Most people don’t realize that many if not most of Jesus’ parables were intended not as general morality tales, but as particular pronouncements of coming judgment and change. Jesus was warning Jerusalem to repent and to accept its new King (Jesus) or else fall under ultimate condemnation of God. In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels pertains primarily to that pre-AD 70 crowd, and without reading it in this light, we misunderstand it. And when we misunderstand it, we misapply it.
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Weeds)
For many (perhaps even most) Christians, the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43) tells the story of the final judgment. This view is especially understandable when based on the old King James translation. It says:
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which 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 blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
After a couple of other related parables, Jesus leaves the multitude and goes into a house. His disciples, having not understood the parable but wishing to avoid the embarrassment of saying so publicly, come to him in private and ask that he explain it. He obliges:
He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. (My emphases.)
Two things primarily have lent this parable to being understood: 1) It has so often been taught as an end-of-the-world parable about final judgment, and 2) the popular KJV clearly says that this gathering, separating, and burning judgment shall occur “in the end of this world” (vv. 39, 40).
This reading clearly makes the verse connect with verse 38: “The field is the world.” It makes it pretty clear that the “world” in which the two strains grow shall be the same “world” that comes to an end. Thus the harvest and separation and judgment take place at the end of the world.
But this translation is simply inaccurate. Verse 38 is correct to say “world,” for the Greek word is kosmos—a common Greek word translated “world.” It refers to the entire system of this planet and the order of things. But the word is entirely different in the following verses. In 39 and 40, the Greek word is aion, from which we get our word “eon.” It refers to a long period of time, and is properly translated “age.” Most modern translations get this correct (ESV, NAS, etc.), and even modern printings of the King James include footnotes with the proper reading. Why the old KJV translated it as “world” is another mystery.
A correct translation here is indispensible for properly understanding this parable and its explanation. It more correctly reads:
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 close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age (ESV).
This is not a perfect translation, but it gets the important point for this discussion. The thing coming to an end in this teaching is not the world itself, but a particular long period of time. Jesus is not concerned with the end of the world, but the end of the age. And the judgment that is described here, therefore, pertains to the end of that period of time.
The question arises then, what particular period of time is this speaking of? It is possible (and perhaps tempting to many) to make this age synonymous with the end of all time, and thus an end of the world. But is this what Jesus has in mind here?
I don’t think Jesus has the ultimate end of time in view here. Rather, he had in mind the end of a particular age that would be followed by another. This is clear from teaching He had given just earlier that same day (see Matt. 13:1). He had warned the people and the Pharisees against the unpardonable sin: “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32).
Here Jesus speaks about this age and the age to come, in both of which the same rules for belief and profession of faith stand. This shows that he had His current age in mind—“this age” was His age that would obviously give way to another age yet to come (for His listeners anyway).
In fact, many of the Greek manuscripts for Matthew 13:40 also include the word “this” and read “The harvest is the close of this age.” While the word is missing from the oldest manuscripts we have, its attestation in a large portion of texts should not be ignored totally.
This understanding of two ages occurs in Paul’s teaching as well. For example, Jesus is the ascended reigning King, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age (aion) but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). He then applies these two ages to the rescuing of believers from the spirit of the age:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course [aion, “age”] of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. . . . But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:1–7).
Paul very clearly saw the same two ages Jesus did: one age that was currently operating when he wrote, and another age that would dominate the future. The question then is, when does the switch between these ages occur?
Paul very clearly indicates that a switch was occurring as he wrote, and indeed the old age (which we might call the Old Testament age) was coming to an end as he wrote. In Ephesians 3:8–11, he notes the cause of the change. He says he was given grace to preach the gospel unto the Gentiles,
to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Noting the cause of the change also dates it. God has kept the gospel revelation hidden for ages, the apostle says, but now (as he wrote) He has brought it to light. In other words, the coming of Christ and the work of Christ has effected the beginning of a change in the ages.
Paul repeats this same teaching in Colossians 1. He explains his ministry as delivering the Word of God, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Col. 1:26). It is clear, then, that a vital change in God’s providence over the ages has taken place with the coming of Christ.
But was Paul’s and Jesus’ “this age” actually coming to an end when Paul wrote, or will it yet be in our future? Paul makes this clear as well, in 1 Corinthians 10. After recounting several stories from Exodus, Paul teaches: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our [his and his audience’s] instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). It is clear from this that Paul saw himself at the end of an age—an age typified by judgment upon disobedient people.
The author of Hebrews uses a very similar expression in relation to the work of Christ: “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). It is clear here that the end of that old time period arrived in conjunction with the crucifixion of Christ.
So, from the teaching of Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews, we get a very clear picture of two primary ages: one that endured up until the time of Christ, and another than began around that same period. I believe these two periods, being hinged upon the coming and work of Christ, pertain obviously to the Old and New Covenant administrations. Indeed, this is what the author of Hebrews himself relates. He says the New Covenant makes the Old obsolete: “And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). Notice, the New had in fact made the Old obsolete definitively. But as he wrote, in his time, the Old was becoming obsolete and was ready to vanish away. It had not yet been completely wiped out, but it was certainly in its dying moments.
