This chapter presents us with the successive aspects which Christianity would outwardly present. It furnishes answers to four questions, which we may imagine to have been put to our Lord just previous to His going forth in His ministry. 1. How shall the system of Christianity be established? 2. Of what class will it consist? 3. What will be thought of it in the world? 4. To what extent will its purity be preserved?
How Christianity was to be established in the earth? is to be answered by the parable of the sower. It was to be established by the ministry of Christ and His apostles; and in this parable we have a description of the results of the testimony to Christ down to the present time. Some have heard the word, but they must be compared to the seed which fell on the way side, since they remain altogether unaffected by it. Then some are to be compared to the seed which was cast upon a rock, “which had no root, and dured but for a while;” others—a large number—are like the seed choked by the thorns; the lust of other things coming in chokes the word, and they become unfruitful. But on the other hand, wherever the word has been faithfully preached it has brought forth fruit, “some an hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty.” By this parable, then, the question is answered how persons were to be brought into the system of Christianity.
The next parable—that of tares sown among wheat— gives the answer to the question, Of what class will this outward system consist? There might have been but two classes included in it—true Christians and infidels. But we find it altogether different. Comparatively soon nominal Christianity spread over all the Roman empire; even cities, towns, and villages put on the profession of the Christian name. Mark how this corresponds with the parable. Good seed was sown, but the enemy came and sowed tares. People professed to be Christians, but really they were still of the world.
The question, “What aspect would this system present to the world? is answered by the parable of the mustard seed. It must either refer to the spiritual character, or to the outward aspect, of Christianity. To be like mustard seed, it must be mean, and taken no account of; but surely it is not a little thing that the Son of God should come from heaven for the salvation of sinners; it is not a little thing in the sight of angels; nor in the sight of God; nor in the sight of those who have the mind of God. But if the comparison be compared to the outward aspect of Christianity, how true is it to actual fact; for this Christianity began among a despised people, and was founded by One who was crucified. “Birds of the air” are used to set forth those who are in league with Satan.
The remaining question, Would this system retain its purity? is answered by the parable contained in 5:33, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” Most of us are aware how many eminent saints of God have interpreted this parable to mean the gradual dissemination of the truth through the world; and when a notion has long had possession of the mind, especially if it be a happy thought, it is something-like a rent to give it up. But on two accounts, would a sincere consideration lead to the suspicion that this parable of the leaven hid in the meal could not mean what so many fondly hold. In the first place, the context would lead the mind to doubt it, because if tares and wheat grow together till the end, where is there room found for an universal prevalence of the truth? In the second place, there is not a solitary instance in Scripture in which “leaven “is used as the symbol or emblem of that which is good. This word occurs ten times in the Old Testament, and ten in the New. In Ex. 12:15; 13:7; 34:25; Lev. 2:11, &c, we find that leaven was forbidden to be used; and by reference to all the instances of it in the Old Testament it will be seen to be nowhere symbolical of that which is good. The same thing is true of all the cases in which it occurs in the New Testament. Thus Matt. 16:6, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadduces,” and this we know from Luke was hypocrisy. These Scriptures lead us to suppose that something evil must be meant by the figure of leaven being used in this parable, and unquestionably it is here used as the symbol of corruption; and see if the past history of Christianity does not bear out this interpretation. Believers themselves were instrumental in introducing false principles into Christianity; so that already in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries, instead of gracious principles prevailing, false ones were thus early introduced into Christianity, till it became one vast mass of corruption. Has not the interpretation of widening, deepening, and extending corruption been verified by experience? Christianity, as an outward system, has always tended to corruption. Look at Popery, and even Protestantism after the Reformation, and it will be seen that the tendency of Christianity, as a system, has been downward, downward, downward! In proportion as we have any standing in the world, we become as the “great tree,” in “the branches of which the birds of the air” can lodge. The Christianity which the world may admire is, in the sight of God, corrupt and worthless. National systems, and especially such an one as the Church of England, are thoroughly worldly, and opposed to the word of Christ; they are only fitted to attract the world, and to cast out those who really walk with God. If Christianity be in any way supported by the world, we have reason to expect it is not Christianity really they are supporting.
