Introduction: The December 18, 2001 entry of Our Daily Bread seeks to apply this parable for us. I want to quote it in full in order to illustrate an important issue when seeking to interpret this parable correctly:
For 11 years, an official at a Michigan community college impressed fellow workers as a highly qualified and faithful administrator. He did his work so well that the Board of Trustees named him as a finalist in their search for a new president of the school. Then a routine background check was made on him. What it turned up surprised everyone. No documentation could be found for the man’s master’s and doctoral degrees.
When told about the problem in a special meeting, the man excused himself from the room to get his transcripts—and never came back. What seemed so bizarre to his fellow workers was that he had been such an excellent administrator for so long.
Just as that administrator was able to deceive his colleagues, so also spiritual counterfeits are able to deceive their friends in the church. They have cleverly faked credentials of belief and may remain undetected until God’s judgment.
We know that counterfeit Christians are in our churches. So we need to be alert to problems they can cause, like false teaching and spreading strife. But we also need to be careful about making false judgments about others. According to Jesus, many of “the tares” won’t be revealed until the final judgment (Matthew 13:36-43).
This interpretation of the parable makes the focus on the issue of counterfeit Christians being in the church along with genuine Christians, and it basically communicates the idea that we just have to accept this fact. But is this what this parable is really supposed to be about? I don’t think so. In fact, I think this view demonstrates very well a common problem with the interpretation of this parable – and many other parables of Jesus for that matter – a problem I hope to highlight as we examine the parable today. You see, far too many commentators and preachers make the parables speak to issues that are not a central focus of the individual parables themselves. They also read more into minor details than they should, while ignoring the more explicit emphases in the context.
I hope to do better than that today. I hope to show the proper way to understand this parable in its own context. To that end, I will discuss the parable under two main headings: 1) the expression
(or telling) of the parable, and 2) the explanation
of the parable.
I. The Expression of the Parable (vss. 24-30)
Since we have Jesus’ explanation of the parable later in the chapter, I just want to focus on some key information about the parable that will help us to better grasp His explanation when we get to it.
First, we need to discern the intended audience of the parable. To whom does the word them refer in verse 24? Let’s take another look at the context to find out:
vss. 1-3 – them refers to the multitude of people.
vs. 10 – them again refers to the multitude of people.
vs. 34-36 – them again refers to the multitude of people.
So, the parable is told to the crowds, with the disciples present, although only the disciples will get to hear the explanation. This is important because it indicates that Jesus is speaking to a mixed group that includes both unbelievers and believers, both those who are followers of Jesus and those who are not. In other words, as we will discover in our further study, Jesus is telling the parable to both wheat and tares.
Second, we need some information about the plant life that grows in Palestine, information which most of the original hearers would have understood. This will help us to better understand the true focus of the parable as it is initially told by Jesus. D.A. Carson is helpful in explaining this information in his discussion of verses 25-26:
“Sleeping” (v. 25) does not imply that the servants were neglectful but that the enemy was stealthy and malicious. What he sowed was zizania (“weeds”)—almost certainly bearded darnel (lolium temulentum), which is botanically close to wheat and difficult to distinguish from it when the plants are young. The roots of the two plants entangle themselves around each other; but when the heads of grain appear on the wheat, there is no doubt which plant is which (v. 26). This weed the enemy sowed “among the wheat”; the Greek suggests thorough distribution. The growing plants gradually become identifiable, and the servants tell their master about the weeds. (EBC, Vol. 8, p. 316)
This information has led some commentators and preachers to try to get a lot of mileage out of the idea that the weeds look so similar to the wheat. Thus they see an emphasis here on the fact that there will be many counterfeit Christians – who may look to us like true Chrisitans – in the Church. However, while this may be true and may be clearly taught in a number of Scripture passages and may even perhaps be hinted at here, the real issue in the parable is not the similarity in appearance of the weeds and the wheat. Rather the focus appears to be on the fact that – by the time that they were clearly distinguishable from one another – the roots of the weeds would already have been entangled with the roots of the wheat.
