The Parable of the Tenants | Mark 11:27-12:12

And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
           has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
            and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.

Mark 11:27-12:12 ESV

In Isaiah 5:1-7, the LORD told a parable for His people Israel; indeed, He calls it a “love song concerning his vineyard.” The song/parable goes like this:

    My beloved had a vineyard
        on a very fertile hill.
    He dug it and cleared it of stones,
        and planted it with choice vines;
    he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
        and hewed out a wine vat in it;
    and he looked for it to yield grapes,
        but it yielded wild grapes.
    And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
        and men of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
    What more was there to do for my vineyard,
        that I have not done for it?
    When I looked for it to yield grapes,
        why did it yield wild grapes?

Indeed, the planter of the vineyard did everything necessary for a fruitful harvest. He ensured that the ground was fertile, removed stones from the ground, used choice vines, and set up a watchtower to vigilantly guard it from intruders. Yet even so, it yielded wild or rotten grapes; fruit unfit for consumption. The song goes on to provide a verdict for the vineyard:

    And now I will tell you
        what I will do to my vineyard.
    I will remove its hedge,
        and it shall be devoured;
    I will break down its wall,
        and it shall be trampled down.
    I will make it a waste;
        it shall not be pruned or hoed,
        and briers and thorns shall grow up;
    I will also command the clouds
        that they rain no rain upon it.

Because the vineyard did not yield edible fruit after all the work that was put into, the lord of the vineyard orders its destruction, for why should any more time and resources be spent upon a perpetually fruitless endeavor?

What is the point of this parable? Verse 7 tells us explicitly:

    For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
        is the house of Israel,
    and the men of Judah
        are his pleasing planting;
    and he looked for justice,
        but behold, bloodshed;
    for righteousness,
        but behold, an outcry!

God’s people were the vineyard that God had planted within the Promised land and watered with His Word, yet when He looked for fruits of justice and righteousness among them, all He found were bloodshed and outcries. Thus, the LORD soon sent the Assyrians to destroy the Kingdom of Israel and later sent the Babylonians to lay waste to Judah.

As noted last week, Jesus began His final week before His crucifixion pronouncing His judgment upon Jerusalem and its inhabitants. He first cleansed the temple of its money-changers and cursed a fruitless fig tree as a symbol of His verdict against Jerusalem’s worship. In our present text, Jesus continues His pronouncement by telling a parable involving a vineyard, yet in a twist from God’s love song in Isaiah, Jesus’ parable warns judgment not upon the vineyard itself but upon the tenants who were entrusted with caring for the vineyard. As we shall see, this was a pointed rebuke of the scribes and religious leaders who claimed to teach the people, yet sought to put God incarnate to death.

BY WHAT AUTHORITY? // VERSES 27-33

Our passage begins with Jesus and His disciples again entering Jerusalem and returning to the temple. We are then told that as He walked into the temple the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”

The listing of these three groups (chief priests, scribes, and elders) should bring to back into our minds Christ’s threefold prediction of His death and resurrection, where He first said that He would be rejected by these men (8:31) and then specifically said that they would “condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles” (10:33). Thus, we ought to rightly feel a deep foreboding in their approaching Jesus.

Yet even though Jesus has told us that these men would condemn Him to death, the question that they present is not unreasonable. In fact, it is the very question that they should have been asking all along. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, His hearers noted that He taught with authority “and not as the scribes” (1:22). Yet they never asked where His authority came from; they merely resolved to destroy Him (3:6). What, then, had changed and led to this inquiry?

It was most certainly Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. You see, they were the leaders in charge of the temple and were ultimately the ones who had permitted the money-changers in the first place. Yet Jesus had driven them out of the temple and did so while quoting Scripture to suggest that the temple of His house! In doing this, Jesus went against their authority and made a mockery of their leadership before all the people right before the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem.

But, again, all of this led to them finally asking Jesus the question that they should have asked Him at the very beginning of His ministry: where did His authority come from?

Jesus, however, did not answer their question directly; instead, He demanded an answer to His own question first: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” This was a perfect question to ask. By asking whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from man, Jesus was posing a question about the authority of John’s ministry. Was John really a prophet called by God, or was he a lunatic? Had God spoken to him, or was he just hearing voices in his head?

And, of course, this had direct implications for the question of Jesus’ authority because Jesus had been baptized by John. He had very intentionally and very publicly identified His ministry with John’s ministry. Thus, the nature of John’s baptism was directly tied to the nature of Jesus’ authority to cleanse the temple. By answering this question about John’s baptism, they would essentially be answering their own question about Jesus’ authority.

