In these verses, we have, I. Another reason given why Christ preached by parables, Matt. 13:34, 35. All these things he spoke in parables, because the time was not yet come for the more clear and plain discoveries of the mysteries of the kingdom. Christ, to keep the people attending and expecting, preached in parables, and without a parable spake he not unto them; namely, at this time and in this sermon. Note, Christ tries all ways and methods to do good to the souls of men, and to make impressions upon them; if men will not be instructed and influenced by plain preaching, he will try them with parables; and the reason here given is, That the scripture might be fulfilled. The passage here quoted for it, is part of the preface to that historical Psalm, Ps. 78:2; I will open my mouth in a parable. What the Psalmist David, or Asaph, says there of his narrative, is accommodated to Christ’s sermons; and that great precedent would serve to vindicate this way of preaching from the offence which some took at it. Here is, 1. The matter of Christ’s preaching; he preached things which had been kept secret from the foundation of the world. The mystery of the gospel had been hid in God, in his councils and decrees, from the beginning of the world. Eph. 3:9. Compare Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Col. 1:26. If we delight in the records of ancient things, and in the revelation of secret things, how welcome should the gospel be to us, which has in it such antiquity and such mystery! It was from the foundation of the world wrapt up in types and shadows, which are now done away; and those secret things are now become such things revealed as belong to us and to our children, Deut. 29:29. 2. The manner of Christ’s preaching; he preached by parables; wise sayings, but figurative, and which help to engage attention and a diligent search. Solomon’s sententious dictates, which are full of similitudes, are called proverbs, or parables; it is the same word; but in this, as in other things, Behold a greater than Solomon is here, in whom are hid treasures of wisdom.
II. The parable of the tares, and the exposition of it; they must be taken together, for the exposition explains the parable and the parable illustrates the exposition.
Observe, 1. The disciples’ request to their Master to have this parable expounded to them (Matt. 13:36); Jesus sent the multitude away; and it is to be feared many of them went away no wiser than they came; they had heard a sound of words, and that was all. It is sad to think how many go away from sermons without the word of grace in their hearts. Christ went into the house, not so much for his own repose, as for particular converse with his disciples, whose instruction he chiefly intended in all his preaching. He was ready to do good in all places; the disciples laid hold on the opportunity, and they came to him. Note, Those who would be wise for every thing else, must be wise to discern and improve their opportunities, especially of converse with Christ, of converse with him alone, in secret meditation and prayer. It is very good, when we return from the solemn assembly, to talk over what we have heard there, and by familiar discourse to help one another to understand and remember it, and to be affected with it; for we lose the benefit of many a sermon by vain and unprofitable discourse after it. See Luke 24:32; Deut. 6:6, 7. It is especially good, if it may be, to ask of the ministers of the word the meaning of the word, for their lips should keep knowledge, Mal. 2:7. Private conference would contribute much to our profiting by public preaching. Nathan’s Thou art the man, was that which touched David to the heart.
The disciples’ request to their Master was, Declare unto us the parable of the tares. This implied an acknowledgement of their ignorance, which they were not ashamed to make. It is probable they apprehended the general scope of the parable, but they desired to understand it more particularly, and to be assured that they took it right. Note, Those are rightly disposed for Christ’s teaching, that are sensible of their ignorance, and sincerely desirous to be taught. He will teach the humble (Ps. 25:8, 9), but will for this be enquired of. If any man lack instruction, let him ask it of God. Christ had expounded the foregoing parable unasked, but for the exposition of this they ask him. Note, The mercies we have received must be improved, both for direction what to pray for, and for our encouragement in prayer. The first light and the first grace are given in a preventing way, further degrees of both which must be daily prayed for.
