Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
24. He put forth to them another parable, saying, The kingdom of heaven is compared to a man sowing good seed in his field. 25. But while men were asleep, his enemy came, and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. 26. And when the blade sprang up, and yielded fruit, then appeared also the tares. 27. And the servants of the household approaching, said to him, Lord, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? Whence then hath it tares? 207 28. And he said to them, An enemy 208 hath done this. And his servants said to him, Is it thy will then that we go away and gather them? 29. But he said, No; lest, while you are gathering the tares, you root out along with them the wheat also. 30. Allow both to grow together till the harvest; and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but collect the wheat into my barn. — (A little after.) 36. Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and came into the house, and his disciples approached him, saying, Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field. 37. But he answering, said to them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man. 38. And the field is the world. The good seed is the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of that wicked one. 39. And the enemy that soweth them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels. 40. So then as the tares are gathered, and are burned in the fire, so shall it be at the end of this world. 41. The Son of man will send his angels, and will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling-blocks, and those who commit iniquity. 42. And they will east them into a furnace of fire: there shall be lamentation and gnashing of teeth. 43. Then the righteous will shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
In order to reap the advantage of this parable, it is necessary to ascertain the object which Christ had in view. Some think that, to guard a mixed multitude against satisfying themselves with an outward profession of the Gospel, 209 he told them, that in his own field bad seed is often mixed with the good, but that a day is coming, when the tares shall be separated from the wheat. 210 They accordingly connect this parable with the one immediately preceding, as if the design of both had been the same. For my own part, I take a different view. He speaks of a separation, in order to prevent the minds of the godly from giving way to uneasiness or despondency, when they perceive a confused mixture of the good along with the bad. Although Christ has cleansed the Church with his own blood, that it may be without spot or blemish, yet hitherto he suffers it to be polluted by many stains. I speak not of the remaining infirmities of the flesh, to which every believer is liable, even after that he has been renewed by the Holy Spirit. But as soon as Christ has gathered a small flock for himself, many hypocrites mingle with it, persons of immoral lives creep in, nay, many wicked men insinuate themselves; in consequence of which, numerous stains pollute that holy assembly, which Christ has separated for himself. Many persons, too, look upon it as exceedingly absurd, that ungodly, or profane or unprincipled men should be cherished within the bosom of the Church. Add to this, that very many, under the pretense of zeal, are excessively displeased, when every thing is not conducted to their wish, and, because absolute purity is nowhere to be found, withdraw from the Church in a disorderly manner, or subvert and destroy it by unreasonable severity.
In my opinion, the design of the parable is simply this: So long as the pilgrimage of the Church in this world continues, bad men and hypocrites will mingle in it with those who are good and upright, that the children of God may be armed with patience and, in the midst of offenses which are fitted to disturb them, may preserve unbroken stedfastness of faith. It is an appropriate comparison, when the Lord calls the Church his field, for believers are the seed of it; and though Christ afterwards adds that the field is the world, yet he undoubtedly intended to apply this designation, in a peculiar manner, to the Church, about which he had commenced the discourse. But as he was about to drive his plough through every country of the world, so as to cultivate fields, and scatter the seed of life, throughout the whole world, he has employed a synecdoche, to make the world denote what more strictly belonged only to a part of it.
We must now inquire what he means by the wheat, and what by the tares These terms cannot be explained as referring to doctrine, as if the meaning had been that, when the Gospel is sown, it is immediately corrupted and adulterated by wicked inventions; for Christ would never have forbidden them to labor strenuously to purge out that kind of corruption. With respect to morals, those faults of men which cannot be corrected must be endured; but we are not at liberty to extend such a toleration to wicked errors, which corrupt the purity of faith. 211 Besides, Christ removes all doubt, by saying expressly, that the tares are the children of the wicked one And yet it must also be remarked, that this cannot be understood simply of the persons of men, as if by creation God sowed good men and the devil sowed bad men. I advert to this, because the present passage has been abused by the Manicheans, for the purpose of lending support to their notion of two principles. But we know that whatever sin exists, either in the devil or in men, is nothing else than the corruption of the whole nature. As it is not by creation that God makes his elect, who have been tainted with original sin, to become a good seed, but by regenerating them through the grace of his Spirit; so wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil, and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed.
