The Tempest in the Temple: The Abuses of Authority (Luke 20:1-18)
Luke 20:1-18 One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 2 “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?” 3 He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, 4 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men?” 5 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” 7 So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.” 8 Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
9 He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12 He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. 13 “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!” 17 Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’? 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
Matthew 21:23-27 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Matthew 21:33-46 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Mark 11:27-33 They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28 “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” 29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!” 31 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘From men’… ” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
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. 2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed. 6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you read this scripture: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” 12 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.
In his excellent book, Shantung Compound, Langdon Gilkey describes the life of a diverse group of Westerners in China who were detained in a camp by the Japanese during World War II. In one chapter he described the development of a black market within the camp. Commodities like eggs, which were unavailable inside, became regular items on the menu, thanks to the black market. Gilkey then described how the Japanese ruthlessly shot the black marketeers, not to put the black market to an end, but rather so that they might take over the illegal business and make large profits by so doing.
The fact of the matter is that those who are in authority have great opportunity to abuse that authority in such a way as to take advantage of people and to make great profits for themselves. This is what has recently taken place in the banking industry, and one factor in the collapse of many savings and loan corporations and banks. Those who have attained positions of power have abused that power, making loans to one another in the industry in such a way as to profit themselves, but at the expense of the stockholders or depositors.
Authority is always subject to abuse. Such was the case in biblical times as well. John the Baptist instructed repentant tax-collectors not to collect more than they had been ordered to collect, and the soldiers not to extort, both of which were an abuse of authority (Luke 3:12-14). The Jewish religious leaders had also abused their authority. This was nothing new to Jesus’ day, either, for the Old Testament prophets had rebuked Israel’s leaders for their abuse of their authority:
Ezekiel 34:1-17 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. 7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. 17 “‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.
In this text from Ezekiel, the leaders of the nation Israel are rebuked for their abuse of authority, and they are told that God Himself would intervene, and that He would provide His own Shepherd to replace them, so that His flock, Israel, would be cared for. The Lord’s coming to the earth was the appearance of that Good Shepherd. The Lord marched upon Jerusalem, to a large degree, to rebuke the leadership of Israel for the abuse of their authority.
The issue which underlies this entire section of Scripture is that of authority. Jesus has clearly declared Himself to be Israel’s Messiah by His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has claimed in so doing, not only His identity as Messiah, but also His deity. As such, He demonstrated His right as Messiah to possess His kingdom, including the two donkeys. The words, “the Lord has need of them,” spoken by His two disciples, was all that was needed to convince the owners of the donkeys that they could take their animals. The entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem, His acceptance of praise as Messiah, and His refusal to silence the multitudes, all pointed to His right, as God’s Son, to possess men’s praise. And, His entrance into the temple, His cleansing of it, and His taking possession of it to teach daily there, was proof of His authority to possess and make use of His temple.
This is where the crunch comes, for if Jesus would claim such authority, it was in direct competition with the “authorities” of Jerusalem, who saw themselves as the ones with authority. This leads to a major confrontation, which I have called, the “tempest in the temple,” and which will conclude in the crucifixion of our Lord on the cross of Calvary. The focus of this lesson will be on the initial challenge to Jesus by the Jerusalem Jewish authorities, and His response to them. We will seek to learn what abuses they had made of their authority, which prompted them to reject God Himself, and even to purpose to put Him to death. I believe that we will find that the same abuses of authority which were evident in that day, 2000 years ago, can be found today. The application of these verses will then become self-evident.
The Structure of the Text
The major section, of which our text is a part, is that of Luke 19:45–21:38. We might call this section, “Jesus’ Teaching in the Temple.” The chapters preceding this section all lead up to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. The chapters which follow focus on the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord.
Our text, technically speaking, begins in chapter 19, verse 45, with Jesus entrance into the temple, and His cleansing of it. Jesus then virtually took possession of the temple, daily going there to teach, and then retreating a short distance to the mount of Olivet to spend the night:
“Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet. And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to Him in the temple to listen to Him” (Luke 21:37-38).
