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Matthew 13:36-43 meaning

Jesus explains the meaning of the parable of the wheat and the tares. It is parable about what happens to the faithful sons of the kingdom and the unfaithful sons of the evil one at their respective judgments.

This teaching is unparalleled in the other gospel accounts.

Matthew narrates that Jesus left the crowds and went into the house after He taught the parables of "the sower," "the tares of the field," "the mustard seed," and "the leaven." Once in the house His disciples (v 36) approached Him and asked Him to explain to them the meaning of the parable of the tares in the field (v 36). Jesus agreed to their request, and commences to explain the parable of the tares.

The parable is a prophecy of the future. Both the parable and Jesus's explanation seem to be multi-dimensional. The parable's prophecy describes the end of an era and an important moment in the establishment of Christ's kingdom. Depending on how Jesus was received by the Jews, it appears that there were two possible ways this prophecy could have been fulfilled. One was an almost immediate, near-future fulfillment during the lifetime of the disciples. The other was a more distant-future fulfillment. Acknowledging that there were two possible fulfillment scenarios is key to understanding how the disciples heard and thought about the parable of the tares in the field (v 36) and what it now means for us. Jesus's prophetic explanation fits both scenarios, and will fit the second possible scenario.

We will begin by looking at what Jesus says about the meaning of each of the parable's elements and events. And then consider the near-future fulfillment, which was likely how the disciples understood it, before considering the possible distant-future fulfillment and its implications for us.

In this parable Jesus distinguishes between the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one (v 38). Whether it has a near or far-fulfillment, the most apparent application is that it will not necessarily be obvious to humans who is righteous and who is evil during our time on this earth. But God knows. And He will judge accordingly. All things will be brought to light. As Paul states in Galatians "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7).

Jesus began His explanation of the parable of the tares by revealing what seven of the parable's elements represent as they pertain to the kingdom of heaven. After He does this Jesus explained the symbolic meaning of the parable's actions and events.

The first element Jesus described was the sower. He said, the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man (v 37). The term Son of Man was a reference to the Messiah (Daniel 7:13). It was a term Jesus often used when referring to Himself as the Messiah (Matthew 9:6, 11:19, 12:8, 16:13, 17:22, 19:28, 20:18, 26:45). When these references are taken into account as the disciples would have understood them, Jesus was likely teaching that He is the Messiah who sows the good seed (v 37).

Interestingly, Jesus does not identify the landowner in the parable. But considering the context and Jesus's other explanations, it seems that the Landowner is God, the Father. He is the owner of the entire earth (Psalm 50:12).

The second element Jesus described was the field. The field is the world (v 38). This explanation is straightforward. The world is simply this world. It is the time and place we inhabit and the circumstances we encounter in this life. There will be two categories of inhabitants on the earth in this parable, represented by the good seed and the bad seed. God's kingdom will be established for a time in this world at the end of the age (v 40).

The third element Jesus described was the good seed. In the parable the good seed eventually grew into wheat, which was the crop that the sower wished to produce. Jesus explained that the good seed symbolized the sons of the kingdom. The sons of the kingdom are considered good, because they mature and produce the good fruit that the sower intended for them to yield.

We will explain who these sons of the kingdom might be further down this commentary.

The fourth element Jesus described was the tares. In His parable, the tares were in contrast to the wheat seed. And in His explanation, what the tares represent contrasts with what the good seed represents. As the good seed represents the sons of the kingdom, the tares represent the sons of the evil one (v 38).

The fifth element Jesus described from this parable was the enemy. He explained that the enemy who sowed the tares is the devil ("Diabolos") (v 39). Diabolos is the same term Matthew used when he narrated the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The devil is Lucifer, the fallen archangel (Isaiah 14:12), the enemy of God. In Jesus's telling of the parable, the landowner said the tares were sown by "an enemy" (Matthew 13:28). The enemy of God is Satan (Psalm 8:2).

The sixth element Jesus described was the harvest. It represents the end of the age (v 40). The "when" of these moments have more of a matter of ripeness or readiness to them than a mechanical countdown of the clock. The harvest describes God's judgment at the end of the age.

We will explain what Jesus means by end of the age further down in this commentary.

The seventh and final element Jesus described in this parable is the reapers. These are God's angels. Angels here likely refer to supernatural lifeforms who were created to serve God and perform His will. The task of the reapers is to gather the crops at the time of the harvest.

