A Tale of Two Sons (Sermon)
In senior year English, I was assigned a book report on Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The two cities are the cities London and Paris. The novel is set in the late 18th century during the time of the French Revolution. It’s a tale of 2 cities, but more than that it’s the tale of two men.
Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton may look alike, but their character is quite different. Darnay is a virtuous man, who has renounced the cruelty of his family line. Throughout the novel, he acts with honesty and courage. Carton is a drunken lawyer, who has wasted his life. He has lived for himself, satisfying the passions of the moment.
Near the end of the book, the reader finds honorable and innocent Darnay imprisoned, awaiting execution at the guillotine. The drunken Carton, in a single act of bravery, switches places with Darnay, freeing him and taking his death sentence. This tale of two cities is really the tale of these 2 men—one innocent but condemned to death, and the other guilty but free.
This morning, I want to consider the tale of two sons. This tale shares many themes with Dickens’ novel. One son is honorable and innocent, and the other is selfish and guilty. One son gives his life, and the other son gains life from this gift.
But the stories have key differences. A Tale of Two Cities is fiction, but this tale of two sons is true. The two men in A Tale of Two Cities were representative of 2 cities, but the two sons and their tale has universal implications.
I want to start this tale of two sons by reading a couple short sections of Israelite law recorded in Deuteronomy 21. One of these two sons is guilty. We’ll see why in a few minutes. Before we do, I want you to see why it matters that he’s guilty, and what the cost of his guilt is.
(Deuteronomy 21:18–23 ESV) If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.
These verses from Deuteronomy 21 are case law. In the case of this happening, the law spells out clearly what the response should be. Let’s break this law down.
The problem is a son who is stubborn and rebellious. That’s defined by not listening to the instructions of His father and mother. He hears what his father says, but he chooses not to obey. This isn’t referring to a single moment of disobedience, for even when the father attempts to discipline his son—to get his attention and implore him to submit—the son still refuses to obey his father.
We get a better idea of the son’s problem in verse 20—he’s a glutton and a drunkard. This son is not ruled by his father’s instructions. He’s a slave to his own desires. He has neglected the fellowship of his family, and cultivated the company of food and drink. He has traded the good name of his father, forsaking his identity as son, for a few moments of pleasure at the bottom of a bottle.
The law demanded the death penalty. He was guilty and would be executed. The bodies of those who were executed were to be placed upon a pole as a warning to others who were tempted in the same way. Hanging on a pole was a picture of God’s displeasure. It was a sign that God had cursed this one. His disobedience had brought down God’s curse.
So let me summarize this case law: a son’s rebellion to his father, being ruled by his desires instead of his father’s instructions, demanded the death penalty. His actions would bring God’s curse of death, publicly witnessed by being hung from a tree.
The Rebellious Son
This is what the first son in our tale deserved. He was sinful and rebellious. He ignored the word of his father. Who is this son? Turn to Deuteronomy 32. Moses tells us, as he sang a song to the nation of Israel.
(Deuteronomy 32:4–6 ESV) “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are just. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation. Do you thus repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”
(Deuteronomy 32:18–20 ESV) “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. The LORD saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.”
The nation of Israel was the rebellious son. God brought them forth from nothing. He had birthed them as a nation. We’re told in chapter 1 that He carried them out of Egypt and through the wilderness “as a man carries his son.” When Moses stood before Pharaoh, God instructed him to tell Pharaoh that Israel was His firstborn son and to let his son go. Yet, they responded as unfaithful children. They rebelled against God and failed to listen to His Word.
Let’s compare the actions of Israel to the case law of a rebellious son. Was Israel stubborn and rebellious? We know the answer to that one. We see this here in the song of Moses, and we know it from our studies throughout the first five books of the Bible. In fact, already three times in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses has talked about Israel’s rebellion.
(Deuteronomy 1:26 ESV) Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD your God.
(Deuteronomy 1:43 ESV) So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the LORD and presumptuously went up into the hill country.
(Deuteronomy 9:23 ESV) And when the LORD sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and take possession of the land that I have given you,’ then you rebelled against the commandment of the LORD your God and did not believe him or obey his voice.
