Seed and Prepared Soil


The Context of this parable – Jesus, knowing the true character of spiritual conflict in this world, had given an example of the conduct of the enemy of God in the human soul (12:43-45). The demonic is present to greater or lesser degrees in every person who does not know the saving work of Christ (1 John 5:18, 19). Every unregenerate person walks according to the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). According to his purpose, a demon may leave a person for a season and return bringing others with him. During such a season, a person might order his life well but still, in line with his personal captivity to sin, refuse the message of the gospel, leaving himself vulnerable to this more powerful intrusion of the demonic. The entire generation to which Jesus spoke was in danger of such a phenomenon—lives well-ordered by their knowledge of the Law, but void of true spiritual perception of their sin and the need for redemption. The emptiness and danger of mere moral reform without heart conversion loomed large around those who heard Jesus set forth truth and present himself as the Messiah.  Spurgeon remarked, “Reformations which are not the work of conquering grace are usually temporary, and often lead up to a worse condition in after years.” This leads to the question, “Who are the true family of Jesus?” Jesus’ message that pointed to himself as the new Israel, the true lawgiver, the binder of Satan, and the Lamb of God would bring together a new order of persons into his true spiritual family. This family would be constituted on the basis of the proclamation of the word of the gospel. Its manner of operation in the world and how its surpassing value is established and discovered is the subject of the parables in this chapter.

I. The method of teaching in parables – verse 1-3a: Instead of going to his biological family (obviously wanting to move him away from the crowd before he made a complete fool of himself by the extravagance of his claims), Jesus made a place for speaking to a large crowd.

A. “Many things” refers both to the variety of subjects with which Jesus dealt and the variety of images he invoked to make those subjects memorable. Here in chapter 13 Matthew records seven parables and Mark 4:26-29 gives another using the image of seed-sowing but with a different twist. The parables we have in Scripture are selected by the different writers, but do not exhaust those Jesus told during his ministry.

B. John Broadus points to four “designs” in our Lord’s use of parables.

1. “He illustrates moral and spiritual truth, by comparison of things physical and social.”

2. “The parables also served to put truths, at first but imperfectly understood, into a compact and portable form, in which they could be easily remembered, till they should afterwards come to be understood more thoroughly.” From our vantage of having the whole story of Christ’s life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension followed by the ministry and writings of the apostles, it is difficult for us to feel the necessity of these slow movements toward larger truths.

3. “They enabled the Great Teacher to state truths likely to give offence, in such a form that the enquiring and spiritually disposed could understand, while cavilers would not see their point so as to be prematurely excited to violent hostility.”

4. In so far as parables were obscure to persons lacking in lively interest and spiritual sympathy, our Lord employed them as a judgment upon the willfully blind.  Matthew Henry wrote, “A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent, but keeps if from the slothful.”

C. Jesus’ use of parables conformed to prophecy concerning the ministry of Messiah – 13:14, 15 (from Isaiah 6:9, 10); 13:34, 35 (From Psalm 78:2). According to these prophecies parables would both hide and reveal. While they hid from those that are spiritually dull, to those to whom it is given, “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (35) is unfolded. They could, therefore, only be uttered by one who is personally privy to the eternal truths established within the counsels of the triune God and knowable to creatures only by revelation.

II. The Parable of the Soils with its explanation – verse 3b-8; 18-23

A. “A Sower went out to sow.” Jesus does not say who the sower is. It refers to himself initially for he alone understands “word of the kingdom.” Soon, however, it will refer to his apostles and all those who preach the word.

B. The path received some of the seed. The path was that portion of ground trodden hard by those that passed by the field or went through it for a short-cut. Because the seed did not penetrate that hard soil, it remained visible for the birds of the air

1. The seed is “the word of the kingdom.” Its verbal content is the same as what Jesus called “these words of mine” in 7:24, 26. Its power is seen in Jesus’ destroying Satan’s strongholds (4:24; 8:28ff; 12:22). Its fullest expression embraces the redemptive rule of God through the completed work of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20 cf. Hebrews 1:3, 4) as given expression under divine revelation through the apostles (Ephesians 3:2-5).

2. Hard soil represents those who hear the word of God but do not understand it. Hard hearts have been so accustomed to ignoring exhortation, admonition, or correction of any kind that they consider only what accords with their present opinion. They show no desire to know the truth and, therefore, cannot be brought to a love of the truth.

3. No difficulty stands in the way of Satan’s quickly snatching the message of the gospel away from such as these. “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10).

4. This shows that some other power than the bare power of truth itself must be present for the word of God to bring forth fruit. God himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit according to his covenant engagement, must remove the heart of stone and give a heart of flesh before even the truth of God can penetrate the conscience and understanding (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).

C. Verses 5, 6 – Others fell on rocky ground without much soil. Shallow soil allowed the seed to pop up quickly but also refused to let roots go deeply. Adverse conditions combined with no sustaining apparatus to make these immediately good results wither away.

1. The person correspondent to this soil hears the word and responds joyfully (20). Its promises seem to meet his idea of joy and security. A divine presence here, freedom from trial, sickness, and death—who would not like it? Some promises of the gospel idealize human desires and easily are perverted by sinful self-centeredness.  When Joel Osteen turns the gospel into a promise that you will make “twice the salary” that your parents made, one should see the image of a false prophet taking form in precisely the kind of appeal designed to elicit stony-ground response.

2. Other things come into play, however, unaccounted for in the immediate joyful response that placed ease, comfort, and success as the desirable fruits of compliance with the gospel call. Jesus already had shown that the true follower of Christ, the true believer of the word in all its dimensions, would be characterized by a willingness to endure hardship and to forsake earthly affections in the service of Christ (8:18-22). It is no surprise, therefore, that such situations will arise, and the one who has a mere surface attachment to the word will find his faith withered by the assaults of “tribulation and persecution . . . on account of the word” (13:21).

