The Prophetic Parables of Matthew 13 (p1)
with The Prophetic Scope of Matthew 24 (P4)
AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain
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The Prophetic Parables of Matthew 13
There is little room for wonder, though there is much for humiliation, at the widespread ignorance and error that now obtains among the people of God on many of the leading subjects of Prophecy. For almost fourteen centuries, as “Church-history” clearly shows, prophecy was neglected. Those known as the “Church fathers,” with only one or two exceptions, like Origen, devoted their time to wrangling over doctrines and the ordinances; while prophecy was ignored. In view of 2Pe 1:19—”We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place”—and the general neglect of prophecy for fourteen hundred years, those centuries have very aptly been termed “The Dark Ages”—dark because the light from the lamp of prophecy did not illumine them.
Nor was it much better when the Reformers came on the scene. God forbid that we should utter one word of criticism against those honored men of God, but their hands were more than full in preaching the Gospel to a people who were utterly ignorant of it, in translating the Scriptures into their own mother-tongues, and in expounding the great fundamentals of the Christian faith. So busily occupied were they in those good works, they had little or no time to give to the real study of prophecy itself. As a matter of fact, practically all that the Reformers saw in the prophetical portions of Scripture was the foretold judgment of God upon the Satanic system of the Papacy, out of which they had been mercifully delivered.
Those who have any knowledge at all of human nature can readily understand how it would be with men who had been cradled in Romanism and who later had, by the grace of God, been enabled to see its blasphemous errors. When they came to the prophecies of Scripture, their thinking was colored by Romanism, and consequently when they met with an object which was the predicted subject of God’s judgment, they viewed it through colored glasses. “Babylon’’ was the Papacy; the “Man of Sin” was the Pope; the “Beast” was Rome, and so on. The sad thing is that most of those who have followed the Reformers, instead of studying the prophecies of God’s Word for themselves, have done little more than echo what the Reformers before them said. In consequence, little or no advance has been made, and God’s people at large today have very little more light upon prophecy than had their forefathers of three hundred years ago.
There is, therefore, pressing need for all Christians to give at least part of the time they spend in reading the Scriptures to studying its predictions. We purpose giving a series of studies on the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, which, in the writer’s judgment, is, from the standpoint of prophecy, the most important chapter of all the New Testament. There is much in God’s prophetic program which must necessarily remain dark until the parables of this chapter are thoroughly mastered. At present they are much misunderstood and misinterpreted.
It will be found that in Mat 13:10-11 the Lord Jesus has designated these seven parables “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” This expression “the kingdom of heaven” comprehends in a brief form the contents of the whole chapter. This will be seen by a reference to verses 24, 31, 33, etc., where it will be found that each of the last six parables begin with “the kingdom of heaven is like unto.” What is meant by this expression? There is perhaps no term in Scripture used so extensively, but which is so little understood. Though it is found in Matthew’s Gospel only, yet it occurs there no less than thirty-two times. Thus our interpretation of this expression affects a great deal of Scripture, and a correct definition of it supplies the first key to the understanding of Matthew 13; for it should be obvious to all that none can begin to understand its seven parables until they have obtained a right definition of that term.
There is the utmost confusion today and a fearful amount of misunderstanding concerning the scriptural purport of this expression, “the kingdom of heaven.” There are some who think that it refers to Heaven itself. There are others who understand it refers to that Church of which Christ is the Head. But there is one scripture in the New Testament which conclusively refutes both of these definitions. In Mat 16:19 we find the Savior saying to Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Most assuredly Christ did not give to Peter the keys of the Church; still less did He give to him the keys of Heaven itself. Then of what did He give Peter the keys? What does the reader understand by “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”? Could you give a simple and satisfactory explanation of this verse to a Romanist who came to you desiring help upon it? We have raised this point in order to show what a need there is for a careful inquiry and a close study of what this particular expression does not connote and what it does signify.
