The message in Jesus’ parable of the tenants was very clear to the Jewish leaders: they were the ones who had rejected Jesus, and because of their unbelief, they would be destroyed. In telling this parable, Jesus introduced the new Israel, which is made up of all those who possess faith–both Jews and Gentiles. Alistair Begg uses this parable to remind us that we, too, have rejected God, and that eternal life can only be found by believing in the promised Messiah.
I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Mark and to chapter 12. And the reading, if you would like to use our church Bibles, is on page 848.
“And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:
‘“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes”?’
“And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.”
Father, as we turn now to the Bible, we pray for your help in speaking and in listening and in understanding. Grant us grace, we pray, so that beyond the voice of a mere man we might hear from you, the living God, and respond to you. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, one phrase at the end of the reading that we had—that is, in verse 12—provides, I think, for us the key both to understanding and applying this parable. If it were not for this final phrase, we wouldn’t be able to deal as directly and as successfully with it. And the phrase to which I’m referring you will find there: “For they perceived that he had told the parable against them.” “Against them.” Who is the “them”? Well, the “them” of verse 1: “And he began to speak to them.” Who is the “them” of verse 1? It is the “them” of 11:: “And [he] said to them…” And who is the “them” of verse ? It is the “they” of verse 27: “And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him…” It is the “they” of the ruling council of the Jews—the “they” who have murder in mind, as we noted in 11:18: “And the chief priests and the scribes heard and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.”
Jesus, you see, had come into Jerusalem with great aplomb. Remember, we saw how, in his procession towards Jerusalem, there was a tremendous acclamation on the part of many of the people. This had disturbed the ruling authorities. They didn’t like this. They were disappointed that they themselves were not the beneficiaries of such acclamation. And Jesus had followed his arrival by going into the temple and cleansing it and casting the people out. He had subsequently cursed a fig tree, and as a result of this, the rulers of the Jews decided that it was more than time for them to go to him and to challenge him in relationship to his authority. It wasn’t simply a sort of intellectual quest on their part. They had already decided that they wanted nothing to do with him. It’s not as if they were coming just to determine whether Jesus had legitimate authority; they had concluded that there was no basis for his authority. They were the ones who had the right credentials, they were the ones with the proper background, and this individual, this Galilean carpenter, really had nothing of worth to say for himself. But as we saw at the end of chapter 11, their challenge to the authority of Jesus was pretty hopeless, and it had collapsed like a bad deck chair. And they were left, as we saw at the end of chapter 11, just sort of shamefacedly looking at one another and realizing what a dreadful mess they had made of things.
Then Mark tells us that Jesus immediately went on the offensive. They had come to challenge him, and as he has them in that posture, he then proceeds to tell them a story, to tell them a parable. And when verse 1 says, “And he began to speak to them in parables,” what Mark is saying is that this was the manner of his approach. He decided on this occasion to tell them a story that was allegorical, that they would be able to get an understanding of, and his purpose in doing so was not to cloud the issue but was to clarify the issue. He is telling this story because he recognizes the importance of people coming to understand it. So what I’d like to do in the time that we have is to look first of all at the parable, consider then the punch line, and then make a note of what I’m going to refer to as the postscript.
This may seem strange to us on first reading, because it seems so far removed from the environment in which we live our lives—a technical world that is framed by everything, really, that is other than a kind of agrarian culture. But for the people of the time, they were very familiar with this kind of scenario. Historians tell us that large tracts of land, both in Judea and in Galilee, were owned by foreigners, so that there were these foreign landowners, absentee landowners, who would lease out their property—in this instance, in this parable, they would lease out their vineyard—to tenants who then agreed to work it in the absence of the owner. The owner then had a legitimate right to payment, and often the payment was given to the owner in the form of the produce of the property—not in its totality, for the tenants had to make something as well, but certainly a significant amount of it. Apparently—whether this is true today or not, I don’t know—but apparently, it would take some four years for a vineyard to be earthed properly and to be able to produce significant fruit. And so, that would be enough time for these tenant farmers to get an understanding of the potential profitability of the land, and also perhaps to get a bit of a sense of their own importance and of their desire for and their designs for the property, which clearly they had only an interest in as tenants.