As Klyne Snodgrass observes in his discussion of this parable:
The surprise of the servants and the conclusion drawn by the master both presume something not explicit in the parable, that the number of weeds was far beyond normal. This presumption is again typical of the brevity of parables. The number of weeds resulting from sabotage would far exceed those occurring normally, and if the issue were merely naturally occurring weeds, neither the servants’ nor the master’s conclusion would have arisen.
[And he goes on to add that:] As far as can be determined, normal practice would be to weed early as much as possible, and this is implied in the servants’ question. The decision not to weed can only be based on the large number of tares and the fact that at this stage of growth the two would have become entangled. Even at an early stage, tares sufficient in number to be recognized as the work of an enemy would not be easily removed without damage to the wheat. (Stories With Intent: A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, pp. 201-202)
So, the primary emphasis of the parable as the Lord Jesus told it is not focused on the similar appearance of the weeds to the wheat, for they were clearly distinguishable to the servants at this time in their growth. Rather it is about the fact that the Sower wants a good harvest, and this means waiting until harvest time to reap the wheat, which in turn means that the weeds will have to grow with the wheat until then.
Third, we must recognize that there are details in the parable that are not repeated in Jesus’ explanation. For example, in His interpretation Jesus does not say anything about the men sleeping or about the enemy leaving after he sowed the tares in the field (vs. 25). Nor does Jesus mention again the servants and their questions (vss. 27-28). We must be careful, then, not to make more of these elements in the parable than the context warrants. For, although these details add color to the story and give it an additional note of realism, Jesus’ interpretation of the parable does not emphasize these details as crucial to the point He is seeking to make. And this leads us next to an examination of …
II. The Explanation of the Parable (vss. 36-43)
We will examine Jesus’ explanation of the parable verse by verse, beginning in verse 37.
NKJ Matthew 13:37 He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.”
The term Son of Man is, of course, one of Jesus’ favorite ways of referring to Himself as the Messiah. Let’s take a look at just a couple of examples earlier in Matthew:
NKJ Matthew 8:19-20 Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
NKJ Matthew 9:2-6 Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” 3 And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” — then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”
That this title is one way in which Jesus claimed to be the Messiah is clear, since it is taken from an Old Testament Messianic prophecy:
NKJ Daniel 7:13-14 I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. 14 Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.
As matter of fact, later at His trial before the High Priest, Jesus clearly alluded to this very passage from Daniel:
NKJ Matthew 26:63-64 But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!” 64 Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
So, when Jesus refers to the sower in this parable as “the Son of Man,” He is referring to Himself as the Messiah as well as the ultimate Judge of men, as we will see emphasized later in verses 41-43.
But before we go any further, there is one more point worth making: Since Jesus is the Son of Man, who is the sower of the good seed in the parable, then He is also the owner of the field in the parable. For example:
1) Verse 24 says that the field is “his field.”
2) Verse 27 says that the “servants of the owner came to him.”
This is an important thing to realize as we approach the next verse.
NKJ Matthew 13:38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one.
The implication is that the world belongs to Jesus. It is a claim that He makes for Himself in the way that He tells and explains the parable, and it is tantamount to claiming that He is the God and Creator of the world.
Notice also that, when Jesus says that the field is the world, He is not talking about the Church and how there are going to be counterfeit Christians in the church, as so many commentators seem to understand this parable. Rather He is talking about how it is that believers will have to co-exist with unbelievers in the world for the time being. And the reason that this needs to be emphasized is because the disciples were consistently of the mindset that the Messiah would bring judgment and the ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom at that time, whereas Jesus teaches that this will only come about at His second coming.
Earlier in the passage – in verses 10-11 – when the disciples asked Jesus, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
Well, this is one of the “mysteries of the kingdom,” namely that their will be an intervening period between the first and second coming of Christ, which was not so clearly revealed in the Old Testament. The disciples were going to have to wrap their minds around this idea. Jesus isn’t yet going to usher in the New Heavens and the New Earth, and He is not yet going to take believers out of this world. Remember also His prayer the night before He was killed:
NKJ John 17:14-16 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
And so in this parable Jesus refers to His disciples as living now in this world as wheat among the tares. This is His will for them, even if they cannot yet fully understand it. They must live as “sons of the kingdom” among “sons of the wicked one,” and this will be the case until the harvest time comes. He takes this up in the next verse.
