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The Parable of the Soils II

Mark 4:13-20.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on Sunday, June 30, 2019. 

We now move to the explanation of what the parable of the soils means that is given by Jesus to his close disciples.   This is clearly at a later time when they are alone.

A simple parable about sharing the Word of God

The parables are not hard to understand if you know what is trying to be exampled.  This brings up several things that we should keep in mind when dealing with them.  Think about it for a moment.  The average person could take any short story or imagery and come up with many different things that it could illustrate.  A more ingenious person could come up with innumerable things that the example could illuminate.  Without a frame of reference, it is practically impossible to know for sure what is being taught.  This is important to understand about parables.  We must let the context and clues in the text guide us in our interpretation, being careful to not force the application farther than it is intended.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some parables are told in multiple gospels.  It is important to compare them.  Often they will each contain details and wording that is not found in the other.  This can add to our understanding of the parable, which could be missed if we only looked at one telling of the story.

Lastly, some parables are told more than once, but clearly illustrate different spiritual principles.  Don’t assume because you understand a parable in one gospel that you automatically know what it meant in another.  Take time to check the contextual clues that are given.

Jesus gives his disciples the key to understanding the parable of the soils.  The seed represents the word of God.  When it is spoken to a group of people, it is as if one is spreading seed into their hearts.  Each of these hearts has a different spiritual condition.  Once you understand that we are talking about spreading the Word of God then you can quickly make sense of the rest of the parable.  Nothing grows without a seed.  It is the information on how to create a particular plant and fruit.  Alongside of this, the seed is also the inception point of the growth of anything.  God sends His Word in order to grow certain things in our life.  Without it, that fruit cannot come into existence.

So what is this fruit that God wants to grow in my life?  Sometimes people connect the fruit to the number of people that you bring to salvation in Christ.  However, many godly people through the years did not have a large number of converts (e.g. Noah, Jeremiah, many missionaries who went to warrior-cultures).  However, it would be foolish to say that the Word of God was not fruitful in their lives.  The fruit, or the evidence, of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in our hearts is both internal and external.  In Galatians 5, Paul gives a list of nine virtues that affect how a person lives:  love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  In fact a fruitful tree or plant becomes a source of life for others.

The best picture of this is Jesus himself.  He has the perfect relationship with the Word of God the Father, and is called the Word of God.  His perfect relationship with the Word of God is the source of all that he does and teaches.  So what kind of soil does God’s Word find when it lands in my heart, mind, and life?

The seed by the side of the road

The side of the road is not a good place to grow.  We would call it the shoulder of the road.  We are told that the seed that lands on the side of the road is eaten by the birds of the air.  The Gospel of Luke adds that it will be trampled by men (Luke 8).  Before we deal with the birds, we should recognize that the trampling of people upon the Word of God in my heart would represent the harshness and sins of others upon me.  How can I hear God’s Word and not let others trample it out of my life, keep it from growing?  I must guard my heart and mind, particularly the ability of God’s Word to grow.  I must not let the failures of others to keep me from receiving and growing by God’s Truth.  It is so easy to let the sins of others become the excuse for why I don’t obey God (e.g. his command for us to forgive and love our enemies).

Yet, the main problem in the story is the birds of the air.  Jesus connects them to Satan.  More than likely, Jesus is using what is called synecdoche here.  Satan is the leader of the rebellion within the spirit realm.  He is referenced in the same way that a person may talk of Hitler invading Czechoslovakia.  Clearly, we mean his troops and tanks and not him personally.  Thus, it is not necessarily Satan himself that removes the Word from all such people’s hearts.  Yet, he represents an evil, spiritual force that works to keep humans from believing and trusting the Word of God.  We must not confuse the metaphor with the spiritual truth it portrays.  Birds eat seeds for sustenance and nourishment.  I hardly think it is intended to teach that Satan and his evil cohorts are actually eating and being nourished by God’s Word in such ways.  So, how do evil spirits get the Word of God out of our hearts?

I think that they do so by supplanting God’s Word with their own false truths, even half-truths.  This false information “neutralizes” the teaching of God’s Word, and for all practical purposes, the Word is lost to them.  Our world is full of the half-truths of the devil.  His first half-truth was that God was holding out on Adam and Eve.  They could become like Him by disobeying Him.  All around us is the rationale and the teaching of evil spirits that have been waging a propaganda campaign against the God of Heaven throughout human history.  On the other hand, God’s Word can deconstruct those lies and give us truth so that we can become like Him, like Jesus, rather than like the devil.

The seed on the stony ground

These next three soils all receive the word positively.  However, it is not enough to receive God’s Word in a positive way.  There are other issues to recognize.  Here we are told that the problem with the stony ground is that it has no depth of earth.  The rocks represent hard things that are the opposite of broken soil.  Just as Jeremiah told his people to “break up the unplowed ground and do not sow among the thorns,” (Jeremiah 4:3), we must deal with those hard parts of our lives that keep God’s Word from taking root deeply.  Hard ground can be tilled, but large stones must be removed from the ground and rolled to the edge of the field.  We are not told what the rocks metaphorically reference.  However, it is safe to say that it is any hardness in our heart and mind that gets in the way of God’s Truth.  Only He can help us to rolls such things to the edge of our lives.  He will help us if we ask Him.

