by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: Matthew 13:2-9,17-23.
Where this parable ends we begin, that is, by being reminded that the thing which matters more than all else is fruitfulness - the thing which we must continuously keep before our own hearts. That fact will at once be a sifting truth, for we shall have to judge everything which we have and which we know according to the measure of real spiritual fruitfulness. The glory of the Father is definitely bound up with the amount of fruit borne by His children. The glory of the Father is bound up with the fruitfulness of our life.
Fruitfulness a Matter of Spirit and Life
Fruitfulness is related to the Word of God. What are the properties of that Word? "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." These are not abstract elements. What is said about the Word is said about the Lord Jesus - He is "a life-giving spirit". The Word is Christ mediated to the life. Fruitfulness is a matter of Christ as Spirit and Life finding increase in us through the Word, so that He becomes Spirit and Life to us, and through us to others. It is Christ living in us, expressing Himself through us. It is the increase of the living Christ.
Various things are said in relation to this. Even this may be in different measures and degrees; the hundred-fold, sixty, thirty. The hundred-fold is where Christ is all and in all. But there may be sixty-fold, very good; thirty-fold, good. But the Lord would have it a hundred-fold. How can that be? What leads to the hundred-fold? What leads to fruitfulness, or the increase of the Lord as Spirit and Life? That brings us again to the seed sown.
Before we go further with that, let us remind ourselves of a further principle that obtains; it is that these Gospels only give truth in an illustrative way and in a germinal form. You have to look to the Epistles for the explanation of things here, and for the full development. We should never take hold of something in the Gospels and strain to try, from itself and its context, to get its full meaning. If you do, you will find yourself landed into considerable difficulties. But if you will recognise the fact that here you have truth in seed form, intimated, suggested, but not developed, not analysed, not opened up, just given to you, you will look later into the day of the Holy Spirit activities in relation to the truth for the development of these germ things.
It is so in the end of these parables, you will find that you dare not press the thing too closely. In a parable certain very definite things are being just referred to, and they are being wrapped up.
We have here four kinds of ground mentioned, and on the Lord's own authority we know that these represent four conditions of heart and life, conditions for the increase of Christ as Spirit and Life through the Word.
Unbelief is Ruled Out
There is one thing which has to be remembered before you approach the four kinds of ground, and that is that there is a kind of ground which does not obtain here; a fifth ground, which is ruled out altogether. You notice what the Lord says about the reason for speaking in parables. Referring to a word in the prophets, He says quite distinctly that He speaks in parables because certain people had closed their eyes and refused the light, and therefore they were not going to be given straightforward truth any more. It would be only those people who had not so deliberately closed their eyes who would be brought into the secrets of the Kingdom. God has secrets, but He is not disclosing His secrets to certain people. Those secrets are reserved for others. The context makes that perfectly clear, that the ground which is not allowed into this realm is the ground of positive unbelief. So we need not deal with that at all. There is no hope for that; the door is closed. The Word will not be given there, and there is no hope, therefore, of even the thirty-fold in that direction. The Lord is not even sowing His seed in that realm of positive unbelief.
So we come on to the ground where such a thing as definite unbelief is set aside, and we find ourselves in a realm where it is not a question at all of will not have the Word. But even when you have got past that, you find yourself presented with many difficulties, and the people who are represented by the three grounds here are not the people who positively refuse to have the Word, who miss a thing of God because they will not believe. They miss it because of other things. It is not the: Will not! It is very largely in the realm of: Cannot - what it is that can and does, and what it is that cannot and does not.
1) The Darkened Heart
"And as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the birds came
and devoured them." What is that? In explaining this the Lord says
that "the evil one snatcheth away that which hath been sown." Why?
What is the occasion for this? Here is an illuminating word: "When
any one hears the word... and understands it not, then
comes the evil one and snatcheth away...". It is a matter of a
lack of understanding providing the enemy with the ground for his
work against the Word. But, of course, the rejoinder might be: Is
that the responsibility of the individual? Yes! Now you want to
follow through to the Epistles and see that a truth is merely
hinted at here, and for its fuller unfolding you have to look at:
"The god of this age hath blinded". Again: "Having the
understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God". The
enemy has provided his own ground in the natural life for his own
work and here you have a darkened heart, a heart unenlightened.
