Will Work For...
© 03.07.09 By D. Eric Williams
In Chapter 19 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus Christ confronts the rich young ruler and forces him to recognize where his loyalties lie. As the man went away sorrowful Jesus turned to his disciples and said "Assuredly I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23–24). His disciples, misunderstanding the way of things, assumed that their rich countrymen were already in the kingdom based upon the fact that they were rich. In other words, their wealth seemed to testify to God's blessing. Upon discovering that this was not the case the disciples wonder out loud "who then can be saved?"
Jesus explains that in order to be a member of the kingdom of God one must be willing to give up everything. Peter replies that he and his cohorts had indeed given up everything and this prompts Jesus to tell them that "in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel" (19:28). Jesus then assures his disciples that they will be compensated for their losses and then makes the curious statement: "but many who are first will be last, and a last first" (19:30).
This is the context for the parable in Chapter 20. In other words Jesus explains what he means by this enigmatic phrase concerning the first to last. The parable reads as follows:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius 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 to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.' "So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.' And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.' But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?' So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen." (Matthew 20:1-16)
The first question we may ask concerning this parable is, "what basis did the landowner use in selecting workers?" In the parable, the workers (or the potential workers), were simply standing around in the marketplace. Now, this is not to say that they were lazy; it was common for a day laborer in that culture you go to a central place in the city and wait there hoping to be hired. In fact, these day laborers were the lowest rung of society. They had less security than a slight. It's light of new that he would have food to eat from one day the next. A day laborer was not certain of any income from one day to the next. It is interesting to note that the law specifically mentions the need to pay a day laborer his wages at the end of the shift. The reason for this is that he would need that money to buy food for his evening meal.
But in the context of our parable we need to ask to these day laborers represent. Well, as we have already discussed Jesus ministry was to the Jews alone. In order to understand what Jesus has to say here we need to realize that it was directed at the Jewish people. He did not have the Gentile Christians or the Gentile people in mind when he delivered this parable. Far too many misinterpretations of Scripture results from the insistence that modern American Christianity is the zenith of God's activity here on earth. That simply is not the case. Indeed I would suggest to you that even now the center of Christendom is shifting toward the East and the South`, and will in the near future no longer be a religion of the West.
Thereby, this parable is directed at the Jewish people of Jesus' day and needs to be interpreted in that context. And the first thing that I want to point out here is that Christ did acknowledge is the doctrine of election in his presentation of the land owner's selection of workers for his vineyard. In other words Jesus recognizes that not all the Jewish people were selected to be in the vineyard of Almighty God. Now, we will see shortly that this parable is focused on a particular segment of Jewish society; nevertheless it raises the issue of election and therefore we need to deal with that before we move on.
When we read the Bible with attention it becomes clear that God has selected or elected people out of humanity time and again over the centuries. Abraham was chosen out of all the people on earth to initiate the new "House of God." Once this new people of God had been established the process of election continued. Jacob and Esau were born of the same parents and yet the Bible clearly tells us that God loved Jacob and hated Esau. Now don't be thrown off track because of the way this is phrased. Love and hate in Scripture are first and foremost words of the covenant. To love someone is to lay your life down for them. To hate them is to be indifferent toward them. To hate in a covenantal sense does not mean that you are actively seeking that persons destruction; it simply means that they are not the focus of God's favor. True, that hate – that lack of covenant favor – will often take on the character of active dislike but the point of God saying he loves Jacob and hated Esau is merely that he chose Jacob to be the one through whom the covenant blessings would flow.
The truth is we see more rejection in the history of God's covenant community than we do election. For instance in 1 King's 19:14–18 we read:
And he said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life." Then the LORD said to him: "Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him." (1 Kings 19:14-18)
According to God there are only 7000 people out of several millions who had not a posset size from the true faith. Are we to understand the 7000 as a literal number or a figurative number? It doesn't really matter. If it's a literal number it may be a "literal" number that is rounded off. If it is a figurative number it simply means that God had reserved a "perfect" number of people for himself and numbering in the thousands. Nonetheless many thousands out of several millions is still a remnant. And this idea of a remnant is something that is a constant theme in the older Testament. In the old covenant administration God reserved for himself a remnant in which he preserved the true faith, bringing forward a people from out of whom would come the Messiah. This Messiah would then fulfill all of the covenant promises and make them available to a vast host so that the covenant community would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the heavens.