It was while teaching at the temple that Jesus was confronted by the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, and challenged as to His authority (20:1-2). Jesus’ response was first to ask them a question about authority, and then to refuse to give a direct answer (20:3-8). He then followed up with a parable, which forcefully answered their question, but in an indirect way that did not provide them with sufficient grounds to arrest Him (20:9-16a). When they heard His words, they responded with shock and horror (20:16b), and Jesus then followed up by referring to an Old Testament text from Psalm 118:22, which took His teaching even beyond the words of the parable He had just spoken (20:17-18).
Outline of the Text
Our passage can thus be outlined in this way:
(1) Jesus’ possession of His temple—(19:45-48)
(2) The Challenge of Jerusalem’s Leadership—(20:1-2)
(3) Jesus’ Counter-Question—(20:3-8)
(4) Jesus’ Answer by Parable—(20:9-16)
(5) Jesus’ Further Clarification—(20:17-18)
Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. He has, by His actions, announced His identity as Israel’s Messiah. He possessed the donkeys (19:29-34), the praises of the people (19:35-44), and finally His temple (19:45-48). Up to this point, the principle source of opposition to Jesus has been from the party of the Pharisees, who seem to have been dogging the heels of the Savior from very early on in His ministry (cf. Luke 5:21ff.). These Pharisees were not a part of the official leadership of Israel, nor were they particularly headquartered in Jerusalem, so far as I can tell. At least they do not seem to possess the principal positions of power, such as the priesthood. They seem to be more of a “lay ministry” than a part of the official structure.
It is at the Lord’s possession of His temple in Luke 19:45 that we see the torch of opposition to Jesus being passed (informally, perhaps unconsciously) from the Pharisee party to the Jewish religious and political leaders, the “priests, and the scribes and the elders” (Luke 20:1). There is a reason for this. For one thing, the Jerusalem leaders may not have been overly concerned with Jesus’ ministry and influence in the outlying parts of Israel, but only became threatened when Jesus invaded their territory, including the temple. They wanted to stop Him, but the Lord’s popularity with the masses was too great to ignore or to challenge (19:48). Thus, they waited for their chance. Their first attack came in the form of an official challenge to the authority by which Jesus did the things He had done (20:2). It is at this point that we pick up on the “tempest in the temple.”
Jesus’ Possession of His Temple
Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’” Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.
We have already studied these verses in our previous lesson, and we have briefly reviewed them above. Nevertheless, they are vital because they do set the stage for all that follows in the next two chapters. The coming of Messiah to His temple is not an unexpected event, for the prophet Malachi spoke of it when he wrote,
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:1).
Thus, the Lord did come to His temple, to possess it. He began by purging it of those who had perverted its purpose. Mark’s account of this supplies us with greater detail on this (cf. Mark 11:15-16). Here, as elsewhere, Jesus was acting not only according to His Father’s will, but also in accordance with Old Testament prophecies. Those whom Jesus cast out of the temple were those who were selling merchandise.
It is interesting to note the wider context of the passages in both Isaiah 56 (v. 7) and Jeremiah 7(v. 7).
“6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: “‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord (Jeremiah 7:1-11).
I find it most interesting that in the context of Isaiah’s words, the temple is described as a “house of prayer for all nations,” not just for Israel. Mark includes the words, “for all nations,” but neither Matthew nor Luke do. This is especially noteworthy since Luke is addressed to a Gentile audience. It would seem, then, that there are two abuses possibly in view here. (1) The selling which was occurring in the Temple may have been in the Court of the Gentiles, thus depriving them of a place for the worship of God. (2) The nature of the selling was such that aliens would be most victimized. In the first case, the Court of the Gentiles may have been “converted” into a place of business, so that there was no place of worship for the Gentiles, who were excluded from any closer proximity to the holy place. In the second case, it would be those who came from afar who would lack the sacrificial animals, and who would also lack the currency required for worship there at the temple. Thus, foreigners would be hindered from worshipping God in the temple, and even in the Old Testament the temple was seen as a place of worship for Gentiles and Jews.