In verse 2, when you read the phrase “when the season came, he sent a servant,” that is attributable to what I’m saying: that the time came when the product would be available, and so, in that season of time, he—the owner—sends a servant to have for him what is required by the contract. But instead of that taking place, these tenant farmers resist the claim of the owner, and they do so by insulting the servant that he sends and assaulting the servant that he sends. And you will notice that, even in the first instance: when the time came, he sent to get “some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.”
Now, in terms of background to the parable, there is not simply the understanding societally, if you like, but there is also the understanding which lies behind it in terms of the Scriptures. And it is for this reason, primarily, that the religious leaders perceive that the parable is about them. It is because of this that they’re able to say, “You know, he’s telling this against us.”
Now, without belaboring the point, let me turn you to Isaiah chapter 5. And as my art teacher used to say, “I’ll get you started, but I’m not going to do the work for you.” Isaiah chapter 5. And in Isaiah 5, we discover that the prophet of God is addressing the people of God as the vineyard of God. And you have it just in a phrase in verse 7, if you turn to it: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” So the picture becomes clear—very clear. The vineyard is Israel, the owner is God, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus.
You see, it is because these fellows know their Bible, it is because they understand the Scriptures, that they are able to realize very quickly that what Jesus is doing here is not simply telling a story out of the blue, but he is actually employing a parable in order to confront them directly with what it is they are doing. And what Jesus is saying to these fellows, in a veiled way, is not only, “I am the Messiah”—and he comes as close to saying that here as anywhere we’ve seen so far—not simply a declaration of his personhood but also an acknowledgment on his part that he knows what these characters are up to. He knows that they are opposed to him. He knows that they resent him. He knows that murder is in the air. He understands exactly what it is they’re doing. And so, in telling this story with them present, he is actually looking into the faces of the people he is describing, so that what is obvious to us as the reader now is becoming apparent to them in the immediacy of the telling of the story.
And the tenants in this parable depict the way in which God’s prophets were opposed and ill-treated when they went to speak to the people of God. And that’s, incidentally, why he heaps one on another, and in verse 5 it says, “And he sent another, and him they killed,” and then notice the phrase, “And so with many others.” “So with many others: some they beat, and some they killed.”
Now, what he’s doing here is he’s saying to these fellows, “You know the history of Israel, and you know that what has happened: that God has sent again and again his prophets to his people, and they have revolted against him.” And the people of God had done these things. Later on he says to them, he says, “You know, you make a big fuss about building monuments to these characters, but, in actual fact, you are as involved in this process as any of them ever were.”
And that’s why, for example, Jesus, when he looks over Jerusalem, says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” The drama in this is unmistakable. Here is the place, here is the focus of the purposes and power of God in the city of Jerusalem. Here is the place “to which the tribes go up.” Here is where they have all gone, in the Psalms of Ascent, as they’ve made their way up to Jerusalem. And now Jesus the Son looks over Jerusalem, he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” That’s one of the great, amazing things, if you take time to read the Bible: that as God speaks again and again to his people, they resist him forcibly. And the climax in the parable comes when, you will notice there, the “tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’”
Well, you will notice the phrase that is used: “He still had one other, a beloved son.” “A beloved son.” This phrase wouldn’t be missed on these people either. Remember, in his baptism, the voice of the Father had come from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, [in] whom I am well pleased.” On another occasion: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” The very phraseology here in Greek may also be equally translated, “This is my one and only.” “This is my beloved Son. This is him. This is the one.” And in the parable, the unthinkable is done: that the owner says, “Let me send my beloved to him,” and in sending the beloved, they kill him.
