Matthew 21:28-32: "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. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. 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. 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".
In verse 28 of our parable, chapter 21 of Matthew, Jesus asks the question: 'What do you think?'. I wonder what you think: two sons, and to the first son his father says: 'Go, work in my vineyard'. The first son's answer is: 'I will not', but after he gave that negative answer, Jesus said, he changed his mind and he went and worked in his father's vineyard. Then the father came to the second son, and said the same: 'Go, work in my vineyard'. His answer was: 'I go, sir', but when he thought about it he decided not to go. Now here is the question that Jesus posed to His listeners: which of these two did his father's will? Those who listened intently gave the right answer, and they answered: 'Number one, the son who said 'I will not go', but in the end changed his mind and went and worked in his father's vineyard'. Now the conclusion that Jesus gave to this parable is very clear: 'Truly', He said, 'publicans', tax collectors, 'and harlots', those who were despised sinners of the day, 'go into the kingdom of God before you'. The 'you' He was speaking to were the religious moralists, the Pharisees and Scribes of His day.
Now here's the point to Jesus' parable, and it's important we don't miss it: one son, the first son, said that he would do his father's will; but the second son did it, even after he said he wouldn't. Now there are two truths that I want to labour on tonight in the time that is left, that we can derive from this parable. The first is this: with God, what you do is more important than what you say. Here we have it clearly taught by the Lord Jesus: your words might be empty and meaningless, but your actions will speak louder than words. Just as a picture paints a thousand words, so do actions. What Jesus was doing as He spoke to many religious hypocrites, was He exposed how they used religious language. They practised religious ritual, but they did not do God's will. On another occasion, in Matthew 15:8, Jesus put it like this: 'This people honour me with their lips; but their heart is far from me'. It doesn't matter, tonight, what your lips say - what matters is whether or not you do the will of God.
The second point that we get clearly from this parable is: what you do now is more important than what you have done in your past. Whether we are talking in relation to sins that you have committed in days gone by, or whether we're speaking specifically of your relationship to God in the past, or how you've reacted towards this gospel good news message - Jesus is telling us that what has passed into history matters little in comparison to what you do now with God, with your sin, with Jesus Christ the Saviour. Jesus gives us an example so that we don't miss His point. He tells these Jews that they had John the Baptist, and he came to them with the truth of God, and the religious people rejected him - they did not change their minds about their sin and about God's word - and yet the very people who accepted John the Baptist and his message were the irreligious, the moral outcasts, the despised and rejected of mankind. They were the ones who, when they heard God's word, repented and believed.
Now let me ask you tonight: what is your reaction to their reaction, the reactions of these two sons? Which son, I wonder, are you like tonight? The father's command was given to these two men: 'Go, work in my vineyard today' - and it's identical, almost, to the gospel invitation and command that is given. God tells us that we are to repent of our sins and believe the gospel. Now the command that was given by the father to these two sons has two emphatic imperatives in it, that means that simply that there was immediate obedience required - and that is exactly the same with this message of good news. There is obedience required, Acts 17 verse 30: 'God commands all men everywhere to repent' - that means to turn from your sin, to put your faith in the Christ that died for sinners, and to spend the rest of your life following Him and obeying Him. The Jews had all the prophets who came to them, and then John the Baptist, and now the Christ of God - but they wouldn't listen to God's command, they wouldn't obey it. My question to you tonight is: have you obeyed His command to repent and believe the gospel?
Now the first reaction of the first son was rebellion, but then the wonder is that that rebellion turned into repentance. He said: 'I will not go', and then when he thought about it he decided he would go, and he went. That simply pictures, I believe, the person who doesn't measure up to religious claims and codes. I'm speaking of people who perhaps don't have very high moral standards, and because of that they feel: 'Well, religion isn't going to be my lifestyle'. Maybe by religious people, or even by society at large, these individuals are rejected as outcasts. Man-made moral systems of ethics, they are outside of them because they can't reach the standard. Consequently people like this are completely turned off religion of every colour and hue in the spiritual spectrum - simply because they feel that they don't fit in. There are immoral, or what spiritual religions would call 'sinful'. So they say: 'I will not, I will not!'.