It is because the great majority of Christians, including most of their leaders and teachers, have no right understanding of this term—”the kingdom of heaven”—that they encounter so much in Matthew’s Gospel which is perplexing and puzzling to them. Let us refer to one other passage where this expression occurs so as to make more manifest the prevailing ignorance. In the opening verse of Matthew 22 we read, “And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king which made a marriage for his son,” etc. Now go down to verse 11 (Mat 22:11): “and when the king came in to see the guests he saw there (at the banquet itself) a man which had not on a wedding garment: and he said unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither, not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king, Bind him hand and foot,” etc. How many of our readers are really satisfied with the explanations which they have heard or read of this passage? Our only object in calling attention to it now is to point out that it is one of the parables relating to “the kingdom of heaven,” and to show that until we obtain a correct definition of this expression there is not a little in Scripture which we shall never begin to understand.
Before we are ready to take up in detail the subject of “the kingdom of heaven” we need first to weigh the wider expression of “the kingdom of God,” and in considering this we must begin where Scripture begins, and that is in the Old Testament. In the remainder of this article we shall attempt nothing more than an outline of “the kingdom of God” in the Old Testament.
In contemplating “the kingdom of God” in the O. T. Scriptures great care must be taken to distinguish between two aspects of it. First, Scripture speaks of an unlimited kingdom of God, namely the sovereign rule of the Most High over all His vast dominions. Such scriptures as Dan 4:34-35 refer to this aspect of His kingdom: “And I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honored Him that lives forever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He does according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?” This rule of God over all His creatures is universal, absolute, and eternal. But Scripture also speaks of a limited kingdom, which is restricted both in its scope and time, which is neither eternal nor universal; and it is not until we learn to distinguish between these two separate aspects of the “kingdom of God” that we rightly divide the Word of truth and secure the key which unlocks quite a little of the Old Testament.
This second aspect of God’s kingdom is what may be termed the dispensational one: it is localized and temporal. This is God’s kingdom on earth, where His rule is publicly manifested over and is owned by men. It was first established among the children of Israel, when the Lord Himself was in their midst, when He made the mercy seat upon the ark His throne, and dwelt between the cherubim. That was God’s “kingdom” on earth. In Jos 3:11, Jos 3:13—a passage which takes us back to a point not long after Jehovah took up His dwelling in Israel’s midst—occurs a striking expression: “Behold the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passes over before you into Jordan …… and it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap.” It is to be carefully noted that here is the first time in Scripture that God assumed this title, and that here it was connected with the ark, and was assumed on the occasion of Israel’s passing through the Jordan: it was Jehovah formally taking possession of that land which He had given to His people. Had Israel remained in subjection to their King and obeyed His laws, not only would He have continued in their midst, but through them He would have governed the whole earth—as He will yet do in the Millennium. Proof of this is found in the fact that during the brief seasons they remained obedient, He overthrew their enemies and subdued the surrounding Gentiles.
But Israel waxed disobedient and rebelled against Jehovah their King. “And the Lord said unto Samuel, ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them’” (1Sa 8:7). For centuries after this the long sufferance of God continued to bear with them, but in the days of Ezekiel the Shekinah-glory—His manifested presence in their midst—departed. This is referred to in Eze 10:18, “Then the glory of the Lord departed from off the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim;” and Eze 11:23, “and the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city.” First the Shekinah-glory left the ark in the holy place, then gradually receding, it left the temple, then going farther away it stood over the Mount of Olives, until it vanished from their sight. God had forsaken His earthly throne and dwelling-place.
Now at this point, God, in a dispensational way, assumed a new title. In 2Ch 36:23 we read, “Thus saith Cyrus, king of Persia, all the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord God of heaven given me.” So in the opening verses of Ezra we are told that this same Cyrus made a proclamation saying, “The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem.” These are the first occurrences of this Divine title in Scripture. It is no mere casual expression, but the employment of it marked a great crisis and denoted a radical change in God’s dealings with the earth. It will be found that this is a characteristic title of God in those books which treat of the captivity of Israel. It emphasized the fact that, while His eternal throne can never be given up, God’s dispensational throne upon earth had been forsaken.
In the stead of His visible throne in Israel’s midst, God set up another throne upon earth, a throne which He delegated to men, and which was to continue throughout the times of the Gentiles—an expression which concerns the interval during which the Gentiles have dominion over Jerusalem. This is the theme and subject which is developed in the book of Daniel. In its second chapter, where we have recorded Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the Divine interpretation thereof, we find that the prophetic significance of the great image furnished an outline of the history of the times of the Gentiles and the character of their rule over this earth (see vv. 37-39).
