William Kelly Major Works Commentary
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.Matthew Chapter 20
The last chapter closed with the important doctrine that in the kingdom the Lord will remember all suffering and service here for His name's sake. But it is evident that though this be an undoubted truth of Scripture, referred to in Paul's epistles, and elsewhere in the New Testament, it is one which the heart would be ready to abuse to self -righteousness; and that a person forgetting that all is of grace might be disposed to make a claim upon God by reason of anything which He had enabled one to do. Hence a parable is added with a totally different principle, in which the prominent thought is the sovereignty of God, for the express purpose, I think, of guarding against such effects. For God is not unrighteous to forget our work and labour of love which we may have shown toward His name: but there is a danger for us in it. It does not follow, because God will not forget what His people do for Him, that His people are to treasure it up themselves. We have but one thing to set our souls upon: it is Christ Himself; as the apostle said, "This one thing I do: forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth unto those things that are before" - not forgetting what we have done wrong: the very reverse of this will be even in glory. When there is not a vestige of humiliation left, we shall have a more lively sense than ever of our manifold failures; but not as producing one feeling of doubt, or fear, or unhappiness. Such thoughts would be contrary to the presence of God. It is a good thing for the believer, while holding fast his full blessing, to think of what he is - to humble himself day by day in the sight of God; always remembering that true humiliation is on the ground of our being children of God. A person who had some office about the Queen, and had proper respect for her, would be thinking of her, not of himself. How much more when we are in the presence of God! This ought to fill our souls with joy in the worship of the Lord. What is comely for the saint, what is most acceptable to God, is not the constant bringing in of ourselves in one way or another, right as this may be, in a certain sense, in our closet. But the praise of God for what He is - above all, in the knowledge of His Son and of His work - is the great end of all the dealings of God with His children. The consciousness of our nothingness really shows the deepest and most real humility. Where there is habitual carelessness and lack of dependence, with their sad results, there will not be a preparedness of heart for worship. The proper thought connected with the Lord's table is that I am going to meet with Christ, to praise Him together with His saints; and this - the sense of being in His presence - keeps a check upon our spirits.
In order to keep us in this sense of grace, the Spirit of God recurs in this chapter to the sovereignty of God, the counteractive to the self-righteousness that is to be found even in the heart of a disciple. Peter said,', We have left all, and followed Thee," and the Lord assures him that it would not be forgotten; but He immediately adds the parable of the householder. Here we find, not the principle of rewards. or righteous recognition of the service done by His people, but God's own rights, His own sovereignty. Hence there are no differences here - no one specially remembered because he had won souls to Christ, or left all for Christ. The principle is, that while God will infallibly own every service and loss for the sake of Christ, yet He maintains His own title to do as He will. Some poor soul may be brought to the knowledge of Christ at the day of his death. God claims His own title to give what He pleases, to give to those who have not wrought anything at all - as we may think - just what is good in His own eyes. This is a very different principle from what we had in the last chapter, and exceedingly counter to the mind of man. "The kingdom of heaven is like to a man that is a householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard" (vers. 1, 2).
The common application of this parable to the salvation of the soul is a mistake. For this is that which Christ wrought for, suffered for, and lives for, independently of man. The poor sinner has just to give himself up to be saved by Christ. When brought to an end of himself, acknowledging that he deserves nothing but hell, how sweet that God brings before such a soul that Jesus Christ (and this is a faithful saying) came into the world to save sinners! When content to be saved as nothing but a sinner, and by nothing but Christ, there and then only is true rest given of Him. Wherever one thinks to contribute his part, it will be - only uncertainty, and doubts, and difficulties. Christ alone is our salvation. The man that is saved contributes nothing but his sins. But in this parable the question is not this; it is the work of each servant, as the Lord is pleased to call to labour in His vineyard. If He please, He' will put all upon an equal footing. He will reward the work that is done, but He will give as He will.
"When he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market-place; and said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way" (vers. 2-4). It is not grace in the sense of salvation here. Whatsoever is right I will give you." It is God that judges what is becoming. "Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise." And, singular to say, "about the eleventh hour he went out." What a heart this tells! What infinite goodness! that God, who recognizes every service and suffering done for Himself, yet keeps intact the prerogative of going out at the last moment to bring in souls, and occupy them with what might seem to be a little service! But He can give grace to do that little well. "About the eleventh hour he went out . . . and saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first" (vers. 6-8). "Beginning from the last." The last are always spoken of first in this parable. So the steward is told to begin from the last unto the first. And again, when the master of the vineyard has to speak himself, it is the same thing: "The last shall be first, and the first last." It is the sovereignty of grace in giving as He pleases; not alone in saving, but in rewarding in the time of glory; for this is what is spoken of.
