Matthew 21:28-32

Sermon preached on February 24, 2013 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

During the Super Bowl in New Orleans earlier this month there was a power outage that lasted 35 minutes and delayed the game. In the days following they did some investigation that found that a relay switch was the cause of the outage. The ironic thing about it was that the relay switch had been installed for the specific purpose of preventing a power outage. Entergy New Orleans, the company that supplies power to the Superdome, installed the device in the months leading up to the Super Bowl. The faulty relay was part of a $4.2 million upgrade made to the electrical lines and other equipment.

Isn't that amazing—the very thing that was supposed to prevent something from happening caused it to happen?

Life can be like that. It can even happen in the spiritual realm. There are things that people think will help them know God, and yet they are the very things that keep them from knowing Him. What many people think of as 'spirituality' is one of those things. How can spirituality stop you from being spiritual? It seems like a contradiction. But if someone is confused or wrong about what true spirituality is, their false spiritually can indeed keep them from becoming truly spiritual. We see an example of this in our text. When Jesus entered the temple courts the chief priests and the elders came to Him and asked Him by what authority He did these things. Jesus' response was three-fold. Our text contains the second part of His answer. Jesus said,

"What do you think?
There was a man who had two sons.
He went to the first and said,
'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.'
'I will not,' he answered,
but later he changed his mind and went.
Then the father went to the other son
and said the same thing.
He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go.
Which of the two did what his father wanted?"

The answer is obvious—the one who went and did what the father asked. Jesus then went on to tell the chief priests and elders that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of them. The chief priests and the elders of the people thought that they were spiritual. They thought they were close to God. They thought that God was pleased with them. They thought that they were way ahead of people like tax collectors and harlots—that they were in a different category altogether. They had never indulged in great sin. They had been scrupulous about keeping much of the law. They were 'spiritual'. But look at what Jesus says about them. Alfred Edersheim writes, (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah)

"The first son represented the Publicans and harlots, whose curt and rude refusal of the Father's call was implied in their life of reckless sin. But afterwards they changed their mind—and went into the Father's vineyard. The other Son, with his politeness of tone and ready promise, but utter neglect of obligations undertaken, represented the Pharisees with their hypocritical and empty professions."

Jesus said that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom of heaven and they weren't. Their supposed spirituality kept them from going to Jesus for salvation.

This text has many things to teach us about spirituality, about what it means to be spiritual.

One of the most obvious things we see from what Jesus said is that

you can be totally deceived about your standing before God.

You can be very religious and be on the road to destruction. Or to use a more modern expression today, you can be very 'spiritual' and be on the road to destruction. You can do many good things that you think are good, and yet be on the road to hell. The chief priests and the elders were that way. Some of them trusted in their works, their self-righteousness, to put them in good stead with God. But they were as far away from God as they could get. In John 8:44 Jesus said to them,

"You belong to your father, the devil…"

In Matthew 23:15 He told the teachers of the law and the Pharisees that they were hypocrites. He referred to them as sons,

"of hell…"

and how they made others even worse than themselves.

In the Bible we see that so many people were deceived about their standing before God. This was particularly true of the chief priests, the elders and the scribes and Pharisees. The same can be true of you. You need to pay attention here and listen to what the Spirit of God says to you in His Word.

In order to wake the Pharisees from their folly, Jesus told the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in the temple. (Luke 18:9) In that parable the Pharisee prayed to God and said,

"God, I thank you that
I am not like other men—
robbers, evildoers, adulterers—
or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week and give
a tenth of all I get."

He didn't steal. If he found your wallet on the street where you dropped it he would give it back to you. He kept himself sexually pure. He was chaste. He did not give himself to the common earthly pleasures. He did not do obviously evil things. He fasted twice a week, he gave his tithe. In certain ways he would fit right in in our church. He was respectable.

But he was proud and didn't really love others. As Luke said in the introduction of the parable, Jesus told that parable to those, (verse 9)

"who were confident of their own righteousness
and looked down on everybody else."

But Jesus said that the Pharisee wasn't right with God. It was the sinful tax collector who went away justified. Unless the Pharisee woke up and repented, he wasn't going to heaven.

That's the way it was with the Pharisees. They thought that they were right with God but they totally misunderstood their standing before God. They kept some parts of the law and thought that God was pleased with them. In another place Jesus' critique of them was that they kept the minor parts of the law. In Matthew 23:23 Jesus said,

"Woe to you, teachers of the law
and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
You give a tenth of your spices—
mint, dill and cummin.
But you have neglected the more
important matters of the law—
justice, mercy and faithfulness.
You should have practiced the latter,
without neglecting the former."

They thought they were spiritual—but Jesus pronounced woes on them.

Many people today are deceived like the Pharisees. They think that they're in good standing with God when in fact they're not. In describing themselves they will say something like,

"I'm very spiritual."

People mean different things by that. They could mean that they believe in God or the supernatural and they sometimes pray. They could mean that they're developing their inner self or are in touch with it. They could mean that they're involved in some eastern religion. But I think in general I think it's accurate to say that people who describe themselves as spiritual think that they are okay with God. They're tight with God. If there is a heaven—they're going to go there. They're not atheists. They're good. They have a sense of right and wrong and try to follow it.