The prophetic dream of Nebuchadnezzar looked forward not only to the end of the four Gentile world-empires, but also beyond them, contemplating another and a future empire which would be totally different in character. In verse 44 we are told, “And in the days of these kings (the “kingdom” before referred to) shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all the kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.” This was the fifth kingdom, the promised kingdom of Messiah. Further details concerning it are given in Dan 7:13-14, “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve Him; His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed”— compare Luk 19:12, Luk 19:15.
After Daniel, the voice of prophecy was soon silenced, and for four hundred years the people of Israel remained in a state of eager expectation, waiting for God to fulfill His promises. Next appeared John the Baptist, who took up the kingdom message just where the O. T. prophets had dropped it. In Mat 3:1-2 we read, “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand—it was “at hand,” because the King Himself was about to appear in the midst of the Jews. When John said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” what do you suppose his Jewish hearers understood by that expression? They had the whole of the O. T. in their hands, but that is all which they then had. Obviously, all their thoughts would naturally turn to that kingdom which the Son of Man was to receive in heaven at the hands of the Ancient of days.
It is to be noted that the Baptist’s preaching was “in the wilderness of Judea.” The position occupied by the Messiah’s forerunner was a sad portend of the outcome of his mission. John appeared outside the temple, away from Jerusalem. And his message, “Repent ye,” bore witness to Israel’s sad spiritual condition—I do not need to say “Repent ye” to a people who are walking in communion with God. “Repent ye” was a word for those who were away from God.
Then appeared the One whom John heralded. The King Himself once more drew near to Israel on earth. He who had of old vacated His earthly throne and who had in the days of Ezekiel retired to heaven, and who from that time onwards became known as “The Lord God of heaven,” had in matchless grace incarnated Himself in human form, and because He was now once more upon earth, because the King Himself was present in Israel’s midst, the Kingdom was “at hand.” Therefore, we are told in Mat 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Both the “signs” (Mat 11:4; Mat 16:3) and the “powers” (Heb 2:3; Heb 6:5) of the kingdom—the Messianic, earthly one —.were displayed by Christ. Humanly speaking, everything was ready for the establishment of that which had been promised by Daniel. Nothing was wanting but this—loyal hearts to welcome and receive the Divine-King. But, alas! this was lacking: “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (Joh 1:11).
The steps of the Messiah’s rejection are traced in Matthew 12, which we shall take up in our next chapter. Because Israel rejected their King, He temporarily rejected them, and therefore the setting up of His Messianic kingdom on this earth was postponed. The King would depart from this world and be absent for a lengthy season, before He returned again and set up His kingdom—see Luk 19:12, Luk 19:15. In the interval of His absence the “kingdom” takes another form. It is now His kingdom among the Gentiles, and is found wherever His authority if publicly owned; it is the sphere of Christian profession: in a word, Christendom.
The thirteenth chapter of Matthew (Mat 13:1-26, Mat 13:27-58) opens with these words “The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the seaside.” This statement clearly looks back to the preceding chapter, where the Holy Spirit has traced for us the various steps in Israel’s rejection of their King. At the beginning of Matthew 12 we find the Pharisees challenging the disciples of Christ because they had plucked the ears of corn on the Sabbath day, which is followed by the Lord’s vindication of them. Next we are told, “Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against Him, how they might destroy Him” (v. 14). This is the first time that we read of anything like this in Matthew’s Gospel.
Next in Mat 12:22-24 we are told, “Then was brought unto Him one possessed with a demon, blind, and dumb; and He healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw.” Up to that point this was the most remarkable miracle that the Lord Jesus had performed, in fact, it was three miracles in one. Such an impression was produced upon those who witnessed it that we are told, “and all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the Son of David ?”—not “is not this the Son of God ?” but “the Son of David,” i.e., the Messiah Himself. Following this we are told, “But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out demons, but by Beelzebub the prince of the demons”—there they committed the sin for which there was no forgiveness.