How can an unenlightened heart, a darkened heart, one with the
understanding darkened, respond to the Word of the Lord? It cannot
be! Then what is required? What is it that opens the
understanding, and, having once opened the understanding,
destroys the power and the work of the enemy, the blinder, the
If positive unbelief does not come in here, that does not mean that anybody without positive unbelief is capable of grasping the revelation of Christ, it means that specific faith is necessary. You may not be in a carnal state which says: I will not. You may be in a natural state, which simply says: I cannot. But while the carnal is a hopeless state, the natural is barren and unfruitful. Here something specific is necessary. It is the hearing of faith. "The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard." It is one thing to hear the Word of the Lord; it is quite another thing to exercise faith in relation to that. Of the Thessalonians Paul said that they received the Word as the Word of God, and not the word of man. There was a definite exercise of faith with regard to the Word. And when faith is definitely exercised, something happens if it is the Word of God. Test it by faith. Open your heart to it, and do not question it in your mind; test it in your heart by faith, and it will prove itself.
It is not enough just to be free from positive unbelief. It is necessary not to be just as we are without unbelief of a positive character, in a passive state, expecting that something may happen to us through the Word. It will not! It does not! There has to be an exercise of faith in relation to the Word, in relation to the Lord Jesus as the End of the Word, the Object of the Word. That faith produces the enlightenment, and destroys the darkening, blinding work of the enemy. The situation is quite clear. Here is a darkness, but it is not just a darkness which has occurred. Here is a blindness, but that is not just because it has come about. That is positively the work of a darkener, a blinder. It originated through unbelief and what is natural unbelief in the heart. But it may not be deliberate, positive, definite unbelief, such as characterised the Jews in Christ's time. It may be just the natural state of: "I cannot!", not: "I will not!" Then Christ is presented through the Word, and we do not have to remain in a passive attitude towards that. We have to say: "Now, here in this way Christ is presented as being such-and-such; I definitely exercise faith in Him as such, as through His Word; I take up a positive attitude towards this; I become inwardly active in relation to it." And in that way the enemy's blinding activity is destroyed through faith. It is our natural inability to take in the Word which gives the enemy his ground of snatching it away.
A natural inability to take it in does not end our responsibility. Our responsibility does not end when we say: "Well, naturally I cannot". Our responsibility begins there. Are we going definitely to exercise ourselves over this matter, to reach out to the Lord? Are we in an inwardly active or passive condition concerning what is being presented? Upon that so much depends.
We may have presented to us the most glorious things about the Lord Jesus, and yet there be no fruit. We have heard them; we go away, and there is no fruit. There is no spirit and life in an increased measure. Why? We have been content with hearing, and presently when we look round for what we have heard, it has gone; it is no longer with us. If we recall the phrases, the ideas, the thing itself is not there as it was. Now, what lies between the thing being presented to us with all its possibilities, and the fruit of it becoming a reality in our lives? It is an action of faith in relation to it. Passivity here in a natural state gives the enemy all the ground that he wants to frustrate the ends of God. If all the Lord's people, whenever there had been presented to them something more of this, would act in faith in relation to that presentation, there would be wonderful results.
So the darkened heart, unenlightened, remaining passive in the presence of the presentation of Christ, is seen here in utter barrenness, even when all the possibilities of fruitfulness have been brought near.
2) The Shallow Heart
"And others fell upon the rocky places... and because they had no root they withered away." "And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet has he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth." What have we here? It is not that aspect of the natural state represented by the darkened heart. It is another aspect of the natural state. It is called "rocky".
Although it may seem that this is an improvement upon the previous one, the end is just the same. The real and abiding increase of Christ does not come upon it. Here is a condition which is, in the long run, just as unfruitful. To put it the other way, here is a condition which makes fruitfulness impossible.
