Tares, Bad Fish and Foolish Virgins

Matthew 13:24-25 – “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.”

Matthew 13:47-48 – “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away.”

Matthew 25:1-2 – “Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were foolish, but five were prudent.”

Three Puzzling Parables

What do tares, bad fish and foolish virgins have in common? If you don’t know much about the Bible, your answer is likely a resounding, “Nothing!” Or, “What a weird question!” Or, “What are tares?” Without some knowledge about the parables of Jesus, this question doesn’t make much sense. However, instant recognition of the terms will take place with even a casual reading of our Lord’s parables of the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew.

Perhaps these terms are familiar to you, but have you wondered about the interpretation of these puzzling parables in the gospel of Matthew? Why did the farmer allow weed seeds to be sown in his field, and why did he allow the wheat and the tares to grow up together? Why not weed them out before the crops mature? Why are good and bad fish drawn into the net? Isn’t the Church for Christians only? And why did the bridegroom tell the foolish bridesmaids that he never knew them? Let’s take a closer look at these parables.

Jesus gave the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30. He told the parable of the good and bad fish in Matthew 13:47-50. And He spoke the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. All three parables are specifically said to refer to the kingdom of heaven and in all three parables there is a definite separation between the blessed and the cursed in the end. There is no middle or neutral category. Because these three stories are parables, they are more than stories. They have a deeper meaning, as do all the parables of the Lord Jesus. What is the meaning of these three parables, and what is their application for today?

The Kingdom of Heaven Announced

To understand the meaning of these parables, the primary question to be answered is, “What and when is the kingdom of heaven?” The Old Testament prophecies are filled with references to the coming King and His kingdom. The Messiah, or “Anointed One,” was to be a descendant of King David, and yet He would be divine and sent from heaven to set up His kingdom on this earth. When John the Baptist, Christ’s forerunner, began His ministry he announced that this kingdom was “at hand” (Matthew 3:2). The Messiah was coming, and in fact He had arrived! The nation of Israel was being offered the kingdom of the Messiah, as predicted and promised in the Old Testament Scriptures. But in order to receive the King and His kingdom, the nation had to acknowledge its failure to obey God. The people had to renounce their unbelief. That’s what John’s “baptism unto repentance” was all about. Many individuals went out to the wilderness to undergo John’s baptism, which was to signify their repentance. However, the baptism of John had become a popular event. For many people it was the “in” thing to do, and it was not a genuine repentance. The nation as a whole, and particularly the religious leaders, did not really repent of their sins, nor did they prepare their hearts for the Messiah’s advent. John refused to baptize the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). These hypocrites were not interested in changing their ways to prepare for the Messiah.

When Jesus arrived on the scene to start His public ministry, John the Baptist not only recognized Him as the Messiah, but he pointed Him out as the Lamb of God who would die for the sins of the world. Many Christians do not realize, however, that in the early days of His public ministry, Jesus did not focus on the fact that He was the Lamb of God who would have to go to the cross and die. Rather, He continued to preach the same message that John the Baptist had preached.“From that time Jesus began to preach and teach and say,’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). And when the Lord sent the twelve disciples out on their mission, He instructed them to preach the same message: “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:7).

The Kingdom of Heaven Rejected

Thus we see that Jesus Christ made a real, bone fide offer of the promised kingdom to the nation of Israel. Would they receive their King and His kingdom? We know the sad answer. Israel rejected her Messiah and His kingdom. The religious leaders even committed the unpardonable sin of attributing the Lord’s miraculous works to the power of Satan! (See Matthew 9:34 and 12:24.) So from that point on we observe a noticeable change in our Lord’s public ministry. For the first time, the Lord revealed that He would build His “Church” (Matthew 16:18). This is the first mention of the Church in the Bible. Also for the first time, the Lord began to speak of His coming trial and death and resurrection. “From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matthew 16:21). No longer did the Lord preach that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Instead He began to teach about the kingdom of heaven in parables. In these parables Jesus began to unfold “the mysteries of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:11), and the form the kingdom would take until the rejected King would return in power and glory.

The Kingdom of Heaven at Present

In the New Testament, the word “mystery” refers to something that was hidden or concealed in Old Testament times, but was now revealed with the coming of Christ. So hidden truth about the kingdom of heaven that was not revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures was revealed in the parables of the kingdom. And that brings us back to our topic of tares, bad fish and foolish virgins.

In all the kingdom prophecies and promises in the Old Testament, there are no passages indicating that negative things like weeds, bad fish and foolish virgins would be tolerated in Messiah’s kingdom. In fact, there is nothing to indicate that there would be two advents of the Messiah. It is the parables that begin to open our eyes to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. In the parables of Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is the promised kingdom as it exists now, until our Lord returns and sets up His millennial kingdom on earth.

