Jesus' Parables for Disciples
28. The Parable of the Soils, Part 2 (Luke 8:11-15)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'The First Shall Be Last' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"A farmer went out to sow...." Jesus' Parable of the Soils or Parable of the Sower focuses on the quality of hearing; Jesus ends his parable with the words, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"
In Lesson 27, we discussed each of the types of soils onto which the seed falls, and how their physical characteristics affected the growth and maturity of the grain. This week we're studying the truths Jesus is teaching by means of this simple allegory. His disciples still don't understand what the parable means (8:9), so he now gives them the allegorical key, the identification of the various kinds of soil.
This parable is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 13:1-23 = Mark 4:1-20 = Luke 8:4-15. Of the three Gospel writers, Mark's version is the most full, while Luke's is the sparest.
"11 'This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.'" (Luke 8:11-15, NIV)
Seed is the Word of God (Luke 8:11)
The seed that is sown is the Word of God. Though Jesus doesn't identify the sower, Jesus himself would be the First Sower of his words, his teachings, his explanation of the Kingdom of God, his revelations about the Father. These are the Words of God and also the Word (singular) of God, the Message. But I believe the parable applies to any sower, beginning with Jesus' Twelve Disciples, who begin to preach and teach the Message.
Sometimes we marvel at the eloquence and anointing of a particular preacher, and exalt the messenger. But Christians have discovered that the power is really in the Word itself. The writer of Hebrews says,
"For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)
The Apostle Paul, who sowed the Word for most of his adult life, testifies about it:
"I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile." (Romans 1:16)
Paul wasn't an eloquent, silver-tongued orator (2 Corinthians 2:1-4). Other preachers were more impressive (2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:5-6). But Paul knew that the power was in the Word itself, not in the sower. It is immaterial who plants a seed -- a bird, Johnny Appleseed, Jesus, Billy Graham, a Sunday school teacher, a parent, a friend. The power is in the seed itself. The seed alone has the power to grow, the power of life. Sowers are to sow -- regularly, faithfully, whether it is inconvenient or not:
"Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage -- with great patience and careful instruction." (2 Timothy 4:2)
"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)
Jesus doesn't emphasize the sower in this parable. Nor does he focus on the seed, the Word of God. The same seed can produce no crop or a huge crop -- it all depends upon the quality of the soil in which that seed is planted.
"He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Luke 8:8c). For each of the four soil-types, Jesus describes the results of the same powerful seed in four kinds of hearers. The parable is all about hearing.
Snatching the Word from the Heart (Luke 8:12)
"Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved." (8:12)
The first soil type is the hard-packed path between fields. The seed never sinks into the soil and the devil, represented in the parable by birds, gobbles up the seed before it can have any effect. These are the unbelievers who hear and have closed minds. They are unreceptive. The words just bounce off them. Sure, they may have a smart come-back to defend their unbelief, but the Word does not penetrate their shell, or germinate in their heart. You have some friends -- neighbors, relatives, business associates, friends at school -- who are like this. Jesus affirms that this kind of unbelief exists. Your words aren't at fault; it is their heart that resists -- though we need to work very hard to communicate the Word of God clearly, unimpeded by a poor witness in our own lives and actions.
I'm going to step outside the parable for a moment to say that soil quality can change -- and sometimes change very rapidly. This isn't Jesus' point, and he doesn't even mention it in this connection. But think of what one plow furrow would do to the receptivity of the "path" soil. Now the seed can drop into the soil and germinate. It is no longer merely birdseed. Life's troubles and problems often have the effect of running a plow through our carefully constructed life and demolishing the values we once held to be true. Your friends may be utterly closed now. Accept that. But continue to pray that God will bring circumstances into their lives that will make them receptive to the Word. It happens -- not often, not always, but often enough to be a common theme in Christian testimony. "I once was blind, but now I see," wrote John Newton, a converted slave-ship captain in his hymn "Amazing Grace."234
But Jesus doesn't mention soil change in this parable. Jesus moves to the next soil type.
Leaves with No Root (Luke 8:13)
"Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing (peirasmos) they fall away." (Luke 8:13)
The second soil type is the thin layer of soil over a limestone shelf of rock. There is enough soil for early growth, when the soil is still moist from the spring rains. But soon, the searing heat of summer comes. The plant has put out green leaves, but no root system has penetrated to moist soil below. The rock stops its growth, and it quickly withers.
