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A Beautiful Message of Hope for Ash Wednesday

Dr. Michael A. Milton

Jesus used stories with riddles, called parables, to teach heavenly realities with earthly images. In Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, He taught about a sower and different ways that seed land and grow. Then, He taught about wheat and tares, a variety of a useless weed that resembles wheat. And in doing so, He teaches us so much about ourselves. This is the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God.

Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” Matthew 13:24-30,36-43 (ESV)

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 ESV).

“Just throw it all out,” I finally said. “No!” My wife stops my indiscriminate trashing of papers on my desk. “You just throw everything away and don’t go through the stack for important things.” I think about her chastisement for a moment. I feel a moment of brilliant break-through and reply: “Well, Honey, I figure that if something has been sitting on my desk for three months and I haven’t bothered to move it, then, by golly, it just be junk.” Unconvinced she continued to sort through each and every page of the two-foot stack of paper on my desk. “Like this ‘junk,’ you mean?” She places a sheet of paper in front of my face just a little too close to read, but exceedingly well-positioned to make her point, whatever it was. It was an unopened refund check. I was about to throw away our livelihood. It is easier to dismiss things than to sort them all out. It is especially easier to dismiss difficult human beings than to show patience and entrust them with prayer to God. After all, people are complicated. They are messy. They are sinful. And they—we—are made in the image of God. It is a human temptation to just throw people away, even the ones we love. God’s way is different.

God's Kingdom Is Different

In Matthew 13, Jesus shows us just how different God’s Kingdom is in the work of sorting through good and bad. He does so by giving a parable. As He did in the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains the parable to His disciples. God’s leaders of His Church must know the Kingdom principle of how God grows His Kingdom. In Matthew 13:24-30,36-43—the Parable and the interpretation—our Lord deals directly with believers’ sinful propensity to want to act prematurely, to sort through human beings to determine who stays and who goes. We can put it like this: God’s true Kingdom, that is, the fullness of the elect—all those who will repent and receive Jesus—grows in a field of anticipation. Some who reject Christ today will preach Him tomorrow. Some who appear to follow Him today will depart; for they were never, truly surrendered to God.

The Church visible—the Kingdom that we see and perceive with senses—is a veritable field of anticipation. How so? From this portion of God’s Holy Word, there are four great truths revealed about the Kingdom as a field of anticipation. The first truth about God’s Kingdom field of anticipation is this:

1. Believers Can Anticipate Godly Growth in the Field of Humanity

The context for Jesus’ teaching is the preparation of sending His disciples into the harvest fields. They will see some come to Christ and be faithful, growing like healthy fields of wheat. They will, also, see some sickly specimens. If they stayed long enough, however, the sun and the soil will correct these struggling saints and grow them into strong disciples. Yet, they will begin to make judgments about the Kingdom: who’s in who’s out. And that critical moment they will cease being disciples of Christ that advance the Kingdom and become destructive forces that hinder the Kingdom.

I have watched over the years that there is a peculiar thing that happens to newly ordained ministers, elders, deacons, and, indeed, the same phenomenon occurs in other areas of life. I call it the “Barney Fife Syndrome” (this is a highly technical term, so don’t try to use this phrase at home). You remember Deputy Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith Show. Sheriff Taylor permitted poor old Barney to carry—how many bullets?—right; only one bullet. Andy couldn’t trust him with any more. Barney was zealous to demonstrate his authority and to use that bullet. Often, when he tried to be something he wasn’t, he ended up, literally, shooting himself in the foot (or too close for comfort). The word for such a display of rights is “officiousness.” It is the human tendency to misuse delegated authority in the service of self, rather than others. Decisions are made prematurely because the elder wants to show that he now has the authority. A newly minted pastor uses his spiritual authority to condemn sin in an older saint who has long ago understood that his battle with addiction is being fought over the long haul, not in a split second, or even a year. Officiousness can cripple ministry and, if unhindered, can cull the local Kingdom work down to a dwindling few.

The biblical truth is that it is Jesus who sows the seed of the Kingdom and it is His glorious work that causes the growth. Indeed, faith matures in a person’s life under the supernatural agency of God working through the person’s exercise of the means of grace: Word, sacrament, and prayer. For any of us to judge a person who is still on the way, it is not merely shortcutting the sanctifying activity of the Lord, it is assuming to ourselves that authority which is God’s alone. When a person comes to Christ, when a believer is growing in Christ, we must always remember that there is great anticipation: God is never finished with us. The Lord is always working in our lives. Never judge the final legacy of a believer by his faith and works today. Tomorrow may bring extraordinary growth that defies your assumptions. The second biblical truth about the Church as a veritable Kingdom of anticipation is this:

