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The Parable of the Soils - Mark's Perspective - Part 2

Tom Pennington • Mark 4:1-20

  • 2009-07-05 PM
  • The Memoirs of Peter
  • Sermons


You may remember, a few years ago there was a trend that sort of swept through Christianity about the Bible having secret buried codes. There were books, and there were various ideas that were uncovered that perhaps the Bible predicted certain contemporary world leaders, and if you took the fifth letter out of certain books, then you could weave together the name of, you know, Adolf Hitler or whatever. And somehow the Bible had buried within its words, in sort of patterns, stories about modern history. The Bible in code. Of course, that was and is utterly ridiculous. The Bible we embrace, the concept of the Bible as perspicuous. That is, it has perspicuity: it is open and understandable to us. We can read the Bible; it's clear. There're some things, as Peter said, that are hard to be understood. Even Paul, at times, is hard to be understood. But overall, the message of the Bible is straightforward. It's clear.

Perhaps the closest the Bible gets to code, if you will, are the parables of Jesus Christ. They were intended both to reveal the truth, as well as on the other hand, conceal the truth. Buried within those simple stories are profound spiritual truths. And we're looking at one of Jesus' most famous parables: The Parable of the Soils from Mark's perspective in Mark 4:1 to 20. Let me read for you Mark 4:1 -12. The first 9 verses give us an idea of what the crowd heard, and verses 10 - 12, what His disciples heard privately.

He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowed was by the sea on the land. And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching, "Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; [and] as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and chocked it, and it yielded no crop. Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold." And He was saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN."

Jesus' earthly ministry lasted about three and a half years. This event that I've just read for you occurs about two and a half years into His ministry. The cross is about one year away at this point, and Jesus' approach to teaching on this occasion marks a significant change in the method of His ministry. We began last week by looking at the setting of the parables that Jesus tells, and that's found in verses 1 and 2.

Mark tells us much about Jesus' teaching, but there're only two actual examples of Jesus' sermons. One of those is here in Mark 4. It falls in the middle of the first half of the book in Jesus' great Galilean ministry, and it really explains all that He did: the narrative on both sides, both before chapter 4 and after it. As the ministry of Jesus unfolds in those chapters, there are incredibly varied responses to Jesus, the Son of God. And those various responses raise a very important question. If Jesus was Israel's Messiah, if He was the Son of God as He claimed, if He had authority to forgive sins, then why didn't everyone immediately and eagerly receive Him and accept Him? Why didn't they eagerly believe in Him? They were anticipating their Messiah. Why wasn't it clear to them? Mark 4 provides the answer to that question. It is an apologetic for why not everyone accepts the claims of Jesus Christ. You see, the way a person responds to Jesus says nothing about Jesus; instead, it says everything about that person and about the nature of that person's heart.

Matthew tells us that Jesus taught these parables we're studying here in Mark 4, on that same long day that He had healed the demoniac in the morning, been accused by the scribes of being in collusion with the devil; that same day in which He'd been accused by His own brothers of being mentally unstable. That day, Matthew says, Jesus went out of the house and got in a boat and taught as the people were standing on the beach. Verse 1 of Mark 4 says this: "He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowed was by the sea on the land." I showed you last time a picture of a reproduction of a boat, a first century boat that they've discovered; and it held roughly thirteen, maybe fifteen people at the most. And so, it was well suited, in God's providence, to the number Jesus chose, and they often crossed the Sea of Galilee in such a boat.

This event that we're studying occurs up on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee (you see that red circled area) just west of Capernaum, ancient Capernaum near Jesus' hometown. He taught in a house in Capernaum in the morning and then went out by the seashore. Here is the cove that most likely was the spot where this occurred. It's a naturally occurring cove; it was there in Jesus' time. This is what it looks like from the hillside looking down at that cove area. And even though it's a long way and huge crowds can be there, the voice of someone on a boat just in the water (it's been tested) can be easily heard across this entire area for a huge crowd of people.