They might even say,

"I'm not religious, but I'm very spiritual."

By that they probably mean that they don't go to any church, that they're no into any organized religion. They could even mean that they're not involved in the hypocrisy of any organized religion. They're not hypocrites. They're not involved in any of the bad traditions that years of development have led all organized religions. They're not involved in any of that bad stuff. They're spiritual as opposed to religious. They're very close to God. And woe to the person who tries to tell them otherwise. If you try to tell them about what the Bible says, they might tell you that the Bible says do not judge lest you be judged. That of course, is a misunderstanding of that verse. I think it's one of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses in Scripture. If that verse meant what these people say it means then we could just throw away the rest of the teaching of the New Testament. That would have meant that Paul and the rest of the apostle were wrong in mission that Jesus sent them on.

In a way some of the 'spiritual' people today are like King Saul. After he disobeyed God, God said to Samuel, (1 Samuel 15:11)

"I am grieved that I have made Saul king,
because he has turned away from me
and has not carried out my instructions."

That was God assessment of King Saul. How different was King's Saul's view of things. When Samuel came to him he said to Samuel, (verse 13)

"The LORD bless you!
I have carried out the Lord's instructions."

He blatantly disregarded God's commands and yet he acted so spiritual.

That attitude is common today. A lot of people blatantly disobey many of God's commands and yet they insist that they're spiritual. They might live with someone they're not married to. Yet they say that they're spiritual. They never go to church. Of course they don't—they not religious. But by neglecting attending church they're disobeying the Lord's command not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. Yet they still consider themselves spiritual. They approve of many things that God abhors, things that God in His Word says are sinful—and yet they consider themselves spiritual. They might totally reject the idea of Jesus being the only way to God and pick and choose what to believe from a lot of religious traditions—a sort of a smorgasbord of beliefs. And they think that they're very spiritual.

So much of what passes as 'spirituality' today is what Michael Horton refers to as, (In the Face of God)

"humanity… searching for a pathway to deity and wisdom that avoid[s] observance of divine commandments."

The Pharisees weren't spiritual. Even if they had kept the more major parts of the law, they would still have fallen short of being spiritual. Even if we were all better at living according to the law—it wouldn't be good enough. As we read in James 2:10,

"For whoever keeps the whole law
and yet stumbles at just one point
is guilty of breaking all of it."

Or as the apostle Paul put it in Galatians 2:16,

"know that a man is not justified
by observing the law,
but by faith in Jesus Christ.
So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus
that we may be justified by faith in Christ
and not by observing the law,
because by observing the law
no one will be justified."

The Pharisees failed to realize that we're all sinners and as far as getting into heaven goes, none of us will get into heaven on the basis of our works.

So if spirituality doesn't consist of any of these things, what does it consist of? What does it mean to be spiritual?

According to the New Testament, at its most basic level,

being spiritual means having the Holy Spirit living in you.

But how does one get the Holy Spirit? How does one become spiritual? Only by believing in Jesus. According to the Bible, being spiritual consists of believing in Jesus, as a result of that you receive His Spirit and are thereby equipped to obey His commandments.

Note the reference that Jesus made to John the Baptist here. He said, (verse 32)

"For John came to you
to show you the way of righteousness,
and you did not believe him,
but the tax collectors
and the prostitutes did."

John came to point people to Jesus. When he saw Him he proclaimed, (John 1:29)

"Look, the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world!"

This is what the chief priests and the elders of the people missed. They believed in works righteousness. But we're all sinners so that won't work. We need a Mediator—Jesus. One can't be spiritual without knowing Him. Some of the Old Testament people of God knew that they needed a mediator. They knew that God's majesty and glory were threatening to them. When they came to Mount Sinai to receive the law, God they were terrified because of God's majesty. The mountain was covered with smoke and there were thunders and lightning. The people said to Moses, (Exodus 20:19, ESV)

"You speak to us, and we will listen;
but do not let God speak to us, lest we die."

Yet many people today don't see a mediator as being necessary. They're 'spiritual' without a mediator. Michael Horton writes, (In the Face of God)

"Can we, in our day, even conceive of a God whose presence so frightens worshipers that they beg for a mediator, knowing that if they go to God directly they will perish?"

He's right. Many people today know so little about the Bible that they have no conception of that. They don't see their need of Jesus. Yet only He gives true life. In John 14:6 Jesus said,

"I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me."

Thus if someone rejects Jesus they are not spiritual, no matter how they feel or what they say. People need to be born again, or 'born from above'. (John 3) They need to be born of the Spirit. They need God to make them alive. (Ephesians 1:1-10)

This all comes about through Jesus, because of His work. When people believe in Him He then spends His Holy Spirit into their lives to transform them. That's what the Day of Pentecost was all about. Jesus sent His Spirit to His church. Gordon D. Fee writes, (
God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, p. 36-37)

"For Paul, what distinguishes believer from non-believer is the Spirit, pure and simple. God's people have the Spirit, and are by that very fact, 'spiritual' (=Spirit people), while others are not, no can they be 'spiritual' in any meaningful… sense of that word, precisely because they lack the one thing necessary for 'spiritual life', the Spirit of the living God."