The point is simply this; God has always been in the business of selecting people to participate in his work. This process of selection is not based on anything other than the faith of the individual. Now, when we say that God's election is a matter of faith we should not think of this faith as something generated from within the person. As we know from Ephesians 2:8–10
we are saved by grace through faith and even this faith is a gift of God. If it were otherwise then it would be impossible to maintain the idea that we are saved by grace rather than works. If it were possible to generate saving faith from within ourselves than we would be capable of producing a work of merit and in that way secure our own salvation. However, the Bible is very clear in its presentation of mankind as a sinful creature incapable of any good work. For instance:
The fool has said in his heart,"There is no God." They are corrupt, They have done abominable works, There is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one. (Psalms 14:1-3)
Words which the apostle Paul echos in romans chapter 3. And again:
But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
Therefore no one is capable of righteousness in their own strength. No one can earn acceptance with God based upon what they do. No one is acceptable to God because of their relationship to Abraham or one of the other patriarchs. If this were true then both Ishmael and Esau would have been among the elect along with Isaac and Jacob. Because God's election does not depend upon blood relationship the Scripture takes great pains to point out that Ishmael and Esau are not among the elect. Indeed, that is the entire point of God saying that he loved Jacob and hated Esau. Remember, God can raise up children of Abraham from stones (Matthew 3:9), and relationship to Abraham is spiritually defined (John 8:39, Galatians 3:29).
Part of the problem in our understanding this is that the Jewish people were both related to Abraham and not related. Jesus acknowledges this anomaly when he says in the same breath that his Jewish antagonists are Abraham's descendants and are not Abraham's descendants:
"I know that you are Abraham's descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father. ...You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. (John 8:37-38, 44)
Thus a man could be both a Jew and not a Jew. Paul recognizes this when he says that all who are Israel are not Israel (Romans 9:6). Jesus and Paul are both saying that a person could be part of the visible church or community of God but not part of the invisible church or community of God. Both Jesus and Paul acknowledged that true descendants of Abraham are spiritually defined and not physically.
In Isaiah 1:1–9 we read:
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: "I have nourished and brought up children, And they have rebelled against Me; The ox knows its owner And the donkey its master's crib; But Israel does not know, My people do not consider." Alas, sinful nation, A people laden with iniquity, A brood of evildoers, Children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, They have provoked to anger The Holy One of Israel, They have turned away backward. Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, There is no soundness in it, But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, Or soothed with ointment. Your country is desolate, Your cities are burned with fire; Strangers devour your land in your presence; And it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, As a hut in a garden of cucumbers, As a besieged city. Unless the LORD of hosts Had left to us a very small remnant, We would have become like Sodom, We would have been made like Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:1-9)
The rest of Isaiah's prophecy deals with this issue of the remnant versus the bulk of the nation of Israel in its apostasy. In this opening portion of his prophecy Isaiah claims that without this remnant in the nation would have been utterly destroyed.
Benjamin Warfield, a scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century said, concerning the apostle Paul and his words about the remnant, that,
God has not cast off his people, but, acting only has he had frequently done and former ages, is fulfilling his promise to the kernel while showing off the husk. Throughout the whole process of turning and in drafting which he traces in the dealings of God with the Olive tree which he has once for all planted, St. Paul sees God, in accordance with his promise, saving his people. (Warfield, Biblical doctrines, 52).
In this parable of the vineyard in Matthew chapter 20 Jesus is merely drawing from this accepted principle that God selects certain people for his vineyard. So, one of the things that this parable should cause us to realize is that this process of selection by the landowner finds its validity in God's action of choosing a remnant in Israel.
Yet if one's election is dependent upon God and is in no way resting upon works nor blood relationship to Abraham how is it that the Jewish people were accused of apostasy again and again by the old covenant Prophets? After all, in order to apostatize one must have previously been part of the household of faith. Thus it would seem that in the old covenant administration Jewish blood was adequate for election. Yet, this is not the case.
What we must keep in mind is the fact of the visible church and the invisible church – the visible community of God and the invisible community of God. In other words any man who was circumcised and submitted to the Mosaic ritual would be considered a Jew, part of the visible community of God. As such he was beholden to the stipulations of the covenant. This was the case whether he could trace his natural descent from Abraham or not. For instance, Caleb the contemporary of Joshua was not related to Abraham by blood. In fact he was a Canaanite. But because he had joined himself to the covenant community of God he was reckoned as an Israelite and was given an inheritance in the promised land (Joshua 14:6-15). Therefore, a person could be part of the visible community of God simply by subjecting themselves to the Mosaic requirements.
