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4. The Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13)

This parable has caused much controversy among Christadelphian expositors. Some rather strange and disconnected interpretations have been put forth because the expositor “looked ahead” and sought to avoid an inevitable but unwelcome conclusion. Let us look carefully at each section of the parable, not fearing any conclusion simply because it may be unfavorable to an old viewpoint. Brother Thomas has well said, in his “Rules for Bible Students”:

“Never be afraid of results to which you may be driven by your investigations, as this will inevitably bias your mind and disqualify you to arrive at ultimate truth.”
This parable goes one step beyond the previous parable (that of the sower ), yet it follows on in the natural life-cycle of the seed: sowing, sprouting, growing to maturity, and finally harvest. In this parable the “seed” has become more than simply the word of God, as it was in the previous parable (Matt. 13:19). The “seed” now symbolizes the individuals subsequently begotten by the sown word (v. 38) — again, one step further along in their personal development.

“The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field” (v. 24). “The field is the world” (Greek kosmos: an arrangement or order) (v. 38): here is the preaching of the gospel message first by Christ and then, by extension, by his disciples and later brethren, in obedience to his command of Mark 16:15,16 and Matthew 28:19 — a command which is still obligatory today. The “seed” takes root and produces fruit from place to place, known as “children of the kingdom” (v. 38). (This “sowing” has been continuous from Christ’s day to ours; there is no arbitrary “boundary line” at A.D. 70 after which the “sowing” was to cease!)

The men who sleep (v. 25) must refer to Christ’s followers and “fellow-laborers” (1 Cor. 3:5-9), the parabolic “workers in the vineyard” (Matt. 20:1-16). The “sleep” represents the sluggishness and carelessness of the appointed ecclesial watchmen in every age (Eph. 5:14; Rom. 13:11; 1 Thes. 5:6) which allows the enemy to do his diabolical work.

The enemy who sows “tares” among the wheat is the “devil” (v. 39), the lusts of the flesh (Heb. 2:14) embodied in individuals and organizations who sow evil and false thoughts secretly in the midst of the ecclesias in every age. Again compare Paul’s loving warning in Acts 20:30, where he foretells that after his departure men will arise speaking “perverse” things with the effect of leading away unsuspecting believers. (See also 2 Tim. 3:4-6 — men who “creep in stealthily”; Jude 4 — “unawares”; 2 Pet. 2:1; and Gal. 2:4.)

The “tare” or “darnel” is a very troublesome weed found in Oriental wheat fields. It was thought by the ancients to be a degenerate form of wheat (A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, p. 589). It looks exactly the same as wheat until late in its growth cycle. Its seed is similar in size and shape, but is gray in color; its fruit is very scarce. When present in a field with good wheat sown broadcast, the roots of the two are intertwined. Thus the darnel can be successfully separated from the good wheat only at the time of harvest. Thankfully, it causes no danger during growth, but even a little will spoil the finished product!

There is a definite and intended contrast in the Lord’s parables between the “tares”, sown in the midst of the ecclesial field, and the “thorns” (Matt. 13:7,22), already active in the field of the world, in the “soil” of human nature (Gen. 3:18), before the “good seed” is even sown.

The “tares” sown by a subtle and secret enemy produce fruit in the “children of the devil” (v. 38). There were many such intertwined among the faithful believers in Christ’s day (John 8:44; Matt. 3:7; 23:33). Such “children” are lip-servants, hypocrites, “questionable brethren” — not “questionable”, certainly, to him who knows what is in the heart of every man (John 2:24,25), but indeed “questionable” to his brethren who lack such infallible discernment. By the explicit teaching of Christ, his brethren have no right nor duty to exclude these “tares” from their “fellowship”.

Of course there are some brethren whose errors in doctrine or conduct clearly place them beyond the boundary of traditional Christadelphian “fellowship”, and faithful ecclesias will deal with these brethren in accordance with Matthew 18 and related passages — always remembering, of course, that every opportunity must be given for repentance and reinstatement. It would seem that, in practical terms, this parable is designed to teach us that most of our time should be spent in sowing the good seed instead of rooting out those who may or may not be unacceptable to Christ at his judgment. If there is ever any doubt, Christ says, as to a brother’s “fellowship” standing, then let him grow until the harvest (v. 30), when the infallible Reaper will decide his case.

