Parable of the Soils (Luke 8:4-21)
While I was a student in seminary, I went through one of those typical stages through which the immature pass. I was convinced that all the seminary needed to teach was “content,” and that they should do away with all of the “methods” courses. One of the methods courses I felt was unnecessary was that of homiletics, teaching men how to deliver their sermons.
One day I found an ally, a fellow-student who felt just as strongly on this matter as I did. He did not think that homiletics was necessary either—just a waste of time. As it turned out, he was scheduled to deliver his sermon to homiletics class the very next day. For the life of me I cannot tell you what in the world that fellow was trying to get across to the rest of us. Suddenly I saw that homiletics was beneficial.
If a course in homiletics will help a preacher to get his ideas across to his audience clearly and effectively, Jesus would seem to need such a course at this point in His ministry. That is, if Jesus were trying to get His ideas across to His audience clearly, He was doing the opposite. But the real problem comes when we learn from our text that our Lord’s purpose in speaking by means of parables was not to clarify, but to conceal His message.
As you read through our text in the 8th chapter of Luke’s gospel you will find two statements, which appear to contradict each other. This apparent contradiction is the “tension of our text.” At the end of the parable of the soils, Jesus called out to His audience, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:8b).
This quite clearly seems to be an encouragement to listen to His words and to learn from them. And yet in the same context Jesus told His disciples, “… I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand” (Luke 8:10b).
In other words, Jesus is encouraging His audience to listen and to heed His teaching, while He is also telling His disciples that the parables He uses are designed to “cloud” the truth, rather than to clarify it, to conceal the truth, rather than to reveal it.
The importance of this parable can hardly be overemphasized. Our Lord concluded it with an exhortation to listen well to His words (Matthew 13:9; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8). He also told His disciples that if they did not understand this parable, they would not understand any of the parables (Mark 4:13). Thus, this parable, in one way or another, serves as the key to understanding the meaning of each parable, as well as our Lord’s reasons for using this new “parabolic” method.
The Approach of this Message
As we study our text we must seek to find an interpretation of it which enables us to reconcile this apparent contradiction. We will begin by considering the setting of our Lord’s teaching in this text. Then we shall consider the parable, its meaning, and the purpose of parables in our Lord’s ministry. We will learn how teaching in parables fits into the ministry of our Lord and to His overall purpose. We will then attempt to distill principles from this passage and show their application to our lives.
The Structure of the Passage
Our text falls into four divisions:
(1) The parable of the soils told by Jesus—8:4-8
(2) The purpose of our Lord using parables—8:9-10
(3) The interpretation of the parable of the soils—8:11-15
(4) The implications and applications of the parable—8:16-21
From the accounts of Matthew and Mark we learn that Jesus was probably at Capernaum. Matthew tells us that “Jesus went out of the house” (Matthew 13:1), which at least suggests that this was the house where our Lord usually stayed while at Capernaum, the early headquarters for His ministry. A large crowd from various cities and towns had gathered along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, so that our Lord found it necessary to speak from a boat, anchored close to the shore (cf. Matthew 13:2; Mark 4:1).
The preceding context in all three gospel accounts indicates a strong resistance to Jesus, His teaching, and His ministry, on the part of the Pharisees. The clash between Jesus and the Pharisees was evident in His claim to have authority to forgive sins (Luke 5:17-26), His association with sinners (Luke 5:27-32), and His failure to keep the Sabbath according to their prescriptions (Luke 6:1-11). Jesus’ miraculous power was attributed to Beelzebub, the prince of demons (cf. Mark 3:22). By this point in time they had already determined to put Jesus to death (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6). It was only a question of finding the right place and time.
The parable of the soils is found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-34; Luke 8:4-18). Luke’s account informs us that teaching by parables began with our Lord’s second Galilean campaign (cf. Luke 8:1). Teaching by means of parables became the Lord’s method of teaching the crowds:
With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything (Mark 4:33-34).
The “disciples” to whom our Lord revealed everything was the larger group of His followers, including those previously mentioned in 8:1-3. Mark especially makes this clear:
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, … (Mark 4:10-11a).