However, this outward compliance did not an ensure inward change of heart. To be circumcised and observant did not ensure salvation in the old covenant administration anymore than baptism and participation in the Lord's supper is a guarantee of salvation in the new covenant administration. Nonetheless a person who submitted to the Mosaic requirements was reckoned a member of the covenant community and therefore if they walked away from that relationship they would be an apostate. To call someone apostate does not mean that they have lost their salvation (they never had it), it means that they have walked away from participation in the covenant.
The truth of the matter is that during the old covenant administration entire nation apostatized from time to time. In the history of the Judean kings we find that the Passover held in the days of Josiah was unique to several generations. According to 2 Kings 23:21–25,
Then the king commanded all the people, saying, "Keep the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant." Such a Passover surely had never been held since the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was held before the LORD in Jerusalem. Moreover Josiah put away those who consulted mediums and spiritists, the household gods and idols, all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might perform the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD. Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him. (2 Kings 23:21-25)
This text seems to be telling us that this celebration of the Passover was unique in its extent because there is a record of another Passover celebration in the days of Hezekiah. Nevertheless, the infrequency of this covenant meal is astounding. It would be like for going the Lord's supper for decades. And the consequence of that neglect was to be cut off from the covenant. In Numbers 9:13 it says,
But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the LORD at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin. (Numbers 9:13)
In reality the entire Judean nation had been excommunicated because of their failure to participate in this covenant meal. Now, God in his grace did not subject the Jews to the consequence of their neglect but technically speaking all of those who had failed to partake of the Passover on a regular basis were apostates. Moreover, even when the national cultus was reestablished many if not most of the people remained indifferent to the covenant and instead preferred the gods of the pagan nations (2 Chronicles 20:33).
The point is that anyone who had received the covenant sign was capable of apostasy whether their heart had been circumcised or not (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6). Furthermore, among those who had received the covenant sign and were practicing the requirements of the covenant relationship there was a remnant which represented true Israel. What we need to see is that it is important to examine this issue on a variety of levels. Appearances can be deceiving. No one was saved in the old covenant administration merely because they were Jewish. No one was saved because they were Jewish and participated in the covenant ritual. Likewise, no one is saved in this new covenant administration simply because they are a church member.
And in reference to our parable in Matthew chapter 20 we are reminded that this idea of limited selection has always been the norm within the kingdom of God. Jesus is simply say that the master of the house selects some and not others. He doesn't hire everyone he finds in the marketplace. God is sovereign and he selects whom he will select.
In this parable the householder chooses his workers throughout the day. The emphasis is thrown on the fact that he continues to return to the market and hire new workers at several points. This serves as a build up to his final foray into town at the 11th hour when he hires workers, sends them into his vineyard, telling them that he will pay them whatever is right.
There are some who think that Jesus has the Gentiles in mind here but remembering our context requires a different interpretation. These 11th hour recruits are the disciples of Jesus Christ. These last hired are those who had given up everything to follow Jesus Christ. These are the ones who were promised 12 thrones in the kingdom of the Messiah. These are the commoners who in the messianic reign were to be the foundation stones for the entire community of faith. Truly the last became first. They were last in time and least in qualification. They did not have the education or experience of the scribes and Pharisees who rejected Jesus. They did not have the status of the heroes of the old covenant administration. Their companions were tax gatherers, sinners and prostitutes. These who .were gathered out of Israel in the final days of the old covenant age became the foundation for the new community of God in Christ (Ephesians. 2;19-20). These 11th hour workers represented the fringe elements of the Jewish dispensation. No one expected fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and other assorted nonentities to be first in the kingdom of God. Yet the householder brings them into the vineyard at the 11th hour of the old covenant age to do is good work.
