The parables of the Lord Jesus Christ are essential to understand for those who claim to be His followers. These words are preserved so that the mystery of the kingdom can be revealed unto His disciples (Matt. 13:11). Despite popular teaching, the true knowledge of God has been kept secret since the foundation of the world (Matt. 13:34-35). God chooses whomever He will to understand the mystery of the kingdom. Even those who study the Bible endlessly do not understand this mystery because their hearts are far from God (John 5:39-40). Jesus said these things to the Bible scholars of His day. These scholars were blind just as many of the scholars of our time.
“But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” (Matt. 23:13)
Unfortunately, the same is true of many preachers and Bible scholars of today. They shut up the kingdom of heaven by teaching the very opposite of the text they claim to believe. The way into the kingdom is thoroughly outlined in the parable of the Lord.
The Parable of the Two Sons
Did you know that Jesus gave another parable about two sons besides the parable of the Prodigal Son? This parable was a response to the chief and elders of the temple questioning His authority (Matt. 21:23). If you choose to believe the words of Jesus Christ, this parable will provide great insight to the way of eternal life.
“But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. 29 He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. 30 And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. 31 Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.” (Matt. 21:28-32)
Though this parable is short, it contains a big message!!!
Before explaining the meaning of this parable, it is important that we understand the context fully. Remember, that the chief priests and elders are questioning the authority of Jesus Christ at this point. Jesus then responds with a question.
“And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? 24 And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? 26 But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.” (Matt. 21:23-26)
Notice that they were unwilling to say what they really believed. They feared the people. They also did not want Jesus to ask why they didn’t believe John. This is what set the stage for the parable.
Verse 27 shows us that these men chose to lie by claiming not to know by what authority John baptized. Then Jesus reveals a tremendous truth.
Comparing the Chief Priests and Elders with Publicans and Harlots
In verse 31, Jesus explains that the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before the chief priest and the elders of the temple. Two questions naturally arise: 1) Why and 2) how is this possible? The chief and elders of the temple study and keep the law of Moses. Why would publicans and harlots go into the kingdom before them?
We find the answer to these questions summarized in the next verse.
“For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.” (Matt. 21:32)
The publicans and harlots believed John the Baptist’s message. Jesus says that John came to the chief priests and elders in the way of righteousness, but they didn’t believe. The sinners believed John’s message whereas the self-righteous chief priests and elders did not. Even after seeing the faith in others, they still did not repent.
The Way of Righteousness
In order to understand Jesus’ comparison, we must look deeply into the key phrases. Jesus said that John came in the way of righteousness. What does this mean? This same phrase is only found in two other books of the Bible; Proverbs and 2 Peter.
Specifically, this phrase is found three times in the book of Proverbs. Take some time to read Prov. 8:20, Prov. 12:28, and Prov. 16:31. Be sure to read the context around them. For the purpose of this study, we will focus on Proverbs chapter 12.
“In the way of righteousness is life: and in the pathway thereof there is no death.” (Prov. 12:28)
According to this verse, there’s life in the way of righteousness. So, John came to the chief priests and elders with life. There was no death in his message. They chose not to believe what John was telling them about life. They chose not to believe what John was telling them about the way into the kingdom of heaven and eternal life. Now let’s look at what the apostle Peter wrote.
“While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. 20 For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. 21 For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. 22 But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” (2 Pet. 2:19-22)
To understand these verses thoroughly, you must read the entire chapter for context. Remember, the epistles from the apostles are letters which should be read whole for full understanding. If you read the entire chapter, you will see that Peter is discussing false prophets and those who left the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ to follow them. Verse 19 is explaining that these false prophets promised freedom but are slave to corruption themselves. Peter goes on to say that those who escaped the way of this world would have been better off if they did not know the way of righteousness than to know it and turn away from it. Peter also refers to the way of righteousness as the holy commandment.
According to Peter, there is a way of righteousness that can be known. This way of righteousness can be turned away from. This way of righteousness has to do with “escaping the pollutions of this world.” The way of righteousness is a way of life. You can escape the pollutions of this world through the knowledge of Jesus Christ. This knowledge helps you to become “clean escaped from them that live in error.” The way of righteousness is about not living in error (fraudulence or straying in the Greek). It is about living the way God intended. It is about character. This is the holy commandment.
The Holy Commandment
Remember, John came to the chief priest and elders in the way of righteousness. John tried to show them the way of righteousness (Luke 3:2-3). John taught repentance for the remission of sins. Repentance means compunction (for guilt including reformation), by implication reversal (of decision). Repentance is not just about feeling guilty. It’s about reversing the way you have been going. It’s turning way from sin to live in the way of righteousness which is God’s way. This is what John tried to teach. Read John’s speech to the people in Luke 3:7-9 for evidence.
Though many will say that works have nothing to do with salvation, know that the Holy Bible teaches something different. Indeed, grace is a gift, but God requires that we bring forth “fruits worthy of repentance.” We must bring forth good fruit or be cut down and cast into the fire. This is not about rituals or ceremonies, but it is about character. How can we know this? Simply, by reading the entire interaction.
The people responded to John by asking him what they should do (verse 10).
Notice that John didn’t tell them to do nothing. He didn’t tell them to just believe and confess. He instructs them in the way of righteousness (verses 11-14). The things John taught are consistent with the Old Testament that promoted this behavior toward fellow man. Also notice that this is what Jesus was referring to. The common man repented after hearing John preaching, but the chief priests and elders rejected his instruction in righteousness. John taught that which is in the Old Testament which they professed to know and keep.
The Father’s Instructions
John came to prepare the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. He taught the way of righteousness contained in the word of God. The message that John preached (Luke 3:7-18) is the same as Jesus’ message (Matt. 5:38-48). This teaching is found scattered throughout the Old Testament, yet the chief priests and elders rejected it to keep their own traditions. (Mark 7:1-9). The elders had many traditions that were contrary to God’s way. Both Jesus and John taught how to truly apply the laws of God.
Let us return to the parable in Matthew 21. Remember that a parable is an analogy or illustration of something in reality. There are two sons who are given the same instructions by their father. The father is God the Father and the sons are the two groups of people Jesus was talking about. The Father instructs His sons on what to do. One is honest enough to outwardly reject the instruction and the other falsely professes acceptance.
God the Father wants us to live a certain way. He instructs all His children through His word. Some of us, like the publicans and harlots, have outwardly rejected His instruction. But when we hear God’s message, we change (repent) and do what was commanded. Some of us, like the chief priests and elders, have professed obedience yet our actions are contrary. This is the comparison Jesus was making.
Reread Matt. 21:31. You cannot profess obedience and enter the kingdom of God. You must actually be obedient to God the Father’s instructions, laws, statues, judgements, etc. Jesus is not talking about mere belief in Himself. He is talking about obedience and walking in the way of righteousness. Even Jesus Christ was fully obedient to the will of the Father (John 5:30). We need to understand this parable thoroughly. We need to be obedient sons who have reverse from the way of error to keep the commands of our Father.
Also read Matt. 7:13-21. We must study our Father’s word and do His will if we intend to enter His kingdom!!!