The Parable of the Soils
The parable of the soils describes what becomes of seed that is sown in four different types of soil. The first type of soil is the hardened soil of the pathway. This seed does not penetrate the soil at all, but is quickly snatched up by the birds of the air. The second type of soil is the rocky soil, a shallow layer of earth, barely covering
to rock below. The seed which falls upon this type of soil quickly germinates, aided by the warmth retained by the rock, but hindered by a lack of depth and by a lack of moisture. The seed which germinates quickly also terminates quickly. The third soil is the thorny soil, a soil populated with thorns. The seed falling into this soil germinates and begins to grow, but is eventually crowded out by the hardier thorns. The fourth soil is the fruitful soil, that soil which produces a bountiful crop. Having told the story, Jesus put an exclamation point after it by adding these words: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (v. 8).
The Purpose of the Parables
The disciples apparently kept quiet as our Lord was teaching by means of this parable and many others. They may have been reluctant to admit that they didn’t understand what He was trying to teach them. It would seem that no one else asked what He meant, either, or they would not have needed to ask Jesus privately about His meaning.
The disciples who accompanied Jesus (more than just the twelve, cf. Mark 4:10) privately inquired about the parable. Luke’s account tells us that they asked Him about this parable (v. 9), while the other accounts inform us that they were also asking about the meaning of all the parables. Matthew tells us that they inquired as to why Jesus switched to teaching by means of parables (13:10). Mark says that “they asked Him about the parables” (4:10). All of these questions are intertwined, and so it is easy to see that all of these questions could have been put to our once they were away from the crowd.
In Luke’s account, even though he says that they asked Jesus what this parable meant, Jesus first explained to them why He had changed His method of teaching the crowds by means of parables. Luke’s account of our Lord’s response is brief and to the point. Jesus’ answer is brief, but loaded with implications. Let us consider what He said:
“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand’” (Luke 8:10).
Let us make several observations concerning what our Lord has said:
(1) Jesus began using parables to conceal His teaching from some, and to reveal it to others.
(2) Jesus used parables to conceal truth from the crowds, while revealing it to His disciples. We can see from our text that the disciples did not understand our Lord’s parables any more than the crowds, but He did explain the meaning to them later (Mark 4:34).
(3) By teaching in parables, Jesus did not withhold anything which the people were both eager and able to understand. Mark clearly tells us that Jesus taught the crowds all they could handle: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand” (Mark 4:33).
(4) Jesus viewed His teaching by parables (and thus His concealing and revealing) as a fulfillment of prophecy, or at least as consistent with the ministry which God gave to Isaiah. Our Lord cites from Isaiah chapter 6 to vindicate His actions. God had sent many prophets to the nation Israel, and all of them were rejected, along with their message. John, the last of the Old Testament prophets, was also rejected, at least by the religious leaders of Israel. Isaiah chapter 6 is the account of this prophet’s commission. The words which our Lord cited are the word of God to Isaiah, indicating that his ministry was essentially not one of calling men to repentance, but rather of confirming their condemnation. Isaiah’s words sealed Israel’s doom, and preceded the outpouring of God’s judgment on His disobedient people. Jesus viewed His ministry as similar to that of Isaiah, and thus teaching in parables could be vindicated by referring to Isaiah’s account of God’s words addressed to Him.
(5) The teaching which Jesus was simultaneously concealing and revealing concerned the secrets of the kingdom of God. I believe that on His first Galilean campaign Jesus concentrated on identifying Himself as Israel’s Messiah (cf. Luke 4:16-21). Now, He seems to be concentrating more on the nature of the kingdom itself.
(6) Those from whom the secrets of the kingdom of God are concealed are unbelievers, whose doom is thereby sealed. Jesus conceals the truth from “those who are without” so that they won’t understand and will not repent, and thus not be able to enter into His kingdom. This is implied in Luke’s account, but clearly stated in both Matthew and Mark, not to mention the prophecy of Isaiah. You will recall that when the teachers of the law attributed Jesus’ works, accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, to Beelzebub (Mark 3:22f.), Jesus said that this was one blasphemy which could not be forgiven them. Their doom was sealed, and speaking in parables was one aspect of their condemnation.