Verse 2 goes on to say that, "He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching…." And that brings us to Jesus' first parable. In the three Gospels that report this sermon, this parable always appears first; and so, it was undoubtedly the very first parable Jesus told on that occasion. And as we will see, next week Lord willing, it is also the most important of all the parables. It is foundational because it deals with how we respond to the rest of Jesus' teaching. That's the setting of the parables we're studying in this chapter.

That brings us to the Parable of the Soils. Jesus tells this story that would have been very familiar in an agricultural setting. They saw fields around them all the time. This was a part of their life. The point of the story isn't the sower. It isn't even the seed; although, we will learn what those are next time. The point of the story is the four different kinds of soils into which these wheat seed fall. In each case, the sower and the seed were the same. The yield was determined by the soil on which the seed fell.

And as we saw last time, there's the hard soil: fell on those beaten paths that the farmers and others would walk on, then snatched up by the birds. There's the rocky soil, which is the soil that is really a thin layer of topsoil with a large sheet of limestone bedrock beneath it. Thus, there would be no root place. And so, the wheat would spring up. And when the sun came day after day, the atmosphere began to heat up. The winds came off the desert. These plants would be scorched and die. There was the thorny soil. The farmer would have cleared the soil: he would have burned the thorns off of the top of the ground, and then he would have taken his plow and dug down about four inches (which is about all an ancient plow cut), and he would have dug up the roots and things he could get to. But the roots went deeper. And so, he would sow his seed, and that seed would fall among roots along with roots of weeds and thorns. And they would spring up together. And of course, you know which wins that race.

And then there was the good soil: soil that was prepared, that was ready to receive the seed, and it yielded a varying crop of wheat. So, those are the soils. This is all Jesus says to the crowd, and He concludes with this line, verse 9: "And He was saying, 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear.'"

Now that brings us to the next section of Mark 4:10 - 12, and it tells us about the purpose for parables. The purpose of parables. Jesus had used parables before; in fact, just earlier that same day, Mark 3;23 says, "He called them to Himself [that is the scribes who were accusing Him of being in collusion with the devil] and began speaking to them in parables, 'How can Satan cast out Satan?'" And you remember the story of the owner of the house and the strong man who comes in and binds him. But beginning with this discourse from the boat here in Mark, there is a significant change in Jesus' approach. After this day, Jesus would not use parables merely to illustrate. Jesus did use illustrations by the way, but the sole purpose of illustrations is to make the truth clear.

Parables served a different purpose. From that day, Jesus began to use parables as His primary method in teaching the multitudes, not His disciples, but the multitudes. It was a response on Jesus' part. It was a response to the rejection of the Scribes and Pharisees that morning, and to the failure of most of the people of Israel to embrace Him. Remember, at this point Jesus' ministry has been going on how long? Two and a half years. And yet, He still has just this small band of followers. In these verses, Jesus explains why He's now changing His methodology, His approach. Why is He going to use parables more extensively from this time forward?

Look at verse 10. "As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables." The discussion in these verses probably happened later after the entire sermon was done. I think Matthew makes the time line a little clearer. Matthew says Jesus goes down (verse 1) to teach, and He's there on the beach. Verse 34 of Matthew 13 says Jesus spoke all of these things to the crowds in parables. So, all the way down through all the parables in Matthew 13, He was speaking to the crowd. And He didn't speak to them without a parable that day. Verse 36 of Matthew 13 says, "Then He left the crowds and went into the house and His disciples came to Him and said, 'Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.'"

In fact, look at Mark 4;33. "With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, [as] so far as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples." So, He spoke the parables to the whole crowd, and then He explained them to His disciples privately. Verse 10 says, go back to verse 10. Notice it says, after this first parable His followers began asking Him about the parables: plural. Now when you piece all that together, here's likely the way things worked. This was the order of events that day.

There was the healing of the demoniac that morning. Jesus taught in that house in Capernaum where the Scribes accused Him of being possess by Satan; Jesus responds to them. Then Jesus' family arrives while they're still there in the house, and then Jesus goes out to the Sea of Galilee. And after He teaches all of those parables, He leaves the lake and goes into a house; and there He explains the parables privately to His followers. Probably then, Jesus' words recorded in Mark 4:10-12, were spoken in private in the house later to His followers. Why do I say that? Well, notice verse 10 says, not only was it the twelve but it was other followers. Folks, there wasn't room on the boat for other followers.

