Sermon on the Gospel according to Matthew | Actions Speak Louder | Matthew 21:28-32

Actions Speak Louder (Matthew 21:28-32)

When I was preaching at one congregation, a Christian—I’ll call him Bob—would attend worship for 2 or 3 Sundays and then he’d disappear for 2-3 months. Every single time Bob would show up after his hiatus, he would respond to the invitation hymn.

Every single he came forward, Bob promised and promised and promised that this time things would be different. He wanted to be faithful to God, and this time he really wished to repent and be faithful. His repentance would last a couple weeks or so, and then Bob would be right back where he started.

You’ve probably known folks like Bob in your own life. But have you ever said you were going to do something and then fall short? Did you ever make New Year’s resolutions—to lose weight or exercise more or get more sleep or to be a better parent—only to break it by the end of January? Did you ever promise a friend you’d do something and then forget all about it? Did you ever make promises to stop smoking or drinking only to last about a week before you started again? Did you ever promise your parents to do something—to mow the lawn or to be home by curfew—only to break your promise that same day?

Jesus told a parable about two brothers whose father asked them to work in the vineyard. The first son refused, but he later went. The second son promised to work in the vineyard, but he only spoke the words—he didn’t work in the vineyard.

Jesus told this parable to “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matt 21:23). The parable’s meaning is apparent; the chief priests and the elders are the second son. They talked a good talk about the Lord and how one should live, but they didn’t act on their words. John had come from God showing them “the way of righteousness,” but they rejected him and his work. They said, “Sure, I’ll love and obey God,” but their actions betrayed them.

Jesus made clear a truth: “To obey is better than to say.

Scripture (Matthew 21:28-32)

verses 28-30:

The first son the father asked to work would have been the older, and he would have been expected to obey his father. His refusal to work in the vineyard would have upset Jewish sensibilities; after all, the Law required children to obey their parents and children who refused to obey their parents were to be put to death. However, upon reflection, the elder son realized his error and went and worked in the vineyard.

The father asked his second son to work in the vineyard. The younger son said, “I go, sir,” but he did not go. This second son would really have offended Jewish sensibilities. Not only did he disobey his father, but he also went back on his word. The Law taught that one was to do what he said he would do.

verse 31:

Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders which son obeyed his father. They rightfully answered the first. No, he didn’t do everything right, but at least he did go and work in the vineyard as his father requested.

The tax collectors and the prostitutes entered the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders. Tax collectors and prostitutes were considered the scum of the earth; “pious” Jews believed them to be outside of practicing Judaism. “Going into the kingdom of God before you” really means “going into the kingdom of God instead of you.” In other words, it was the scum of the earth, not the chief priests and elders, who were entering the kingdom of God.

verse 32:

In this verse, Jesus explained the parable: John came to the Jewish leaders “in the way of righteousness.” John, in other words, came and explained how to be righteous before God and how to be prepared for the kingdom of heaven. The chief priests and elders, however, did not believe him. They were the younger son—they said, “Yes, I love God, I’ll serve God, and I’m waiting for the Messiah;” however, when they had the opportunity to act in response to John’s preaching, they did nothing.

The tax collectors and prostitutes, however, openly rejected God—they were saying, “No” to the life God offered. However, when John appeared, they heard his preaching, repented of their sins, and acted in accordance with God’s will. They were like the elder son who refused to go into the vineyard at first but then repented and went.

Even after the chief priests and elders saw the great things God was doing through John, they refused to believe.


To obey is better than to say.” In no way do we mean that the mouth is unimportant. Jesus said that the mouth is a window into the soul: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34). One must confess with his mouth his faith in the Lord Jesus: “With the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom 10:10).

What we mean by “To obey is better than to say” is that lip service Christianity ain’t gonna cut it. It’s not about pretending to be a good Christian or appearing on the outside to love the Lord. It’s a matter of obeying every word the Lord has spoken. Your actions of obedience speak louder than your pledges of obedience.

Since “To obey is better than to say,” you need to ask yourself a couple questions.

Question One: Am I Pretending?

The chief priests and elders pretended. They claimed to love the Lord, they claimed to be anticipating the Messiah, they claimed to be God’s obedient people, but they weren’t those things at all.

Jesus strongly condemned those who pretend:

  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matt 23:25-26).
  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt 23:27-28).

Are you Pretending? Are you in the assembly this morning because it’s what your parents or your spouse or your friends expect instead of because you love the Lord? When you’re home by yourself, what do your actions reveal? When you are faced with temptation, how do you respond? What do your actions say about you? Are you saying “Yes” to God but living for yourself?

Question Two: Am I Practicing?

The tax collectors and prostitutes were practicing; their lives were initially a rejection of God, but they repented and practiced the will of God.

Are you Practicing the will of God? The one who practices is wise: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24). “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 2:5-6). It’s not about simply claiming to abide in God; it’s about walking as Jesus walked.

Are you Practicing? What does the way you treat your family say about how you practice your faith? What does your prayer life say about the way you practice your faith? What does the way you spend your alone time say about the way you practice your faith? What do your TV habits say about the way you practice your faith?

Are you honestly Practicing the faith this morning, or do you need to come and begin Practicing the faith as we stand and sing?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at Church of Christ Deer Park in Deer Park, Texas.

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