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The Parables of the Kingdom, Part 3: Tares among wheat: Told and Explained

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 17, 1998

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 13.  We will begin in verse 24.  In the midst of our study of Matthew 13, we have said that in this passage are contained seven parables, all focused on the subject of the kingdom.  Each of these parables is designed to bring to Jesus' disciples certain facts, certain truths about the kingdom which they may not have expected; in fact, which may seem to be contradictory to what they were expecting about the kingdom.  In the Parable of the Sower, for instance, Jesus makes it clear that there will be a mixed response to Him and to His preaching of the good news.  His disciples, on the other hand, were expecting that when He established His kingdom, He would bring all of Israel and all of the Gentiles to the mountain of Jerusalem to worship the Lord.  That's what the kingdom would be like.

But the parable of the sower is designed to teach His disciples, in fact, their expectations are in error. That is not the way that it is to be in this ministration of the kingdom that the Lord has granted to them.  So each of these parables is designed to correct some misunderstandings, some misinformation, some preconceptions on our own part about the nature of the kingdom that Christ had come to establish.  So let's look then, at Matthew chapter 13, beginning at verse 24, as we consider the parable of the tares and the wheat.  Hear God's holy and inspired word:

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Our Father, we thank Thee for the spiritual truth conveyed in this Your word.  We know that it is meant to be profitable for our correction and for our instruction in righteousness.  So, by the Spirit, make it so.  We ask as well that you would enlighten us of our own need for forgiveness of sin, even as we study Your word.  We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen. 

In the Parable of the Sower, the disciples learned that Israel, and many of the Gentiles, would reject Jesus' claims for Himself to be the Messiah, and the good news that He brought, thus correcting His expectations about the kingdom, because they thought that when the Messiah set up his kingdom, all of Israel and all the Gentiles would come to Him.  In the parable of the tares, the disciples learn that the kingdom itself will be mixed in character, thus correcting their expectation that the kingdom would be perfectly pure, and would involve a righteous rule over all the unrighteous of the world.  They had apparently taken Jeremiah 31, verses 31 through 34, very seriously.  They expected the law of God to be written on the hearts of all of those who were involved in the kingdom of heaven.  They expected all of those involved in the kingdom to know the Lord from the greatest to the least, and they believed, with John the Baptist, that when the Lord came He was going to lay the axe to the root of the tree.  He was going to bring judgment to the unrighteous in the land, and set up a righteous kingdom.  And, consequently, they needed to be corrected in what the kingdom of heaven would be like in this experience between two ages: the coming of Christ the first time and the coming of Christ the second time.  And so, the parable of the tares is designed to show them that in Christ’s kingdom, the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one are going to exist side by side for a long time.  And so, they must wait patiently and give themselves to building up the wheat (that is the sons of the kingdom) and be careful in their judgment not to harm those who are believers.  This parable is designed to remind the disciples that there will be judgment and condemnation for those who appear to be in the kingdom, but who are, in fact, not.  But that judgment is going to be reserved for the final judgment and will be carried out by the angels. 

This parable also indicates that there will be many who are identified with the kingdom of heaven who are not part of it.  It is interesting to see the similarities between the parable of the sower and the parable of the tares.  The parable of the sower talks about a sower, so does the parable of the tares.  Both parables talk about a field. They both talk about a seed.  They both talk about a crop yield and in both parables the evil one is mentioned.

But there are also differences between the two parables.  For one thing, in the parable of the sower all the seed is good.  In the parable of the tares, of course, some of the seed is wheat and some of the seed is weed.  In the parable of the sower, the focus is on the response to the different kinds of soils of the seed which has been planted by the sower.  In the parable of the tares, the focus is on the command which the landowner gives to his servant.  He tells his servant before the final judgment that they are to be patient, and then He gives the command to his servants - the angels at the final judgment are to reap and to separate the tares and the wheat. Notice also that the evil one is at work in both of these parables.