In his book, Listening to the Spirit in the Text, Fee writes, (p. 6 and 5)

"God's aim in our lives is 'Spiritual' in this sense, that we, redeemed by the death of Christ, might be empowered by his Spirit both 'to will and to do for the sake of his own pleasure.' True spirituality … is nothing more or less than life by the Spirit.""In the New Testament… spirituality is defined altogether in terms of the Spirit of God (or Christ). One is spiritual to the degree that one lives in and walks by the Spirit; in Scripture the word has no other meaning, and no other measurement."

So, in order to be spiritual, you have to be a believer and follower of Jesus. You receive His 'holy' Spirit and you become spiritual.

Now what does all this mean in practical terms? It has implications for both Christians and non-Christians.

For Christians,

having the Holy Spirit in you means that you are 'spiritual'—and that you actually keep God's commandments.

In 1 John 2:3 the apostle John says,

"We know that we have come to know him
if we obey his commands."

1 John 5:2–3 adds,

"This is how we know that
we love the children of God: by loving God and
carrying out his commands.
This is love for God: to obey his commands.
And his commands are not burdensome."

Being spiritual, according to God, means that you keep His commands.

So for Christians, the fact that you have the Spirit means that you should truly devote yourselves to God and live lives that illustrate the power of the Spirit. You have the power and life of the coming age living in you now. You have the resurrection power of Jesus, the power of the age to come.

So glorify God by keeping His commands. Love others as Jesus loved you. Be humble and serve others. Put yourself last and get rid of selfishness, greed and love for this world. Become what you are!

For those of you who are not Christians, consider the second son here. He had good intentions. At least that's the impression one gets from the text. I don't think that it's a case of him never intending to do what the Father said. He was very respectful toward his father. He said,

"I will, sir."

William Hendriksen tells us that his answer, (Matthew, p. 779)

"has the flavor of ready and eager compliance…"

So it is likely that he had every intention of doing what his father said. He just didn't get to it. He left it undone. So we see that

good intentions are not enough.

In one sense good intentions are good. It's better to have good intentions than evil intentions. In Psalm 19:13 David asked God to protect him from,

'willful sins.'

Those who have evil intentions are going down a very dangerous path. There are many examples of this. King Saul intended to kill David. He came to a very bad end. Absalom tried to kill his father and seize the throne. He also came to a very bad end. King Herod killed James with the sword and planned to kill Peter. God send His angel to strike him with worms so that he died.

This is the typical end of those who intend to do evil. Psalm 64 also talks about those who encourage each other in 'evil plans' and who 'plot injustice'. It says, (verses 7-8)

"But God will shoot them with arrows;
suddenly they will be struck down.
He will turn their own tongues
against them and bring them to ruin;
all who see them will shake their heads in scorn."

So having good intentions is much better than having evil intentions.

But what we should understand from our Lord's words here is that
good intentions, by themselves, are almost worthless. If you have good intentions, does that mean that you're spiritual? Not necessarily. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus said,

"Not everyone who says to me,
'Lord, Lord,' will enter
the kingdom of heaven,
but only he who does
the will of my Father who is in heaven."

There's an old proverb that says,

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Another form of the proverbs explains it a bit more,

"Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works."

So what we should understand is that your good intentions need to translate into actions or they are worthless.

The only way that good intentions can truly translated into actions are through you going to Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit. You need to do that now.

The third lesson we see from our text is that

if you repent and go to Jesus He will forgive your sins.

The first son said that he wouldn't go. But later he changed his mind and went and did what his father asked.

Some people don't go to Jesus when they first hear the gospel. Instead they give themselves to their sins and evil desires. Are they beyond hope? No. Not at all. What did Jesus say to the religious people? (Matthew 21:31–32)

"I tell you the truth,
the tax collectors and the prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.
For John came to you to show you
the way of righteousness,
and you did not believe him,
but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did."

In heaven there will be people who, before they repented, were greedy for money, only caring about themselves and their needs. In heaven there will be people who, for money, engaged in illicit sexual activity. They did it for a living. But they will be in heaven because of Jesus and His work. They repented Jesus gave them His Spirit.

The same can be true of you. If you repent of your sins, Jesus will accept you. As Jesus said in John 6:37,

"whoever comes to me I will never drive away."

You should go to Jesus today.

The fourth lesson we see from our text is that

there is a specific time period for repentance.

The father told his sons,

"Go and work 'today' in the vineyard."

Many intend to serve God at some later point in their lives. In Luke 9:57f Jesus told us about the man who wanted to go and bury his father first. His father might not have even been dead. Darrell L. Bock writes, (Luke, BEC p. 980)

"If this view is correct, then the son wants to postpone devoting himself to Jesus until basic familial duties are behind him, putting commitment to family ahead of service to the kingdom."

Another wanted to go back and say good-bye to his family before coming and following Jesus.

Jesus demands that you start serving Him now. His call is now. The time to start is now. Delay could be disastrous and fatal. Go to Jesus now. Start serving now.