And so, at this point, piecing it all together, this explanation was not given at this point in chronology: it happened later when Jesus went into the house with His disciples and followers. But both Matthew and Mark insert these comments here, along with the explanation of this parable, because they want to make a very important point. That's what I want you to get. These words were actually spoken later, but two of the Gospel writers insert them here to make a very important point about this parable.

Now look at verse 10 again. "As soon as He was alone." So now we've gotten off the lake. He's finished speaking to the crowd. They're in a house, privately. We kind of fast-forwarded to that scene. Who are these followers? Well the twelve, it says, were there, the ones He had appointed and chosen, and then a group simply called "His followers." There was a group, obviously, that was in the house that morning, you remember, seated around Him) and when Jesus' family showed up, He said these are My mother and My sisters and My brothers. So, that group is included. There, at the same time period over in Luke 8, there's a little group that is mentioned. Luke 8:1

He … [was going about] from one city and village to another…. [This is just before the giving of the Parable of the Sower, and] The twelve were with Him. [Verse 2 of Luke 8 says,] and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses:" [And then it lists several women, and it says in verse 3,] … and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.

So, there was this entourage, if you will, of Jesus' disciples, the twelve, as well as other followers, in addition to the followers there in Capernaum. And His followers, privately, after He is done teaching the crowds, and they're alone, ask three questions. The first question is, what is the meaning of this parable? In Luke 8, it says His disciples had been questioning Him as to what this parable, the Parable of the Sower, meant. They also asked Him, what is the meaning of the other parables He told. Now Mark 4:10, says they asked Him about the parables, plural. And then they were asking Him, (thirdly) why are You even using parables? Why parables? Now this was the most pressing question on the minds of His followers.

I just want you (My father-in-law, who taught theology for fifty years at Christian colleges, often said you have to read the Bible with this kind of sanctified imagination.) Put yourself there on that day. Two and a half years Jesus has taught and traveled around, and it has been slow progress. There are very few followers, and here we're told that there've been large crowds before; now for the first time we're told there is a very large crowd. Imagine for a moment how thrilled the twelve must have been to see that huge crowd gathered. At last! Jesus' ministry was growing. All of His miracles and all of their mission trips into the regions of Galilee and down into Samaria and Jerusalem and Judea were beginning to pay off. Here was Jesus' big moment. Finally, the ministry was growing. There in front of them was a huge crowd, ready, they thought, to become Jesus' followers. And without any disrespect intended, can I say, in their minds, providence had pitched Jesus a softball; and all He had to do was keep His eye on the ball and hit it.

So, Jesus gets in the boat, ready to teach this huge crowd; the disciples all around Him. They've heard so many of the profound things Jesus had shared about God and about the Gospel and about the kingdom and about salvation. Imagine their shock as Jesus seizes that opportunity and begins with a simple agricultural story about a sower going out to sow. I'm sure, as He was speaking the Parable of the Soils, they were thinking, Wow! I wonder where He's going to go with this? What great passage from the Old Testament is He going to exegete? What profound spiritual insights will He share with these people? How will He present the Gospel? How long will His invitation be? How many verses of "Just As I Am" will we sing?

Imagine their surprise when Jesus finished this simple story with these words: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." And then, to their shock, He tells another story! and then another! and another! Jesus, given the biggest crowd of His ministry, just tells them stories! parables! So, you can understand why, when the crowd finally had left, and they'd gone alone into the house with Jesus, they ask not only what did it mean, but why? Why did You speak to them in parables? There may even be here, and I think there is, a hint of exasperation. Why would Jesus appear to mess up such an amazing opportunity? I don't think we can fully understand their disappointment. This is Jesus being seeker-sensitive. (That's a joke.)

So, Jesus answers all of their questions. Jesus answers: what does this parable mean? He answers in all three of the Gospels, and we'll talk about that the next time. What is the meaning of the other parables? He at least explained the meaning of one other, and that was the parable of the tares, which we will get to in time, and, why are You teaching in parables? Why parables? And that Jesus answers right here. Here is Jesus' answer to, why parables? And as Alan Coles the commentator writes: "It introduces some of the deepest theological mysteries of the whole New Testament."