2. The exposition Christ gave of the parable, in answer to their request; so ready is Christ to answer such desires of his disciples. Now the drift of the parable is, to represent to us the present and future state of the kingdom of heaven, the gospel church: Christ’s care of it, the devil’s enmity against it, the mixture that there is in it of good and bad in the other world. Note, The visible church is the kingdom of heaven; though there be many hypocrites in it, Christ rules in it as a King; and there is a remnant in it, that are the subjects and heirs of heaven, from whom, as the better part, it is denominated: the church is the kingdom of heaven upon earth.
Let us go over the particulars of the exposition of the parable.
(1.) He that sows the good seed is the Son of man. Jesus Christ is the Lord of the field, the Lord of the harvest, the Sower of good seed. When he ascended on high, he gave gifts to the world; not only good ministers, but other good men. Note, Whatever good seed there is in the world, it all comes from the hand of Christ, and is of his sowing: truths preached, graces planted, souls sanctified, are good seed, and all owing to Christ. Ministers are instruments in Christ’s hand to sow good seed; are employed by him and under him, and the success of their labours depends purely upon his blessing; so that it may well be said, It is Christ, and no other, that sows the good seed; he is the Son of man, one of us, that his terror might not make us afraid; the Son of man, the Mediator, and that has authority.
(2.) The field is the world; the world of mankind, a large field, capable of bringing forth good fruit; the more is it to be lamented that it brings forth so much bad fruit: the world here is the visible church, scattered all the world over, not confined to one nation. Observe, In the parable it is called his field; the world is Christ’s field, for all things are delivered unto him of the Father: whatever power and interest the devil has in the world, it is usurped and unjust; when Christ comes to take possession, he comes whose right it is; it is his field, and because it is his he took care to sow it with good seed.
(3.) The good seed are the children of the kingdom, true saints. They are, [1.] The children of the kingdom; not in profession only, as the Jews were (Matt. 8:12), but in sincerity; Jews inwardly, Israelites indeed, incorporated in faith and obedience to Jesus Christ the great King of the church. [2.] They are the good seed, precious as seed, Ps. 126:6. The seed is the substance of the field; so the holy seed, Isa. 6:13. The seed is scattered, so are the saints; dispersed, here one and there another, though in some places thicker sown than in others. The seed is that from which fruit is expected; what fruit of honour and service God has from this world he has from the saints, whom he has sown unto himself in the earth, Hos. 2:23.
(4.) The tares are the children of the wicked one. Here is the character of sinners, hypocrites, and all profane and wicked people. [1.] They are the children of the devil, as a wicked one. Though they do not own his name, yet they bear his image, do his lusts, and from him they have their education; he rules over them, he works in them, Eph. 2:2; John 8:44. [2.] They are tares in the field of this world; they do no good, they do hurt; unprofitable in themselves, and hurtful to the good seed, both by temptation and persecution: they are weeds in the garden, have the same rain, and sunshine, and soil, with the good plants, but are good for nothing: the tares are among the wheat. Note, God has so ordered it, that good and bad should be mixed together in this world, that the good may be exercised, the bad left inexcusable, and a difference made between earth and heaven.
(5.) The enemy that sowed the tares is the devil; a sworn enemy to Christ and all that is good, to the glory of the good God, and the comfort and happiness of all good men. He is an enemy to the field of the world, which he endeavours to make his own, by sowing his tares in it. Ever since he became a wicked spirit himself, he has been industrious to promote wickedness, and has made it his business, aiming therein to counterwork Christ.
Now concerning the sowing of the tares, observe in the parable,
[1.] That they were sown while men slept. Magistrates slept, who by their power, ministers slept, who by their preaching, should have prevented this mischief. Note, Satan watches all opportunities, and lays hold of all advantages, to propagate vice and profaneness. The prejudice he does to particular persons is when reason and conscience sleep, when they are off their guard; we have therefore need to be sober, and vigilant. It was in the night, for that is the sleeping time. Note, Satan rules in the darkness of this world; that gives him an opportunity to sow tares, Ps. 104:20. It was while men slept; and there is no remedy but men must have some sleeping time. Note, It is as impossible for us to prevent hypocrites being in the church, as it is for the husbandman, when he is asleep, to hinder an enemy from spoiling his field.