NKJ Matthew 13:39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.
Jesus makes three unambiguous assertions here.
First, He makes it clear that living in this world means that the devil is the ultimate enemy to be faced. Yes, we will have to deal with many wicked people, but these are merely “the sons of the wicked one” (vs. 38), of the devil. As Peter later warns, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9).
Second, Jesus makes it clear that the harvest will not occur until “the end of the age” (συντέλεια αἰῶνός). But, although we must battle the devil and his minions until the end of the age, it is important to observe that Jesus uses essentially the same phrase later in the great commission, where He promises that He will be with us until the end of the age:
NKJ Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age [τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος].” Amen.
We need not fear the devil, therefore, since our Lord Jesus – who is always with us – is greater than the devil and has given us the victory over him!
Third, Jesus tells us that the reapers will be “the angels.” This fact also helps to locate the time of the harvest as being when Christ returns. For example, Jesus later gave prophecies about His return that included the angels:
NKJ Matthew 24:31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
NKJ Matthew 25:31 When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.
So, the angels will play an important role as the reapers in the end time harvest. This role is further described in the following verses.
NKJ Matthew 13:40-42 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. 41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
These verses are pretty self-explanatory, but there are three matters I would like to highlight.
First, the Lord Jesus will be the one in charge of the harvest and thus also of the judgment that places the wicked in the furnace of fire. This is a side of Jesus too many people today try to minimize. They don’t want to think about judgment or punishment for sin. They would rather sing “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners” and forget that He is a friend only to those sinners who repent and trust in Him to save them from their sins!
Second, this “furnace of fire” will involve intense pain and anguish for the wicked, which is denoted not only by its being a place of fire, but also by the phrase “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Those cast there will cry out and grind their teeth in pain. Later – in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats – Jesus describes this place of punishment as “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41) and as a place of “everlasting punishment” (25:46).
Michael Green speaks of the unpopularity of this message today:
All this is very unacceptable to people today: we do not treat evil with great seriousness, and many do not even believe in a future life, a heaven and hell where the great separation will be finalized. But it is an undeniable part of the teaching of Jesus. Are we going to claim to know more about it than he? (The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven)
Third, Jesus’ statement that the angels will “gather out of His kingdom all things that offend” has led some to see this parable as a reference to the Church. For, they argue, the term kingdom refers to the Church. Hence their interpretation that sees this parable as referring primarily to counterfeit Christians in the Church. But this is wrong. Jesus explicitly said in verse 38 that the field from which the harvest is gathered is the world.
So, when Jesus speaks of the kingdom here, He must be speaking more broadly of His reign over the whole the world. Apparently, then, the term kingdom (βασιλεία , vs. 41) can be used by Jesus to refer more broadly to His reign over the whole world, but we have no reason here to think that the term world (κόσμος, vs. 38) can refer to the Church.
NKJ Matthew 13:43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
This is an allusion to a prophecy in the book of Daniel:
NKJ Daniel 12:1-3 At that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.
Thus Jesus has the resurrection in mind, which will takes place when He returns.
As D.A. Carson aptly puts it, “These righteous people (see on 5:20, 45; 9:13; 10:41; 13:17; 25:37, 46), once the light of the world (5:13-16), now radiate perfections and experience bliss in the consummation of their hopes” (EBC, Vol. 8, p. 327).
Conclusion: I would like to conclude by emphasizing that it is only the righteous who are said to be “sons of the kingdom” and to “shine forth in the kingdom of their Father.” But how do we qualify? How can we be numbered among the righteous? Only through Christ, as Paul says, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Thus we are numbered among the righteous only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, on account of whom we may be justified – declared righteous – in the eyes of God, through the imputation of His own righteousness to us. As Paul again says to the Roman Christians:
NKJ Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.