Three Instructive Parables
“All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.”
In Matthew 13:24-43 our Lord Jesus gives us three very instructive parables, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a field containing both wheat and tares, a grain of mustard seed, and leaven hidden in three measures of meal.
In the middle of this passage (vv. 34-36) Matthew was inspired by God the Holy Spirit to give an explanation of why the Master spoke in parables. First, he tells us that it was our Lord’s common habit in preaching to use parables. – “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them” (v. 34). The Master was a great story teller. He did not strive for spell-binding oratory, intellectual argument, or theological recitation. He deliberately spoke in plain, simple language to clearly set forth and illustrate gospel truth. That is the kind of preaching that should be cultivated among God’s servants (1 Cor. 2:3-5).
The word “parable” is the same word that is translated proverb in other places. Solomon’s wise sayings and instructive similitudes are called proverbs, or parables, by which he taught us wisdom. “Behold, a greater than Solomon is here!” By his parables he teaches us wisdom “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Verse 34 shows us the manner, or method of Christ’s preaching.
In verse 35 we see the subject matter of his parables. Speaking in parables, he fulfilled the prophecy of the Old Testament scriptures (Ps. 78:2). And the matter, the subject, the theme of these parables is “things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” The gospel of Christ and the purposes of God toward the Gentile world were wrapped up in the Old Testament by the types and shadows of the law, which have now been fulfilled by Christ, in whom God has revealed himself and made known his grace.
Then, in verse 36, we see something of our Savior’s sovereign majesty. Before explaining the parable of the wheat and the tares, he sent the multitudes away and entered into a house with his disciples. Here is God almighty exercising his sovereign mercy, giving grace to whom he would, and making a clear distinction among men. To some he revealed his Word. From others he hid the meaning of his words. That is his prerogative as God (Matt. 20:15; Ex. 33:19).
In these three instructive parables our Savior shows us what we may expect to be the result of gospel preaching throughout the ages of time, and what both the righteous and the wicked may expect from God when time shall be no more.
First, let’s read the parable of the mustard seed (vv. 31-32). Though our Lord Jesus gave the parable of the wheat and the tares before those of the mustard seed and the leaven, he explained it afterward. So we will look at the parables in this order: 1st the mustard seed, 2nd the leaven, and then, 3rd the wheat and tares.
(Matthew 13:31-32) “Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: (32) Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.”
The parable of the grain of mustard seed is designed to teach us never to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:6-10). God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. God almost always does things exactly opposite of what we would and of what we imagine he does. The gospel does not triumph all at once. The church and kingdom of God is not set up all at once, neither among us in the world, nor within us in our hearts.
The Church of God sprang from a very small seed sown in the earth. God’s works almost always begin in obscurity, with what appear to be insignificant things. And the gospel has been spread through the nations of the world very gradually. Occasionally, there have been great, sudden out-pourings of grace upon multitudes, as on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. But that has never been the normal method of God’s workings among men, and is not now. Normally, God’s church and kingdom grows and spreads gradually: consistently, but gradually. Like the grain of mustard seed sown in the ground, its growth is almost unobservable, but steady.
As the full grown mustard seed is the greatest and largest of all herbs, so the church and kingdom of God shall, in the end of the world, be immeasurably great and large. — “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it. Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river” (Ps. 80:8-11). The number of God’s elect shall be ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands. Untold millions and billions of people shall inhabit heaven’s glory with Christ!
Our Lord also compares faith to a grain of mustard seed. — “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you” (Luke 17:6). It begins small. It grows slowly. It becomes a great grace, honoring God and serviceable to men. “As a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,” Robert Hawker wrote, “so the grace of God, when put by the Holy Ghost into the heart of a sinner, small and unnoticed as it is, produceth such vast things that angels look with wonder and astonishment at the change which is wrought (Luke 15:7).”
“Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” (v. 33).
The parable of the leaven is misinterpreted by many. We are often told that the leaven refers to the ever-increasing evil of the world. But our Lord is not talking about the world. He is talking about “the kingdom of heaven.” He is talking about his church. The parable of the leaven is very much the same in meaning as the parable of the mustard seed. It teaches us that the gospel prevails by degrees and works like leaven in the hearts of God’s elect.
The woman, the weaker vessel, represents gospel preachers who have the treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7). The leaven was hidden in three measures of meal. The regenerate heart, like meal, is soft and pliable. Leaven will never work in corn, but only in ground meal. So the gospel has no effect upon the stony, unregenerate heart. It only works upon broken hearts that have been ground by the Holy Spirit in conviction. Once the leaven is hidden in the dough, it works. So the word of God, hidden in the hearts of chosen, redeemed sinners by God the Holy Spirit, works and brings forth fruit (Heb. 4:12). And the change it works, though it is universal, affecting the whole person (2 Cor. 5:17), is gradual. This parable, like the parable of the mustard seed, is meant to show the wonderful works of God in and upon his elect. The grace of God in his children, like leaven, sanctifies them entirely, sanctifies the whole nature.