Well, I can’t imagine just how uncomfortable it was. If ever there was a case of “If the cap fits, wear it,” this is it! They all must’ve stood there looking at one, another unable to talk to one another except by means of their eyes—furtive glances, quizzical expressions, and by means of their eyes identifying for each other the fact, “He’s onto us. He knows exactly what we plan to do. This parable is about us.” I would suggest to you that that’s the key to understanding it. If we misplace that key, then we very quickly can go wrong.
But what then is the punch line in this? Well, the punch line is essentially in the second half of verse 9. Jesus says, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” He’s still telling the story here; he’s still telling the parable. He says, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” He says, “Let me tell you what he will do: He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
Now, which do you think would be the most staggering aspect of this execution of judgment, for these individuals? I don’t think that it would be the notion of capital punishment. They had a significant enough sense of justice. They knew the Ten Commandments. If this has been going on, if these characters have been killing people, then there is no doubt about the fact that the owner then has every legitimate right to bring the full weight of the law down upon them. “He will [then] come and destroy [these] tenants…” But here’s the real rub: “…and give the vineyard to others.” Now, that they couldn’t handle. Because they had such an understanding of God’s purposes for Israel, such an understanding of their place in the process of things.
“Are we to assume,” they must’ve been saying in their minds, “are we to assume that this parable carries all the way through in its application to us? That the catastrophic response of the owner in this parable is representative of what is going to happen to us as a nation? Are we gonna put two and two together and begin to understand it, that he will destroy this temple, and in three days it will be raised?” And they’re beginning to put all these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, and they don’t like it. And in Matthew’s account, it reads as follows: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” There’s the rub. There’s the rub: “This is ours. It can’t be taken from us.” “Well,” Jesus says, “it’s going to be taken from you.”
“And they took him and threw him out”—I’m reading Matthew now, just to make sure it’s there for myself. “And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. [And] when therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And in Matthew, the crowd come out with it. It’s a rhetorical question on the part of Jesus; he has the answer. It’s almost as if it becomes antiphonal. Jesus says it and they say it, or they join in unison with one another. “They said to him”—this is the response of the crowd—“‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the [fruit] in their [season].’” This is the drama. And this they couldn’t stand.
You see, this makes sense, actually, doesn’t it, of what we saw earlier in the cursing of the fig tree? Because the cursing of the fig tree was a drama. It was a statement concerning the people of God. God had issued a judgment on his people. He went to the fig tree. He looks at it. It looks as though there might be fruit. He gets there, there’s no fruit. He curses the fig tree. Is this just a pique on the part of Jesus? Is this just like he went to McDonald’s expecting to get a hamburger, and he found out that it was shut, so he cursed McDonald’s? Is that what we have here? No, of course it isn’t.
No, what Jesus is doing here is he’s making a dramatic statement concerning the people of God. Because the people of God from a distance look as though they have fruit to nourish the hungry, seeking soul, but when you get up close to them, there’s nothing there, because the people of God are barren. They have now offered only to the people rules upon rules, regulations upon regulations, boring sermons—hopeless stuff. That’s why they’re infuriated that Jesus is such a good preacher. That’s why they’re annoyed that the people listen to him. That’s why they can’t stand it that the children sing his praise. “You silence this stuff!” Jesus says, “If I had the children be quiet, the jolly stones would cry out themselves!” They cannot handle that. And so, in fact, what you have here in the parable of the tenants is in some ways an explanation of the judgment of the fig tree.
“It will be taken from them and given to others.” What does this mean? Well, it means that God now will bring to bear upon the unfolding story of redemption the creation of a new Israel that will comprise both those from a Jewish background who believe in Jesus as Messiah and those from a gentile background who believe in Jesus as Messiah.
