Cf. “Introductory Lectures,” pp. 168-173.
Matt. 13:1-23; Luke 8:4-15.
The Lord Jesus had been announced as the Messiah by His forerunner, had manifested Himself fully as such, so that all were responsible, from the chief authorities down to the people at large. The last chapter showed what the result would be — the crowning testimony of the Spirit rejected as well as the Son of man in person, the unpardonable sin of that rebellious and apostate race, and the formation of new relationships, characterized by the doings of God’s will, in lieu of the natural ties which were now solemnly and publicly disowned of the Lord.
This opens the way for a parabolic description of the Saviour’s ministry, its course and results, His attitude meanwhile and at the close, as well as the circumstances of His disciples while engaged under Him. Mark does not present a full view of the dispensation of the kingdom of heaven, which has its appropriate place in Matthew. Nevertheless, both he and Luke give us in a very complete manner, each suited to the special aim of the respective Gospels, the Parable of the Sower.
“And He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His doctrine, Hearken: Behold, the sower went forth to sow, and it came to pass as he sowed, some fell by the wayside,44 and the birds36 came and devoured it up. And some fell on rocky ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth; but when the sun arose it was scorched; and because it had no root it withered away. And some fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundred. And He said, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
This was His work now, scattering abroad the seed of the Word. There was nothing in man acceptable to God. It was a question of something new and Divine, the fruit of the operation of grace. A new life there must be if fruit unto God be looked for. There was nothing like it before: not even John’s preaching went out thus far and wide, and still less the law and the prophets.
But, then, there are divers lessons to be learnt, for the action is always responsible, even where it is not efficacious. The seed was good: there was no defect there; but man, as such, is good for nothing, and the effect, where there is not the saving work of the Spirit, comes to nothing sooner or later. Much, therefore, was, in this point of view, lost.
The first class, where all fails as to result, consists of the wayside hearers. “When they heard,” says the Lord in explanation, “Satan cometh immediately and taketh away the word that was sown in them.”37 This answers to the birds coming and devouring the seed that fell by the roadside. This is the direct, destructive power of the enemy which hinders the entrance of the Word. It does not penetrate below the surface, never goes farther than talk, speculation, or admiration of the preacher. The moral state of death is evidently untouched, and Satan has it all his own way.
Next, we have the case of the seed that fell on stony ground, where it had but little earth, and the effect was full of instantaneous promise. “Immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: but when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.” Here we have the flesh or nature doing its best, but proving its utter weakness. They are the persons “who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and have no root in themselves, but are for a time; then, tribulation or persecution arising for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended.” Here the work went no deeper than the affections, without reaching the conscience and convicting it before God. To take the joy of Christianity where there has been no judgment of the life and state as in God’s sight is really to slight and ignore Him altogether, making much of self. Haste in reception of the blessing is anything but the indication of a Divine Work. Hence the all-importance of repentance, which has been too much lost sight of through a desire to guard the freeness of grace and deliver the Gospel from legal clogs. But this remedy is, at least, as dangerous as the disease which it was intended to cure. We must not weaken the solemn dealing of the Holy Ghost with the conscience. It is good, wholesome, and essential that the soul should weigh its condition in God’s light and pronounce His judgment on itself, though, doubtless, repentance is of faith, and not a preparation for faith. Still, there may be no kind of peace and all but despair as yet. The heart may be ploughed up deeply and with scarcely more than a hope of mercy, which keeps it from utterly sinking; and the Lord in due time brings home the word, “Thy sins, which are many, are forgiven. . . . Thy faith hath saved thee: go in peace.” Then, indeed, there is, at once and lastingly, peace and joy in believing.
Where there is not the sounding of the heart thus morally, as in God’s sight, the same haste which receives easily gives up without difficulty in presence of fiery trial. Well, in truth, it is for the soul, thus captivated by an imaginative joy through a mere feeling of the beauty, the truth, and the attractiveness of God’s most unselfish love in the abstract, which may be mistaken for its own deep enjoyment of His grace to a sin-convicted soul — well it is if it discover the fatal error, and, after being turned aside, if it return, or, rather, turn in reality, to God in divinely wrought sense of its sin and guilt, to find in Christ Jesus the only answer to its wants.
The third case is where some seed fell among thorns but, being choked by the growing thorns, it yielded no fruit. Such are they who hear the word; but the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful (verses 18, 19), a serious and not infrequent thing. May we beware! There are various forms in which the evil works, but it is worldly lust and real selfishness, in distrust of God and indifference to His interests, so that the heart gets either overwhelmed with anxiety or active in the pursuit of present things. The very semblance of devotedness is lost, and the soul goes back, it may be with intense avidity, to the world it had seemed to leave. There are none without the need of God’s guard against them all. But ye that are poor, watch against encroaching cares; ye rich, be not enticed by the deceitfulness of riches; both of you, see that ye judge “the lusts of other things!”