But in the parable of the sower, Satan snatches away the good seed whereas in the parable of the tares, He actually sows weeds or bad seed.  And so there are similarities and differences between these two parables, but the focus of the first parable - the parable of the sower - is to remind us that there will be a mixed response to the gospel message, while the purpose of the parable of the tares is to remind us that the kingdom itself will be mixed until the final judgment.  In other words, there will be no perfectly pure and righteous expression of God's kingdom on earth before the final judgment.  There will always be wheat and tares side by side. 

That message was so important for the disciples because they were expecting Jesus to purge all iniquity from Israel and to establish a perfectly righteous kingdom, and if they had not had the perception corrected, they would have been very, very disappointed by the kingdom that the Lord Jesus was going to set up. 

But friends, there are messages for us in this parable, too.  This parable asks us to reflect about the nature of the visible church today, and it asks us to do some examination of our own hearts, and so I’d like to point your attention to three things in our passage today.

I. Christians must be careful to note what the kingdom of heaven is like in this life. 

The first thing you will see in verses 23 through 30.  There the parable itself is recounted, and I want you to see from that passage that Christians must be careful to note what the kingdom of heaven is like in this life. We need to be very careful about what we expect the kingdom of heaven to be like in this life.  In this passage, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a field that has been sowed with good seed, with wheat, but which has been oversown by an enemy.  It's a very interesting story.  The servants of a landlord have planted a field.  While they are sleeping, an enemy comes and actually plants a poisonous weed in the field where the wheat has been planted. 

Now let me just stop right there and say that surely sounds like an unlikely scenario.  I mean, how often do farmers have others come in and plant poisonous weeds in their fields?  Let me say two things about that. Dean Henry Alford, who wrote a four-volume commentary on the great New Testament, was a farmer himself, and someone did this to him back in the 1850's!  They didn't sow poisonous weeds, but they did sow some kind of weed in his field.  Apparently they wanted him to have a bad crop so that their crop prices would go up and they would have better prices at the local market when harvest time came.  So it does happen.  The second thing I want you to note is that the servants themselves never suspect that something like this could have happened.  So Jesus is not giving us the impression, in the parable, that this sort of thing happens every day; I mean, every time you turn around there isn't somebody sowing poisonous weeds in farmer's fields.  Jesus knows that from time to time tares will grow up in good gardens and fields, but this is a unique circumstance and it never crosses the servants’ minds that someone would have actually come into their field and planted weeds; but that's exactly what the landowner tells them.  When the servants see the wheat beginning to come up, they are startled by the ratio of tares to wheat.  All field hands would have expected some tares - some weeds to be growing up in a crop. 

No matter how well you have tilled the field, no matter how well you have purified and purged the field before you have planted, everyone expects to see a few weeds in their garden.  It is not the appearance of weeds, it is the massive ratio of those weeds which clearly terrifies these servants and they go back to their Lord, and they say, “You did give us good seed, didn't you?”  I mean, where in the world did all this stuff come from?  You can see the processes of their mind.  They are thinking, “Maybe some of this stuff was actually mixed in with the wheat that we planted.  Maybe that is why there is so much of it.”  Because as the wheat begins to come up, they see all these weeds in the field, but the response of the landowner is this: “No, the seed that I gave you was good.  An enemy has done this.”  The landowner says that someone had deliberately planted these weeds in their field, and then when they say, “Well, do you want us to go out and tear out all the tares.  Do you want us to go out and remove all the weeds?”  His response again is, “No, because if you do that, you stand to damage the wheat, and therefore, I’m going to bring in specialists, reapers, at the harvest time, and they will be given the job of separating the wheat and the tares.”  

This is the story which is told, and Jesus explains this as referring to the kingdom of heaven.  He says his kingdom of heaven, the kingdom He is establishing is like this.  He sows good seed.  Many respond to it and grow up in faith, but at the same time, the enemy, the evil one, Satan, is working against his kingdom.  He sows tares, so that sons of light and sons of darkness coexist in this kingdom.  The disciples ask, “Should we not then root out the sons of darkness?”  Jesus response is, “No, I have specialists for that.  I will send My angels to make that final division at the end of time, at the judgment.”  

