Summary: This article was written and published July, 2016. The gospel of Matthew has three primary themes. The first is the presentation of Jesus as Jehovah/Messiah to the Jews. The second is to show both Israel’s rejection of Jesus and God’s rejection of the Jews. The third is to show God transitioning from the Jewish dispensation ending and the Christian dispensation soon beginning. The thirteenth chapter of this gospel plays a critical role in showing this transition. And in this chapter there isn’t a more important passage to understand than the parable of the wheat and tares.
Note: This article was edited and shortened January 2023. It remains a very good explanation of the parable in question. However, over time, further light has been given me by the Spirit of God as to the importance and proper understandings of the other six parables in the chapter and the character of the prophetic composition of the chapter as a whole. I plan on sharing these insights in a future article for this website. But for now I have removed most references and teachings as to the other six parables of the group, and look forward to sharing with you at a future time what God has been teaching me about this important chapter in Matthew.
Of all the parables used by Jesus in His teaching ministry, I do not believe there is one more important to properly understand than the parable of the wheat and tares found in Matthew thirteen (13). This parable gives us certain characteristics of the present time which we live in, as well as understandings of Christianity, Christendom, and the progress of the Christian dispensation. For the purpose of having some type of structured direction for this article, first we will speak of the details of the parable and its proper interpretation. But this does not touch on the overall prophetic importance the entire chapter has with its seven parables together, nor does it speak of the importance of the positioning of this parable among the seven in the chapter, and what implications are associated with this. If these key points are missed or ignored, it will only serve to rob us spiritually of the full understanding intended for us by the Spirit of God.
Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who 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 grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
The parable itself was told to the multitudes of the Jews that had gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 13:2). Of course the Lord’s disciples were present. The question His disciples ask Him after the telling of the first parable is notable (Matt 13:10). His answer speaks of the sovereign choice by God of the disciples over the multitude of the Jews (Matt. 13:11). His disciples were placed in a favored position by God, even over that of the Old Testament prophets and saints (Matt. 13:16-17). But in the multitudes is the condemning prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled (Matt. 13:13-15, Isa. 6:9-10). Later in this article I will add some comments on Isaiah’s prophecies. Before quoting the interpretation of the parable, it is important to point out that this explanation was given to the disciples in private, after Jesus sends the multitudes away (Matt. 13:36). This sequence of events is directly related to what Jesus said to His disciples earlier (Matt. 13:11) – “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 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 enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. 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, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Here then are the important spiritual understandings in the details of the parable and explanation given by Jesus.
1) The Son of Man is Jesus and He plants the wheat (Matt. 13:37) in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus represents God and therefore He is doing God’s work. This work cannot fail. It is eternal and good. So this is seen in the planting of the wheat, the wheat coming up and being preserved its entire time in the field, and the wheat in the harvest time being taken out of the field and placed into the barn. As I said this is God’s work and He does so sovereignly, and so, nothing is able to stop it. Nothing can really harm the wheat. And the wheat can never turn into something else, because it comes from the good seed planted by God and under His securing care (Matt. 13:24, John 10:27-29). The wheat individually are true Christians, who are in Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:1, 9, 15, 16, II Cor. 5:17, Gal. 3:26; 4:6; Eph. 1:3-7, 13). Believers have received the Spirit of God who lives within them and who witnesses to their spirit that they are now, in fact, sons of God. The wheat are the workmanship of God created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10).
2) The enemy plants the tares (weeds) in the kingdom. This enemy of the Son of Man is the wicked one, the devil and Satan (Matt. 13:25, 28, 38). The tares represent the work of the devil, and are the sons of the wicked one. In the overall composition of the crop in the field they are mixed together with the wheat. The work of Satan, because it is mixed together with God’s work, has spoiled and ruined the crop in the field. The tares grow up together with the wheat, and there is no separation one from another all the time the crop is growing in the field (Matt. 13:28-29). Only in the time of harvest at the end will there be a separation, and this by divine means (Matt. 13:39, 41). The tares never turn into wheat, nor can they, because they came from the seed planted by the enemy. The tares are those who have a false profession of Christ, and are not sealed by the Spirit of God, yet they are an integral part of the spoiled crop.
