The Word of Truth
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
Editor’s Note: In the previous issue of Foundation Truth (#27), an article in “The Word of Truth” section addressed the judgments of God. After the issue was printed and mailed, some discussion occurred about the particular interpretration of the parable of the wheat and tares (Mt. 13) which was given prominence in the article. We have recorded here some of the discussion that followed, as a fuller treatment seems needful to rightly handle the Word of Truth.
The Judgments of God
An article in the “Word of Truth” column addressed the judgments of God, particularly noting the operation of His judgments that are preliminary to the final judgment of all men. A quotation was made from Bible Readings for Bible Students (compiled by S. L. Speck and H. M. Riggle), which interpreted the parable of the tares among the wheat. The interpretation applied the meaning of the parable both to return of Christ, and also to the judgment of sectism occurring in the reformation of church government and unity back to Scriptural purity.
I am concerned that the position taken gives undue prominence to the judgment of sectism, when the primary burden of the parable involves the forbearance and longsuffering embodied by Jesus’ statement in Luke 9:56: “For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”
Surely God has great depths of wisdom and understanding stored in His Word, and His preliminary judgments cannot be denied, but we open ourselves to dangerous imbalance if His Word is not rightly divided in us. The parable in question applies most completely to the final judgment, and it only lends partial weight to any preliminary judgment. Therefore to endeavor to apply it most forcefully to a specific preliminary judgment raises a red flag.
To give some context, Bible Readings was published in 1902, scarcely 20 years after light on the church of God was once again being revealed in a prominent way. Many brethren felt that the return of Christ was imminent, even within their lifetimes, and that God would be no longer working in sectism, hence the statement in the book: “The harvest or separating of the wheat from the tares was to take place ‘at the end of the world,’ just before Christ’s coming” (emphasis added). In all fairness, they were probably so consumed with a desire to reveal the error of sectism and the truth of the pure church that they “found” support in the Bible wherever they looked. It is characteristic of us as humans to find patterns and extract meaning that fits our frame of mind.
It is still possible for an honest heart to receive blessing from workmanship which was faulty in dividing the Word, as long as the fruit is in harmony with “all the counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) The blessing comes, not because God plays linguistic games with His Word, but because His Spirit works beyond the limitations of human language and will if need be bypass the mind to reach the heart.
So why bring up this issue? Most particularly because of the fruit manifested in the lives of the authors of Bible Readings. They and many other brethren succumbed to compromising holiness, while being convinced that they were rightly dividing the Word. And why not we as well? Only through a constant renewal of humbly acknowledging our human limitations and utterly depending on the Spirit of Truth to teach us. For He alone can keep us in balance when we drift to the right or left.
All of the judgments of God, both preliminary and final, follow the same pattern. There is something wrong that calls for judgment, and much patience and longsuffering have been manifested by the Almighty to give opportunity for the parties involved to consider, to repent and forsake. But the sin has not been forsaken, and divine justice knows (and knows perfectly) when the time has come for judgment.
“The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19:9-11)
Some of these judgments of God are subtle and very likely not to be perceived by men, while others are astonishing and sensational. When King Saul was brought into judgment by God for his usurping the place of one of God’s high priests by offering the sacrifice because Samuel had not come (1 Samuel 13:1-14), the immediate effect was not apparent. Here is the judgment: “Now thy kingdom shall not continue.” But it proved to be a long time before the judgment entirely came true.
John Bunyan, in The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, speaking of Mr. Badman when he was a youth, relates:
WISEMAN. Why then, I will tell you, that he [Mr. Badman] had not been with his master much above a year and a half, but he came acquainted with three young villains, who here shall be nameless, that taught him to add to his sin much of like kind, and he as aptly received their instructions. One of them was chiefly given to uncleanness, another to drunkenness, and the third to purloining, or stealing from his master.
ATTENTIVE. Alas! poor wretch, he was bad enough before, but these, I suppose, made him much worse.
WISE. That they made him worse you may be sure of, for they taught him to be an arch, a chief one in all their ways.
ATTEN. It was an ill hap that he ever came acquainted with them.
WISE. You must rather word it thus—it was the judgment of God that he did, that is, he came acquainted with them through the anger of God. He had a good master, and before him a good father, by these he had good counsel given him for months and years together, but his heart was set upon mischief, he loved wickedness more than to do good, even until his iniquity came to be hateful, therefore, from the anger of God it was that these companions of his and he did at last acquaint together. Says Paul, “They did not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28); and what follows? wherefore “God gave them over,” or up, to their own hearts’ lusts. And again, “As for such as turn aside unto their crooked ways, the Lord shall lead them forth with the workers of iniquity.” (Psalm 125:5) This therefore was God’s hand upon him, that he might be destroyed, be damned, “because he received not the love of the truth that he might be saved.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10) He chose his delusions and deluders for him, even the company of base men, of fools, that he might be destroyed ().