Wheat and Tares
Now, learn the parable of the wheat and the tares (vv. 24-30, 36-43).
“ Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn” (vv. 24-30)
“ Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (vv. 36-43).
I will not attempt to explain every detail of this parable, because our Savior’s explanation of it is crystal clear. Let me simply call your attention to the primary lessons to be learned from it.
The first lesson here taught is so obvious that it is astonishing how slow we are to learn it. — There is no such thing as a perfect or pure church in this world. Every local church, every assembly of professed believers is a mixed multitude of true believers and people who merely profess, but do not possess faith in Christ. In the professing church of Christ, the children of the wicked one are mingled with the children of the kingdom. They spring up together, and grow together. This has been the experience of God’s saints in all ages.
Then, in this parable, our Lord teaches us that it is not the business of God’s servants to separate the wheat from the tares. We do not have the ability to do it. We are not authorized to do it. And we must not try to do it. We judge all things only by outward appearance. No mortal has the ability to look on the heart. That means that no human being has the ability to know who is saved and who is lost. If we try to separate the wheat from the tares, we will pull up the wheat and keep the tares every time.
Though we cannot discern one from the other, both are perfectly known to God from everlasting. The tares can no more become good seed, than good seed can become tares. They are a totally different race. Though they are “to grow together until the harvest,” and though the Church of God in this world will never be free from tares, yet “the Lord knoweth them that are his.” And blessed are those who, by the sweet and effectual operations of his grace, giving them life and faith in Christ, are made to know whose they are, and to whom they belong. What unspeakable mercy it is to be numbered by electing love among the seed of Christ, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Isa. 44:3-5; 59:21; Rom. 8:17; Gal. 3:16-29; 1 John 3:1-2).
In the harvest time, at the end of the world, the Lord God will separate the wheat from the tares (vv. 40-43).
“And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe. And he that sat on the cloud thrust in his sickle on the earth; and the earth was reaped. And another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe. And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs” (Rev. 14:15-20).
None but God can tell tares from wheat until the harvest time. Then, at harvest time, all shall be made to know, because the tares will stand tall and the wheat will bows their heads (Matt. 25:31-46). C. H. Spurgeon, commenting on verses 40-42, wrote…
“What a description! The outgathering of ‘all things that offend,’ and of all persons who cause others to stumble, and who work evil, will be a consummation devoutly to be wished. Not only the outwardly wicked, but the false pretenders, the mock wheat, shall be removed… The fate of these ungodly ones will be fire, the most terrible of punishments, but this will not annihilate them, for they shall exhibit the surest tokens of a living woe ‘wailing and, gnashing of teeth.’ Sooner or later, this is what must come of evil men. Though in this world they flourish in the same field with believers, and can hardly be discerned from them, they shall be removed from such honorable association, and be cast, with the rubbish of the universe, into that great ‘furnace of fire’ whose smoke goeth up for ever and ever. This the Son of man will do with authority, the angels are simply the executioners of the wrath of the Lamb.
“Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” — The righteous are those sinners saved by the grace of God who have the righteousness of Christ imputed to them in free justification and imparted to them in regeneration. As Ralph Erskine put it, “If you would have righteousness, you must have it in and from Christ. He has to give you both an imputed righteousness for justifying you, and an imparted righteousness for sanctifying you.” By faith in Christ we receive internally what Christ has done for us externally. Because we were justified by Christ’s imputed righteousness at the cross, we are sanctified by his imparted righteousness in the new birth. — “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10).
Though, in this world, the righteous are slandered and reproached as evil, though they are incessantly opposed, afflicted, and persecuted, in that day they “shall shine forth,” as John Gill wrote, “in the robe of Christ’s righteousness, in perfect holiness of nature, in all felicity and prosperity of soul, and in the shining dazzling robes of glory, incorruption, and immortality, on their bodies. They “shall shine forth as the sun,” having no spot in them or upon them, without any clouds of darkness. They will be as Christ himself, “the Sun of righteousness,” with whom and in whose glory they shall appear, faultless, without spot or wrinkle, “before the presence of his glory!”
They “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” When Christ our Mediator has “delivered up the kingdom to the Father, even the Father,” when he has put all things under his feet, “that God may be all in all,” the righteous shall shine forth as everlasting monuments and trophies of grace (Eph. 2:7) to the praise, honor, and glory of the triune God (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14).
“Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” — Our Redeemer calls us to pay attention to and reflect upon what he has taught us in these instructive parables. Blessed are they who, having ears to hear, hear and understand by his grace the things here declared by the Son of God.