Our Lord’s words of explanation reveal that some decisive changes have occurred in His ministry:
- They reveal that there is a change in the message of our Lord. I believe that in the first Galilean campaign of our Lord, the emphasis was on His identity as Israel’s king. Now, the Lord’s teaching has shifted to the more intimate (secret) aspects of His kingdom.
- Our Lord’s words reveal a change of method. Our Lord is now speaking by means of parables—more indirectly than before.
- Our Lord’s words reveal a change of focus and emphasis. Jesus is beginning to spend more time with His disciples. In our Lord’s first Galilean campaign, it would seem that His disciples were not always present. From now on, Jesus pours more effort into the teaching of His disciples (not just the 12, either, but the larger group of His followers).
of the Parable of the Soils
Jesus has just finished explaining His purpose in speaking by means of parables—to conceal the secrets of the kingdom from the crowds, while revealing them to His followers. Now, having explained His purpose in using parables, Jesus goes on to explain the meaning of this particular parable of the soils.
The parable explains the different responses which men have toward the gospel. Four different responses are given, along with four different causes and four distinct results. The sowing of the seed symbolizes the spreading of the gospel. The seed which is sown is the word of God (v. 11). The hardened soil—those alone the path—are those whose hearts have never been open to the gospel, who never responded positively to the Lord Jesus Christ. The scribes and Pharisees seem generally to fall into this category. The gospel makes no impression on them whatsoever. Satan immediate snatches the gospel from their hearts, so that there is no response, no new birth, no fruit.
The second soil—the shallow soil—represents those who positively (joyfully) respond to our Lord’s teaching, but only due to an inadequate grasp of its implications. These folks respond positively to the word because they think that it is a kind of “prosperity gospel,” a gospel which promises only good times, blessing, happiness, and bliss. The quickness of the response is an indication of their lack of depth, or their lack of perception as to what the gospel really means. And, let me quickly add, this is not due to our Lord’s misrepresentation of the gospel. It is the result of selective hearing, of hearing only the good and pleasant things, rather than hearing of the costs involved in discipleship, of which our Lord often spoke. A simple reading of the Sermon on the Mount will show how our Lord carefully represented the blessings and the costs of following Him.
The third soil, the thorny soil, represents those who have a more complete grasp of the cost of discipleship, but who have never rid themselves of the “cares of this world.” Their concerns for money and for pleasure outgrow their seeking first the kingdom of God, and thus their priorities are reversed. It is not that the people represented by this thorny soil do not understand the costs of discipleship, but that they are not willing to pay the price. It is not lack of knowledge which causes them to err, but lack of commitment, lack of dedication.
The fourth soil, the good soil represents all those whose hearts are prepared for the gospel, and whose lives are uncluttered with competitive interests and values. In this fourth soil the word not only bring forth life, but the plant comes to maturity and it bears fruit. Here is the goal of discipleship.
Which of the Soils is Saved?
When I have taught this text before I have spent considerable time attempting to answer the question, “Which of the four types of soil represent those who are saved?” I am now inclined to approach this parable differently. I believe that the first soil represents those who are lost, and that the fourth soil represents those who are saved, but I do not believe that the Lord’s purpose in telling the parable is to distinguish between believers and unbelievers. There is only one kind of soil which attains the goal. The goal which our Lord holds out in this parable is not that of being saved, but that of reaching full maturity and of bearing fruit. Someone might argue that a “rocky soil” person or a “thorny soil” person is a true believer, but our Lord would have us understand that they have not reached the goal for which they were saved. We are saved, not only to escape divine wrath and to live forever in heaven, but to attain to the “fullness of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) and to bear fruit (John 15:5).
