In the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel we see Jesus telling his disciples a series of parables that discuss kingdom life between the first advent of Christ and his return at the end of the age. Each of these parables discusses a unique aspect of the Kingdom of God. There is one that is of particular interest and that is the parable of the weeds (or the parable of the wheat and tares) found in Matthew 13:24-30 (and explained in Matthew 13:36-43). This parable illustrates that during this age of the kingdom, unbelievers will be in the covenant community of God’s people alongside believers (represented by the weeds growing alongside the wheat).
When I say that unbelievers will be in the covenant community of God’s people alongside believers, I don’t mean to indicate that they somehow have a saving relationship with Christ. Being in the covenant community of God’s people doesn’t mean one is saved. Not all members of the NT church are saved just as not all people of the nation of Israel were saved in the OT. There is a superficial connection these unbelievers have with the covenant community of God’s people that makes them appear indistinguishable from believers. That’s what Jesus is trying to get at with this parable of the kingdom age.
A brief sidebar on the kingdom age. I believe that the Kingdom of God is a present, but not yet fully consummated, reality right now. Some theologians refer to this as the “already/not yet” of the kingdom. The kingdom is already here, but not yet in its fullness. This is a popular belief amongst those who hold to a more Reformed view of the Kingdom of God. However, the most popular view amongst American evangelicals is that the Kingdom of God is a future reality, which is inaugurated when Christ returns and will last for a thousand years (Pre-Millennialism). I think these parables in Matthew 13 mitigate against the Pre-Millennial view of the kingdom as they all begin with the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” OK, enough with the sidebar, back to the topic at hand.
A couple of questions present themselves regarding the parable of the weeds. First, how did the weeds get there? Second, what are we to do with the weeds? The parable explains that the weeds grew there because they were sown by the enemy — Satan. Ultimately, Satan is the agent of much mischief in the world. How does he accomplish the feat of sowing weeds in God’s wheat field? Through deceit and false teaching primarily. The Bible often warns of the danger of false teachers and how they sow strife and error in the church. The Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers will arise from amongst their number (Acts 20). Peter, in his second epistle, and Jude both have harsh words against false teachers and the error they propagate. Nothing is more damaging to the cause of the kingdom than error posing as truth.
Weeds also come from the pressures of the culture around us. The cares of the world and the threat of persecution cause false converts to eventually fall away. The temptation is great to compromise on the truth when the prevailing culture begins to apply pressure on the church. Again, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). The world wants to conform us, but God’s truth will transform us. This is why the church must always be on its guard against both false teaching and cultural pressure and remain pure in both doctrine and practice in the world.
So weeds grow in God’s wheat field because of false teaching and cultural pressure, the next question is what are we to do about the weeds? The parable explains that we aren’t really to do anything about the weeds directly. The problem with the weeds in this parable is that they are virtually indistinguishable from the wheat. The farmer in the parable warns his servants that to start pulling up weeds now might also damage and kill the wheat. Therefore, they are to wait for harvest time. In other words, unbelievers are oftentimes hard to distinguish from believers. Again going back to the parable of the sower, note that there are two types of seed that produce plants, but they die out for other reasons before bearing fruit. These two types of seed that produce plants appear no different than the seed that produces a fruit-bearing plant. False conversions are virtually identical to true conversions; the proof is in the fruit, not the conversion.
Now, just because the church isn’t to root up the weeds in the wheat field doesn’t mean the church cannot exercise discipline towards unrepentant sinners. Sin must be dealt with and church discipline is perfectly appropriate. However, the church’s job isn’t necessarily to weed out false believers from true believers. If the weeds are nearly identical to the wheat, then it’s beyond our capacity to discriminate between the two. We cannot look into another’s heart and determine the true state of their soul; only God can do that, and do that he will at the end of the age.
Bottom Line: So if the church isn’t supposed to weed out the false believers from the true believers, what is the church supposed to do? The short answer is: Simply continue being the church. Continue to faithfully preach sound doctrine and exhort godly living and many false converts will simply ‘die out’ because they cannot produce the fruit of godly lives that the Holy Spirit produces in the true believers. Aside from faithfully preaching sound doctrine and exhorting godly living, trust in God. The great separation of the weeds from the wheat will at the great harvest in the final judgment when Jesus returns.
Soli Deo Gloria!