We have now seen what the kingdom is, and learned the general principles by which to interpret that parabolic teaching in which the Lord was pleased to convey to us most of the instruction which we have concerning it. Of these there are first to be considered the seven parables of the thirteenth chapter, in which we have its prophetic history from its commencement in the seed sown by the Lord Himself, until the mystery-form is ended by His appearing in the heavens. It is plain that this alone will close it, as it is that this is what is contemplated in the parables themselves; but we shall have to look at it fully at another time in answering some objections which have been raised to what I believe the true interpretation of the last parable.
In the twelfth chapter, the Lord, in announcing His death and resurrection, has declared the rejection of Israel. No sign further should be given them but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for as Jonah had been three days and nights in the whale's belly, so the Son of Man would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. And thereupon He shows what would be the result to that wicked generation which had rejected Him (chap. 12:41-45). His new relationships would be with the doers of His Father's will, and with these alone (vs. 46-50). This manifestly would exclude the nation of Israel in their unbelief, while it would bring in any and every believing Gentile. Judaism, with its narrow restrictions, was therefore gone.
A significant action on the Lord's part introduces the parables of the thirteenth chapter. He leaves the house, to sit by the seaside. Let any one compare the picture of the woman that "sitteth upon many waters" in Rev. 17:1, and he will find the meaning of this. The angel interprets it for us in that chapter: "The waters where the whore sitteth are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues" (vs. 15). So here the Lord is leaving the house, the place of recognized natural relationship, to take His place, as it were, in the highway of the commerce of the world, which the sea is. And there, to the multitude upon the shore, He begins His parable with "Behold, a sower went forth to sow."
But Israel had been His vineyard, long ago planted, fenced, and cared for, according to His own words at another time (chap. 21:33). From it He had looked for fniit, not as a fresh field to sow it for harvest. From Israel He had to "go forth" elsewhere, with that "word of the kingdom" already by them rejected, to get fruit for Himself with it in the field of the world at large. For "the field is the world," as He Himself interprets to us,- not a chosen nation, but the whole earth.
We are at once, then, brought face to face with what has been going on during the whole of the history of Christendom. The results, as the Lord gives them here, are before our eyes. The seed is "the word of the kingdom" (vs. 19), the declaration of the authority and power of One rejected and crucified as "King of the Jews." Raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, He sits upon the Father's throne, all authority in heaven and earth being given unto Him who is exalted to be at the same time "a Prince and a Saviour." This is the seed He sows, and the sowing is always His, though He may use others as His instruments. The form the kingdom takes, therefore, is not as it will be yet - set up by almighty power, to which every thing must needs give way. It is offered for man's acceptance. It may he rejected. Faith is still to prepare the way of the Lord, and it is seen in result that "all men have not faith." In the kingdom predicted by the Old Testament prophets, and yet to be upon the earth, a "rod of iron" will break down all opposition. Here, on the contrary, it shows itself at once in its three fundamental forms - as devil, flesh, and world. Three parts of the seed fail thus of fruit. Not only is there distinct and open rejection, but also men may receive the word outwardly, and thus become subjects of the kingdom, and yet he quite unfruitful and merely self-deceived. Thus in some of its general features the world of profession all around us is portrayed.
The Wayside Hearer
The first class represented here comes before us in the wayside hearer. In him the power of Satan is seen, though in such a manner as to leave the man himself fully responsible. It is solemn to read even of such an one, that the word was "sown in his heart" (vs. 19). That does not imply conversion. He does not even "understand." But why? Because, as with the wayside, the ground on which it is sown is too hard-trodden for the seed to penetrate; and it lies exposed to the birds of heaven, tempting, as it were, the tempter to "catch it away." Of such souls there are many: preoccupied with what hardens and deadens them to other influences - be it business, be it pleasure,- lawful or lawless: it is the effect here that is noted, little matter how produced.
Still the word is "sown in the heart." Marvellous power of the Word of God, which, wherever it speaks, carries with it something of its divine authority. The "inner man of the heart" is reached, and made aware of that which brings with it its own evidence and claims. "By manifestation of the truth," says the apostle, "commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." Not every man will own how he winces under the truth. But he does wince. "Light" is there, consciously to the soul that turns away from it even, but turns away because conscious it is light, and loving darkness rather, the fit cover of evil deeds.
These moments of conviction, who that has ever listened to the Word can be a stranger to them? Nor does it follow that the Word is understood in any proper sense. It is felt as light, detecting the thoughts and intents of the heart; and the one who feels, and turns away from it because he feels it, falls thus under the devil's power. The impression made is soon removed. The seed sown is caught away. The poor dupe of Satan learns perhaps even to laugh at the momentary conviction, and to congratulate himself upon the wisdom of his present indifference.