What did they do in this vineyard? Obviously, they tended the vineyard so that it would produce fruit. The analogy of a vineyard to represent the people of God had a long history in Jewish thought. In Isaiah 5:1-7 it says:
Now let me sing to my Well-beloved A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard On a very fruitful hill. He dug it up and cleared out its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, And also made a winepress in it; So He expected it to bring forth good grapes, But it brought forth wild grapes. "And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard. What more could have been done to My vineyard That I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, Did it bring forth wild grapes? And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will lay it waste; It shall not be pruned or dug, But there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds That they rain no rain on it." For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help. (Isaiah 5:1-7)
In this particular prophecy of Isaiah the vineyard – the people of God --
do not measure up to Yahweh's expectations. In this particular case there is no mention of the workers in the vineyard and the responsibility for unfruitful less lies with the vineyard itself. At other times it is the vine-keepers who are held accountable for a lack of fruitfulness in God's vineyard. Jeremiah 12:10-11 says,
"Many rulers have destroyed My vineyard, They have trodden My portion underfoot; They have made My pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it desolate; Desolate, it mourns to Me; The whole land is made desolate, Because no one takes it to heart. (Jeremiah 12:10-11)
Thus the vineyard can be either fruitful or foul and the workers in the vineyard can be either good or bad. Sometimes God lumps the vineyard and the fine keepers together and other times he makes a distinction. When there is a distinction made the vine keepers or workers are understood to represent the leaders of the people of God. In light of Matthew 19 it seems clear that the emphasis in the parable we considered a day is on the leadership recruited at the last hour and as we have seen that leadership is the apostles of Jesus. We should also note that in this parable the focus is not on the quality of care provided by the leadership but is on the selection and participation of these vine keepers. Therefore the work of the day laborers is to lead and to teach and to model and godliness.
This work of the disciples took place during the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and most especially in the first century after the resurrection of Jesus. The implication is that there is no distinction between the old covenant and vineyard and the new covenant vineyard. Obviously there is a distinction in that all things come to their fulfillment in Christ and therefore the new covenant is a better covenant than the old (Hebrews 7:22, 8:6, 12:24). At the same time the covenant community is the same throughout the centuries. Therefore the disciples began their labor in the vineyard at the closure of the old covenant age and continue their labor into the donning of the new covenant age.
Once again we must reject the idea that this parable is concerned with the admission of the Gentiles into the covenant community at the end of the old covenant age or at any point in time for that matter. Remember, Jesus ministry was to the Jewish people; it was only later that the kingdom was thrown open to the Gentiles.
The workers in the vineyard receive payment for their labor at the end of the day and this settling of accounts brings the point of the parable into focus.
There has been a lot of discussion concerning the nature of this payment. There are many who assume that it is nothing more or less than eternal life. No doubt that is in view here but the reward of eternal life does not exhaust the idea of payment for work in the vineyard. Remember, this parable is concerned with the labor of leadership in the vineyard of God.
In 1 Corinthians 3:5–15 we read:
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, you are God's building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:5-15)
Paul is talking about the ministry of himself and Apollos in regards to the church in Corinth. He says that both of them are laborers in God's field and then he changes the analogy and says that they are builders of God's house. The house of God in this particular instance is the Church itself made up of individual members. Therefore the house of God or the building of God in first Corinthians chapter 3 is the corporate body.
Paul talks about building this house with material of various quality. If we understand what Paul says here he is telling us that the silver and gold and precious stones along with the wood, hay and stubble are the lives of the people under the care of himself and Apollos. In other words the material to build a house is in view here and that happens to be the people in the church at Corinth.
Paul is saying that this quality material and the material of lesser quality is a result of his ministry. His ministry will be judged by what it produces and so the gold, silver and precious stones and the junk material reflect on his teaching. Thereby Paul is telling is that the quality of his teaching affects the quality of the building material and that quality or lack thereof will become clear "for the day will declare, because it will be revealed by fire and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is."
When Paul says that the day will declare the quality of his work is he saying that the people in Corinth will have to wait until the last judgment in order to discern whether the teaching of Paul (or Apollo's), is of any value? No, Paul is not thinking of the end of history; he is simply saying that the "daylight" or the "light" of close examination and the light of "real life" will reveal the quality of his teaching and the impact it has had on the "building material" of the church in Corinth (cf. John 3:20–21.) Indeed Paul expects that the building materials - the people themselves - will participate in shining a light on his doctrine just as the citizens of Berea did searching the Scriptures daily "to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11).