37. He that soweth the good seed He had formerly said that the kingdom of heaven resembles a man sowing. The mode of expression is unusual, but plainly means, that the same thing happens with the preaching of the Gospel as usually takes place in the sowing of fields; the tares grow, up along with the wheat One peculiarity, however, is pointed out by him, when he says that the sowing of tares in the field was effected by the trick of an enemy. This is intended to inform us that, when many wicked men are mingled with believers, this is no accidental or natural occurrence, as if they were the same seed, but that we must learn to charge the blame of this evil on the devil. Not that, by condemning him, men are acquitted of guilt; but, in the first place, that no blame whatever may be laid on God on account of this fault which arose from the agency of another; and, secondly, that we may not be surprised to find tares frequently growing in the Lord’s field, since Satan is always on the watch to do mischief. Again, when Christ says, not that the ministers of the word sow, but that he alone sows, this is not without meaning; for though this cannot be supposed to be restricted to his person, yet as he makes use of our exertions, and employs us as his instruments, for cultivating his field, so that He alone acts by us and in us, he justly claims for himself what is, in some respects, common to his ministers. Let us, therefore, remember, that the Gospel is preached, not only by Christ’s command, but by his authority. and direction; in short, that we are only his hand, and that He alone is the Author of the work.
39. The harvest is the end of the world. This is, no doubt, a very distressing consideration, that the Church is burdened with the reprobate to the very end of the world; but Christ enjoins on us to exercise patience till that time, that we may not deceive ourselves with a vain hope. Pastors ought to labor strenuously to purify the Church; and all the godly, so far as their respective callings enable them, ought to lend assistance in this matter; but when all shall have devoted their united exertions to the general advantage, they will not succeed in such a manner as to purify the Church entirely from every defilement. Let us therefore hold, that nothing was farther from the design of Christ than to encourage pollution by lending countenance to it. All that he intended was, to exhort those who believed in him not to lose courage, because they are under the necessity of retaining wicked men among them; and, next, to restrain and moderate the zeal of those who fancy that they are not at liberty to join in a society with any but pure angels. 212
This passage has been most improperly abused by the Anabaptists, and by others like them, 213 to take from the Church the power of the sword. But it is easy to refute them; for since they approve of excommunication, which cuts off, at least for a time, the bad and reprobate, why may not godly magistrates, when necessity calls for it, use the sword against wicked men? They reply that, when the punishment is not capital, 214 there is room allowed for repentance; as if the thief on the cross (Lu 23:42) did not find the means of salvation. I shall satisfy myself with replying, that Christ does not now speak of the office of pastors or of magistrates, but removes the offense which is apt to disturb weak minds, when they perceive that the Church is composed not only of the elect, but of the polluted dregs of society.
The reapers are the angels. This term must be viewed in reference to the present subject. In another passage, the Apostles are called reapers, as compared with the Prophets, because they have entered into their labors, (Joh 4:38,) and it is enjoined on all the ministers of the word,
that they should bring forth fruit, and that their fruit should remain,
Such also is the import of that statement, that the fields are white, and are in want of reapers, (Joh 4:35;) and again, that
the harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few,
But here the comparison is applied in a different manner; for those who occupy a place in the Church are said to be planted in the Lord’s field. Nor is this inconsistent with what is said elsewhere, that Christ, as soon as he comes forth with his Gospel,
hath a winnowing-fan in his hand, and will thoroughly
cleanse his thrashing-floor, (Mt 3:12.)
These words describe the commencement of that cleansing, which, this passage declares, will not take place before the last day, because not till then will it be fully completed. Christ will put the last hand to the cleansing of the Church by means of angels, but he now begins to do the work by means of pious teachers. He assigns this office to angels, because they will not remain idle spectators before his tribunal, 215 but will hold themselves in readiness to execute his commands. It follows, that those who proceed, with undue haste, to root out whatever displeases them, prevent, as far as lies in their power, the sentence of Christ, deprive angels of their office, and rashly take that office on themselves.
41. They shall gather out of his kingdom all stumbling-blocks The words that follow, and those who commit iniquity, are added for the sake of exposition; for it is not intended to point out two different things, but to state, that then will be the full and seasonable time, when all things shall be restored to regular order, and when the wicked shall be removed, who are now stumbling-blocks. They are so called, because not only are their own lives wicked, but they undermine the faith of many, retard others in the right course, draw some entirely aside, and drive others headlong. We ought to draw from this a useful admonition, not to become indolent and careless on account of our being surrounded by so many stumbling-blocks, but to be zealous and active in guarding against them. It reproves also the effeminacy of those who are so delicate, that the smallest possible stumbling-blocks make them turn back. 216 It is difficult, I admit, not to stumble frequently, and even sometimes to fall, when stumbling-blocks without number lie across our path. But our minds ought to be fortified with confidence; for the Son of God, who commands his followers to walk in the midst of stumbling-blocks, will unquestionably give us strength to overcome them all. He pronounces likewise an awful punishment against any hypocrites and reprobate persons, who now appear to be the most distinguished citizens of the Church.