Of course the last received their wages thankfully. But when the first heard about it, they began to think themselves entitled to more - they who had borne the burden and heat of the day. But the master reminds them that all was a settled thing before they entered on their work. In their selfishness, they forgot both the terms and the righteousness of him with whom they had to do. If, out of the liberality of his heart, he was pleased to give to the last even as to the first, what was that to them? God maintains His own rights. It is of greatest importance for our souls that we hold to the rights of God in everything. Persons will argue as to whether it is righteous for God to elect this person or that. But on the ground of righteousness all are lost, and for ever. Now, if God is pleased to use His mercy according to His wisdom, and for His glory, toward these poor lost ones, who is to dispute with Him? "Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God?" God is entitled to act according to what is in His heart: and "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" Is He entitled to act from Himself? He cannot act from man on the grounds of righteousness.There is no foundation on which he can thus deal; it is entirely a question of His own good pleasure. And we must remember there is not a man that is lost but rejects the mercy of God, despises it, or uses it for his own selfish purposes in this world. The man that is saved is the only one that has a true sense of sin, that gives himself up as lost, and falls back upon God's mercy in Christ to save a lost sinner.
To the complainant, the goodman of the house answered, "Friend, I do thee no wrong. Didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way; I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?" (vers. 13-15). There comes out the whole secret. Man, yea, a professing disciple, a labourer in His vineyard, may be disputing because he thinks himself entitled to more than another who, in his opinion, has done little as compared with himself. The question of being a child of God does not enter in this parable; and, as to service, one may be a true servant or a mere hireling.
I would just ask, Why in the last chapter it was, "Many that are first shall be last, and the last first," and here, "The last shall be first, and the first last?" In speaking about rewards, according to the work done, the failure of man is intimated; for indeed weakness soon shows itself - "The first shall be last." But in this new parable it is the sovereignty of God that never fails; consequently here, "The last shall be first and the first last." "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present evil world." There was a first, we may say, who became last - a labourer for the Lord, who had not given up Christianity, but grown tired of the path of unremitting service for Christ. If, instead of honour now, the thousands of those who are engaged in the service of Christ were to receive scorn and persecution, there would be no slight thinning of their ranks. But shame and suffering must be looked for by him who intelligently seeks to serve faithfully the Lord in this world. Demas may have been a believer; but the trial and reproach, the love of ease and other things all came strongly over his spirit, and he abandoned the service of the Lord. "All seek their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ's" is a similar principle.
And now the Lord is going up to Jerusalem, and prepares His disciples for still greater trouble. I 'Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify Him: and the third day He shall rise again" (vers. 18, 19). Even after this, so selfish is the heart of man, the mother of Zebedee's children comes to Him with her sons, who were among the apostles themselves; and, paying her worship to Him, she desires a certain thing of Him. "And He said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto Him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on Thy right hand and the other on the left, in Thy kingdom" (ver. 21). So perfect is the humiliation of Christ, such His self-abandonment (He, the only One who had perfect knowledge of, and right to everything by His personal glory), that He says, I have no place to give in My kingdom - it is not mine to give, save as My Father may desire. But I have something to give you now: it is suffering. Yes, suffering for and with Him is what Christ gives His servants now - a high privilege. When the apostle Paul was converted, he asked, "What wilt Thou have me to do?" The Lord tells him what great things he should suffer for His name's sake. The highest honour we can have here is suffering with and for Christ. This our Lord lets the mother of Zebedee's children know. "Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto Him, We are able" (ver. 22). He took in two different kinds of suffering: the cup, which is inward suffering; and the baptism, which expresses what we are immersed into outwardly. The two include every kind of trial, inward and outward. He is not here speaking about the cross in atonement, for there can be no fellowship in this. But there might be the cross in rejection, though not as atonement. There may be the sharing of what Christ suffered from man, but not of what He suffered from God. When He was suffering for sin on the cross, relationship is dropped, as He bows in infinite grace to the place of judgment. He is made sin. He realizes what it is to be forsaken of God, making Himself responsible for the sins of men. He says, therefore, in that terrible moment on the cross, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? In this we can have no part. God forsook Jesus that He might not forsake us. God never forsakes a Christian nor hides Himself from him.
