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A Tragic Deception

Our response to Jesus is the true measure of our attitude toward what God requires of us.

Matthew 21:23-32

Introduction: A tragic deception

  • A group of young people were attending a youth camp on a beautiful island, when the program was disrupted by some terrible news.

  • The capital city, not far from them, was in chaos after a horrible bomb blast!

  • Offices were badly damaged, people were rushed to hospitals, some died!

  • While the young people were still trying to work out what had happened, a policeman showed up at the campsite.

  • He said he came to help, and told them to gather around.

  • And then … he pointed his gun at them and started shooting!

  • That day was July 22, 2011. The place: the Island of Utoeya, Norway. The man’s name: Anders Behring Breivik.

  • Breivik was no policeman; he was a murderer!

  • By the time the real policemen got there, Breivik had killed 69 people.

  • It was absolutely tragic!

Israel’s blind leaders (21:23-27)

  • In our passage this morning, we meet a situation with a group of people who were just as tragic: “the chief priests and the elders of the [Jewish] people” (21:23)

  • These were members of the Jewish leadership council, the Sanhedrin.

  • They were supposed to be Israel’s shepherds, tasked to maintain order and peace, the keeping watch over the integrity of their faith.

  • Instead, their persistent hostility towards Jesus exposed for who they truly were, blind leaders who were leading their people down the path of damnation.

  • When Jesus turned up in Jerusalem at the temple courts, these leaders confronted Jesus.

  • v23, “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

  • In one sense, to be fair to them, it was entirely appropriate for them to question Jesus.

  • Earlier in chapter 21, Matthew records that Jesus had been causing quite a stir the day before, kicking traders out of the temple courts, acting and teaching as if he owned the place.

  • If some stranger were to walk into St Andrew’s this morning and try something like that, we certainly would take the person aside and question him.

  • So these leaders were just doing their job.

  • The problem is that they were not really interested in the truth about who Jesus is.

  • Jesus exposed them, and he did it with one single question:

  • 21:25, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

  • It was brilliant! The leaders were totally stumped.

  • Reading on in v25, [The leaders] talked among themselves, ““If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.””

  • So they replied, “We don’t know.”

  • The point here is not to show how Jesus outsmarted his critics.

  • Rather, his question exposed the truth about these leaders!

  • Don’t let their “uniforms” fool you.

  • They looked and acted and sounded like they were so concerned about God’s truth.

  • But in reality, they were rebels who reject God’s prophet, rebels who refuse to obey God’s Word.

  • They were murderers in disguise, for they were ultimately denying themselves and their people Israel the opportunity to hear the good news of the kingdom of heaven!

  • It was absolutely tragic!

  • In verses 28 through to 22:14, Jesus continued by telling them three parables to warn them what would happen if they were to continue in their rebellion.

  • We’ll look at the first of them.

Parable of the two sons (21:28-32)

  • In verses 28-31, Jesus told a simple parable about a father who told his two sons to go to work in his vineyard.

  • Son #1’s initial response was pretty offensive:

  • 21:29, “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.”

  • Son #2, on the other hand, said what every parent loves to hear:

  • 21:30 “`I will, sir,'… ” – he even respectfully addressed his father as “sir”! – “but he did not go.”

  • Jesus asked the leaders, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” (21:31a)

  • The answer is pretty obvious: “The first”, they replied.

  • But what Jesus went on to say was a shocker to them.

  • 21:31, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”


  • Imagine running in a 100m race.

  • Ready, set, go and off you went, ran as hard as you could, and finished among the top three. You even set a new personal best time.

  • Shortly after, they announce the results:

  • “The LAST to cross the line wins”. The bottom three wins!

  • How would you feel?

  • When Jesus told the leaders, “Tax collectors and prostitutes – they ’re the ones who will enter the kingdom of God, not you!” they leaders must have been thinking:

  • “What kind of joke is this?”

  • “Tax collectors and prostitutes” was like a codename for the worst of sinners

  • Certainly the bottom three in the race.

  • Actually, more like those who couldn’t even qualify for the race.

  • How can Jesus say that those guys are in, but they are out?

  • The answer is in 21:32, “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.”

  • Of course Jesus was not implying that every “tax collector” and “prostitute” will automatically qualify for the kingdom of God.

  • Simply admitting we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God is not enough!

  • But like son#1, sinners who repent and live out their faith by doing the work that God requires – that’s the mark of true citizenship in God’s kingdom!

  • But as for the leaders, Jesus said, “You are just like son#2 in the parable”.

  • Quick to honour God with their lips, in all appearance so willing to do God’s will, like a perfect son!

  • But in truth refusing to do the work that the Father requires.