Following our Lord’s sentence upon the Pharisees for their unpardonable blasphemy, we are next told, “Then certain of the scribes and the Pharisees answered, Master, we would see a sign from Thee” (Mat 12:38). His response was that the only sign which should be given to that evil and unfaithful generation should be that of “the sign of the prophet Jonah”—i.e., that after three days in the place of death the Servant of God should come forth and go unto the Gentiles. Following this, the Lord solemnly pronounced the coming judgment of Heaven upon that wicked generation, so that their last state should be worse than the first (Mat 12:43-45).
The chapter closes by telling us that while Christ yet talked to the people one said unto Him, “Behold, Thy mother and Thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with Thee.” in reply, He asked, “Who is My mother? and who are My brethren?” Then He stretched forth His hand toward His disciples and said, “Behold My mother and My brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in Heaven, the same is My brother and sister, and mother” (Mat 12:46-50). This was a severing o£ fleshly ties: it denoted the Savior’s break with Israel: it announced that henceforth He would only own as His kinsmen those who did the will of His Father which was in Heaven.
It will thus be seen that the opening words of Matthew 13 supply the first key to the interpretation of what follows. The parables of this chapter were spoken by Christ “the same day” as when the Pharisees had taken council together to destroy Him, as when they had committed the unpardonable sin, as when He had pronounced solemn judgment upon the Nation, and as when He had severed the fleshly ties which united Him to the Jews and had intimated that henceforth there should be a people united to Him by spiritual bonds. Thus the relation between Matthew 12 and Matthew 13 is that of cause to effect; in other words, Matthew 12 makes known the cause which led up to Christ’s acting as He did in the thirteenth chapter: that cause was Israel’s rejection of their King and His rejection of them. His action in Mat 13:1 was indicative of a great dispensational crisis, it was an anticipation of what is found developed at length in the books of Acts—God, temporarily, turning away from the Jews and turning unto the Gentiles.
“The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the seaside,” The “house” is the place of ordered relationship and natural ties. This was now left, Jesus “went out” of it! Symbolically, it was a confirmation of His own words at the close of Matthew 12: the link which had bound Him to the Jews was now severed. Christ’s next act was to take His place by the seaside. This also had a deep symbolical significance for those who had eyes to see. The “sea” speaks of fallen man in the restlessness and barrenness of nature, of man apart from God, and thus of the Gentiles (F. W. G.). If the reader will turn to Dan 7:1-2; Rev 17:15, etc., he will there find this figure defined.
“And He spoke many things unto them in parables“ (Mat 13:3). This marked a new departure in Christ’s method of teaching. The first twelve chapters of this Gospel will be searched in vain for any parables. Hitherto Christ had instructed the people in plain language, using simple terms of speech; but now His message was veiled and His meaning hidden. This explains what we are told in the tenth verse: “And the disciples came, and said unto Him, Why speakest Thou unto them in parables?“ The disciples were surprised: not being accustomed to this form of teaching, they were at a loss to account for it here. The Lord’s answer to their question confirmed what we have said on verse 1. His answer is recorded in verses Mat 13:11-15 : our Lord’s quotation there of the solemn words from Isaiah 6 supplied further proof that the Nation had rejected their King. In consequence of this rejection He had taken a place of distance from them, as this new form of teaching plainly evidenced. It is a principle exemplified all through the Scriptures that, wherever parables or symbolic utterances were employed they are addressed to a people estranged from God—hence the absence of them in the Epistles.
Turning once more to Mat 13:11, we find here the second important key which unlocks the contents of our present chapter. The Lord Himself there designates the seven parables “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” But before we proceed further let it be pointed out that the word “kingdom” does not primarily refer to territory. Webster’s first meaning of this word is “royal authority, sovereign power, rule, dominion.” The term “kingdom” refers, directly, not to territory but authority, not to a locality but to sovereignty. Let us borrow a simple illustration. France was once a “kingdom,” but today it is a “republic.” Yet there has been no territorial change: the country is the same, and it is inhabited by the same race of people. It is no longer a “kingdom” for the simple reason that it no longer acknowledges the sovereign authority of any king; instead, it is governed by the public, and is therefore a “republic.” The public are the rulers, authority being vested in those whom they elect to office. Thus it will be seen from this simple illustration that the term “kingdom” looks not to a localized sphere of territory, but refers to the form of its government and speaks of the sovereignty of its ruler. Therefore the “kingdom of heaven” is not heaven itself, but a people who own the sovereign authority of heaven.