Though Jesus doesn't say so directly, I think the rock represents people who have surface enthusiasm, but a hard heart. These people can be sorry for their sins and pray the "sinner's prayer." But, in fact, they haven't really internalized Jesus' teachings and restructured their lives around him. You could say, I suppose, that they have sorrow over their sins, but lack real repentance (Greek metanoia, "a change of mind"235). You may consider the deep wrenching sobs of a repentant sinner to be embarrassing, or perhaps old fashioned. But these tears represent the destruction of an old value system, and the foundations of a new one being laid in the heart. The heart is rent. (The English word "rend" means "to remove from place by violence, to wrest, to tear.") I'm not saying that weeping is necessary to salvation, only that true repentance IS necessary to the process. Where this doesn't happen, we have the kind of people whom Jesus describes here, with surface growth, but who fall away in time of testing.
The word translated "testing" is Greek peirasmos, "test, trial" then "temptation, enticement to sin."236 Matthew and Mark use a pair of words to describe this: First, Greek thlipsis, figuratively, "oppression, affliction, tribulation," is used of distress that is brought about by outward circumstances."237 The second word Matthew and Mark use is Greek diōgmos, "persecution" used only for religious reasons.238
Jesus is describing people who have made a surface commitment, but "when push comes to shove" (and push always comes to shove, sooner or later), they fall away. Either it's temptation to fall back to a former sinful pattern, or they lose a job, or a spouse leaves them, or they are now targeted for persecution by those of another religion. When the "heat" is on, these surface Christians wither.
Were They Really Christians?
I am always asked the question: "Were they really Christians?" That's hard to answer -- and Jesus doesn't answer it here. You see, Luke's Gospel specifies that those who fit this soil type "believe for a while" and "receive the word with joy when they hear it" (8:13). To first appearances these people seem to be Christians. But they don't persevere in faith, they "fall away." They could be (1) counterfeit Christians, (2) weak Christians, or (3) apostate Christians.
1. Counterfeit Christians. Sometimes individuals you meet believe that they are Christians, but when you talk with them, you realize that they don't understand Jesus' salvation very well at all. They are Christians in name (i.e., "nominal" Christians), but without the commitment, reality, or experience. The Apostle John makes it clear that sometimes churches experience an exodus of these nominal or counterfeit Christians: "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 John 2:19). In other words, John is saying, true Christians persevere, remain, continue. Yes, true Christians sometimes fall flat on their face when persecution or trouble or temptation comes. But true Christians get back up -- often with the help of their brothers and sisters -- and continue to follow the Lord in the fellowship of his Church.
2. Weak Christians. The Apostle Paul talks about "baby Christians" and "carnal Christians" (1 Corinthians 3:1), about Christians who haven't grown enough to display the fruit of the Spirit's presence, the outward marks of a believer (Galatians 5:22-23; see Matthew 7:16). But true Christians don't drop out, wither, and fall away.
3. Apostate Christians. The Bible also speaks of apostate Christians who have turned away from the Lord that they once followed (2 Peter 2:20-22; Hebrews 3:8-19; 6:1-6). We may not like this fact, and it may not fit our doctrine too well, but it occasionally happens.
The wonderful truth is that there is salvation and forgiveness in Jesus Christ for types 1, 2, and 3. Only God can read the heart. We can't. Only God has foolproof diagnostic equipment in his "garage." We don't. Only God can give true assurance of salvation through the Spirit and the Word -- and, praise God, he does! If you are a weak Christian who has fallen away or gotten lost -- or know someone who has -- there is a way back. The Good Shepherd is out looking for you, and will bring you home with joy (Luke 15:1-7). As an old man, the Apostle John wrote these precious words:
"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense -- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One." (1 John 2:1)
Back to the Parable of the Soils after this excursion -- Jesus wants his disciples to know and understand and expect to see some people who seem to believe at first, but rather quickly fall away. It's an unhappy but realistic experience in disciple-making.
Choked into Fruitlessness (Luke 8:14)
"The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature." (8:14)
The third type of soil is the thorny soil, where thorns grow up alongside the wheat plants, and out-compete them for sunlight and water. As a result, the wheat never comes to maturity to bear a good head of grain. It is stunted. Jesus tells us exactly what stunts people -- worries, riches, and pleasures.