3) The field is the world. The crop may be in the field, but the crop is not to be confused with the field; the two are not the same. This is an important distinction to be made if we are to have a proper understanding of the parable. The world is made up of all those who do not profess Jesus Christ – these are all unbelieving Jews and Gentiles. The field really is not the subject of the parable, except that the Son of Man also owns the field and God will certainly judge the world someday by and through Jesus, the Son of Man (John 5:27, Acts 17:31). However, the parable isn’t really about the world or God judging the world. Rather, it is about the crop in the field, its composition and disposition until the time of harvest. It is about good seed being planted, and in the same location bad seed being planted by an enemy. The mixture of wheat and tares creates the existence of a spoiled crop, not a spoiled field.
The wheat are Christian believers. They are planted by the Son of Man. They are God’s work, the result of sovereign grace in redemption. They profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and have been water baptized as a sign of being born of God. However, the tares are planted by the devil. They also profess Jesus Christ and have been water baptized – this is why they mix in so well with the wheat. As men, the tares are not unconverted sinners or common heathens. They are not unbelieving Jews. The tares profess to be Christians and have been water baptized as well. They were planted and they grow together with the wheat for the purpose of ruining the crop.
The parable is about wheat and tares mixed together as a spoiled crop growing up in the field for a specific yet undefined period of time (the Christian dispensation). During the time of harvest there will be another divine work in separating the crop, removing the wheat, and judging the tares. I do not believe the parable directly involves God’s judgment of the world.
4) What is the spoiled crop in the field? Well, it isn’t Israel – they have been set aside by God, made desolate, hardened, burned and destroyed by God as the vineyard of God (Hosea 1:9, Matt. 23:38-39, Rom. 11:7, Isa. 5:1-7). They failed to receive Jesus as their Messiah and crucified Him, putting Him to death. As the prophet Micah predicted, the Jews struck their Bethlehem-born ruler causing God to give them up, to set them aside, for a unknown period of time (Micah 5:1-3). Because of this God used the Romans to destroy Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. This physical act demonstrated the suspension of the Jewish dispensation and halting of the practice of their religion (Heb. 8:13). Many Jews were slain by the Roman swords and God scattered the remainder into the Gentile nations (Luke 21:20-24). God setting aside Israel doesn’t fit the description of a crop presently growing up in the field.
What then is the spoiled crop in the field? It is the entire corporate body of Christendom in the world – all that has a profession of Jesus Christ, all which calls itself Christian. It has true profession and false profession. It has those who have been given the Spirit of God and those who do not have Him (Rom. 8:8-9). It is good and bad mixed together (Matt. 13:47; 22:9-10); it is wise and foolish virgins looking alike and sleeping together (Matt. 25:1-2); it is faithful and wise servants mixed with evil servants (Matt. 24:45-51; 25:14-30); and it is a spoiled crop of wheat and tares mixed together in a field (Matt. 13:26).
5) The crop is spoiled because it is a mixture of God’s work and the devil’s work. It exists like this the entire time until the harvest. This condition or state came about almost from the very beginning (Matt. 13:26) and it was a consequence of men failing in their responsibility (Matt. 13:25). It was not because God had done anything wrong. Men were given responsibility to watch and care for the work God did, however they were found sleeping, which allowed the enemy to easily come in and do his corrupting work. The spoiled condition remains as it is until the harvest time. The men given responsibility for the crop were forbidden to do any separation, lest they pull up the wheat with the tares (Matt. 13:26-29) – they were told to “Let both grow together until the harvest…” (Matt. 13:30)
This is the present condition of Christendom in which all true believers have a part, whether they desire it to be or not. Christendom is a spoiled and ruined crop growing up in the world. This is the simple testimony of God concerning it, and His testimony is always true. Whether innocently or willfully, the majority of true Christians are blind to this ruined condition, and our leaders will not admit to it. The result is that we go on participating in the midst of what God has judged as organized corruption, remaining involved in what God views as a form of godliness without any real power, instead of turning away from the evil (II Tim. 2:19-21; 3:1-5; 4:3-4). In the history of Christendom men have taken authority into their own hands and pulled up the wheat. Often the tares in ministry positions of their own making have severely persecuted the wheat. Evil servants have committed ecclesiastical abuse (beating fellow servants) and bringing in worldliness (eating and drinking with the drunkards – Matt. 24:48-49). Christendom’s record is filled with tares lusting after civil power, committing fornication with the kings and governments of the earth (Rev. 17:1-6).
