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The central method that Jesus employed in His teaching is the method of setting forth parables. That means that if we want to be serious Christians, we should give ourselves to the understanding of His parables. We should want to learn what they mean, but more than this, we should want to learn how they mean.
“The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow . . .” (Matt. 13:1-23; cf. Mark 4:3-9, 14- 26; Luke 8:14-15).
Summary of the Text
One day things were so crowded that Jesus had to teach the multitudes from a boat (vv. 1-2). He taught them many things in parables, and the first recorded parable was that of the sower (v. 3). Some seed fell by the wayside, and birds ate it (v. 4). Some fell on stony places, where the soil was thin (v. 5). They started up quickly, but the sun scorched them (v. 6). A third category fell on ground that also had thorns (v. 7). The last cast seed fell on good ground, and was fruitful to the tune of 30, 60, and 100 fold (v. 8). Let those who get it get it (v. 9). The disciples then came and asked why He taught in parables (v. 10). Jesus answered that His purpose was to both reveal and conceal (v. 11). Not only so, but the parables are used to give more to the one who has, and to take away from those who have just a little (v. 12). Jesus spoke in parables as a judicial judgment on the Pharisees, and to fulfill the words of Isaiah (vv. 13-15). But the eyes of the disciples are blessed (v. 16). They are more blessed than the prophets and righteous men of old because they see more (v. 17). Jesus then explains the parable (v. 18). The one who hears about the kingdom without understanding it is the beaten path guy (v. 19). The one who hears “shallowly” is an eager believer, but who falls away in times of trouble (vv. 20-21). The third kind of person grows the crop, but also thorns—the cares of this world and the lies of wealth choke it out (v. 22). The good ground hears, understands, and then bears a harvest of 30, 60, or 100 fold (v. 23).
The Answer Key
We should pay particular attention to this parable. It is the first parable in Matthew, and comes at the head of a series of seven. It is a parable that has the remarkable gift of an “answer key.” Jesus breaks it down for us, which means that we can learn (by analogy) how to handle the other parables. He walks through it with us. Third, in the account given in Mark, Jesus explicitly says that it is the key to all the parables (Mark 4:13). He says, “Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?” Do not study the parables, therefore, without mastering this one.
Sower, Seed, Soils
Since we are learning how to handle these things, let us write it out in big, block letters. In the next parable, Jesus identifies Himself as the sower (Matt. 13:37), and there is no reason to not take it the same way here. Christ sows the seed. What is the seed? In this place, it is described as “the word of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:19). Luke says that it is the “word of God” (Luke 8:11). As we serve as the agents of the Lord Jesus (who is the sower), we have to be careful to empty the whole bag of seed. In the book of Acts, preaching the message of the kingdom was the same as “testifying of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24-25), as well as teaching the things that were “concerning the
Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31). The word of the kingdom is as wide as the kingdom. It encompasses everything. It is not enough to say “word of God” as a placeholder—we have to pay attention to what He is saying.
Then there are the soils. The first thing to note is that the soils are four different kinds of human hearts. Jesus says this explicitly in v. 19, when He describes the birds taking away from the foot path man the word which had been “sown in his heart.”The crop does not succeed with the shallow man because he has no root “in himself.” So we are dealing with individual hearts, and Jesus says there are four basic types. There is the hard heart, the shallow heart, the divided heart, and the good heart. This is the Lord’s taxonomy, and we need to learn how to classify ourselves. More about his shortly.
First Century Soils
Never forget that this parable was not told for the first time at First Memorial Church in 1957. In addition to what it plainly means for every man, it also meant something particular and distinctive for the Lord’s first century hearers (Mark 12:1-12). If I were to tell you a story about a man who tried to tread on a rattlesnake and who got attacked by a bald eagle, you would pick up on things that Chinese man wouldn’t.
So think of four kinds of eras in Israel’s history—there are the hard-hearted rebellious periods (think about Israel’s idolatrous apostasies), there are the brief spurts of enthusiastic faithfulness (here’s looking at you, Joash), and the times of formal allegiance to YHWH compromised by a double allegiance to status and money (think Pharisees). And then we see that Jesus is announcing the kingdom, right? He is preaching the advent of the good soil era that the prophets foretold, which means that He is not only the sower, but also the seed. If we think ahead, He is every form of good soil—the only way any of us might become good soil. What kind of soil were the Jewish leaders of the first century? They were clearly choked out by the thorns—they loved money (Luke 16:14), and they were ambitious in all the wrong ways (John 5:44).
But kingdoms are established one subject at a time. Jesus told His disciples to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). We are to make this omelet one egg at a time.
Nothing said here is critical of 30-fold farming. For Jesus, it was all good. But there is good, and there is postmillennial stupendous. We are to pay attention to kingdom agriculture—which means we work it from both ends. We do not till our plots in the hope of growing a king. But neither do we affirm that the king is established, and therefore we do not need to worry about tilling our plots. We want an educated and fruitful citizenry, and we may labor evangelistically because we are in the era of good soil. We therefore plead with the lost to receive the word of the kingdom (2 Cor. 5: 18, 20).