In each case, when he speaks about their rebellion, he connects it directly to their failure to obey God’s commands. They acted exactly like the rebellious son in the case law.
Just as the father in the case law did, God disciplined Israel (Deut. 8:5). He sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, quail to engorge the people’s bellies and had the earth swallow up rebellious leaders all as a means of getting the people’s attention, to turn them from disobedience to obedience. In each case, the people responded, but only briefly. They persisted in their stubborn rebellion, ignoring their Father’s discipline.
When charges were brought against the rebellious son, it was obvious that he was ruled by his passions, not by his father’s instructions. Was this true of the nation of Israel?
(Exodus 16:3 ESV) And the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
(Numbers 11:4–6 ESV) Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
They were gluttons—not the obvious kind—but the more subtle ones. They weren’t hanging out at buffets all day, shoveling food into their mouths, trying to get multiple meals for the price of one. But their god was their belly. They were enslaved to their desires. Their passions had mastered them.
The rebellious son deserved death because his rebellion had brought God’s curse. This case law established the fact that the nation of Israel deserved to be punished by death.
Each one of us can identify with this rebellious son. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we find ourselves in the very same condition. We are “sons of disobedience.”
(Romans 3:9–12 ESV) For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.
Every man, woman and child is a sinner, and the wages of sin is death. We stand in the very same spot as the nation of Israel—stubborn, rebellious, disobedient, enslaved and sentenced to death. We, you and I, like the nation of Israel before us, are rebellious sons who deserve the penalty of death.
The Righteous Son
But don’t forget: this is the tale of two sons. If the nation of Israel is a rebellious son, then the second son is a righteous son. His part of the tale begins before Israel’s. We find its origins in the very first chapters of the Bible.
When God confronted Adam and Eve for their sin, He made them a promise. A future son would destroy evil and reconcile mankind with God. The rest of the Old Testament adds to and fills in this promise. Now turn to the gospel of Matthew, the very beginning of the New Testament. It opens by talking about a son.
(Matthew 1:1 ESV) The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Jesus Christ was the son that had been promised from the very beginning. He was the one who was going to defeat evil.
In the next few chapters of Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus replay the history of Israel, but without sin. He, like Israel, is a son. But unlike Israel, he doesn’t rebel against the Father. Unlike Israel, He listens to the Father’s word and obeys every single command.
This replay of Israel’s history begins in chapter 2. In verses 13-15, Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus. He would be called out of Egypt, just as the nation of Israel had been before Him.
The reason they fled to Egypt (ch.2:16-18) was because an evil king had commanded the slaughter of infant boys. King Herod was following in the footsteps of Pharaoh who had ordered the mass genocide of male Israelite babies.
In chapter 3, the replay continues. Just as Israel was led through the waters of the Red Sea before entering the wilderness, Jesus is led into the waters of baptism before heading into the wilderness in chapter 4.
Before Israel entered the wilderness, God descended upon them in a visible sign from heaven (a pillar of cloud and fire). This visible sign was proof that He was with them. It gave them their identity as His.
(Matthew 3:16–17 ESV) And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The pinnacle of this replay is chapter 4, where Jesus is led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted. For 40 years, the nation of Israel had been led through the wilderness, being tempted all the way. We know how the nation of Israel fared in this temptation. They rebelled against their Father. How would Jesus handle it?
(Matthew 4:1–11 ESV) Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Three times Jesus is tempted by Satan. Each temptation mirrors one from Israel’s past. Each one revolves around their relationship with their Father. In each temptation we hear a haunting accusation about God as Father. Let’s examine these temptations, and see how both sons responded.
The first temptation revolves around food. It asks the question, “Does your Father love you enough to feed you?” It comes after Jesus has wandered through the wilderness for 40 days and nights without eating. 40 days without eating. Some of us ate breakfast 2 hours ago and are hungry already. Jesus hasn’t eaten for 40 days.
Satan knows where we are tempted. He wouldn’t have tempted Jesus this way if it were all a sham. Jesus was a real man. He had real human desires. We need to be careful not to minimize the humanity of Jesus. A growling stomach felt the same to Jesus as it does to you.
The smell of fresh-baked bread would have accompanied the questions of Satan. Just as our minds begin to see, smell, taste and touch the sin when we’re tempted, Jesus’ mind would have drifted to the wonderful smells of baking bread. After 40 days, He would have loved to break open a loaf of steaming bread and take a bite.
