The Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-30)

Jesus gave to his listeners an exposition of his kingdom, which we might assume was a way of making it easier for them to understand what he was teaching. Yet we can see from verse 12 that his disciples were puzzled by this method because it must have been a different one from what Jesus had used previously. They asked Jesus why he was using this method and his reply might have surprised them and it should surprise us because we often think that parables are a way of making something easier to understand. No doubt, that is true of some of the stories that Jesus taught, but it is not the explanation for the parables in this chapter.

Instead, in speaking in parables, Jesus was acting in judgement on those who had refused to accept to his message or accept the witness of his miracles. He had spoken about his coming kingdom and his miracles had shown that he was the promised Messiah. But since he was being rejected by the people he started to teach in a manner that hid truth from them rather than making it straightforward. Indeed, he says that what was predicted of Isaiah’s ministry when he was called to serve as a prophet (Isa 6) was also fulfilled again, but in a more serious way, when the descendants of Isaiah’s rejecters now rejected the divine prophet himself.

In contrast, he says that the disciples are blessed because they have divine understanding – they have been divinely enlightened. Moreover, they have been privileged beyond the Old Testament prophets and other believers because they did not live in the days of the Messiah. They may have predicted his coming and looked forward to his coming, but they did not see it. We can list the famous names of the Old Testament and say about each of them, ‘He or she did not see the days of Jesus on earth.’ Of course, someone might say that all believers since the ascension of Jesus have not seen such times either. Yet we can say in response to such an assessment that we live in the days when the Holy Spirit has been poured forth and when the kingdom of Jesus is expanding.

Since that is the case, one question that should come to mind concerns what the kingdom of Jesus looks like. I suspect that is the issue that Jesus deals with in this set of seven parables as he provides several pictures of life in his kingdom. The pictures apply to every period of his kingdom and to every location. What he describes here will be seen repeatedly while his kingdom on earth lasts. This will be the case even although his kingdom will be growing.

Jesus explains for his disciples the meaning of this parable. One surprising omission from his explanation is that he does not say who the sower is. This could have been because it is obvious, or it could be that there is more than one sower. What are the options? One is that the sower is Jesus, and that would certainly have been the case in a literal sense at that time. Another is that every person who scatters seed is a sower, which could refer to preaching and evangelising. Personally, I suspect the answer to the identity of the sower is to combine the two suggestions. Jesus functions as the sower but he uses his servants to scatter the seed. Paul reminded the Ephesians that Jesus had come and preached peace to them. Yet Jesus had not travelled physically to Ephesus. Instead he had gone there through his servants and declared the gospel to sinners in Ephesus.

There is something very solemn and sad about this. People literally heard the good news of the kingdom from the lips of Jesus and refused his gracious invitations. Today, people hear the good news of the kingdom from the servants of Jesus and refuse his invitations. Such a refusal is serious because those who do so are not merely rejecting the offer of a mere man – instead, they are rejecting an offer that comes straight from the King himself.

Before we look at the parable in more detail, we should observe its structure. There are three bad responses and there are three good responses. This is a reminder that there is variety in the life and experience of the kingdom. The three bad responses involve rejection of the message and the three good responses involve different degrees of fruit-bearing. We can think about the two types of response.

The bad responses
As we can see, one of the bad responses to the message of Jesus is immediate and the other two occur later. Jesus points out two factors as to why there is a rejection of his message in such a manner. First, the individual does not think about it – does not understand it. It is impossible to understand a matter if we don’t think about it. There may be lots of reasons as to why no thought is given. Nevertheless, we see that the message of the kingdom is directed to our minds. Second, a failure to think about the message allows the devil an opportunity of removing it from our minds. It is not difficult for him to do this if we don’t think about the message. The picture of snatching suggests the speed with which this can be done as well as indicating that the individual does not realise that it has happened. Why would he since he is not thinking about it? This is a reminder that the devil looks at people hearing the message with the aim of removing it from their minds, usually by suggesting something else to think about.

