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Bible Commentaries

Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels

Matthew 13

Verses 24-43

THE parable of the wheat and tares, which occupies the chief part of these verses, is one of peculiar importance in the present day. (Footnote: The consideration of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven is purposely deferred till a future part of the Exposition.) It is eminently calculated to correct the extravagant expectations in which many Christians indulge, as to the effect of missions abroad, and of preaching the Gospel at home. May we give it the attention which it deserves!

In the first place, this parable teaches us, that good and evil will always be found together in the professing Church, until the end of the world.

The visible Church is set before us as a mixed body. It is a vast "field" in which "wheat and tares" grow side by side. We must expect to find believers and unbelievers, converted and unconverted, "the children of the kingdom, and the children of the wicked one," all mingled together in every congregation of baptized people.

The purest preaching of the Gospel will not prevent this. In every age of the Church, the same state of things has existed. It was the experience of the early Fathers. It was the experience of the Reformers. It is the experience of the best ministers at the present hour. There has never been a visible Church or a religious assembly, of which the members have been all "wheat." The devil, that great enemy of souls, has always taken care to sow "tares."

The most strict and prudent discipline will not prevent this. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Independents, all alike find it to be so. Do what we will to purify a church, we shall never succeed in obtaining a perfectly pure communion. Tares will be found among the wheat. Hypocrites and deceivers will creep in. And, worst of all, if we are extreme in our efforts to obtain purity, we do more harm than good. We run the risk of encouraging many a Judas Iscariot, and breaking many a bruised reed. In our zeal to "gather up the tares," we are in danger of "rooting up the wheat with them." Such zeal is not according to knowledge, and has often done much harm. Those who care not what happens to the wheat, provided they can root up the tares, show little of the mind of Christ. And after all there is deep truth in the charitable saying of Augustine, "Those who are tares to-day, may be wheat to-morrow."

Are we inclined to look for the conversion of the whole world by the labors of missionaries and ministers? Let us place this parable before us, and beware of such an idea. We shall never see all the inhabitants of earth the wheat of God, in the present order of things. The tares and wheat will "grow together till the harvest." The kingdoms of this world will never become the kingdom of Christ, and the millennium begin, until the King Himself returns.

Are we ever tried by the scoffing argument of the infidel, that Christianity can not be a true religion, when there are so many false Christians? Let us call to mind this parable, and remain unmoved. Let us tell the infidel, that the state of things he scoffs at does not surprise us at all. Our Master prepared us for it 1800 years ago. He foresaw and foretold, that His Church would be a field, containing not only wheat, but tares.

Are we ever tempted to leave one Protestant Church for another, because we see many of its members unconverted? Let us remember this parable, and take heed what we do. We shall never find a perfect Church. We may spend our lives in migrating from communion to communion, and pass our days in perpetual disappointment. Go where we will, and worship where we may, we shall always find tares.

In the second place the parable teaches us, that there is to be a day of separation between the godly and ungodly members of the visible Church, at the end of the world.

The present mixed state of things is not to be for ever. The wheat and the tares are to be divided at last. The Lord Jesus shall "send forth his angels" in the day of His second advent, and gather all professing Christians into two great companies. Those mighty reapers shall make no mistake. They shall discern with unerring judgment between the righteous and the wicked, and place every one in his own lot. The saints and faithful servants of Christ shall receive glory, honor, and eternal life. The worldly, the ungodly, the careless, and the unconverted shall be "cast into a furnace of fire," and receive shame and everlasting contempt.

There is something peculiarly solemn in this part of the parable. The meaning of it admits of no mistake. Our Lord Himself explains it in words of singular clearness, as if He would impress it deeply on our minds. Well may He say at the conclusion, "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear."

Let the ungodly man tremble when he reads this parable. Let him see in its fearful language his own certain doom, unless he repents and is converted. Let him know that he is sowing misery for himself, if he goes on still in his neglect of God. Let him reflect that his end will be to be gathered among the "bundles" of tares, and be burned. Surely such a prospect ought to make a man think. As Baxter truly says, "We must not misinterpret God’s patience with the ungodly."