They discussed amongst themselves and found that they could not give either answer. The people certainly believed that John was a prophet, but if the religious leaders said that John’s baptism was from heaven, then everyone would ask why they had rejected him. But if they answered honestly and said that they believed John was not a prophet, then all the people would be angry with them. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” This was a lie of expedience. They did not want to deal with the repercussions of either answer, so they feigned ignorance. J. C. Ryle gives us hard but true counsel from this verse:

The plain truth is that we ought to be very slow to give credit to the unconverted man’s professed reasons for not serving Christ. We may be tolerably sure, that when he says ‘I cannot,’ the real meaning of his heart is ‘I will not.’ A really honest spirit in religious matters is a mighty blessing. Once let a man be willing to live up to his light, and act up to his knowledge, and he will soon know of the doctrine of Christ, and come out from the world (John 7:17). The ruin of thousands is simply this, that they deal dishonestly with their own souls. They allege pretended difficulties as the cause of their not serving Christ, while in reality they ‘love darkness rather than light,’ and have no honest desire to change (John 3:19).[1]

Lest we think that Ryle is speaking presumptuously, he is only expressing what Paul declared in Romans 1:18-20:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

God has revealed Himself to all people at least as the Creator, yet men suppress the truth of God by their unrighteousness. That is exactly what the religious leaders were doing here, only upon a grander scale because they had a greater revelation. They were not simply rejecting the Creator that they could only see through the lens of His creation. No, to these men God had given His law, His holy Word. And here the Word made flesh stood before them, but by their unrighteousness, they suppressed the truth still.

Jesus could have easily call them on their cop-out non-answer answer, but instead, He simply said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” I think Sproul is right in saying that Jesus had no need to point out their pathetic response, for the people could see it clearly. All could see that their grand attempt to reassert their authority over the temple had fizzled into nothing. If they were still afraid to make their opinion of John known, how could they ever hope to stand up to the one whose sandals John said he was not worthy enough to untie? Yes, their challenge had backfired, and everyone could see it.

More significantly, Piper views Jesus’ refusal to respond as an example of His command in Matthew 7:6 not to give holy things to dogs or pearls to pigs. He says that Jesus was essentially saying, “I will not answer people like you. I will not cast the pearl of truth before those who trample truth with the whisperings of expediency. I will not answer questions that come from hearts that elevate self-preservation above honesty. Dogs and pigs don’t care about truth. They care only abut not getting stoned by the crowds.”

Piper continues on to say,

If you want to walk with Jesus, you can’t be a pig or a dog. He will not speak to you if you play games with words and conceal your meaning with politically correct evasions. So let us come near to Christ and speak “from sincerity… as from God… in Christ in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 2:17).[2]

A VINEYARD & ITS TENANTS // VERSES 1-9, 12

As we move into chapter 12, we find out that Jesus was not finished speaking to the chief priests, scribes, and elders. He would not answer their question directly, but He did tell them a parable:

A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others, some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

This parable is slightly different from the ones Jesus told in chapter 4 because those were explicitly said to both reveal and conceal the kingdom to the hearers. The kingdom was revealed to its children but concealed from those without eyes to see or ears to hear. Yet Jesus told this parable with no intention of concealing its meaning from His enemies, while the meaning was very likely hidden at present from His followers.

Indeed, Jesus clearly wanted the religious leaders to understand that the parable was about them, and in verse 12, we discover that they perceived exactly that. Again, I think Sproul is right to note that “it must have been chillingly revealing, given their plot to do away with Jesus.”[3] This was essentially a fourth prediction by Jesus of His death, yet it was made not to His disciples but to those intending to kill Him. Here was the man whom they were planning to kill standing before them and saying, in essence, “I know exactly what you are going to do.” Their dark plot could not be hidden from the Light of the world.

But let us discuss the actual parable for a moment. Unlike the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, Jesus’ parable is not condemning the vineyard as fruitless. Yet while the vines did yield fruit, the tenants or vinedressers refused to send it to the owner of the vineyard. Thus, we rightly call this the Parable of the Tenants (again, or Vinedressers) rather than the Parable of the Vineyard. Even so, I think it is safe to assume that the vineyard is still intended to represent God’s people, Israel. The tenants represented the religious leaders of Israel, the scribes, chief priests, and elders, and the owner of the vineyard is clearly God.

Thus, whenever we see the servant of the owner as the Old Testament prophets, we find in this parable a brief yet very accurate summary of Israel’s history. At the very beginning of Israel’s national identity, they repeatedly wrestled and fought against Moses, and they continued to do so with the various prophets that God sent to them throughout their history. They rarely listened, often mistreated, and sometimes outright killed God’s messengers to them. Again, as Isaiah 5 revealed, the people of Israel were not innocent of this obstinance, and a painful reality is that God very often allows false teachers as a judgment upon those who gladly wish to hear them. Indeed, Jeremiah 5:30-31 states, “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?”