The second wrong response is revealed sometime later. Again, this response is made by someone who has not thought about the message. Instead, his response was only an emotional one – he was full of joy, but joy by itself is no proof of conversion. In addition, there has to be what Jesus calls ‘root in himself,’ a picture that the message has taken firm hold within him. This wrong response, says Jesus, shows itself when trouble comes along that is connected to the message of the kingdom. It is striking that Jesus uses the word ‘immediately’ twice to describe this response. There is an immediate response when he hears the message and there is an immediate rejection when trouble comes. We can say of this person that he has not counted the cost. Part of the message of Jesus is that those who follow him will face opposition for their faith and true disciples will take that into account. Sadly, many a person has given up the faith because someone laughed at them.

The third wrong response is revealed when a person’s priorities are tested. Things go wrong in life. Everyone knows that. The Saviour says that if people live for the wrong things those things will choke the word, which is a very graphic illustration. They prevent spiritual life developing and they don’t grow spiritually. I suppose in the illustration thorns prevented the seed from getting sunlight and moisture, and the things of this world, if they dominate our thinking, will do the same in a spiritual sense. This individual has not been enlightened regarding what he should live for and eventually it becomes clear that he is not living for the kingdom.

What should be our response to this stark statement from Jesus? First, we have to say that it is accurate because there are many who have done this. Second, if we are listening to the gospel, but have not professed, we should pay attention because the devil is waiting to snatch away the message from our minds. Third, if we find the symptoms of the second and third wrong responses in our hearts, we should be afraid and come to our spiritual senses. This warning is given by Jesus because he knew that this is what would happen in connection to his kingdom.

The good responses
As we look at the description of a good response to the message of the kingdom we see in verse 23 that this individual understands it. This is what made the difference. Therefore we should ask what is meant by understanding it. The answer is that we have to recognise two sides to such understanding. On one side is the enlightenment that the Holy Spirit gives to a spiritually blind person. This occurs in the experience of every person who becomes a true believer. From seeing nothing they move to seeing who Jesus is. On the other side is the searching that the individual makes, and the length and intensity of this search will vary between those who become genuine Christians. Some search for a while whereas others seem to find the answer quickly. Also, some make deeper discoveries about themselves (conviction of sin) than others do. And some have deeper and stronger sense of assurance at the time of conversion.

The other area that Jesus mentions is the subsequent development in the spiritual lives of believers. At one level, it is not the amount of fruit but the genuineness of it that is highlighted here. They all bear fruit, but they don’t all bear the same amount. Yet we should observe that Jesus describes the harvest as good, whatever the size. It seems that in Palestine at that time a harvest of tenfold was regarded as successful. So when the disciples heard this illustration they would realise that all true believers bear a lot of fruit. Perhaps our minds go to the words of Jesus in John 15 where, when speaking about himself as the vine and his disciples as branches, he said that those who abide in him will bear much fruit.

What is the fruit that Jesus has in mind here? One suggested answer is that it refers to converts, yet that is unlikely because very few believers have been great soul winners. So it is much more likely that Jesus is referring to Christian character, the type of life he described in his Sermon on the Mount or the fruit of the Spirit as detailed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5. 

Why is there such a difference between the amount of fruit that is produced? I would suggest that the answer to this question is twofold. One aspect is connected to God’s sovereign bestowal of spiritual gifts. He gives certain gifts to some people that he does not give to others, so it is inevitable that in those areas of spiritual living some will have more fruit than others. The other aspect is connected to the use believers make of their spiritual resources, or means of grace. Unlike the first aspect, which we cannot adjust, the second aspect from a human point of view highlights the importance of dedication and delight in utilising those means of grace. 

We can summarise our study by four words and they are differences, dangers, dependence and determination. With regard to differences, we have seen that there is a clear difference between true disciples and false disciples, even if it takes a while for false disciples to reveal their colours. We have also seen that there is a difference between Christians regarding fruit bearing.

Next, we have seen the dangers connected to a shallow and unthoughtful response to the message of the gospel. The danger is connected to self-deception, because at one stage in their lives those in categories two and three of the bad responses would have stated that they were genuine believers.

The final lesson is to realise that a true believer is marked by a combination of dependence on Jesus and determination to continue serving the Lord whatever comes along in life. Such have understood the message of the kingdom that the heavenly Sower declares through his servants.

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