[2.] The enemy, when he had sown the tares, went his way (Matt. 13:25), that it might not be known who did it. Note, When Satan is doing the greatest mischief, he studies most to conceal himself; for his design is in danger of being spoiled if he be seen in it; and therefore, when he comes to sow tares, he transforms himself into an angel of light, 2 Cor. 11:13, 14. He went his way, as if he had done no harm; such is the way of the adulterous woman, Prov. 30:20. Observe, Such is the proneness of fallen man to sin, that if the enemy sow the tares, he may even go his way, they will spring up of themselves and do hurt; whereas, when good seed is sown, it must be tended, watered, and fenced, or it will come to nothing.
[3.] The tares appeared not till the blade sprung up, and brought forth fruit, Matt. 13:26. There is a great deal of secret wickedness in the hearts of men, which is long hid under the cloak of a plausible profession, but breaks out at last. As the good seed, so the tares, lie a great while under the clods, and at first springing up, it is hard to distinguish them; but when a trying time comes, when fruit is to be brought forth, when good is to be done that has difficulty and hazard attending it, then you will return and discern between the sincere and the hypocrite: then you may say, This is wheat, and that is tares.
[4.] The servants, when they were aware of it, complained to their master (Matt. 13:27); Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? No doubt he did; whatever is amiss in the church, we are sure it is not of Christ: considering the seed which Christ sows, we may well ask, with wonder, Whence should these tares come? Note, The rise of errors, the breaking out of scandals, and the growth of profaneness, are matter of great grief to all the servants of Christ; especially to his faithful ministers, who are directed to complain of it to him whose the field is. It is sad to see such tares, such weeds, in the garden of the Lord; to see the good soil wasted, the good seed choked, and such a reflection cast on the name and honour of Christ, as if his field were no better than the field of the slothful, all grown over with thorns.
[5.] The Master was soon aware whence it was (Matt. 13:28); An enemy has done this. He does not lay the blame upon the servants; they could not help it, but had done what was in their power to prevent it. Note, The ministers of Christ, that are faithful and diligent, shall not be judged of Christ, and therefore should not be reproached by men, for the mixtures of bad with good, hypocrites with the sincere, in the field of the church. It must needs be that such offences will come; and they shall not be laid to our charge, if we do our duty, though it have not the desired success. Though they sleep, if they do not love sleep; though tares be sown, if they do not sow them nor water them, nor allow of them, the blame shall not lie at their door.
[6.] The servants were very forward to have these tares rooted up. “Wilt thou that we go and do it presently?” Note, The over-hasty and inconsiderate zeal of Christ’s servants, before they have consulted with their Master, is sometimes ready, with the hazard of the church, to root out all that they presume to be tares: Lord, wilt thou that we call for fire from heaven?
[7.] The Master very wisely prevented this (Matt. 13:29); Nay, lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Note, It is not possible for any man infallibly to distinguish between tares and wheat, but he may be mistaken; and therefore such is the wisdom and grace of Christ, that he will rather permit the tares, than any way endanger the wheat. It is certain, scandalous offenders are to be censured, and we are to withdraw from them; those who are openly the children of the wicked one, are not to be admitted to special ordinances; yet it is possible there may be a discipline, either so mistaken in its rules, or so over-nice in the application of them, as may prove vexatious to many that are truly godly and conscientious. Great caution and moderation must be used in inflicting and continuing church censures, lest the wheat be trodden down, if not plucked up. The wisdom from above, as it is pure, so it is peaceable, and those who oppose themselves must not be cut off, but instructed, and with meekness, 2 Tim. 2:25. The tares, if continued under the means of grace, may become good corn; therefore have patience with them.
