Matthew 21:23-32 Jesus did not simply say wise and pious things that we can take or leave without any concern that they have a claim on us. He said that he was the only way to have a life with God; that he had been with God in the beginning; that to know him was to know God; that he had the power to forgive sins; and that he would return to judge the world.
When it comes to the identity of Jesus, because of what he said about himself, we cannot simply call him a great teacher or wise leader but in the end, just a man. By his own testimony about himself, Jesus never made this an option. Instead, C.S. Lewis says that we ought to consider the identity of Jesus this way: liar, lunatic, or Lord—a trilemma where each option poses a difficulty. And so then…
If we consider the claims of Jesus in light of our choices: liar, lunatic, or Lord, we have to say that if these claims were lies, he is the worst kind of man—a scoundrel, a deceiver, a destroyer of souls like Jim Jones or David Koresh. But when we read in the Bible about what he taught, everyone in the world affirms that this is the way we ought to live.
But what if he were a lunatic? What if he were like someone suffering from a profound mental illness that makes them believe that they are Napoleon—someone to pity but certainly not to take seriously their claims. And yet we see in the Bible how people were drawn to Jesus, how they loved him, how good and kind and gentle he was, how everyone—friends and enemies—took him seriously.
That leaves just one option—that he was not a liar or a lunatic—but that he was the Lord—that his claims about himself were true: that he is the eternal God in human flesh. But what is the difficulty with that view? After all, isn’t that exactly what we believe!
The difficulty with the view that Jesus is Lord does not lie within the life of Jesus or what he taught or his claims about himself. The difficulty lies within the hearts of men.
You see, if Jesus was a liar then we can reject him and we should! If he were a lunatic we can pity him and we should! But to confess Jesus as Lord is to acknowledge his absolute authority over us and recognize how much of our lives are still lived outside his gracious, mighty rule when what we ought to do is offer him the obedience of faith. The Bible says that:
When [Jesus] 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?”
What were those things that had them so concerned? Several days earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and was welcomed as a king and proclaimed him the Son of David. The next day Jesus entered the temple and drove out the money-changers and claimed it as his own house of prayer. He healed the blind and the lame and received the praises of children. And he cursed a fig tree for its lack of fruitfulness and it withered at once.
Was he a liar when he promised his disciples that whatever they asked for in prayer they would receive? Was he a lunatic who went around making a scene in sacred places and cursing plants? Or was he the Lord whose words and actions clearly portrayed him as the anointed One from heaven and the one true king who has authority to rule over all men?
That was the question in the minds of the religious leaders. We need to get this settled in our own minds as well. Now maybe you say, “But Pastor, I’ve decided this a long time ago. I know that Jesus is my Lord, he is my master, and he is my king.” I’m glad!
But what does it mean for us that our King has commanded us to forgive and we still hold grudges? What does it mean for us that our King has commanded us to stop worrying and our hearts are filled with anxiety? What does it mean for us that our king has commanded us to seek his kingdom first when all kinds of other things take priority over our life with God?
What does it mean when his word—is not the last word—in our lives? At the very least it means that there is a lack of clarity about who Jesus is and what his role is in our life.
But there shouldn’t be! The words of Jesus about himself- and the witness of the Old Testament to Jesus- and the actions of Jesus- are more than enough to identify him as our one true king whose divine authority calls for the obedience of faith. It should have been enough for the religious leaders too which is why Jesus answers them as he does. He said:
“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?”
There was much in the ministry of John the Baptist that the religious leaders could appreciate. He was calling sinners to repentance and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. People were confessing their sins and leaving behind their old, sinful way of life. And that message and those results were fine with the religious powers of the day.
We all like it when a scoundrel is told to straighten up and fly right and he does! We can all appreciate a sermon that applies to someone else!
But John went farther than that! Not only did John call open sinners to repentance he also said that the religious leaders needed to repent as well—that they were in the worst shape of all spiritually because they were covering up their sin with a false piety.
And there was more! Besides calling people to turn from sin he was also calling them to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world. Here was the real problem for them.