The problem with many contemporary Christians is the same as that of the Pharisees and many other Jews of Jesus’ day—we are “two-category thinkers.” We think of the world only in terms of those who are saved and those who are not; those who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. The Jews thought of the world in terms of two categories: the Jew, who was God’s chosen, the object of God’s blessings; and the Gentile heathen, who was lost and the object of divine wrath. The parable of the soils which Jesus told forces us to think in terms of more than just two categories. It is not enough to have merely escaped hell, and to have our foot wedged in the doorway of heaven. The goal for which we are saved is to persevere, to grow, to reach maturity, and to produce more fruit. To fall short of this goal (even though we may have been saved), is to fail to attain that for which we were called and set apart.
The kind of Christian which pleases the heart of God is not one which makes a dramatic start and then dies out, nor one whose commitment to Christ is slowly choked out by worldly desires. The kind of Christian which pleases God is that one which thoughtfully hears the gospel, understands its implications, and then consistently grows and matures, and which bears fruit as a result.
Over the years of my ministry I have seen only a few who were so bold as to admit that all they wanted was to be “saved by the skin of their teeth,” who wanted to live this life with a minimum of commitment and obedience to Christ, and with a maximum of worldly pleasure. The few who were honest enough to say so admitted that they did not care about heavenly rewards, but only wanted to be sure of making it through the gate. While few are honest enough to admit to this kind of thinking, many of us are guilty of it. Our Lord’s parable of the soils should exhort us to desire and to depend upon Him to enable us to be like the fourth soil, and to find all other soils unacceptable. It is only this fourth soil kind of person who perseveres through adversity to maturity and fruitfulness (cf. v. 15).
In the gospel accounts we find that these four types of soil describe nearly all of those who heard the gospel of the kingdom. We find those who immediately rejected it; those who too quickly accepted it, those who fizzled out over a longer period, and those who endured and who bore fruit. These four types of soil also provide us with a grid by means of which we can categorize church-goers today. How few are those who can be called “good soil saints.”
The Reason for Hiding the Truth
In the previous verses Jesus has told His disciples that He meant to hide the truth of the kingdom from the masses, while revealing it to His intimate followers. Now, in verses 16-18, Jesus makes it clear that this “hiding” of the truth is only temporary. The truth, Jesus taught, was like a light, and light was not intended to be hidden, but to be brought into the open, where men in darkness could benefit from it.
In verse 17, Jesus went on to say that nothing which was presently hidden was to stay hidden for long, but would be brought out into the open. Jesus was not revealing His secrets to His disciples so that they could keep these things to themselves. Jesus was revealing His secrets to His disciples so that very soon they could broadcast them to the world. The disciples were thus urged to listen well, for as they distributed that which the Lord had entrusted to them they would be given even more. The secrets they were told were to be publicly proclaimed. As the truth was broadcast, more truth would be revealed. Jesus did not envision a gnostic few, who discovered and kept His secrets to themselves, but a dynamic force which would proclaim them abroad.
Why, then, were these truths, these secrets of the kingdom, temporarily concealed from the masses? Why were only the disciples told? I believe that that which was “secret” here was that which pertained to the sufferings and sacrificial death of Christ. The reason why these secrets were not made known to the crowd of Israelites was that many of them were to be the ones who would publicly deny Christ and who would demand His execution, while calling for the release of Barabas. Isaiah’s prophecy was veiled because the nation Israel had too long rejected the prophetic warnings and exhortations of previous prophets. When Isaiah came on the scene his message was veiled because God’s judgment was at hand. Thus, Isaiah’s preaching was to solidify Israel’s state of unbelief.
Something similar is happening in our Lord’s shift to teaching in parables. The nation Israel has not received Jesus as their Messiah. Their leaders have rejected Him and have determined to put Him to death. The people demand miracles and signs. Jesus began to veil His teaching, focusing more on His disciples and revealing more and more to them about His upcoming rejection and sacrificial death. Jesus’ concealing of these mysteries of the kingdom allowed the unbelieving nation to intensify its efforts to rid itself of this kind of Messiah. It signaled a change from speaking of a crown to suffering death on a cross. These mysteries would only be proclaimed and understood after our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
The principle has been laid down that Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him (v. 18). The question is, “What constitutes ‘having’ or ‘possessing’ the truth?” The answer, I believe, is this: WE HAVE THAT WHICH WE POSSESS BY PRACTICING IT.