Further proof of what has been said above will be found in the Savior’s words to Peter as recorded in Mat 16:19: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” “Keys” speak of two things: they are the symbol of authority and they are for the purpose of opening something and giving admission and access. When I give to some person the key to my house he has the right of authority to enter it. In Rev 1:18 Christ is spoken of as having “the keys of death and hades,” which means that He has complete authority over them. Now to Peter were “given” the keys of the kingdom of heaven, a delegated authority being in view. In the book of Acts the meaning of the Lord’s words to Peter are made plain.
In the second chapter of the Acts we find Peter using those “keys” on the day of Pentecost—opening the door of the kingdom to the Jews. In Acts 10 we find Peter using those “keys” again—giving admission to the Gentiles into the kingdom. It is very striking to weigh the details in the last mentioned: the particular Gentiles referred to were Cornelius and his household. Now in Acts 9 we read of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, and, as we know, he was the apostle to the Gentiles. Yet, when the Lord appeared to Cornelius and told him to send for one of His servants, it was not Paul but Peter that was invited, for it was the latter and not the former who held the “keys”! That which Peter gave admission into was not heaven nor was it the Church, but the sphere of Christian profession. Thus the language of Mat 13:11 assures us that the parables which follow have respect unto Christendom, i.e., that sphere where the authority of heaven and the sovereignty of Christ are professedly owned. Before leaving Mat 16:19, we may add that a successional and vested right in “St. Peter’s keys” is a manifest absurdity; for this reason: Peter left the door of the kingdom wide open!
The eleventh verse of Matthew 13 supplies yet another key, in the word “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” In Scripture the term “mystery” signifies a Divine secret made known by the Holy Spirit. This is confirmed by what is told us in verse 35, namely, that Christ was here uttering “things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” Thus, in these parables, Christ was making known that which was outside the scope of O.T. prediction, something which God had not made known to Israel through the prophets. This needs to be carefully noted, for it refutes the popular interpretation of these parables.
There are many who regard the parables of Matthew 13 as containing predictions of the ushering in of the Millennium: those of the Mustard-tree and the Leaven are regarded as being parallel with the promise that “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” But that statement is found in Isa 11:9: that was no “secret” in O.T. times! Therefore, none of the parables in Matthew 13 can be treating of the same subject as Isa 11:9, or what is stated in verse 35 would not be true. No; Matthew 13 deals with something nowhere revealed in the O.T.; it is an entirely new revelation.
The number of parables here, seven, intimates that they furnish a complete outline or setting forth of something, and that something is the History of Christendom. What is in view in the first four parables is the sphere of human responsibility, and hence it is a picture of failure that is presented to us. In the first, only one out of the four castings of the good Seed yields any fruit. In the second, the crop as a whole is spoiled by the mingling of the tares among the wheat. In the third, the little mustard-seed develops into a great tree, whose branches afford shelter for the agents of Satan. In the fourth, the three measures of meal are, ultimately, completely corrupted by means of the leaven surreptitiously introduced into them.
Look where you will in Scripture, and it is the same: whenever God has committed anything to man as a responsible creature, he has failed. God placed Adam in Eden on the ground of human responsibility and he fell. God gave to Noah the sword of magisterial authority and he failed to govern himself. God gave to Israel the law, and they broke it: before Moses came down from the mount they were worshipping the golden calf. God instituted priesthood in Israel, and Aaron and his sons were duly consecrated to their office; but on the very first day, two of them offered strange fire and judgment fell upon them. God instituted kingship in Israel and failure was written large upon this. God endowed Nebuchadnezzar with power, but he became so bloated with self-importance that he made an image to himself and demanded that all should worship it. Nor has the Christian profession proven any exception. “Grievous wolves shall enter the flock after my departure,” said the apostle Paul (Acts 20), and they did. The evil introduced by Satan at the beginning of this dispensation has never been eradicated, nor will it be till the harvest-time. Instead of things getting better, they will get worse—until Christ spews out (Rev 3:16) the whole system which bears His name. But, blessed be His name, there is no failure with God. In spite of man’s failure and Satan’s opposition, He has been slowly but surely working out His eternal purpose. Act 15:18 declares, “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world,” and a clear proof of this is given us in the unmistakable fulfillment of the prophetical parables of Matthew 13.
