EDITORIAL: The Power of God's Word
We as preachers of the Gospel are easily discouraged by the apparent rejection of our message. We become accustomed to that rejection, and this can lead us to descend into merely glumly witnessing to God's truth, as an unavoidable duty we feel we ought to discharge. It can seem that many people are almost inevitably predisposed not to accept the message; their surrounding background and personal history leaves us shaking our heads with the impression that really, they are just hopeless cases. God's word; it may seem, is simply not for them.
We wonder why the word is so hard for them to understand. And in our own mire of mediocrity, we can assume likewise that there are parts of our own lives which simply will not change; we can only hope in God's grace to save us. In the worst case, this can descend yet further into a questioning as to whether God's word is indeed mighty to save men in this world. Yet Isaiah 55:10-13 challenges and shocks us out of this negative attitude: "For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky and doesn't return there but waters the earth, and makes it bring forth and bud, and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall My word be that goes forth out of My mouth: it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing I sent it to do. For you shall go out with joy... Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree". The words I've put there in bold are all picked up in the Lord's parable of the sower. There are so many connections that I suggest His parable was a kind of midrash, an expanded commentary, upon that passage in Isaiah 55. The simple point is - response not only is possible in the face of every kind of distraction, but response will be achieved - such is the power of God's word.
The Context of the Sower Parable
Mt. 13:1 prefaces the parable with the comment that it was given "The same day". The Gospel records give more information about that day than concerning any other in His ministry, with the exception of the crucifixion (Mt.12:22-13:23; Lk.11:27; Mk.4:10). The preceding chapter 12 has recorded how the Lord now changes His position regarding the Jews. Instead of the positive tone of the Sermon on the Mount and the hopeful appeal to Israel, from now on in Matthew there is much talk of condemnation to come, of Israel's rejection of the Gospel, and of how they were an adulterous generation for whom judgment was reserved. The Kingdom principles which He had so clearly expressed in the Sermon on the Mount now become "mysteries" of the Kingdom (:11). From now on, the Lord started using parables - hence the shock of the disciples and their question `Why parables ?' immediately after He had finished the sower parable (:10). And He explained that He now spoke in parables exactly so that from now on, the masses would not understand. The mission of John had been largely unsuccessful, despite the good initial response. The Jewish religious leaders and the hopes for an immediate Kingdom in this world had led Israel to reject the message, and their last state would be now worse than the first. The parable of the sower speaks of seed which initially grew (Israel's response to John's message) and then went wrong - with some responding amazingly.
Three Types Of Bad Ground
By The Way Side
The birds came - Lk. 8:5 adds that first of all, the seed was "trodden down" before the birds came. The impression is given of something, someone or a group of people hindering the growth of the seed - and that is a theme explaining the failure of the seed to grow in the other cases of `bad ground'. The Lord has in mind the damage done to the growth of the word in the hearts of first century Israel by a group of people - and those people were the Jewish religious leaders. On a wider level, it's true that in practice it is the attitudes and pressures from others, conscious and unconscious, which stops people today from responding to God's word beyond an initial interest. Birds were symbolically understood in Judaism as the Gentiles - and the Lord is applying the symbol to the very religious leaders of Judaism, whom He saw as Gentiles in that they were consciously trying to stop people responding to the seed of God's word of Christ. And yet His later parable in the same chapter speaks of the birds coming and dwelling in the branches of His Kingdom (Mt. 13:32). I see in this His hope, even His fantasy, that His worst opponents would come into His Kingdom. And some did - for some Pharisees did later repent and were baptized, even the apostle Saul. And this is a great example to us, of wishing the very best, the Kingdom, for even the worst.
The way side - The Greek hodos means simply `the way'. It is the very word used about John the Baptist seeking to prepare the way for the Lord Jesus (Mt. 3:3). If Israel had responded as envisaged in the Isaiah 40 passage which speaks of this, then the way or road would have been prepared and the glory of Yahweh would have travelled over it to establish God's visible Kingdom in Jerusalem. On one hand, the fact the sower sowed even on the `way' is an element of unreality in the parable which simply points to the extreme enthusiasm of this sower, casting the seed on to all types of human personality, including those who appear hopeless cases. We note the usage of the same word to describe how some despised individuals sitting in `the way' were in fact persuaded to respond to the Kingdom invitation (Mt. 22:9,10); Bartimaeus was likewise sitting in the way [s.w.] and responded, following Jesus "the way" (Mk.10:46,52). The `way [side]' could have responded to the seed- but it didn't. Because men came and trampled it under foot, and the birds came and took it away. It wasn't as if there was no chance at all that it could have responded.
Devoured it - The same word is used of how the Pharisees "devour[ed] widows houses" (Mt. 23:14) and of how the Judaist fifth column within the fledgling church `devoured' some (Gal. 5:15).
Understands it not - The Lord has just made clear that not understanding Him is a conscious, wilful intellectual act; and people shut their eyes so that they will not understand, lest it demand too much from them personally (:15). The wayside category are not, therefore, merely predestined not to understand. It's not that they were just in the wrong place, exposed to the wrong teachings and religious culture, and therefore they did not understand. For anyone who hears the word or seed of Christ, refusal to understand it is a conscious choice. It may not appear like that, but the Lord has said in v15 that it is. By "understanding", the Lord means the understanding which brings forth fruit. He is here redefining "understanding the word", making it refer to something fruitful in practice. He spoke against a religious culture in which spirituality was seen in terms of being a microscopic student of the Old Testament and word by word, verse by verse, coming to the right theological interpretation. Many of us were raised in a similar environment. And the Lord here is redefining "understanding the word" away from the sense of `correct exposition' towards `responding faithfully in practice, bringing forth fruit'. The bad ground, therefore, involved an element of choice to be like that. We showed on v4 that there were `wayside' persons who did respond; our location in terms of culture, environment, psychology etc. is not an inevitable barrier to responding to the word which we hear.
On The Rocks
Stony places - The Greek petrodes is a form of petra. The Lord had taught that the wise man who heard and did His sayings developed his spiritual house upon a petra, a rock (Mt. 7:24). And of course Peter was the petra upon which the church would be built (Mt. 16:18). So again we see that it was not impossible for the seed on the rock to prosper. The problem was that some who began their growth upon rocks stopped growing because of persecution and tribulation (:21) - which in the first instance was from the Jews.
Care of this world - In our age as never before, given more possibilities and knowledge of possible futures and what could go wrong, we have the strong temptation to be full of such care. The same word is used in Lk. 21:34 about the "cares" which will be a feature of the last days - both of AD70 and today. But in the first instance, the `world' in view was the Jewish world.
This of itself didn't mean that growth was impossible. The Lord's next parable makes that clear - the good seed brings forth fruit, clearly alluding to the `good ground' of the sower parable, despite being surrounded by "tares", weeds, within which category are thorns (13:26). Both good and bad seed `spring up' (:26); the point is that the good seed continues to bear fruit despite this. Fruit can be brought forth despite a spiritual environment in which we have to grow and fruit next to thorns. `Thorns' were defined by the Lord as people - those who do not bring forth good fruit, even though they may claim to be true believers (Mt. 7:16). Heb. 6:8 likewise speaks of `thorns' as people ("He that bears thorns... is rejected"). The later interpretation in v22 is that the thorns are the deceitfulness of riches and the cares of "this world" - and yet these abstract things operate upon the believer through persons, through people devoted to them. For we all `are' the principles which we live by; and our example and influence upon others is more significant than we realize.
~ Bro Duncan Heaster