Regardless of the stones, the seed immediately shows growth that looks good from the surface.  The problem is that there is not a strong root structure beneath the surface.  Normally the sun is good for a plant.  It is the source of all the energy the plant uses to grow and stores within its cells.  Yet, the lack of a good root structure causes the plant to dry out and die.  Here the sun represents the trials and persecutions that a Christian endures in this life.

This brings up another metaphor that is used about God’s Word.  There is a way in which God’s Word is like a seed and begins the growth of spiritual transformation in our life.  It is information.  However, there is also a way in which the Word of God is like water; it allows a plant to grow and thrive in the presence of harsh trials.  It is not enough to get spiritual life started by the Word of God.  We also need a daily supply of God’s Word into our lives so that we do not spiritually dry up, and our faith withers.  God can help us to do more than survive in the time of trial and testing.  If our roots go deep into Him, we can be made even stronger by those trials and persecutions.

The seed on the thorny ground

The third soil also receives the word and has growth, but there are other things growing in this heart and mind that eventually choke the growth of God’s Word.  The implication is that the word will eventually die off, but this is not actually stated.  Jesus lists three things that the thorns represent: the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things.

The cares of this world is not only about being anxious and worrying.  It is about all those concerns and necessities of our life and the culture around us.  There are some things that we should be concerned about and other that we shouldn’t (at least not at the level that we do).  The problem is not so much the cares themselves, as the fact that we allow them to choke out what God’s Word says to us.  This is a kind of pragmatic approach where I am always trying to control what I experience in life.  Sometimes there is no godly way to obtain what I want.  What will I do then?  Such a weed, or thorny plant, can overwhelm what God’s Word is trying to produce in you.

Notice that it is not riches themselves that are the problem in this second phrase.  Rather, it is the fact that we are deceived by riches.  They stir up ideas and thoughts in our heart that promise meaning and purpose, happiness and joy.  They can even be seen as proof of God’s love for me.  It is not the money or riches themselves, but our inordinate love for them that causes all kinds of evil in our life, squelching the things God’s Word is trying to produce.

The desire for other things is similar and could point to the pride of life, experiences we desire, etc.  The Gospel of Luke says “the pleasures of life.”  All of these things are generally mixed together and, like weeds and thorny plants, kill off the fruit that is actually better for us and for others. 

So, what is the solution?  We must rise up and weed the garden of our heart and mind, so that God’s Word can grow in us.  It is easy to blame God for having these things in our heart and expect Him to take them away.  However, we must co-labor with Him.  Yes, He will help us, but we must choose to partner with Him in it.

The seed in the good soil

Mark tells us that the good soil is those who hear the word and “accept it” (literally “receive it for one’s self”).  It is not just about the words coming in one ear and out the other.  We must take it in as God’s Word for us.  Matthew also adds the phrase “understands it.”  This does not mean that we must fully understand everything it means, but that there must be some level of understanding for God’s Word to grow in our life.  The Holy Spirit works at all time to aid us in understanding the Word of God.  Luke also adds the phrase “keep it.”  This word can sometimes be used to mean nurturing, like a shepherd keeps sheep.  However, in this passage it simply means to hold onto it.  Much of the test of life is about whether or not we will hold onto God’s Word or let it go.  Luke also adds the phrase “with patience.”  We can grow weary of waiting on God’s Word even when we are thinking correctly about what it should produce in our lives.

So, if we put all this together, the picture is of a person who is hearing the Word of God, understanding what it says, accepting its teaching for their life, and is continuing to hold on to it and what it is growing in their life.

This good soil may appear to have no problems, like God just happened to make it that way.  This would not be fair.  However, most farmland became that way through the hard work of the owner and past generations.  In our life we must continually weed our heart, mind, and actions, if God’s Word is to be fruitful.  We will run into large boulders of hardness in our heart and mind that will need to be moved aside, if God’s Word is to be fruitful.  The good soil person is not impervious to these things.  However, as we deal with these different issues, we will find fruitfulness in our life both internally and externally.

The parable ends with a statement about particular yields (30X, 60X, and 100X).  Seeds have the amazing power to produce fruit far more than itself.  One apple may represent five or more seeds, but each seed can potentially be a tree that produces countless apples for many years.  How should we view these yields?  It is tough to say because there is no connection made from the illustration to the spiritual message.  No two Christians produce the same “fruit and yield.”  I would, however, urge some cautions in this area.  We are not always the best judges of what is truly fruitful.  We may go too hard on ourselves and others, or we may go too easy.  In fact, we have to have a certain level of maturity in Christ to even understand what it is he is trying to grow.  The prophet Jeremiah struggled with the lack of response to his message, but God’s Word was highly fruitful in his life, and we are able to be encouraged by the Words he was faithful to have written down.

In the end it does not matter who was more fruitful than whom.  What will matter is whether or not we were faithful to the Lord, and to the end.  Moses by faith split the Red Sea (really God did it, but we are focusing on the faith side of the equation).  However, that is what God asked of him.  The real question to always ask is this.  What do you want of me today, Lord?  Help me to be faithful!

Parable of the Soils II audio