It's a very important lesson which is being given to the disciples here.  First of all, it's important because they need to understand what kind of a kingdom the Lord Jesus is establishing.  It's not going to be a perfect kingdom.  It's not going to be a totally pure kingdom in this life.  The purging and the perfection are for later.  For now, the kingdom is mixed in its character.  Let me just say one thing in passing.  A lot of commentators have argued about whether this parable refers to the church, or whether it refers to the situation that we see in the world today, where there are believers and unbelievers side by side.  I remember a seminary professor of mine making fun of Augustine because he had interpreted this parable as applying to the Church.  Well, this parable undoubtedly applies to the Church.  There is no other parable in all of Jesus' parables where the Church and the Kingdom are so close.  They're almost synonymous in this parable and there are lessons for both those aspects.  In other words, there are lessons in this parable both for Christians as we live in this world, and as Christ’s kingdom broadly operates, but there are also lessons for us with regard to how Christians live and think about the church because even the church sees this mixed character.  Let me give you three proofs of this: 

First of all, in this parable note that it is said that the tares are sown among the wheat.  Even though the field is the world, recognize that it is among the wheat that the tares are sown.  They are intertwined with the wheat.  That's how close they are to the wheat.  If the wheat are the sons of the kingdom - the members of the visible and invisible church - then the tares are members of the visible church who are not members of the invisible church.  In other words, they made a confession, but the reality of Christ is not in them.  But, they're intertwined with those who are truly believers. 

Secondly, it is our experience - and it has been from the beginning of time - that we see people who make professions of faith in the Lord who do not in fact believe in Him; even amongst Jesus' inner circle, the twelve, there was one who was reprobate. 

Thirdly, notice in verse 31: in this parable it is said that the tares will be gathered by the angels, not out of the field, not out of world, but out of the kingdom.  The tares will be removed, they will be gathered out of what?  The kingdom!  This indicated that this parable refers not simply to the work of Christ in the world in general, but even to the institutional form of the kingdom of heaven, and that is the church.  And so, there are important lessons for us in this passage.  

This story focuses on what the kingdom is like in order to correct our views of the kingdom. 

We tend, like the disciples, to expect for Christ’s kingdom to be triumphant and pure, and Jesus paints a very different picture, or aspect, of his kingdom here.  Jesus stresses that tares in the kingdom are a deliberate plot of Satan.  We must expect this.  We must expect to see those who are hypocritical, those who teach falsely, those who profess faith falsely, even within the bounds of the visible church, because Jesus warns us that that is the case.  It's very interesting that Jesus and Paul and peter all go out of their way - and by the way, they're not the only ones in the New Testament that we can quote to this end - but Jesus and Paul and peter all go out of their way to tell us that there will be people who profess to believe who are not, in fact, believers.  They will be part of the visible church, they will look like - at least in their profession - sons of light, but they will be in fact, sons of darkness.  And so, when we see hypocrisy and unbelief in the church, that is not a proof that the Bible is wrong; it's proof that the Bible is right. 

It is very interesting that the pagan critics of Christianity, in the second and the third century, picked up on this criticism of hypocrisy, and they wrote against many of the church fathers saying that Christianity could not be true because you have hypocrites in the church.  They profess to be believers and yet you have some who live immoral lives.  The church fathers like Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote back and said, “Oh, in fact, that is a proof of the gospel, because Jesus and Peter and Paul told us that that would be the case, that there would be hypocrites, that there would be false teachers even within the church.”  And so if there weren't hypocrites and false teachers in the church, that would be proof that Christianity was not true.  But because there are, it is simply the fulfillment of the word of the Lord. 

Now, we're all aware of those same kinds of criticisms brought against us today.  Perhaps you've gone to an unchurched friend, an unbelieving friend, and asked him to come to church with you before, and you've gotten a response that goes something like this: “Well, I don't want to go to church.  It's filled with a bunch of hypocrites.”  To which one of my Baptist friends once responded, “Well, then one more won't matter, will it?” But that's not the point.  The church is not perfect, and I want you to understand what Jesus is talking about here.  He's not just talking about people who are not entirely sanctified.  Jesus is talking about people who actually do not embrace the gospel, but who look like they are part of the kingdom of heaven.  And Jesus says that this is a reality and so when we have people who say,  “You see, the church is filled with hypocrites,” our first response is, “Jesus told us that it would be;” and the second response is, “I can't think of a better place for them to be, so that they can hear how to get saved.”  Jesus is telling His disciples to expect the kingdom to have a mixed character, and that's very important. 