Likewise this fire that Paul speaks of which is set to the building materials in order to discover their composition is nothing more than the task of day to day life and the tribulations common to every Christian. As the apostle Peter wrote:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
The genuineness of our faith is proved by the difficult situations we experience. The fires of tribulation free us from impurities us and prove the stability of the doctrine upon which we build our walk. These fires of hardship burn away the dross and enable us to better glorify God who refines us just as silver is refined and made pure (Psalm 66:10).
Hence the workers in the vineyard receive a reward based upon the quality of their work. Is this then the reward of eternal life? Clearly not. Is it some other reward that is doled out at the final judgment? This doesn't seem to fit either. Then what is this reward that Paul speaks of in one Corinthians 3:14? Well, in part the works itself is a reward. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 9:17–18
For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:17-18)
Paul says that he labors without material remuneration so that is efforts would be known as a praise to God. He does this without receiving pay from the people in Corinth (although he did receive support from other churches from time to time), so that his work would be known as an act of loving obedience to his master rather than a mere obligation to a job he had been entrusted with. Thus falls reward is the work itself and the joy of serving his master in obedience. Closely aligned with this is the reward of the fruit of his labor. Paul says that the believers in Philippi are his "joy and crown" a designation he also applies to the church and Thessalonica (Philippians 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20).
So, the remuneration given to the workers in the vineyard is the privilege of participation in the work of God and secondly the fruit produced by that work. These day laborers are compensated by the gold, silver and precious stones of the works along with the gold, silver and precious stones produced thereby. The workers are compensated by the joy of the work, the fruit of produces and I would even include the joy of the theology and doctrine itself. That – in part – is the reward that these laborers receive.
On the other side of the coin if the laborer does a poor job the light of day shining to buy practical experience and the investigation of other believers will reveal the poor quality of the work. The lives of the flock will likewise bring to light the substandard character of the teaching as they encounter the day to day trials of life. In this situation the teacher will escape with his life (remain a member of the covenant community), but he will do so in his shame. Unfortunately substandard leadership has long been a problem in the covenant community (Jeremiah 12:10, 20 3:1–4, Ezekiel 30 4:1–6).
Having said all this we now come to the most important aspect of the laborer's remuneration: participation in the covenant promises. Frankly this is what Christ has in view in this parable. The beef that the early hires have with the landowner is that the man hired at the 11th hour receive just as much as those who "bore the heat of the day." Since there is no discussion concerning the quality of the work we have our focus drawn to the extravagance of the landowner in paying all of the laborers the same wage. The point here is that every one of these people who are involved in attending the vineyard – who are involved in leading the flock - will participate in the fullness of the covenant blessings. These blessings begin in this life and realm and extend into eternity.
Thus we finally arrive at Jesus points; "the last will be first and the first last." These last our recruits drawn into a participation in the kingdom of God during the closing days of the old covenant administration are blessed as fully as even the patriarchs. Indeed, Jesus said that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than the greatest prophet of the old covenant age (insert here). These laborers drawn from the fringe elements in Jewish society are given the responsibility of initiating a new covenant without the ritual and ceremony of the old yet still receiving the full reward of the covenant promises. Although they did not bear the heat of the day they are the ones to enjoy fulfillment of all things in Christ. As Jesus said elsewhere;
Do you not say, 'There are still four months and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: 'One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors." (John 4:35-38)
The disciples of Jesus Christ reaped that for which they had not labored and were blessed to the full specs that nonetheless. Those nondescript fishermen, tax gatherers, zealots and other representatives of the common man entered the work of the kingdom just as the messianic age was beginning to don. Others had carried the burden forward through generations of patient hope but the apostles joined them in the fullness of the covenant blessings.
Summary and application
We might think that with so much of the Bible directed to a specific audience there seems to be little left over for us. In other word is we may believe that there is nothing in this parable of value to us because it was delivered to a Jewish audience and was concerned with the leadership of the apostles and their particular reward. Yet if we feel that way we fail to understand how to read and apply the Bible.
For instance, I would imagine that most of us look at the life and experience of King David and find it easy to learn from his history as well as his songs and prayers. Yet he was a warrior king who lived thousands of years ago. Therefore, it is not the original context that prevents us from benefitting from Scripture but our inability to understand the Scripture in its original context and then apply those principles to our own life.