I wonder is that you tonight? This is what I want you to notice, just like this first son, this rebellion in his heart turned to repentance when he realised that it is possible to encounter forgiveness. When rebellious people realise that the grace of Christ accepts sinners, and cleanses sinners, changes and transforms sinners; and realise that even though dead religion rejects them, Christ receives them - they are more ready, people like this, to turn from their sins than those who are religious! Some of them can't wait to turn from the sin that is destroying their life, the sin that is going to damn their soul, and turn to Jesus and be saved and changed. I wonder what your impression of the gospel is? Is it like this first son, initially you think: 'Well, this couldn't apply to me', or 'I would never ever be able to fit into that groove. I mustn't have the religious gene. My personality is not predisposed to all of this I see and hear around me'. If that's the message you're getting, you're getting the wrong message! The message is that this gospel is for sinners, this gospel is for the immoral, this gospel is for those who fall short of the glory of God - because this gospel is the gift of repentance that is given to men and to women who will come to Christ. That is what Jesus bought when He shed His blood on the cross, and bore the penalty of our sins: He bought for mankind the ability to change.
You see, we don't have that - no matter what reforming organisations or institutions might say. When you think about it: what does the alcoholic, or the homosexual, or the violent individual, or the gambler, or the addict - whatever his addiction may be - what do they want most of all when they hit rock bottom? It's to change, but they can't! That's what all sinners need, and that's what all sinners would want! That's why some dabble in religion: to change, but it doesn't change any. It might deal with the outward symptoms of sin, but what they need is the repentance that God gives as a gift to those who believe in Christ. What people need is to come to Jesus, realising that they can't change themselves but He can change them - if they're willing to turn from their sin, He will work that change in their lives. Do you know this tonight? Is there a barrier that's holding you back from coming to Jesus, because you feel that you just can't give up that thing, or that person, or that trait in your life? Listen to me tonight: 'If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation', the Bible says, 'old things are passed away; behold, all things become new'.
The devil, Jesus said in John 10:10, is a thief who comes only to steal, to kill, and destroy lives - but Jesus says: 'I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly'. You see, my friend, if you're a rebel - someone who has always said 'I will not' to the gospel message - you're at an advantage, believe it or not, over religious folk. You've got the only qualification that you need to be saved: that is the acknowledgement of your sin. You know you need to change, yet self-righteous religious people hypocritically think that they have nothing to change - but if you're here tonight, and you have the humility to admit you're wrong, oh, I plead with you, come to Jesus! Change your mind about your sin, believe in Him and He is able to change you! This man is proof positive, he said 'I will not', and then he went.
Here's the second son and his reaction - not rebellion and then repentance, but rather appearance but then indifference. He was like the Pharisees and company, the religious establishment of the day. They were scrupulous observers of outward religious form, yet they were ignorant of faith and mercy and the love of God. They gave the appearance of doing what God says - 'I go', the second son says - in other words, they were the type of people that do right things, and might have right feelings, religious affections, aspirations; but the problem is: they would not do the very thing God had specifically asked of them. They went not.
What has God asked of you? Well, on one occasion some people - religious folk in Jesus' day - came to Him, and in John 6 we read that they said to Him: 'What must we do to be doing the works of God?'. Jesus answered: 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He', God, 'has sent'. 'This is the work: believe in me', Jesus says, 'God has sent me - that's what you have to do'. But these people, that's maybe too simple: they want to climb religious ladders, they want to break will boundaries of what they can achieve for God - is that you? It's too simple, all this 'slate being wiped clean'. It's not simple, it cost the blood of Christ. I'll tell you this: it's the only thing that saves, because you can't save yourself as a fallen sinner - the only way you can be saved is if you relinquish all claims to earn or to merit God's salvation, and put your total and utter dependence in Jesus. Anything else is a form of godliness without the power!