After Jesus identified the various elements of the parable of the tares in the field (v 36), He then explained its events. So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age when the Son of Man will send forth His angels to gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire (vv 40-42). Jesus concluded His explanation by saying that the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (v 43). These remarks have strong overtones of Daniel's prophecy:

"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. And those who have insight will shine like the glow of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever."
(Daniel 12:2-3)

It is interesting to note that when the angels reap the harvest at the judgement, the tares are gathered up and taken out of the field to be burned with fire in a furnace of fire, while the crop of the good seed is left behind (vv 40-42). Normally in the Bible, the righteous are delivered out of a place that will be judged, as with Noah in the instance of the flood (Genesis 7:1-4) or with Lot in the instance of Sodom (Genesis 19:15). But in this instance the wicked are the ones who are removed. This removal of the unrighteous that will take place at the end of the age when the Son of Man will send forth His angels to gather these tares out of His kingdom (vv 40-41).

The sons of the kingdom will remain in the kingdom, and the wicked ones will have been cleansed out. This depiction seems to indicate that Jesus's kingdom is either in the process of being inaugurated on earth or has already come to earth and is being purified. In any case, Jesus will do some house cleaning. He will rid His kingdom of the unrighteous sons of the evil one (v 38). He will remove from His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness (v 41).

The two categories Jesus assigned for the tares cover the full range of wickedness from legalism (stumbling block) to licentiousness (lawlessness), and everything in between.

Stumbling blocks hinder or harm those walking the path. They symbolize legalism's hinderances and dangers that are in the way of those trying to walk the paths of righteousness. Even though they are in the path, stumbling blocks can sometimes be difficult to notice or hard to see. Legalism has an appearance of righteousness, but it leads to ruin. This category of tare is a sort that carries themselves as being exceedingly religious. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose this illustration, where the difference between wheat and tares is not apparent for a long while; it is not until the time of harvest that you can tell the tares do not have fruit, while the wheat does. Legalists tend to be very outwardly-religious people. And though their behavior might cause them to appear to be authentic sons of the kingdom for a time, they are not good, they are really toxic tares.

The second description that Jesus gave for tares was those who commit lawlessness (v 41). This could also be like a Pharisee, who abuses people through manipulation of rules, thereby violating the spirit of the law (Matthew 23). Or it could be someone who is a slave to their own appetites and passions, and exploits themselves and others through pagan practice (1 Peter 4:3).

It appears that Jesus will be setting up His kingdom and sweeping out all these stumbling blocks and lawless persons. Instead of being in the kingdom, they will be thrown in a furnace of fire. The sons of the kingdom will remain in the kingdom. The sons of the evil one will have been cleansed out.

Fire generally represents God's judgement in scripture. The furnace of fire would be a place of judgement. The ultimate place of judgement for unbelievers will be the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15), where also death and Hades are cast. It appears there will be degrees of judgement, as Jesus indicated some judgements of the wicked would be more tolerable than others (Mathew 10:15). Every person who does not believe on Jesus will be judged, and are already judged because they have not believed on Jesus (John 3:18, Revelation 20:15).

God's judgement fire also applies to believers (1 Corinthians 3:11-15, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 20:12). However, God's judgement fire will refine believers rather than consume them. God will evaluate the deeds of believers—those who do belong to Him—and reward them for their faithfulness, or lack of faithfulness. The apostle Paul describes this judgment as "the Bema" or "Judgment Seat of Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:10). Paul describes this judgement also being as with fire. However, this judgment fire applies to the deeds, rather than the person (1 Corinthians 3:15).

While a fiery judgment awaits the tares who are removed, a good reward awaits those who remain in the kingdom. Those remaining are the good seed, the righteous sons of the kingdom (v 38). They will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (v 43). Their brilliance is symbolic of the immense glory they will have for their faithfulness to the King while they were in the world.

Jesus's explanation of the judgment between the righteous sons of the kingdom (v 38) and the wicked sons of the evil one has some similarities to the vision that the Lord gave the prophet Jeremiah just before Judah's final destruction and exile to Babylon (Jeremiah 24:1-10). In Jeremiah's vision, the division is not between good wheat and bad tares, but between good and bad figs. The good figs are in one basket and the bad figs are in another (Jeremiah 24:2-4). The good figs will be carried away to Babylon for a time where they will prosper and grow in their love for God (Jeremiah 24:5-7). The bad figs will remain in Judah and face utter destruction as they abandon God (Jeremiah 24:8-10). Jeremiah's vision of the good and bad figs occurred as he prophesied. It can serve as a kind of preview of what the final harvest Jesus described in the parable of the tares (v 36).

Now that we have looked at what Jesus said each element represented in the parable of the tares of the field, and His summary of its events, we can consider its near-future and distant-future fulfillments.

