The parable of the kingdom of heaven that will be our focus is the Parable of the Weeds as told by Jesus in Matthew 13:24-30. Helpfully, Jesus provides an explanation of this parable in verses 36-43 of the same chapter, so we will also give much attention to those verses. This sermon consists of two parts, first we will examine the teaching of this parable and then we will address how it applies to us presently.
Following the Parable of the Sower and His explanation of parables in general, Jesus launched the following parable:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”Matthew 13:24–30
Then after a five-verse interlude, Jesus presents an explanation to His disciples:
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.Matthew 13:36–43
The overall message of the parable should be clear: until Christ returns, the physical expression of the kingdom will consist of both true and false Christians. But is Jesus in this parable referring to the actual church itself or to the world in general? My answer is yes.
First, if we consider the church through the lens of two theological terms, local and universal, we can safely conclude that Jesus is not referring to the universal church within this parable. By universal church, we mean the full and complete Body and Bride of Christ, the total number of believers in Jesus Christ from Adam’s day to the last day. “Sons of the evil one” are certainly not a part of this holy, catholic church. Local churches, however, are the physical expressions of that (presently) spiritual reality. Although all Christians throughout the world and across time are members of the church, we will not be physically gathered together until the end comes; therefore, the visible expression of Jesus’ church is currently through local congregations cross the globe.
It is certainly possible for a member of a local church to not, in reality, be a member of the universal church. In other words, being a church member does not guarantee salvation. Therefore, when we speak of the church in this local context, the teaching of the parable easily applies. Until Jesus returns, local churches will consist of true Christians and others who are not followers of Christ.
Yet the parable also applies to the world in general because the present place of God’s kingdom is within this world. Christians (sons of the kingdom) are found throughout the world, and the world, though under the reign of Christ, for a little while longer is also under the power of the evil one. Therefore, even though we know that every square inch of the cosmos belongs to Christ, we continue for a short while to dwell in the midst of rebels to His throne and rule.
Let us now consider a few applications or (as the Puritans called it) uses for the doctrine of this parable.
First, we must understand that the wicked will remain among us until the end. Like Asaph in Psalm 73, we may at times become “envious of the arrogant” upon viewing “the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3). We can easily be tempted into believing that holiness is not worth the effort and that the immediate pleasures of sin are more enticing than the promises of joy to come. Yet we must combat this sort of thinking by reminding ourselves of the end of the wicked, “how they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors” (Psalm 73:19). For those apart from Christ, this life is the closest they will ever be to heaven’s pleasures, yet for us who are in Christ, this life is the faintest taste we will ever know of hell’s torments. Therefore, we should be patient as God is patient with the wicked, knowing that when their house upon the sand falls, great will be the fall of it.
Second, we must remember that not everyone who claims to be a follower of Christ is truly one. We certainly know this to be true among those who call themselves Christians yet refuse to submit themselves to a local congregation and for all practical purposes live no differently than the world around them. Yet this Nominal Christianity can even affect the membership of local congregations. Even though the purpose of membership is to affirm to one another that we see in our brothers and sisters the fruits of salvation, only our Lord Himself knows the hearts of all men. He alone knows the true state of a person’s salvation.
In fact, a significant application of this parable is to guard us against the dangers of attempting to maintain a “pure” church. Although this is certainly not the predominate mentality today, the Puritans very much attempted create pure churches. Unfortunately, this can easily result in a host of legalist demands being thrust upon church members in order to prove that their salvation is genuine. This parable, however, stands as a reminder to us that a pure congregation will only be achieved at the return of Christ.
Of course, this does not mean that we do not need to take church membership seriously. Indeed, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme for most churches in the West today. Although we cannot conclusively determine the salvation of anyone, Jesus Himself gave us the model for enacting church discipline for a reason. Our responsibility is to defend the name of Christ, so far as we are able, by carefully considering who we affirm as fellow believers through church membership.
Finally, this parable should remind us of the truth that being in church no more makes us Christians than being in a garage makes us a car. Being in the same field as wheat does not mean that we ourselves are not weeds. Therefore, we should strive to ensure that we are not among those who will one day hear from our Lord, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). We gain such assurance by casting ourselves upon the mercy and steadfast love of Jesus our Savior, not upon any religious duties that we have done for Him. We trust in His saving work alone, not in our works, even works done in His name. In short, our assurance entirely rests upon Christ, not upon us. Sons of the evil one trust in self, while sons of the kingdom trust in the King.