Let the believer in Christ take comfort when he reads this parable. Let him see that there is happiness and safety prepared for him in the great and dreadful day of the Lord. The voice of the archangel and the trump of God will proclaim no terror for him. They will summon him to join what he has long desired to see, a perfect Church and a perfect communion of saints. How beautiful will the whole body of believers appear, when finally separated from the wicked! How fine will the wheat look in the garner of God, when the tares are at length taken away! How brightly will grace shine, when no longer dimmed by incessant contact with the worldly and unconverted! The righteous are little known in the present day. The world sees no beauty in them, even as it saw none in their Master. "The world knoweth us not, because it knew him not." (1 John 3:1.) But the righteous shall one day "shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father." To use the words of Matthew Henry, "their sanctification will be perfected, and their justification will be published." "When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory." (Colossians 3:4.)

Verses 44-50

THE parable of the "treasure hid in the field," and the "merchantman seeking goodly pearls," appear intended to convey one and the same lesson. They vary, no doubt, in one striking particular. The "treasure" was found of one who does not seem to have sought it. The "pearl" was found of one who was actually seeking pearls. But the conduct of the finders, in both cases, was precisely alike. Both "sold all" to make the thing found their own property. And it is exactly at this point that the instruction of both parables agrees.

These two parables are meant to teach us, that men really convinced of the importance of salvation, will give up everything to win Christ, and eternal life.

What was the conduct of the two men our Lord describes? The one was persuaded that there was a "treasure hid in a field," which would amply repay him, if he bought the field, however great the price that he might give. The other was persuaded that the "pearl" he had found was so immensely valuable, that it would answer to him to purchase it at any cost. Both were convinced that they had found a thing of great value. Both were satisfied that it was worth a great present sacrifice to make this thing their own. Others might wonder at them. Others might think them foolish for paying such a sum of money for the field and pearl. But they knew what they were about. They were sure that they were making a good bargain.

Behold in this single picture, the conduct of a true Christian explained! He is what he is, and does what he does in his religion, because he is thoroughly persuaded that it is worthwhile. He comes out from the world. He puts off the old man. He forsakes the vain companions of his past life. Like Matthew, he gives up everything, and, like Paul, he "counts all things loss" for Christ’s sake. And why? Because he is convinced that Christ will make amends to him for all he gives up. He sees in Christ an endless "treasure." He sees in Christ a precious "pearl." To win Christ he will make any sacrifice. This is true faith. This is the stamp of a genuine work of the Holy Ghost.

Behold in these two parables the real clue to the conduct of many unconverted people! They are what they are in religion, because they are not fully persuaded that it is worthwhile to be different. They flinch from decision. They shrink from taking up the cross. They halt between two opinions. They will not commit themselves. They will not come forward boldly on the Lord’s side.—And why? Because they are not convinced that it will answer. They are not sure that "the treasure" is before them. They are not satisfied that "the pearl" is worth so great a price. They cannot yet make up their minds to "sell all," that they may win Christ. And so too often they perish everlastingly! When a man will venture nothing for Christ’s sake, we must draw the sorrowful conclusion that he has not got the grace of God.

The parable of the net let down into the sea, has some points in common with that of the wheat and the tares. It is intended to instruct us on a most important subject, the true nature of the visible Church of Christ.

The preaching of the Gospel was the letting down of a large net into the midst of the sea of this world. The professing church which it was to gather together, was to be a mixed body. Within the folds of the net, there were to be fish of every kind, both good and bad. Within the pale of the Church there were to be Christians of various sorts, unconverted as well as converted, false as well as true. The separation of good and bad was sure to come at last, but not before the end of the world. Such was the account which the great Master gave to His disciples of the churches which they were to found.

It is of the utmost importance to have the lessons of this parable deeply graven on our minds. There is hardly any point in Christianity on which greater mistakes exist, than the nature of the visible Church. There is none, perhaps, on which mistakes are so perilous to the soul.

Let us learn from this parable, that all congregations of professed Christians ought to be regarded as mixed bodies. They are all assemblies containing "good fish and bad," converted and unconverted, children of God and children of the world, and ought to be described and addressed as such. To tell all baptized people, that they are born again, and have the Spirit, and are members of Christ, and are holy, in the face of such a parable as this, is utterly unwarrantable. Such a mode of address may flatter and please. It is not likely to profit or save. It is painfully calculated to promote self-righteousness, and lull sinners to sleep. It overthrows the plain teaching of Christ, and is ruinous to souls. Do we ever hear such doctrine? If we do, let us remember "the net."

Finally, let it be a settled principle with us, never to be satisfied with mere outward church-membership. We may be inside the net, and yet not be in Christ. The waters of baptism are poured on myriads who are never washed in the water of life. The bread and wine are eaten and drunk by thousands at the Lord’s table, who never feed on Christ by faith. Are we converted? Are we among the "good fish"? This is the grand question. It is one which must be answered at last. The net will soon be "drawn to shore." The true character of every man’s religion will at length be exposed. There will be an eternal separation between the good fish and the bad. There will be a "furnace of fire" for the wicked. Surely, as Baxter says, "these plain words more need belief and consideration than exposition."