In the three other parables (vv. 44—50) we have the kingdom of Heaven set before us as that which Paul says is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). Thus this first parable sets forth the result of a true reception of Christianity in the heart.
“The kingdom of Heaven is like unto treasure hidden in a field; which when a man hath found, he keepeth it a secret, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.”—In some cases it will fail to do this fully; as, indeed, in all cases earthly things must fail to set forth perfectly heavenly things; for we see this in the law itself, which, we know, was God’s own typical plan of setting forth heavenly truths. It was, we are told, but “the shadow of good things to come,” and “not the very image of them.” “The kingdom of Heaven,” there it is said, “is like unto a treasure hid in a field; which when a man hath found,” &c. Here the results of receiving Christ are represented as an individual finding treasure in a field. A field may be looked upon with much pleasure in the verdure of spring, in the fertility of autumn, without seeing any further value in it, while at the same time there may be hidden treasures under its surface. So people may admire and diffuse Christianity because of its perfect morality, and yet be unacquainted with Christ. But suppose an individual finds a hidden treasure in this same field which he has hitherto admired, he then looks upon it as much more desirable, and sells “all that he hath and buyeth that field.” And with respect to Christ, by an external knowledge of Christ, any see not His hidden beauty; they know Him not as the One in whom “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Then, an individual having this apprehension of Christ sells all, that he may buy Him. Not, it is true, in the sense of giving anything for Christ; and yet, in a sense, he may be said to buy Christ, in the way expressed by the language of Isaiah, “buying wine and milk without money and without price.” The selling would mean a renunciation of all that is contrary to Christ; for the grace of God teacheth us to give up something, as well as to receive something. It teacheth us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, as well as. to live soberly and godly. A man cannot be wedded to this world and receive Christ at the same time. Where the love of the world exists, there cannot be the love of Christ. This forms the turning point in the history of a converted sinner. Renunciation on the one side, and reception on the other, must go together. And these words of Christ in this parable are not contrary to His other words, “He that forsaketh not all that he hath,” &c. Here, too, we have the manner of a sinner’s receiving Christ—It is with joy. In the next parable (45, 46) we have something different. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchantman, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”—At first sight, there is much resemblance between the two parables; still there is one great feature ot difference. In the case of the field, the individual is not seeking after the treasure he finds there. So a person may not be looking after, as it were, the things of God, but all at once, through the word, or the truth publicly taught, or some providence, he may have his eyes opened to apprehend Christ. But here we have one going about seeking goodly pearls. He has possessed many jewels but he finds one so valuable, that he disposes of all the others in order to buy this. Thus a child of Adam born to disappointment and sorrow, may be crying, “who will show us any good?” He may have been seeking happiness in ambition, in wealth, in honour, or in something not according to the mind of God, and apparently to others he has been successful: yet he has not found the good pearl: there exists still a secret dissatisfaction which cannot be dispelled till he apprehends Christ; but then, having found the pearl of great price, he sells all that he hath in order to buy it. The one parable represents an individual finding Christ when he is not seeking after Him; the other sets forth one who has been vainly pursuing the things of the world for happiness, but finds it only in things of God.
Verses 47-50: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”— The last parable is one of most solemn import, and comes home most closely to Christians, even the most scripturally, meeting together. It is different from the parable of the sower. The tares were the work of Satan done while men slept; but here it is altogether different. The one net drew both good and bad fishes. The net is applicable to the public preaching of the word, agreeably to that saying of Jesus to the sons of Zebedee, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” So both these kinds were brought into the kingdom through public testimony to Christ; that is, there is not the intention to introduce hypocrites into the kingdom, and yet they come in, and however Scriptural may be the mode of receiving, there is exposure to this evil. The day of infallibility certainly is at an end. All were gathered by the same Gospel, partook of the same privileges, bore the same name. There is something far more in the truth here taught. In the other case, it is the work of Satan which came in as a judgment upon unfaithfulness, and unwatchfulness,—” men slept;” but here is a result of that imperfection attaching to everything below. Blame is not imputed to anyone.