But the temptation is greater than bread. There’s nothing wrong with bread. The temptation revolves around God’s care as a Father. Satan was questioning God’s love for Jesus. He was accusing God of allowing Jesus to starve out in the wilderness.
It’s a similar temptation to the one he made to Eve in the Garden. “Look at the fruit, it’s good for food. Does God really not love you enough to let you eat it? Is your Father unwilling to feed you?”
I have three boys who love to eat. They’re growing, and they expend a lot of energy every day, and so they crave food. Not a day goes by when the words, “Can I have a snack?” fail to be uttered in our house. As their father, I know that I am ultimately responsible for feeding them. For everyone’s sake, I don’t actually do the cooking. Their wonderful mother does a fantastic job of that. But the responsibility for providing food falls on me. As their father, I’m responsible for meeting their need for food.
What kind of father wouldn’t take care of his child’s need for food? Only the worst, reprobate dad would leave his children to starve. History is replete with stories of fathers starving themselves to give the last remaining food to their children.
Jesus’ stomach is growling. He hasn’t eaten for 40 days. He was led out here by the Spirit of God. And Satan whispers in His ear, “Does your Father love you enough to feed you?”
As the children of Israel journeyed through the wilderness, one of the main temptations they faced revolved around food. Every day, they had to trust God for food. Every day they had to trust His love for them.
God provided their food in a miraculous way. When the Israelites woke up in the morning, flakes of bread called “manna” would cover the ground. The manna wouldn’t last more than that day. If they tried to keep it more than one day, it would spoil. The reason God provided their meals in this way was so that they would learn to trust Him. They would learn that He loved them enough to feed them. It would also teach them that food was not as important as what God said, that their cravings were not more powerful than God.
God was teaching them that they were more than the sum of their desires. They were more than a fleshly mass of wants. He was showing them that their life could be ruled by the clear commands of God, not the constant cravings of their body.
Brothers and sisters, you are more than your desires. This is one of the ways we are different than animals. We don’t have to be enslaved to momentary passions. In fact, the more we are ruled by our passion, the more beastly we become. True humanity is not found in giving in to how we feel, but learning to live for more than what we feel. True humanity is learning to say “No” to a Twinkie because we’ve been promised steak. It’s learning, by God’s grace, to control our appetites. You are more than your desires.
The nation of Israel, the rebellious son, gave into this temptation. They complained about the food. They hoarded the manna. They didn’t believe that their father loved them enough to feed them. But Jesus, the righteous son, believed His Father, and in the moment of temptation, He quoted His Father’s words to the tempter.
The second temptation revolves around safety. The serpent slyly whispers the question, “Does your Father love you enough to protect you?”
(Matthew 4:5–7 ESV) Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
If you’ve read these first 5 chapters of the Bible with us over the past couple months, then you’ve read all about Israel’s wilderness wanderings. If you think about their time between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land, there are probably a few moments that stand out to you.
One of those moments is the Israelites’ refusal to enter the land God had promised them. God brought the nation out of Egypt for the express purpose of giving them this land of promise. When they reached the border, 12 spies were sent into this land to bring a report. Ten of the spies came back afraid and convinced the people that they would be killed if they obeyed God. In fear, the people refused to enter the land. They gave into the temptation that God did not love them enough to protect them.
The other night, one of my sons woke up in the middle of the night in tears. I went into his room, but he was inconsolable. Finally, I figured out that he was scared. I’m not sure why—maybe a nightmare, maybe just extreme exhaustion—but he didn’t want to stay in his room. I ended up bringing him into our room, and laying him down on the floor. As I laid him down I asked him if he would be okay. He said, “Yes.” The last thing I did was to remind him that I was going to be right there, so he didn’t need to be afraid.
I don’t tell you that because I’m “SuperDad.” What I did was nothing unique or special. I did what fathers do. Fathers protect their children. Fathers go to war to keep their families safe. Why do fathers cringe when a child’s old enough to get their driver’s license? It’s not the insurance costs or the fact they’re growing up. It’s the fear that we can no longer keep them safe. We will no longer be with them to protect them. Are the fathers in this room better fathers than God? Are we more loving? Do we care more about our children’s welfare then God cares about us?
