The Four Soils: Among the Thorns
This post was first published in August, 2017. —ed.
Most of us have endured the tragedy of watching people we counted as spiritual brothers and sisters leave the church and turn their backs on Christ. It is heartbreaking to see friends and loved ones reject the Savior and instead pursue sin.
When we think of apostasy, we generally think of blatant and outspoken rejections of Christ and the gospel. But much more often, apostates merely drift out of our churches without us even noticing. They may seem like solid believers and loyal members outwardly, but inwardly their loyalties remain divided between Christ and the world. Their hearts are still fixed on temporal and trivial things. The pull of the world continually erodes their profession of faith until they eventually disappear from Christian fellowship altogether.
Jesus issued strong warnings against those who thought they could love Him without abandoning the cares and pleasures of this world. And in His first parable, vividly described the deceptive pattern of such false believers.
The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great. (Luke 8:5–8, emphasis added)
The third type of soil, the kind situated “among the thorns,” represents a heart too enthralled or too preoccupied with worldly matters. Jesus explains, “The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with the worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Luke 8:14).
Those who fit this category (like the shallow-soil hearers) may seem to respond positively at first. The analogy suggests that there will most likely be some initial sign of receptivity. Seed sown among weeds would germinate. These people, when they “have heard” they “go on their way”—meaning, apparently, that they give every sign of pursuing the way of faith. Mark’s gospel seems to suggest that at first they seem to have every potential to be fruitful, but then at some point afterward, “the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19, emphasis added).
This is not a hard-hearted unbeliever or a shallow, emotional person. This time the soil itself is well plowed and deep enough. But there are all kinds of impurities in it. Weeds native to that soil have already germinated under the surface. They will always grow stronger and faster than the good seed. The Word of God is a foreigner in such a heart. Weeds and thorns own that ground.
This person is too in love with this world—too obsessed with the “riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). That’s the key. The values of the temporal world (sinful pleasures, earthly ambitions, money, prestige, and a host of trivial diversions) deluge the heart and muffle the truth of God’s Word.
This is “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). As Jesus taught, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13).
Indeed, in Matthew’s account, the stress is on the worldly hearer’s love of money: “The deceitfulness of wealth choke[s] the word” (Matthew 13:22). Writing to Timothy, the apostle Paul said,
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:9–10)
Nothing is more hostile to the truth of the gospel than love for the riches and pleasures of this world. To those whose main wish is to spend their resources on worldly pleasures, James 4:4 says, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
The apostle John condemned worldliness with equal severity. He wrote, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Did he mean it is a sin to love mountains and flowers or good food and people? Of course not. He is talking about the values and the vices of this world, everything embodied in the world’s pathological and self-destructive enmity toward God: “All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:16).
That is precisely what the weeds and thorns in the parable represent: selfishness, sinful desire, and the unholy belief system that dominates this world. Values such as those—not the natural features of the created world itself—are what suffocate the truth of God’s Word in fallen hearts and make this world unworthy of our love.
Don’t miss the point. Material wealth is not inherently evil, nor is pleasure. When properly prioritized, wealth and pleasure should be received with thanksgiving as gracious gifts from the hand of God, who is generous with such blessings (Deuteronomy 8:18; Ecclesiastes 5:18–19; Hosea 2:8). But it is evil to love the gifts more than the Giver, or to value tangible and temporal benefits more highly than spiritual blessings. Paul told Timothy, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).
One classic New Testament example of the worldly hearer is the rich young ruler. He came to Jesus eagerly seeking eternal life, but he was a materialist and a lover of the world—and Jesus knew it. Scripture says the young ruler “went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property” (Matthew 19:22). He loved worldly things more than he loved God. Another example, of course, is Judas, who made every pretense of following Jesus from the time Jesus called the twelve until Judas finally betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Scripture tells us that Judas’s besetting sin was the love of money. “He was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it” (John 12:6). He was the most sinister kind of thorny-soil hearer.
Here’s what the hard-hearted hearer, the shallow hearer, and the worldly hearer all have in common: They “bring no fruit to maturity” (Luke 8:14). The whole purpose of agriculture is to produce a harvest. Soil that fails to produce a crop is of no value. The hardened roadside will remain perpetually hard, the shallow and rocky soil will most likely not be seeded again, and the thorny soil will be burnt. If it cannot be completely cleared, purged of weeds, and cultivated again, it will be abandoned as wasteland.
All three varieties of fruitless soil are emblematic of unbelievers—including those who originally showed some promise but failed to bear fruit. There is only one kind of soil that will bear true and lasting fruit—one kind of hearer who responds to the gospel in genuine repentance and faith. And we’ll consider that fertile and well-cultivated ground next time.