Is that what you have, like this second son? You have an appearance, but in your heart there is an indifference towards Christ and His gospel. Politeness is often concealing the darkest form of Christ-rejection in the heart. Some of the loveliest, most civilised individuals in our society are just like this second man. The first man was rude and curt: 'I will not' - this man wasn't, he said 'I will'. This is the type of person who says: 'Oh, I know what you're saying, I tend to agree with you. Oh, I'll come to church, and maybe some day I'll come to Jesus' - but this man's actions spoke louder than his polite words! You see, what men and women - whether religious or irreligious - need to come to terms with is that the heart of everyone's problem is the problem of the heart.
Jesus said: 'Out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander; these are what defile a person: but to eat with unwashen hands does not defile anyone'. In other words, religious rites and rituals will only cleanse the body, but the dirt on the body is not the problem that keeps men out of heaven, it's the dirt on the soul, the sin in the heart! Jesus is saying in this parable: whether you're a prostitute, or whether you're a priest, your heart is full of sin! That's why everybody needs Christ. The issue is not whether you've killed, whether you've raped, whether you've abused, whether you've murdered, whether you've stolen - that's not the issue, my friend. The seed of all of those sins is in every heart, mine included - and unless you see that, you will never be saved!
The problem is: many don't want to be known as sinners, religious people in particular. Therefore they can't receive Jesus Christ. They are religious in appearance, but indifferent to their sin, indifferent to the judgement upon their sin, indifferent to the Saviour who can save them from their sin - but Jesus' emphasis was not so much on what these religious people had done in the past, whether good or bad, but on what they had not done. They had done all these mighty works in religious standards, but they had not believed on the One whom God had sent. That means it doesn't matter what you do tonight, or have done religiously speaking, you can be baptised and catechised, a paying member of the church; you can try and keep the ten commandments, read your Bible every day, pray to the Lord morning noon and night - but if you've not repented, if you've not believed the gospel, if you're not converted, you're like this man. You have an appearance, but you're indifferent and you're disobedient to the command of the gospel.
Now the point of the Lord Jesus' parable comes to us in even greater force when we see that the crowd that He was speaking to, just like this crowd here tonight, gave Him the right answer to His question. Which of these sons did the father's will? They said right away: 'The first' - they give the right answer, but they failed to apply the answer to their lives! Huh, people in Northern Ireland are notorious for this, for having all the right answers, but drawing all the wrong conclusions. What am I talking about? People say: 'Yes, there are sinners in this world, those sinners need to be saved - but I'm not one of them!'. They have the right answer - there are sinners, and sinners need to be saved - but they're not including themselves in the company of those who do need salvation. Others will say: 'Well, yes, war criminals like Hitler and Stalin, and abusers will go to hell; but I've never done anybody any harm, and how could a God of love send me to hell?'. They have the right answer, there are sinners who are on their way to hell; but the wrong conclusion: they are not one of them.
My friend, can you - I'm asking you now - can you come to realise that you are as great a sinner as anyone, for there is no difference: for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, Romans 3 verse 23. Ah, but wait a minute, there is a difference - you say, 'But the Bible has just there is no difference!', aye, there is. Jesus says there is one difference: the immoral, that is those who seem to see their sin greater than the religious, they were quicker to repent, quicker to believe in Jesus. In other words, the message of this parable of Jesus was: it's not where you start that's important, but where you finish; not what you've done in your past that matters, but what you do with Jesus now.
Now let me ask you as I conclude this message: who beats you in coming to Jesus? Who beats you in repenting and believing? The Bible says the publicans and the prostitutes beat the religious people of their day. The prodigal son who took his father's inheritance and spent it on wine, women and song in the far country; he came home to the father's house, and the father received him. Does he beat you? You mightn't have done what he has done. What about the girl caught in the act of adultery, and the religious men bring her before Jesus wanting Him to give the right to stone that girl - and Jesus said to her: 'I don't condemn you, go and sin no more'. Has she beaten you to Christ? You've maybe never committed adultery, but she's with Him. What about the Samaritan woman who was married five times, and the one she was living with, living in sin with, was not her husband - yet she came to Christ. You may be in a stable relationship, but she has beaten you to Jesus. The demon-possessed man of Gadara is falling at the feet of Jesus, and you're still thinking about it! He had a legion of demons in him, and he's at Jesus' feet before you.