Verses 51-58

THE first thing which we ought to notice in these verses, is the striking question with which our Lord winds up the seven wonderful parables of this chapter. He said, "Have ye understood all these things?"

Personal application has been called the "soul" of preaching. A sermon without application is like a letter posted without an address. It may be well-written, rightly dated, and duly signed. But it is useless, because it never reaches its destination. Our Lord’s inquiry is an admirable example of real heart-searching application, "Have ye understood?"

The mere form of hearing a sermon can profit no man, unless he comprehends what it means. He might just as well listen to the blowing of a trumpet, or the beating of a drum. He might just as well attend a Roman Catholic service in Latin. His intellect must be set in motion, and his heart impressed. Ideas must be received into his mind. He must carry off the seeds of new thoughts. Without this he hears in vain.

It is of great importance to see this point clearly. There is a vast amount of ignorance about it. There are thousands who go regularly to places of worship, and think they have done their religious duty, but never carry away an idea, or receive an impression. Ask them, when they return home on a Sunday evening, what they have learned, and they cannot tell you a word. Examine them at the end of a year, as to the religious knowledge they have attained, and you will find them as ignorant as the heathen.

Let us watch our souls in this matter. Let us take with us to Church, not only our bodies, but our minds, our reason, our hearts, and our consciences. Let us often ask ourselves, "What have I got from this sermon? what have I learned? what truths have been impressed on my mind?" Intellect, no doubt, is not everything in religion. But it does not therefore follow that it is nothing at all.—The heart is unquestionably the main point. But we must never forget that the Holy Ghost generally reaches the heart through the mind.—Sleepy, idle, inattentive hearers, are never likely to be converted.

The second thing which we ought to notice in these verses, is the strange treatment which our Lord received in His own country.

He came to the town of Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and "taught in their synagogue." His teaching, no doubt, was the same as it always was. "Never man spake like this man." But it had no effect on the people of Nazareth. They were "astonished," but their hearts were unmoved. They said, "Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?" They despised Him, because they were so familiar with Him. "They were offended in him." And they drew from our Lord the solemn remark, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house."

Let us see, in this history, a melancholy page of human nature unfolded to our view. We are all apt to despise mercies, if we are accustomed to them, and have them cheap. The Bibles and religious books, which are so plentiful in England, the means of grace of which we have so abundant a supply, the preaching of the Gospel which we hear every week,—all, all are liable to be undervalued. It is mournfully true that in religion, more than in anything else, "familiarity breeds contempt." Men forget that truth is truth, however old and hackneyed it may sound, and despise it because it is old. Alas! by so doing, they provoke God to take it away.

Do we wonder that the relations, servants, and neighbors of godly people are not always converted? Do we wonder that the parishioners of eminent ministers of the Gospel are often their hardest and most impenitent hearers? Let us wonder no more. Let us mark the experience of our Lord at Nazareth, and learn wisdom.

Do we ever fancy that if we had only seen and heard Jesus Christ, we should have been His faithful disciples? Do we think that if we had only lived near Him, and been eyewitnesses of His ways, we should not have been undecided, wavering, and half-hearted about religion? If we do, let us think so no longer. Let us observe the people of Nazareth, and learn wisdom.

The last thing which we ought to notice in these verses is the ruinous nature of unbelief. The chapter ends with the fearful words, "He did not many works there, because of their unbelief."

Behold in this single word the secret of the everlasting ruin of multitudes of souls! They perish for ever, because they will not believe. There is nothing beside in earth or heaven that prevents their salvation. Their sins, however many, might all be forgiven. The Father’s love is ready to receive them. The blood of Christ is ready to cleanse them. The power of the Spirit is ready to renew them. But a great barrier interposes;—they will not believe. "Ye will not come unto me," says Jesus, "that ye might have life." (John 5:40.)

May we all be on our guard against this accursed sin. It is the old root-sin, which caused the fall of man. Cut down in the true child of God by the power of the Spirit, it is ever ready to bud and sprout again. There are three great enemies against which God’s children should daily pray,—pride, worldliness, and unbelief. Of these three, none is greater than unbelief.

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Bibliographical Information
Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on Matthew 13". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ryl/matthew-13.html.