A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 5, 2020.
And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matt. 21:23–32).
Jesus arrived in Jerusalem with the fanfare of a king. Rather than walk, he rode upon a donkey with cloaks laid before him, palm branches waived, and voices shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:9). A subtle entry it was not, triumphal it was.
As if riding the momentum of his arrival, Jesus proceeded to the temple, cleansing the outer court of animal vendors and money traders. He needed no one’s permission to clean house, and zeal for his Father’s house of prayer consumed him (John 2:17). Having cleansed the court, he then healed the lame and blind, and then readily accepted the praise of children who echoed the cries of the crowds, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:15).
The praiseworthy presence of Jesus in Jerusalem seemingly led everyone to celebration, everyone except the leaders of Israel. They were indignant, repulsed by Jesus’ willingness to accept the people’s praises, reserved only for Israel’s coming Messiah. They refused to accept the evidence of Jesus’ identity before their eyes, and denying his identity they now question his authority: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They are valid questions, aren’t they? What gave Jesus the right to pull out a whip and clear out the outer temple court? What gave Jesus the privilege to receive the Messianic praise of the people? And now, he is teaching in the temple without the sanctioned authority of a scribe, chief priest, or even an elder.
But, let us consider their two questions more closely. First, “By what authority are you doing these things? As if to say, what makes you think you have the right to do what you are doing? Second, they ask, “Who gave you this authority?” They knew that they had not, so who then? The answer to the two questions is actually a heavenly one: He who came from heaven had authority from heaven.
Authority from Heaven
As typical with those who do not have eyes to see or ears to hear, Jesus does not answer their questions directly. Instead, he answers with a set of his own questions (by way of a proposal): Jesus asks them, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” Of course, it is a brilliant rebuttal, but what does he mean? What was John’s baptism? Why was it significant? And, why ask them this question?
The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth was called by God even before he was conceived and was named, John, by the angel Gabriel’s instruction. In fact, Gabriel explained to Zechariah that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16-17).At God’s appointed time, John was revealed to Israel, coming as the greatest and the last of the Old Testament prophets, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3), a message that titled him John the Baptist.
John’s ministry was a graphic one, as baptism served as an outward sign of an inward reality. Likely borrowing the practice from the priestly ritual of sprinkling water as a symbol of cleansing, John employed it as a call to repentance of sin, looking in faith to God’s provision for the forgiveness of sin. While John was highly regarded by the people as a prophet, he was disregarded by the leaders of Israel, whom John referred to as a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7), certainly not a term of endearment.
Therefore, we might imagine that they bristled when Jesus began his question with the “baptism of John.” In fact, the Holy Spirit reveals their dialogue as they deliberate over Jesus’ question, revealing not only a disregard for John the Baptist but a fear of the people. They choose not to answer Jesus’ question directly, responding in short, “We do not know.” But with their short answer they actually reveal so much. For if they did not regard the authority of John from heaven, then they certainly would not regard Jesus’ authority. If they did not regard “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23), they would not regard his Lord. If they could not acknowledge John’s authority from heaven, they would deny the King of heaven. And, in denying the king of heaven, they reveal that they have not hearts for heaven.
Hearts for Heaven
To reveal their hard hearts, Jesus uses a simple parable about two sons. The first son, when asked to work in the vineyard, refuses but later changes his mind and goes to work. The second son likewise is asked to work in the vineyard and readily agrees but never goes to work. The faithful son, as the leaders of Israel agree, is the first son. With faithfulness, actions speak louder than words.
Overt and obvious, Jesus connects the leaders not with the first but with the second, the unfaithful son, explaining, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” They had heard John’s preaching, witnessed his message of baptism, received his condemning words, and yet they did not believe him. Even as they witnessed the repentance of the pinnacle of societal sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, they were neither convicted nor converted. The cultural zeal blinded them to see and rejoice in God’s grace to sinners. They saw with their own eyes and heard with their ears the message of God’s prophet, but they refused to believe in their hearts, having not hearts for heaven but hearts of stone.
As the leaders of God’s people, they could not see God at work. Can you? God is at work all around you. Do you see it? No, it is not announced on Fox News or CNN nor above the fold of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. It hasn’t gone viral on social media. Don’t look for it to be celebrated in the entertainment obsessed culture of our day.
God is at work in those with hearts for heaven, through the pages of a well-worn Bible, a long prayer list and calloused knees, the sprinkled water of baptism upon a covenant child’s head, and the nursery prayers of the faithful. He is at work through the breaking of bread and the fellowship of the saints. God is at work in the ordinary for those with hearts for heaven.
But, do not expect those without hearts for heaven to be heavenly-minded. To them, this world is all that exists and therefore its concerns are all that matter. Of course, they know how to employ scripture for their own devices, even perhaps being labeled a Christian. But their hearts betray them, as they are far more concerned with how you vote or how you revolt than how God is glorified. In fact, God’s glory never crosses their mind.
This was the case with the leaders of Israel. The most important thing in their lives was their government and preserving their society. And it blinded them to seeing life only through that lens. They sat in the seat of Moses but were no friend of God. They knew the intricacies of God’s Law but chose to manipulate it rather than love it. Like the second son, they gave lip service to God with no intention of obeying his will. And, the very Son of God could stand before them and they knew him not.
Hearing this you may be tempted to congratulate yourself, believing that you are not like the second, unfaithful son. Having seen the folly of the scribes, chief priests, and elders, you may consider yourself to be above their fall. Then, let Jesus’ words pierce through your self-righteousness: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Those wealthy men who manipulate the system and extort the innocent for personal financial gain, will enter God’s kingdom before the most religious men of Jesus’ day. Those lusty women selling their bodies for fornication, will enter the kingdom of heaven before Israel’s elite. How can this be? A heart for heaven isn’t earned; it is a gift from God flowing to tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners like you and me from God’s grace from heaven.
Grace from Heaven
It is easy for us to look at the villains of Scripture and insert ourselves in a comparison and contrast, believing we would have been the faithful son. How easily we forget that we are the tax collector. We are the prostitute. We had not repented and believed but “were dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked” (Eph. 2:1). We would not have followed John the Baptist nor believed his message but were “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Like spiritual tax collectors and prostitutes, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3).
But, by God’s grace through faith, when he looks upon us he sees not a tax collector nor a prostitute but his child for the sake of his one and only faithful Son. Christ is the faithful Son who not only said “yes” but also perfectly did his Father’s will. And in his perfect obedience he died for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), giving us new life and hearts for heaven.
What heaven reveals is that it is all by God’s grace. John the Baptist came “in the way of righteousness,” but the self-righteous could not see it. Only those who have received grace from heaven can see the way. Jesus came from heaven in the authority of his Father, but the self-righteous would not submit. Only those who have been conquered by grace can submit to Christ.
The grace of God saves sinners like you and me, transforming us from enemies to children through faith. God’s grace enables us to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ, not reluctantly or unwillingly but joyfully for heaven’s sake. And, it is by God’s grace that he gives us a foretaste of heaven through his means of grace and a longing for heaven in our hearts, “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6).
Let us learn to pray as one Puritan prayed,
Humble me to the dust before thee.
Root and tear out the poisonous weed
and show me my utter nothingness;
Keep me sensible of my sinnership;
Sink me deeper into penitence and self-abhorrence;
Break the Dagon of pride in pieces
before the ark of thy presence;
Demolish the Babel of self-opinion,
and scatter it to the wind;
Level to the ground my Jericho walls
of a rebel heart;
Then grace, grace, will be my experience and cry.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Arthur Bennett, ed., The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 343.