On the one hand, we have friends who desperately long for Christ’s church to be all that Christ intends it to be; holy, and pure, and devoted to Him, and they so desire that to be the case in this life that they are greatly disillusioned by the church as they find it.  I have a friend who is looking for the perfect church.  He's in one church for a little while and then he finds out that it's not perfect.  Serious flaws in that church.  And he moves on to the next one and then to the next one.  And its a sad thing, my friends, because he becomes more and more cynical, more and more disillusioned, and you know what?  He's never going to find the perfect church in this life.  Because Jesus has not said that the visible church will be perfect.  In fact Jesus has said the opposite.  Understand that if we are looking for the perfect church in this life, it's not because we have a higher view of the church than Jesus.  It's because we have a view of the church that is contradictory to that of Jesus.  Jesus has told us that His kingdom will be mixed in this life.

And by the way, Jesus is not saying that we need to be indifferent about sin in the church.  He's not saying that we need to be flippant about sin in the church.  We ought to be broken-hearted about hypocrisy in the church.  We ought to be broken-hearted about people who profess Christ and live scandalous, immoral lives. Jesus' point is not that we shouldn't be concerned about this.  Jesus' point is that we need to be realistic in our expectation that that will be the case in the church until He finally comes to bring judgment;  

And furthermore, He wants us to know that it is imperative that we give our priority in making sure that the wheat is built up; that we not so focus on judgment of that wickedness, that we damage the wheat.  One of the interesting things that Augustine reminds us is that sometimes tares in the church eventually become wheat and if we so focus on purging the church of evil, trying to get it to a place where it will never be in this life, we will fail to obey the mandate of the Lord.  Again, the Lord Jesus is not engaging in a polemic against church discipline here, no more than He is telling gardeners that they should never pull weeds out of their field.  But He is saying that the focus of his servant in this age, must be to patiently deal with those who are tares, even while they gently deal with those who are weak. 

I've also had friends use the hypocrisy of the church to stay away.  You've heard, “I’m not going to go to that church.  They're hypocritical there.” We do well to remind them that the church has never been conceived by Christ or anyone in Christianity to be a place where perfect people gather.  And again, this is not an excuse for sin.  Augustine told us long ago, “The church is a hospital for sick sinners where they get well.”  It is not a place where those who have already been entirely healed gather.  That place is the gathering place of the invisible church in glory.  But it’s not here.  And that means that we must be realistic about the church.  First Presbyterian church is not a perfect church.  And though we have glorious resources and wonderful teachers, and the Lord has blessed us beyond what we deserve over the years, we are not a perfect church, and I want every visitor to know that we do not conceive of ourselves in that way.  This is not an assembly of the perfect.  This isn't an assembly of the justified by grace, and therefore, there will be great and glaring problems in our midst.  But we serve a great and wonderful savior who is able to triumph over those sins.  We take sin seriously, but we recognize that it is always going to be present while we are on this earth, and that's important for how we approach the church. 

II. Christians must go to Christ when they are baffled by the questions and circumstances of this life.

Another thing we see in verses 36 through 39 - Christ explains this parable to His disciples in this passage.  The disciples are having a hard time understanding this parable.  They already had preconceptions about what the kingdom of God was going to be like.  We've already said that they, apparently like John the Baptist, were waiting for the Messiah to lay the ax to the root of the tree and were looking for impending judgment of wickedness in the kingdom, by Christ. 

But Christ emphasizes to them patience and proclamation.  They are to be patient about the fact that the church is imperfect and they are to proclaim the gospel in the meantime. 

It's very interesting that even though these disciples struggle to understand, they humbly go to Jesus to have their own thinking corrected.  He explains to them point by point what the story represents and they allow their own minds to be corrected by the word of Christ. 