D. Verse 7 briefly noted that a third place for seed to fall was among thorns. The result was that the thorns grew, supposedly along with the grain, and overwhelmed the grain, choking it, robbing it of needed nutrients, light, air, and, thus, life. No fruit could grow in such a situation and robbed the sown seed of its inherent tendency.

1. The person represented by this soil certainly has heard the word. It seems that his hearing has reached the level of cognitive understanding and he has considered that the advantages accruing to its substance are well worth consideration.

2. More immediate advantage appears along another path, however, and the “lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) tighten their lock on his affections. Though the gospel sounds like a fine thing, the love of the Father is not in him, but the love of the world (his native propensity) strangles out the call to conviction of sin, pursuit of holiness, and desire for guiltlessness and righteousness. This present age is too enticing for him to gaze beyond its quickly fading glory to learn how ravishing is the eternal presence of a propitiated God.

E. A fourth place for the sown seed was good soil. It would be a poor farmer indeed who would sow where there was no good soil. The sowing is done, therefore, in light of the certainty that he will find good soil in the sowing. According to its nature, therefore, as it finds the intended target his efforts produced a harvest of grain. According to the particular conditions of each parcel of good soil, the exponent of production increased.

1. God intends through the preaching of the gospel for sinners to be saved. He has prepared for this in eternity in the covenant of redemption, securing through election a specific people to be given to the Son, who would take their nature and die in their stead. His reconciling work would come to fruition in the work of the Holy Spirit convicting and converting these chosen sinners by the truth of the gospel. Seed are sown with the sure confidence that good soil will always be present until this age closes with the triumphant renovating appearance of Christ. We are to consider the patience of God with this age of rebellion as salvation (2 Peter 3:15). When God gathers in all the elect, no more seed will be sown.

2. The good soil signifies hearers whose minds, hearts, affections and understanding have been prepared by the calling of the Holy Spirit. These hearers are like the Thessalonians about whom Paul wrote, “We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:4, 5). Jesus characterized this hearer by the phrase, “He understands it.” None of its promises nor its attendant circumstances has escaped his grasp. He glories in the free grace of God in forgiveness, justification, and adoption, relishes the promise of sanctification with the means  through which it proceeds, and has so tasted this goodness that he leaves the world behind in order that he may attain to the life that is life indeed (1 Timothy 6:18, 19).

3. According to the gifting of God in giving grace to whom he will in the proportions he wills, these believers produce fruit, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, and some thirty. All are stewards of the particular gifts of grace (1 Corinthians 4:1, 2) and should recognize that, in the work of the Christian life, all we have received is of grace. What do we have that we did not receive, and if we did receive it, how can we boast as if we received it not (1 Corinthians 4:6-8). Whatever gift or capacity for fruit-bearing God has given, either in works of love toward the brethren or in special service for the benefit of the body, should be used as unto the Lord: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through  Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4: 10, 11).

III. The Reason for parables on this occasion – verse 10-13. Speaking in parables served as a means of demonstrating the distinguishing grace of God in illustration of the truth of the Scripture in Isaiah 6:9, 10).

A.  Verse 11 – To his disciples “it has been given” (by a special effectual enlightening work of the Holy Spirit) to know the “secrets of the kingdom,” those secrets that in the parables Jesus himself unfolded. He reiterated this in verses 16, 17, and urged them to value their blessings as far greater even than those given to believers before his appearance. To the others, however, who did not understand, or understood only partially and temporarily, “it has not been given.” One cannot escape the just prerogative of God in granting to some an understanding heart in these matters while leaving others in their state of having no fear of God before their eyes. Spurgeon said, “To hear the outward word is a common privilege: ‘To know the mysteries’ is a gift of sovereign grace. Our Lord speaks the truth with much boldness: ‘It is given unto you’, ‘but to them it s not given.’ Solemn words. Humbling truths. Salvation, and the knowledge by which it comes, are given as the Lord wills. There is such a thing as distinguishing grace after all; let  the moderns revile the doctrine as they may.”

B. Verse 12 – There is no neutrality on the issue of divine truth. It is dynamic and will drive a person toward God or away from God.

1. Those temporary responses finally give way to an innate love of the flesh, the world, and the way set forth by the prince of darkness –“Even what he has will be taken away.” Nothing exudes greater irony and tragedy than a careless hearer of the word of God.

2. On the other hand, those who by grace are granted even small glimmers of true understanding will be given more.  Knowledge, holiness, humility, will increase along with heightened affections for God, increased gratitude for the saving work done in sovereign grace. “Be exalted, of God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (Psalm 57:5, 11).

3. Historically and experientially this is the case. At the time of the telling of the parable, more remained to be done and correspondingly more remained to be revealed. Though they were far more blessed than even the prophets and holy men of old (13:16, 17) more redemptive truth soon would come to completion (1 Peteer 1:10-12). True believers would see it, hear it, and gain increasingly greater spiritual benefit. Experientially, all believers grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Captured in the joy of one truth, the believer soon finds another that expands the joy of the first and adds new dimensions of spiritual delight and increasing determination to be holy and useful for the glory of God.

C. Verse 13 – The knowledge of God truly is a sensible knowledge, that is, its reality comes as if by one’s senses. We know beautiful music when we hear it, a beautiful scene when we see it, and a wonderful meal when we taste it. Once one has tasted a pomegranate he can never forget it; but neither can he describe it to another who has not tasted it so that the same sense is present in the non-taster. So it is with those whose eyes, ears, and affections (heart) have never been introduced to the beautiful, absorbing, excellencies of the gospel—so transcendently possessing that every rival affection is expelled.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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