ATTEN. I cannot but think indeed that it is a great judgment of God for a man to be given up to the company of vile men; for what are such but the devil’s decoys, even those by whom he draws the simple into his net? A whoremaster, a drunkard, a thief, what are they but the devil’s baits by which he catcheth others?
WISE. You say right; but this young Badman was no simple one, if by simple you mean one uninstructed; for he had often good counsel given him; but, if by simple you mean him that is a fool as to the true knowledge of , and faith in Christ, then he was a simple one indeed; for he chose death rather than life, and to live in continual opposition to God, rather than to be reconciled unto him; according to that saying of the wise man, “The fools hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord.” (Proverbs 1:29)
And what judgment more dreadful can a fool be given up to, than to be delivered into the hands of such men, that have skill to do nothing but to ripen sin, and hasten its finishing unto damnation?
And, therefore, men should be afraid of offending God, because he can in this manner punish them for their sins. I knew a man that once was, as I thought, hopefully awakened about his condition; yea, I knew two that were so awakened, but in time they began to draw back, and to incline again to their lusts; wherefore, God gave them up to the company of three or four men, that in less than three years’ time, brought them roundly to the gallows, where they were hanged like dogs, because they refused to live like honest men.
ATTEN. But such men do not believe that thus to be given up of God is in judgment and anger; they rather take it to be their liberty, and do count it their happiness; they are glad that their cord is loosed, and that the reins are on their neck; they are glad that they may sin without control, and that they may choose such company as can make them more expert in an evil way.
WISE. Their judgment is, therefore, so much the greater, because thereto is added blindness of mind, and hardness of heart in a wicked way. They are turned up to the way of death, but must not see to what place they are going. They must go as the ox to the slaughter, and as a fool to the correction of the stocks, till a dart strike through his liver, not knowing “that it is for his life.” (Proverbs 7:22-23) This, I say, makes their judgments double; they are given up of God for a while, to sport themselves with that which will assuredly make them “mourn at the last, when [their] flesh and [their] body [are] consumed.” (Proverbs 5:11) These are those that Peter speaks, that shall utterly perish in their own corruptions; these, I say, who “count it pleasure to riot in the day time,” and that sport “themselves with their own deceivings,” are “as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed.” (2 Peter 2:12-13)
[John Bunyan; The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, “Chapter 3”]
The judgments of God occur even though people perceive them not. One of His judgments is when He leaves a person or a people to their own devices. “They shall go with their flocks and with their herds to seek the LORD; but they shall not find him; he hath withdrawn himself from them… I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.” (Hosea 5:6,15) “Great in counsel, and mighty in work: for thine eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men: to give every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” (Jeremiah 32:19) A great deal that happens among men are the judgments of God, yet it is not perceived as judgment, or even regarded with the fear of God and respect for the Almighty that would be appropriate.
These things are just as true of the judgments of God against sectism as they are of any other of His judgments. According to the Bible, “Babylon hath been a golden cup in the LORD’S hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad.” (Jeremiah 51:7) This scripture refers directly to literal Babylon, that empire first headed by Nebuchadnezzar, which was used of God to work His judgments upon other nation—even to the point of enslaving the people of God and taking them captive. The same passage and many others also refer to the New Testament captivity of God’s people in the organizations of men—known as spiritual Babylon. God allowed Israel after the flesh to be captured by literal Babylon because of their idolatry, and He allowed Israel after the spirit to be captured by spiritual Babylon because of their idolatry. Yet He also decreed judgment upon literal Babylon (Jeremiah 52:9) and He also decreed judgment upon spiritual Babylon.
“And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory. And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies. And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities. Reward her even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled fill to her double. How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow. Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her.” (Revelation 18:1-8)
“And after these things I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, saying, Alleluia; Salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God: For true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand. And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” (Revelation 19:1-3)
The smoke of the discrediting of Babylon is still rising upon the battlefield of this earth. To examine carefully the position of respect and influence that false Christiantiy had in the world before the Reformation of 1880 and to compare it with the current state of things is to study the judgment of God against Babylon. She is but a shell of what she was formerly. She has been “utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord God who judges her.”
The saints of that time of human history were very conscious of their role in the then-current judgment of false religion. Their red-hot convictions are necessary to assault the fortresses of our day. They saw that the time of mingling of the tares and wheat, the growing together, had come to the time of separation. The poet put the words of the Bible in this way:
“Long with a scornful wonder
Men saw her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed.
Yet saints their watch were keeping
To hail a brighter day,
When God should stop their weeping,
Take their reproach away.
“The evening sun is shining,
The cloudy day is past;
The time of their repining
Is at an end at last.