The word that describes the wheat's or barley's condition is Greek sympnigō "(crowd together and) choke."239 This is a compound word, with the Greek preposition syn, "together, i.e. several ... things united or all in one,"240 and the verb pnigō, "to stifle, choke, strangle, suffocate." In Classical Greek, the word is used to describe a number of rather gruesome and violent incidents.241 Pnigō is a very strong, evocative word, and seems to be heightened by the preposition in its compound form in our passage. Whereas one thorn weed might choke the wheat or barley, all the thorn plants together (Greek syn-) "choke utterly."242
Let's examine these various noxious thorns. While they may not relate as closely to your country and culture, sadly, I think Jesus' analysis of the factors that choke spiritual life describe contemporary American culture precisely.
The word translated "life's worries" is Greek merimna, "anxiety, worry, care."243 Worry is the opposite of trust, and trust is the root idea of faith. All of us have anxieties; Jesus certainly did. But it is how we handle them that determines whether they choke out spiritual life or cause it to flourish. To his disciples' worries of food and clothing, Jesus said,
"Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33)
The Apostle Paul counseled,
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:4-7)
Being consumed with life's worries may be choking your spiritual life. Worry competes with faith for your time and your very life-force. It strangles your relationship with God and the growth of the Word in your life. But while worry may be the scourge of the poor, riches themselves are no better.
Jesus lists "riches" among thorns, but in our society most people are actively seeking riches -- more and more. We Westerners used to decry the "atheistic materialism" of a bankrupt communist ideology, but we embrace the equally deadly greed of capitalism. The Greek word is ploutos. It comes from a root that means "to fill." Ploutos means "fullness of goods."244 In Luke's Gospel, Jesus has a lot to say about riches, mostly by way of warning. Riches, by themselves are not as dangerous as relying on riches as a substitute for God (Luke 12:19), loving riches rather than God (Matthew 6:24), and seeking after riches rather than after God's Kingdom (Matthew 6:33). In Luke we meet several memorable people whose lives tell the story of true riches and death by riches -- the widow giving her two copper coins in offering (21:1-4), Dives and Lazarus (16:19-31), the rich young ruler (18:18-23), the rich farmer-fool (12:16-21), and Zacchaeus (19:1-10).
How about you, my friend? Is your quest for greater material security taking more and more focus away from your relationship with God? Do your possessions still belong to the Lord, or would you wrestle him for them if he were to require them of you? Is your desire for wealth a voracious weed that is competing for sustenance against the growth of Jesus' life in you?
The third thorn Jesus identifies in Luke's Gospel is "pleasures," the plural of Greek hēdonē. Ask the average person on the street what he wants most out of life, and the answer will be, "Happiness. I want to be happy." Thomas Jefferson placed "the pursuit of happiness" in the US Declaration of Independence, right up there alongside of life and liberty as unalienable rights. And pursue it we do. But sometimes our pursuit of happiness can be twisted into an all-out pursuit of pleasure. Our society has turned "duty" into a negative, and "self-indulgence" into a positive. Our songs croon, "How can it be so wrong, when it feels so right?" We have replaced righteousness and honor with luxury.
But Jesus says clearly to his disciples that the pleasure principle will surely choke out his life in us and make our lives spiritually fruitless and barren. Has that happened to you or someone you love? What if Jesus actually took you up on your vow of discipleship, and asked you to do something that called for self-sacrifice and difficulty in order to serve him. Would you be able to say "yes," or would you avert your eyes, like the Rich Young Ruler (18:23)?
Is the Wheat Choked by Thorns "Saved"?
What about these people who are entrapped by worry, money, or pleasure? Are they saved? This isn't Jesus' focus. He is inquiring about their fruitfulness. But let's consider the question.
I would answer: Some of those people are probably saved. If that isn't quite the ringing assurance you were looking for, I'm sorry. Only God can see the heart. Only God can judge whether a person has taken hold of His salvation. We can't. We are only fruit inspectors.
The problem is that people who are derailed by faithless anxiety, money-love, or the pleasure principle don't bear much fruit of the Holy Spirit. You may be able to see some love, joy, and peace. Some patience, kindness, and goodness. Some faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But not a lot. That's the point. Their fruit has not matured. It is stunted, if present at all. From the standpoint of the farmer, stunted fruit is worthless. It's not worth harvesting, and probably doomed to burning after harvest along with the thorns still left in the field.
Are these people saved? Could be. Are they "encouraging one another daily"? Are they hardened by sin's deceitfulness? Is a sinful, unbelieving heart growing within them, that is turning them away from the living God? (Hebrews 3:12-13) Possibly.