The two most important terms in Jesus's explanation are sons of the kingdom and end of the age. Both terms mean something a little different in each fulfillment scenario.

The Near-Future Fulfillment

The near-future fulfillment concerns what would have happened had the first generation of Jews alive during Christ's coming accepted Jesus as the Messiah, instead of rejecting Him.

It is important to remember that Jesus came to offer the kingdom (Matthew 4:23). When He preached the call to "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17), Jesus's friends and enemies alike understood Him to mean that that the kingdom was literally about to begin. The Pharisees and Sadducees warned Pilate that Jesus's claims to be the Kingly Messiah was an affront to Caesar's earthly reign (Luke 23:1-2). The disciples seemed to believe that the kingdom would suddenly appear, at least up to the moment before Jesus's ascension (Acts 1:6).

Throughout His ministry, Jesus never seemed to challenge or correct these assumptions. He let them stand—and on several occasions He seemed to affirm them. When He sent the disciples out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel to preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 10:6-7), Jesus told them "for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes" (Matthew 10:23). In another instance He told the crowds, "If you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come [before the Messiah]" (Matthew 11:14). And Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for trying to hush the crowds' Messianic shouts of praise as He rode into Jerusalem during His triumphal entry (Luke 19:39-40). Jesus's words, actions, and silence all indicate that had the Jews accepted Him as their Messiah He was prepared to begin the kingdom immediately.

It even appears that for a time after His ascension into Heaven that there was still a possibility for an immediate inauguration of the kingdom if the Jews would repent of rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and receive Him. This seemed to be a point of emphasis during Peter's message to the Jews at Solomon's portico.

"Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time."
(Acts 3:19-21)

For his part, Paul marveled that the blindness of the Jews during that first generation (which caused them to reject Jesus) has resulted in an enormous benefit for the Gentiles (Romans 11:11-12, 32).

The near-future fulfillment of this prophecy would have been completely in line with the disciples' expectations of Jesus and the gospel of His kingdom. When they heard Jesus explain to them the parable of the tares of the field (v 36), they would have anticipated that the end of the age harvest would take place within their normal lifespan (if they were not first killed in the "revolution").

They likely would have understood Jesus's phrase the end of the age to mean: "the end of the current era of Roman rule"; or "the end of the pre-Messianic age." This understanding is possibly reflected in Matthew's wording in verse 40. When Matthew quoted Jesus describing the harvest, he used the Greek pronoun "toutou" which means "this," instead of the definite article "tou" (translated "the" as was used in verse 39). A more literal translation of verse 40's description would read "the end of this age." The use of the "toutou" pronoun suggests that Jesus may have been specifying that the harvest would come about when a particular age or era came to an end.

Under the near-future scenario, the disciples would have understood Jesus's term sons of the kingdom to mean the Jews. Jesus came to earth as a Jewish Messiah. Jesus told the Syrophoenician woman that He was "sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24). And when He marveled at the Roman centurion for his great faith, Jesus described the Jews as sons of the kingdom (Matthew 8:10-12). The disciples naturally would have applied this term to their kindred brethren.

For His disciples, they believed that the time for the harvest was near, when the Son of Man would establish His kingdom on earth by sending forth His angels to gather all the unbelieving tares—all the sons of the evil one now among them—and throw them into the fiery furnace of God's judgment (v 42).

Jesus had described the tares as legalistic stumbling blocks and licentious persons who commit lawlessness (v 41). The disciples may have understood the stumbling blocks to be the unbelieving Pharisees and Sadducees whose rigid legalism had an appearance of righteousness but was in fact a burden too heavy to bear. Their acts of self-righteousness and stern demands turned people away from the heart of God's law and His kingdom. The disciples may have associated those who commit lawlessness with the unbelieving Herodians, who were half-Jewish by blood, but whose scandalously licentious lifestyle would make even pagan Caesar blush.

These tares would be thrown into the furnace of God's fiery judgment. Jesus said in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v 42). The weeping is an expression of terrible sorrow. The gnashing of teeth is an expression of intense bitterness and anger (Acts 7:54). The sons of the evil one (v 38) will express both over their banishment from the kingdom.

Readers may recall that when Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion's faith, He said that [some of] the sons of the kingdom will not recline at the banquet table in the kingdom but will be "cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (v 42) (Matthew 8:11-12).

Which raises a question: How is it that the sons of the evil one (v 38) and at least some of the sons of the kingdom will both experience and express similar emotions of sorrow and anger at their judgment?

