Matthew 21:32
For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and you, when you had seen it, repented not afterward, that you might believe him.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(32) In the way of righteousness.—The term seems used in a half-technical sense, as expressing the aspect of righteousness which the Pharisees themselves recognised (Matthew 6:1), and which included, as its three great elements, the almsgiving, fasting, and prayer, that were so conspicuous both in the life and in the teaching of the Baptist.

The publicans and the harlots believed him.—The former class appear among the hearers of John in Luke 3:12. The latter are not mentioned there, but it was natural they also should feel the impulse of the strong popular movement.

Repented not afterwards.—Better, did not even repent afterwards. The words are repeated from the parable (Matthew 21:29), and sharpen its application. In relation to the preaching of the Baptist, the scribes and Pharisees were like the first of the two sons in his defiant refusal; they were not like him in his subsequent repentance.

21:28-32 Parables which give reproof, speak plainly to the offenders, and judge them out of their own mouths. The parable of the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, is to show that those who knew not John's baptism to be of God, were shamed by those who knew it, and owned it. The whole human race are like children whom the Lord has brought up, but they have rebelled against him, only some are more plausible in their disobedience than others. And it often happens, that the daring rebel is brought to repentance and becomes the Lord's servant, while the formalist grows hardened in pride and enmity.But what think ye? - A way of speaking designed to direct them particularly to what he was saying, that they might be self-convicted.

Two sons - By those two sons our Lord intends to represent the conduct of the Jews, and that of the publicans and sinners.

In my vineyard - See the notes at Matthew 21:33. To work in the vineyard here represents the work which God requires man to do.

I will not - This had been the language of the publicans and wicked men. They refused at first, and did not "profess" to be willing to go.

Repented - Changed his mind. Afterward, at the preaching of John and Christ, the publicans - the wicked - repented and obeyed.

The second ...said, I go sir; and went not - This represented the conduct of the scribes and Pharisees - "professing" to obey God, observing the external rites of religion, but opposed really to the kingdom of God, and about to put his Son to death.

Whether of them twain ... - Which of the two. "They say unto him, The first." This answer was correct; but it is strange that they did not perceive that it condemned themselves.

Go into the kingdom of God - Become Christians, or more readily follow the Saviour. See the notes at Matthew 3:2.

Before you - Rather than you. They are more likely to do it than you. You are self-righteous, self-willed, and obstinate.

John came in the way of righteousness - Many of them have believed, but you have not. That is, in the right way, or teaching the way to be righteous; to wit, by repentance. Publicans and harlots heard him and became righteous, but they did not. They saw it, but, as in one thousand other cases, it did not produce the proper effect on them, and they would not repent.

32. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness—that is, calling you to repentance; as Noah is styled "a preacher of righteousness" (2Pe 2:5), when like the Baptist he warned the old world to "flee from the wrath to come."

and ye believed him not—They did not reject him; nay, they "were willing for a season to rejoice in his light" (Joh 5:35); but they would not receive his testimony to Jesus.

but the publicans and the harlots believed him—Of the publicans this is twice expressly recorded, Lu 3:12; 7:29. Of the harlots, then, the same may be taken for granted, though the fact is not expressly recorded. These outcasts gladly believed the testimony of John to the coming Saviour, and so hastened to Jesus when He came. See Lu 7:37; 15:1, &c.

and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him—Instead of being "provoked to jealousy" by their example, ye have seen them flocking to the Saviour and getting to heaven, unmoved.

Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Mt 21:33-46).

Ver. 28-32. Matthew alone mentions this parable. The scope of it is taught us Matthew 21:31,