The Stony Ground Hearer
In the next class of hearers, the stony ground illustrates the opposition of the flesh. And for this end it is pictured, not at its worst, but at its best. This man "heareth the word, and immediately with joy receiveth it; yet has he not root in himself." Here is not the natural man's rejection of the Word, but his reception of it; though there is no more real fruit than in the first case. The seed has rapid growth, the rocky bed forming a sort of natural hot-bed for it, so that it springs up quickly with abundant promise. But the very thing which favours this ready development forbids continuance. The seed cannot root itself in the rock, and the sun withers it up.
It is easy to see what is wanting here, and that the picture is of the stony heart of unbelief, unchanged, denying the Word admittance, where seeming most to receive it. Many such cases there are - where the gospel is apparently at once and with joy received, but where the immediate joy is just the sign of surface-work, and of unreality at bottom. With such, the plough-share of conviction has never made way for the seed to penetrate. The work is mental and emotional only, not in the conscience. There has been no repentance,- no bringing down into the dust, in the consciousness of a lost, helpless, undone condition, which nothing but the blood and grace of Christ can meet. There has been no coming out of self - self-righteousness and self-sufficiency - to Him.
Thus there is no root in the man himself, Christ is not his real and grand necessity. So "when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the Word, by and by he is offended." This is the religion of the flesh, of sentiment, of unreality, and this is its end. It lacks the sign and seal of a work truly divine - permanence. It "dureth for awhile." "I know that what God doeth, it shall be forever" (Eccl. 3:14).
It should admonish every workman who goes forth with the precious seed of the Word of God, that there is such a hasty springing up of the Word he carries, which (in souls unexercised before) is not to be caught at and rejoiced in, but just the contrary. An easy passage into joy and peace, without any deep conviction,- any real taking the place of a lost sinner before God. It is not that experiences are to be preached, or trusted in by souls, for peace. Christ alone is our peace, most surely. But we should nevertheless be admonished, that if Christ came "to seek and to save the lost" (and that is the gospel - "good news"- if any is) men must know that they are lost in order to receive this gospel message. This is the Scripture truth and necessity of repentance; and this is its place: "Repent ye, and receive the gospel."
The Thorny Ground Hearer
We come now to the third class of these hearers, to him "that received seed among the thorns." The Lord interprets for us what is figured here as the opposition of the world; "the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the Word, and he becometh unfruitful."
It is a more solemn warning, perhaps, than either of the others. For the Word here seems to have deeper hold, and it is not the violent assault of persecution that overthrows this faith, but the quiet influence of things in one form or another about us all. No one of us but proves more or less how occupation with needful and lawful things tends to become a "care" that saps the life of all that is of God within us. Soul-care is not despised, but just crowded out. We all feel the tendency; and who does not remember cases such as this, of those in whom the seed of the Word apparently was springing up, and where, by no sudden assault or pressure of temptation, hut just in the ordinary wear and tear of life, perhaps along with the unsuspected influence of prosperity so called, like seed among thorns, the promise of fruit was choked?
But in all three cases, let us carefully mark that, however fair the appearance, there was, at the best, no "fruit." It was, in all, "faith," which "having not work," was dead, being alone. It wrought nothing really for God in the souls of those that had it. It brought about no judgment of sin, no brokenness of heart, no turning to God: where these are, there is fruit and real faith, and eternal life. Such shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of His hand in whom they have believed.
The Good Ground Hearer
Of the fourth class alone is it said, "He heareth the Word and understandeth it." This is the character of him who "received seed into the good ground." And this man also "beareth fruit." The understanding of the Word is thus the great point here. And what puts us into a condition for understanding the gospel is just the understanding of ourselves. Our guilt, our impotence, our full need apprehended by the soul, opens the way to apprehend the fullness and blessedness of the gospel message. If I am a sinner, and powerless by any effort of my own to get out of this place, how sweet and simple is it that Jesus died for sinners, and that through Him God "justifieth the ungodly." If I can do nothing, how that word, "to him that worketh not, but believeth" shines out to my soul! I understand it. It suits me. It is worthy of God. There is no good ground, prepared to receive the seed of the gospel, save that which has been thus broken up by the conviction, not of sin only, but of helplessness. "When we were without strength" came the "due time" in which "Christ died for the ungodly."
The lessons of this parable are plain enough. It teaches that the kingdom is not established by power, but by the reception of the Word, which in an adverse world is not only not universal, but often unreal where nominally it exists. It shows that the kingdom is not territorial - that in its nature it is a kingdom of the truth, whose subjects are disciples, and the introduction to which is discipling, and which grows by individual accretions. So much is plain; and it is the foundation of all that follows.