Tares in the Kingdom

Written by Drew on November 16th, 2005

In the midst of a set of seven parables on the kingdom of heaven, Jesus told the Parable of the Tares (Mt. 13:24-30). It tells of a man who sowed good seed in his field, only to have his enemy corrupt it overnight by sowing “tares” (KJV) or “weeds” (ESV) among the wheat. The weed here referenced was probably “darnel,” a plant that resembles wheat until it comes to maturity. When the enemy’s treachery was discovered, the servants suggested that they should go through the field and remove the unwanted weeds. But their master 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’” (vv. 29-30).

Later Jesus gives a brief explanation of the parable (Mt. 13:36-43). He explains that the sower represents the “Son of Man.” The field is the “world,” and the good seed is the “children of the kingdom.” The weeds are the “sons of the evil one,” and the enemy represents “the devil.” Harvest time symbolizes the “close of the age,” and the reapers are “angels.” The parable shows how the Son of Man will send his angels to “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers” (v. 41). These will be cast into everlasting punishment. The righteous, on the other hand, “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v. 43).

One phrase in the Parable of the Tares creates a considerable amount of confusion. In verse 41, Jesus says that at the end of time the angels will gather evil people “out of his kingdom.” What are the implications of this statement? Are wicked persons allowed to remain in the church? And does this parable contradict clear calls for church discipline in other parts of the New Testament (Mt. 18:15-17; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thes. 3:6; Titus 3:10)?

1. Many scholars avoid the phrase “out of the kingdom” by pointing out that Jesus earlier identified the field as “the world” (v. 38). On the surface, this seems to suggest that the sons of the evil one are outside of the church, since the “world” [kosmos] often refers to the “ungodly multitude” (Thayer, cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17). A.T. Robertson writes,

“It is extremely important to understand that both the good seed and the darnel (tares) are sown in the world, not in the Kingdom, not in the church…What this means is that, just as the wheat and the darnel are mixed together in the field till the separation at harvest, so the evil are mixed with the good in the world (the field). Jesus does not mean to say that these “stumbling-blocks” (ta skandala) are actually in the Kingdom of heaven and really members of the Kingdom. They are simply mixed in the field with the wheat and God leaves them in the world till the separation comes” (New Testament Word Pictures).

J.W. McGarvey says,

“The field is not the church, but the world, and the teaching of the parable is that we are not to attempt to exterminate evil men. Any who attempt to externminate heretics in the name of Christ by physical force are condemned by this parable” (Fourfold Gospel).

However, “world” is not so rigid as to always exclude believers. In many places, it refers to the saved (Jn. 1:29; 6:33; 12:47; 2 Cor. 5:19). Therefore, Jesus’ identification of the field was a general one at best, and this alone should not be used to explain away the angel’s action of gathering evil people “out of” the kingdom.

2. Even if we take “the world” in verse 38 to mean the “ungodly multitude,” that doesn’t erase the possibility that sinners will be found in the church on Judgment Day. The Lord still said the Son of Man will send angels who will “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers.” Interpreting the field in terms of a sinful world doesn’t change that fact.

Also, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a parable on “the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 13:24). Often Jesus used this phrase with reference to the church (Mt. 16:18-19; Mk. 9:1; Col. 1:13). Somehow, the separation described in the Parable of the Tares relates to this glorious institution.

3. The preposition used by the Lord to describe the final harvest is ek in the Greek. It always denotes movement beginning within and moving “from” or “out of” the object it modifies. To illustrate, our English word “ecstasy” is derived from ek and means “to stand outside oneself.” Now, to experience a feeling of ecstasy, one must begin within himself and then move outside himself in the abstract sense, of course. Otherwise, how would he know he was in ecstasy? In the same way, Jesus is saying that those represented by the tares began within the kingdom and were taken out of it.

A more appropriate preposition to convey the idea of gathering the wicked from the midst of the kingdom and not from within it, is apo, which denotes movement “away from” the object. Apo is used by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 to describe the awful state of eternal punishment: “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Here it is understood that these were never in the presence of the Lord; they were, however, removed from it forever.

4. The sons of the evil one are described by two phrases: they are “causes of sin” [skandalon, literally “stumbling blocks”] and “law-breakers” [anomia, literally “anti-law”]. Interestingly, disciples were often being warned against falling into these sins. Jesus said stumbling blocks are sure to come (Lk. 17:1), and Paul had to plead with the church at Rome to vow “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13). Concerning the other phrase, Jesus frequently warned that many church-goers will be surprised to hear Him call them “workers of evil” on Judgment Day (Mt. 7:21-23; Lk. 13:26-27).

Thus, the church has always struggled with members who serve as stumbling blocks and those who break God’s law. This explains why Jesus and the apostles so frequently warned the church against such things.

5. The intent of the Parable of the Tares is the keep the church from becoming overly suspicious of itself to the point of self-destruction. Truly, a congregation can get so wrapped up in “cleansing the temple” that it neglects its positive work—sharing the saving gospel of Christ with the world.

Elders, in particular, may derive some comfort from this parable. They are charged with “keeping watch” over the souls of their flock (Heb. 13:17). But how can they possibly know the hearts of every sheep? What if they miss an opportunity to correct a wayward member? Will they be held accountable? No, elders are not to get into “weeding” God’s “field” (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6-9). In doing so, they may uproot the whole crop!

6. So what about the practice of church discipline? Our parable is not concerned with the matter of withdrawing fellowship from wayward members. It is more concerned with the state of the church at the end of time. In other, plainer passages, a pattern for church discipline is clearly set out (see above). Nothing in the Parable of the Tares negates these things.

For one thing, even when a church takes the last resort in disciplining one of its members (i.e., withdrawing fellowship), it is not uprooting a shoot and casting it into the flames. The proper motive behind disciplinary action is restoration. In the matter of a sexually immoral man who was worshipping with the brethren at Corinth, Paul says, “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). Furthermore, he tells the brethren at Thessalonica that, when they withdraw from a disorderly member, they are not to “regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thes. 3:15). Certainly one can see the difference between loving, corrective church discipline and the type of action represented by the reapers’ uprooting the unwanted tares.

Sometimes parables can be perplexing. But we must remember, the Lord had in mind important truths as He told each one. Through study and meditation, we can learn them today.


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