When the Lord says, "Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto Him, We are able." They did not know what they said, any more than what they asked. For, when our Lord was only in danger of death, we find that they all forsook Him and fled. As for one of them, if he did venture into the hall of judgment, it was merely, as it were, under the high priest's robe; that is, on the plea of being known to him. When Peter followed on his own ground, it was only to show his utter weakness. In presence of such a cup as this, and such a baptism, the Lord says, "Ye shall indeed drink of My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with" (not, ye are able): "but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of My Father" (ver. 23). I would just remark that the words which are put in italics (and inserted without warrant) mar the sense very much. Without them the sense is better. It was His to give to those only to whom the Father destined it. Christ is the administrator of the rewards of the kingdom. As He was the Servant in suffering, He also shall dispense the rewards and glories of the kingdom.
"And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren" (ver. 24). No doubt it seemed a very right thing to put down these two brethren who were so full of themselves. But why were they thus indignant? Their pride was wounded; they too were full of themselves. Christ was not filled with indignation - it was a sorrow to Him: but they were moved with hot feeling against the two brethren. We have to take care. Often where we seek to pull down those that seek to exalt themselves, there is self or! our part too. Suppose one of us has fallen into sin. There is often a good deal of strong feeling about it: but is this the best way of showing our sense of sin? Those who feel most for God, feel also the deepest for those who have slipped away from Him. "If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. "
"But Jesus called them unto Him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them; and they that are great exercise authority upon them" (ver. 25). He put His finger upon that very love of greatness in themselves. They were loud in condemning it in James and John; but their feeling betrayed the same thing in their own hearts. "It shall not be so among you," says the Lord, "but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant." There is a difference between the two words. The word translated "minister "means a servant. But in verse 27 it is a bondman or slave. Do you want to be really great according to the principles of My kingdom? Go down as low as you can. Do you want to be the greatest? Go down the lowest of all. Whoever has least of self is greatest in the Lord's eyes. For "the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many" (ver. 28). He took the lowest place of all, and gave His life a ransom for many. Blessed for ever be His name!
The last verses properly belong to the next chapter, which is the approach of our Lord to Jerusalem from the way of Jericho. And it is necessary to take the two chapters together, to have the proper connection of all that is given us here. But I cannot close this part of the subject without recalling attention to the principles of the kingdom of God as shown us by Christ Himself. What a call for self-renouncing service! What a joy to think that everything that now is a trial will be found as a joy in that kingdom! There are some who think they are favoured with few opportunities for serving the Lord - who are shut out from what their hearts would desire. Let us remember that He who knows everything has a right to give as He will to His own and of His own. He will do the very best according to His heart. Our one business now is to think of Him who came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many. That is our prime call and need - to be Christ's servants in serving each other.
In the transfiguration we had a picture of the coming kingdom; Christ, the Head and Centre, with representatives of its heavenly and earthly aspects; on the one side, Moses and Elias glorified; and on the other, the three disciples in their natural bodies. This was a turning point in the history of our Lord's course, which John passes by, but it is given fully in the other three Gospels. The Cross, because of sin, is the foundation of all glory. There could be nothing stable or holy without it. It is the sole channel through which flows all our blessings; and Christ's decease, we know from Luke, was the theme on the holy mount. But John gives us nothing of that scene; because he is occupied with Christ as the Son. In John we have, not the human side, but the deity of the Lord Jesus: His rejection by Israel, and Israel's consequent rejection by God, are assumed from the beginning of that Gospel: as we read, "He came to His own, and His own received Him not." Now the transfiguration does not bring out the deity of Christ, but His glory as exalted Son of Man, owned withal as Son of God. This was a sample of the glory of the Lord in His future kingdom; with the types of some risen and heavenly, and of others in their natural or earthly state. But John does not show us the kingdom, but the Father's house. The world may in some measure, see the glory, as fore shown on the mount, but this is not our best portion. While we look for "that blessed hope" and the appearing of the glory, our hope is to be with Christ in the many-mansioned house of the Father - a hope which is far beyond any blessing of the kingdom. Neither will it be displayed. The secrets of love and communion of Christ with the Church are not for display before the world. Doubtless the glory and the place of power which the Church will possess in the coming kingdom will be displayed; for these form some of the chief features in the millennial reign. Thus the mount of transfiguration holds an important place in the three synoptic Gospels, as showing Christ in the capacity of Messiah, Servant, and Son of Man. As such, He will be displayed after the pattern in the mount, and accordingly, the three Evangelists, who present Christ in these three aspects, give us the transfiguration. The thought of present reception by the Jews, as we have seen, had been entirely given up, and the new thing coming in begins to be announced. Christ must suffer and die.
