Over twenty years ago after I was dismissed as an ordained pastor from the Seventh-day Adventist Church organization and started a self-supporting church, I had a brief conversation with a fine SDA Christian man that I would like to share with you. This gentleman expressed to me that he really was planning to become a member of our self-supporting church because he was very dissatisfied with the direction the organized church was taking. It so happened that some SDA pastors heard of his intention and told him that Pastor Plummer’s church is an off-shoot, and that “he cannot be saved if he is not under the conference.” Consequently, he decided that he would remain with the SDA church organization because he did want to be saved.
The establishment of the New Testament experienced the rise of two significant off-shoot movements, namely, the John the Baptist ministry and the Jesus Christ Christian church. The existence of these two self-supporting churches created deep and far reaching concerns for the leaders of Judaism, the acknowledged God’s true established church organization of that time.
The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, p. 503, 504, informs us that “from the first century, relations between Jews and Christians were marked by hostility – the opposition between an established religion and an off-shoot claiming to have supplanted it.” The leaders of the newly formed off-shoot church sought to prove the authenticity of their movement as a God ordained entity, while on the other hand a slanderous biography of Jesus Christ circulated, with the diabolical intent to discredit the Leader and ultimately the movement!
This article will address two questions:
- Why was there a need for Jesus to organize and lead an off-shoot church?
- What is the meaning of “the Vine”?
The parable found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 21, verses 33–46, as told by Jesus is known as: The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen or The Parable of the False Husbandmen. In Christ’s Object Lessons, 284, Ellen White calls it The Lord’s Vineyard. This parable demonstrates the posture of Judaism while it was God’s church and it likewise reveals the similar attitude of the SDA church.
Matthew records the parable as spoken by Jesus thusly: “Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the Scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet” (Matthew 21:33–46).
With reference to the narrative, Jesus specifically intended to convey that while God appoints pastors over His church, it is not His intention to communicate that they are the true proprietors. They are in fact just acting in the same manner as when a proprietor would let out a vineyard to husbandmen who would labor in the cultivation of it and make an annual return. He had expended much labor and money on the vineyard without any corresponding returns due primarily to the attitude of the husbandmen. So in the parable, Christ accuses the vine-dressers, who, like base swindlers, appropriate to themselves the produce of the vineyard. Jesus says that the vineyard was well furnished and in excellent condition when the husbandmen received it from the proprietor.
The design of our Savior is to show the great favors and signal privileges God bestowed upon the Jewish people in making them His church and peculiar inheritance as caretakers of His law.
The design of Jesus is also to show the base ingratitude and abominable evils of both the Jews and especially their leaders, or husbandmen, specifically (1) In abusing and slaying the prophets and (2) In their laying violent hands upon the Son of God and in crucifying Him so that their evil purpose of taking control of the vineyard could be realized!
Furthermore, Jesus’ design in speaking the parable carries with it a prophetic application for it foretold the rejection of the Jews, the establishment of Jesus’ Christian off-shoot church and God’s calling of the Gentiles, as well as the destruction of Jerusalem, the ruin of the temple, and the reason thereof.
With reference to the lesson that Jesus wanted to convey concerning the parable of the Vineyard, the servant of the Lord states:
“Those who are true learners in the school of Christ will study with intense interest the parable of the vineyard. In this parable Christ presented the true condition of the once chosen people of God. He revealed to them their sinful breach of trust. He designed this parable to be a lesson to all, warning them that unless they walk in the ways of the Lord, keeping all His commandments, He can not bless and sustain them. The church on earth is greatly beloved by God. It is the fold provided for the sheep of His pasture. But the Lord will not serve with the sins of His people. Many times He has suffered calamity and defeat to come upon them because they have glorified themselves, weaving false principles into their practise [sic]. He willingly forgives those who repent, but He will remove His favor from those who go on sinning, exalting self, and mingling the sacred with the common. Terrible judgments will destroy those who have misrepresented Him, saying, ‘The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these’ (Jeremiah 7:4), when their example is misleading.” The Signs of the Times, October 31, 1900.
The essence of this parable is therefore seen in the question the Saviour posed to these leaders of His church and the answer that they gave. “When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? They say unto Him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons” (Matthew 21:40, 41). Ellen White commented, “The speakers had not at first perceived the application of the parable, but they now saw that they had pronounced their own condemnation. In the parable the householder represented God, the vineyard the Jewish nation, and the hedge the divine law which was their protection. The tower was a symbol of the temple. The lord of the vineyard had done everything needful for its prosperity.” The Desire of Ages, 596.