6) The harvest at the end of the age is a period of time instead of one singular day. Although the wheat being gathered and removed from the field is the rapture of the true church (John 11:25-26; 14:1-3, I Thess. 4:13-18), and does happen in a moment of time (I Cor. 15:51-53), yet the bundling of the tares together and leaving them in the field (world) to be burned doesn’t necessarily happen instantaneously (Matt. 13:30, 40). The harvest is a period of time at the end of the present age, rather than a single day.
The wheat are individual believers who are sons of God by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26). They are those who are sealed by the Holy Spirit, who cries out in their hearts, “Abba, Father!” (Eph. 1:13, Rom. 8:15-16, Gal. 4:6) The destiny of the wheat is the barn. The wheat does not remain in the field, does not remain in the world. The barn is the Father’s house (John 14:1-3) and is located in heaven. The sons of God are the sons of the Father in heaven (Matt. 5:45). They have this established relationship with God, that of Father with sons. All the wheat have been given the same relationship which Jesus has with God (John 20:17). All the wheat individually are true Christians, and are members of the body of Christ, the church (I Cor. 12:12-14, Eph 1:22-23). Only the wheat in the spoiled crop of Christendom forms the church, the body of Christ. As a corporate body Christendom is not the same as the church. Christendom includes wheat and tares, while the church is only made of wheat. The church is built by Christ alone (Matt. 16:18). He planted the wheat on God’s behalf (Matt. 13:37).
The destiny of the tares is judgement. Towards the end of this age the tares of Christendom will providentially be bundled together and left in the world. This seems to take place before the wheat is removed from the field – “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them…” (Matt. 13:30) The parable only goes so far as to say the intention is that they will be burned. But the explanation goes farther. Explanations of parables and visions which are prophetic always go farther in what they reveal than the details of the parable or vision itself. The explanation has the tares being cast into a furnace of fire; there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:40-42).
7) The work done in the time of harvest is all divine work accomplished by angels under the direction of the Son of Man. Again, this is the sovereign work of God, whether it is the gathering of the wheat to remove the church from this world, or the bundling and judging of the tares in the world. The harvest is not under the responsibility of men, and not done by the hands of men.
8) The Lord’s interpretation also reveals more than the parable in that it distinguishes two kingdoms that will exist simultaneously after the harvest. There will be the Son of Man’s kingdom on the earth (Matt. 13:41) and there will be the Father’s kingdom in the heavens (Matt. 13:43). Two kingdoms yet future. However, presently we are in the kingdom of heaven – the parable making this abundantly clear. This kingdom of heaven ceased to be “at hand” (Matt. 3:10; 4:17; 10:7), but came into existence when the Son of Man was rejected by this world and went back to heaven. At the present time this kingdom is very real and develops on the earth as a spoiled crop growing up in the field – Christendom in the world and on the earth. But the calling and destiny of the wheat is to the heavens. The church is a heavenly body which is in union with its Head in heaven, Jesus Christ, the glorified Son of Man (Eph. 1:22-23). The church is this Man’s body.
Here then is another of the many mysteries of the kingdom of heaven given to believers to understand (Matt. 13:11, 1 Cor. 4:1). In consequence of Jesus being rejected by the Jews as their Messiah and King, and the purpose of God contained therein (Acts 2:22-23), the Christian believer’s place and portion would not be in the Son of Man’s kingdom on the earth, but instead in the Father’s kingdom in the heavens – “Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matt. 13:43) As is the character of all the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, so with this one. This is not Jewish thought. This is not found in Old Testament Jewish teachings. This is not hinted at by Old Testament prophecy. This is new revelation and a new order of things – a body being gathered on the earth by the Holy Spirit sent down; a heavenly body with a heavenly calling, destined to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Heb. 3:1, Eph. 2:6-7). No Jew would have ever conceived of such a thing.
The mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are all unseen to the naked eye. They are always matters of faith – the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1, II Cor. 4:18). Judaism is a walk by sight, demanding to see signs, a worldly sensual religion (I Cor. 1:22); it isn’t a religion designed to comprehend these mysteries (Matt. 13:11). The understanding of all the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are given to the true Christian to comprehend. He has the potential to see the unseen with the eye of faith and by the Holy Spirit, to walk by faith (II Cor. 5:7). Only through true faith, seeing and walking by such, can the believer be pleasing to God (II Cor. 5:9, Heb. 11:6). This highlights some of the differences between the two religions – Judaism and Christianity. And in a similar way it marks out some of the dispensational differences that exist between the Jewish dispensation and the Christian dispensation. True Christianity encompasses and embraces the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven and teaches how one walks by faith in God; it teaches how the Christian is to walk as a pilgrim and stranger in the wilderness of this world (Heb. 11:13).