The seven parables of Matthew 13 divide into four and three, which is the usual division of a septenary series. The first four were spoken to the multitude on the seashore, the last three to the disciples inside the house. Hence, the first four give us the external view in the history of Christendom, while the last three portray that which is more internal and spiritual. The first four are arranged in two pairs: the first—the wheat and the tares—giving us individual aspects; the second pair—the mustard-tree and the corrupted meal—set forth the corporate view. Again: the first parable shows us a sowing, while the fifth and sixth show the resultant crop. The second parable also shows us a sowing, while the third and fourth give us the resultant crop. If it is asked, Why is the “crop” of the second sowing given before the harvest from the first? the answer is, It is ever the order of Scripture to give us first that which is natural, then that which is spiritual. In our next article we shall take up the parable of the Sower.
N.B.—For not a little in this chapter we are indebted to the writings of the late F. W. Grant.
The Parable of the Sower (Mat 13:3-23)
“And He spoke many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow.” The careful reader will notice an omission here, namely, that this parable does not begin with the words “the kingdom of heaven is like unto.” This cannot be without some good reason, for that which is omitted from Holy Writ is oftentimes as meaningful as what is recorded. Each of the six parables which follow do begin with this clause. The reason why it is left out at the beginning of the first is not difficult to account for. As we have shown in a previous article, “the kingdom of heaven” is an expression which, in the present dispensation, has reference to Christendom—the sphere of Christian profession, that circle where the sovereignty of Christ is publicly owned. But the “kingdom of heaven” did not assume this form until after Christ had returned to the Father. Thus, because this first parable contemplates the period of time covered by our Lord’s earthly ministry these words are appropriately omitted. The first parable forms an introduction to those which follow: it describes the work of Christ preparatory to the establishment of His kingdom among the Gentiles, though the principle of it is of wider application.
“Behold, a sower went forth to sow.” In Mar 4:3 we find that this same parable is introduced by the words, “Hearken, behold, there went out a sower to sow.” This word “hearken” indicated that the Savior was about to communicate something of unusual importance. The figure He was using was so simple as to be almost unimpressive, so that there was a danger of His hearers regarding it as of little account; therefore the “Hearken!” “Behold” was also designed to arrest attention; it was a word bidding us to carefully ponder what follows.
The action of Christ at the beginning of this parable was both tragic and blessed. Speaking from the human side, it ought to have been, “A Reaper went forth to reap,” or “An Husbandman went forth to gather fruit.” For fifteen hundred years there had been a liberal sowing of the Seed in Israel, by Moses, David, the prophets, and last of all John the Baptist. But harvest for Jehovah there was not. Touchingly is this brought out in Isaiah 5: “My well-beloved has a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and He looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes” (Isa 5:1-2).
The blessedness of Christ’s action here is to be seen in His wondrous condescension and grace in stooping so low as to take the humble place of a “Sower,” hence the “Behold.” The words “went forth to sow,” or as Mark’s Gospel puts it “went out“ were indicative of the great dispensational change which was soon to be introduced. There was no longer to be a planting of vines or fig-trees in Israel, but a going out of the mercy of God unto the Gentiles; therefore what we have here is the broadcast sowing of the Seed in the field at large, for as verse 38 tells us “the field is the world.”
One great design of this opening parable is to teach us the measure of success which the Gospel would receive among the Gentiles. In other words, we are shown what the results of this broadcast sowing of the Seed would be. First of all, most of the ground upon which it fell would prove unfavorable: the hard, shallow, and thorny soils were uncongenial to productiveness. Second, external opposition would be encountered: the birds of the air would come and catch it away. Third, the sun would scorch, and that which was lacking in moisture at its roots would wither away. Only a fractional part of the Seed sown would yield any increase, and thus all expectations for the ultimate universal triumph of the Gospel were removed.
