” … ‘Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.’” (Mat 21:28-31 NASB)
Why did Jesus say that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of God before the chief priests and the elders of the temple?
Let’s see if we can find out.
Think about it – The primary reason prostitutes and tax collectors would enter God’s kingdom before the chief priests of the temple, is because the prostitutes and tax collectors knew they were sinners. The chief priests and other religious leaders were of a different fabric. They never considered themselves as sinners.
You see this typified when Jesus healed a blind man. Listen -
“So a second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, ‘Give glory to God; we know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.
“He then answered, ‘Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’” (Joh 9:24-25)
Why did they say that Jesus was a sinner? It was because the Lord never aligned Himself with the religious system. He was always in the mix of sinners of all sorts. Even lepers were allowed to touch Him.
And so it is with the prostitutes and tax collectors that we find the gospel story unfolding. These people were utterly detested by the religious authorities. You have the dregs of society versus the high and mighty.
You have those who knew they are sinners, and you have those who looked down their noses at everyone not of their sort.
Why Prostitutes and Tax Collectors
To appreciate what Jesus had to say about prostitutes and tax collectors entering the kingdom of God before the religious authorities, we need a bit of background.
The day before this exchange with the chief priests, Jesus ran the money changers out of the temple area. When He returns to the temple the following day, He is confronted by the temple authorities -
“When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?
” Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.
“The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?
“And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ “But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet.”
“And answering Jesus, they said, ‘We do not know.’ He also said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (Mat 21:23-27)
It is at this point that the Lord gives the parable of the two sons and follows it up with the vineyard story. (You may want to read the parable and the vineyard story in its entirety: Mat 21:28-436)
But it is how Jesus ends this parable that is so interesting. He simply says that the prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of God, ahead of these Jewish leaders?
Think about it. The Lord was in the temple complex speaking to the recognized leaders of world Judaism. Included in this group would be those who would have Him crucified.
Yes, have you guessed it yet? It wasn’t the prostitutes and tax collectors who would crucify Jesus. It was religion that crucified Jesus.
And this is the story of the cross.
Do you find it interesting to find that the very first person to carry the message of the risen Christ was a woman of whom Jesus had cast seven demons? It wasn’t Peter, or John, or any of the apostles that Jesus first showed Himself to. It was the woman Mary Magalene.
Paul nailed it down very well when he said, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Rom5:20)
The apostle included his personal testimony in how God reaches into lowest points of sin to rescue the sinner -
“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.
“Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.” (1Ti 1:15-16)
The Sinner’s Story is Seen in the Genealogy of Jesus
Strangely enough the verity of ‘the prostitutes entering first’ can be seen in Biblical form.
In the genealogy of Jesus Christ, only four women are recorded. Three of the four women were non-Hebrew in ancestry; Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab the Canaanite, and Ruth the Moabite.
Two had prostitution written in their lives, Tamar and Rahab.
One was an adulteress, Bathsheba. (Bathsheba was the only Hebrew of the four. She was from the tribe of Judah.)
These four women were in the direct lineage of Jesus Christ. Does that tell us anything at all?
Why were these the only women recorded? Perhaps it is because in these women we see the very heart of the gospel, and the story of God’s love for all of humanity.
Here is a brief rundown.
- Tamar dressed herself as a temple prostitute to deceive Judah. Through Judah would come King David, and thus God’s Messiah. (Story in Genesis 38)
- Rahab was a ‘harlot.’ [Hebrew is 'zanah' which means to be a harlot or to commit fornication.] The two spies were sent to spy out Jericho. Rahab protected them. She believed in the Lord God of Israel. (Story in Joshua 2)
- Ruth’s story is one of the most beautiful in all the Bible. She was a Moabitess. Once again we have a non-Israelite woman preserving the seed of Messiah. (See the book of Ruth.)
- Finally we have Bathsheba. She was married to Uriah the Hittite. David paid dearly for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. And yet this is another of the four women who are written in the genealogy of Jesus. (Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon.)
The Issue is Not Justification of Sin
It is important to understand that this is not an issue of lifting up immoral sexual behavior. Sin pulls its own red wagon. Sin is a destroyer of lives. No one knows this better than the one who is in sin.
There is a truism which says…
Sin will take you further than you want to go.
It will keep you longer than you want to stay,
And it will cost you more than you want to pay.
To glory in sin and think that it doesn’t really matter, is a grave mistake. To preach the love of God in a way that sin is not part of the picture, is to preach a false gospel.
Jesus came to save us from our sins, not to endorse us in a sinful life-style.
Sin does matter. It was the sin of the fallen race that brought Jesus to the cross.
This is why in the new covenant God gives us the gift of a new heart. Thus the apostle said that a true believer can never be comfortable in sin. It hurts too deeply.
And this is where religion needs to be looked at more closely.
The Law says, ‘Stone her! What do You say?’
