[September 7, 2008] In chapters 11 and 12 of Matthew we saw people’s reaction to Jesus. Apart from God’s grace, we do not want to repent or commit truly to Jesus Himself; we are offended by Him, we turn against Him, and our hearts harden. As a result of the Jews not believing, the apostles would turn also to the Gentiles. Whether among Jews or Gentiles, however, the result is mixed.
In chapter 13 Jesus withdraws from the crowds. At first, he speaks to the people in parables that, apart from God’s grace, they do not understand. He sits in a boat and they on the shore, and He only explains the parables to His disciples. As earlier in Matthew, the sea represents the chaotic Gentile world. The Gospel moves out into the world and will continue to speak to Israel from there. Paul explains this in Romans 9-11, a commentary on these chapters.
In verse 36 Jesus leaves the crowds and goes into the house to speak the remaining parables to the disciples alone. Those parables parallel these but in a contrasting way. All the parables are about the reception of the Gospel. The first parable, about the Sower, shows us how the individual receives the Word. The second, third and fourth parables—the ones we will discuss today—are about the reception of the Gospel in the world, what becomes of the kingdom of the heavens in the hands of the world, how the appearance of the kingdom becomes inflated in the world. These parables are not about the church but about Christianity, Christianity as a religion or institution, and what used to be known as Christendom. These parables concern the outward appearance of the kingdom. When Jesus leaves the crowds outdoors and goes indoors with His disciples, He gives three more parables that describe the hidden reality of the kingdom in the world. We will discuss those next week.
The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-8; 18-23)
First Jesus explains the parable of the sower. Guillermo explained this parable to you. The one who sows is Christ (13:37) and those whom He sends. The seed is the word of the kingdom (13:19), the field is the world (13:38), and the ground is the individual heart (13:19). Jesus describes four different kinds of heart. Only one out of the four actually believes.
In the first, those who hear the word do not understand it. When we hear the word do we try to understand it? How much effort do we make? If we do not understand it, we lose it. It goes in one ear and out the other.
In the second, we receive the word enthusiastically but we never give it a chance to grow roots. Roots refer to what no one can see; they are hidden from view. To grow roots we need to work on the ground itself. We need to break up the soil by hardship and remove our stubbornness, and we need to practice spiritual disciplines consistently and regularly to nourish the roots. Otherwise, because we are relying on our enthusiastic mood, we are riding on our energetic emotion, and when they get worn out or are shaken we are quickly overwhelmed by troubles and persecution. Are we developing roots?
In the third, we receive the word but it is squeezed and choked out of our life by distraction. We are distracted by worries and anxieties, by our busyness (no time!), and by our pursuing other things. This ground most describes the person who lives in the New York metropolitan area. We are so busy that the word does not have a chance. Take this to heart! We need to make a choice.
Only in the last kind of soil does the word actually succeed and the person becomes a believer. Some only bear a little fruit, some more, but all are regenerated and bear fruit: more seeds for sowing, and wheat for eating.
The Parable of the Tares (13:24-30; 36-43)
In the second parable, the seed has been sown and the wheat has come up. The first parable is about the word of the kingdom. But this parable begins, “The kingdom of the heavens has become like …” It is about what happens to the kingdom of the heavens in the world. People get confused and think that the field is the church. It is not. Jesus explains this parable in verses 36-43. The field is the world, not the church. The wheat, Jesus says, are the sons of the kingdom, those who have truly believed and are regenerated, those in whom the word of the kingdom has borne fruit.
The Son of Man sowed the seed “but while men slept, his enemy came.” This refers to the believers’ negligence, particularly the negligence of elders and those who minister the Word. They were not watchful and, as a result, the enemy sowed tares. Tares look just like wheat—the sprouts and leaves cannot be distinguished—until the fruit appears. Tares are actually weeds that are poisonous if you eat them. They can cause sleepiness and nausea, produce convulsions, and even bring about death. And their roots creep underground and intertwine with the roots of the wheat, so if you try to put them up, you will put up the wheat with them. The tares symbolize false believers, but they cannot be uprooted from the world until the time of harvest when the Lord comes in judgment (Revelation 14).
The tares may have originally referred to Jews who keep the Torah outwardly but inwardly their heart is far from God. Since the Gospel has gone out into all the world, the tares refer to all those who profess to be Christians but are not. They refer to the masses of people in organized religion, who attend church but have no commitment to the Lord Jesus, no faith in Him as their Lord or Savior. For them grace is cheap. They also refer to all those who practice civil religion, who think that being patriotic is the same as being a follower of Christ. Growing up, I remember people used to think that if you were not Jewish, you were a Christian. Actually, if you are not Jewish, that makes you a Gentile. These all are nominal Christians, Christians in name only. They think they are Christians, but they do not have a clue. Sometimes people seem to think that a Christian is a moral, upright and good person, or simply a person who believes in God. Many Catholics seem to have this idea, and probably Protestants do to. It is important to be moral and upright and good, and it is also important to believe in God, but one must also know Christ, and own Him as Lord and trust in Him as Savior, to be a Christian.