42. And shall cast them into a furnace of fire. This is a metaphorical expression; for, as the infinite glory which is laid up for the sons of God so far exceeds all our senses, that we cannot find words to express it, so the punishment which awaits the reprobate is incomprehensible, and is therefore shadowed out according to the measure of our capacity. From ignorance of this, the Sophists have tortured themselves, to no purpose, by fruitless disputes, as we have already hinted on a former occasion. 217 Some commentators, I am aware, carry their ingenious inquiries into every minute phrase; but as there is reason to fear that subtleties, which rest on no solid grounds, may lead us into idle fooleries, I choose to philosophize more sparingly, and to rest satisfied with the plain and natural meaning. If we put a question to those who are so delighted with matters of curiosity, how it comes about that, while Christ is asleep, and unacquainted with the affair, the devil sows tares among the good seed, they will have nothing to reply; but while I desire to exercise caution, I have endeavored to leave out nothing that is useful and necessary to be known.
43. Then will the righteous shine. What a remarkable consolation! The sons of God, who now lie covered with dust, or are held in no estimation, or even are loaded with reproaches, will then shine in full brightness, as when the sky is serene, and every cloud has been dispelled. The adverb then (τότε) is emphatic; for it contains an implied contrast between their present state and the ultimate restoration, by the expectation of which Christ animates those who believe in him. The meaning therefore is, Though many wicked men now hold a high rank in the Church, yet that blessed day is assuredly to be expected, when the Son of God shall raise his followers on high, and remove every thing that now tends to dim or conceal their brightness. It is no doubt true, that the future glory is promised to none but those in whom the image of God already shines, and who are transformed into it by continued advances of glory. But as the life of the godly is now hidden, and as their salvation is invisible, because it consists in hope, Christ properly directs the attention of believers to heaven, where they will find the glory that is promised to them.
In order to make a deeper impression on his hearers, our Lord unquestionably refers here to a passage in Daniel, (Da 12:3,)
And they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament.
“The Prophet,” he seems to say, “when he predicts a future brightness, intimates also that there is a temporary obscurity: and so, if we admit the prediction, we ought to endure patiently that mixture which, for a time, classes the elect of God with the reprobate.” By comparing this glory to the sun, he does not determine that it will be alike in all. As Christ now distributes his gifts variously 218 among believers, in like manner will he crown these gifts at the last day. But we must recollect what I have said, that the restoration, which is delayed till the last coming of Christ, is compared with the cloudy state of the world. 219
The kingdom of the Father, as the inheritance of the godly, is contrasted with the earth, to remind them that here they are pilgrims, and therefore ought to look upwards towards heaven. In another passage, the kingdom of God is said to be within us, (Lu 17:21,) but we shall not obtain the full enjoyment of it till God be all in all, (1Co 15:28.)
“D’ou vient donc qu’il y a de l’yvroye?” — “Whence comes it then that there are tares?”
“L’homme ennemi, (ou, quelque ennemi;)” — “the enemy, (or, some enemy.)”
“Pour retirer le commun populaire d’une folle presomption, a cause qu’en apparence externe ils faisoyent quelque profession de l’Evangile;”— “to withdraw the common people from a foolish presumption, because in outward appearance they made some profession of the Gospel.”
“Qu’on separera l’yvroye d’avec le bon ble;” — “when the tares shall be separated from the good corn.”
“Mais c’est autre chose de la doctrine: car il ne faut iamais endurer les erreurs meschantes qui corrompent la purete de la foy;” — “but it is quite otherwise with doctrine; for we must never tolerate the wicked errors which corrupt the purity of faith.”
“Qui ne pensent point qu’il soit bon de s’adioindre a la compagnie des fideles, sinon que tout y soit pur comme entre les Anges;”— “who do not think that it is proper to join themselves to the society of believers, unless every thing in it be as pure as among the Angels.”
“Et semblables reveurs;” — “and similar dreamers.”
“Quand la peine n’est pas a mort (comme est l’excommunication;)” — “when the punishment, as in the case of excommunication, is not to death.”
“Devant le siege iudicial de sa maieste;” — “before the judgment- seat of his majesty.”
“Ils tournent incontinent bride;” — “they immediately wheel about.”
Harmony, volume 1 p. 200.
“Diversement, aux uns plus, aux autres moins;” — “variously, to some more, to others less.”
“Avec l’estat present du monde, qui est comme tout obscurci de brouillars;” — “with the present state of the world, which is entirely, so to speak, obscured by mists.”