WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
“Knowing Our Field” --- (Luke 8:4-15)
This passage centers on one of the key parables in Jesus’ teaching. It marks a transition in His ministry and in the manner of His teaching. Though Jesus had used parables throughout His ministry, this parable marks a distinction in how Jesus used them. Prior to this the parables (as was the original sense) were used to illustrate and clarify an idea. However, beginning with this parable, Jesus used them not only to illustrate the truth for some, but to make His teaching enigmatic to others. In light of this it is helpful to understand what a parable is. The word itself refers to one thing that is brought alongside another. Therefore basically, a parable is an analogy in story form. Parables are different from allegories. In an allegory (such as Pilgrim’s Progress) every portion of the story represents something about what the allegory depicts. However, a parable has one central point, and only some of the details are analogous to what is being illustrated, other details are simply necessary to flesh out the story.
This passage then is about one of Jesus’ parables; what it meant, why He used it in the way He did, and finally it gives His followers an important insight into the present nature of the Kingdom of God.
I. The Parable of the Sower: (vs.4-8)
As the account of the parable opens we are given very little information to set the scene in which Jesus uses it. In verse four, all we are told are a couple of details about the audience to whom Jesus spoke. First, Luke informs us that the audience was “a great multitude”, meaning of course that it was a very large crowd. Second, Luke observes that this multitude “had come to Him from every city”. The ESV captures the sense of the Greek wording by rending the same phrase as “from town after town came to him”. The idea is that when Jesus went to a particular town and did miracles and taught, the residents of that town would follow Him to the next town. This had happened several times so that the crowd was enormous.
The note about the size of the crowd is important. It would have appeared from the following that Jesus had gathered, that the populace of Galilee was responding positively to His Gospel in great numbers. This appearance was an illusion that hid what was really going on. The reality was that the Jews had been taught to anticipate that when the Messiah came they would gain political freedom from the hated Romans and would inherit a glorious kingdom on earth in which God Himself would reign over them through His appointed representative, the Messiah (Isa.9, 11; Dan.7). These anticipations were correct, but as Jesus’ message would demonstrate, the timing of this anticipation was wrong. The Kingdom had come, but in a manner, that had not been previously revealed. As events would demonstrate, the political implications of the Messiah’s arrival were more important to the multitude than the Messiah’s teaching. The crowd had been drawn to Jesus by incredible healings of everyone brought to Him, by dramatic deliverances from demons, and by various other awe-inspiring miracles. However, the disciples had a very limited awareness of the real dynamics behind why the crowd followed Jesus. Their misunderstanding of the crowd would have lead them to anticipate that their upcoming role would be very different than it would actually turn out to be. In order to expose to His disciples what was really going on, and how their own ministries would eventually unfold, Jesus told this parable.
Jesus addressed the crowd and said “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold” (vs.5-8a). The parable reflects first century farming and without doubt described a scene that everyone listening had seen numerous times. However, for modern readers some of the details in the parable may be unclear. First, the type of planting described here is called “broadcasting”, where the one sowing the crop casts seed all around the prepared soil.
The “wayside” that Jesus refers to was ground that was hard because it was pounded down by foot traffic. These were the dirt walking paths between cultivated fields. This would not be plowed, and the seed would not penetrate the soil, but merely sit on the surface until one of the birds found it.
The “rock” that some of the seed fell upon is not an individual stone or boulder. Jesus was referring to a rocky plate below the surface that was common in the hill country of Galilee. This stony stratum, would not be disturbed by plowing and would result in preventing the root system of the grain from going deep enough to reach the water table. Understanding this helps us reconcile two different accounts of this parable. Luke records that the problem for the plant was it “lacked moisture” (vs.6), however Matthew records that the problem for the plant was it “did not have much earth” (13:5). The reasons are one in the same. The plant dies from lack of moisture, because its roots could not get to the moisture because the soil was too shallow.
Jesus described the third portion of soil as having thorns. The reference is to weeds that grew tall with briars and flowers, and with deep long roots. Frequently it would be the case that the shrub was cut off at the surface. The root system would quickly regenerate the plant and then draw from the soil all the available nutrients. This would choke the life from any grain that was competing with those weeds for the soil’s resources.
The fourth and final type of soil in the parable was good and yielded an abundant harvest. The ratio of 100-fold refers to how many grains of wheat one would get in relation to the sown seed. Scholars say the average for a good harvest would be 35-fold. So, Jesus describes a very good harvest, but not one beyond possibility (therefore the harvest itself would not suggest anything supernatural).
Jesus concluded his teaching of this parable by proclaiming to the crowd, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (vs.8b). Jesus used this expression more than once, and it was a call to pay attention and to seek to understand. It was also a call to arouse listeners to care about what He said because it was important. Finally, it obviously conveyed that if one was not careful it would be easy to miss what He was attempting to teach them.
