Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Death of the Father’s Beloved Son: Mark 12:1-12

Throughout human history, the telling of stories has always been a powerful medium to convey a message. Entire civilizations have disappeared, leaving only scant traces of their history, but their stories survive, handed down orally and in written form. The creative and imaginative streak within us loves a good story. When God reveals Himself to us in the pages of Scripture, He makes much use of stories. The Bible contains many different genres of literature, but a large percentage of the Bible contains stories. Most of those stories are historical narratives of actual events which took place. But then there are times when God’s spokesmen tell a story for the purpose of making a point. When the prophet Nathan confronted King David about his adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband Uriah, he told a story about a rich man who had stolen the only precious lamb of a poor neighbor. With rich verbal imagery, the prophet told of the poor man’s love for his lamb, and the callous act that the rich man committed against him. The story aroused anger in the King’s heart, and he exclaimed, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die.” And the prophet, having made his point clear through the story, said to the King, “You are the man!”

We call stories like these “Parables.” Some have defined them as earthly stories with spiritual meaning. No one ever employed parables with greater effectiveness than Jesus. The Gospels are full of these memorable sayings of the Lord, though relatively few occur in Mark. Mark’s gospel is characterized by rapidly moving action. So, when Mark slows the action down to incorporate a story like the one we have here, we understand that there is significant meaning attached to the story and we should pay special attention to it.

As Chapter 12 opens, the scene has not changed. We are still at the Temple where Jesus has been confronted by members of the Sanhedrin, Jerusalem’s ruling council, with a question of His authority. In that interaction, Jesus has turned the tables on the Sanhedrin and exposed them for their ignorance and their lack of true spiritual power. Chapter 11 concludes with Jesus saying that He will not tell them by what authority He has done the things that have aroused their ire. But then He begins to tell this story about a man who owns a vineyard. The vineyard has been rented out to tenant-farmers who are to nourish and cultivate the vineyard for the owner. They are accountable to the owner for the harvest. And when harvest time comes, the owner sends a servant to collect some of the harvest as a “rent-payment” from the vine-growers. After this servant is mistreated by the tenant-farmers, the owner sends another, and another, and each one is treated worse than the last. Verse five summarizes this: “And so with many others, beating some and killing others.” And then we come to the climax of the story: in verse 6, the owner of the vineyard has no more servants to send, and so he sends his beloved son into the vineyard. And the son is killed as well. This is really the crux of the story: the death of the father’s beloved son.

Now, why would Jesus tell this story here at this place and at this time? He tells it to answer the question about His authority. By what authority has He entered the Temple and upset the entire temple system without the Sanhedrin’s approval? He has come under the authority of His Father. He is the beloved Son who has come to set things aright on His Father’s behalf. You see, all those who heard this parable spoken who were familiar with the Scriptures would recognize the similarity between Jesus’ description of the vineyard and the parable of the vineyard found in Isaiah 5. Here in Mark 12, we read, “A man planted a vineyard and put a wall around it, and dug a vat under the wine press and built a tower.” In Isaiah 5, we read, “My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it and also hewed out a wine vat in it.” Later on, he speaks of the hedge and the wall that surrounded it. Yes, those who knew their Bibles recognized as Jesus described this vineyard that He was speaking of the same vineyard that Isaiah had spoken of in his parable.

A parable is not the same as an allegory. In an allegory, every detail has a corresponding significance and sign-value. In a parable, some details are superfluous, added just to enrich the story. But the main features of the parable will correspond symbolically with something in reality. And in Isaiah’s parable, the vineyard was a symbol of Israel, chosen by God, and nurtured and cultivated so that it would produce good fruit for Him. And so it is in Jesus’ parable. The vineyard is Israel, and the owner of the vineyard is God. The vine-growers in Jesus’ story are those who are accountable to God for the spiritual well-being of His people. The priests, the scribes and the elders have been entrusted with the task of teaching and leading God’s people. And they are accountable to God for the spiritual condition of the nation.

Those familiar with the Isaiah parable would recall what took place in the vineyard of God. Isaiah 5:2 says, “He expected it to produce good grapes, But it produced only worthless ones.” The Hebrew word translated “worthless ones” there is the word beushim – it means literally “stinking things.” Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer translates it “stink fruit.” And in that case, when the owner has done all within his power to have a healthy productive vineyard, the growth of stink fruit must be the responsibility of the tenant vine-growers. They will give an answer to the owner of the vineyard for the stink-fruit that is being produced. And so it is that the religious leaders of Israel are accountable to God for the pitiful state of spiritual affairs that have prevailed in the nation over many generations.

Now, over the course of time, God had repeatedly sent His servants the prophets to report on the condition of the nation and to enforce this accountability, as if they had come to collect rent on the vineyard. One by one they came, one by one their message was rejected. Ultimately God sent His Son. The writer of Hebrews said it this way: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” And the Son is treated no better than those servants who came before Him. He is put to death.