In the text from Jeremiah 7, there is also a reference to the oppression of aliens (v. 6), as well as stealing (v. 9), but there is the added reference to “trusting in deceptive words” (v. 8). I view our Lord’s cleansing of the temple as the corrective for the former offenses, and our Lord’s teaching in the temple as the corrective for the latter. Jesus replaced and corrected the “false teaching” which had characterized the temple (coming from the Jewish religious leaders) with His own teaching. Luke alone tells us that it included the preaching of the gospel (20:1), as well as a more general “teaching.”
Luke tells us the response of the Jerusalem Jewish leaders to Jesus’ possession of the temple and His daily teaching there. They were incensed, and wanted to kill Him (19:47). I think it is significant that Luke begins, as it were, with these things, as the introduction to this great “tempest in the temple.” Jesus hit these men were it hurt—in their ego’s and in their pocket books. We know that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were accused of loving position and public prominence (Matthew 23:5-7). Jesus’ acceptance of the praise of the multitudes, and His refusal to stop it would have been interpreted by these leaders as robbing them of the esteem and praise they deserved. If tradition is correct, it was the religious leaders who controlled the concession stands in the temple (who else could have permitted them) and who gave these franchises out, making a great profit by doing so. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple deprived these leaders of something that meant a great deal to them—money. Jesus had rendered a powerful blow to the ego’s and the wallets of the Jerusalem power brokers. They would not let this pass unchallenged.
Who’s in Charge Here?
1 One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 2 “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
It was bad enough that Jesus had entered Jerusalem as He had. It was a great blow to the owners of the concession stands when Jesus drove the merchants from the temple. But when He set up shop in the temple, teaching there daily, this was too much. This was their territory, their turf, the Jerusalem leaders believed, and thus they confronted Jesus in the temple in the context of His teaching there. Their challenge came as a question concerning His authority. The question was two-pronged, not simply one question put differently the second time. There were two questions in view:
(1) Just who do you think you are to do these things, anyway?
(2) Who gave you the authority to do these things?
The first question has to do with Jesus’ personal authority. Jesus was acting as though He owned the place, and so He did. The simple answer would have been, “I am the Messiah.” But while the people were entertaining this at least as a possibility, the leaders rejected the thought out of hand. No way! The second question had to do with Jesus official accreditation—Who sent Him? These leaders seemed to think that they were the accrediting agency. Jesus had not received their permission to come to town as He had, or to accept men’s praise, or to take over the temple. If the nation’s highest spiritual leadership had not authorized Jesus, who had? That was the issue. It was the issue of authority, both Jesus' innate authority, and His delegated authority.
The questions are not bad ones, in and of themselves. The motivation is wrong, but the inquiry can be most beneficial. If Jesus is the divine Son of God, the One sent from God, then He has the right to say and to do as He pleases. He has the right to possess all things, as well as to proclaim His word as truth. Those of us who acknowledge Him as the divine Son of God should also acknowledge and submit to His rights and His authority as such. The Jerusalem leaders were, if nothing else, more consistent with their beliefs than we. They rejected Him as the divine Son of God and rejected His teaching. We profess to accept Him as the divine Son of God and ignore His teaching, so often.
Truth or Consequences
3 He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, 4 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men?” 5 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” 7 So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.” 8 Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
The issue was broader than Jesus, for John the Baptist had introduced Jesus to Israel as the Messiah. If the Jerusalem leaders were going to pronounce on Jesus’ authority, they would also have to deal with John’s, for if John was a divinely appointed prophet, a spokesman for God, then Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus forced His opponents to deal with the testimony of John before He would bear witness to Himself. Furthermore, if they refused to accept John’s witness, then they surely would not receive Jesus, either. Let them declare themselves, then, on the authority of John. What authority did he have? Who sent him? If they would answer this question, then Jesus would answer theirs.