The “inner circle” of our Lord’s followers not only heard our Lord’s teaching, they took it to heart, leaving everything behind them to follow Him. Those who did not possess the truth only heard it, but did not apply it. Jesus is teaching that the one who possesses His teaching is the one who acts on it, who makes it his (or her) own, and who thus perseveres, grows to maturity, and bears fruit. To those who use the truth, more is given. To those who only hear it, even what they appear to possess is taken away—it has done them no good at all.
The Real Family of our Lord
This “principle of possession” is applied by our Lord in a very practical way in verses 19-21. His mother and brothers came to the house where He was staying and requested to see Him. Some brought word inside to the Lord, informing Him that His family was there and wished to see Him. Jesus responded by saying that His “true family” was made up of those who heard His word and put it into practice. The real followers of Jesus are those who had ears to hear and hearts to do what He taught.
This text teaches us some very important principles—truths which have pertinent and practical application to our own daily living. Let me conclude by mentioning some of these principles:
(1) Men are unable to grasp God’s truths, apart from divine enablement. Not only the crowds, but the disciples of our Lord as well failed to understand what Jesus was teaching by means of the parables. The disciples were enabled to understand what the parables meant only because Jesus explained their meaning to them at their request (Mark 4:34). Apart from our Lord’s explanations, the disciples would have been just as much in the dark as the crowds. Even when Jesus spoke plainly to the disciples, they did not fully grasp what He was saying (cf. Matt. 16:9,11; Mark 9:30-33).
Divine revelation requires divine interpretation. This is because God’s truths are vastly above our ability to grasp or comprehend:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9).
This principle, that divine revelation requires divine interpretation, is not just true for those who lived in Jesus’ day—it is true for saints today as well:
No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would hot have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, No mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:7-9).
In this context, Paul tells the Corinthian saints that God’s truths are above human comprehension. He goes on to say in the verses that follow that it is through the Holy Spirit that God makes these truths known to men. The Spirit has inspired the human authors, and it is also the Spirit that enables gifted teachers to explain them, and who illuminates individuals to grasp their meaning and application. While the disciples went to Jesus to learn the meaning of His words, we must look to the Holy Spirit to enable us to grasp the meaning of Scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10ff.; John 16:12ff.).
(2) When it comes to possessing the truths of God, we must use it, or lose it! Our Lord informs us that He does not inform His followers of His secrets only for their information, but for their transformation (cf. John 17:17; Rom. 12:2). And not only are we to see to it that the Word of God is applied to our own lives, we must also proclaim it to others. Here is fruit-bearing. The Word of God is like the manna of the Old Testament: it is not given for us to store up, but to use. That which is not used rots.
(3) Problem passages should draw us to Him. Often times people will use difficult texts as their excuse for not studying the Bible, or for not following Christ. The “difficult sayings” of Jesus drew the disciples closer to Him, for He alone knew their meaning. Problem passages should do this for the true Christian. They should cause us to seek His face, to learn from Him through His Spirit. Problems should draw us to Him, not from Him.
(4) The parable of the soils has an evangelistic lesson, as well as a warning. Note that the sower sowed seed on all four kinds of soil. You might say that he sowed indiscriminately. You and I do not know what kind of soil our unsaved fried or neighbor might be. Because of this, we must proclaim the gospel (sow the seed) indiscriminately. We will not know what kind of soil men are for some time. Let us therefore be on guard against pre-judging others and simply proclaim the truth of God’s word to all.
For those who have heard the word of God, who have heard the gospel and yet have not responded, there is a clear word of warning here. To disregard the gospel is dangerous, for Satan will not allow the seed to remain for long and the seed may never be sown in our hearts again. If you have heard the message of the gospel, knowing that you are a sinner in need of God’s grace, in need of the forgiveness found only in Christ, and yet have not acted so as to receive it, you are presuming on the grace of God, expecting another opportunity which may never come your way again. Receive Him today!