The publicans and the harlots go (that is, shall go)

into the kingdom of God before you, that is, you Pharisees. Who these Pharisees and who the publicans were, we showed before, Matthew 3:7. The publicans were very odious to the Jews: see Mark 2:16. Harlots are great sinners. By the kingdom of God, here, is meant that of glory. Our Lord’s saying that publicans and harlots should go in before the Pharisees, doth not imply that they should follow. It only signifieth that some who had been publicans (as Matthew and Zacchaeus) and harlots were in a better condition than these Pharisees. He proves it because they had done the will of God, which the Pharisees, notwithstanding all their fair profession, had not, but resisted it, and particularly in the ministry of John the Baptist, who came to them in the way of righteousness, preaching the true doctrine of righteousness, and living a holy and righteous life; upon the hearing of whose doctrine, some of the publicans and other great sinners had believed in Christ; but the Pharisees, though they heard his doctrine, saw his conversation, and saw others repent and own Christ, yet were so far from believing, that they would not repent, that they might believe; they would not be awakened to any sense of their sinful courses, nor amend any thing of their former ways, that they might receive Christ and embrace his righteousness and salvation. For although evangelical repentance is the fruit of faith, yet that repentance which lieth in a previous sense of sin, and a resolution to leave sinful courses, goeth before it. Now to illustrate and press this home upon the consciences of these Pharisees, our Saviour brings this parable, (as Nathan did to David, 2 Samuel 12:1,11) that they might, being convicted, condemn themselves. Hence the parable is easily understood: The man mentioned is God. The two sons were the Pharisees, a people highly pretending obedience to the law of God, and making a great show of religion. And the publicans and harlots, great sinners, bad and vile people, making no pretence to religion. God saith to the one and the other, Go, work in my vineyard, that is, do my will, do the work I command you to do. The Pharisees, so hypocrites and formalists, by their outward pretence and profession, say, I go, sir; but yet go not; all their religion is a vain show, a mere outside appearance. Others by their lives declare that they will not go; but yet upon second thoughts, having their hearts touched by the finger of God, they do God’s work.

Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. This is plain; for what was the will of the father, but that they should do the work he set them to do? This the latter did not. The father’s will was not only that the son should give him a cap and a knee, and compliment him, but that he should go to work in the vineyard. It is the least part of God’s will that men should give him good words, be a little complemental and ceremonious toward him; but that they should repent and believe, and obey his gospel. This some publicans and harlots did; the generality of the Pharisees refused. It is a hard thing to convince a moral, righteous, civil man, that he lacks any thing to salvation; and hence it is that profane persons many times repent, believe, and are saved, when others perish in their impenitency and unbelief, because they think they have no need of repentance, or any further righteousness than they are possessed of. For John came unto you in a way of righteousness,.... He had a commission from God; he was no impostor; the doctrine he taught was true, and which he faithfully delivered; his life and conversation were unblamable; there was nothing in his credentials, ministry, and conduct, that could justly be found fault with:

and ye believed him not; to be the forerunner of the Messiah, or the Elias that was to come; nor attended to the doctrine of repentance preached by him, nor were subject to the ordinance of baptism he administered; nor gave any assent, or credit, to the Messiah he so manifestly pointed out:

but the publicans and harlots believed him; what he said concerning the wrath to come, and the miserable state and danger they were in; and they repented of their sins, and confessed them, and were baptized of him in Jordan; believing the testimony he gave of Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah, and Son of God:

and ye, when ye had seen it; the repentance and faith of these persons, and what a wonderful reformation was wrought in them,

repented not afterwards; of their disobedience, impenitence, and unbelief, after they had seen the effects of John's ministry on these very profligate sinners, and after, the death of John; who, by his constancy, zeal, and faithfulness, had shown himself to be a true, and upright minister of the word; and afterwards under the ministry of Christ, and his apostles, by, whom the same doctrines were preached, and the same ordinances administered,

that ye might believe him; the testimony he has left behind him concerning the Messiah.

For John came unto you in the {q} 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.