(6.) The harvest is the end of the world, Matt. 13:39. This world will have an end; though it continue long, it will not continue always; time will shortly be swallowed up in eternity. At the end of the world, there will be a great harvest-day, a day of judgment; at harvest all is ripe and ready to be cut down: both good and bad are ripe at the great-day, Rev. 6:11. It is the harvest of the earth, Rev. 14:15. At harvest the reapers cut down all before them; not a field, not a corner, is left behind; so at the great day all must be judged (Rev. 20:12, 13); God has set a harvest (Hos. 6:11), and it shall not fail, Gen. 8:22. At harvest every man reaps as he sowed; every man’s ground, and seed, and skill, and industry, will be manifested: see Gal. 6:7, 8. Then they who sowed precious seed, will come again with rejoicing (Ps. 126:5, 6), with the joy of harvest (Isa. 9:3); when the sluggard, who would not plough by reason of cold, shall beg, and have nothing (Prov. 20:4); shall cry, Lord, Lord, but in vain; when the harvest of those who sowed to the flesh, shall be a day of grief, and of desperate sorrow, Isa. 17:11.
(7.) The reapers are the angels: they shall be employed, in the great day, in executing Christ’s righteous sentences, both of approbation and condemnation, as ministers of his justice, Matt. 25:31. The angels are skilful, strong, and swift, obedient servants to Christ, holy enemies to the wicked, and faithful friends to all the saints, and therefore fit to be thus employed. He that reapeth receiveth wages, and the angels will not be unpaid for their attendance; for he that soweth, and he that reapeth, shall rejoice together (John 4:36); that is joy in heaven in the presence of the angels of God.
(8.) Hell-torments are the fire, into which the tares shall then be cast, and in which they shall be burned. At the great day a distinction will be made, and with it a vast difference; it will be a notable day indeed.
[1.] The tares will then be gathered out: The reapers (whose primary work it is to gather in the corn) shall be charged first to gather out the tares. Note, Though good and bad are together in this world undistinguished, yet at the great day they shall be parted; no tares shall then be among the wheat; no sinners among the saints: then you shall plainly discern between the righteous and the wicked, which here sometimes it is hard to do, Mal. 3:18; 4:1. Christ will not bear always, Ps. 50:1 They shall gather out of his kingdom all wicked things that offend, and all wicked persons that do iniquity: when he begins, he will make a full end. All those corrupt doctrines, worships, and practices, which have offended, have been scandals to the church, and stumbling-blocks to men’s consciences, shall be condemned by the righteous Judge in that day, and consumed by the brightness of his coming; all the wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:12); and then woe to them that do iniquity, that make a trade of it, and persist in it; not only those in the last age of Christ’s kingdom upon earth, but those in every age. Perhaps here is an allusion to Zeph. 1:3; I will consume the stumbling-blocks with the wicked.
[2.] They will then be bound in bundles, Matt. 13:30. Sinners of the same sort will be bundled together in the great day: a bundle of atheists, a bundle of epicures, a bundle of persecutors, and a great bundle of hypocrites. Those who have been associates in sin, will be so in shame and sorrow; and it will be an aggravation of their misery, as the society of glorified saints will add to their bliss. Let us pray, as David, Lord, gather not my soul with sinners (Ps. 26:9), but let it be bound in the bundle of life, with the Lord our God, 1 Sam. 25:29. [3.] They will be cast into a furnace of fire; such will be the end of wicked, mischievous people, that are in the church as tares in the field; they are fit for nothing but fire; to it they shall go, it is the fittest place for them. Note, Hell is a furnace of fire, kindled by the wrath of God, and kept burning by the bundles of tares cast into it, who will be ever in the consuming, but never consumed. But he slides out of the metaphor into a description of those torments that are designed to be set forth by it: There shall be weeping, and gnashing of teeth; comfortless sorrow, and an incurable indignation at God, themselves, and one another, will be the endless torture of damned souls. Let us therefore, knowing these terrors of the Lord, be persuaded not to do iniquity.