In other words, the people of God that are now going to unfold will be those that Peter references—and you can turn to this to see it for yourself, because, interestingly, he quotes from the same Old Testament story. In 1 Peter chapter 2, Peter is writing to the believers that are scattered around the world in his day, both from a Jewish and a gentile background, and he talks about how the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone—we’ll come to that in just a moment. He says, “This is a stone of stumbling; it’s a rock of offense.” People stumble over Jesus, don’t they? They’re offended by Jesus. They’re offended by Jesus in a way that they’re not offended by Buddha or they’re not offended by Krishna. They’re just offended by Jesus. Because Jesus stands there towering over the affairs of time. Jesus stands there saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “no one comes to the Father [but by] me.” Jesus stands there, and he says, “I am God incarnate.” Jesus stands there and says, “At my name, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess.” He is a stone over which men and women stumble. They stumble! They cannot stand such a notion.
But, says Peter, “But you folks, you haven’t stumbled over him. You’ve actually come to trust in him.” And “you are a chosen race.” That’s an Old Testament picture. “A royal priesthood.” It’s a Jewish picture. “A holy nation.” Jewish. “A people for his own possession.” Abraham, Genesis 12. “…That you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Here you go, verse 10: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
So the others to whom he’s going to give his vineyard consists, then, of the church—of all who have repented and believe the good news. And if you want to really think that through, go home and read Romans chapter 9, 10, and 11, and ponder all that Paul has to say there about the fact that the rejection of the Jew has meant salvation for the gentile, the gentile has been grafted in, and the day will come when there will be a great resurgence of Jewish people who then are embraced within the unfolding drama of God’s purposes. It is a wonderful story.
So it’s not so much that he’s saying, “I’ve rejected the Jews and I’ve gone with the gentile thing.” What he’s saying is, “I’ve rejected those who stumble over my Son. Those who come to trust in him—from every background, from every nation, tribe, language, and tongue—are the ‘others’ to whom I am giving this vineyard.” Do you get that?
And let me just say this, in case I don’t have a chance to: The prophets had gone to the people of God again and again and again. Instead of them responding, in large measure they beat them, treated them shamefully, stoned them, and killed them. Jesus has now come, as the Son, to his people. What does John tell us in the prologue? “He came to his own,” but “his own did not receive him. But to as many as received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.” Do you get this? When the pursuit of God in the pleadings and the promptings of his Spirit are not responded to in faith, they put the individual who rejects the pleadings and the promptings in a far more different and dangerous position.
Let’s bring it right up to date. You come to Parkside Church. You listen to the Bible. You read it for yourself. Unless the wooings and the warnings of God’s Word soften your heart and bring you to faith, they will harden your heart and turn you against him. That is why the pleadings and the promptings and the wooings and the winnings and the sending of his messengers, the messengers that have come to you—your mother when you were a child at her knee; that uncle who gave you that Bible on your graduation; that girl in the office who said to you, “Have you ever really thought about who Jesus is?”—and these wooings and these pleadings and these promptings have come again and again to you.
Listen, my dear friend: if they do not soften your heart and bring you to faith, they will harden your heart. And these characters were irritated and hardened; they were not impressed and converted. They wanted just to be told, “You’re in an exclusive club. You’re okay, because you’ve come from the right background,” and so on. Jesus says, “No, here’s the story. The owner sent his son. They killed him too. And here’s what’s going to happen…”
Well, the postscript is there, isn’t it, in the quote from Psalm 118? Jesus has begun his parable by making sure that it is grounded in the Bible. Every good preacher should—hence, Isaiah 5—and now he directs his listeners, as he comes to a conclusion, once again to the Bible. And there you have the quote: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And he says to them, “Have you not read this Scripture?” Of course they’ve read this Scripture. There might be some gentle irony in it, insofar as it is from this very Scripture that the people were singing and chanting when Jesus had made his way into Jerusalem. So he’s able to say, “I know you’ve heard it recently, but I wonder if you read it recently. And when you read it, did you get it?” Here is a stone that, in the building of the temple of Solomon, somebody said, “Well, that stone’s no use. You couldn’t use that for anything. Let’s put it over there. Put it out there.” Here’s the masonry contractor, looking at all the possibilities. He says, “That one is a dud. It won’t be of any use to us at all.” The stone that the builders rejected has become the absolute keystone in the whole system.