(q) Living uprightly, being of good and honest behaviour; For the Hebrews use this word way for life and manners.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Matthew 21:32. ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης: not merely in the sense of being a good pious man with whose life no fault could be found (Meyer; the Fathers, Chrys., Euthy., Theophy.), but in the specific sense of following their own legal way. John was a conservative in religion not less than the Pharisees. He differed from them only by being thoroughly sincere and earnest. They could not, therefore, excuse themselves for not being sympathetic towards him on the ground of his being an innovator, as they could with plausibility in the case of Jesus. The meaning thus is: He cultivated legal piety like yourselves, yet, etc.—ὑμεῖς δὲ ἰδόντες, when ye saw how the sinful took John’s summons to repent ye did not even late in the day follow their example and change your attitude. They were too proud to take an example from publicans and harlots.—τοῦ πιστεῦσαι, inf. of result with τοῦ.32. the way of righteousness] A Hebrew expression. Cp. “the way of God,” ch. Matthew 22:16; “the way of salvation,” Acts 16:17. The Christian doctrine was called in a special sense “the way” (Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23). The Greek word in the text also signified a philosophical system.

when ye had seen it] viz. that the publicans and the harlots believed him.

repented not afterward] Rather, did not even change your minds, much less repented in the deeper sense; see above, Matthew 21:29.Matthew 21:32. Ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης, in the way of righteousness) “The way of righteousness” expresses more than “A righteous way.”—τελῶναι, publicans) who were unjust.—αἱ πόρναι, the harlots) who were unchaste.—It may be asked whether these, and consequently women in general, and also infants, were baptized by John: cf. Acts 16:15.—οὐ μετεμελήθητε, did not alter your way of thinking.[933]—ὕστερον, afterwards) when you had seen their example.

[933] Bengel’s words are, non mutastis sententiam. In his German Version he renders it. “habt euch hernach nicht anders bedacht,” “have not after that changed your mind.”

In his Harmony, however, he renders it, “thatet ihr dennoch nichi busse,” “notwithstanding did not repent.” E. V. has “repented not afterward.”—(I. B.)Verse 32. - For John came unto you. This gives the reason for Christ's assertion at the end of the last verse. John came with a special call to the rulers of the people, and they made some show of interest, by sending a deputation to demand his credentials, and by coming to his baptism; but that was all. They did not alter their lives or change their faulty opinions at his preaching, though they "were willing for a season to rejoice in his light" (John 5:35). In the way of righteousness. In that path of strict obedience to law, and of ascetic holiness, which you profess to regard so highly. If they had followed the path which John indicated, they would have attained to righteousness and salvation. John preached Christ who is "the Way" (John 14:6). (For "way," meaning doctrine, religious tenet and practice, see Matthew 22:16; Acts 9:2; Acts 19:9, 23; 2 Peter 2:21.) Ye believed him not, to any practical purpose, even as it is said elsewhere (Luke 7:30), "The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, not having been baptized of him." Those who did receive his baptism were the exception; the great majority stood aloof. Believed him. Though these sinners may have first rejected him, yet his preaching softened their hearts; they repented, confessed their sins, and were baptized (see for examples, Luke 3:10, etc.; Luke 7:29). This was another call to the Pharisees to go and do likewise. When ye had seen it; i.e. the fruits of true repentance in these sinners, which conversion was indeed a loud appeal to the rulers to consider their own ways, and to bow to God's hand. Repented not (see ver. 29). They profited not by this miracle of grace. That ye might believe him. The end and result of repentance would be to believe in John's mission, and to attend to his teaching. Christ offers the above explanation of the parable (vers. 31, 32) in view of the purpose for which he uttered it. It has been, and may be, taken in different senses, and in wider application. "What is set forth in individual cases is but a sample of what takes place in whole classes of persons, and even nations" (I. Williams). Many expositors consider the two sons to represent Gentiles and Jews; the former making no profession of serving God, and yet in time being converted and turning to him; the latter making much outward show of obedience, yet in reality denying him and rejecting salvation. It is obvious that such explanation is allowable, and coincides with the letter of the parable; but it does not satisfy the context, and fails in not answering to Christ's intention in uttering this similitude. Others see herein a picture of what happens in Christian lands, and is the experience of every Christian minister - how the irreligious and apparently irreclaimable are by God's grace brought, to repentance unto life; how the seemingly pious often make much show, but fall away, or bring no fruit unto perfection. And as the parable involves a general principle, so it may be applied universally to those who make great professions of religion, and are for a time full of good resolutions, but in practice fall very short; and to those who have been the slaves of lust, covetousness, or some other wickedness, but have been recovered from the snares of the devil, and have learned to lead a godly, righteous, and sober life.
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