Note that Jesus reduced the options to only two, indeed the only two possible options. Authority is either human or divine. Thus, Jesus pressed His opponents to declare whether John’s authority was from God, or whether John was simply acting on his own (human) initiative. Was John sent by God, or did he simply go on his own?
The deliberation of these leaders is amusing, enlightening, and tragic, all at the same time. Never do they explore this issue with a view to learning the truth. The are not interested in truth, but in consequences. They have their minds made up already, but they lack the courage to speak up and to have the crowds hear them. They differ with the majority. The majority held John to be a prophet. They rejected him as such. Thus, they must consider the consequences of any answer they might give. They sound far more like politicians here than they do spiritual leaders. What will the people do if we say this or that? This is their prime concern. They do not wish to lose their position or power. And so the whole discussion is merely pragmatic.
They dared not say what they really believed, and so they had to say nothing. Their answer was probably one of the most painful they had ever given, for they were forced to say, “We don’t know.” For those whose authority was based on their “knowing all,” this was a kiss of death. How they must have choked on these words, “I don’t know,” especially when they were convinced that they did know. Since they refused to answer, Jesus did as well. How could they demand an answer when they would not answer either?
The Parable of the
Vineyard and the Vine Growers
9 He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12 He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. 13 “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’61 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!”
The parable is, it would seem, but one of many which Jesus began to tell at this point (cf. Mark 12:1, where he tells us that Jesus began speaking in parables—note the plural here). It is a simple story, but it has a powerful punch. If Jesus would not answer the question as to His authority directly, His answer here is pointed and painfully clear, yet indirect.
The vineyard was a common symbol for the nation Israel.62 God had, at the exodus, planted Israel, as it were. The Law of Moses defined that which God expected from His people. The vine-keepers of the parable are quite evidently the leaders of the nation. When Israel failed to produce that which God required,63 God sent His prophets, who are the “servants” of the parable. The nation, through its leaders, consistently rejected the prophets, rejecting them and their message. Even though God had sent these servants, they were rejected and persecuted. John the Baptist, concerning whom Jesus had just questioned His opponents, was the last of these prophets, and they had rejected him, like all the rest.
The prophets were not regarded as having any authority over the vine-keepers. Eventually, the owner of the vineyard decided to send His own son. Surely they would recognize and submit to his authority. But instead, these rebels purposed to kill the son, thinking that this might somehow give them the possession of the vineyard and the right to continue to rule it. The owner of the vineyard would surely be justified in coming to His vineyard, destroying its leaders, and placing others in charge of it.
What a powerful message we find here. Men like John, were prophets, and thus had the authority to speak for God. John, as a divinely appointed spokesman for God, proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. But just as Israel’s leaders had rejected other prophets, so they had done with John as well. Jesus, in this parable, is telling His audience that He is not a prophet; He is the Son. That is the basis of His authority. He owns the vineyard. He has been sent by His Father to possess what is His. But they will reject Him and put Him to death. And they do so with the full knowledge that He is the Son. They kill Him because He is the Son. This, we recall, is what Jesus’ opponents have already purposed to do (Luke 19:47). It is not so much that they do not know who Jesus is, as that they will not accept His authority. It is not the identity of Jesus that is in question, but His authority.
The Father of this Son, the owner of the vineyard, will be fully justified in destroying these leaders. And this He will do. He will also be justified in giving their positions of leadership to others. In this context, those who replace the leaders are Gentiles. Imagine this! Jesus is saying that He is the Son of God, that He comes in God’s authority, that they will kill Him, and that God will not only destroy them, but He will give their leadership to the Gentiles. The response of the Lord’s hearers is predictable—”God forbid!” This is the only place in the gospels that this expression, common to Paul, appears. It is a thought almost too horrible to consider. Jesus has lowered the boom on His opponents.
Jesus’ Further Clarification
17 Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’? 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
The parable of the vineyard did not say quite enough. It did forcefully answer the question of the Jewish leaders, as to Jesus’ personal authority, and as to who sent Him. The parable of the vineyard also was applied by our Lord to teach that the leadership role of Jesus’ opponents would be taken away and given to others (Gentiles, no less!), while the Jewish leaders would be destroyed. But this parable fails to portray the “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say it. It fails to portray that the destruction of the wicked leaders of Israel is actually to be accomplished by the Son of God, the Messiah whom they rejected.