Look at verse 11. "And He was saying to them, [here's why, here's why I teach in parables] 'To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables.'" Now what immediately strikes you about that verse? To me the thing that stands out is, Jesus immediately puts all of humanity into two categories: His followers on the one hand, and those on the outside on the other hand. Why does He do that? Well these two verses explain, and I want us to work our way through them.

Notice again verse 11. "He was saying to them, 'To you.'" This is addressed to those who were His true followers: the twelve and His other followers. They're specifically identified. "To you [He says] has been given." Matthew and Luke put it slightly differently. There they say, "To you has been granted." Same idea. In other words, here's what Jesus was saying: You, My true followers, have received something as a divine gift. "To you [it] has been given." What's the gift? The mystery of the kingdom. The mystery of the kingdom of God.

Now as I've explained to you before, the English word "mystery" is really a bit confusing as a translation here. Because when we think of the English word "mystery," we think of a puzzle, a riddle that needs to be solved; and if you're really clever and intelligent (kind of like Sherlock Holmes) then you can figure it out. The Greek word "mystery" however, speaks of something that you could never ever discover on your own. It's privileged information, and unless the person who holds the mystery reveals it to you, then it will never be known. The Greek word is really more like our English word "secret." The "secret" of the kingdom of God.

A mystery then is a truth that only God knew, and without His revelation no one would ever know, but He has now chosen to reveal it. It was His secret, and now He has shared it with us. Notice, "To you [it] has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God." Both Matthew and Luke add, "To you it has been granted to know the mystery." That's the idea. To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, the secret of the kingdom of God.

By the way, just as a little aside here. If you grew up as I did with a Scofield Reference Bible, you know that classic dispensationalists, like Scofield, and like some of those at D.T.S. in the past, they believe that there is a difference between the kingdom of heaven (that phrase) and the kingdom of God. Clearly in this story they are synonymous. Because, in exactly the same context, Matthew uses "the kingdom of heaven" and Mark uses "the kingdom of God." There're other places as well, but that's one of them.

So, what exactly is the kingdom of God? What are we talking about? "To us it's been given to know." What is it? Normally when we speak of a kingdom, we mean the territory or realm over which a king rules. Biblically then, the kingdom is simply the rule of God, but the rule of God is used to describe two distinct realities. There's the universal sovereign rule of God: God rules over everything. We talk about that; we use that kind of language all the time. That is, from time in the past to time in the future, God always sovereignly rules over everything. But we also mean the Messianic rule of God, or theologians call it the mediatorial rule of God. That is, Jesus as the mediator, mediating God's rule: God's rule through His Messiah, His Son, the mediator.

And the use of this expression is much more specific. It denotes the rule of God through His Son. In the Old Testament, this Messianic rule, or this rule of God through His Son, seems at first glimpse to be primarily political and physical. So, when Jesus came, what did they expect? The Jews thought He was going to come, defeat Rome, set up a geopolitical kingdom. That was one of their big disappointments with Jesus. That's what they were expecting the Messiah to bring, and when Jesus didn't deliver, maybe He's not the Messiah.

But through the teaching of Jesus, it became clear that this mediatorial or Messianic rule of God had two distinct aspects. There is a present aspect of the kingdom of God. This kingdom of God ruled through Jesus is happening right now. OK? If you're a Christian, you are part of the kingdom of God. It is a spiritual kingdom. We could define this present aspect of the kingdom as simply "the people over whose hearts Christ rules right now." Christ's kingdom today is not a political one. You can't go to any city in the world and find Christ's throne; instead, He rules a spiritual kingdom. He rules over all of those who belong to Him. That's the present aspect of the kingdom. And the kingdom parables that we're going to be studying together, describe and define the current spiritual aspect of the kingdom: it will only be accepted by some, it will have small beginnings, but it will eventually spread and become large, the wicked will be intermingled with, in the kingdom with, the righteous until the end.

