The feeling is all too familiar for those who spend a considerable amount of time in witnessing, evangelism, and defense of Christianity.
There are times when it seems the fruit is plenteous and abundant, and times when it seems our words are simply not connecting with the hearts of the hearers.
I recently had the opportunity to teach on a familiar passage of Scripture which deals with this issue; in times like this, I’m thankful for the practicality of God’s Word. As we endeavor to live “on mission” for Christ, we’ll inevitably face seasons of sowing and seasons of reaping.
All too often we grow “weary in well doing” in our seed-sowing efforts, and forget that “in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9).
Before I continue, allow me to insert a bit of context:
I was invited to teach this lesson in the context of a series one of our Sunday School teachers was exploring called “Hidden Wisdom.”
As we read our Bible, it becomes apparent that two people can have the exact same information, yet reach two very different conclusions. Consider these words from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (vv. 1-8).
In vs. 14 of the same chapter, the Apostle continues, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Finally, this contrast is perhaps most easily seen by looking back one chapter and to verse 18: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”
The very same message which results in utter foolishness to the unbeliever becomes the foundational axiom by which all believers live–and, ultimately, the source of eternal joy and happiness.
In fact, this event–“the cross”–has been called the “hinge of history.” Christian writer Max Lucado explains,
“It rests on the time-line of history like a compelling diamond. Its tragedy summons all sufferers. Its absurdity attracts all cynics. Its hope lures all searchers. History has idolized and despised it, gold-plated and burned it, worn and trashed it. History has done everything but ignore it. How could you ignore such a piece of lumber? Suspended on its beams is the greatest claim in history. A crucified carpenter claiming to be God on earth. Divine. Eternal. The death-slayer. Never has timber been regarded so sacred. No wonder the apostle Paul called the cross event the core of the gospel. It’s bottom line sobering: if the account is true, it is history’s hinge. Period. If not, the cross is history’s hoax.”
What’s most interesting is that this principle of “hiddenness” need not be considered decades, centuries, or millennia after the fact–indeed, this perplexing paradox can be seen during the crucifixion itself.
Hanging directly to the right and to the left of Jesus was two thieves–you know the story. One mocks, spits, and ridicules Jesus until the moment of His death. The other humbles himself and pleads for Christ to remember him when He enters paradise.
The mocking thief had all the evidence required–the very Son of God Himself. And yet, he did not believe. The “mystery” of the cross is for some to know, and for others not to know.
This brings me to the text in question, Matthew 13.
This, of course, is the Parable of the Soils.1
The broad meaning of this text has been argued for centuries. There are two prevailing theories which I intend to discuss, but one thing is clear from the outset: Some people received the message, others left more confused than when they gathered.
1. The Seed
First, in this parable, we notice that there is a seed being sown.
Only the foolish farmer expects a crop without first planting a seed. I have a friend who owns a staggering amount of farmland around Dodge City, Kansas. You would be shocked to learn how much time and money goes into the process of simply planting a seed in the ground.
Some seasons, this is easier than others.
Sometimes, the weather is less than cooperative, equipment breaks down, the cost of supplies goes up, and many other contributing factors make for a less than profitable time of seed-sowing.
Other times, however, the skies are sunny, new innovations (such as remote controlled drones) improve the farming process, demand goes up and cost of supplies goes down, etc. When this happens, the harvest may be more plentiful than ever!
At some point in our Christian lives, we must learn to move past our internal fears and doubts and begin sowing seeds. Some are better seed-sowers anyway! Jesus said in John 4:36-37, “And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth.”
Personally, I find I am a better sower than a reaper. God has wired some people differently than others. You may be a better reaper; or, you may be the whole package! Regardless, God has called all of us to take part in His Great Commission (Mark 16:15).
The Man Sowing the Seed
Mark’s gospel gives us a clue as to the identity of the sower. We find in Mark 4:14 that, “The sower soweth the Word.”
Who, then, is the sower? Whoever sows “the Word!” More on that in a moment.
Dr. Scott Caudill says, “Where there is a creature, there ought to be a preacher!” Everywhere we go, we ought to be found “sowing” for Christ.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean street preaching through the grocery store, nor does it mean handing a gospel tract to each person you encounter or blasting Christian music at your cubicle.