The parable indicates that there is the providential power of God through the administration of the Son of Man by His angles which will bundle the tares together in the field to be burned. It is after this judgment is accomplished of the tares of Christendom, after they are burned in the world, that the righteous (the Christian believer) will shine forth as the sun. This shining forth in glory is not in the kingdom of the Son, not in the kingdom of the Son of Man, but in the kingdom of the Father. The short version is that we have the clearing of the world by this judicial process of the Son of Man sending out His angels. The righteous, those who had been righteous while the world was evil, shall be as the sun. Of course Jesus is “the Sun of righteousness” and “when He shall appear we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is”; but this will be in the kingdom of the Father. What followed in the kingdom of the Son of Man on earth we aren’t told in the parable except that He gathered all that offended out of it, and that elsewhere in Scripture we are told that the earthly “kingdom of our Lord and His Christ was come.” But really the aim of the parable is the spoiled crop in the field until the harvest as a similitude of the kingdom of heaven – the present form of the kingdom of God at this time – and how this mixed and ambiguous system of Christendom is brought to its close.
We must realize there exists a present form of the kingdom of God today in the world. That form is depicted by every parable in Matthew’s gospel which serves as a similitude of the kingdom of heaven. In no way does it correspond to the Old Testament version of a Messianic kingdom promised to Israel. That opportunity passed for Israel when they resoundingly rejected their Messiah when He came to them (John 1:11). The present form of the kingdom of God in the world today is whatever Christendom has become under the responsibility of men. But surely we can realize that Christendom is quite a different and distinct corporate body in profession, testimony, and character from that of the nation of Israel. One of the important points to be clearly understood from the parable is that the nation of Israel is not the spoiled crop growing up in the field. Consequent to their rejection of God’s Son, Israel was made desolate by God (Matt. 23:37-39, Luke 21:20-24, Matt. 22:7; 24:2). He set Israel aside and took the kingdom of God away from them (Matt. 21:33-44). Israel’s dispensation was being suspended at the time Jesus was speaking these parables. It is not possible to correctly describe Israel as a crop growing in a field.
There happens to be a number of theological points which follow from this understanding. The crop in the world is Christendom. This is the present form of the kingdom of God in the world today. It is an error of spiritual ignorance to teach that the kingdom of God does not exist today. The kingdom of heaven was established when Jesus went away, back to heaven. This kingdom exists as it relates by profession of faith in a Lamb slain by the world, yet raised by God and exalted to the right hand of His power – rejected by this world, yet received in the heavens with glory and honor (Heb. 2:9). All power in heaven and earth has been given to Him in title after His resurrection (Matt. 28:18), but He sits at the right hand of God waiting until His enemies be made His footstool (Heb. 10:12-13). He has been given this power, but it isn’t the Father’s time yet for Jesus to rise up and use it.
This sitting and waiting by Jesus Christ is one important characteristic of the present Christian dispensation; it characterizes the present mysteries of the kingdom of heaven – the form the kingdom of God takes in the world today, and the matters of faith associated with such a mysterious and ambiguous kingdom where the King is missing. Jesus is hidden now at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1-3). He has sat down on His Father’s throne (Rev. 3:21) and the Holy Spirit has been sent down to gather His body and bride, the church (John 7:39; 14:16-17, I Cor. 12:12-13). Only the true believer using the eye of faith can see Jesus sitting at God’s right hand (Col. 3:1-3), and that He is now crowned with glory and honor (Heb. 2:9). The world does not operate by faith in order to see what is unseen (II Cor. 4:18). Neither do the Jews (I Cor. 1:22). Neither do the tares of Christendom. If Jesus is hidden, it is to those who are not of faith in this world. Genuine faith characterizes the true Christian – he has the God-given ability and spiritual temperament to see with the eye of faith, to walk by faith (II Cor. 5:7), to understand what faith is and how it is actually defined (Heb. 11:1). The believer knows that without real faith he cannot please God at all (Heb. 11:6).
