The Parable of the Soils PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr. John E. Russell Sr   


Part I: The Pattern Parables
Chapter 1
Parable of the Soils

The Parable of the Soils is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; and Luke 8:4-15. This parable is a pattern or key to the other parables of Jesus, since Jesus explains this parable in detail. [R. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, Popular Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948), 16, 29-33]. 

The Story

The Parable of the Soils is sometimes called The Parable of the Sower. It deals with the inner transformation of an individual when he hears the Word of God:

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times."
     Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
    When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
"'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'"
     Then Jesus said to them, "Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop--thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.
Mark 4:1-20, New International Version

The setting is a natural amphitheater. Jesus sat in a boat and the people sat on the shore. The water carried the voice of Jesus to the people who lined the gently sloping shoreline.  There may have been a farmer sowing grain in the distance when Jesus called out, "Look! A farmer was sowing seed and some of the seed fell on the hard-packed soil by the road." Thus Jesus began with a familiar event to teach a truth that would affect the destiny of billions of people. Hence, Jesus placed an unknown spiritual truth alongside a known earthly truth in order to teach a new spiritual truth to those who would listen. If one chose to harden his heart and not receive more spiritual understanding, he would never understand the truth. 

The Interpretation

The First Soil Was Hard-packed. It represented the person with a hardened heart. The Word of God did not penetrate and was consequently stolen by Satan. The person represented here never had saving faith, since " cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17). 

The Second Soil Consisted of A Thin Layer of Soil Over A Solid Rock (Petra, "a {mass of} rock" Luke 8:13). The person represented here received the Word in a "soulish," superficial way and immediately fell when under pressure. 

The Third Soil Was Good, But Was Infested with Thorns. The person represented here was a genuine Christian, but he allowed legitimate concerns as well as materialistic values to take precedence over the Word of God. Thus, there was not a complete Christlike transformation in his being.  Luke's account is as follows: 

The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
Luke 8:14, New International Version

Ralph Earle calls this troublesome trio, "Life's Three Greatest Threats." The word "worries" (or cares, anxieties) is translated from the Greek word merimnon, which means "to be drawn in different directions." [Ralph G. Turnbull, gen. ed., Proclaiming the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961), The Gospel of Luke, by Ralph Earle, ThD, p. 40]. There are many legitimate concerns that pull us apart in this age of anxiety: the responsibilities involved with employment, government, school, family, church, friends, community, finances, health, etc. One must learn to say a polite "No" to some expectations. (See the chapter on worry in my book on self-esteem).  

The hunger for riches and material "security" can be enslaving. Money and material things are amoral--they not sinful. God meant them to be a blessing (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Coveting wealth is a sin (1 Timothy 6:10; Exodus 20:17). Jesus warns against a trying to serve God and mammon [riches] (Matthew 6). God will take care of us when we place him first. God is our security.

Pleasures can also be our enemies. The relentless pursuit of pleasure characterizes our age. Pleasures are basically good, if practiced in the right context. Sex between husband and wife is God-ordained. Eating is both a pleasure and necessary, but must be done in balance. Recreation also is necessary, but must be balanced with work and service. Fellowship is good--for instance, a father must spend time with his children and wife first--instead of too much time at work or "with the boys." 

The Fourth Soil Was Good in Varying Degrees. The persons represented here were Christians who opened their hearts to God's Word of God in varying degrees and were transformed correspondingly. Jesus is the primary sower, the soil is the human heart and the Word of God is first an abstract Word that becomes an incarnate word. To say it another way, the Word is form and when superimposed upon a malformed human, that human becomes a new Christlike being.  Jesus teaches us that the place of the Bible is not on a fireplace mantel, coffee table, bookshelf, etc., but in the human heart.

The Best Translation of the Bible
Is A Human Being,
Who has been transformed by God's Word.

God abstracted his essential nature and placed it in a book (the Bible) as a means to reproduce himself in the human heart. The Holy Spirit superintends the process from start to finish. The purpose of the abstract Word of God is to transform the individual into the image of Christ. Once one understands God's purpose relative to the Word of God, he can cooperate in the process. 

A Christian Epistemology

the Parable of the Soils, Jesus teaches the importance of what and how one hears. Using these scriptures along with other selected scriptures, a basic outline for a Christian epistemology can be constructed.

Ideally, the whole Word of God would be received into the heart (spirit). Jesus said, "... Take care What [italics mine] you listen to." (Mark 4:24a, New American Standard Bible). He also said, "Therefore take care How [italics mine] you listen...." (Luke 8:18, New American Standard Bible). In this case, the Word of God would be received into the body (through the eye, ear, or touch gates); into the soul (through the conscious, then through the preconscious, then through the unconscious); and into the heart or spirit (the deepest level of understanding).

