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This is one of a few parables Jesus gave explanation to help disciples for understanding of its messages, which should provide us the hermeneutic clues.

Text: Mt. 13:18-23(ESV) (also, Mk.4:13-20; Lk. 8:11-15)

“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.”

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  • Since the disciples had to ask the meaning, it is clear that it was also, at first, hidden from the disciples (as well as those others). The difference between the other 'them' and the disciples . . . was that the disciples had Jesus teach them.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 16, 2020 at 11:57

4 Answers 4

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Who are "them"? In the same chapter, Jesus had "them" described. Let's take a look.

13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Verse 13 is an echo to the parable ending, that Jesus said:"9 Whoever has ears, let them hear”. Jesus was not speaking about the physical sight or hearing, he asked for perceiving his words in the spirit of God.

Jesus further said:

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

Verse 14-15 referred to Isaiah 6:9-10 that God send Isaiah to the people of Israel, who did not turn away from worshipping idols regardless of the warning from many prophets.

So "them" were people who were spiritual blind and deaf, for they couldn't see God's works, or understand any prophetic message. Though they had eyes and ears, they were totally useless to receiving God.

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By "them" I assume we mean that in Matt 13:11, "He replied, “The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them."

Jesus is talking to His disciples and the crowds (V1) by the sea. However, in V10 we now have a restricted audience of just the disciples.

"them" is used by Jesus in contradistinction to the disciples; that is Jesus could have said, "The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you [ie, the disciples], but not to them [ie, others who are not disciples.]"

The Bible makes this point several times and in different ways such as:

  • 1 Cor 2:14 - The natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
  • John 16:13 - But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

It is little wonder that Paul declared in Rom 8:9, "You, however, are controlled not by the flesh, but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ."

Thus, without the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can understand nothing of the Bible's teaching and nothing about the truth of Jesus. Indeed, Paul also says that we do not even know how or what to pray for without the prompting of the Spirit (Rom 8:26).

We have several instances of people in the NT praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit such as: Acts 8:15, Eph 1:17, 3:16, Phil 1:19, 2 Kings 2:16, etc.

Thus, it appears that Jesus' disciples (in the broadest sense) are those with the gift of the Spirit who only are capable of understanding the spiritual principles of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Ellicott observes (comments on Matt 13:11):

To know the mysteries.—The Greek word, like “parable,” has passed into modern languages, and has suffered some change of meaning in the process. Strictly speaking, it does not mean, as we sometimes use it—when we speak, e.g., of the mystery of the Trinity, a truth which none can understand—something “awfully obscure” (the definition given in Johnson’s Dictionary), but one which, kept a secret from others, has been revealed to the initiated. Interpreted by our Lord’s teaching up to this time, the mysteries of the kingdom may be referred to the new birth of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), the judgment to be exercised hereafter by the Son of Man (John 5:25), the power of the Son of Man to forgive sins (John 9:6), the new ideas (no other word will express the fact so well) which He had proclaimed as to the Sabbath (John 12:8), and fasting, and prayer, and alms (John 6:1-18). Those ideas had been proved occasions of offence, and therefore, for the present, the Teacher falls back upon a method of more exoteric instruction.

Barnes also notes that:

To the disciples it was given to know these truths. This was important for them, as they were to carry the gospel around the globe. To the others it was not "then" given. They were too gross, too earthly; they had too, grovelling conceptions of the Messiah's kingdom to understand these truths, even if communicated to them. They were not to preach the gospel, and hence our Saviour was at particular pains to instruct his apostles in the system which they were to preach. The Pharisees, and Jews generally, were not prepared to receive the system, and would not have believed it, and therefore he purposely employed a kind of teaching which was intended for his apostles only.

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They are the superficial shallow believers.

In the original parable to the crowds, Jesus said in Matthew 13

5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.

Then privately to the disciples, Jesus said in Matthew 13

20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.

They were also prophesied by Isaiah:

Matthew 13:14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

They are the superficial shallow believers due to their hardness of heart.

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I agree with Vincent Wong's identification of "them", but want to discuss the clues, because I think this is important.

The main clue is that you are the land. The word of God is planted in the hearer, grows in the hearer, and so the quality of the soil depends on the hearer's own life.

This is clear to us now as personal faith is popular, but to people back then, "the land" was a synecdoche for Israel as a national and political body (this is still the interpretation of some).

Because they thought of the land in national and ethnic terms, they didn't understand the interpretation of the rocky or thorny soil, neither did they understand that seeds dropped into the land correspond to the Word entering their hearts.

This desire for national and political salvation was a series of endless misunderstandings, and one could argue it was the root cause of why the public didn't understand any of the other parables as well. As it says in Mark 4.13:

And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? (KJV 1900)

It is also why Jesus kept preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand, but they could only see that in terms of political revolution, not that the Kingdom was entering their hearts:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. Luke 17:20–21 (KJV 1900)

In fact all of the disputes that Christ had with the Pharisees and other groups were that he kept insisting that the action was always in the heart, whereas they kept focusing on outward forms.

Matthew 5:28 (KJV 1900)

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

Matthew 15.16-20 (KJV 1900):

And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? 17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? 18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: 20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.

But if they would have paid attention to the new covenant promised by Jeremiah, then it would have been clear where God would be intervening, and they would have understood all the parables.

Jeremiah 31.31-34:

  31       Behold, the days come, saith the LORD,
  That I will make a new covenant
  With the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
  
  32       Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers
  In the day that I took them by the hand
  To bring them out of the land of Egypt;
  Which my covenant they brake,
  Although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
  
  33       But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel;
  After those days, saith the LORD,
  I will put my law in their inward parts,
  And write it in their hearts;
  And will be their God,
  And they shall be my people.
  
  34       And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, 
           and every man his brother, saying,
  Know the LORD:
  For they shall all know me,
  From the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD:
  For I will forgive their iniquity,
  And I will remember their sin no more. (KJV 1900)

But once you understand that you are the land, everything else follows because the other terms in the parable had well known types in scripture:

  • the seed that comes from Heaven is the manna, and no one recognizes it. (Numbers 11.7: And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.) and yet the seed is also the promised one In Gen 3.15 that crushes the head of the serpent, and yet it is also the seed of David, which is Messiah, and the seed that is planted in the earth, that is, in you.

  • the thorns in the land are elements of the world not cleared from the land: Numbers 33:55 (KJV 1900) But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell. And also 2 Sam 3.6: But the sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away, Because they cannot be taken with hands

  • rocks in the ground correspond to hard hearts in which God's word cannot penetrate deeply: Zechariah 7:12 (KJV 1900) Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, And the words which the LORD of hosts hath sent in his spirit by the former prophets: Therefore came a great wrath from the LORD of hosts. and also Ezekiel 11.19: And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh

So there was enough biblical imagery to explain the parable for all aspects except one -- understanding that you are the land. That's the secret one.

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