What it does mean is doing your “reasonable service.” Which, as the Apostle Paul spells out clearly, is: “that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Romans 12:1).
Practically, this involves living a separated life, sharing the gospel with others, enduring suffering and persecution for the glory of God, reaching out to others in need, etc.
Our lives and our lips should always represent our Lord.
We are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). And ambassadors act with knowledge, wisdom, and character.
After all, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14).
The Message of the Seed
Luke 8:11 tells us clearly that “the seed is the Word of God.”
MacArthur warns against using a “synthetic seed.” A synthetic seed will never result in saved soul–bottom line.
Therefore, if we expect our message to have any impact at all, it must be the right one! Anything less than the revealed Word of the Living God will ultimately be ineffective.
Of course, not every conversation is a gospel conversation. I simply mean that mere opinion won’t cut it. In order to speak life and truth into a person, the message must be consistent with “the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).
The Bible is a unique, and powerful Book. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
The more you learn the Bible, the more you learn about yourself. It knows you better than you know yourself.
When you witness, you are really diagnosing a heart condition. Only God’s Word can give the proper diagnoses of the human heart.
The Mission of the Seed
In vv. 11-13, Jesus gives the disciples His reason for speaking in parables:
“He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”
According to Matthew Henry, “A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent, but keeps it from the slothful.” Similarly, Dr. John MacArthur has quipped that “a parable without an explanation is a riddle.”
Below, we’ll dive into this theme a bit further. For now, it is pertinent to realize that any time the seed of God’s Word is sown, it goes out with a mission.
I’m reminded of the Lord’s words in Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
Let’s not misunderstand the context. God’s Word never returns void–in the sense that it accomplishes what it is sent out to accomplish.
DNA is an incredible thing. Today, your genetic makeup is virtually identical to the exact moment you were conceived. Your DNA and RNA work together to provide and carry the instructions necessary to form and produce your body, and keep it functioning properly.
According to evolutionary scientist and Founder of the BioLogos organization, Francis Collins, DNA is “the language of God.” Although Mr. Collins and I wildly disagree about how that DNA has acted through time (and in how much time it acted), we can certainly agree on his statement in principle.
Expanding on this, it appears that DNA is literally the language God uses to instruct our bodies (and all living things) how to act and react. And yet, since God has breathed into us “the breath of life” we are not a slave to our DNA via biological determinism.
We have the free will to overcome the “biologically” inevitable. The power to love. The power to choose.
Each plant seed sown into the ground carries DNA. It carries instructions about how to react when water, soil, and sunlight begin to affect it. The thing is, the condition of the soil has everything to do with how the seed reacts.
The seed has a mission; it has an intended purpose. But only when the soil is soft and fertile can this intended purpose be accomplished.
2. The Soil
“The problem is not the skill of the sower,” says John MacArthur, “it is the state of the soil.” Put another way, “the soil determines the success of the seed.”2
As we reflect on thoughts of “hidden wisdom,” particularly with respect to Jesus’ apparent reason for using parables at all, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the usefulness and effectiveness of personal evangelism.
Nevertheless, we are commanded to do it! Therefore, there must be a purpose—some reason why, even though it is not our prerogative to know the condition of a soul, we must continually plough the field and sow the seed.
Indeed, the “soil” is the focus of this parable. Although the seed and the sower play a necessary part, the condition of the soil will ultimately determine how successful the efforts of the sower are.
This should be a truth of great comfort to Christians.
Although we often face opposition and objections in our witnessing, we can continue with confidence because we know ultimately that the work of the Spirit must take place, and the heart of the hearer must be ready and open to God’s truth.
With that in mind, let’s examine these four soils and how their condition affects their conversion:
Soil #1. The Soil of Missed Opportunity
Matthew 13:19 says, “When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.”
This, of course, is Jesus’ interpretation of the first “soil” found in the parable. Notice that the problem here is not emotional, but intellectual. The person “understandeth it not.” But, many atheists appear to have emotional objections to faith. Did Christ get this wrong?
See, in Romans 1, the Bible teaches that everyone actually knows there is a God. This is a truth that is suppressed intellectually, but is usually emotionally manifested when unbelievers trade on Christian values such as human rights and ethics, causing irreconcilable inconsistency between what one ought to believe based on his worldview and what he actually believes.