The parable, however, is specifically against Israel’s leaders, who as the principle of James 3:1 indicates were “judged with greater strictness.” They ought to have been faithful to the LORD as Moses, Elijah, and others were even when the opinion of Israel was against God and His law. Like pastors and elders in the church today, Israel’s leaders were stewards over God’s people, meant only to act on behalf of the owner. Yet they were faithless stewards and continued to be so even when the owner sent his own son to them. Jude and 2 Peter 2 are some of the most explicit words in the New Testament against such false teachers among Christ’s church.

Here again we must not make more of a parable than what is intended of it. While the owner in the parable thought that the tenants would surely listen to his son, the Father knew in eternity past that His Son would be rejected and crucified. Indeed, that was the eternal plan of our Triune God. Jesus is simply using this narrative device to cut into the unbelief of His audience. He is pointedly warning them that they are not merely following after the pattern of their rebellious fathers, for they were not simply rejecting another servant but rather the owner’s beloved son.

Or, speaking plainly, they were not plotting to destroy another one of the prophets, wicked as that may be; they were planning how to kill the Author of life, the eternal Son by whom, through whom, and for whom were all things made and without whom was not anything made that was made. Spurgeon once wrote, “When wicked men slew the Prince of life, the Holy One and the Just, then was it proven that the world is at heart atheistic, that it hates God, and would put God himself to death if he were within its grasp.”[4]

What would become of such wicked tenants? They would be destroyed, and the vineyard would be given over to others. In a very literal sense, this played out quite visibly in the first century of the church. While beginning in Jerusalem, Christianity quickly spread to the Gentiles and then became predominately composed of Gentiles. And if there was any doubt that God had indeed established the long-awaited New Covenant with God’s people themselves becoming the new temple, the LORD permitted the Romans to decimate Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD.

We will discuss the significance of that event in chapter 13, but for now let us simply be reminded of the truth that we confess: Christ will one day return to judge the living and the dead. Although the LORD’s patience is great, He will not endure the wicked forever. Just as the entrance to the ark was shut at the coming of the flood, the way of salvation will also be forever shut at the return of Christ.

THE REJECTED STONE // VERSES 10-11

Let us conclude our study by turning to the Scripture that Jesus cited as the concluding remark of His parable: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Jesus was quoting Psalm 118:22-23, which is (not by accident) the same Psalm that the people used to praise Christ as He rode into Jerusalem, crying, “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD” (118:25-26)! Now Jesus is using that same Psalm to testify of Himself, stating that He is the stone whom the builders rejected that then became the cornerstone. The imagery here is of builders casting off a particular stone as being unfit for use in the building project, yet their judgment was wrong, for not only was the stone of use but it became the cornerstone of its foundation.

We should also note the shift from speaking of the vineyard owner’s son to a stone would not have been so jarring as Jesus actually spoke these words in Hebrew, for in that language the words for ‘stone’ and ‘son’ sound very similar (eben and ben).

And so it was with Jesus’ rejection by the chief priests, scribes, and elders. They looked God become man in the face and yet rejected Him. As John 1:11 says, “He came to his own, but his own people did not receive him.” Or as Isaiah 53:1-3 predicted:

          Who has believed what he has heard from us?
                        And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
            For he grew up before him like a young plant,
                        and like a root out of dry ground;
            he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
                        and no beauty that we should desire him.
            He was despised and rejected by men,
                        a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
            and as one from whom men hide their faces
                        he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Yet the Rejected One is now the foundation of the new creation, of God’s glorious redemption of the entire cosmos, and it begins with us:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19–22

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Romans 8:19–23

As the psalmist said long ago, “This was the Lord’s doing…” Indeed, who else could have created such a plan? All of this is again displaying that humiliation comes before exaltation, that rejection comes before the reign, that the cross comes before the crown, that the way up is down. Is this marvelous in your eyes?

Let us remember this today as we continue to walk in between Christ’s cross and His return and as we are called to walk in His footsteps. If we would know Christ and the mighty power of His resurrection, we must also share in His sufferings, “becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). We should not expect to be accepted and loved by the world or even by all who claim to be of God; rather, we ought to carry each day our cross upon our backs, remembering that “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

As we come, then, to the Table of our rejected yet exalted King, let all who have not called upon the name of Jesus for salvation hear His call to come and be saved. Christ, the great ark of our salvation, will not have His door open forever. If you have ears to hear His call, then go to Him in prayer today. Do not reject Him as the religious leaders did.

And for all who do call Christ Lord and Savior and have been buried with Him in baptism, let us look upon Him who willingly received the Father’s rejection in our place, taking our sin upon Himself, and nailing it to the accursed tree. Let us look upon Him the cornerstone of our salvation, who is making us “into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”


[1] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 193.

[2] John Piper, The Works of John Piper, 10:638.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 271.

[4] Charles Spurgeon, Majesty in Misery Vol 1: Dark Gethsemane, 3.

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