We learned from the article last month on the background of the parables of Jesus, what parables are and why Jesus used them. We also saw that there are three distinct sets or groupings of parables, each having a different theme. In this article we begin to examine the first six parables of the first group.
As Jesus sat in a small fishing craft just offshore on the Sea (or lake) of Galilee, He began to address the large crowd assembled on the shore. He spoke in parables about the Kingdom of God. In this first group of parables, Jesus gave to the people six parables without any explanation. Later, He privately explained the meaning of all these to His own disciples. He also gave the disciples four additional parables, which were self-explanatory. These last four parables contained a special message within the overall theme pertaining directly to the disciples' future apostolic ministry. It is important to realize that the parables were doctrinal in nature: "And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine" (Mark 4:2). A doctrine is a biblical principle, teaching or truth that is accepted as authoritative. It. constitutes part of the dogma of real Christianity. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the importance of seeking understanding of the parables of Jesus! The first parable Jesus gave is of special significance because it is a pacesetter of sorts. It is typical of all such parables, and the method of explanation also follows the same basic pattern. Jesus said to His disciples: "... Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?" (Mark 4:13.)
The parable of the sower
"Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and 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. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred" (Mark 4:3-8). This first parable is a simple story liberally laced with local color. It is found in three of the four gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each gospel mentions a point or two not found in the other, accounts. We will use Mark's more concise gospel as our basic reference. Jesus describes a scene very familiar to His audience: A sower went out to sow grain in his field. The seed falls on four different types of ground: 1) the wayside, 2) stony ground, 3) among thorns and 4) good ground. Each represents a different category of person who hears the Word of God at some point in his life. Each responds differently. We are not told who the sower is, but it is explained that "the sower soweth the word" (verse 14). We must assume that whoever disseminates God's Word (God or one of His human instruments) is the sower. The seed in the parable, then, represents the Gospel message and all that it includes. Each person who hears it reacts differently. Not everyone responds with equal enthusiasm. Nor does the Word of God bear the same fruit in each individual it touches.
Those by the wayside
The people in this first category hear the Gospel message, but they are immediately dissuaded from doing anything about it. God's truth is never allowed to take root in their lives. They are easy prey for the devil, who subtly convinces them to disbelieve what they hear. "... Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts" (verse 15). There are many ways by which this happens: A snide remark about the message from a "friend" who is supposedly in the know about such things. A sudden change of personal circumstances may lead to a temporary diversion — which becomes permanent. A minor disagreement about a small point can lead the prospective Christian to "throw out the baby with the bath water." It could be any number of things, but the result is always the same! The person rejects the Gospel of the Kingdom of God before it gets a chance to take root.
On stony ground
These persons advance somewhat further than those in the first category. Their initial reaction to the Word of God is enthusiastic. They are happy to hear the truth preached. They may even become baptized. "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized..." (Acts 2:41). But unfortunately, their enthusiasm soon wears thin. They "... have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended" (Mark 4:17). These babes in Christ never allow their spiritual roots to go down quite deeply enough to draw on the pure, nourishing water of God's spiritual power (John 7:38, 39; Acts 1:8). When persecution comes along, they are not strong enough to withstand. They have no persevering power in the face of the ridicule and derision of those who do not share their beliefs. Such people are only willing to obey God as long as it does not cost them anything in terms of personal prestige and respect. They are willing to compromise the Word of God rather than suffer for it. Did not Jesus say in another place: "... If any man will come after me, let him... take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24)?
The third type of person progresses somewhat further. He too begins to bear fruit and live a life of obedience to Christ. His life changes as he yields to the Word of God. But he too has a hang-up. At some point in his Christian life, "... 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" (Mark 4:19). In order to become unfruitful, he must have at one time been fruitful. Here is someone who has actually begun to bear substantial fruit as a result of God's Word. He has made spiritual progress. He may have been in the Church for some time. Others may even consider him well established in the Body of Christ. But sooner or later, plain old materialism or sensuality creeps in and smothers his spirituality. Perhaps it is a craving for material success in the world of business or industry. A desire to be at the top of the financial heap can divert a person's focus of attention from spiritual to material things. For this reason, the apostle Paul warned the Colossians about drifting into materialism: "Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:2). He also said that "... to be carnally [physically] minded is death..." (Romans 8:6). There are many pitfalls that can tear a person away from the abundant life to which God has called him. It could be money, the desire for financial success, another woman or man, a job or an inordinate -desire of any kind. It could be a craving for liquor or food (not that eating and drinking are wrong, but drunkenness and gluttony are) or possibly even narcotic drugs. Whatever it is, it diverts one from his life in Christ — choking out the influence of God's Holy Spirit and any further bearing of good fruit.
On good ground
This category describes people who are converted and who make continual growth and progress in the faith. They bear the good fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). But not all bear the same amount of fruit. Some are much more productive than others. Many do not realize their maximum potential as Christians — they merely get by with a modicum of effort. Yet it is Christ's will that we bear much fruit. Those who are closest to Jesus Christ bear the most fruit. Jesus said: "I am, the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5). Which category are you in?
The wheat and the tares
"Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servant said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and ill the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matthew 13:24-30). The second parable is also taken from a description of rural life in the province of Galilee. Any farmer of the day would have known about tares (darnel). They were weeds that grew with the wheat and looked much like it as long as the wheat remained in the blade stage. When they grew to maturity, however, they were readily distinguishable. This is a simple illustration pointing out that both the converted and unconverted have to coexist in the same society until the time of the great harvest of lives at Christ's return. During that time Jesus Christ will make a separation between those who are His and those who are not. the best account of this parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30. (The explanation is given in verses 36-43.) Each element has vital meaning. Notice Matthew's explanation: "The field is the world; the good seed [true Christians] are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one [Satan — compare John 8:44, I John 3:8]; The enemy that sowed them is the devil [the god of this society, II Corinthians 4:4]; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world [Greek: aionos, meaning age]." This parable graphically shows the fate of those who insist on following the devil when they know better! Those who are incorrigibly wicked will be thrown into a lake of fire and be burned into ashes (Malachi 4:3). John spoke of this in the book of Revelation: "And death [the dead] and hell [the grave — hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14-15). In order to die twice, one must first live twice. This means a resurrection must occur. This is not immortal life as a "soul" in an ever-burning hellfire — it is complete extinction and oblivion forever! And this is doctrine!