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Rev. Slopsema is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.

But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. 

He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. 

And he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. 

Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 

For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.

Matthew 21:28-32

On Monday of Passion Week Jesus had for the second time in His ministry cleansed the temple, driving out those who bought and sold animals. The next day the chief priests and elders approached Jesus and challenged Him, “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?”

Jesus responded with His own question, “The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?”

The leaders declined to answer. They knew that, should their response be that the baptism of John was from heaven, Jesus would ask them why they had not believed John. And should their response be that it was of men, the people would be angry. Hence, they respond, “We cannot tell.”

Well, neither then did Jesus answer their question. “Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.”

In response to this, Jesus related what is commonly called the parable of the two sons. Jesus also gave the point of the parable: The publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders of the people. For John the Baptist came unto the chief priests and elders in the way of righteousness, but they believed him not. However, the publicans and the harlots did believe.


Jesus described the situation of a man and his two sons.

The man instructed both his sons to go for the day into his vineyard and work. The first son initially refused. But upon reflection he repented and went to do as his father commanded. The second son indicated very emphatically that he would go to work in his father’s vineyard. To indicate his willingness to do his father’s will he even called his father, “Sir” (i.e., lord). But in fact he did not go.

Jesus asked the chief priests and elders, “Whether of the twain did the will of his father?”

Correctly, they responded that the first son did the will of his father: he who said, “I will not,” but afterward repented and went.

From Jesus’ explanation of this parable we learn who these two sons represent.

The first son, who initially re fused to do the will of his father but then repented, represents the publicans and harlots of Jesus’ day. The publicans and harlots were the scum of society. The publicans were tax collectors in the employ of the Roman government, and they were notorious for their graft. The harlots were street prostitutes, who sold themselves for carnal pleasure.

Neither of these groups had had any concern to do the will of God the Father. Instead they had daily trampled the will of the Father under their feet openly and without shame. However, the publicans and harlots believed on John the Baptist.

According to Jesus, John came in the way of righteousness.

The way of righteousness is the way of obedience to God’s law. In Jesus’ day, that law was the Mosaic law, the law God had given to Israel at Mount Sinai through Moses. This law included not only the Ten Commandments but also the ceremonial laws, which governed Israel’s worship in the tabernacle, and the civil laws, which organized Israel into a nation. This law taught Israel to live in daily repentance and confession of their sins before God. This law taught Israel to cling by faith to the blood of atonement pictured and promised in the sacrifices at the altar of the tabernacle. This law taught Israel to live a life of service to God in humble gratitude for His redemption. This is the way of righteousness.

In this way John came to Israel. This means not only that John himself personally walked this way of righteousness, but that in his preaching he also proclaimed this way of righteousness to Israel. John came to Israel preaching the nearness of the kingdom. In fact, said John, the great King was about to show Himself. However, warned John, the people could have no part of this kingdom, unless they turned back to the law and to the way of righteousness which Israel had long ago abandoned. John’s message was one of repentance.

The publicans and harlots believed John. They not only believed what He taught to be true, they also heeded his call to faith and repentance. In obedience to God’s law they repented of their wicked lives, clung to the blood of atonement promised by God, and lived grateful lives before God.

As a sign of their repentance and new-found way of righteousness, they were baptized by John. And when Jesus came to them, these same publicans and (former) harlots also adhered to Him.

Certainly these are represented by the son who, although he initially refused to do the will of his father, repented and did this father’s will.

The second son, who initially agreed to do his father’s will but did it not, represents the chief priests and elders of the people. The chief priests and elders were predominately Pharisees. The Pharisees were very religious in keeping the law, at least in its externals. In fact, they went to extremes, doing and requiring of others much more than God spoke in the law. They were also self-righteous. They expected to receive the reward of eternal life on the basis of their own superabundant righteousness.

However, when John came to them in the way of righteousness, they believed him not.

According to Jesus’ own words, the chief priests and elders were hypocrites. They were hypocritical in that their rigorous obedience to the law was only a show. As is clear from the many rebukes Jesus hurled their way, their inner thoughts and desires were contrary to the law. Their thoughts were filled with murder, adultery, and thievery. Nor did they have any regard for the law in its essence: to love God and the neighbor, to show mercy to the needy, to cling to the blood of atonement. . . .

In his preaching, John exposed the hypocrisy of the chief priests and elders. John also called them to repentance. But they did not believe. They did not believe that John spoke the truth. Neither would they repent and look for the coming Savior to take away their sins before God. Nor did they believe, when they saw the publicans and harlots believe.

Obviously the chief priests and elders of the people are represented in Jesus’ parable by the son who with great enthusiasm promised to do the will of his father but did it not.


The publicans and harlots will enter the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders.

Both John and Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the kingdom of God.

About this kingdom we may say the following. It was pictured in the Old Testament kingdom of Israel in Canaan. On the basis of His atoning death on the cross Jesus established this kingdom in heaven at His ascension. Although established at the ascension, this kingdom will be complete only when Jesus comes again to destroy this present world and make all things new. This kingdom is not earthly in nature but heavenly and spiritual. Finally, it is in this kingdom that God’s people find the joys of an eternal life with God.

According to Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the two sons, the publicans and harlots would go into the kingdom before the chief priests and elders. The meaning of Jesus is not that, while both groups would enter into the kingdom one day, the publicans and harlots would have priority over the chief priests and elders.

The meaning is rather that the publicans and harlots would enter into the kingdom whereas the chief priests and elders would not, except they repent with the publicans and harlots.

What a shocking statement this was. For the prevailing opinion in Israel was just the opposite of that expressed by Jesus. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that the nation as a whole was given over to the works-righteousness error of the Pharisees.

And why would the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom before the chief priests and elders? The answer is obvious. The one did the will of the Father, whereas the other did not. In response to the preaching of John and Jesus they turned to the way of righteousness, confessing their sins in godly sorrow, clinging to the blood of atonement, living grateful lives of service. This is the only way into the kingdom.

And so, when the kingdom did come at Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit of the kingdom was poured out without measure. The Spirit came not upon the chief priests and elders of the Jews. For they had no part of the kingdom and its blessings. The Spirit of Pentecost came rather upon the publicans and harlots and all those who did the will of the Father. Through the indwelling Spirit of Pentecost these were very really brought into the kingdom to enjoy the wonderful life of the kingdom, eternal life with God.


It ought to be obvious which of these two groups we must resemble.

Certainly we are not to be like the chief priests and the elders, who in a spirit of self-righteousness claim to do the will of God but in pride refuse to acknowledge their sins, cling to the cross, or live out of Jesus Christ. For then we would be like the son who agreed to do the will of his father, but did it not. Neither would we find entrance into the kingdom.

Rather we must humble ourselves to acknowledge that we repeatedly stumble into sin as the publicans and harlots. And, embracing the way of righteousness proclaimed by John and Jesus, we must sorrow after our sin, cling to the cross for forgiveness, and live grateful lives in the power of Jesus Christ. Then we are the son who initially refused to do the will of the father but repented and did it.

Then too we will daily enter into the kingdom to enjoy a rich life in God’s fellowship.