Notice the process:
- The seed is sown (the Word preached or taught).
- The “wicked one” comes (Satan, see Mark 4:15).
- He steals the seed that was sown in the unbelieving heart.
Unfortunately, the case here is open and shut. The unbeliever, incapable of understanding spiritual truth and incurable in virtue of his own unrighteousness, remains lost and desolate without God.
Paul clarifies this work of Satan in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “In whom [them that are lost, v. 3] the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.”
For this person, no amount of evidence will do. No persuasive argument can loosen the grip that the world, the flesh, and the devil have on him. His only hope is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to soften his heart, and turn his affections towards God.
Soil #2. The Soil of Misled Expectations
In vs. 20-21, Jesus describes the state of the second soil: “But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.”
The word “anon” is an Old-English word that simply means “immediately.” Matthew Henry comments, “Hypocrites often get the start of true Christians in the shows of profession, and are often too hot to hold…There are many that are very glad to hear a good sermon, that yet do not profit by it; they may be pleased with the word, and yet not changed and ruled by it; the heart may melt under the word, and yet not be melted down by the word, much less into it, as into a mould.”
Again, note the process:
- The seed is sown (the Word preached or taught).
- This time, the seed is received with joy.
- He endures for awhile, but as it turns out, there is no root.
- When tribulation or persecution comes because of the Word, he is offended.
This is a different kind of case; albeit, one that has become prevalent in this day of TV evangelism and prosperity preaching.3
This is clearly a person who has not been truly regenerated, yet likes the “sound” of the gospel. He likes the “daily benefits” that result from a life with Jesus, but fails to acknowledge the “suffering and persecution” which often accompany. Jesus made sure to point out that this person “has no root in himself.”
The gospel must be simple, but not shallow, to be saving.
Henry is helpful again in noting,
“It is possible there may be the green blade of a profession, where yet there is not the root of grace; hardness prevails in the heart, and what there is of soil and softness is only in the surface; inwardly they are no more affected than a stone; they have no root, they are not by faith united to Christ who is our Root; they derive not from him, they depend not on him.”
We find that, in the heart of a true believer, “tribulation worketh patience” (Romans 5:3). The facts are in: Jesus not only told us to expect suffering and persecution following a choice to become a disciple of His, He promised they would come.
He says in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
Dr. MacArthur helpfully sums up the condition of this soil:
“It doesn’t ultimately matter how much enthusiasm the shallow hearer shows in that initial response to the Word of God: if it’s a shallow conviction with no real root, that person will eventually fall away. And when that happens, it proves definitively that in spite of all that apparent joy and zeal, the person never truly believed in the first place.”
Soil #3. The Soil of Mishandled Priorities
In vs. 22, Jesus describes the third soil: “He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.”
This third type of soil is quite debatable. For a very long time, I was convinced that this soil was actually an unbeliever, and that the fourth soil was, in fact, the only genuine believer.
Upon further reflection, I’ve changed my view on this.
Again, let’s take time to think carefully about the process:
- The seed is sown (the Word preached or taught).
- The seed is received and heard.
- The seed is not stolen away, nor did it fail to take root, it simply was choked.
- The soil becomes unfruitful.
One’s soteriology (view of salvation) may greatly affect how one interprets this verse of Scripture. There are two words, it seems to me, that need proper interpretation to get the meaning of this passage right: choke, and unfruitful.
The word “choke” is συμπνίγω (sympnigō) in the Greek and means (in its biblical usage), “to press round or throng one so as almost to suffocate him.” The only other time this particular word is used in the New Testament is later in Luke 8 (which, helpfully, also contains this parable) and is translated as “thronged” in the KJV. It is speaking of when the crowd “thronged” Jairus as he was attempting to plead with Jesus for help for his daughter.
Clearly, then, this word is not referring to a death of any sort, but merely a strangling or restraining. Practically, I think we can all think of a person who we have every reason to believe is still a Christian, and yet is burdened down by the cares of this world, or perhaps has become so dependent and addicted to riches that Christ has taken a back seat.
Sadly, this is the condition of many believers today. They once had a zeal and passion for things of God, but have since grown cold and different. Spiritual apathy is perhaps the most dangerous mood and attitude a Christian can have. No doubt, it will naturally lead to unfruitfulness.