The plain teaching of our present parable should at once dissipate the optimistic but vain dreams of post-millenarians. It answers clearly and conclusively the following questions: What is to be the result of the broadcast sowing of the seed? Will all the world receive it and every part of the field produce fruit? Will the seed spring up and bear a universal harvest, so that not a single grain of it is lost? Our Savior explicitly tells us that the greater part of the seed produces no fruit, so that no world-wide conquests by the Gospel, in the Christianizing of the race, are to be looked for. Nor was there any hint that, as the age progressed, there would be any change, and that later sowers would meet with greater success, so that the wayside, stony, and thorny ground hearers would cease to exist or would rarely be found. Instead of that, the Lord Himself has plainly warned us that instead of the fruitage from the Gospel showing an increase, there would be a marked decrease; for when speaking of the fruit borne He said, “which also bears fruit, and brings forth, some an hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty” (v. 23). These words are too plain to be misunderstood. We believe that the “hundred fold” had reference to the yield borne in the days of the apostles; the “sixty” at the time of the Reformation; the “thirty” the days in which we are now living. The history of the last nineteen centuries has witnessed the fulfillment of Christ’s prediction; only a fractional percentage in any land, city or village has responded to the Gospel!
Most of the details of this parable are concerned not with the Sower or the Seed, but with the various soils in which the Seed fell. In His interpretation the Lord Jesus explained the different soils as representing various classes of those who hear the Word. They are four in number, and may be classified as hard-hearted, shallow-hearted, half-hearted, and whole-hearted. It is important to see that in the parable Christ is speaking not from the standpoint of the divine counsels—for there can be no failure there—but from that of human accountability. What we have here is the Word of the kingdom addressed to man’s responsibility, the effect it has on him, and his response. Let us now look briefly at each class separately:
1. The wayside hearers. “And when He sowed, some fell by the wayside, and the fowls came and devoured them up . . . when any one hears the word of the kingdom and understands it not, then comes the wicked one, and catches away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received Seed by the wayside” (vv. 4, 19). Here, the heart which receives the Seed is unreceptive and unresponsive. It is like the public highway, hardened by the constant traffic of the world. Though the Word is said to be “sown in his heart” it finds no real lodgment in it, and this is what makes it so solemn. The “engrafted word” is that which is received “with meekness,” and for this there must be a laying aside of “all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” (Jas 1:21). It is at this point that the individual’s accountability comes in, the responsibility of the one who hears the Word.
It is to be noted that it is “when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and understands it not, then comes the wicked one and catches away that which was sown in his heart.” Those who hear the Word are responsible to “understand” it. It is true that the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, but he ought to; and that they are “foolishness unto him,” but it ought not so to be. As we are told in 1Co 8:2, “if any man think that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” Understanding of the Word is obtained from God alone, and it is the responsibility of all who bear and read His Word to cry unto Him, “That which I see not, teach Thou me” (Job 34:32). His promise is “the meek will He teach His way” (Psa 25:9). But if there is no humbling of the heart before God, no seeking wisdom from above, then will there be no “understanding” of the Word; and the Devil will “catch away” that which we have heard or read: but we shall have only ourselves to blame!
2. The stony-ground hearers. “Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away . . . He that received the seed into stony places, the same is he which hears the Word, and anon with joy receives it; yet has he not root in himself, but endures for awhile: for when tribulation or persecution arises because of the Word, by and by he is offended” (Mat 13:5-6, Mat 13:20-21). The type of ground that is here referred to, is that where the bed is of rock, with only a thin layer of earth over it. In this shallow soil the seed is received, but the growth is but superficial. Our Lord’s interpretation at once identifies the particular class of hearers which are here in view. At first they promise well, but later prove very disappointing. What we have here is lack of depth. The emotions have been moved, but the conscience has not been searched; there is a natural “joy” but no deep conviction or true repentance. When a Divine work of grace is wrought in a soul, the first effects of the Word upon it are not to produce peace and joy, but contrition, humility and sorrow.
The sad thing is, that today almost everything connected with modern evangelistic (?) effort is calculated to produce just this very type of hearer. The “bright singing,” the sentimentality of the hymns (?), the preacher’s appeals to the emotions, the demand of the churches for visible and quick “results,” produce nothing but superficial returns. Sinners are urged to make a prompt “decision,” are rushed to the “penitent form,” and then assured that all is well with them; and the poor deluded soul leaves with a false and evanescent “joy.” And the deplorable thing is that many of the Lord’s own people are supporting and fellow-shipping this Christ-dishonoring and soul-deceiving burlesque of true Gospel ministry.