Who are husbandmen?
They are farmers, keepers of vineyard, caretakers of cattle (see Matthew 21:33; Joel 1:11; Zechariah 13:5).
Whom do the husbandmen represent?
Firstly, the vineyard represents the Old Testament Hebrew church. God brought Israel from Egypt into Canaan, planted her a choice vine, fenced her, equipped her there, and placed her under spiritual leaders who are represented as husbandmen. That is why Jesus’ words in Matthew 21:33 were directed to the chief priests and elders.
David wrote, “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it” (Psalm 80:8).
The Prophet Isaiah penned, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant” (Isaiah 5:7).
Second, Ellen White shows also that the husbandmen represent the Jewish nation, “whom God had appointed to cultivate His vineyard, the world.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 16, 328.
Whom do the servants represent?
“The servants whom God sent to receive the fruits of the vineyard were the prophets and teachers through whom God had called Israel to render to Him His dues.” Ibid.
Christ was addressing people who were acquainted with the things of God. He was talking to His people, the stock of Israel, product of the wilderness church. Various prophets and patriarchs spoke of their heritage. For example, Isaiah beautifully records the parable of the vineyard in chapter 5 of his book, speaking of the house of Israel: “Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill. And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein” (Isaiah 5:1, 2).
And the prophet Ezekiel in his book declared of Israel, “Thy mother is like a vine in thy blood, planted by the waters: she was fruitful and full of branches by reason of many waters” (Ezekiel 19:10).
So, based upon the word of the Lord through the Prophet Isaiah, Israel was a vine planted in the Promised Land by the Lord. Yet, Israel was not the true vine. The Savior, as He looked sorrowfully on them, continued: “Did ye never read in the Scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:42–44). This replacement would be in consequence of their rejection of Him.
This parable spoken by our Lord specifically calls our attention to the vicious actions and outrageous conduct of the husbandmen who were in charge of God’s vineyard! When they were called upon at the proper season to produce the fruit expected by the owner of the vineyard, they failed to do so. This was primarily due to the false belief that they adhered to and taught that they were and always would be the chosen people of God.
Jesus loves His church dearly, and that’s why when He came on this earth He went directly to the Jewish church for the expressed purpose of working with His people in a united effort. (See Luke 4:16–30.) Sadly, however, “He came unto His own, and His own received him not” (John 1:11).
The question that we may rightly ask now is, Why is it that the very church of His own planting rejected Him? As a preamble to answering this question, I share with you the following from John’s gospel, chapter 15, verse 1, where Jesus taught, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” In the book, The Desire of Ages, 675, we read, “Israel had been represented as a vine which God had planted in the Promised Land. The Jews based their hope of salvation on the fact of their connection with Israel. But Jesus says, I am the real Vine. Think not that through a connection with Israel you may become partakers of the life of God, and inheritors of His promise. Through Me alone is spiritual life received.”
Knowing that they were the chosen people of God, what was the attitude of the Jewish people? “The Jewish people cherished the idea that they were the favorites of heaven, and that they were always to be exalted as the church of God. They were the children of Abraham, they declared, and so firm did the foundation of their prosperity seem to them that they defied earth and heaven to dispossess them of their rights. But by lives of unfaithfulness they were preparing for the condemnation of heaven and for separation from God.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 294. Their favorite expression was, “The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these” (Jeremiah 7:4). This phrase, repeated three times, expressed the pride that the people felt in the greatness of their religious institution, represented by the temple.
Again Ellen White tells us, “The Jewish leaders looked with pride upon their magnificent temple, and the imposing rites of their religious service; but justice, mercy, and the love of God were lacking. The glory of the temple, the splendor of their service, could not recommend them to God; for that which alone is of value in His sight they did not offer. They did not bring Him the sacrifice of a humble and contrite spirit. It is when the vital principles of the kingdom of God are lost that ceremonies become multitudinous and extravagant.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 297.
“The Jews” Ellen White wrote “looked upon Jerusalem as their heaven, and they were actually jealous lest the Lord should show mercy to the Gentiles.” The Desire of Ages, 29. Similarly today, like the Jewish leaders, many SDA leaders and members are very proud of their organization and they believe that being affiliated with it will ensure them salvation.