All the teachings found in Matthew’s gospel concerning the kingdom of heaven, and all the parables in his gospel that are similitudes of the kingdom of heaven, give us the defining characteristics of the Christian dispensation until its termination by the harvest of Christendom at the end of this age. These teachings are Christianity as a religion, and often are presented in contrast to Judaism (Matt. 5:21-22; 5:27-28; 5:31-32; 5:33-37; 5:38-48). In truth, most of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5; 6; 7) is Christian responsibility contrasted with Jewish responsibility. Therefore these teachings are for Christians as the Law of Moses was for the Jews. These teachings explain the believer’s practical responsibilities to be lived out as sons of their Father in heaven (Matt. 5:45, Gal. 3:16). The first sixteen verses of the Sermon in Matthew (Matt. 5:1-16) are the enunciation of the principles of the kingdom of heaven, the character and position of the true sons. Also these teachings of the kingdom of heaven are intimately connected with the Christian dispensation in that they define for us Christendom’s responsibility before God as a testimony and light to this dark world (Matt. 5:13-16).
Matthew’s gospel must be seen as having two main purposes from the Spirit of God. When we speak of Messiah being sent and presented to Israel, this is certainly the first theme you encounter in Matthew’s writings. Messiah was to come to Israel according to Jewish promises and prophesies found spoken by the Spirit through the Old Testament prophets (Matt. 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15; 2:17-18, 23; 3:3). This we easily see. Also the first verse speaks of the physical lineage that would identify the Messiah when He came – Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1). This is the Messiah of Israel.
The second theme that characterizes Matthew’s gospel comes out from the many passages showing a transition taking place from the Jewish dispensation ending to the Christian dispensation beginning. His gospel has a definite dispensational impression. God knew that Israel would reject their Messiah; this didn’t catch Him off-guard or unprepared. The first passage that infers the dispensational transition is found early in the gospel (Matt. 3:2) – John the Baptist preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
As we have conclusively proven earlier in this article, the kingdom of heaven concerns the growth and development of Christendom in the world. As a likeness of the kingdom of heaven, the parable of the wheat and tares prophetically describes the history of the moral condition of Christendom during the entire time of the Christian dispensation. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is only used by the Spirit of God in Matthew’s gospel (33 times). It always refers to the teachings of Christianity, to Christendom as a corporate body in the world, and dispensationally to the Christian dispensation that would soon replace the Jewish one when Israel was set aside by God consequent to their rejection of their Messiah. Again, the understanding of how the Spirit of God uses this phrase is crucial. Therefore, the use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” never references Israel, the Jewish dispensation, or Jewish and Old Testament prophecies. The phrase never refers to a Messianic kingdom in Israel. Every time the phrase is used, the passage in which it is found then serves as an example of the core practical teachings of Christianity and this dispensational transition.
Now returning to Matthew thirteen (13) and the parable of the wheat and tares, let us consider a few more doctrinal points. It is important to understand that the church is not the kingdom. Do not make this convenient theological mistake. The kingdom would be something outwardly visible. But can you see the body of Christ in the world? It is a naïve but serious doctrinal mistake if you think you can, and it is sad to see teachers assume they can and teach doctrinal implications based on such a mistake. We cannot physically see Jesus, the Head of the body, because He is in heaven. We cannot see the church as well; only God truly knows those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19). The kingdom however, has the visible and outward form of all Christendom combined together in the world, all that professes Christ. At this present time the kingdom of heaven is as much the work of the enemy and the failure of men as it is the work of God. But to say that the kingdom of God does not exist today is showing ignorance of God’s word and of the present mysteries of the kingdom of heaven God gave every Christian to understand.
Recapping the teaching of the parable of the wheat and tares: The kingdom of heaven is a state of things during the period of time when Jesus Christ the Son is sitting on the Father’s throne in heaven (Rev. 3:21). In this time on earth the sons of the Father (Matt. 5:45, 48, Gal. 3:26; 4:5-6, Rom. 8:15-16) are in the Son’s kingdom (Col. 1:13), but they all remain heirs of the Father’s kingdom (Rom. 8:17, Gal. 4:7). During this period of time the world is not governed by the righteous judicial power of the Son of Man’s kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is the state of things on earth during the interval between the rejection of the Son of Man on earth and His reigning upon the earth after His return from heaven. The teachings and parables of the kingdom of heaven mainly refer to the present Christian dispensation. During this time Christians are sustained by the Spirit sent of the Son by the Father (John 15:26), sustained in the midst of this ever-growing evil world, and I dare say, in the midst of a Christendom that is corrupt and in ruin. The Spirit is the witness of Christ’s present exaltation and glory in heaven (John 16:13-14). Of this state of things Matthew thirteen (13) reveals much.