It is important to distinguish between the kingdom of heaven and the Church. The kingdom of heaven is not the same as the Church! The Church is composed only of true believers. The kingdom of heaven is the larger sphere of Christendom, and includes not only the true believers of the Church, but those who falsely profess faith as well. The time span for the Church on earth is from the Day of Pentecost to the day of the rapture, when Christ will catch away His Church to be with Him forever. The time span for the kingdom of heaven goes on until the second advent of Christ when He returns in power and glory. This includes the Tribulation period. While the parables of the kingdom of heaven cover the whole time period between the two advents of Christ, the three parables before us emphasize the events at the end of the age and the separation between the true believers and the professing believers when the Lord returns.

The Wheat and Tares

We have an advantage in determining the meaning of the parable of the wheat and the tares. In Matthew 13:36-43 our Lord Himself interpreted the parable for us, so we don’t have to wonder if we have the correct interpretation! Tares (or darnel) are weeds that look like wheat in their early stages of growth. In the parable, the tares represent the “sons of the evil one” (v38). These unbelievers look like true believers, but their profession of faith is false. In the end they are shown to have never been saved. They will not be allowed to be part of Christ’s kingdom, but will suffer an eternity in hell (v42). It is important to realize that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is not a description of “loss of reward” for believers who have lived unfaithful lives. No! It is a description of hell. The tares are not unfaithful believers. They are unbelievers—”sons of the evil one” (v38). The wheat, on the other hand, represents the righteous “sons,” who will be gathered in to share in the glory of the kingdom when the Lord returns (v43).

The Good and Bad Fish

In the parable of the good and bad fish, the kingdom of heaven is likened to a large dragnet cast out into the sea of this world. Both good and bad fish are gathered into the net. In the same way, wherever the gospel has gone, both true believers and false “professors” have been gathered into the realm of the kingdom of heaven. The sorting of the fish, like the separation of the wheat and the tares, will not take place until the end of the age. Then the “bad fish,” those who only profess to believe but have been gathered into the “net” of the kingdom of heaven, will be separated from the righteous and taken away to suffer the same end as the tares—a “furnace of fire” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v50). The “good fish,” who are righteous because of their true faith and acceptance of the King, will enjoy their inheritance in the millennial kingdom of our Lord on this earth.

The Wise and Foolish Virgins

In Matthew 25, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is also specifically said to be a parable of the kingdom of heaven (v1). Thus this parable also covers the entire period of time between the first and second advents of Jesus Christ. The Lord did not give us the interpretation of this parable, but it is quite obvious that He is represented by the bridegroom. The wise virgins (or bridesmaids) are true believers and the foolish virgins falsely profess faith, as in the other two parables.

Notice that all the virgins, both wise and foolish, became drowsy and began to fall asleep until the call went out that the bridegroom was coming(v5). For many centuries of Church history the expectation of the Lord’s return was forgotten, in large measure, by the professing church. Even during the time of the great Reformation, the doctrine of the Lord’s return was not prominent. But a revival of the doctrine of our Lord’s return took place, and for the last 200 years this great hope of the Church has been proclaimed. As a result, true believers have trimmed their lamps and prepared for the Lord’s return. Furthermore, unbelievers have also been awakened to realize that they are not part of the evangelical community. This part of the parable has already been fulfilled in history.

In Matthew 25:10 we see that when the bridegroom came the wise virgins went in with him to the wedding feast. In this parable, the wedding feast represents the blessings of Christ’s kingdom here on this earth when He returns. The foolish virgins are those who falsely professed to have faith, and they will be shut out of the kingdom because they are unbelievers. Notice, as in the parable of the wheat and tares, the foolish virgins are not unfaithful believers losing out on kingdom rewards. No, they are unbelievers who do not have eternal life.

We can firmly assert this because the Lord would never say to a true believer, “I do not know you” (v12), no matter how unfaithful the believers had been. The fact that they say “Lord, Lord” (v11) emphasizes the fact that they are professing believers. They are the same crowd of unbelievers to whom our Lord referred in Matthew 7:21-23. Even though these people will call Jesus “Lord, Lord,” and appear to be true believers by their “ministries,” they are proven to be false professors by our Lord’s declaration of “I never knew you”—something He would never say to a true believer. The parables of the wheat and weeds, the good and bad fish and the wise and foolish virgins should make us more aware that every person who “looks” like Christian, and who talks like a Christian and who says “I’m a Christian” may not really be a true Christian. Furthermore, these parables should motivate us to examine our faith, to be sure we’re in the believing group with the wheat, the good fish and the wise virgins.
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