But at the same time, these kingdom parables point to a future aspect of the kingdom. There is both the kingdom now until the end of this age, and there will be an aspect or manifestation of the kingdom in the future. That future aspect talks about The Millennium, the millennial kingdom. Jesus said in Matthew 8, "Many will come from [the] east and [the] west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." That's the millennial kingdom. And then the eternal kingdom. Second Peter 1:11 speaks of the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So, in the future, there will be a literal reign of Christ: geopolitically, based out of Israel, over a renewed earth, in the Millennium. And when this earth and heavens are destroyed and a new one are made, there is the eternal kingdom through which Christ will mediate His rule as well. That is the kingdom.

All of this was fresh and new. In Matthew, Jesus says this: "Blessed are your eyes … for truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men [in the past] desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." So, this was new; it was fresh. This was fresh revelation. God was revealing His secret for the first time. And His secret was that He was going to mediate His rule through His son, and it was going to be a spiritual rule here and now without a physical throne somewhere. Jesus tells His disciples that to them it'd been granted to know the secret of this kingdom.

Now, in Matthew, it's a very clear dichotomy. Listen to what Matthew says. Jesus says, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted." To you it has been granted; to them it has not been granted. The question that comes to my mind and should come to yours is, why not? Well, Jesus explains. Look at verse 12. "So that." To you it has been granted. To them it has not been granted so I speak in parables to them. "So that WHILE SEEING THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN." Jesus here quotes the Septuagint version of Isaiah 6:9 and 10. This passage is some six times quoted in the New Testament, always in the context of unbelief, in hardheartedness. Matthew makes the point that Jesus specifically said, in speaking these parables, that speaking in parables was fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah.

You can only understand what this means though, by looking at it in its context. So, I want you to turn back with me and look at a couple of key texts in Isaiah. This will make it clear. Stay with me. I think it'll be worth the effort. Isaiah 6; look at verses 9 and 10. There you will see the words Jesus quotes. The full part is quoted in Matthew's account; part of it's quoted in Mark. So, that's the context. Now let's look back and see the flow of why this would be said. Go back to Isaiah 1. Isaiah 1:2. Here comes Isaiah's message. Here's the first part of his encouraging sermon.

Listen, O heavens, and hear O earth; For the Lord speaks, "Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revolted against Me. An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand." [Why? Verse 4,] Alas, sinful nation, People weighed down with iniquity, Offspring of evildoers, Sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned … [Yahweh], They have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him. [And verse 5 goes on to say it's about rebellion: they have rebelled against God.]

So now, with that in mind, turn over to chapter 5. And you remember this Parable of the Vineyard. Here's an Old Testament parable. And he talks about this vineyard.

[And] my well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. [and] He dug … around, [it and] removed its stones. [He prepares it, and he plants it, and he expects grapes to grow,] … But it produced only worthless ones.

"… now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge between Me and My vineyard. What more was there [for Me] to do for My vineyard that I've not done …?"

You're obviously picking up on the fact that He's talking about Israel. I cared for Israel. I planted her. I did everything for her to bear fruit, and she didn't: only worthless fruit. Verse 5:

"So now let me tell you what I'm going to do to My vineyard: … [I'll] remove its hedge and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall … it will become trampled ground. I will lay it waste; It will not be pruned or hoed, But briars and thorns will come up. I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it." For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel And the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus, He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.

So, God says I'm going to deal with her because she hasn't borne fruit. I did everything for her to bear fruit and she hasn't borne fruit. Look down in verse 12.

Their banquets are accompanied with lyre and harp … but they do not pay attention to the deeds of the LORD, nor do they consider the work of His hands. Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge….

Verse 16, "But the LORD of hosts will be exalted in judgment, And the holy God will show Himself holy in righteousness." Verse 20, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; … [and] substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!" Now the key comes in verse 24.

Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble And dry grass collapses into the flame, So their root will become like rot and their blossom blow away as dust; for [here's the whole bottom line] they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. On … account [of this] the anger of the Lord has burned against His people.

So, understand the context then. Here's what we learned from Isaiah. God spoke His truth to all Israel. Through Isaiah He sowed the seed. Through other prophets He sowed the seed. God did everything He could. He gave them His Word, but instead they rejected His Word. They rejected it; they rejected it; they rejected it. They despised Him. They rebelled against Him.