“Let both grow together until the harvest” (v. 30). Some would contend that this commandment refers to the apostasy outside the ecclesia. But if this were the case then it would be a pointless commandment, for we have no responsibility there — in the churches of Christendom — at all. Our only freedom of choice lies in the “ecclesial world” (James Carter, “Questions and Answers”, The Testimony, Vol. 39, No. 463 — July 1969 — pp. 272-274). And Christ very clearly is telling us there will arise a questionable class within the ecclesias that cannot be discovered and extricated without the risk of doing grievous damage to the true wheat. He is pointing out to ecclesial laborers their inability to judge perfectly, and thus their inability to be always certain that they are uprooting tares instead of wheat. And furthermore he is implying that the “roots” even of the wheat might be weakened by continual agitation.

“The harvest is the end of the world (Greek aion: age, era, dispensation)” (v. 39). Some brethren suggest that this means A.D. 70, and the related overthrow of Israel is the fulfillment of this parable, but this seems to involve more than a minor dislocation of several related references. In the first place, such an interpretation would imply that the “sowing” or gospel proclamation must also have ceased in A.D. 70, and this is far from the case. Furthermore, the end of the aion means generally in the Bible the full and final end of Gentile times, marked by the resurrection and the judgment of the responsible. In this very same chapter (Matthew 13), in v. 49, the phrase has that obvious meaning. In the world (aion) to come, ye shall receive eternal life, Jesus said (Luke 18:30).

It is at this judgment that all things will be made manifest (Mark 4:22; Luke 12:2; 1 Cor. 4:5). This is the time for the rewarding of both classes. Then and only then will the tares be separated; for, according to the type, they do no damage to the good grain in the field, but even a very little will taint the finished product!

All of the other allusions in Christ’s explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares point just as directly to the judgment of the saints. Consider the following references:

v. 39: “The reapers are the angels” — Other examples of angels at the judgment:

        Matt. 24:31: “He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet.”

        Matt. 25:31: “All the holy angels with him.”

        Mark 8:38: “When he cometh in the glory of his Father, with the holy angels.”

        Luke 12:8,9: “Him shall the Son of Man confess before the angels of God.”

vv. 41,42:  “They shall gather the tares out of his kingdom....there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Similar Scriptures have to do with the last judgment:

        Matt. 8:12: “Ye shall be cast out of the kingdom.”

        Matt. 13:50: “And shall cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

        Matt. 24:51: “Shall cut him asunder and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.”

        Luke 13:28: Same as Matt. 8:12.

v. 42: “A furnace of fire”: This is the “second death” (Rev. 20:14; cp. Matt. 25:41 and Mark 9:43-47). These allusions to the second death clinch the argument that the “tares” represent false believers, not a “Christian” apostasy that is not even amenable to resurrectional judgment.

v. 43: “Then shall the righteous shine forth.” This is a quotation from Daniel 12:1-3, a prophecy of the last days, the resurrection, and the judgment. The righteous ones — the good seed — will shine forth in the newness of Spirit life at the same time that the wicked will be subjected to a well-deserved shame and contempt. The analogy of the “harvest”, it must be emphasized, requires that the tares be separated at the same time as the righteous are rewarded.

“The parable of the tares cannot refer to the Romish apostasy, or equivalent heresies, for the good seed is NOT growing together with that! If, however, some still persist in not recognizing the plain teaching of the parable of the tares, what of the adjacent parable of the net and the good and bad fishes? These are not sorted out until they are brought to land, and then, and not until then, is the division made. This cannot refer to outside apostasy, but rather to developments inside the ecclesia, and Jesus is warning his followers what to expect” (Ibid., p. 273).
Other parables picture the same sequence, especially those of the foolish and wise virgins (Matt. 25:1-12); the servants and the talents (25:14-28); and the sheep and the goats (25:31-34).