(9.) Heaven is the barn into which all God’s wheat shall be gathered in that harvest-day. But gather the wheat into my barn: so it is in the parable, Matt. 13:30. Note, [1.] In the field of this world good people are the wheat, the most precious grain, and the valuable part of the field. [2.] This wheat shall shortly be gathered, gathered from among the tares and weeds: all gathered together in a general assembly, all the Old-Testament saints, all the New-Testament saints, not one missing. Gather my saints together unto me, Ps. 50:5. [3.] All God’s wheat shall be lodged together in God’s barn: particular souls are housed at death as a shock of corn (Job 5:26), but the general in-gathering will be at the end of time: God’s wheat will then be put together, and no longer scattered; there will be sheaves of corn, as well as bundles of tares: they will then be secured, and no longer exposed to wind and weather, sin and sorrow: no longer afar off, and at a great distance, in the field, but near, in the barn. Nay, heaven is a garner (Matt. 3:12), in which the wheat will not only be separated from the tares of ill companions, but sifted from the chaff of their own corruptions.
In the explanation of the parable, this is gloriously represented (Matt. 13:43); Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. First, It is their present honour, that God is their Father. Now are we the sons of God (1 John 3:2); our Father in heaven is King there. Christ, when he went to heaven, went to his Father, and our Father, John 20:17. It is our Father’s house, nay, it is our Father’s palace, his throne, Rev. 3:21. Secondly, The honour in reserve for them is, that they shall shine forth as the sun in that kingdom. Here they are obscure and hidden (Col. 3:3), their beauty is eclipsed by their poverty, and the meanness of their outward condition; their own weaknesses and infirmities, and the reproach and disgrace cast upon them, cloud them; but then they shall shine forth as the sun from behind a dark cloud; at death they shall shine forth to themselves; at the great day they will shine forth publicly before all the world, their bodies will be made like Christ’s glorious body: they shall shine by reflection, with a light borrowed from the Fountain of light; their sanctification will be perfected, and their justification published; God will own them for his children, and will produce the record of all their services and sufferings for his name: they shall shine as the sun, the most glorious of all visible beings. The glory of the saints is in the Old Testament compared to that of the firmament and the stars, but here to that of the sun; for life and immortality are brought to a much clearer light by the gospel, than under the law. Those who shine as lights in this world, that God may be glorified, shall shine as the sun in the other world, that they may be glorified. Our Saviour concludes, as before, with a demand of attention; Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. These are things which it is our happiness to hear of, and our duty to hearken to.
III. Here is the parable of the grain of mustard-seed, Matt. 13:31, 32. The scope of this parable is to show, that the beginnings of the gospel would be small, but that its latter end would greatly increase. In this way the gospel church, the kingdom of God among us, would be set up in the world; in this way the work of grace in the heart, the kingdom of God within us, would be carried on in particular persons.
Now concerning the work of the gospel, observe,
1. That it is commonly very weak and small at first, like a grain of mustard-seed, which is one of the least of all seeds. The kingdom of the Messiah, which was now in the setting up, made but a small figure; Christ and the apostles, compared with the grandees of the world, appeared like a grain of mustard-seed, the weak things of the world. In particular places, the first breaking out of the gospel light is but as the dawning of the day; and in particular souls, it is at first the day of small things, like a bruised reed. Young converts are like lambs that must be carried in his arms, Isa. 40:11. There is a little faith, but there is much lacking in it (1 Thess. 3:10), and the groanings such as cannot be uttered, they are so small; a principle of spiritual life, and some motion, but scarcely discernible.
2. That yet it is growing and coming on. Christ’s kingdom strangely got ground; great accessions were made to it; nations were born at once, in spite of all the oppositions it met with from hell and earth. In the soul where grace is true it will grow really, though perhaps insensibly. A grain of mustard-seed is small, but however it is seed, and has in it a disposition to grow. Grace will be getting ground, shining more and more, Prov. 4:18. Gracious habits confirmed, actings quickened, and knowledge more clear, faith more confirmed, love more inflamed; here is the seed growing.
