I could not begin to count the number of times that I have read the Parable of the Soils in Matthew 13. I’ve taught the passage many times in small group Bible studies. I’ve used it in one on one discipleship settings. I have preached a full length sermon on it in a Sunday morning worship setting. Yet, I’ve managed to overlook one vital detail.
Let’s refresh ourselves of Jesus’ explanation of the parable in verses 18-23:
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
In all of my time studying and teaching this passage, I have emphasized the obvious difference between soils 1-3 and soil 4; only soil 4 yields fruit. I still think that this is the main point of the parable. Christians are people who produce fruit. A person can call themselves whatever they want to, but if the fruit of a Gospel-changed heart is missing, then said person is not a Christian. Don’t miss that. But with that being said, I think that we would benefit by taking a closer look at the soils that don’t produce fruit.
Soil 1 is located in verse 19. It is characterized by straightforward, outright, satanically influenced Gospel rejection. There is no reception of the Gospel whatsoever. (And in case you are wondering how Gospel language got in the mix, I understand “the word of the kingdom” to be synonymous with the Gospel). If you were to ask this person what they identify as, they might say a whole host of things; Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew,… but they are certainly not going to self-identify as a Gospel believing Christian. This person obviously isn’t saved because they don’t produce Gospel fruit. They aren’t producing Gospel fruit because their heart/life (“soil”) won’t receive the Gospel seed.
Verses 20 and 21 describe soil 2. Soil 2 is characterized by immediate and joyous reception, but is followed by Gospel rejection as a result of tribulation or persecution centered on their ‘faith’ (“on account of the word”). Note that the last words of this verse are, “falls away.” So, if you were to ask this person what they identify as, again, you could get a whole host of answers. The one answer you’re not going to get is “evangelical Christian.” They are not going to claim to be one of us. They may have had a run in with the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they may have had an emotional response to it, and they may have appeared to be zealous for the things of God for a time, but they fell away. It did not last. They did not endure. They have willfully and admittedly turned away from any Biblical concept of the Gospel. They are not saved (Mt. 10:22, 1 Jn. 2:19). This person is not producing Gospel fruit because their heart/life has rejected the Gospel seed.
Soil 3 is addressed in verse 22. It is characterized by hearing and receiving the Gospel, but the Gospel comes to be choked out by “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches.” (That the Gospel was received and began to take hold is the clear implication of the fact that the thorns had something to choke out.) I have failed to squeeze all of the soul nourishing nutrients out of this parable in the past by conflating soils 2 and 3. I have observed that neither of them produce fruit, but I have never seen that they fail to produce fruit for quite different reasons.
While the last words of verse 21 are, “falls away,” the last words of verse 22 are, “proves unfruitful.” What’s the difference? The difference is that while soil 2 fails to produce fruit because it has rejected the Gospel seed, soil 3 fails to produce fruit because it will not provide adequate nourishment to the Gospel seed. The point: soil 3 represents a heart that never rejects the Gospel, it just values other things more than the Gospel. Thus, it fails to produce fruit. It is vastly different than soil 4.
Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, let’s bring it home. If you were to ask a person who is living as soil 3 what they identify as, far fewer answer choices are available than for a soil 1 or a soil 2. What you’re likely going to get is some version of the response, “I’m a Christian.” Why? Because they haven’t rejected the Gospel. They probably own a Bible. They may go to church. They may go to church very regularly. They may be a leader in a church. They may operate out of a system of morals that is largely pulled from the Bible. But at the end of the day, they are idolaters. Something in their life matters to them more than fact that the true and living God took up flesh and dwelt among us for the purpose of delivering us from His own rightful wrath towards our utter sinfulness. They have interpreted Jesus’ command to “believe” in the Gospel as, “hold these things as true in your mind,” and they do that. So they think they are saved. In their minds, they have no reason whatsoever to think that they are not saved. But they are lost. How many people do you think have this problem? How many people do you think manage to affirm all of the right things, but in their heart, they value something more than Jesus? I think this is likely the largest “soil” type present in the Southeastern United States.
As if that’s not concerning enough, do you have any tools to help 3s come to understand that they aren’t 4s? Does the way that you typically share the Gospel shield people from becoming 3s? Even if you can see what I’ve come to see in Matthew 13 and the parallel texts in Mark 4 and Luke 8, do you trust the Word of God enough to accept the consequences? Are you willing to allow yourself to start looking at people who appear to love something more than Jesus as lost people? What if they’re in your church? What if they’re related to you? What if it’s your best friend? What if it’s your parents? What if it’s you?
It seems that a culture has been created in Bible Belt America that excels at producing 3s and allowing 3s to live comfortably in our midst, even in our churches.
How in the world might we guard ourselves against being 3s? How might we be able to love others well by helping them realize that 3s are lost people? 3s need to be able to distinguish between 3s and 4s in order to understand that they are lost. 4s need to be able to distinguish between 3s and 4s in order to understand that they live on a much larger mission field than they previously thought.
Ideas that may Help
The absolute antithesis of Matthew 13:22 is Matthew 13:44; “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” 3s are typified by the fact that they value something else more than Jesus. The man in verse 44 values Jesus more than everything else. While 3s are quite content with allowing the cares of this world to compete with their affections for Jesus, the man in verse 44 ditches everything to get Jesus (access to the kingdom of heaven). And he didn’t do it begrudgingly, he did it “in his joy.” This is the great division. 3s treasure something else more than Jesus. 4s treasure Jesus above everything else. The rich young ruler is an excellent demonstration of this. He had no problem with Jesus, he just wanted something else more than he wanted to be obedient to Him (Mt. 19:16-22). His idol prevented him from being obedient to Jesus. Jesus was not his greatest treasure. He was a 3. He was lost.
In light of this, honestly ask yourself if Jesus is your greatest treasure.
If the sober answer is no, then you are not in a saving relationship with Jesus. Asking yourself this is an excellent way to guard against being a 3. What about preventing others from being 3s? Ask them the same thing. Instead of asking someone if they “believe in Jesus,” ask them if Jesus is their greatest treasure. When you meet with someone, take them to Matthew 13:44 and ask them if they are that person or not. Someone who ascribes a competing level of value to something or someone besides Jesus has no clue who Jesus is.
Is Jesus your greatest treasure?