Another possibility would be the reception of the Word on a mere intellectual plane. The Word would stop somewhere in the mind and go no deeper. In this case, the individual would not have saving faith. John Wesley warned of the danger of "mental assent" being substituted for faith. Then there are some who immediately "turn off" the Gospel either mentally or by actually doing something physical like switching channels on a television set to avoid the Word of God. Tragically, there are those who completely avoid contact with the Gospel. They have made a foolish choice to reject Christ and have learned how to minimize exposure to the truth of God's Word.

Some substitutes for the Word of God are mentioned in the Bible.

1. Human reason and mere sense perception. Reason and sense perception are both good. However, the Word of God must transcend them. One biblical example of the taking of the Word of God above human reason and sense perception is the case of Joshua and Caleb in Numbers 13-14.      

2. Traditions of men:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"
     Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, `Honor your father and mother' and `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,'he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
"These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'"
Matthew 15:1-9, New International Version

Many traditions that religious people have inherited are not scriptural. Their sources may be rationalistic as cited above, or traditions may stem from ignorance and superstition. However, it would not be proper to throw out all tradition. The proper way to deal with tradition is to hold on to the best understanding of God's Word that we have. However, we must constantly revise our understanding of the Word of God according to new light that the Holy Spirit gives.

3. Philosophies of men:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.(Colossians 2:8, New International Version). 

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is Written:

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."

     Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25, New International Version).

We all have a guiding philosophy or theology. It may not be systematized and written in philosophical or theological language, but it is there nonetheless. The important thing is to continually upgrade it with the Word of God.

At the extreme end of the substitute spectrum is the position most opposed to the Word of God:

4. Doctrines of demons. The world is filled with many voices, religions, philosophies and ideologies. Some of them are inspired by demons:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.
1 Timothy 4:1-2, New International Version

Keep in mind that some may have been brought up in beliefs that were inspired by demons, but who haven't rejected Christ. They can be delivered from wrong beliefs.

Probably the most common predicament of Christians today is the position of having a "curious mixture" of the Word of God and other content. It is also common to hold part of the Word of God on an intellectual level and part on a heart (spirit) level. As wrong beliefs are purged and the Word of God is internalized, at least two things begin to happen: (1) the self is actually conformed more and more into the likeness of Christ and (2) the self-image is corrected. As a result of both of these, self-esteem begins to make a corresponding rise. Then, the Christian's prayer life becomes more effective and his work for the Master becomes more productive. 

Internalizing the Word of God

Here are nine practical steps to help internalize the Word of God:

1. The first step is to reestablish a right relationship with God. Confess all known sin to God. Then make things right with people. After we clear our conscience, then we must choose to obey God as a lifestyle. This means walking in the light of God's Word as the Holy Spirit illuminates his Word.      

2. Pray in the Spirit in order that the heart might be further prepared to receive the Word.

3. Quiet the body and mind. Involved in this would be to perform all mundane duties possible so that the mind is undivided. Since psychomotor functions tend to distract, it would be better to sit or lie down. It is important to rid ourselves of both internal and external distractions before, during and after Bible reading and meditation. A good time for Bible reading would be shortly before going to sleep.      

4. Read the Word (Bible). It is good to read a small portion carefully. (There is a time to read large portions quickly, but not for this exercise.) Some key scriptures should be memorized.      

5. Meditate. Christian meditation is not "emptying" the mind (to let the devil write on it), but rather it is filling the mind with the Word and allowing the Holy Spirit to give us understanding of it.      

6. Receive the Word into our heart. Some may think that they have done this when the Word is still on the intellectual level. How do we know if we have internalized a particular truth of the Word of God? We have internalized a truth when we automatically act on it!

7. Think God's thoughts (Word) consciously as a practice.      

8. Practice speaking God's thoughts consciously.

9. Practice acting out God's thoughts consciously. 

Central Truth
It is of utmost importance that we receive
the Word of God alone
into our hearts.


There is hope for us all. If we take care how and what we hear, 

...the hard soil may again become soft--the shallow soil deep--the soil beset with thorns clear. For the heavenly seed, if acted on by the soil, also reacts more mightily upon it (Jer. xxii. 29). (Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, 33).

Taken from my book, The Astonishing Parables of Jesus
Copyright ©  1993. 2017 by Dr. John E. Russell


Last Updated on Tuesday, 21 February 2017 00:04