2. Believers Can Anticipate Diabolical Deeds in the Kingdom of Christ

The story progresses with an enemy coming in to sow tares in the same field as the wheat. Jesus tells us that this enemy in the parable is the devil. And the seed that he sows is zizania, or, “darnel” as it is called even today in Israel. This is, indeed, a “weed” as the ESV puts it. Yet, the older King James English word, “tares,” is a much more picturesque word to describe this plant. Zizania is much more than a weed. It is, in fact, a weed that looks like wheat and, in its early stages of development, is identical to wheat. However, at maturity, this deceptive plant produces a black fruit that is inedible. The power of the parable is centered in both the activity of the enemy, while the farm hands sleep, and the counterfeit seeds. Moreover, Jesus emphasizes that despite the presence of these tares, the whole field must be allowed to grow together until the End of Days, when God’s angels will discriminate between the faithful and the phony.  Thus, there are several critical cautions for Christians in this parable:

Don’t be disillusioned by the presence of evil growing alongside good. 
“Where sin abounds, grace abounds more,” says St. Paul. “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel,” the Apostle says again (Rom. 5:20). Many cite the presence of wickedness and hypocrisy in the Church and in Church history as evidence of the Church’s untrustworthiness. Yet, Christ Himself shows us that we should not be shocked by such unholy mixtures. This is a picture of the Kingdom in this world. I wrote a book called, Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do When Other Believers Hurt You. In the Introduction, Dr. Derek Thomas wrote that he wished the book “did not have to be written.“ Yet, he went on, it had to be written. For we all must admit that the Church is filled with pain because of, one, the reality of the fall and the ongoing sanctification process in true believers of Christ; but, also, two, “the reality of tares among the wheat.” Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus is teaching us that the apparent ambiguity and mystery about the Kingdom must not dissuade our service to Him in the Kingdom.

Nor, are we to take matters into our own hands to discriminate from among the visible members of the Church; keeping this one, removing that one.
The challenge is, you see, there are many bad seeds that will miraculously be transformed into good seeds. The one who preaches is one of those. If ever there was a tare among the wheat it was I. As John Wesley put it so memorably in his own testimony, “I am a brand plucked from the burning.” So, we are aware of the enemy. We are aware of the presence of evil in this world. We are not defeated merely by knowing that there are imposters among us. Some will be converted. Others will be judged. If the tension within this parable prompts you to whisper a prayer in the darkness, “Lord, examine me and see if there is any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24), blessed art thou. Such spiritual diffidence is an appropriate response for each of us in this parable. There is a third biblical truth here:

3. Believers Must Resist Malicious Meddling with Divine Prerogatives

Jesus explains the parable as the simultaneous growth of wheat and tares. He addressed that impulsive part of human nature that would say, “Alright then, let’s go pull weeds!” Jesus says that we are to let them alone. The truth is the discrimination between human souls on “who is in and who is not” is the divine right of the Lord. Moreover, you and I are not equipped to conduct so far-reaching an analysis. Beyond the fact of inability, we have no right to go beyond those directions we have been given to protect the Church through proper biblical discipline. Even when we read the most solemn apostolic discipline, it is for the purpose of reclaiming, teaching, or saving; not giving up on a person:

Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20).

Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5 NKJV).

If Paul didn’t give up on the worst offenders, those troublemakers, and vile sinners, who perpetrated acts of treachery in the Body of Christ, shall you “write off” someone as unreachable? Will you stop praying for your wayward child? Will you, elders of the Church, excommunicate a soul without pleading for that one before the mercy seat of Christ Jesus? The answer is self-evident, for the Lord has not given up on you. Let us, fourthly, see this truth in the parable:

4. Believers Must Trust the Purity of the Church to the Providence of God

When Jesus tells us to leave the wheat and tares alone and let them grow together, we are witnesses to Jesus’ exhortation to let God be God. The purity of the Church is ultimately in the sovereign hands of an Almighty God who knows the hearts of His saints and who grows faith within us more patiently than we could do so for ourselves.

Someone says, “But haven’t we been given the keys of the Kingdom to exercise judgment among the flock of God?” Yes. But we are given the whole counsel of God to guide us. Church leaders who have been given the keys of the Kingdom are to exercise their God-given responsibilities with prayerful obedience and deference to all of God’s Word. Those unwise shepherds who act without the fullness of God’s Word informing their decisions go err. They risk damaging the local church and bringing ill-repute upon the name of the Lord and His Kingdom. I would rather be fooled by a pretender than to be guilty of preempting the grace and providence of a loving God.

Some are imposters and will die as such. Some are merely on the road to maturity. Some are lost but will be saved as they cry out to God with a final breath. Now, who among us can tell the difference? Let God be God. Let disciples be obedient with what has been revealed to us. Thus, Moses:

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29 NKJV).

The field of the Church is one of anticipation: anticipating godly growth, but also expecting diabolical deeds; warning us of hasty, ungodly judgment. Let God be God.

Remember Peter? He was that most impatient, balderdash man, who denied Jesus three times, and who cursed that he was associated with the One who hung on the cross for his sins? Remember Peter? He was the one who abandoned the gospel of grace that forgave him of those sins and had to be admonished by Paul on the floor of the General Assembly at Jerusalem. Remember Peter? That same Peter—who would write, so pastorally, so wisely, so tenderly,

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation . . .” (2 Peter 3:14-15a).

Count his patience as salvation. And shall we rush in where angels dare not tread? Only be in prayer, and observe with awe: how God is as original with others as He was with you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Media Bank


Dr. Michael A. MiltonMICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]