If the religious leaders acknowledged that John’s authority was from heaven they had to acknowledge Jesus as their Savior and King because the content of John’s ministry was Jesus and- this- they- would- not -do. The Bible says that:
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.” They answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
Jesus didn’t answer them directly because they already knew the answer and rejected it. John proclaimed Jesus to be the Savior of the world but if they acknowledged Jesus’ identity they would have to also admit that his divine authority also extended to them. They would have to yield themselves to Jesus’ rule over their lives and this they would not do.
So it is for so many in our world today. They say that Jesus is a good man and wise man—but just a man. Even we Christians struggle with what it means that Jesus in our king and true, sovereign Lord. We respect Jesus and admire what he taught. We think his life ought to be an example for us all. We’re glad he is our Savior. But that he is our King means that we will have to listen to and do what he says. It means that our lives will have to change. Jesus said:
“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.
Both of these men were sons. Both had a problem with the Father’s authority. Both of them said “no” to a direct command from their Father. Shocking!
The first son had a change of heart and did as his father commanded. This first son represented all the people who had taken to heart the message of John the Baptist and repented and amended their lives after a lifetime of sin and believe in Jesus.
For the people in this group, there was no telling how many times they had heard that they needed to change their ways from friends and family and religious leaders—no telling how many times they had closed their ears to the voice of the Spirit—no telling how many times they kept right on doing what they were doing--but when they heard John something clicked and their hearts and lives were changed.
Many of us have had the same experience. If we came to faith late in life or even if God has laid on our heart some change we need to make after we came to faith and we resisted it and closed our ears to it but then one day we heard the Spirit in a new way and our hearts were changed--we understand how it was for this first son who repented.
It would have been better if we had never resisted the Spirit. It would have been better if we had never said “no” to our heavenly Father. But God is glad to see a heart that is changed whenever that happens and that is true for us too. If we find ourselves on the wrong track—if we have been making room for sin—it is not too late to repent. What about the other son?
The second son said the right things—what came out of his mouth sounded good—but he never did get around to doing what the Father wanted.
This second son represented the men Jesus was talking to-the religious leaders who knew all the right words to say but never did yield their heavenly Father the obedience of faith. He also represents every hypocrite sitting in a church pew who has never really come to faith at all-who still lives in sin--and yet says the right things and goes through the motions on Sunday.
But that is not enough and even the religious leaders knew it. Jesus asked them: Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” The one who repented?
The father loved both sons. He had a will and a plan for both of them. But for each of them it would take a change of heart and mind about the direction of their lives and a willingness to do their father’s will. Everyone falls into one of those two categories of the first son who eventually comes in or the second son who still needs to come in.
Even though he is not mentioned in the story, there is another Son—a third Son who said yes to his Father and who did his father’s will. That third son is the One who tells this story—God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus. Jesus spoke his Father’s word and did his Father’s will. He was obedient unto death—even death on a cross.
It is because of his perfect obedience that the first two sons can be part of the Father’s family at all if they will only repent of their sins and believe in the Son. Jesus said:
“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.
It’s important to recognize that Jesus is not saying that there was not a place for them in the kingdom. There was-- if they were willing to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus! So long as they were living and breathing there was a day of grace when they could have a change of heart and mind, acknowledge the authority of Jesus over their lives, confess him as Lord and Savior and take their place in the kingdom.
But that would only come as they believed the message of John the Baptist that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus was given that wonderful authority by his heavenly Father who sent him into the world for these men and for all of us for- that- very- purpose!
Open, notorious sinners believed that message, repented of their sins, amended their lives and entered the kingdom of heaven. The religious leaders had seen this remarkable change with their own eyes.
The authority of Jesus was only a problem for them because they rejected God’s salvation in Jesus.
But for the tax collector- and the prostitute- and the sinner sitting in these pews and standing in this pulpit--it is the best possible news that Jesus possesses the authority to take our sins upon himself and wipe them clean by his blood. It is because of him alone that the Father calls us his sons and daughters and invites us to take our place in his vineyard. As we hear the Spirit’s call this morning, let us offer our King and Savior the obedience of faith! Amen.