Now turn to chapter 6. Because of all of that, (verse 9) He says I'm going to send you, Isaiah; and here's what you're going to do.

… "Go … tell this people: 'Keep on listening, but [don't] … perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.' Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, … their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed."

Here's the bottom line. God says they have hardened themselves against Me, and so I will let them go their way. And even My Word will be a tool that will be a judgment upon them to further conceal the truth from them. God further hardens the hearts of those who refuse to hear.

Let me give you a real-life example of what this looks like: Pharaoh. You remember those texts in Exodus that says that Pharaoh's heart was hardened? Very interesting when you look at it in its context? You ask the question, who hardened Pharaoh's heart? Well, there are five times when it simply says that his heart was hardened without saying who did it: after the initial sign, as well as after plagues one, three, five, and seven. Then it says, he hardened his own heart. Two times it says he hardened his own heart: after plagues two and four. And then God hardened his heart three times: after plagues six, eight, and nine. He hardened his own heart, so God hardened his heart. Understand this: God didn't work any evil in his heart. When God hardens a heart, it's not like He renders evil in that person's heart. He simply withdraws His own influences that would soften that person's heart. He withdraws those influences that would normally restrain sin, and He simply allowed Pharaoh's sin to run its course.

Now, let's apply all of this to the ministry of Jesus and to His ministry in parables. John Broadus, the great American theologian at the time of the Civil war, writes this:

Jesus taught in the form of parables, which would be intelligible and impressive to those prepared to understand, but unintelligible to those who by their own willful ignorance, neglect, and opposition were unprepared.

So, Jesus teaches in parables. And parables are like a two-edged sword. To those who are prepared to receive it, it's like seed that falls on their hearts and bears fruit. To those who aren't prepared, it simply goes away. It falls on bad soil that doesn't bear any fruit. William Hendrickson, the great commentator, writes:

It would be caused by their own choice. These impenitent Pharisees and their followers had refused to see and hear that as punishment for this refusal, they are now addressed in parables. That they may see, but not perceive. It is His sovereign will to remove what man is unwilling to improve, to darken the heart that refuses to harken. He hardens those who have hardened themselves. When of their own accord, and after repeated threats and promises, people reject the Lord and spurn His messages, then He hardens them in order that those who were not willing to repent, will not be able to repent and be forgiven.

That's what's going on in the ministry of parables. John Calvin writes:

These people who are hardened, they endure the blame of their own blindness and hardness. The whole blame lies on themselves in altogether refusing its admission [that is, the truth of the parables], and we need not wonder if that which ought to have led them to salvation becomes the cause of their destruction. Yet if you inquire to the first cause, it must come to the predestination of God.

In other words, the immediate cause was their own sinful heart; the ultimate cause was God's choice.

There're a lot of ways people try to illustrate it, and not all of them are helpful. But I think a biblical illustration that makes it very clear is, turn over to John 9, John 9. You remember the story of the healing of the blind man? And Jesus interacts with the Pharisees about it. And in John 9;39, as He interacts with this man who He has healed and has now been put out of the synagogue, Jesus says this. Verse 39 of John 9: "For judgment I came into this world so that those who do not see, may see, and that those who see, may become blind." There's a very real sense in which parables were intended to accomplish just that. Those who realized they were blind and wanted to see, learned from Jesus' parables. The truth was opened up to them. It was like food for their souls. Those who thought they could see and had no use for Jesus, the parables simply rendered them increasingly blind. One author tries to illustrate it like this. He says,

Imagine that you have a lantern in your hand, and you take that lantern into a barn on a dark night. And as you walk into that barn with that lantern, all of the creatures that love the dark will go running from the light and scatter into the darkness, but the creatures that enjoy and love the light will come to the light. They'll come to you.

And the author of that illustration says that's how it was with Jesus in the parables. The parables were light, and as He spoke it chased off those who were of the darkness, and it attracted those who were of the light. What's the problem with that illustration? What's the theological problem? All of us in that illustration were creatures of the darkness. All of us, left to ourselves when the Lord came in with the light, would have run and scampered for the darkness. We would have run for the darkness when the light came.