See what he’s saying? “You rejected Jesus. That stone was absolutely crucial in the construction of the temple. And Jesus, whom you despise and reject, is actually the one in whom everything holds together.”
And then he quotes the balance of it; he says, “[And] this was the Lord’s doing, and it[’s] marvelous in our eyes.” We’ve been reading Mark’s Gospel, haven’t we? And when we think about the Lord’s doing, think about all the things that we’ve learned of God doing in and through Jesus, they’re marvelous. Think about what we’ve learned about the values of the kingdom, turning human evaluation upside down, setting materialism in its place. “What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world and lost his own soul?” The amazement at the inscrutable ways of God, and not least of all in the fact that he hasn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.
What makes it so staggering to me—and I’ll wrap this up now—but what is so chilling, I think, to me is the fact that these religious leaders, with all of their knowledge of the Bible—the Old Testament Scriptures—they find themselves within touching distance of God’s final messenger. Within touching distance of God’s final messenger. But you will notice in verse 12 that they go on their cowardly way, blinded by their animosity to the truth. They go on their cowardly way, blinded by their animosity to the truth. Jesus is going to die for his conviction. These characters are unprepared to die for their conviction. They’re cowards. In the parable, the tenants killed the son because they recognized him, not because they failed to. And I find, in talking with people, that people reject the claims of Christ not because they misunderstand them but because they understand them too well.
“You mean to tell me”—that’s what they always say—“you mean to tell me that Jesus Christ is the only Savior?”
“Yes. Because he is the only one qualified to save. Do you know of anyone else who died for sins and was raised for your justification? No.”
“Do you mean to tell me that Jesus is the Judge of all the earth, and he will do right?”
“That he has set a day when he will judge the world?”
“That day is fixed, that day will be a fair day, and that day will be a final day.”
People say, “Well, I’m sorry, but I just flat-out cannot accept that at all. Do you mean to tell me that I have to give up myself and my life in order to become his disciple?”
“If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross, die to himself every day, and follow me.”
“No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, that’s just far too much for anybody to ask.”
And so the Son is rejected, not because the claims are misunderstood but because the claims are so clearly understood.
How ’bout you? How ’bout you?
God our Father, we thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. What a compassionate Savior, who weeps over Jerusalem, who weeps over those who resent and reject him. What kind of God is this, who dies in order that we might live? What kind of physician is this, who heals by taking our disease upon himself? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son, that whoever would believe in him”—from whatever background, in whatever time era—“whoever would believe in him might not perish at the judgment but have eternal life” that begins right now and never ends.
O God, open our eyes, so that we might see ourselves in the Bible and then that we might see Jesus as our only Savior. And help us, Lord, not to react as these religious leaders did—cowardly in their response, deep-seated in their animosity, until eventually they would be successful in their agenda, and Christ would say, “Father, forgive them, for they actually don’t know what they’re doing.” Oh, what a Savior, what a friend! May your kindness, Lord, lead us to repentance.
And may grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Matthew 23:37 (ESV).
 Psalm 122:4 (ESV).
 Matthew 3:17 (ESV).
 Mark 9:7 (ESV).
 See John 2:19.
 Matthew 21:43 (ESV).
 Matthew 21:39–41 (ESV).
 Luke 19:39–40 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Peter 2:7.
 1 Peter 2:8 (paraphrased).
 John 14:6 (ESV).
 See Philippians 2:10–11.
 1 Peter 2:9 (ESV).
 John 1:11–12 (paraphrased).
 Mark 8:36 (paraphrased).
 See Mark 2:17.
 See Genesis 18:25.
 See Acts 17:31.
 Mark 8:34 (paraphrased).
 John 3:16 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:34 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 2:4.
Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.