This parable is all about the death of the father’s beloved son. To those who have ears to hear it, it is yet one more prediction of the coming death of the Lord Jesus. Lest they think that His death comes as a tragic accident or a surprise attack, He has announced it in advance on multiple occasions, as in Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34. The death of the Father’s beloved Son occurs in the doing of the Father’s work, it is brought about at the hands of the Father’s wayward workers, and it ultimately accomplishes the Father’s will. These are the realities of the death of the Son. The early band of Christ’s followers needed to understand this, and so do we. Unless we conceive of the death of Christ in this way, we will chalk it up to an unfortunate mistake, we will fail to grasp the depth of the love of God for us in the sending of His Son, and we will minimize the glory of our crucified and risen Savior.

I. The Death of the Son Occurs in the Doing of the Father’s Work

In the parable, the father has sent his beloved son into his own vineyard to collect what is rightfully his from the tenant-farmers. The son has come as the father’s representative, with the father’s authority, to the father’s property, to claim the father’s due.[1] Unlike the servants who have come before him, the son has a legal claim over the vineyard, as his father’s heir. But in doing the work of his father, he is put to death.

We’ve already said that the image of the vineyard in the parable of Jesus expands on the parable of Isaiah in which the vineyard was a picture of Israel. They are God’s people, chosen by Him to be His agents in the world. They were not chosen because God preferred them above all the other nations. They were not chosen because God desired them and them only. Rather they were chosen to be a light to the nations, that through them, God might send forth His word into all the earth and redeem all of humanity for Himself. In His call to Abraham in Genesis 12, God did not say that He would bless Abraham and his descendants alone, to the exclusion of all the other nations. Rather God said, “I will bless you and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing.” Then He said, “In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” This was the grand charter for the nation of Israel, to be a blessing in the world, and to bring other nations into the knowledge of God. We might say that Israel was chosen to be God’s missionaries in the world, to bear fruit for Him among the nations. But over the course of time, Israel failed to be this missionary nation. They took the blessings of God for granted and began to follow after the gods of the nations, maintaining only superficial allegiance to the one true and living God. They continued with the sacrifices and offerings and all of the external matters of religion, but their hearts were far from God and they failed to produce this fruit that God had called them to bear.

And so in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son. He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill the Word of God that had been declared. He came to set matters aright, to settle accounts with the nation.

Jesus said in John 5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing.” He went on to say, “the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do—testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me.” Later in John 8, Jesus said, “I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” Then in John 10, He said, “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”

Just as the owner of the vineyard sent His beloved son, so God the Father sent His beloved Son into the world to do His work. At His baptism, the voice of the Father broke through the heavens declaring, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” On the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice came again stating, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!” The Father’s beloved Son came on a mission of the Father, to do His work. And John said of Him in John 1:11, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” And in the course of doing His Father’s work, He was put to death.

II. The Death of the Son Is Brought About At the Hands of the Father’s Wicked Workers

The vine-growers in the story reflect a common practice found in the early part of the first-century in Judah. Secular and religious literature from the period depict the widespread practice of tenant-farming. On most farmlands, the tenants rented the land from the owner and planted crops for themselves. In a vineyard, however, the tenants cultivated the vines which had been established by the owner. Some vines could take up to five years to bear fruit, and during that time, they would require constant irrigation and care. But when harvest time came, the landowner would send his representative to collect a portion of the harvest as payment for the use of the land.

In the spiritual realm, God has delegated much of His work to be carried out by human agents. Like the tenant farmers, the priesthood of Israel has been entrusted with the responsibility of leading the nation to walk faithfully and fruitfully with God. They are accountable to God for the work that they do, and for what they fail to do. Throughout the history of the nation, whenever it has begun to drift from faithfulness to God, He has sent His servants the prophets to proclaim His truth to the people. Often, their messages contain indictments against the religious leaders of the nation who have either tolerated or encouraged the decline. Many were not received well by the leaders of the nation and many suffered at the hands of those who should have been working for the advance of God’s purposes. But at various times in Israel’s history, including in Jesus’ day, the priesthood was enjoying comfort and prosperity in the midst of the spiritual decline, and were threatened by the message of repentance that the prophets announced. So, in our parable, the servants who come on behalf of the vineyard owner to collect what is due threaten the prosperity and personal comforts of the tenants. They reject their accountability and punish the messenger. C. H. Dodd commented that they paid their rent in blows. They beat the first servant who came and sent him away empty-handed. The second one, they wounded in the head and treated shamefully. The third, they killed. More came, and more were beaten and killed.

In Matthew 23, Jesus addressed the scribes and Pharisees saying, “"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell? Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” They had beaten and killed the servants God had sent to them in the past, and they remained unchanged in Jesus’ day.