The Son who is rejected and put to death is the Son of God who will rise from the dead, and who will someday return to the earth to establish His kingdom. The Son is on the one hand, a “stone of stumbling,” a cause of stumbling to the Jews. This was our Lord’s role at that moment in time. In a “passive” way (the stone didn’t move, men stumbled over it) Jesus was a stumbling block to men who refused to acknowledge their sin and their need of a Savior. But this passive “stone of stumbling,” whom the builders (the leaders of the nation) rejected, will also be an active agent in their destruction. Now, He is viewed as a moving stone, a falling stone that crushes and grinds His enemies.
I believe that this question, raised by Israel’s leaders and answered by our Lord, reveals one of the key factors in man’s relationship with God—that of authority. Sinful man wants autonomy, he wants to retain his own authority, and reject all other authority, especially that of God. Dr. Dobson’s question, which I have often heard him ask, “Who’s in charge here?,” is most appropriate.
Satan was given both beauty and power, but he was not content. He did not want to be under God’s authority, but to establish his own authority, to “be like the most high” (Isaiah 14:14). After Satan’s fall, he deceived Eve and prompted Adam to act independently of God’s authority, promising them that they would be like God, too (Genesis 3:5).
When God liberated the Israelites, He freed them from the authority of Egypt, but they were not really free, they became His slaves (cf. Leviticus 25:55). The Law of Moses became the constitution of the land. The land itself belonged to God (Leviticus 25:23), and the people of Israel lived on it only as long as they obeyed God as their king. But throughout the Old Testament times, the people of Israel rebelled against God’s authority, for which they were chastened (cf. Psalm 78). It is no great surprise that since the Israelites did not submit to God throughout their history, they would also refuse to submit to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The amazing thing is that Jesus did not come to the earth the first time to bring about His kingdom by the exercise of His authority, by sheer force, but by allowing men to reject Him, and even to nail Him to a cross, on which He bore the sins of men, even those who crucified Him. The message does not stop here, however, for the preaching of the gospel in the book of Acts informs the Israelites that the One they rejected, God raised from the dead, and He will return to bring justice to the earth and to subdue His enemies (cf. Acts 2). When He comes again, He will come “unveiled,” with His full splendor evident, and displaying His mighty power in the subjection of His enemies. How important it is to receive Christ as the rejected one, the redeemer, than to have to submit to Him as the mighty conqueror. I pray that you have done so, or that you will do so today, by simply acknowledging your sin, and Christ as your Savior, the One who bore your sins. The book of Revelation, the last book of our Bible, speaks much of Christ’s return, and much of His power and authority, which will become evident to all when He returns to reign on His earth.
Sin is largely a matter of authority. We sin, not because we lack the knowledge of what God requires, but because we refuse His authority. We would rather run our own lives, and live as we please. We would rather be like God than to obey Him. Sin rejects God’s authority and seeks to live autonomously, turning one’s back on God’s commands. While we may be more polite than the Jewish leaders were in challenging Jesus’ authority, our problem is one and the same.
The irony is that when we reject God’s authority, we do not become the masters of our souls and the captains of our fate. When we spurn God’s authority, we place ourselves under the dreadful authority of sin, and ultimately of Satan Himself. Imagine it. When the people of Jesus’ day rejected Him they said, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). They gladly traded a traitor (Barabbas) for the sinless Son of God, and the righteous rule of God for that of a hated, cruel, and heathen king, Caesar! When we reject God’s authority, God’s rule, we consign ourselves to the dominion of sin and of Satan. The “freedom” which Satan offers men is the freedom from righteousness and life, and the dreaded bonds of sin and of death.