The word “unfruitful” should, I think, be taken to mean that they are not actively bearing fruit in their walk. Again, this fits the above description of a Christian who has become inundated with worldly cares and desires. Unfruitful does not mean unregenerate.
Furthermore, we see the word becometh. If you, as I do, hold to the view of eternal security, you realize that to “become unfruitful” could not possibly mean to “become unsaved” because such a thing is an impossibility.
MacArthur writes, “This is not a hard-hearted unbeliever or a shallow, emotional person. This time the soil itself is well plowed and deep enough. But there are all kinds of impurities in it. Weeds native to that soil have already germinated under the surface. They will always grow stronger and faster than the good seed. The Word of God is a foreigner in such a heart. Weeds and thorns own that ground.”
A sad condition, indeed; even more so in the context of eternity. Christ will not say to this person, “I never knew you.” But while he will not lose his regeneration, he will lose his rewards.
Soil #4. The Soil of Mature Belief
Lastly, we find Jesus’ exposition of the final soil: “But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (v.23).
In this final scenario, we find the mature Christian believer!
The process goes as follows:
- The seed is sown (the Word preached or taught).
- The Word is received and understood.
- The seed bears much fruit and brings forth.
One teacher has pointed out that each of Jesus’ parables always has at least one “shock factor” buried inside. So while the resultant conditions of the first three soils would have been par for the course, the last condition would have been very unusual.
The reason is in that culture, even a 10-fold return would have been significant–but to think that one could achieve a sixty fold return on his crops–now that is worth listening to.
This is the fertile ground–the ground which speaks of a “prepared heart.” Perhaps a “Paul” sowed the seed, and an “Apollos” came along and watered for a while. Eventually, God gave the increase!
This soil, especially, speaks to need of blooming where we are planted. If God has given you the ability to be a skillful sower, then use that ability! If you are given the ability to water the crops or even to harvest them, then use it!
It is a team effort. The Apostle Paul said, “Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:8-9).
There is one significant truth in this parable that mustn’t be missed: The sower, nor the seed, changed.
In fact, the only factor of difference was how the soil received the seed that was sown.
Therefore, whatever “hidden wisdom” is revealed to those who become regenerate believers, there is a measure in which the softheartedness of the soil is responsible.
There is one more mystery to be explored, however.
In vv. 11-13 above, we briefly considered Jesus’ seemingly strange reason for using these parables. If the hardheartedness of the soil prevents the seed from being fruitful, what part, if any, does God play in all this?
Ultimately, that is the final question before us.
#3. The Soul
We have here a significant portion of Scripture for a number of reasons.
First, the parable itself trades on concepts and practices that were very familiar to the hearers. I can hardly even think of a sermon illustration that is more significant in its applicability to a modern-day congregation than this would’ve been to Jesus’ immediate audience.
Second, we have Jesus explaining precisely why He used a particular style of teaching. This is significant because, if properly understood, it may give us a window into how we ought to conduct our teaching in a given situation.
Finally, we have a detailed exposition of the passage by Jesus Himself, along with an explanation as to why some will understand His teachings and some won’t. This not only gives us insight into the “hidden wisdom” in view here, but also into how Scripture ought to be interpreted.
Jesus tells His disciples (in what appears to be a separate conversation taking place away from the crowd), “it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (v. 11b).
Here we have three things: (1) mysteries, (2) those who can know them, and (3) those who can’t know them.
We should define “mysteries” here to mean “hidden truths.” This seems to be Paul’s meaning in 2 Corinthians as well. That is, there are truths about the nature of reality that some get to know, and others do not.
In my mind, the question is, why can’t certain people understand? And by “why,” I mean to say, whose fault is it? Drilling down deeper, is it God’s prerogative to cause these people to understand, or man’s own failure to understand?
These are the two overarching theories as it relates to this passage. I am calling them the Divine Prevention theory, and the Human Apprehension theory.
I’d like to offer my take on each of these theories, and suggest a better way of thinking about the situation.
The Divine Prevention Theory
There are Reformed (Calvinist) teachers (John MacArthur and Matt Slick, for example) who interpret this passage to mean that Jesus spoke in parables for the express purpose of concealing the truth.