But here's what the truth of Scripture teaches: While that's how we all would have responded to the truth of God, for some of us, God caught us. Even though we were creatures of darkness and we were running, trying to get away from the light, God caught us and brought us into the light; and He gave us a new and a before unnatural love of the light. The question is, why? Why did God grant us to understand the truth like He granted these disciples when it's concealed to so many because of their own hard hearts? The answer, folks, is an easy answer. The reason it was revealed to us is pure grace. All humanity deserved this judicial hardening. You understand this? If God had not intervened in your life, you would've deserved to have been hardened just like Pharaoh was, just like the Pharisees and the Scribes were, just like that crowed gathered on the shore that day in Galilee. All of humanity deserves that, but out of fallen humanity God decided to show sovereign grace.

You see that even in Isaiah. In Isaiah 6 (after 9 and 10) in verse 13 he talks about a remnant. God is going to have a remnant; always the remnant. You see, salvation is the sovereign act of a gracious God. If you ask the question, why does God grant the knowledge of the truth to some and not to others? or (to put it differently in the context of this Parable of the Sower) who is responsible for the condition of the soil? Who is responsible for the condition of the soil on whether it receives the seed and grows, or whether it doesn't receive the seed and doesn't grow? The proper answer, folks, is not the typical answer of most church-goers today. It is not the typical Armenian answer.

If you ask the typical Christian, why is it that God chooses certain ones to make His truth known to, to give them, to grant them to know His truth, their answer will be something like this. Well, here's how it works: God doesn't want to violate anybody's free will; and so, He looks down through the corridors of time, and He sees who, given the opportunity, will believe in Him; and He says OK, I'll choose them because I know they will choose Me. Is that how it goes? Absolutely not.

In fact, if we had time, I'd take you to Matthew 11:20 to 24, where Jesus makes this incredible statement. He says to the cities there in Galilee, if the miracles that had been done in you, that had been done in Tyre and Sidon, had been done in Sodom and Gomorrah? … they would have repented. What does that tell you? That tells you God knew, if they had been given the opportunity the cities of Galilee were given, they would've repented; but they weren't given that opportunity. And so that whole theory collapses on itself.

So, what is the answer? Who is responsible for the condition of the soil? The immediate cause of bad soil, the reason your soil and my soil, the soil of our hearts is bad, is because of our own depraved, rebellious hearts. And that's true of every living being. Don't miss the point. Before the farmer started, all the soil was bad. All of the soil would've destroyed the seed. The soil across the entire field would've killed the seed, but the farmer prepared certain soil to receive the seed and to grow. So, the ultimate cause of the bad soil is the decree of God. God decided to pass by certain bad soil that was bad because of its own rebellious, sinful heart, and leave it unprepared. All soil left to itself would be rocky or shallow or thorny, but there will also always be the soil carefully prepared by the sower to receive the seed.

So, what are the lessons for us? For unbelievers. I've mentioned all of this is in the context of Isaiah. Listen to Isaiah 1. You remember how he indicted the people of Israel for their sin? Listen to the invitation he extends them in the same chapter. Isaiah 1:18,

"Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be [as] … wool. If you consent and obey, You will eat the best of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword." Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

Jesus extended, even to those rebellious people, an invitation. Folks, Jesus extended to the people standing on that shore that day, that He spoke to in parables, who had bad soil, that wasn't receiving the word. He extended them an invitation as well. Verse 9 says, "And He was saying, 'He has ears to hear, let him hear.'" He says listen, listen to what I'm saying, this is important. It was an invitation. The Gospel still commands you to repent and believe. You say, well, you know, I just have bad soil. I'm just, … maybe God didn't choose me.

Listen, God commands you to repent and believe, and if you refuse to do that, that will not be God's fault. You will bear the responsibility for that. It will be your own act of rebellion against God. If you harden your heart against the Gospel, you and you alone bear the moral weight and responsibility when God then acts in judicial hardening. You harden your heart? There's a very real risk of God hardening your heart.