The end of our chapter, from Matthew 20:30, is a preface to Matthew 21, where we have the last formal presentation of the King - not with the thought of being received; but for the filling up of man's iniquity and the accomplishment of the counsels of God, He presents Himself as such. The Lord is on His way to Jerusalem, and two blind men cry unto Him, Have mercy on us, O Lord, Thou Son of David! If they knew nothing of the impending crisis, they notwithstanding were completely in the spirit of the scene. The Holy Ghost was acting upon them that they might bear testimony to Jesus, who was now for the last time to be publicly presented as Heir to the throne. What a picture! The seeing ones, in their blind hardness of heart, rejecting their own Messiah, though owned of Gentiles as the born King of the Jews; and the poor blind ones, through faith, loudly confessing Him the true King. Perhaps their principal, their one desire, may have been to be healed of their blindness. Be it so; but God, at any rate, gave to their faith the proper object and the just confession for that moment, for He was guiding the scene. Whatever was the thought of the blind men in crying after the Lord, God's design was that there should be a suited testimony rendered to His King, the "Son of David." A Jew would well understand all that was implied in the title. What a condemnation of Pharisees and scribes who had rejected Christ! The highest point of view is not always the most proper. The circumstances vary. Thus the confession of Christ as "Son of David" was more in keeping here than if they had said, "Thou Son of God." We have only to weigh the various titles to see that in hailing Him according to His Jewish glory, they uttered that which was in unison with what God was then doing.
Let me ask, reverently, Why should the resurrection of Lazarus be omitted in the first three Gospels? Man, if these accounts had been his work, would not have omitted it, surely. It would have been thought far too important to be left out under any consideration. The omission of so stupendous a miracle, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, points out clearly that it is the Spirit of God who wrought sovereignty and writes by each with a special purpose. If so, that which men call inconsistencies and imperfections, are really perfections in God's word. It was a part of the purpose of God to omit the miracle in some, for He only presents those facts which suit His design in each Gospel. This miracle of raising Lazarus does not show us Christ as the Messiah, or the Servant, or the Son of Man, but as the Son of God, who gives life and raises the dead - a grand point of doctrine in John 5 - therefore it is given in John's Gospel alone. There were other miracles of raising the dead in the other Gospels; but the truth of the Sonship and present glory of Jesus in communion with the Father is not in these others the prominent one. It is not, therefore, as Son of God that He appears in them. Take, for instance, the raising the widow's son at Nain. What are the circumstances brought into emphasis there? He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. Luke, or rather the Spirit, is careful to note this; for it is what gives point to the touching story. "He restored him to his mother." It is the Lord's human sympathy, the Lord as Son of Man, which is the object here. True, He must have been Son of God, or He could not have thus raised the dead. If the Godhead and relation to the Father, of Him who was made flesh, had been the only truth to show, the attendant circumstances need not have been narrated; the Gospel of John might have sufficed, as it does, to display eminently the Lord Jesus as the Son.
All this manifests the perfectness of the word of God. When the mind is subject to Him this is seen, and He teaches those who submit themselves and confide in Him. A blind man is healed in John 9, (not these near Jericho, who appeal to Jesus) but, as Jesus passed by, He saw a man blind from his birth. Rejected of men, Jesus was going about seeking for objects on whom to bestow His blessing; the Son who, unsought, saw the deep need, and dealt accordingly. It was an opportunity of working the works of God. He waits for nothing, goes to the man, and the work is done, though it was the sabbath-day. How could the Son of God rest in the presence of sin and wretchedness, whatever religious pride might feel? The Lord leaves him not until he can own Him "Son of God," and worship. Moreover, we may say, John never mentions a miracle simply for the display of power, but to attest the divine glory of Christ. In Matthew it is the rejected Messiah. Here (in chap. 20), being despised by the nation, God makes two blind men bear testimony to Him as Son of David; which, when thus owned by the nation, will bring in Israel's restoration with triumphant power.
The place (near Jericho) was accursed. But if Jesus has come as Messiah, although the Jews reject Him, He shows Himself to be Jehovah - not only Messiah under the law, but Jehovah above it; and so He blesses them even at Jericho, and they followed Him. This was the place that Israel should have taken: they ought to have known their King. The two blind men were a witness for Him, and against them. There was a competent testimony - "In the mouth of two witnesses," etc. Mark and Luke, whose object was not to bring out testimony valid according to the law, mention only one.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them,
Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death,
And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.
Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.
And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.
But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.
And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.
And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren.
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.
But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
And as they departed from Jericho, a great multitude followed him.
And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David.
And the multitude rebuked them, because they should hold their peace: but they cried the more, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David.
And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you?
They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened.
So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.