Matthew 21:28-32

“By their fruits you shall know them”; “faith without works is dead,” because there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.  “Otherwise,” one great document has it, “it would be of no consequence either to discover Truth or to embrace it!”

In other words (by way of explanation), it is vanity and emptiness to see Truth – to discover Truth, to know Truth, to embrace Truth – should there be no practice or duty.  Further, it is vacuous to even speak of faith, or Truth, or good in the absence of duty!

That’s why “faith without works” is a dead issue (non-entity), according to James.  It can’t be conceived (faith without works), because there is this inseparable connection between faith and practice! Faithing!

The evil imagination of man is truly a marvelous thing – in all it’s variety; and it’s a Biblical fact that man splits himself so that he’s double-tongued and double-minded – and even upside down!  But it is vanity and hypocrisy of a very pure and pristine variety which claims Faith or Truth when there is no practice and duty!  The words “I believe” notwithstanding, what is it that one does?

“I understand that”; “Yes, I believe that with all my heart”; “I accept that, it is true”; “I saw that, I knew it was right, and I accepted it”; “Deep down in my heart, I’ve always known what is right”.  These are the words that are spoken, and they are heard; but where is the lifestyle? the duty? the practice?  The obedience!  Not the words which attest to faith, but the life of faithing!

These Sanhedrists were practitioners of law; and these priests were the hands-on operatives in the sacrificial and ceremonial system – all of which foreshadowed the coming Prophet/Priest/King/Messiah!

But to say that one is a practitioner of law, and being a doer of the Law, are not the same.  To say that one is a Levitical priest with temple duties, and being a true priest before God, are not necessarily the same.

Let me give you a Biblical illustration of that.  Eli, the high priest and governor of the Jews, had two sons who, after the order of Aaron and Levi, were also priests.  They served in the temple alongside their father.  And the people of Israel had a right to expect piety from the high priest of Israel and his sons!

But Eli’s sons were not holy men of piety.  Like fat horses they used their powerful positions as priests over the congregation to satisfy their own lusts.  Even though they were married, and even though they continued to perform all the ceremonies of the sacrificial law, they defiled everything with their debauchery.  They didn’t go to prostitutes, which would have itself been an abomination in the sight of God; but they used their power as priests to seduce the women of the congregation!  They were reprehensible characters – full of thievery and other misdeeds.  And all of this was unrestrained by Eli.

These hypocrites had seen and heard and read what was right and good.  And they themselves performed the rituals of service alongside their father.  But once again, according to James, faith without works is a dead issue – there was no faithing at all!  The words of piety and the ceremonies of piety are worthless unless Truth is personified and illustrated in daily life!  This is what faithing is!

The Lord Jesus Christ was Truth personified – was He not?  The Word Incarnate! – in the flesh!  He was “faith – illustrated”!  A character of obedience was His eloquence.  Obedience to the Father – for His glory.

On the other hand, here in our text, the elders of the people and the high priests of the temple had no such personal eloquence; for they had used and changed the Law and the ceremonies for their own benefits and purposes!  Having seen and heard what was right, their lives bore no eloquent testimony to the Truth!

Now, while we’re here I just want to spend one moment or two making a distinction concerning the pious life.  And that distinction is this:  that a pious, faithing life is not a witness of the Truth to the lost!  You can’t get away with that.  Faith comes by hearing – not by sight, or any other human sense.  So a faithing, pious, obedient life is not a testimony to the Truth.

But when others hear the Gospel of God and the Holy Name of Jesus Christ, they do have a right to expect piety from the one who ministers that Gospel!  They have a right to expect a life of faithing and holiness!  In fact, they have right to expect a higher degree of faithfulness, don’t they?  It is a higher standard!

And further, the faithing (piety) must be there – otherwise there will be ridicule for the Gospel minister – from the people and from God!  And chaos.  And judgment.

But, again, piety isn’t a witness of the Truth to the lost!  Without it comes shame and ridicule; but it’s not a witness!  With faithfulness and piety, among God’s servants, the authority of God is retained over the world order; but it is not the message.  It is not Kerygma, not the proclamation!

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the one and Only, “Unique” Son of God, spoke the Truth of God with great authority.  (He was the Word Incarnate.)  And although accused of wrongdoing, His was a life of “faithing”!  He never deviated from the revealed Will of His Father.  And His obedience (faithfulness, piety) lent great authority to what He said!

Not so with the elders of Israel and the high priests of the temple.  Malachi had prophesied that they would be despicable!  The form and the ceremony was there, but the nation was disintegrated because the leaders “draw nigh unto Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me.”  They performed the ceremonies, but they did not witness to the Truth; and they did not live obedient and pious lives!

Their corruption was predatory (just as the sons of Eli), and their authority was for their own benefit and esteem.  They kept the people in fear, because that’s the only kind of authority they had!  They had no moral authority, because their deeds did not match their words.  What they did wasn’t what they said!