Is your life choked by worry, love of money, or hedonism, my dear friend? I urge you to desperately throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus that he might set you free. You can't just "hope" that you have laid hold of Christ's salvation. You must do so with all your heart, or you may end up self-deceived.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:21-23)
Too often people have received assurance from churches or preachers, rather than the assurance that comes from God himself (Romans 8:16). Sometimes, even well-meaning pastors have offered assurance prematurely. I recall the Lord's scathing rebuke through Jeremiah to the priests of his day:
"They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
'Peace, peace,' they say,
when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14)
Yes, it is possible that you have been saved, even if your life is choked with thorns, but you can't take the chance of not knowing, or of being wrong about your assessment. Now is the time to repent and turn to him with a whole heart!
My wife and I have a few pear trees in what was, a half-century ago, a commercial fruit orchard. While most years these trees still bear a few pears, the fruit never ripens properly. The fruit is hard and bitter, not soft and succulent and sweet like a ripe pear. No farmer in his right mind would try to sell that kind of fruit, or feed it to his family. It is worthless.
Producing a Good Crop (Luke 8:15)
"But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble (kalos) and good (agathos) heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop." (8:15)
The fourth type of soil is called "good soil," representing hearers who possess a noble and good heart. The word translated "noble" is Greek kalos, "beautiful' in outward appearance ... "morally good, noble, praiseworthy, contributing to salvation etc."245 Kalos is a fairly common word that denotes a solid person, wholeheartedness. The word translated "good" is Greek agathos, "good" ... of inner worth, especially moral.246
We know from Jeremiah the corruptness of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9), but that isn't Jesus' emphasis here. We need to wonder at what Jesus does emphasize -- "a noble and good heart". If Christ's word and fruit is growing in your life, then it is because you have a noble and good heart, one that has opened in large measure to love for the Lord. Don't run yourself down; accept Jesus' word about you.
When Jesus talks about "a noble and good heart," I don't think he is talking about perfection, but wholeheartedness and sincerity. Yes, the Lord has much more to cleanse within us in days to come, but to the best of your ability, you are utterly depending upon the Lord. The late Episcopalian evangelist Sam Shoemaker put it this way: "Give everything you know of yourself to everything you know of God." I like that.
Four characteristics of a good heart are given in this passage: (1) hear the Word, (2) retain the Word, (3) persevere in the Word, and (4) produce a harvestable crop as a result.
The word translated "retain" is Greek katechō, "hold fast, retain faithfully, keep in one's possession, possess."247 Those with a "good and noble heart" don't let the Word go. They hold it fast, retain it in mind, and do not release it to lay hold on something of less value. They retain the Word; they hold it fast.
The word rendered "persevere" (NIV) or "with patience" (KJV) is Greek hypomonē, "patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance."248 A characteristic of the good soil, the good heart, is to retain the Word of God over the long haul. As A.T. Robertson observes, "Mushrooms spring up overnight, but they are usually poisonous. The best fruits require time, cultivation, patience."249
The doctrine referred to as "once saved, always saved" or "eternal security," relies on the Fifth Point of Calvinism, "The Perseverance of the Saints," i.e. that true Christians will continue in faith and holiness forever.250 Whether or not you agree with this doctrine as stated, it is important to observe that the doctrine gives no assurance at all to Christians who fall away or do not continue on in holiness and faith. Calvin, I am sure, would agree with Jesus wholeheartedly: "By their fruits you shall know them."
What Kind of Fruit?
The final characteristic of good soil and a good heart is a harvestable crop. I say harvestable, because sometimes a crop that is sparse isn't worth the time to harvest and process. The farmer just turns it under to fertilize the next crop. But a good heart produces fruit. What kind of fruit is Jesus talking about?
I think he has in mind two kinds of fruit. First, there is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, godly character traits that begin to grow in our character when we yield to the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is no compliment when someone says to you, "I didn't know you were a Christian!" How sad! Jesus said, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
Second, there is the result or fruitfulness of our spiritual gifts, the tools that God gives Christians to help build up the Church, the body of Christ. These come in great variety. C. Peter Wagner251 lists 27 gifts, and I expect there are many more besides. If God has given you the gift of teaching, then what is the fruit of teaching? People who learn under your ministry. A teacher who has class after class of knowledgeable pupils is considered successful, fruitful. If your gift is pastoring or shepherding, then the fruit will be a well-cared-for flock. If it is administration, the fruit is a well-set-up, well-run organization of people all working toward the same goal. You get the idea.
