The Wrath of the Vine


The irony of Matthew 21 is in the contrast between what ought to be and what is. No longer avoiding a clear presentation,, Jesus begins to declare his messiahship in open ways. In so doing, he gave those who hear him an opportunity to embrace his lordship and show their conformity of heart to the revealed truths of their covenant. The result, however, is not joy on their part that God indeed has kept his promise, but an increasing hardness toward the person of Christ. They do not melt in love before the Lord, but manifest an intrinsic hatred to him.


I. Jesus told a parable about a vineyard, its owner and its appointed caretakers. The Master gave full preparation for the production of fruit. All that was necessary for bringing wine from fruit had been set in motion: a vineyard, a winepress, a fence for protection, and a tower for keeping a survey of the coming of possible enemies.

A. The Master obviously is the Lord of heaven and earth, the owner of all things who has determined that he will reap from this earth a people that will praise and honor him for eternity. “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:27, 28).

B. This present world has fallen from God. He has, nevertheless, established within it a combination of things that conspire for the redemption of fallen sinners. He gave a promise of victory for the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15. He gave a clear instance of rescue by sovereign grace in the protection of Noah and his family from the world-destroying flood (Genesis 6:8). He gave a clear manifestation of justification by Faith in his promise to Abraham (Genesis 15:6). He produced a people from the loins of Abraham and the womb of Sarah through whom a Savior would come. He gave this nation a leader upon whom the blessing of God obviously rested (Moses), a law by which they could know what true righteousness was to draw them to the mercy of God and show them the need for a redeemer (Galatians 3:21-29). He gave them the sacrificial system that continually showed them the necessity of the shedding of blood for forgiveness (Hebrews 9:16-22). He gave the prophets to proclaim the spirituality of the law and the coming of the redeemer (Zechariah 7:8-14 and Isaiah 53). He told them through these prophets of the need for a mighty spiritual change to bring them to a true knowledge of God along with a severe warning for those whose hearts would remain hardened (Ezekiel 11:19-21).


II. The master sent servants to gather the fruit.

A. A combination of prophets, priests and kings had been sent through the centuries to make Israel a trusting worshipping nation, filled with fruits of righteousness to be an oasis of pure devotion to God in the midst of a wicked and perverse world. David, the repentant sinner whose love for God was unsurpassed, produced material for worship and called the nation to observe the law of God (Psalm 68). Ezra and Nehemiah sought to establish the purity of the nation in worship and obedience to moral and ceremonial purity (Ezra 8:24ff; 10; Nehemiah 8 and 9).

B. The most recent call to repentance had come from John the Baptist. Jesus had just pointed out in clear terms their resistance to John the Baptist and his message from heaven (21:22-27; 31, 32)

C. The tenants responded with malice. When those come to them seeking the fruit of their great advantages, they find that they are cruel and possessive and have no eye for the benefit of the owner of the vineyard. They looked to themselves as good and the rightful owners even though they had been given it by the gracious had of another. Even so the Jews thought their blessings came from their own righteousness and thus made them pervert the gifts they had been granted (Romans 2:17-24). They killed and mistreated the servants of God sent in grace and love, and robbed God of his glory.


III. The master sent his son

A. The master’s expectation – “They will respect my son.” Rather than diminishing the opportunities for repentance and doing the right thing, greater opportunities for yielding the fruit to its rightful owner were given, even to the point of placing his son in the position of experiencing the same thing his servants had experienced. Every advantage only evoked greater hostility and irrational confidence that they were the rightful owners of the vineyard.

B. Completely at odds with the reality of the situation, the tenants believe that killing the son will make the vineyard theirs. They have so little knowledge of the true owner’s dignity, wealth, power, and just wrath. Absurdly and wickedly, they kill the son.

C. All of the benefits given in advance and without any effort or expense for the tenants should have yielded fruit. The analogy directly relates to the failure of the Jewish people, with only minor times of national faithfulness, to become a people granted the blessings of divine of revelation and the special presence of God. This parable presents Isaiah 5:1-7. Verse 2 in particular gives virtually the same description that Jesus does in the parable in verse 33. In Isaiah, the vineyard is destroyed for its unfruitfulness. In the parable, those who were to care for the vineyard were destroyed. Israel was the vineyard, its religious leaders were its caretakers. Now both vineyard and teachers will be destroyed. The blind lead the blind and both fall into the ditch.

D. Jesus taught his disciples that he was the “true vine” (John 15:1). The vineyard of Matthew 21 and Isaiah 5, finds its true fulfillment in Christ. Israel as a nation was called out of Egypt, but the final fulfillment of the calling out of Egypt is in Christ (Matthew 2:15). The vineyard and its vines are Israel, but the true vine is Jesus. He is killed by those who should have known him and should have found in him their true joy and spiritual life. He himself, will come again as judge “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).


IV. Jesus posed a question that has an obvious answer.

A. “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” If he is the master, and has the right to deal with his property and his tenants in a way consistent with law, what can such unlawful rebels expect? They assaulted and even murdered his legitimate servants and even his son with the intent of stealing his property. The story is so simple, and the events so plain that none can miss the answer. Jesus makes the ones to whom the story relates answer the question. Nathan used this technique when confronting David about his sin with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 12:1-5). David became so enraged at the injustice and cruelty of the event that he said, “As the Lord lives the man that has done this shall surely die.”

B. If it was not the chief priests that answered, but the people, the chief priests still were there, heard the parable, the question, and the obvious answer. Even so, those answering the question said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” In addition, since it was obvious that the master wanted the fruit of his investment, “He will let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

C. Those things that are very clear in the lives of others are not so clear in our own lives. We make valid moral judgments when it comes to the sins of others, but find a way to rationalize or excuse our own. On this basis, Paul argued in Romans 2:1 when he said, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For is passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Our moral vision as applied to persons and situation outside of ourselves is much clearer than it is for our own attitudes and actions.

D. The Jewish religious leaders wanted to save their lives, so they lost them. They wanted to protect their reputations as righteous and as the lead teachers of the nation. Rather than repent, they sought to arrest him. The people they thought to be so low and stupid saw more clearly than they. Their time, however, to sway the crowd from approval to reprobation would soon come. Their triumph would be their darkest hour.


V. Jesus applied the lesson. They were in the very act of fulfilling scriptural prophecy in their attitude. How clearly the situation pictured their own case was obvious even to them, but they did not repent but only resented and hated Jesus for the truth that he spoke.

A. Jesus cited Psalm 118 which already had been in play since his triumphal entry. Verse 9 uses verses 25, 26 of the Psalm. Jesus is indicating that the entire Psalm is in play in the events of these days. The triumph of the God of righteousness and salvation comes mysteriously through the people’s rejection of the cornerstone. This is mysterious indeed, but it is the arrangement of God for the blood-shedding of the only perfect sacrifice.

B. “The kingdom will be taken away.” Jerusalem would be destroyed and the temple sacrifice would no longer be possible. Also a great blindness would come on Israel so that their promised Messiah, after an initial influx of Jewish believers, would come to be the Lord and Savior of the Gentiles (Romans 11:7, 11-16). To them he would grant repentance unto life (Acts 11:18; 13:44-48;14:27).

C. John A. Broadus commented: “The nation of Israel, after being established by special divine act in the land of promise, and provided with everything necessary for righteous living, failed to render to God the fruits of righteousness, when called on by providential dealings and by inspired messages; they have insulted and sometimes killed his messengers the prophets, and are now on the point of slaying his Son. Yet this will not end the matter. The rejected one is God’s chief-cornerstone for the temple of human salvation.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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