John the Baptist had come preaching repentance, and baptizing with the baptism of repentance; and the elders had “seen” him and heard his words – prophecy.  And they didn’t believe him!  And then, later on, after John had been beheaded, they had refused, because of the shame, to attest to the Truth!  God had sent the last prophet to require the repentance of the nation, and he was ignored and reviled and murdered!  And because of personal fear of humiliation the elders would not acknowledge him when Jesus asked them about him!  They said, “We don’t know.”

So instead of this being a time of repentance and self-examination and humility leading up to the appearance of the Lamb of God, this became a time of further apostasy and perversion.  Unbelief had led to further shame of unbelief!  “How can we go back now since there’s been all this time?”

And Jesus continues to heap public derision upon them as recorded by Matthew.  The hypocrites would not acknowledge the Truth (but twisted it for their own benefits), and they lived impious lives (which they authorized themselves to do legally!)  And then, when faced publicly with the Truth, they denied that they knew anything about it!  Do you see the nature of hypocrisy?

And now, since they have lied, Jesus exposes that publicly, too – proving that they did know about John; and are capable of making true judgments, and that they were now covering it up in order to lessen their own humiliation!

As we look at the words and verses of the text, we again need to be reminded of the fact that this is an allegory with a central point.  And you aren’t supposed to make all the persons, places and things mean something!  It takes a little “spiritualizing” and a little “making up stuff” in order to do that.  But since all of Jesus’ allegories have a central point, it’s rather easy to find that point in the language and the context.  One doesn’t have to “guess” or get “mystical”.

But the point in Jesus’ allegory is to trap the elders and priests into exposing their own lies and hypocrisy!  Hypocrites and liars always trap themselves and condemn themselves.  And I want to show you that first – before we come back to some specifics in the language itself.

Jesus sets the trap at the beginning of verse twenty-eight when He says, “and what (or how) does it seem to you….”  He’s asking for their opinions here.  He is requesting their studied judgment and experience and wisdom.  And, of course, when an opinion is requested, the pharisees’ mind-set is flattered.  They see an opportunity to gain back some stature that they’ve already lost by firing back an appropriate answer to Jesus’ hypothetical question.  If Jesus is, indeed, asking for their opinions here, then things might just be turning back in their direction!  For, to whom does one go for an opinion… to one whose judgment and wisdom is respected!... to the elders and priests!

But as we know, the appeal to their opinion is the bait to get them into the snare, so that it can spring shut!  And what Jesus wants them to do is to judge the ethics of two hypothetical children and give an opinion as to which of them took the best course of action.

And the answer was easy; so they just confidently and magisterially presented their judgment on the case!  They took the bait!  They just couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a positive pronouncement of right and wrong – at the request of this Jesus, and in front of these crowds!  So without thinking about what they had done, without a single glimpse into the consequences of their answer, they pronounced one of the children as having done the will of the father.  The first one (verse thirty-one).  The commended him; and they did not commend the other one.

And the trap springs shut on them from three different directions; and they can’t remove themselves from it!  They’re caught!  In their haste to judge and to look judicial and authoritative, and to retrieve some of that esteem for themselves that was lost, they completely expose their lies and hypocrisy.

In the first place, when it really mattered… when the issue was whether John the Baptist was sent from God with the spirit and power of Elijah; when the issue was whether the elders of Israel had ignored and discounted a major prophet and forerunner of Messiah; when the issue was whether the elders and priests were studying and instructing the people in the way of righteousness.  When the issues were these that really mattered, they lied and said they didn’t know!  They couldn’t make an ethical judgment about it!

But when it was just a theoretical or allegorical question such as this one concerning two hypothetical children, then they are quite ready, willing and able to speak forth concerning the Truth!

So in the first question they claimed they couldn’t make a judgment about that – they didn’t know.  They weren’t capable of making a judgment….  But of course the real reason was that it wasn’t advantageous for them to declare themselves.  So that was a lie to avoid the humiliation.

But in this second question they were tricked into an immediate and authoritative judgment of the Truth!  Lo and behold, it came to pass that they were capable of seeing and judging the Truth!  The only difference in the two situations was how they were going to appear to the crowds when they responded to the questions.

The lying hypocrisy here is instantly evident to everyone present; and I’m sure that shock and embarrassment raced through their minds and bodies when they realized that they had exposed the hypocrisy of their first answer.

But then, of course, flushed, red faces became even redder when they realized that they had gone a lot further into this trap than they had even realized!  Because the young man who they have just commended (the first child in the allegory) was sorrowed later on because of what he had refused to do.  Yet they, the elders and high priests of Israel who have commended this hypothetical young man, did not sorrow after not believing John… they did not sorrow in order to believe him, according to Jesus, verse thirty-two.