What is Jesus speaking of with the parable of the two sons is that religion in and of itself can become the very destroyer of lives. Sometimes we exalt our religion to the extent that we’ve become ‘religion worshipers.’ This is what had happened in Israel’s religious establishment.
We see religious blindness in the gospel story of Jesus. When the men wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery, Jesus diverted the attention of the men to their own sins.
He spoke nothing but kindness to the frightened woman. However, the Lord said two things to her that we must never forget. First, He did not allow her to stay under the bondage of condemnation.
And secondly, Jesus simply told her to free herself from the sin that she was involved in. He Himself would be her freedom.
The woman at the well is another classic example. This woman had been married five times and was then living with a guy.
How did Jesus handle her? He began by helping her process her life. He spoke to her heart. He awakened something in her. Jesus Himself would be her answer.
But notice that the woman has a final argument. It had to do with religion. She said,
“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
There it is. See how plain and simple it is? All she knew was religion. She had a pain in her heart and couldn’t do anything about it. The Lord took it out of the hands of religion. He said,
“Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.”
He goes one to say,
“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Now we know the primary reason the temple authorities hated Jesus. He was dismantling their power over the people.
No More Special Mountains
Jesus was telling the woman at the well that there wasn’t going to be any more special mountains she needed to go to. There will be no anointed places you need to seek out.
There will be no more great religious figures you will need to bless you. True worship will be a matter of the heart. It will be as personal as a kiss. (The Greek for worship, proskuneo, literally means ‘to kiss.’ It is a very intimate word.)
True worship is deeply personal.
Jesus drew attention to the danger of following religious movements and men:
“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. [Keep in mind that the term ‘the Christ’ essentially means, ‘the anointed one’.]
“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.
“Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them.” (Mat 24:23-26)
Think deeply about what Jesus is urging. He is saying that there will be men and women who will be noted as ‘special anointed ones’, there will be movements and places that will be noted as, ‘special anointed movements and special anointed places’ that you need to go to truly find Jesus.
Anything wrong with this? You decide.
The apostle said it as well as it can be said.
“…to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col 1:27)
Where is Christ? He is in the hearts and lives of all God’s children.
What Does All This Mean
This brings us full circle back to the high priests, the elders, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors.
What does all this mean? It means the door to heaven has been flung open. The curtain has been ripped. No one can ever again stand between you and the Lord God. There is no prophet that you need to go to.
Jesus is present with every one of His people. He is in their hearts. He is in their mouths. He is in their lives.
“I have other sheep also, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one Shepherd.”
Does this do away with the Church? May it never be.
Jesus Founded the True Church
The Church has never been a building. It has never been a denomination. It has never been an earthly institution. The Church is a heavenly institution and can be found in many forms throughout the earth.
Christ Himself builds His Church, and He flocks His people as He wills. We just need to find out where we need to be.
Did the Lord not say,
“Heaven is my throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me?” (Isa66:1)
Well, God did build a house to contain His glory. He built it out of fallen humanity.
The apostle said it well enough;
“For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts (this is the glory shining) to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face [exact presence] of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels…” (2Co4:6,7)
The flock of God
So, whence went religion? If the glory is shining in our hearts, why would we need an outward system of symbols and rituals, with vestments and forms, to tell us what God is like? Well, we don’t really need any of that.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (Jn10:27,28)
Now the big question – What need do we have for flocking together as a Church?
The need is great. God has ordained that each of His people be assigned to a particular flock for their care and safety.
There are hundreds of thousands of gospel believing churches with the same hundreds of thousands of godly pastors who care deeply for their flock. We just need to look to the Lord to place us in our proper flock.
A church assembly may be of the thousands or it may just be a handful. The church always addresses the gatherings of God’s people.
It should go without saying that we aren’t in heaven yet. Nor are we secured from the presence of evil.
And so God has decreed that He will meet with every flock, regardless of how tiny or how large it may be, and it is in these gatherings that He will make Himself known in special ways.
The point at hand is that the young lambs need a place of security so they can grow properly, and be taught the ways of the Lord, and not have to worry about harassment by wolves.
God’s people do need pastoral oversight. Mature believers are a safe-guard against spoilers of the flock.
Paul warned us about the spoilers. Wolves are sly. They often try to enter the flocks disguised as sheep. But you can recognize them after a bit.
They emit an order that is unpleasant to the sheep.
Besides that, wolves are really stuck on themselves. They can’t hide it. On the other hand, sheep are humble creatures and non-threatening.
I have been a pastor for a long time. My greatest joy is to look at those who have been made part of God’s church, and say …
“Thank you Lord, for every prostitute and every tax collector. Thank you for all these beautiful people. They were once sickened in sin, but you have glorified Yourself in them. Thank you Jesus.”
While you think on these things, take time for the beautiful gospel song – “He Touched Me’, by the Heritage Singers.
Much love in Jesus,