If the doctrine of election is understood to mean, as they interpret it, that the choice of who spends eternity with God vs. eternity in hell is entirely in His hands, then this passage makes sense in that view.
On this view of Scripture, Jesus is explaining to the disciples that He is intentionally concealing this from the crowd. As one writer has put it, Jesus did not want them to see the truth.
The Human Apprehension Theory
On this view, the failure to understand Jesus’ spiritual application of this passage has to do with the spiritual blindness of the unbeliever in virtue of his own choice to reject the things of God.
This would generally be the Arminian take on this passage. So while it is true that Jesus is speaking in parables, and that they fail to understand Him, He is merely describing this state of affairs and explaining it to His disciples.
So, on this view, there is no indication that Christ doesn’t want this crowd to hear and understand; He is merely pointing out to His disciples that this is the case. This seems more consistent with verses like 2 Peter 3:9 which teaches that, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
Interestingly, Greg Koukl, a Christian apologist and ironically a Reformed believer himself (and therefore a “hostile witness”), believes this view is the correct one. Specifically, he has pointed out that this is the way these passages have been understood historically.
A Better Way
Long-term readers of my blog may have some insight into where I am going with this.
With respect to soteriology, I consider myself to be a Molinist. This means I affirm the doctrine of God’s Middle Knowledge (MK), and believe that He possessed this knowledge prior to actualizing (creating) this world.
To explain very simply and give one illustration, it appears from Scripture that God has counterfactual knowledge. He knows “facts” that have not taken place in the course of history, but that would have taken place under a different set of circumstances.
Consider Jeremiah 38:17-18, for example:
“Then said Jeremiah unto Zedekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel; If thou wilt assuredly go forth unto the king of Babylon’s princes, then thy soul shall live, and this city shall not be burned with fire; and thou shalt live, and thine house: But if thou wilt not go forth to the king of Babylon’s princes, then shall this city be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and thou shalt not escape out of their hand.”
Simply put, the Lord was able to reveal ahead of time to Jeremiah what would happen if either state of affairs would have taken place.
Applied to salvation, then, one can easily see that God knew ahead of time who would respond to His call in any given particular situation. Sovereignly, He created the world necessary to accomplish His divine purposes, but the actual choice of the unbeliever is his, and his alone.
This teaching is, as you’ve hopefully surmised, an attempt to reconcile the free will of man and the sovereignty of God.
I think it does so quite eloquently and is both Scripturally and philosophically sound.
In returning to the passage, it appears that this is a satisfactory view. The language in Jesus’ reply to the disciples (vv. 11-17) seems to indicate both that Christ spoke in parables for the express purpose of concealing the truth, but also that it was the unbelievers who had closed themselves off from understanding.
Consider His reasoning in vs. 15, “For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (emphasis mine).
It does not say that Christ intentionally caused their dullness of hearing, the waxing of their hearts, or the closing of their eyes. Christ is merely describing the spiritual condition which makes clear their inability to comprehend God’s truth.
Although the greater question of “hidden wisdom” still remains, it appears clear to me that man’s decision–manifested first at the Fall–plays the most important role in his lack of spiritual understanding.
I’ll remind you that the Apostle Paul said, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
The man who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit is clearly able to understand God’s truth. The natural man, who is at enmity with God (James 4:4) and far from him (Isaiah 29:13), has been “blinded” and “hardened” (John 12:40).
If my view on this is correct, in a manner of speaking, both man and God chose, from “before the foundation of the world,” exactly how they would respond to God’s truth.
Nevertheless, one thing is certain: “We know that we have passed out of death into life” (1 John 3:14).
For that, we should give God all glory forever, and ever, and ever.
To echo the great apostle’s words to young Timothy, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Questions? Feel free to comment below and start the discussion, or click the blue button on the right (desktop only) to ask a question with a voicemail. We will do our best to answer in an upcoming post. Thanks!
- Sometimes called the Parable of the Sower.
- I owe the teacher of the Sunday School class, Brian Lineberry, for this quote.
- There is a giant difference between living in the abundance of the grace of God and the so-called “prosperity gospel.” The former appeals to spiritual satisfaction wrought by the witness of the Holy Spirit, the latter appeals to worldly wealth and success in a theological relationship not endorsed by God’s Word.