In one final act of patience and forbearance, God sent one final messenger: His beloved Son. And just as the workers in the parable began to plot the destruction of the son in verse 7, when Christ came and began to do the work of His Father, these wicked workers began to plot against Him. As early as the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we begin to see conflict brewing between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. By the third chapter, the Pharisees and Herodians were conspiring to put Him to death. And beginning in Mark 8:31, Jesus began to teach His disciples that He would be put to death by the scribes, the elders and the chief priests. He knew of their plots against Him.

These individuals should have been concerned about the spiritual well-being of the nation and the things of God. They should have recognized and received the Son with gladness. The father in the parable sent his beloved son, saying, “They will respect my son.” Certainly God the Father knew what would take place when He sent His Son into the world, but He sent Him anyway out of His love for His people and His desire to redeem them. He sent the Son knowing that He would be put to death by the wicked workers who should have been about the Father’s business.

III. The Death of the Son Accomplishes The Father’s Will

The tenant farmers have devised a scheme and carried it out. In their thinking, eliminating the heir will make the whole vineyard their own. But they have forgotten one key thing. The father still owns the vineyard, and still has the authority to hold them accountable for their deeds. And so Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” He has endured the murder and mistreatment of one servant after another and now at last they have murdered his beloved son. Will he now transfer the deed to the vineyard over to these scoundrels? By no means. “He will come and destroy the vine-growers and will give the vineyard to others.” And in so-doing, the death of the son is vindicated. His death is not the end of the story. His vindication is.

Of course, we know that the story is intended to foreshadow the soon-coming death of the Son of God. But His death will not be the end of the story. He will be vindicated by His Father. Jesus asks these religious leaders who are supposedly experts in the Scriptures, “Have you not even read this Scripture: ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone; this came about from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” This comes from Psalm 118, that great messianic psalm which the people took up to praise Jesus as He entered Jerusalem in the previous chapter. They praised Him with the words of Psalm 118:26, and now He confronts the members of the Sanhedrin with verses 22-23 of the same Psalm. These verses picture a stone being brought to the builders of the temple, a stone which the builders rejected as unfit for the temple, only to discover later that this rejected stone had become the cornerstone of the temple. The significance is easy to see. Jesus has come to the temple, and has been rejected by those who see themselves as the builders of the temple. But after they have Him put to death, they will find that He has become the foundation of a new temple God will build, made up of the living stones of those who come to Him by faith and repentance apart from temple rituals and priestly formalities.

Christ is the stone which the builders (the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders) rejected. But something marvelous in our eyes would happen very soon after! The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone as the crucified Christ rises triumphantly from the dead. And when that occurs, the wicked workers will find that their plot has failed, and all that authority that they held over the nation would be stripped away from them. Having failed to give the owner of the vineyard His due, their portion would be allotted to others, and they would be marked out for destruction. Thinking they had won a great victory in putting the beloved Son to death, they did not know that their wicked works played into the furtherance of the Father’s will. As Peter proclaimed on Pentecost in Acts 2:23-24, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” The Son is vindicated, the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone, and this came about from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

The entire history of Israel has been characterized by rebellion against the God who set them apart for Himself and delivered them time and again. They killed the prophets from Abel to Zechariah. But this is just a microcosm of human history as a whole, which has been characterized from its earliest days by the persistent attempt to rid the universe of God. To many, He is nothing more than an absentee landlord, far off and unconcerned with the events of the world. And if humanity can dispense with God, or even put Him to death, then the way is paved for humanity to have complete and autonomous sovereignty over his own affairs; as it were, to become gods for themselves.[2] Ah, but be ye not deceived, the scriptures warn, for God is not mocked. His cause will be vindicated. Accounts will be settled and all things set aright. The death of His beloved Son has been vindicated, and the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign forever and ever.

To some, Jesus is considered to be nothing more than a mystical religious figure who came onto the scene of history telling marvelous stories. Indeed, He often told parables, but as we can see with this one, this is not just a story. This is a message loaded with explosive theological significance. Those who should be working accountably under the Master’s Lordship have abused His servants, and ultimately killed His Son, but the Son will triumph in the end. And even those who heard it in that day understood completely what was meant by it. Like David, when confronted by the prophet Nathan’s parable, the religious leaders in Jerusalem understood that “He spoke the parable against them.” As Nathan pointed out David saying, “You are the man,” Jesus points the finger at the leaders and says, “You are the wicked workers of the vineyard.” But unlike David, they do not respond in repentance, but rather they sought to seize Him, thus proving themselves to be of the same nature as those in the parable. Ultimately their fear of losing face in the eyes of the people was greater than their fear of God, and they relented. But it was only momentary. They will return, and they will exercise their plot, and kill the Son. But in so doing, they only hasten His vindication and triumph.

The Father has sent His beloved Son into the world, and He has been murdered and vindicated in the resurrection. His death has become the sacrifice for the sins of man, and all who trust in Him will be saved. As Psalm 2:12 says, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.”

[1] Edwards, 358.

[2] Edwards, 359.

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