On the other hand, there is seed that falls on good ground, and yields fruit, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred: even there the result is chequered, for that which is fatal to the unbeliever may injure grievously the fruitfulness of the faithful. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (verse 9). It is a grave matter for every soul — grave for him that hears; and what is it for him who has no ear to hear?
“And when He was alone, they that were about Him with the Twelve asked of Him the parables.38 And He said unto them, Unto you it is given [to know]39 the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that beholding they may behold, and not see; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest it may be they should be converted, and they should be forgiven.40 And He said to them, Know ye not this parable and how then will ye be acquainted with all parables He explains the mind of God, not to the Twelve only, but to those who were about Him. They were those within: all else were “without,” to whom all things happen in parables, a rebelling people without even a reprover now. But those within have the privilege of knowing the mystery of the kingdom: grace thus wrought distinguishing those separated to Christ from the guilty nation, given up increasingly to judicial darkness, though it reproved them for their want of understanding. 45 Nor was this parable hard to discern, but elementary and fundamental, a sort of introduction to those which were to follow. Nevertheless, the gracious Lord, if He rebukes, proceeds to expound it, as we have seen in verses 14-20.
But, beside saving the soul, the engrafted word issues in testimony; and this is the next and characteristic statement of the Lord in our Gospel. “And He said unto them, Is a lamp brought to be put under the bushel, or under the bed, and not to be set on the lamp-stand? For there is nothing hidden which shall not be manifested; neither does any secret thing take place but that it should come to light. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” The word is not “seed” only to produce fruit, but a lamp to shine in the witness of God’s grace and truth in this dark world, even as Christ, lowly as He was, and servant of all, was its perfect expression personally. Was it, then, come to be put under a bushel or a couch, and not, rather, on its own appropriate stand? It could not be: for, in truth, “There is nothing hidden which shall not be manifested; neither does any secret thing take place but that it should come to light. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Thus we have the responsibility to shine in the world, holding forth the word of life; and this with the settled certainty that all must come out, whether of good or evil, closing with the solemn appeal to individual conscience once more.
Again, “He said to them, Take heed what ye hear with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you and unto you [that hear]41 shall more be added. For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” It is still responsibility in the service and testimony of the Lord. We must take heed, then, what we hear: for what we receive, we are bound to communicate. Want of value for the treasure of God, want of confidence in His grace, reaps its own bitter harvest. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you; and unto you shall more be added.” Such is the special connection here. Those only possess who give out in grace, and such shall receive yet more abundantly; while they who have not in reality, shall lose even the show they have.46
The next parable, which is peculiar to our Gospel, is singularly characteristic of it. It is the work of the kingdom. “So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed upon the earth; and should sleep, and rise up night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow up, he knoweth not how. [For]42 the earth bringeth forth fruit of itself; first the blade, then an ear, then the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is produced, immediately he putteth in the sickle, for the harvest is come.” The absence and apparent disregard of the Lord are supposed, not His manifestation and active interference. Harvest being come, He reaps, instead of sending His angels, as in Matthew.47
Matt. 13:31-35; Luke 13:18, 19.
This is followed by the mustard seed, which shows its growth from a small beginning into a great development, and a system of protection on the earth even for the emissaries of the god of this world. “And with many such parables He spoke not to them,48 as they were able to hear. But without a parable He spoke not unto them; and in private He expounded all things to His disciples.”43
Matt. 8:18, 23-27; Luke 8:22-25.
The final scene of the chapter sets forth the trials to which His people are exposed in their work, with Him in their midst. Their foolish, selfish unbelief is as plain as His calm supremacy over that which He only could control, and His just rebuke of their timidity, blind to the glory of His person.
36 “The birds” (simply): so ABCL, 1, 33, 69, Amiat. Syrr. Memph. “Of the sky” is added by DCM and some cursives.
37 “In them”: so ACL
Δ, Syrhcl(mg), Edd. read “into them,” with B, 1, 69, etc. “In their hearts” appears in D, the later uncials, 33, Amiat. Syrsin pesch hcl(t).
38 “Parables”: so Edd., with BCL
Δ, Amiat. Memph. The reading of AE
ΠΣ Syrpesch Goth. AEth. is “parable.”
39 [“To know”]: so Ccorr D
Δ, etc., Old Latin Syrpesch hier have the word, but Edd. omit, as ABCpm KL
40 “They should be forgiven”: so Edd., with BCL, etc. “Their sins,” etc., is found in AD, etc., Syrsin pesch, Old Latin, Memph.
41 [“That hear”], as A and later copies, 1, 33, 69, Syr. Arm. Edd. omit, with BCDL
Δ, Old Latin, Memph.
42 [“For”]: so later uncials, Old Latin, Amiat. Goth. Edd. omit, with ABCL.
43 “His”: so AD and later uncials, almost all cursives (1, 33, 69); whilst Edd. adopt “his own,” with BCL
Δ and Origen.