Jesus, the righteous Son, didn’t need to put Himself in danger to test whether or not God loved Him. Unlike the Israelites, He didn’t need to test God. He knew that God was a loving Father who protects His children. Where they failed, He succeeded. Where they doubted, He trusted. Where they rebelled, He obeyed.
The final temptation revolved around blessing. The hissing tongue of the serpent questioned Jesus, “Does your Father love you enough to bless you?”
(Matthew 4:8–10 ESV) Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Worship and blessing have always been connected. We were made to worship God and enjoy His blessings. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden to worship God and enjoy His blessings. God commanded the nation of Israel to worship Him alone, and if they did He promised to bless them.
Before the dust settled from their journey out of Egypt, Israel was worshipping a golden calf. They were ascribing all of God’s blessings to this hunk of metal.
This is exactly how the Devil attempted to defeat Jesus. He took Jesus up and showed him all that could be his if he would only switch His allegiance. “Will God really bless you? Can you really believe His promises?” Look, I will give you all of this.
That’s the devil’s lie. Worship me, and I’ll give you all you want right now. Instant gratification. Trading the eternal for the momentary. Giving up a birthright for a bowl of soup. He says, “Swear allegiance to someone other than God, if only for a moment, and I’ll give you all things right now.”
In Psalm 2, God promises to give Jesus all things. He promises to give Jesus all the ends of the earth as His possession. But that promise was far off. That promise was yet to be seen. Satan was allowing Jesus to see what could be His right then. He was tempting Jesus to give up the unseen for the seen, to do exactly what the nation of Israel did with the Golden Calf. They gave up worship of the almighty, invisible God for a few hours of revelry around a gleaming statue. What a poor trade.
The rebellious son said, “Yes” to temptation, but the righteous son said, “No.” He again quoted the word of His Father, again the book of Deuteronomy, and demonstrated His obedience. He was ruled by His Father’s command, not His fleshly cravings.
After suffering this final defeat, Satan left. He could not defeat this righteous Son. All of his traps and schemes had failed. In every way that Israel had rebelled, Jesus obeyed.
This tale of two sons isn’t in the Bible to entertain us. It’s here because it matters to our lives. Remember, we share the same condition as Israel. Jew and Gentile alike have sinned. We have all rebelled, and we all fall under the law’s condemnation.
What Jesus did matters. His perfect obedience as God’s Son matters. Here’s why:
(Galatians 3:13 ESV) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
We were under the curse of the law. Because of our rebellion, the law cursed us. Our death was necessary to satisfy the law’s demands. There was a sentence of death placed upon the head of every single one of us. The law would not relent its demands until justice was met.
But Jesus, who did not deserve death, took our curse for us. He hung on a tree as a condemned criminal in our place. If He was worthy of death, then His death would have only fulfilled His own sentence. But since He was not worthy of death, His death could remove the curse on us. The righteous Son died for the rebellious son, so that the rebellious son could be reunited with his Father.
Friend, Jesus Christ died for you. He died in your place so that your sin could be forgiven. Repent of your sin and turn to Him by faith and be saved.
Brothers and sisters, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, not only changes our position, but it also give us a pattern to follow and the power necessary to say no to the temptations that plagued the Israelites and still plague us.
We are still tempted to doubt God’s love, protection and blessing.
We are still tempted to grumble and complain.
We are still tempted to give into our wants instead of listening to His Word.
We are still tempted to fear what others can do to us.
We are still tempted to look for blessing apart from God.
We need to learn from the example of Jesus—how His mind was filled with Scripture, how He knew the character of His Father, how He trusted the Father’s promises. But we also need to find our power to say “No” to temptation…we find our power in Jesus.
We can say “no” to temptation. We don’t have to give into sin. The victory Jesus won was won for us. In His victory we were given the power to resist the allure of sin. We can say “no” because He said “no” and we are in Him. That means His power is in us and available to us at any and every moment.
Ultimately, the best way to resist temptation is to remember your identity. Don’t focus on what you do, or how you feel, but rest in who God says you are. If you are in Christ, the righteous Son, then when the Father looks at you He says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.