Sometimes people think that fruit means "souls" we have won to Christ. Certainly new believers are the natural result of witnessing and sharing the Good News. All Christians are called to do that. But some, those with a special gift of evangelism, will have many "souls" as a result of their ministry, because that is their particular spiritual gift. We don't have to be someone we are not, but we are to seek God for what he calls us to do, and then seek to be fruitful and effective in that to which he calls us.
Encouragement to Seed-Sowers
When I look at the Parable of the Soils, I see two purposes that Jesus had in telling it. The first is as an encouragement to seed-sowers. Sometimes, we foolishly expect every single person who hears the Gospel to believe it and follow Jesus. No, that just isn't realistic, Jesus is telling us. The Word of God requires a response of faith to flourish, and not everyone comes with a persistent, wholehearted, Jesus-loving faith. Don't be discouraged, Jesus is telling us. The Word won't grow in everyone, but it will grow in those who receive it eagerly. Don't be discouraged; sow the Word faithfully.
Warning to Soil Types
But there's clearly a second reason for telling the parable, and that is to stimulate hearers to diagnose their own quality of hearing the Word. Wherever it has been told over the last two thousand years, the Parable of the Soils has had this effect. The very process of self-examination, and an attempt at self-diagnosis, helps us disciples take more seriously our role as hearers and learners. Too many so-called disciples are pretenders, self-deceived dabblers in religious matters. If Jesus can help us hear the pellet-like sound of wasted seed dropped on hard ground, enable us to judge the depth of soil over a rocky shelf, allow our skin to feel the prick and scratch of sharp thorns, and encourage us to run our fingers through rich, moist fertile soil that produces abundant crops, then he has succeeded in helping us become earnest disciples.
Sow the seed, my fellow disciples, and sow it faithfully. And see to it that the same seed finds fertile soil in your own heart.
Lord, your Word truly is sharp and powerful as a two-edged sword. I sense that many who read these words are feeling the conviction of your Holy Spirit. Help us to repent of our sins, I pray. Forgive us. Set us free. I pray especially for those who do not have a firm assurance of their salvation. I pray that you would reveal yourself especially to these who hunger for you and long for you, but don't feel secure in you right now. Bless them and anoint them with your Spirit. And make all of us both soil and sowers to your glory. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature." (Luke 8:14)
"But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop." (Luke 8:15)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
Friends, some believe it is possible for a real Christian to fall away from salvation, others believe this is impossible. Be gentle with each other as you discuss this, focusing on what Jesus is teaching us in this passage, rather than the doctrine our particular church teaches concerning salvation. Thanks ahead of time for your patience and gentleness.
- How is the devil active when seed is sown, according to Jesus? What is the devil trying to prevent, according to verse 12?
- Why, according to verse 13, do some people demonstrate "flash-in-the-pan Christianity"? What is the problem with them?
- Which of the thorns that Jesus mentions in verse 14 do you think is the most dangerous? Worries, riches, or pleasure? Why do you think so?
- Here's a controversial, but important question: Can verse 14 describe true believers?
- Even good soil can have factors that hinder growth in various parts of the field, or make some areas grow taller and fuller wheat. What factors make a disciple especially good soil for the growth of the word?
- Why do you think Jesus told the Parable of the Soils?
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 Metanoia, BAGD 512.
 Peirasmos, BAGD 640.
 Thlipsis, BAGD 362.
 Diōgmos, BAGD 201.
 ō, BAGD 779.
 So Thayer, p. 599, II, 2. Cf. p. 597.
 Hans Bietenhard, pnigō ktl., TDNT 6:455-458.
 Sympnigō, Thayer, p. 597.
 Merimna, BAGD 504.
 Friedrich Hauck and Wilhelm Kasch, "ploutos ktl." TDNT 6:318-332.
 Kalos, BAGD 400.
 Agathos, BAGD 2-3.
 Katechō, BAGD 422-423.
 Hypomonē, BAGD 846.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1932, 1960), in loc.
 John H. Gerstner, "Perseverance," in Everett F. Harrison (ed.), Baker's Dictionary of Theology, (Baker, 1960), pp. 403-404.
 C. Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow (Regal, 1979).
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