“If, however, we had to admit that the claims of the critics are true, and that they really are consistently more strict in their fellowship than we are, still it does not necessarily follow that they are more faithful. We want to act as the Lord would have us act. We want to be guided by the precept and example of scripture. The Lord Jesus was not as strict in condemning offenders as were some contemporary sinners. The apostle to the Gentiles revealed extraordinary patience in dealing with faults of both doctrine and practice. With these examples before us it must be admitted that it is possible to err on the side of severity in the matter of withdrawing from those who are accounted weak or faulty. Even in ecclesial life an industrious rooting out of tares may be a mistaken zeal” (I. Collyer, “A Pure Fellowship”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 95, No. 1128 — June 1958 — p. 259; reprinted from Vol. 68, No. 807 — Sept. 1931 — p. 408).
“It is possible to err on the side of severity.” This might be the keynote of Brother Collyer’s writings on the broad subject of fellowship. Such an emphasis is notably anticipated in the well-balanced comments of John Thomas on several occasions, with special reference to the parable under consideration. I quote these as a sort of appendix to our study of the wheat and the tares:

“Beloved brethren, human nature is always tending to extremes and transcending what is written. As the saying is, it will strain at gnats and swallow camels by the herd. It set up the Inquisition and is incessantly prying into matters beyond its jurisdiction. It is very fond of playing the judge and of executing its own decrees. It has a zeal but not according to knowledge, and therefore its zeal is intemperate and not the zeal of wisdom or knowledge rightly used. It professes great zeal for the purity of the Church, and would purge out everything that offends its sensitive imagination.

“But is it not a good thing to have a church without tares, black sheep, or spotted heifer? Yea, verily, it is an excellent thing. But then it is a thing the Holy Spirit has never yet developed, and it cannot be developed by any human judiciary in the administration of spiritual affairs. There are certain things that must be left to the Lord’s own adjudication when he comes....” (The Ambassador, 1866, pp. 91,92; reprinted under “Dr. Thomas and Divisions”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 67, No. 788 — Feb. 1930 — pp. 52,53).

“The Mystery of Iniquity, then, had its beginning in the Apostolic State. The seeds of it were then sown broadcast by the enemy. But they did not ripen as soon as sown; they only began to grow. The fruit was to be the ‘Lawless one’. But fruit, when first formed, is not mature. Considerable time passes from the first appearance of fruit to the time of ingathering because of ripeness. So with the Lawless One, he had to appear as the fruit of the Mystery of Iniquity; but after his appearing, he had to grow and ripen for the vintage, when he should be ‘consumed with the spirit of the Lord’s mouth, and destroyed with the brightness of his coming’ ” (Eureka, Vol. 1, p. 431).

“As Paul testified 30 years before, ‘the Mystery of Iniquity’ was ‘already’ at work, and showed itself in the ‘false apostles’ at Ephesus; the spurious Jews of the Synagogue of the Satan, at Smyrna; the Balaamites and Nikolaitans at Pergamos; the children of Jezebel and the Satan, at Thyatira; the twice dead, at Sardis; the but little strength, at Philadelphia; and the wretched and pitiable, and poor, and blind, and naked, at Laodicea. These were tares, which in 280 years from the day of Pentecost, choked the good seed, so that a separation had to ensue.

“But while the Mystery of Iniquity was thus developing ‘after the working of the Satan’ with all power, and signs and lying wonders.... there existed a class, who not only knew the Truth, but loved it. This was ‘the salt’ of the first three centuries, which gave savour to pre-Constantinian christendom. It was the redeeming and antagonizing element in the Ephesian haters of the deeds of the Nikolaitans; in the Smyrnean rich in faith....

“The Apostolic Christendom, then, to which John wrote, was divisible into these two sections, which were more or less commingled in the ecclesias generally — real and nominal christians....” (Ibid., pp. 421,422).
This basic interpretation is followed also by Robert Roberts:

“The reservation [about particular additional demands in fellowship] is a reasonable one, and needless distress is being caused by the insistence of a ruthless rule of excision. There is great danger in this course. While trying to pull up an incipient tare or two (if they are such) they are levelling whole rows of genuine wheat” (The Christadelphian, Vol. 35, No. 409 — July 1898 — cover page).
And, finally, it is followed by H.P. Mansfield also (“The Parable of the Tares”, The Story of the Bible, Vol. 9, No. 4 — Sept. 1965 — pp. 65-69).

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