And that's an important lesson for us because Christians must go to Christ when they are baffled by the questions and circumstances of life, and we must go to Christ to have our ideas and our thinking and our desires and our expectations corrected as we look at life. 

How do we do that?  We go to the book.  We go to the holy Scriptures.  We sit under its examination.  We allow all our thinking to be tested according to its authority and to receive its criticism and to have our minds corrected according to holy scripture.  This is so important in the church today.  Over and over, in the church today, in the evangelical church today, we hear Christians making statements about their personal beliefs that are directly contradictory to scripture.  You've heard statements such as this - I’m going to give you a few examples, but you could give me many more.  You've heard statements like this: “Well, my God, the God that I love, wouldn't send anyone to hell.”  Well, what Bible have these Christians been reading?  “Well, my God wouldn't be so narrow to say that Christ was the only way of salvation.”  What Bible are we reading, my friends?  If we are not willing to take our thinking and our ideas and subject them to scripture and to Christ, then we're not deserving of the name “Christian.”  Understanding that all of our thinking must be brought captive to the word of God - must be brought captive to Christ - is one of the first steps in Christian discipleship, and it is a great compliment to these disciples that when they were baffled about what in the world Jesus meant, they didn't make something up on their own.  They went to Jesus and asked Him, “Tell me what this means.  Tell me what I am to believe.”  We need to go to the word of God the same way.  The word of God is the only rule of faith and practice, not my ideas.  My ideas are not the only rule of faith and practice. Your ideas are not the only rule of faith and practice.  The word of God is, and we must subject our thinking to the word of God.  There is no more important message in this day and age for the Christian church.  We want to make it up as we go along.  Jesus won't let us do that.  He loves us too much.  We'll destroy ourselves that way. 

III.    Christians must live and minister in the kingdom in light of the final judgment: retributive and remunerative.

There's one last thing I want to point out to you.  Here in verses 40 through 43, we see that Jesus reminds us that Christians must live and minister in the kingdom in light of the final judgment.  We must never have the final judgment out of our minds.  Understand that when Jesus tells the disciples that they must be patient; they must not go and attempt to uproot all the tares; He is not saying to them that God does not care about sin. He's not saying that God is not going to bring judgment against them; He's simply saying this: “My disciples, I will take care of it.  I will bring judgment against sin.  Justice will be brought, but it's going to be brought in the final judgment, at the end of the age.  You are to focus on the proclamation of the gospel.”  

We must be certain, my friends, that that judgment will come because Jesus is not denying here the judgment, in fact He is emphatically asserting that there will be a day when justice is done, and when all the accounts are set straight, when sin is punished and righteousness is rewarded.  And He says in verse 42, in the most shocking terms, that unbelief is going to be judged with eternally comfortless sorrow and eternally incurable indignation against God and against others and against ourselves, for all those who are “tares” - who have not embraced the Lord Jesus Christ by faith - He says judgment is coming.  And He's even asking His disciples to be patient with unbelief because we know that judgment is going to be so frightening and hard. 

Friends, if our hearts cannot be broken when we look at unbelievers with all their talents, and all their hopes and all their dreams, and yet realizing the hopelessness that lies ahead for them, then nothing can break our hearts.  If that can't break your heart, nothing can.  And we're to look at unbelief that way.  These people, beautiful people, and talented people and friendly people and nice people - they all await judgment.  Will we tell them?  Will we appeal to them?  And what about our own hearts?  Are we “wheat” or are we “tares.”

Richard Baxter said, “We must not misinterpret God's patience with the ungodly.”   God's patience is not an opportunity to be apathetic about the final judgment.  It is an opportunity for today - and for today only - to realize our sins, to flee from them and to run to Christ.  And if we will run there, we will not only be spared the final judgment of the ungodly, we will find for ourselves a shining glory in the kingdom of our father.  Jesus promised it.  Let's pray: 

Our Lord and our God, we can barely do justice to Your word.  It is so full and so rich.  Help us to take away truths of eternal significance from your word, applied to our hearts by the spirit, and embraced with the whole of who we are.  We ask these things in Jesus' name.  Amen.

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