The voice of God is calling
To unity again;
Division walls are falling,
With all the creeds of men.”*
And it is true that many of the saints of that day thought that the blessing and glory of that day would proceed on forever to the end of time. To put this in context with Matthew 13, they thought that the preliminary judgment of separating the wheat and tares would be the final judgment, and that wheat and tares would never grow together again. But just as in the expectations of the saints who lived back when the New Testament scriptures were written, so it has proven of the evening light saints: “The people of thy holiness have possessed it but a little while: our adversaries have trodden down thy sanctuary.” (Isaiah 63:18) With Gideon of old, with his thinking about the previous glory of God upon Israel, as he threshed a little wheat to hide it from the oppressor, we are compelled to say of the miracles and glory of the past days of God’s church, “Oh my Lord, if the LORD be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt? but now the LORD hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.” (Judges 6:13) Oh, let us listen to the angel: “The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour.” (Judges 6:12) Yea, “Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?” (Judges 12:14)
It is true that the tares and the wheat were separated, the wheat gathered into Father’s barn, and the tares burned in the sight of God. This happened even while those who rejected the “come out of her, My people” message of the Bible continued to advocate attempting to be all the Lord’s while still submitting to the sectarian yoke. And then that generation which briefly rediscovered the glory of God’s church largely passed away, and most of those who followed were tempted and succumbed to the siren song of building a “new” idol. In short order, wheat and tares began to grow together again, and the Almighty has judgment on the agenda, just as surely as He did before. For while the battle between right and wrong surges back and forth over the field of the earth until confusion envelopes the minds of men, right is still right, and wrong is still wrong.
Many, attempting to make sense of the picture by looking upon the human beings involved and not keeping their eyes upon God, suffer the same effects in their vision and understanding as men have always experienced in all the ages of time. For if we look upon Israel from the promises to all of Abraham’s offspring from a human standpoint, the entire thing seems to disintegrate into pitifulness—from Saul down to Ahab and beyond. The divided kingdom. The captivity. The silent years after Malachi. The reception of Him who came unto His own, but they received Him not. The establishing of the canon of the scriptures, both Old Testament and New. The blasphemy of the long, long Catholic dominance. The looking at the work of God from a human standpoint will make you long for a literal kingdom of God upon earth—for something that satisfies the human desire to see something other than “the things which are not seen.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)
“Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:38-39)
Yes, as you have said, “It is characteristic of us as humans to find patterns and extract meaning that fits our frame of mind.” But God has something better than that for us. He is higher than us, and His thoughts are higher than ours. What a blessing—what a consolation! To look at the things which are unseen by the natural eye.
“Onward moves the great Eternal
In the order of His plan;
Louder, nearer rolls the thunder
Of His awful word to man.
“Yet the world is wrapped in slumber,
Louder raise the trumpet’s blast;
Oh, in mercy let it thunder
Ere the day of mercy’s past.
“In the cages of deception
Souls are pining to be free;
Quickly sound the proclamation
Of the glorious jubilee.
“Louder, louder, hallelujah!
See the glorious fountain flow;
From the midst of heav’n proclaim it;
Oh, it makes me white as snow.”*
Editor’s Note: we have included another exposition of the Parable of the Tares below, which we find helps to clarify the distinction between the true Church of God and sectism, and gives a clearer context of the previous discussion.
Parable of the Tares
This beautiful parable has been the foundation of many discourses upon the spiritual nature and organic function of the church. The stress, however, is usually put upon the following prohibitory words: “Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But He said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.” (Matthew 13:28-30)
Early in the apostasy of the church, the Donatists, as they were called, separated from what had once been the true Christian Church and from what is now the Roman Catholic Church. Between these and Augustine arose a controversy upon the words quoted above, and some others.
The Donatists contended for the purity of the church over against the encroachments of the unsaved and profligate; that in it, in fact, there were none but real Christians. Augustine affirmed that those who have outward marks of belonging to it are in it, but not of it. He assumed that there were certain outward conditions to be met in order to belong to the church, and yet not everyone who met these conditions were of it although they were in it—an argument singular enough, and yet the doctrine of which has been perpetuated from then till now. In Catholicism we see it gone to seed, and in Protestantism we see it about as nearly so.
Hence upon this parable it is assumed that in the church there are both real Christians and the deceived, hypocritical, and profligate; that these must remain together in the church through all time, and that any attempt to separate the evil would destroy the good.
This view might be true if the church were man’s invention, for then man, standing at the door as its keeper, would admit all sorts. But since the church is not man’s invention in any sense, and he cannot keep the door, it cannot be affirmed truthfully that there is a single unregenerate person in it. This may be affirmed of every denomination in the world, but not of the church which Christ built. It is true some attempt to turn the point upon a visible and invisible church. But there is no such distinction made in the Word of God. The notion is invented to accommodate the denominational idea of a mingling of the spiritual and profligate in the Church of God; or, in other words, to make it appear that the institutions which they have set up are the Church of God. Let the “thus saith the Lord” be set down for the visible and invisible churches, and the whole question will be yielded with grace and gratitude.