If, after not believing John, they had sorrowed over not seeing the way of righteousness, and if, as a result of that sorrow, they had believed him, then they would have been “like” the first son in the allegory – who they commended!  But they did not!  But they did commend him:  “The first did the will of the father,” they said.  But, you see, their own words reveal their hypocrisy.  They verbally commend the son for sorrow and obedience when they, themselves, did not do the work of sorrow and obedience!  They commend it, but they will not do it!

That’s exactly what Jesus means at the end of the last verse of the text:


“moreover you, having seen, neither were you sorrowed of it afterward to believe him.”


Do you see the hypocrisy?  The authority and power come from their mouths, in their opinion in the case, but they would not do their own opinion!  Without the works of obedience there is not faith!  Faith without works is empty vanity.  In fact it is no faith at all.

And then thirdly the blushing embarrassment was made all the worse when Jesus said that the plain teaching and baptism of John had been believed by the tax collectors and prostitutes – the lowest dregs of Jewish society.  (The third part of the trap had slammed shut.)

By commending the son who did the will of his father, the very top class of Jewish society placed themselves underneath the lowest class!  For the lowest class believed John, and they are now being commended by the elders and priests!  Do you see that?  They sorrowed and believed, just like the son who did the will of the father.

But the elders and priests did not sorrow and believe, so they stand behind even the worst among them!  And nothing could be more disgraceful and shameful to a pharisee than to be compared unfavorably to harlots and tax mongerers.  So Jesus has baited them and trapped them; and by their anxious need to be seen as Israel’s authority, they gladly stepped right into the trap.  And, by their own words, in three different ways they have been shamed and humiliated before all these people.  They have condemned themselves in triplicate by their own words.

One issue which needs to be addressed before we leave this text is found in the second half of verse thirty-one.  What does Jesus mean when He says that the tax collectors and prostitutes go before you into the Kingdom…?  It is the very confusing interpretation that many try to force into the text that we have to avoid here – that somehow even these Jewish leaders are going into the Kingdom, albeit last!  The reasoning is that if the prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the Kingdom of God, then the elders and priests of Israel are too… since the tax collectors and prostitutes are going in before them!

But that interpretation, as I said, has to be forced on the language and context.  There’s really nothing here at all having to do with the salvation of all Jews; and the term “before you” has nothing whatever to do with time of sequence in entering the Kingdom.

What the text says, as Jesus speaks in the present tense, is that these “rabble” of Jewish society, including the dregs and the lowest classes of untouchables, are going into the Kingdom in full sight of the elders of Israel and the high priests of the temple!  Right before them…!  And in verse thirty-two Jesus says that they’ve seen this happening, and they still refuse to sorrow and believe!

Right in front of their eyes, tax collectors and prostitutes and the other rabble of Israel are believing John and believing Jesus and entering into the Kingdom of God.  But those who proclaim their authority from God, looking at it, and seeing it, have not sorrowed and have not believed.

Needless to say, this public embarrassment of the leaders of Israel was not forgotten; for in three days the One proclaimed by John to be the “Lamb of God” was to be crucified.

Our Lord didn’t stop there, though.  He pushes the humiliation of Israel’s leaders even further.  We haven’t the time to see the next allegory (the so-called “wicked husbandman”), but Jesus embarrasses them even to a greater degree in the following verses.

But, this morning let’s see, first, that the one who says “I believe”, yet isn’t a faithful “doer”, is a hypocrite.  And remember that “pharisee” and “hypocrite” are very nearly synonymous terms.  And Jesus’ condemnation of the pharisees is condemnation of all hypocrites.

Secondly, since all of us know what the Truth is, and we all know God, those who say they are ignorant of what the Truth is (and therefore excuse themselves of faithlessness and lack of duty and integrity) are liars – and worthy of the Lord’s condemnation.

And, thirdly, since there are many who confess the Truth and sorrow and repent in full view, the ones who will not sorrow and repent are – further – left without excuse!  And they embarrass and humiliate themselves by remaining faithless, non-doers of the Word.  They will rightly judge a hypothetical situation of ethics (proving that they already know what’s right); but they still refuse to repent of their own wrongdoing and do their duty before God and His holy Law-word.

Jesus said, “blessed are the poor in spirit”.  The first step is deep sorrow and grief with regard to our sin – and repentance.  There are prostitutes, tax-mongerers, thieves and drug pushers among those who have done so.  But hypocrites, even though they see them all around them, refuse to do the same!

Faithing is doing what is good and pleasing to God according to His Word.  And it doesn’t matter how long one has been involved in the faithlessness; it doesn’t matter if that lack of duty is an ingrained habit; it’s just a non-factor!

Turn in sorrow and repentance to faithfulness and duty and integrity before God.  And forgiveness is there in abundance from our Lord Jesus Christ.