New Testament Study:

Matthew 19:30-20:19

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God’s Grace

 

30But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3“About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went.

“He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9“The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

17Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death 19and will turn Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day He will be raised to life!”

  

Jesus had just been telling the Twelve disciples of the rewards in store for them, for following Him.  However, the disciples were speaking as if the rewards were in direct proportion to what they had done.   Peter had said:  “We have left everything to follow you!  What then will there be for us?” (Matt. 19:27).  Now here, in Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable that points out that the rewards for those who follow Him are allotted according to God’s grace, not according to man’s expectations:  “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt. 19:30).

Jesus begins the parable:  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard” (vss. 1–2).  In the parable, the “landowner” represents God, as He seeks people to do His work, in “the vineyard”.  Those who serve God are promised in the Bible to be rewarded, just as the “landowner” agreed to pay the workers “a denarius for the day”.  A “denarius” was the generally accepted wage for a full day’s work.

Let us point out here that the workers who were chosen early must have felt fortunate.  They were assured of wages for the day.  And indeed, when called for work in the Kingdom of Heaven, “it is a choice privilege to be allowed to begin holy service early in the morning… Young believers have a blessed prospect:  they may well be happy to do good work, in a good place, for a good Master, and on good terms” [Spurgeon, 273].

The parable continues:  “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.  He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’  So they went” (vs. 3).  There is something interesting in the way this parable is told.  Note that it does not say that the “landowner” was desperate for workers, and that that was the reason more workers were hired.  Rather, it says that there were people “standing in the marketplace doing nothing”, and so, the landowner hired them.  This is the way of the Kingdom of Heaven.  God does not need us.  He is sovereign, and His work will get done.  But by His grace, He asks us to serve Him, so that our lives would have meaning and fulfillment, so that we would not spend our lives “standing in the marketplace doing nothing.”  In the Kingdom, work is better than idleness.  It gives meaning to life.  “They would work only three-quarters of a day; but it was for their good to cease from loafing at the street corner” [Spurgeon, 274].  “Till we are hired into the service of God, we are standing all the day idle; a sinful state, though a state of drudgery to Satan, may really be called a state of idleness; sinners are doing nothing, nothing to purpose, nothing of the great work they were sent into the world about, nothing that will pass well in the account” [Henry].

The landowner continued to find idle workers in the marketplace:  “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.  About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around.  He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’  ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.  He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’” (vss. 5–7).  The calling of the workers later in the day symbolizes the calling of men to serve God later in life.  “God in the greatness of His love calls into His service men from whom the exuberance of useful vigor has departed; He accepts the waning hours of their day.  He has work for the weak as well as for the strong.  He allows none to labor for Him without the reward of grace, even though they have spent their best days in sin” [Spurgeon, 274].

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’  The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more.  But each one of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’  But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take you pay and go.  I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous’” (vss. 8–15).  I dare say that there is not one of us who does not sympathize a bit with the complaining workers.  It is the way of the world of commerce (and rightly so), that the one who works the hardest and longest should receive the higher wages.  However, the Kingdom of Heaven is not the kingdom of this world, and is certainly not a kingdom based on the rules of commerce.  This is the point of the parable.  The Kingdom of Heaven is based on the grace of God.  It is based on God saying, “I want to give…” (vs. 14).  God, in His sovereignty, doles out rewards, as only He sees fit.  “God acts toward us in sheer grace.  Don’t think of salvation being an arithmetical process, adding up the good deeds and the bad ones and coming out with salvation or loss according to whether the balance is on the credit or debit side.  That is not the way to understand the dealings of a gracious God” [Morris, 499].  And certainly, the one who receives even the least reward from God is very well paid.  We deserve nothing from Him.  No amount of work we do will make Him a debtor to us.  He has already given us so much.

The landowner rebukes the complaining workers:  “Or are you envious because I am generous?” (vs. 15).  We must never be envious of the work of God’s grace in another person’s life.  Rather, we should praise God for His work of grace in all of our lives.  “There is a great proneness in us to think that we have too little, and others too much, of the tokens of God’s favor; and that we do too much, and others too little, in the work of God.  Very apt we all are to undervalue the deserts of others, and to overvalue our own” [Henry].  “Let us never envy late converts their joy or their usefulness, but applaud the sovereignty which blesses them so largely.  We share the mercy with them; let us give them an equal portion of our joy” [Spurgeon, 278].

Jesus sums up the parable:  “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (vs. 16).  In other words, we should not expect the Kingdom of Heaven to follow the ways of the world.  The unexpected will happen.

Next, Jesus once again works to prepare the disciples for what was to happen:  “Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law.  They will condemn Him to death and will turn Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.  On the third day He will be raised to life!’” (vss. 17–19).  Jesus did not want His Twelve disciples to be unprepared for what was to happen, and so He often attempted to prepare them for it (see also Matt. 16:21; 17:22ff).  Also, by stating the details of what was to happen, Jesus was declaring His supernatural foreknowledge of His death and resurrection.  He is letting His disciples know that what was to happen would not be a surprise to Him.  This also demonstrates “the resolute willingness of the Redeemer to suffer for us; for He knew all that He was to suffer, and was never dashed” [Dickson].  Foreknowledge of what was to happen could have only made Christ’s suffering even harsher, and more drawn out.  Yet, He willingly chose to go through with His sacrifice.  And make no mistake, it was his choice.  “The Lord Jesus was a voluntary sufferer.  When He died on the cross, it was not because He had not power to prevent it:  He suffered intentionally, deliberately, and of His own free will” [Ryle].  As Jesus Himself said:  “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).

Note one more thing:  they were “going to Jerusalem.”  It is ironic, and sad, that at the center of Jewish worship, Jerusalem, the crucifixion of the Messiah would take place.