In the Matthew 8 passage, Jesus warns, the sons of the kingdom (v 38) are still in the kingdom, but are excluded from the honor banquet being pictured (Matthew 8:12). The point Jesus makes in Matthew 8 is that there will be Gentiles who are honored much higher than Jews, because of their faith. The sons of the kingdom are chastised. They lose honor. But they are still sons of the kingdom.

The particular example that Jesus points to in Matthew 8 is the faith of the Roman centurion. There will be Gentiles at the seat of honor with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while some sons of the kingdom are excluded from the banquet, which is the picture of "outer darkness." A middle eastern honor banquet would occur in the cool of the evening. The brightest light would be at the center of the banquet. "Outer darkness" would be the lot of those who are not in attendance at all.

Those sons of the kingdom who are excluded from honor will be angry (gnashing of teeth), most likely at themselves, for missing the great opportunity to serve God during their life on earth. And they will be sorrowful (weeping) for having missed such a great opportunity. These sons of the kingdom are sorrowful, but they are still present in the kingdom. Jesus's point in Matthew 8 was not intended to be comprehensive statement or exhaustive treatise on kingdom come. It was to make a specific point. The main point of Jesus's teaching in this Matthew 8 passage was that faith was what gained people great rewards, and secondarily that there would be Gentiles honored above Jews in the kingdom because they had greater faith. Jesus's purpose was to encourage His Jewish followers to learn from the great faith of the Roman centurion.

How then can there be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v 42) in the kingdom among the wheat/sons of the kingdom (v 38) as well as in the furnace of fire among the tares/sons of the evil one? (v 38).

The likely answer is that the sons of the kingdom (v 38) are sorrowfully weeping and gnashing in anger over different things from what the tares will weep and gnash over. The world has an anger, and sorrow. We can see in Revelation that those who oppose Jesus are angry at Him, and weep because of the pain they have. But there is no repentance (Revelation 6:16). On the other hand, Peter wept bitterly, and was exceedingly remorseful, but repented (Matthew 26:75, Luke 22:62). The unbelievers weep because they are God's enemies. The sons of the kingdom (v 38) weep because they have failed to please their King.

It is inferred from Jesus's parable of the tares that all sons of the kingdom will be inhabitants of Messiah's kingdom on earth. For the near-future fulfillment of this parable, the sons of the kingdom (v 38) would have been the remnant of faithful Jews who believed Jesus was their Messiah during the first advent of Jesus's appearing on the earth.

However, the near-future scenario did not occur. Although we are not given specifics, it seems that its window of fulfillment was closed during or at the end of that first generation of Jews alive during Jesus's first coming.

The Distant-Future Fulfillment

The distant-future fulfillment concerns what will happened now that the first generation of Jews alive during Christ's coming rejected Jesus as the Messiah instead of accepting Him.

The same predicted events will unfold, but with a somewhat different context as compared to the near-future scenario. The main distinctions touch upon the two key terms of Jesus's explanation: the end of the age (v 40) and the sons of the kingdom (v 38).

The term, the end of the age (v 40), could have two functional meanings in the distant-future scenario.

First, the end of the age (v 40) could simply refer to the end of all ages. It could generally refer to the end of life on this earth as humans have known it since Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden. Or Jesus could be more specific in His meaning and be speaking about the end of this ("toutou") current age—i.e. the era of human history we are presently in. This current age is also sometimes called "the age of the Gentiles" because it is when God's plan of redemption began to visibly spread and thrive among non-Jewish peoples.

The age of the Gentiles began roughly at the same time when the generation of Jews perished who were alive during Jesus's ministry. The age of the Gentiles will come to an end when the Messiah returns a second time to earth, this time to physically establish His kingdom. Given our current station in history, there is little difference to us whether Jesus generally meant "the end of all ages" or specifically the end of the current age, because as best we can tell, we are in the final era of human history before Christ's return. For those of us living in the current age, it is like we are in the fourth quarter of a sports contest. The end of the quarter means the end of the contest.

If this is the case, then practically speaking this means that in certain respects, we live under a similar set of conditions that the Jews of Jesus's time lived. The kingdom is at hand. The harvest could commence at any moment. And we should live with urgency to prepare both ourselves and conduct our affairs in such a way as to be found worthy of our King (Matthew 24:42, Matthew 25:13, Luke 21:36).

The term the end of the age (v 40), could also refer to a specific age or moment within the end times themselves. Revelation 20 describes an extended period of time when Satan will be bound up for a thousand years, before being released again (Revelation 20:1-6). Presumably there will be people during this particular era who do not trust or love God, but who seem to follow Him, because it is the cultural norm. They will appear to be righteous, like a tare appears to be good wheat.