So what do we do about all these people? Remember that this parable is about the world and not the church. In 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 Paul says, “What have I to do with judging those who are outside the church? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God will judge.” We enter the fellowship of the church by becoming believers and professing the faith and allowing our faith to be recognized by others as genuine (this is the meaning of John 20:23). Believers need to make this judgment, but they also should be generous. Life in the church is “self-selective.” In some people the word may still be in rocky or thorny soil; we need to nurture these people along until they get past this. And there may be Judas’s among us. But most people would not remain in the church long if they were not believers—unless we cater to the unbelievers among us.
What this parable is about has to do with those outside the church who profess to be Christians. Do we attempt to weed them out? Clearly the answer is ‘No.’ We can preach and write, argue and persuade, but it would be wrong to persecute anyone. Right here Jesus forbids it. Nor can we take any form of legal or coercive action against them.
The church has done this in the past. Catholics persecuted Jews and heretics and rooted up many believers with them. They also persecuted Protestants. Protestants have persecuted Jews, Catholics, heretics and other Protestants. Whenever a particular form of Christianity has been in a position of power, it has used this power to persecute, coerce or at least to contain those forms of Christianity that it disagrees with. The history of Christianity is shameful in this regard. It seems to me that the prophets of Israel, Jesus Himself, and all the apostolic writings tell us to renounce power in the world, especially power in the world on behalf of the name of Christ or the church.
Christians have not been faithful to Jesus in this regard. Paul says, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). We must never turn the table around and impose our will on others. We must wait for the judgment of God and never take that judgment into our own hands.
The Parable of the Mustard “Tree” (13:31-32)
The following two parables speak about the growth of Christianity in the world. Most people interpret these parables in a positive way—is it not wonderful that Christianity took over the Roman empire and in subsequent centuries converted Europe and spread all over the world. The parables do seem to speak about this. In Daniel 4:20-22 and Ezekiel 31:3-6 the tree with birds roosting in its branches refers to the dominion of the empires of Babylon and Assyria. At the end of the fourth century the Roman emperor imposed Christianity on all his subjects and many hailed this as the coming of the kingdom of God. But was this a positive thing? Was it a positive thing for the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches to spread by aligning themselves with political powers? Was it right for them to use that power and sometimes to even control that power for their own benefit? Was it right for the Roman Catholic church to side itself with capitalist dictators in Latin America, and when the tide changed to side itself with the Marxist rebels? The Protestant church has always done the same. Truly the kingdom of the heavens has the outward appearance of a great tree that has grown so that the birds of heaven—the birds in verse 4 that snatched the seed of the word from people’s hearts!—can roost in its branches. But is this a good thing?
The mustard tree is an annual herb whereas a tree is a perennial plant. The church is meant to be an herb and not to change into a tree. We are supposed to be sojourners on the earth, strangers and aliens, who have no home here (1 Peter 2:11). This will not change until the Lord comes and establishes His kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:24-27). Then the Lord’s kingdom will be like a tree (Ezekiel 17:23). But for now, the church must be content to be the Lord’s “little flock” (Luke 12:32), dependent on God and living by faith like Abraham in a foreign land, waiting with patience for the Day of God.
The Parable of the Leaven (13:33)
If the parable of the mustard tree is about the illegitimate outward growth of the kingdom of the heavens, the parable of the leaven hidden in three measures of flour is about the internal corruption that causes the outward growth. This parable is usually given a positive interpretation, but leaven is never used in the Scriptures with a positive connotation. It represents corruption (Exodus 12:15, 19-20; 13:6-8; Leviticus 2:4-5, 11; 6:17; 10:12; Deuteronomy 16:3-4; and Amos 4:4-5). In the gospels it represents the corrupting element in the teaching of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Herodians (Matthew 16:12 and Mark 8:15). In 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 it speaks of the corrupting influence of malice and evil in the church.
Three measures of meal is used to make a loaf (Genesis 18:6; 1 Samuel 1:24—where an ‘ephah” equals three measures). The offering of unleavened meal mixed with oil and frankincense represents the humanity of Christ (Leviticus 2), and this is what we are to offer to God. We are also to celebrate our Passover with unleavened bread (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
So the woman who mixes leaven in the flour in order to inflate it so that it would grow and be easier to consume is like the woman in Revelation 2:20 who corrupts the church with her teaching. She is symbolically called Jezebel because Jezebel led Israel astray. This “woman”—in actuality it is usually men who do this (though not always)—she mixes paganism and the ways of the world with Christian teachings in order to make Christianity more attractive.
All three parables are about how Christianity has achieving influence and numbers by illegitimate means. It grows by the addition of false Christians; it grows by acquiring power in the world; and it grows by the corruption of its teachings. This is how Christianity has grown in the world. None of this is good. We, however, should never seek church-growth for its own sake. True growth is by the means that the Lord has shown us—by the word itself being proclaimed and shared faithfully. It is wrong to be greedy and use the wrong means, and it is also wrong to be lazy and avoid the persecution of the cross.