3. That it will at last come to a great degree of strength and usefulness; when it is grown to some maturity, it becomes a tree, much larger in those countries than in ours. The church, like the vine brought out of Egypt, has taken root, and filled the earth, Ps. 80:9-11. The church is like a great tree, in which the fowls of the air do lodge; God’s people have recourse to it for food and rest, shade and shelter. In particular persons, the principle of grace, if true, will persevere and be perfected at last: growing grace will be strong grace, and will bring much to pass. Grown Christians must covet to be useful to others, as the mustard-seed when grown is to the birds; that those who dwell near or under their shadow may be the better for them, Hos. 14:7.
IV. Here is the parable of the leaven, Matt. 13:33. The scope of this is much the same with that of the foregoing parable, to show that the gospel should prevail and be successful by degrees, but silently and insensibly; the preaching of the gospel is like leaven, and works like leaven in the hearts of those who receive it.
1. A woman took this leaven; it was her work. Ministers are employed in leavening places, in leavening souls, with the gospel. The woman is the weaker vessel, and we have this treasure in such vessels.
2. The leaven was hid in three measures of meal. The heart is, as the meal, soft and pliable; it is the tender heart that is likely to profit by the word: leaven among corn unground does not work, nor does the gospel in souls unhumbled and unbroken for sin: the law grinds the heart, and then the gospel leavens it. It is three measures of meal, a great quantity, for a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. The meal must be kneaded, before it receive the leaven; our hearts, as they must be broken, so they must be moistened, and pains taken with them to prepare them for the word, that they may receive the impressions of it. The leaven must be hid in the heart (Ps. 119:11), not so much for secrecy (for it will show itself) as for safety; our inward thought must be upon it, we must lay it up, as Mary laid up the sayings of Christ, Luke 2:51. When the woman hides the leaven in the meal, it is with an intention that it should communicate its taste and relish to it; so we must treasure up the word in our souls, that we may be sanctified by it, John 17:17.
3. The leaven thus hid in the dough, works there, it ferments; the word is quick and powerful, Heb. 4:12. The leaven works speedily, so does the word, and yet gradually. What a sudden change did Elijah’s mantle make upon Elisha! 1 Kgs. 19:20. It works silently and insensibly (Mark 4:26), yet strongly and irresistibly: it does its work without noise, for so is the way of the Spirit, but does it without fail. Hide but the leaven in the dough, and all the world cannot hinder it from communicating its taste and relish to it, and yet none sees how it is done, but by degrees the whole is leavened.
(1.) Thus it was in the world. The apostles, by their preaching, hid a handful of leaven in the great mass of mankind, and it had a strange effect; it put the world into a ferment, and in a sense turned it upside down (Acts 17:6), and by degrees made a wonderful change in the taste and relish of it: the savour of the gospel was manifested in every place, 2 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 15:19. It was thus effectual, not by outward force, and therefore not by any such force resistible and conquerable, but by the Spirit of the Lord of hosts, who works, and none can hinder.
(2.) Thus it is in the heart. When the gospel comes into the soul, [1.] It works a change, not in the substance; the dough is the same, but in the quality; it makes us to savour otherwise than we have done, and other things to savour with us otherwise than they used to do, Rom. 8:5. [2.] It works a universal change; it diffuses itself into all the powers and faculties of the soul, and alters the property even of the members of the body, Rom. 6:13. [3.] This change is such as makes the soul to partake of the nature of the word, as the dough does of the leaven. We are delivered into it as into a mould (Rom. 6:17), changed into the same image (2 Cor. 3:18), like the impression of the seal upon the wax. The gospel savours of God, and Christ, and free grace, and another world, and these things now relish with the soul. It is a word of faith and repentance, holiness and love, and these are wrought in the soul by it. This savour is communicated insensibly, for our life is hid; but inseparably, for grace is a good part that shall never be taken away from those who have it. When the dough is leavened, then to the oven with it; trials and afflictions commonly attend this change; but thus saints are fitted to be bread for our Master’s table.