I find it interesting to note that having authority is often a greater temptation for Christians than having possessions and wealth. The disciples could (almost proudly) claim to have left everything to follow Jesus, but their thirst for power and authority had not diminished at all. Indeed, with the approach of Jerusalem, the disciples became more and more eager for it. They argued with each other concerning who would be the greatest. James and John sought to use their mother to gain it for them.
Many Christians today seem to have no appetite for money (though the number of such seems to be demising), but may well have a great appetite for power. And why not? Who needs money if they have power? Money is simply a means to having power. If one can gain power some other way, money is not needed. Much of the strife which we see in the church and between Christians originates in a thirst for power. How, then, does the New Testament instruct us to deal with this great evil? How can the thirst for power be overcome? Let me make a few suggestions, based upon other revelation in the Scriptures.
(1) We must begin with a recognition that all authority belongs to God. While the manuscripts differ as to the originality of these words, they nevertheless express a very important biblical truth: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:13).
The centurion of Luke 7 understood very well that he was not so much of man of authority as he was a man under authority. When Pilate sought to impress Jesus with his authority, the Lord reminded him that his authority was delegated to him, and thus authority for which he would have to give account (John 19:10-11). Men of spiritual power recognize that this power is God’s and not their own. All power is ultimately God’s power, and thus all glory goes to God, not to men. A proper view of power begins with a grasp of who rightfully possesses it.
(2) Authority which we have been granted is thus a stewardship, and one for which we must someday give an account (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Hebrews 13:17).
(3) Authority is simply a means of serving, and thus must be exercised in accordance with the principle of servanthood. I find it most interesting that Peter, who had been so intent on gaining authority, was given these words to convey to elders, who possessed authority in the church:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow-elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Power tends to corrupt, as men have discovered in history. Thus, Paul warned the elders of Ephesus that some would “arise,” drawing men after themselves, abusing the trust of authority given them (Acts 20:28-31). Part of the problem is that while some people love to dominate others, there are people who love to be domineered (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:20). Those in positions of leadership, who have God-given authority, must exercise it with great humility and with gentleness. It is the Christlike attitude of servanthood which we must strive, by His grace, to imitate, rather than the power-loving authoritarianism of the world (cf. Mark 10:35-45).
How sad, but true, that even in the church, a kind of bureaucratic type of thinking arises, similar to that of the Jewish leaders in our text. We, like they, can forget that the church belongs to Christ, it is His church, not ours, and that He is the one who is to benefit from it. But how often church leaders begin to look on the church as their own, and to protect their power and positions, rather than to use them as avenues of service. And how often we all go to church, expecting (even demanding) to gain from it, but forgetting that it is God who has the right to expect and to get gain. The church, like Israel, belongs to God, and its ultimate reason for existence is not our gain, but God’s. When we lose sight of this crucial truth, we can actually come to the point of trying to get rid of God so that we protect our own interests. Let us all beware of this attitude, which lurks beneath the surface of each of our souls.64
61 “… it is precisely Jesus’ intention to call attention to the folly of the Jewish leaders’ attitude towards Him by using as an example the foolish reasonings of the husbandmen. ‘They imagine that they have but to settle accounts with Jesus, and that then their spiritual tyranny over the people will be permanently established’ (Van Leeuwen, at Mark xii. 7). They pay attention only to the One that has been sent and not to the One who has sent Him.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), p. 500.
62 “Cf. Deuteronomy xxxii. 32, 33; Psalm lxxx. i ff.; Isaiah v. 1-7; Jeremiah ii. 21; Ezekiel zv. 1-6, xix. 10-14; Hosea x. i; Joel i. 7; and other texts where God’s own people are represented as the vineyard of God.” Geldenhuys, p. 499, fn. 2.
63 “Tenants were known to claim possession of land they had worked for absentee landlords (Talmud, Baba Bathra, 3:1).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 285.
64 “There is also the temptation characteristic of every bureaucracy, including the religious ones, to forget to whom the vineyard belongs.” The allegory implies that the bureaucracy recognized him but rejected him because they were unwilling to relinquish control over the vineyard to its rightful owner.” Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), p. 189.