  • Their response to Jesus was the true indicator of their attitude towards God.

  • When God sent John the Baptist to show them the way, they refused to repent and believe him.

  • They now continue to refuse to repent and embrace the one John was bearing witness to, Jesus, God’s chosen king!

Lessons for today

  • When my wife and I were studying in Sydney, we attended an Anglican church.

  • Shortly after we left Sydney, our pastor was appointed Dean of the Cathedral in Sydney, and one of the first things he did was to introduce some changes to place more emphasis on the preaching of the gospel.

  • But he was met with huge resistance!

  • Guess who was the ringleader? The choir director!

  • A man who had spent virtually all his life serving and leading the church in praising God, a man who had spent countless hours putting God’s word into music for the church to sing

  • Yet, he stubbornly resisted my pastor’s attempt to preach the gospel, and did everything in his means to try to oust the pastor!

  • Now, I mean no disrespect to our worship team.

  • But I share this as a warning for all of us: familiarity with the Bible and everything that goes on in the church is no guarantee of true obedience to the gospel.

  • When the gospel of Jesus is faithfully preached, it will expose what really lies beneath our religious uniforms!

  • Jesus’ message to the leaders is a stern reminder to all of us to pay attention to our own attitude to the gospel … especially those of us who have been around for a while!

  • Let me mention a few lessons for us today.

  • Firstly, let us be clear what’s NOT the problem.

  • The Jewish leaders did NOT lack knowledge of God’s Word!

  • In fact, they were experts of God’s law!

  • Their problem lies in how they applied their knowledge of the Word!

  • They are quick to apply the Word to others but slow to apply to themselves!

  • “they do not practice what they preach” (Mt 23:3)


  • As a preacher and teacher of God’s Word, I have an occupational hazard.

  • When I study God’s Word, my mind is tuned to how it apply to others, instead of first applying to myself.

  • I can easily fall into the trap of being what Jesus calls a hypocrite, one who places a great burden on others but do not do anything themselves (cf. Matthew 23:4).

  • But I suspect I’m not alone.

  • When you read in the Bible, “Wives, submit to your husbands …” and “Husbands, love your wives …”,

  • Wives: are you thinking more about how you are to submit, or do you find yourself wishing, “If only my husband were here to hear this?”

  • Same goes for husbands: are you thinking about how to love your wives as Christ loved his church sacrificially, or more about how to remind your wives to submit and expect her to make sacrifices for you?

  • I love to remind my son, the Bible says: “Children, obey your parents in everything …”

  • But I am so slow to pay attention to what the Bible says about “Fathers, do not exasperate [or provoke] your children”.

  • Could this be the reason why many children who grow up in church, the moment they are old enough to make their own decisions, stop coming to church?

  • They see everything about us, don’t they: what we are like in church as well as what we are like at home, in private.

  • If we are quick to impose expectations on others but so slow in applying the Word to ourselves, is it any wonder why many of them grow up deciding not to have anything to do with the church?

  • Friends, we all need reminder and warning: be quick to apply God’s Word first to ourselves before we start applying it on others.

  • “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Mt 7:5)

  • Secondly, Jesus’ encounter with the leaders teaches us to guard our hearts against pride.

  • Why was it that the Jewish leaders found it so hard to believe John the Baptist and to believe in Jesus?

  • Why couldn’t they see something that which was so obvious even to “tax collectors and prostitutes”?

  • I think it has a lot to do with pride!

  • Their knowledge had made them proud!

  • Pride kept them from accepting the Baptist as a true prophet, or else they would have had to listen to his preaching (21:25-26)!

  • Pride filled them with anger when they heard kids shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David”, for they refused to bow and confess him as King (cf. 21:15-16)!

  • Pride made it impossible for them to identify with “tax collectors and prostitutes”, or else they would have had to join them in repentance for forgiveness of sin!

  • Pride turned them into “whitewashed tombs … beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Mt 23:27)

  • “Though seeing they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” (Mt 13:13)

  • Dear friends, don’t be deceived!

  • How we respond to Jesus is the true indicator of our attitude toward God.

  • Finally, a word to those of us who are leaders.

  • When the people gathered around the Jewish leaders, their ministry among them was a ministry that leads to death, not life.

  • They taught Scripture in such a way that kills

  • And they encouraged religious service that builds false confidence in what their own religious performance.

  • How about us?

  • When we impart the Word to our people, are we handling the Word in a way that leads to life, or a way that kills?

  • May the Lord help us guard our hearts, that we will not become too proud to see ourselves as “tax collectors and prostitutes”, and do the work that God requires of us:

  • Obey his Word and trust only in Jesus as our Saviour and King!

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