The fact is every thing in the Bible is presented in a very specific context. The context and culture of the Scripture is used by God to illustrate the principle as he desires to convey. These principles can be applied quite broadly. The law of God says that we should not muzzle an ox as it tries out the grain. The apostle Paul applies that principle to the circumstance of a pastor and his paycheck. Hence we see that the application of the Word of God is not limited to its original context.
Therefore we can read this parable and once we understand it's original meaning we can then apply its teaching to every member of Christ's body. One of the things we know is that every one to is part of the covenant community is selected by God himself. No one is born again through their own strength. As John 1:12-13 says:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
This is in keeping with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The Westminster Confession, Chapter 10 explains it in this way:
10:1 All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased in His appointed and accepted time effectually to call (Rom_8:30; Rom_11:7; Eph_1:10, Eph_1:11), by His Word and Spirit (2Co_3:3, 2Co_3:6; 2Th_2:13, 2Th_2:14), out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ (Rom_8:2; Eph_2:1-5; 2Ti_1:9, 2Ti_1:10); enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God (Act_26:18; 1Co_2:10, 1Co_2:12; Eph_1:17, Eph_1:18); taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh (Eze_36:26); renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good (Deu_30:6; Eze_11:19; Eze_36:27; Phi_2:13), and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ (Joh_6:44, Joh_6:45; Eph_1:19): yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace (Psa_110:3; Son_1:4; Joh_6:37; Rom_6:16-18).
10:2 This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man (Rom_9:11; Eph_2:4, Eph_2:5, Eph_2:8, Eph_2:9; 2Ti_1:9; Tit_3:4, Tit_3:5), who is altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit (Rom_8:7; 1Co_2:14; Eph_2:5), he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it (Eze_36:27; Joh_5:25; Joh_6:37).
10:3 Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ through the Spirit (Luk_18:15, Luk_18:16, and Act_2:38, Act_2:39, and Joh_3:3, Joh_3:5, and 1Jo_5:12, and Rom_8:9 compared), who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth (Joh_3:8): so also, are all other elect persons who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word (Act_4:12; 1Jo_5:12).
10:4 Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word (Mat_22:14), and may have some common operations of the Spirit (Mat_7:22; Mat_13:20, Mat_13:21; Heb_6:4, Heb_6:5), yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved (Joh_6:64-66; Joh_8:24): much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the law of that religion they do profess (Joh_4:22; Joh_14:6; Joh_17:3; Act_4:12; Eph_2:12); and to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested(1Co_16:22; Gal_1:6-8; 2Jo_1:9-11).
All of our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 60 4:6). Every good work that we do including the generation of any so-called faith from within ourselves is inadequate. Our salvation does not depend on our own efforts in any way. Salvation is not by works but is a gift of God.
Certainly this is something of a mystery but we can take joy in the fact that our salvation is not depend upon our own efforts. It is by God's power that we are selected. It is God's choice and God's will that brings us into the household of faith. We can have confidence that if we are in Christ there is no one who can snatch us from his hand. This is why Paul is confident that God will complete his good works in each of us. We can have confidence because Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He is the author of our faith; we are not. Because he is the one who brings us in to the faith is also the one who will finish that faith and us we are given the privilege of participation in the vineyard of God.
We do the work of tending the vineyard as we cultivate the new creation and work to bring our sphere of influence under the authority of Jesus Christ indeed all that we do in the Lord Jesus is a work in the vineyard of the father. And we do this in the power of that author and finisher of our faith. Paul says in Colossians 2:5–7 that:
For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ. As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.
We receive the Lord Jesus Christ in faith and we are to live our life in him in faith as well. This means that all lawful, moral activity is work in the vineyard. We cannot separate the sacred from the secular because everything we do in this life is participation in the work of the covenant community if we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11).
And what is our reward? The same as every member of the household of God. We are allowed full participation in God's covenant promises. This reward is not limited to leadership because "if you are Christ's then you are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29). All of God's promises are yes and Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20) and are given to all who are found in Jesus Christ.
While we were yet sinners Christ died for us and we love him because he first loved us (Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:19). We are selected for participation in the kingdom of God because of God's love for us regardless of our unrighteousness. Life has meaning, life has purpose, life has hope because of our relationship with our Creator; our participation in the work of the kingdom brings a joy that cannot otherwise be experienced. And as if that joy is not payment enough for our labor we have the hope of eternal life. We who are in Christ look forward to life everlasting, unending fellowship with the one true God.