalonians 4:3, the apostle Paul says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” God wants holiness in our lives.

It seems as though God is demanding fruit from us because He wants the fruit. But if you look at this fruit, you will see that the more fruit you produce, the more you will have yourself. Do you remember the law? God takes one tenth in the first four years, and you take nine-tenths. Then from the fifth year on, He takes half and you take half. If the quantity is very great, then your half is very big, isn’t it? So, you are getting the blessing in the very process of giving. It is foolish to suppose that God takes everything from us. Much of the fruit that you produce is to your own blessing as well as to the blessing of others. In fact, all the fruit is hardly going to be eaten by the owner, it is going to go to the markets, to the blessing of others.

III. Who refuses to give this fruit?

The next question we need to ask is, Who are the people who refuse to give this fruit? As we noticed earlier, the painful answer is: it is God’s people who fail to give the fruit to God. It is the same story all the time in history! God is not saying that the non-Christians failed. He is not putting the blame on the unbelievers. The blame goes to the Jews, and in this generation, to the Christians. It is the religious leaders who fail. It is we who have to be hard on ourselves, because if we are not hard on ourselves, God is going to be very hard on us. As the Word of God says, “he that judges himself will not be judged by God.” [cf. 1 Cor. 11:31] We have been too easy on ourselves, and whenever we exercise discipline, people are amazed. “Oh! That’s being too tough!” Let me tell you that if you don’t exercise discipline, God will exercise it, and that will be an awful lot tougher. We need to be hard on ourselves if we are going to have the mercy of God upon us.

So when we look at this parable, we see that those who fail are the people of God, of all people! That is the great tragedy in every generation in the history of the church. I say again, if we are not to fail, we must learn to be harder on ourselves, and not be so complacent.

IV. Why no fruit and shameful conduct?

Fourthly, we need to ask, Why do the tenants in this parable fail to produce the fruit and treat God’s messengers in this way? Well, Matthew 21:38 gives us the answer:

“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him and have his inheritance.’”

What is the reason? They want to have the vineyard for themselves. They want to be able to do with the vineyard and the fruits however they please. It is exactly as the Lord Jesus said,

“But I tell you that Elijah has already come (that is, John the Baptist), and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased” (Mt. 17:12-13).

This is the root of the problem in the church! This is the root problem with every Christian who will fail! It is individualism. It is self-centered­ness. It is “I want to do what I please. This is the way I want to have it.”

Self-centeredness and self-interest in God’s fruitless church

Let me say to you very bluntly, you cannot be a Christian if you insist on your own way and your own interests. Anyone who thinks that by becoming a Christian, you can simply get all the benefits of God’s kingdom—salvation, blessings—and you can just do your own thing, is greatly mistaken. We can even sing about that as in the song, “I did it my way.” That is one song that you wish you never learned at the Judgment! When God starts doing things His way, then those who do things their way will find the whole going very unpleasant. But the most pitiful thing of all is that when you do things your own way, you are going to bring nothing but disaster and unhappiness upon yourself. Why do you persist in this? Yet there are those who want to serve God, and want to do things their way.

If you are a tenant in God’s vineyard, if you are a Christian, if you are a disciple, I beg of you to love the truth and ask yourself, “Am I living the Christian life in God’s way?” Answer this question very honestly. If not, then see what is going to happen to you, because you are not going to give God the fruit that He desires from you. You are going to treat God’s vineyard, God’s blessings, and God’s mercy in whatever way you want. I see many Christians reject the lordship of Christ, not in words, but in practice. That is to reject God’s sovereignty, because you have not let God be Lord of your life through Christ.

Consider the way you make your plans, consider the way you do things, consider the way you think at this present time. In which of these ways did you put God’s interest first? I don’t mean in words but in practice. If you can answer this question honestly, you might just not end up as one of these tenants that come under God’s judgment.

V. What happened to the tenants?

If you don’t bear fruit, you will be put to a terrible death

Fifthly, we want to ask, What happened to those tenants who failed to produce the fruit? If you think that once you are in God’s kingdom, you will always be in God’s kingdom, and you will always be safe, then you have not read the Bible, my dear friend. Don’t listen to what I say, just listen to what the Lord Jesus says here. In fact, he solicited the answer from the mouths of his hearers. He said, “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Do you think he would spare them from his judgment because they are tenants of his vineyard? What kind of reasoning is this? Would he spare them? On the contrary! It is precisely because they are his tenants that he will judge them. This is precisely what God said to Israel, “If you were not My people, I would not judge you. But because you are My people, I will judge you” (Amos 3:2).

Everyone is God’s people in the sense that you have been created by God. He will judge you simply because you are His creation. But if you belong to Him in a two-fold sense, both by creation and redemption, He is going to expect a great deal more from you, as you can see.

So, what is the answer to the Lord Jesus’ question, “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” He solicits the answer from their mouth in verse 41: “And they said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” They knew the answer. If you kill God’s servants, is He going to say, “You did a good job in killing and beating up My servants. Be more heavy-handed next time!”? This is too ridiculous! If you killed His servants, if you rejected His kingship, then His judgment on you will certainly come. You are dealing with the living God! In this verse, there are two Greek words, “bad, badly; terrible, terribly” which are translated as “miserable,” because they are very hard to translate into English. God will put them to a “terribly terrible” death. Such will be the judgment that these persons deserve.