II. The Purpose of Parables: (vs.9-10)
Luke then in verse nine records that Jesus’ “disciples asked Him, saying, ‘What does this parable mean?’” The question does not imply that the disciples did not understand the story itself; they did not understand what the story was meant to illustrate. They knew Jesus well enough to know He was not teaching them about farming; but they could not figure out what spiritual lesson Jesus was giving them?
In the first part of His answer, Jesus replied “to you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God” (vs.10a). But what are the mysteries of the Kingdom of God? The Greek word translated as “mystery” does not refer to a riddle or something that a person can understand if they apply sound deductive reasoning. The word actually refers to that which is a secret. As with all secrets, it is not something you can figure out on your own; it is something that has to be revealed to you by one who knows the secret. The secrets about the Kingdom of God that Jesus now reveals to His disciples relate to the nature of the coming of the promised Kingdom of God. The Kingdom would not manifest itself at the beginning in the form that the Jews were expecting (that would come later). Instead, the initial manifestation of the Kingdom would come by the gathering of citizens who would become a part of the Kingdom of God. In this phase of the Kingdom both the genuine and the false citizens of the Kingdom would reside side by side. Finally, the Kingdom would not be embraced by the Jews as enthusiastically as it appeared at that time. It is this latter point that is the focus of this particular parable.
Jesus also told His disciples that it was given to them to know these secrets. God Himself is the implied subject that would give the disciples the knowledge of these secrets. This sort of expression (where an author uses a passive verb without indicating a subject), is a common Jewish idiom. This is such a consistent form of Jewish shorthand that this form has come to be known as a Divine passive.
Jesus then explains that what His disciples receive will be different than what is given to the crowd in general. Though God had chosen to allow them to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, “to the rest it is given in parables” (vs.10b). Since both the crowd and the disciples heard the parable, Jesus can’t be saying that He only gave parables to the crowd. He was saying that the crowd would not be instructed in these secret things about God’s Kingdom; instead they would get the parables only. The implication from this contrast is that Jesus constructed these parable stories in such a way that they were intended to conceal information rather than reveal it. But why was Jesus going to conceal these truths from everyone but His faithful disciples? Jesus answered this question when He explained His purpose in speaking in these parables, “that ‘Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (vs.10c). These words are an allusion to Isaiah 6:9; which comes in the midst of the passage that records Yahweh’s call of Isaiah to his prophetic office. God addressed these words to the prophet to instruct him regarding the nature of the ministry to which he was being called. He was called to preach the truth to Judah about their wickedness before their God, but in these verses Isaiah was told that the Israelites would comprehend his words, but their hearts would not be open to God’s message through Him. These words expressed God’s judgment upon the Jews for their ongoing disobedience in spite of centuries of prophetic preaching to correct them. The conclusion of the matter was that God would not enable the Jews to respond to Isaiah’s preaching; rather He would allow their hard hearts to have their own way. The truth Isaiah declared to the Jews would not save them from judgment, it would make them that much guiltier before God when the time of judgment came. The application to Jesus’ situation was that this enormous crowd that was following had also been privy for some time to Jesus’ wonderful teaching. However, they were no more moved to repentance than their ancestors had been. So, the time had passed for Jesus to speak clearly to people who had no interest in truth. The reception of the truth Jesus had come to reveal would now be a privilege only for those who really desired it; Jesus’ true disciples.
III. The Parable of the Sower Explained: (vs.11-15)
In this last portion of the passage, Jesus interprets His parable so that the disciples, unlike the crowd, will understand the secrets of the Kingdom of God. Jesus explained, “Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience” (vs.11-15).
Jesus first identifies what the “seed” in the parable represents. It represents the Word of God; or more specifically the Divine message of the Gospel that the Father had entrusted to Jesus.
But Jesus does not identify the sower in the parable. In fact, many interpreters regard the soils rather than the sower as the focus of the parable; going so far as to suggest the parable should be identified as the parable of the sower. However, it is not interpreters who have traditionally identified this parable as being about the sower; it was Jesus who did so (Matt.13:18). Therefore, the sower is the focus of the story. But the sower is not identified because the listener is meant to identify with the main character of the parable. So, the sower is a figure for the disciples and those who would follow in their footsteps spreading the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Next, Jesus identifies what the various soils represent. In each case the soils are said to represent different responses by those who hear the preaching of the Gospel.
Jesus explained that the soil that is represented by the hard ground of the foot path represents those who hear the Gospel but have no real response to it. The implication is that their hearts are hard like the ground in the parable, and they simply are unmoved and uninterested in the Gospel. Jesus explains that the birds who snatch the seeds represent the devil who takes the Gospel away from their hearts. Jesus explained why the devil does this, “lest they should believe and be saved” (vs.12b). Unlike many of those who hear Jesus, the devil knows that anyone who believes the Gospel will be saved. Therefore, the devil steals away the Word of God to ensure that these unresponsive listeners are lost and face destruction. This profoundly evil intent is why Jesus elsewhere categorizes the devil as a murderer (Jn.8:44). One must not conclude however that Jesus is blaming the devil for such a person’s failure to believe. They chose to disregard the Gospel before the devil removes it from their heart. Each person is fully culpable for their own eternal destruction; the point here is only that the devil is more than willing to help someone on their way to destruction.