The term, sons of the kingdom (v 38) can also apply to Gentiles. As the age of the Jews changed to the age of the Gentiles, the term sons of the kingdom (v 38) broadened to include Gentile believers in Jesus as well as believing Jews. In a meaningful sense, Gentiles now have an opportunity to become sons of the kingdom (v 38).

This mystery was foreshadowed and prophesied throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 25:23, Ruth; Isaiah 56:3-8, Jeremiah 16:19-21, Malachi 1:11, Zechariah 2:11). It was hinted at in Jesus's ministry (Matthew 8:5-13, Matthew 15:21-31, Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 23:47, John 10:16). And it was revealed during the events of Acts, first with the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:27-40), then through Peter's vision and visitation to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10) and later by the missions of Paul and affirmed by the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Paul shared his insight about unfolding the Gospel mystery to the church of Ephesus.

"When you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit: to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."
(Ephesians 3:4-6)

Everyone now has an opportunity to be adopted into God's family by faith (John 1:11-12) and receive an inheritance as a son of the kingdom for being faithful to the king (Romans 8:16-18, 2 Timothy 2:12, 2 Peter 1:10-11). Sons of the kingdom (v 38) may apply to Gentile believers who are adopted as sons and grafted into God's forever-family (Romans 11).

In order to apply sons of the kingdom to Gentiles, in Jesus's explanation of the parable of the tares (v 36), it seems that the harvesting of the tares and throwing them into the fire would need to correlate with God judging Gentile unbelievers by defeating them in battle, and feeding them to the birds of prey (Revelation 19:17-21). However, it does not seem that all unbelievers on earth will be harvested out at that time, but only those in the great army gathered to oppose Jesus.

It seems to fit best for sons of the kingdom (v 38) in the distant future application to still only apply to believing Jews. Jesus's parable of the wheat and tares (v 36) would then have a prophetic application for Israel.

In Jesus's teaching about the Roman centurion, in Matthew 8:10-12, the faithful Gentiles being honored at the head table, along with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are not called "sons of the kingdom" (v 38). In that instance, Jesus referred to "sons of the kingdom" (v 38) as Jews. If we similarly take this parable of the wheat and tares (v 36) to apply only to Jews, it could explain a prediction from Romans 11 regarding Israel.

"For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,

(Romans 11:25-27)

It is possible that the way "all Israel will be saved" will be due to Israel having been swept clean of all unrighteousness by the gathering and burning of the tares, the seeds of the evil one (v 38). A righteous remnant of Israel will remain. This remnant of faithful Jews are the sons of the kingdom (v 38). This also aligns with God's promise in a beautiful prophecy from Zechariah.

"For there will be peace for the seed: the vine will yield its fruit, the land will yield its produce and the heavens will give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things. It will come about that just as you were a curse among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you that you may become a blessing. Do not fear; let your hands be strong."
(Zechariah 8:12-13)

If sons of the kingdom (v 38) refers only to believing Jews, and not Gentiles, then the difference for Israel between the near-future fulfillment and the distant-future fulfillment is primarily a matter of the time when the harvest will take place. This delayed fulfillment that created an extended period of time as Jesus has tarried His return. And this postponement has an enormous benefit and opportunity for blessing billions of people. Scripture notes that this extension of time has allowed a large number of Gentiles to be born physically, and blessed to have the opportunity to believe on Jesus and be born spiritually into His family (Romans 11:11-12, 2 Peter 3:9).

General Principles from the Parable of the Tares

The New Testament has a similar teaching to that of the parable of the wheat and tares that applies to all believers, including Gentiles.

  1. God is the true judge. We may be fooled by appearances, but God will not be fooled or mocked (Galatians 6:7). He will be able to rightly sift the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:41). All things will be brought to light, and all that is hidden will be revealed (Matthew 10:26).
  2. The Jews rejection of Jesus as the Messiah did not nullify this prophecy, but it delayed its fulfillment. Not all of Israel is truly Israel (Romans 9:6). And all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).
  3. God used the delayed fulfillment that was caused by the Jews' rejection of Jesus to bring salvation to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16, 11:11).
  4. Everyone will receive what they deserve at God's judgment (Galatians 6:7-8, 1 Corinthians 4:5). The wicked will face His wrath for the evil they have done (Matthew 13:41-42). The righteous will be rewarded and receive honor from God in His kingdom for their faithfulness (Matthew 13:43).

Jesus ended His explanation with the common admonition to pay attention and take His words to heart. He who has ears, let him hear (v 43).

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