It died in AD 70, when the symbol and ceremonies of that Old system—the Temple and sacrifices—were completely destroyed by the Roman armies. This was the definitive moment when the “this age” of Jesus and Paul ended and completely gave way to their “age to come.” This, of course, is exactly why Jesus had tied “the end of the age” to His prophecy of the destruction of the Temple:
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”
The apostles clearly understood Jesus now. Remember, earlier in Matthew 13 they had to ask him to explain the parable of the wheat and tares. He expounded then about the end of the age and judgment upon the children of the enemy. He had clearly and often identified the Pharisees as children of the enemy, and them and their disciples and children of hell (gehenna—see Matt. 23:15). The disciples this time immediately connected the dots with Jesus’ pronouncement upon the Temple (Matt. 24:2): it must be linked with the “end of the age” Jesus taught about earlier. So they asked him now to explain the “close of the age.”
Indeed, it was linked. Jesus went on to expound all of the judgments that would come upon Jerusalem and the unbelieving children of the enemy (24:4–25:45).
The Judgment of the Age
A clear understanding of the parable of the wheat and tares emerges only after the proper translation of aion (age) and the biblical teaching concerning the two ages. It is clear that Jesus did not have in mind the end of the world, nor did He mean the final judgment. Rather, Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43 describe the judgment that would come upon unbelieving Jerusalem. During this time, the angels would “gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity” (13:41) and these would be judged with fire. Many of them literally were burned in fire during the destruction of Jerusalem. During this same time, however, the elect of Christ—“the children of the kingdom” (v. 38)—will be harvested. While the explanation of the parable does not tell us their final end, the parable itself has the householder instructing the harvesters to “gather the wheat into my barn.” In other words, they are protected and saved by God.
This, of course, is exactly what happened to the Christians. Not only were they saved in soul, but they mostly fled Jerusalem before the Roman siege. This was consequent to Jesus’ advice to flee and not look back once the signs arose (Matt. 24:16–22); indeed this would correspond with the angels’ work of harvesting the elect (24:30). Indeed, Christians in Jerusalem sold their houses and land during this time before Rome marched in (Acts 4:32–37); they used the proceeds to help each other. They have no intention of staying in Jerusalem; they knew better based on divine forewarning.
The separation of wheat and tares, then, pertained to the destruction of Jerusalem and the separation of God’s true fruit-bearing people from the weeds, the unbelieving Jews of that time. Ironically, this interpretation gets to the heart of the picture in the parable. A “tare” was not simply any old weed, but a particular weed called a “darnel” or zizania in Greek. It looked almost exactly like wheat in early stages of growth and required close examination to tell the difference. In later stages, the difference grows clear, but then it is too late to remove the darnel without damaging the wheat (as the parable says). Worse yet, the darnel kernels are poisonous, causing dizziness, sickness, and possibly even death when eaten. In short, they could look like the real thing, but they were poison; and after a while, their true colors showed. This was exactly the story with the rebellious Jews. They looked like God’s people, but they were really the children of the enemy—they even killed God’s prophets (Matt. 23:30–39). And the longer history went on, the more their true nature as the children of wrath was revealed.
Thus the parable describes the then-soon-coming end of that old age and the destruction of its children, and the beginning of the gathering in of the true children of God’s kingdom. It should not be understood as teaching anything beyond this.
Mustard Seeds and Leaven
Immediately consequent to the parable of the wheat and tares, Jesus told the parables of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31–32) and of the leaven (Matt. 13:33).
There is much to say about these that I will not have the space to say today. Here is the basic thrust:
Following His teaching that there was a coming separation between the children of the enemy and the children of the kingdom, Jesus immediately describes the nature of the growth of the kingdom. The parable of the mustard seed:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
And the leaven:
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
In both cases, we have something small growing into something large. Both grow slowly; both grow imperceptibly. This all relates to the New Testament age. A tiny group of disciples was saved from the destruction of Jerusalem. Over time they have grown to fill the world. This did not occur overnight, but gradually. There is still much work to be done, much growth to be had. This, too, will occur gradually and slowly.
The unique emphasis in the mustard seed parable is proportion. A tiny seed grows to house and support the fowls of the air. This is a nothing short of miraculous—certainly beyond the normal expectations of a small group starting a movement. That which is at first seemingly insignificant becomes that on which life rests and depends.
The unique emphasis in the leaven parable is pervasiveness. Not only does something small grow to become large, but it spreads and permeates the whole. In this we learn that the kingdom will eventually Christianize the whole world. Its influence will permeate all people, places, things everywhere. Yet, again, this will happen slowly and imperceptibly over time.
Jesus tied the separation and judgment of the wheat and tares to the change in the “age,” or covenantal administration. From this, we must understand the beginning of the gradual growth of the kingdom as beginning with the gathering of those children of the kingdom. It is for this reason that the two brief growth parables are sandwiched in the text between the parable of wheat and tares (vv. 24–30) and its private explanation (vv. 36–43). They all go together.
It should be clear from this much that Jesus did not predict the end of the world in the parable of the wheat and the tares. Instead, He indicates the end and destruction of the old covenant age, and announces the salvation of the children of the kingdom. This true kingdom will then grow and spread gradually throughout the age to come—the age in which we now live—until it spreads through the whole world. These parables, therefore, go together to illustrate more fully Jesus’ message of the then-coming kingdom of heaven.