God is the God of love, but never make the mistake to think that because He is the God of love that He does not exercise judgment. That is the mistake that many people make. It is precisely because God’s love cannot tolerate this kind of selfishness, this kind of evil that He will certainly deal with it. What is more, verse 41 continues to say, “The vineyard will then be taken away from them and let out to others.” In the church today, we have the strange doctrine that tells us once you are in the vineyard, you are always in the vineyard, and the vineyard will never be taken away from you. Once you are in the kingdom, you are always in the kingdom, and the kingdom will never be taken away from you. Now if we want to invent doctrines to suit our fancies and to tickle our ears, we are doing the very thing the Word of God warned that we would be doing in the last days. We invent doctrines to make ourselves secure.

Unless one is deliberately deaf and deliberately blind, more plain than this one cannot get. The people who were in the vineyard had the vineyard, God’s kingdom, taken away from them. In fact, not only was the vineyard taken from them, but they were also put to death. They ended up in destruction. To change the metaphor, Paul says the same thing to the Christians in Romans 11:21, “If God did not spare the natural branches but cut them off, neither will He spare you, unless you abide in God’s kindness, and unless you live in such a way that you produce the kind of fruit that He expects. The whole issue hinges on this fruit.

VI. Why is a true servant of God hated?

A true servant of God demands holiness from the church

Now we need to ask a sixth question in order to learn another lesson, looking from the point of view of the servants who were sent, and got beaten up and killed. Why is a true servant of God hated by the leaders of the kingdom of God? Why were the true servants of God hated by the Jews? Why are true servants of God still going to be hated and rejected by the church in this generation? Why is this so? What is more, we can ask a subsidiary question to this, How can you tell whether a servant of God is true or false? How do you know that this person who preaches is really a servant of God?

Well, this parable gives a very clear criterion, which is, a true servant of God comes and demands the fruit. That is why he is hated. If he does not demand anything, nobody would hate him. If he had come to the tenants and said, “Oh you guys are doing wonderful work! You don’t want to give any fruit to the owner? That’s okay. Once you’ve got the vineyard, you’ll always have the vineyard. So you don’t need to worry. What can the owner do to you? After all, you already have the vineyard. You are attending church.” If you preach like that, certainly the tenants will not stone you. They will say, “Oh, you are our friend! Come with us!”

But as what happened to the prophets in the Old Testament, do you know what happens when any servant of God demanding fruit preaches: “God will have His fruit. You must live the life of righteousness and holiness. You must turn away from your sins. And you must not only just repent once and think you’ll secure eternal life, but you must also live a life of continuing holiness”? Surprise! The church will throw you out! If you don’t believe it, try it some time. I have tried it, and I know from experience.

When John Wesley said to the Church of England, “We must have holiness in the Church of England,” he was thrown out! You would have thought the church certainly understands that holiness is very necessary. Even though John Wesley was an ordained preacher of the Church of England, he was forbidden to preach in any of the churches in England. He was forbidden even to preach in the church where his father had been the pastor. And when his father died, he was not even allowed to conduct the funeral for him in the church. He had to stand outside the church in order to conduct the funeral. What was his crime? His crime was that he preached holiness. Surprising, isn’t it? Strange indeed!

How do you assess if a person is a true servant of God? Do you have to measure him to see whether he is the right height, whether he has got the right features for a servant of God? You don’t have to go into any of this. There is no complicated trick. Just listen to his message. If he says, “Peace, peace” (i.e. everything is fine. There’s no problem at all. Just relax), when there is no peace, you know he is a false prophet. That is what the Old Testament says. In fact, you can tell a true servant of God simply by looking for one element in his message: the demand for holiness.

John Sung was the same way. Anyone who reads John Sung’s message will know he was a true servant of God, because he is preaching holiness everywhere. God used this man so mightily! When John Sung was preaching in China, the pastors, the missionaries and other Christian workers rejected him. And today, we are all praising him after he is dead.

This is just like the Jews. The Lord Jesus said to them, “You hypocrites, you whitewash to beautify the tombs of the prophets that your fathers killed. You worship the prophets of the past generation because they cannot speak to you to condemn you anymore. So you can say, ‘Oh, he was a wonderful man!’” But you are still going to put to death the prophets of this generation. Today, the people of the Church of England are all saying what a wonderful person John Wesley was, because John Wesley is not here anymore to thunder against the pitiful moral conditions of the church of his day. So we can talk about him nicely because he is dead. Thereby, the Lord Jesus says, “We prove ourselves to the hypocrites that we are.”

Therefore, whether you read a book or listen to a message, just look for this element: holiness—the fruit that God seeks from His people.

VII. What is the importance of this fruit?

A Christian must bear fruit to glorify God

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

Paul made a very interesting statement in Romans 7:4.

“So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. ”

He tells us that the whole point of our becoming a Christian is in order that we may bear fruit for God. Paul understood this point perfectly. Why did Jesus redeem us? Why did he die and rise again from the dead? It is in order that we may bear fruit for God. This is the key issue.

Are you a true Christian? Then ask yourself, “Am I bearing any fruit? Is there any holiness in my life?” It doesn’t take some complicated device to find out whether you are a true Christian or not. Just look at your life. Is holiness there? Are you offering some fruit to God?

Or do you know whether God is close to you? Do you experience God’s power working within? Again, just ask yourself, “Is there any fruit coming forth?” Are you conducting yourself in your home, in your school, in your apartment like a Christian? Is there some beauty in your life? Is there something fragrant, something nourishing and satisfying, like fruit for other people?

Or are you forever causing stress and conflict, getting on everybody else’s nerves? The question is not whether you love God, or whether you think you love God. The question is, “Is there some fruit in your life?” That is the only question that you need to ask. Then you will know whether you are a true Christian. You will know whether God’s power is working in you or not, because you cannot produce this fruit except by God’s power, God’s life working in you. Consider very carefully the importance of fruit.

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church