“But endures for awhile.” “This is the flesh at its fairest; capable of coming so near to the kingdom of God, and all the more manifesting its hopeless nature. There is the unbroken rock behind that never yields to the Word, and gives it no lodgment; and the class of hearers pictured here are born of the flesh only. Let things be outwardly favorable to profession, it is plain that the number of these may multiply largely, and may stick like dead leaves to a tree that has had no rough blast to shake them off. But life is none the more in them” (The Numerical Bible).
3. The thorny-ground hearers. “And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them… He also that received seed among the thorns is he that hears the Word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the Word, and he becomes unfruitful” (vv. 7, 22, Mat 13:7, Mat 13:22). In Mar 4:9 the “lusts of other things entering in” and in Luk 8:14 the “pleasures of this life” are named as additional hindrances represented by the “thorns.” Here it is not so much inward causes as it is external snares that render the third class of hearers unfruitful.
Thus the Lord has here made known what it is that, from the human side, makes so much of the Seed sown, unproductive. The reasons why the preaching of the Word does not produce a spiritual harvest in all who hear it are, first, the natural hardness of man’s heart and the resultant opposition of Satan; second, the superficiality of the flesh; third, the attractions and distractions of the world. These e the things which produce barrenness, and they are recorded for the Christian’s learning and warning. Thus too are the servants of Christ instructed what to expect, and informed what it is which will oppose their labors—the Devil, the flesh and the world.
4. The good-ground hearers. “But other fell into good ground and brought forth fruit… He that received seed into the good ground is he that hears the Word, and understands it; which also bears fruit, and brings forth, some an hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty” (vv. 8,23). It is to be carefully noted that when He was defining the good-ground hearer, Christ did not say “this is he in whom a Divine work of grace has been wrought,” or “whose heart has been made receptive by the operation of the Holy Spirit.” True it is that this must precede any sinner’s receiving the Word so that he becomes fruitful, yet, this is not the particular aspect of the Truth with which Christ is here dealing. As already stated, He is speaking here not of the accomplishment of God’s counsels, but from the standpoint of human responsibility.
What the Lord is here making known is, that which the hearer of the Word must himself seek grace to do, if he is to be fruitful. The supplementary accounts given of this parable by Mark and Luke must be carefully compared. In Luk 8:15 we are told, first, that that Word must be received “in an honest and good heart.” Second, that they “keep it.” And third, “bring forth fruit with patience.” Such are the conditions of fruitfulness: an unprejudiced mind and an open heart; understanding the Word received; holding it fast, perseverance.
In closing let us call attention to one or two practical lessons inculcated by this parable.
First, the preciousness of the Seed. If there were only one grain of wheat left in the world today, and it was lost, all the efforts of man could not reproduce it. Thus it is with the Word: were it taken from us all the wit and wisdom of man could not replace it. Then let us value, love, and. study it more.
Second, the inconspicuousness of the Sower. Scarcely anything at all is told us in the parable about Him, beyond the simple fact that He actually sowed the Seed. The emphasis is upon the Seed, the various kinds of soil and the obstacles to and conditions of fruitfulness. Why is this? Because the personality of the sower and the method of sowing are of secondary importance. A little child may drop a seed as effectively as a man; the wind may carry it, and accomplish as much as though an angel had planted it! All—not merely preachers only—may be “sowers.”
Third, the conditions of fruitfulness. There is much “rocky ground” in the garden of each of our souls: then despise not God’s hammer and ploughshare. There are many “thorns” in each of our lives which must be plucked up if there is to be more room for fruit! Finally, there needs to be much prayer for “understanding,” “patience,” and hiding of the Word in our hearts so that we shall “keep” it.
Fourth, the fullness of the parable. There are some who decry the idea that we should seek for a meaning to every detail in our Lord’s parables, and tell us we should be content with discovering its general significance. But such a loose conception is manifestly condemned by Christ’s own example. In His interpretation He gave a meaning to every detail; not only so, but by comparing the three accounts of this parable, we learn that the “thorns” represent at least four distinct things! How this shows us the need of carefully studying and prayerfully meditating upon every jot and tittle of Holy Writ!