So why did the Jewish leaders and people reject Christ?
- They wanted to be like other nations. “And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1Samuel 8:7). “God brought His people out from slavery and idolatry that they might keep the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. He Himself ruled over them. But in their desire to be like the nations round them, they rejected the Lord’s rule.” The Signs of the Times, February 17, 1898. “Israel had become tired of pious rulers who kept God’s purposes and God’s will and God’s honor ever before them according to God’s instructions. They wanted a reformed religion that they might by external, flattering prosperity be esteemed great in the eyes of the surrounding nations.” Christ Triumphant, 141.
- Because of a deep-rooted, false belief which led them to confuse the purpose of their church organization with the purpose of Jesus. The Jews believed that affiliation with their established church organization would guarantee them salvation because, according to them, “Israel” was “the vine,” the only source of salvation! How deceived were they because their own prophets have written, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2: 9). “Salvation belongeth unto the Lord” (Psalm 3:8). Also, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1); “Truly my soul waiteth upon God: from Him cometh my salvation” (Psalm 62:1). No church, religious organization, or a human being has ever been the source of salvation. Jesus is the source.
- Because of envy and jealousy. “Christ would have averted the doom of the Jewish nation if the people had received Him. But envy and jealousy made them implacable [hardhearted]. They determined that they would not receive Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. They rejected the Light of the world, and henceforth their lives were surrounded with darkness as the darkness of midnight.” Prophets and Kings, 712.
Why were the Jews envious and jealous of Jesus?
This leads to the fourth reason why the Jews and their leaders rejected Christ.
- Because the church leaders wanted the church and the glory for themselves. The gospel writer Mark tells us, “But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours” (Mark 12:7).
This intent to kill the heir was not just in their secret thoughts but was actually spoken by them. The gospel writer John reports the following:
“Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this Man doeth many miracles. If we let Him thus alone, all men will believe on Him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one Man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also He should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put Him to death” (John 11:47–53).
These Jewish leaders rejected Christ and had Him killed in order to take full possession of His church. The husbandmen wanted the vineyard to do with as they pleased. Their focus was not God-ward but self-centered! Ellen White accounts the following: “The husbandmen who had been placed in charge of the Lord’s vineyard were untrue to their trust. The priests and teachers were not faithful instructors of the people. They did not keep before them the goodness and mercy of God and His claim to their love and service. These husbandmen sought their own glory. They desired to appropriate the fruits of the vineyard. It was their study to attract attention and homage to themselves.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 292.
The servant of the Lord also revealed the depth of the church leaders’ envy and jealousy. She states, “The Jewish rulers did not love God; therefore they cut themselves away from Him, and rejected all His overtures for a just settlement. Christ, the Beloved of God, came to assert the claims of the Owner of the vineyard; but the husbandmen treated Him with marked contempt, saying, We will not have this Man to rule over us. They envied Christ’s beauty of character. His manner of teaching was far superior to theirs, and they dreaded His success. He remonstrated with them, unveiling their hypocrisy, and showing them the sure results of their course of action. This stirred them to madness. They smarted under the rebukes they could not silence. They hated the high standard of righteousness which Christ continually presented. They saw that His teaching was placing them where their selfishness would be uncloaked, and they determined to kill Him. They hated His example of truthfulness and piety and the elevated spirituality revealed in all He did. His whole life was a reproof to their selfishness, and when the final test came, the test which meant obedience unto eternal life or disobedience unto eternal death, they rejected the Holy One of Israel. When they were asked to choose between Christ and Barabbas, they cried out, ‘Release unto us Barabbas’ (Luke 23:18)!” Ibid., 293, 294.
The reasons why Christ established His “off-shoot” church are quite evident. The Jewish leaders failed to realize that “Israel,” “the choice vine,” “the vineyard,” was only an “off-shoot” of the “true vine” – Jesus Christ, who declares “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman” (John 15:1). He also said, “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life …” (John 14:6). It is Jesus who constitutes the true church; It is Jesus who is the true and only source of salvation. It is Jesus who said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Indeed, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote the following: “Christ, whom God the Father has raised from the dead is our righteousness and our victory.”
Pastor Ivan Plummer ministers through the Emmanuel Seventh Day Church Ministries in Bronx, New York. He may be contacted by telephone at: 718-882-3900.