Jesus then explained that the stony soil represented those who initially respond to the Gospel with great excitement and joy. This would no doubt have characterized many in the crowd that had heard Jesus that day. Their enthusiasm for Jesus and what He said however had a problem. Jesus said that their problem was illustrated by the soil not being deep enough for the plant to take root. This lack of root expresses the idea of lacking any real commitment to the truth of what was said. Instead the enthusiasm related to how good it sounded that the Kingdom of God was coming, without any real thought about the implications this coming would have upon their lives. Because of their lack of commitment, Jesus says that they “believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (vs.13b). The Greek word translated as “temptation” relates to a trial or test that is intended to prove whether or not one is genuine. Therefore, these individuals believe in some sense (it can’t be a completely false faith, otherwise Jesus would not have said that they believed at all). However, when a difficult trial faces them they turn away from the things they previously said they believed in. The idea is that people can believe certain things about the Gospel, but not the entire thing; or they can believe in the Gospel superficially, but not with real conviction. One’s faith will only survive and grow strong through trials if one’s faith is substantial and rooted in an accurate knowledge of what it is that God promised. So those represented by the second soil also fail to have a saving response.
Jesus then interprets the imagery of the third soil, the one where the plant that germinated from the seed is choked by the roots of the weeds. Jesus explained to His disciples that the choking roots represented “cares, riches, and pleasures of life”
(vs.14b). Jesus said the worries, aspirations of wealth, and the desire for pleasures in this life choke out the life of some of those who initially profess faith in Christ. The imagery of choking roots pictures the idea of various desires and aspirations that compete with the Gospel in one’s heart to define a person’s priorities. Jesus said elsewhere that what we truly treasure reveals what is most important to us in our hearts (Matt.6:21). Jesus wanted His disciples to know that some who initially accepted the Gospel would “bring no fruit to maturity” (vs.14c) because their desire for the things of the world would slowly drain away their interest in pursuing spiritual things. Any crop that does not produce a harvest is a failure, and anyone who was a farmer would intuitively understand this. This group represents yet another response that comes short of saving faith.
Finally, Jesus said that the fourth soil, the one that produced the great harvest, represented those who heard the Gospel “with a noble and good heart” (vs.15b). This expression actually combines two different Greek words that mean good. However, as is often the case, each of the words has its own nuance. The first (that is translated as “noble”) relates to a thing being beautiful or admirable, whereas the second relates to a thing being upright or beneficial to others. The combined idea is that of a heart that is receptive to truth because it desires godly things. It is this heart that distinguishes those who respond in saving faith from all the other responses that Jesus listed in this parable.
Jesus then explained that those who receive the Gospel with a noble and good heart, demonstrate their true faith by how they respond to the Word; they “keep it and bear fruit with patience” (vs.15c). Jesus delineates two characteristics of those who genuinely respond to the Gospel. First, they “keep” the Gospel. The Greek word translated as “keep” refers to clinging to something tightly and refusing to let go. In distinction to those who fall away from the Gospel, the true believer holds on to it because it always remains precious to them. Second, the true believers “bear fruit with patience”. Throughout the New Testament there is an emphasis upon the idea that genuine faith leads to real life-change. The metaphor of fruit is often used to illustrate this idea because it is such a natural picture of this truth. Just as a living fruit tree bears fruit, so a person who has been born-again by the Spirit of God will demonstrate the fruit of godliness that flows from the Spirit’s presence within the believer (Gal.5:22-23). The Greek word translated as “patience”, is better translated as perseverance. Because the idea is that the believer continues to bear fruit in spite of whatever obstacles or resistance that he/she encounters.
The point of the parable is that the disciple will encounter these four different responses to the Gospel. Since the seed is the same, the reason for success or failure is not with the sower, but with the soil that represents the orientation of heart that characterizes one’s audience. Jesus was preparing His disciples for the reality that many would reject the Gospel in the end. He wanted to protect them from false expectations that would lead to discouragement. Jesus calls His disciples to be faithful in sharing the truth of the Gospel. The response depends upon whether or not one’s hearers are interested in knowing the truth. In our age, as has always been true; there is the temptation to assume we have the power to be successful at ministry. So, we choose methods that have been proven to draw large crowds. However, this story demonstrates that drawing large crowds does not mean that people are being saved. Many of the thousands who followed Jesus around were not true believers. Many who are in evangelical churches today aren’t either. We can only help others if we understand their true situation, and stay committed to the true remedy for judgment; the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the Bonds of Christ,