What about the woman of ill repute washing Christ's feet with her tears, and drying them with her hair. Maybe you're a wee bit religious like those around, who were watching and saying: 'Does He not know what kind of woman she is?'. He did know, she knew what kind of woman she was, but they didn't realise that it didn't matter - because what was important was not what she had done in the past, but what she was doing now with Christ. She was doing the will of God, falling repentant at the feet of Jesus. You see, that's why Christ died, that's why Jesus went to the cross: that sinners might repent and be changed. Listen to Romans 5: 'For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die - but God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us'. 'So then', Romans 9 says, 'it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy'. Oh, can you see this?
'I know a place where sins are washed away,
I know a place where night is turned to day;
Burdens are lifted, Blind eyes made to see;
There's wonder-working power in the blood of Calvary'.
That's why William Cowper could write 'There is a fountain filled with blood':
'The dying thief rejoiced to see
Such fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away'.
You know Cowper wrote another hymn, it's not as well known as 'There is a fountain', here's how one of its verses goes, and it's based on this parable – listen:
'See'st thou yon harlot wooing all she meets,
The worn-out nuisance of the public streets
Herself from morn till night, from night to morn,
Her own abhorrence, and as much your scorn:
The gracious shower, unlimited and free,
Shall fall on her, when heaven denies it thee'.
Do people of ill-repute, publicans, harlots, do they beat you to Jesus because you're not willing to admit your sin? What do you think? Let me finish with the question Christ started with: so what do you think? Will it be rebellion, but in the end repentance for you? Or will it be an appearance that you're concerned, and you're interested - and you're even maybe trusting Christ - but there is indifference in your heart. God is calling you tonight, He has called you through His natural realm, He has called you through mother, through father, through Sunday School teacher, through R.E. instructor, through a minister, a godly friend or pastor, a relative, through a tract, through a book, through a Bible - and you're responsible, my friend. What do you think?
Will the men of Nineveh rise in judgement with that generation, and condemn you because they repented at the preaching of Jonah - and yet a greater than Jonah has come, Jesus Christ, and you're still indifferent. It's very simple: first come, first saved. Turn from your sin, embrace Christ as He's freely offered in the gospel by faith, and you will be saved. He's calling you: 'Go today and work in my vineyard' - what will you do? Oh, you may have been indifferent up until now, and rebellious - what matters is what you do now, forget about all that. Forget about the sins that you feel are unforgivable, the blood of Jesus will cleanse those if you repent of them and put your trust in Him alone - but you must repent, you must believe, or you'll be lost. Don't make the mistake of walking in and out, and having an appearance of being disposed towards these things, and even in agreement, even in an intellectual belief, without actual real salvation wrought in your heart by the Holy Spirit. Please don't walk away again tonight, for God may not call again. Don't say 'I will, some day', but never get round to it.
Father, help tonight, we need divine grace and the Spirit of God to bring an urgency to hearts that perhaps still at this very moment are indifferent. If there is but even an ember of a flame of concern about eternal matters, we pray, Lord, that You will fan that to a raging furnace, so that they might tonight be all-consumed by the love of God in Christ Jesus for them - that their sins would be purged, and Christ would come and live in their hearts. Lord, we thank You for our great salvation - indeed, those of us who were like that first son who said 'I will not, I will not, I will not', but You bestowed mercy and grace upon us so that eventually we came - thank You Lord. But Lord, don't shut any out here tonight, whoever they are. Give grace, grace to repent, grace to believe. For Jesus Christ, our Lord, we pray, Amen.
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This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording, titled "First Come, First Saved" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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