Let us take now, the Savior’s own explanation of this parable. He says, “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; the enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.” (Matthew 13:37-40)
To understand this explanation, a few words therein must be attended to. The first word of these is the word kingdom. It is from the word basileia—that which is directed by a king; in this case, that which God rules. It consists of a king to direct principles upon which direction is to proceed, and an intelligent being to be directed: God the King, the elements of righteousness and true holiness the principles, and a human being or an angel the subject. The kingdom of God is just as complete if there is but one subject, as if there were a million. “The kingdom of God is within you,” (Luke 17:21) and the whole of it at that. In whom? In each individual subject. And here may be properly marked one clearly defined distinction between the “Kingdom of God” and the “Church of God.” The kingdom is first, the church is second—the latter depends upon the former, and grows out of it, and not the former out of the latter. The word church is from ecclesia—an assembly. The kingdom may encompass but one, the church implies more than one.
From this comes an inevitable conclusion. If the church is second, depends upon and grows out of the kingdom, then it is composed of those, and those only, in whom the kingdom is set up. This is equivalent to saying that there is not an unregenerate person in the church. So we can determine the spiritual status of the church by the subjects of the kingdom. This we are not left to guess at, for Jesus said in this parable, “The good seed are the children [subjects] of the kingdom; but the tares [bad seed] are the children of the wicked one,” neither subjects of the kingdom nor members of the church.
Now we are prepared to understand the meaning of that important phrase in the Savior’s explanation, “the field is the world.” The sense is involved in the word world, and upon it turns the central idea of the whole parable. But viewing the kingdom and church as human inventions has involved the word in much confusion. Hence many have interpreted the parable upon the assumption that the word world means the church. But let us see: the word here is kosmos—arrangement, beautiful system, world. It is the stage upon which the sense is enacted; it is not the church, but a field. In this field (the world, the earth), there are two forces in action, in conflict—the good and the bad, the children of the wicked one and the children of the kingdom, the tares and the wheat. Here these two elements grow (exist) together, not in ecclesia (church) but in kosmos (world). If the phrase should read, “the field is the church,” then the Holy Ghost made a mistake in the use of His words, for no sort nor any number of arguments can ever make kosmos (world) mean ecclesia (church).
Now the question does not arise whether or not we shall root out of the church the children of the wicked one, for there are none such in it, but whether or not we shall root them out of the world. Consequently, this rooting out does not involve the commonplace, unscriptural absurdity of turning persons out of the church, but the final and absolute destruction or annihilation of the devil’s children from the face of the earth. The disciples had some crude notions in those days; some of them asked if they should call fire down from heaven to consume their enemies, but Jesus forbade and reproved them (Luke 9:54-56). Likewise, He says in this parable, Nay. But that the gathering up in this place means destruction, and not expulsion from the church, is evident from the Savior’s own words: “As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world [age].” (Matthew 13:40) Again: “And shall cast them into a furnace of fire.” (Matthew 13:42)
Hence the Savior said and still says, Nay, for many obvious reasons. We are not to use violence of any sort, nor to execute. God will repay; and His angels, not we, shall execute His judgments.
But it may be asked then, how the angels “shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity,” (Matthew 13:41) if the good and the bad are not mixed together in the church? The answer is at hand and comprehensive: the “enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat.” (Matthew 13:25) Not in the church among the wheat, but among the wheat in the world, for “the field is the world.” “Out of,” here, does not mean from within, but from side by side. Hence, “two women shall be grinding at the mill, one shall be taken and the other left.” (Matthew 24:41)
The wheat and tares grow together in the field side by side and the tares are taken from among the wheat. So it is said in Matthew 13:49, in the parable of the net, “the angels shall come forth, and shall sever the wicked from among the just.” In both cases the same word (ek, “from”) is used. The unworthy may be as parasites endeavoring to adhere the kingdom, but never able to enter it; hence, never taken from within it, but from among those who are in it.
Now, in this scriptural exposition of the parable there is a literal and total annihilation of many notions concerning the organic functions of the Church of God. By it, what becomes of the various contending factions organized by men, which they call the church? Of (the notion of) corruption existing in or being purged out of the church? Of (the notion of) taking in and putting out members? Of the common prevailing ecclesiastical laws and sect appliances? As these vanish the one only visible, organized church remains, with sufficient power to free itself of all would-be intruders, and as a granite rock of eternal truth. Upon “this rock” Jesus built it, and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18)
—A. M. Kiergan; published in The Gospel Trumpet, July 1, 1885 [selected from The Good Way]