I have a real struggle in my own soul for some of you young people that grow up in Christian homes, and you hear this stuff all the time, and you just let it run off of your souls. Listen, let me warn you: you harden your heart against the truth, and there will come a time in your life when God will harden your heart. He will give you over to your sin. He will allow the natural consequences of your sinful heart to run its course. But the invitation is there: come now, let us reason together, says the Lord, though your sins be as scarlet, they can be as white as snow.

For us as believers, the application is really one of thanksgiving and joy. Can I tell you to celebrate the sovereign grace of God? To you it has been granted to know God's secret! God opened your heart to understand! He has granted you to know. He gave you a love for the light. Blessed are you, for your eyes see and your ears hear. Why? Because God is a gracious God who sovereignly acted to give you, who love darkness, a love for the light. Because He opened your blind eyes: blinded by Satan, blinded by sin. Because He broke up your rebellious heart: it was hard against Him and His truth. Because He ripped out the thorns of all the stuff and distractions of this world. Celebrate the sovereign grace of God. If you are a Christian tonight, it's because God is sovereign, and God is gracious.

And can I encourage you to persevere in sharing the Gospel? Both Isaiah and Christ are examples of those who shared the Gospel relentlessly, even though they knew most of the people they shared it with, what? Wouldn't hear, wouldn't understand, wouldn't respond. There are Christians that we could properly call hyper-Calvinists who would say listen, if a man can't respond to the Gospel (and he can't) then don't share the Gospel with him. God'll work it out. That isn't a biblical mindset at all. That's pure disobedience. The biblical Calvinist says this: we preach the Gospel even though they are unable to respond. Why? Because we know that it is through the Gospel God gives life to the dead. And we don't know (do we?) which soil God has in His grace sovereignly prepared to receive the seed. And so, sow the seed, because there will be soil that God in His grace and goodness has prepared to receive that seed. And He'll use the seed you share to bring that life.

Paul knew this. When he wrote 2 Thessalonians, he shared with the church there. He says, "But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation." There's God's sovereign choice in eternity past through sanctification by the Spirit in faith in the truth. "It was for this He called you." There's the effectual call. God drew these people to Himself. How? How does God draw those whom He has chosen, whom He has prepared their hearts? How does He draw them? "It was for this He called you through our Gospel." As Paul went into that city, Thessalonica, and He proclaimed the Gospel, he sowed the seed.

And as he sowed the seed, a lot of that seed fell on bad soil, unprepared, hard, like all of us would have been. But there were some people, God's people, whom He had chosen there that when that seed fell, it fell into-into soil God had prepared, that God in His grace had prepared to receive that seed. And they heard the Gospel, and they believed it, and they responded to it.

So, folks, don't give up. Persevere in sharing the Gospel, even if it's seems like you never see any fruit. Think about it. Two and a half years Jesus preached in Israel, and He had a very small band. After His entire ministry (three and a half years), about five hundred were His true disciples there in the land of Galilee. And that is our Lord working miracles, preaching in a way that only He could. Don't be discouraged. Persevere in sharing the Gospel. God prepares hearts, and the seed will stick in those prepared hearts.

Let's pray together.

Our Father, these are truths that are deeper than our feeble, finite minds can fully grasp. And yet Father, we thank You that You have revealed it to us, that You've opened up our hearts to see, to understand. And I pray that You would even open up our minds and hearts to understand these truths. Lord, help us to see that all of us, all of humanity, bears the responsibility for hearts that are hard and thorny and unable to receive the seed. It is because of our own rebellion against You and Your law written on our hearts, the law that You have given us in Your Word.

Lord, we have rebelled against it, and therefore our hearts are naturally hard. But we thank You, O God, that while You could have left us to our own, to our own way, to our own end, that in mercy and grace You intervened; and that You sovereignly, graciously prepared the soil of our hearts to receive the seed.

And then, in Your providence, someone sowed that seed, and it bore fruit. O God, we celebrate Your sovereign grace. We thank You for our Lord Jesus Christ who made it possible by His life, by His righteous life and by His sacrificial death. Father, make Christ our Lord who has accomplished all this, make Him everything to us.

We pray in Jesus name, Amen.

The Memoirs of Peter