What is required here? Surely brokenness of heart. If it is hard, if it is rocky, if there is no depth - and this reality of Christ has to be planted right down into the very depths of our being, then the necessity is for brokenness. Ah! but that is cost, that is paying the price, that represents an estimate of the value of Christ above our own interests, our own comfort. It means what Paul meant - and here you see the germ of a great truth - "that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable to His death...". Even Paul, at the end of his life, recognised and accepted the principle that an increase of the knowledge of Christ could only be by an increase in the knowledge of fellowship in His sufferings and a deepening of conformity to His death.
Do we understand the Lord in His breaking up, shattering providences? The Lord can only get His ends through breakings. At best there is in these natural lives of ours a place beyond which the Lord cannot go until He has done some breaking. The depths of natural capability may even vary in this matter, but in the ultimate issue, the fulness of the Lord's desire can only be reached by a breaking deeper than nature, a getting down deeper than our own capacity. It is the creating of capacity by breaking through to the depths. The Lord has got to create capacity for Himself. How true it was: "I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now." The Lord had to reserve a great deal to the day when they were broken men. One reason for their inability to receive from the Lord what He wanted to give them was that they were so sure of themselves. Peter said: "I will never forsake thee", "I will die with thee." "Alright Peter, that is the limit of your ability to receive what I want you to have, and because of that very thing you cannot follow Me!" But afterwards Peter was so broken and shattered that he could follow, and he saw.
So there has to be a breaking, and that means willingness to be broken. It is enlargement of capacity. "No root in himself", no depth of soil. They are words resultant from the work of the 'I'. The Lord judges the whole, knowing what is in man, and says: "You are not broken enough yet; you have not come to the place where you have learned inwardly the limits of your capacity. You may assent to it mentally, but you have to come to the place where you cannot, and you know it, brokenly so and in a deep, humble dependence..." it is all of the Lord. The shallow and unbroken heart is here.
3) The Divided Heart
"And others fell upon the thorns; and the thorns grew up, and choked them." "And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful."
What is this? It is a divided heart. It is a heart which would reach out to the Lord; a heart which has desires; a heart which has very good intentions. So has every seed! You notice how the seed and the man are made to blend in this parable. "He that is sown...". Suddenly you find yourself carried into a place where it is not the seed that is sown, but he that is sown. You find yourself in a complex. The Lord has changed His word. The fact that He makes that change means this: that the seed and the man become one in responsibility. The seed can do nothing apart from the man, even as the man can do nothing apart from the seed. They have now been joined in mutual responsibility. What is true of the seed as to its result, represents what is true of the man. The result, so far as the seed is concerned is the result of what the seed has found in the man.
The seed here has found intentions which correspond to itself. The seed is full of good intentions. The seed is full of good motives. The seed is full of good desires. The man is full of good desires, but there you stop. And with all the good intentions, and all the good motives, and all the good desires, and perhaps all the good possibilities - if the Word can only have its way - there are other things which weigh. The word "tribulation" is used: "when tribulation or persecution ariseth". "Tribulation" there is the "tribulum", the heavy weight. Other things are weighing on the mind and on the heart. Whether it be weights of concern, preoccupation, trouble, or whether it be the deceitfulness of riches - that is, the subtle, imperceptible grip upon the heart of possessions, things of this world - whatever it be, these things are taking such a place as to divide the heart with this far more important matter. And they are challenging the end of God in the life. So the heart is divided. It has its desires. It has its longings. It has its intentions. But if you get the figure very accurately here, you will see that the seed was not sown among thorns. What the original does say, and what is clear if you notice, is that it was sown upon thorns. It does not mean that the thorns had grown before the seed was sown and that the seed happened to fall among grown thorns. It means that the thorns' seed was there as well as the good seed. It also sprang up, and also grew, but it grew ahead of the other thing and got the advantage, the upper hand. The thorns were there, perhaps yet unseen, not manifested, but they were there. In the life there were other concerns which were hidden, other interests which weighed.
This is a very testing word. It is just possible for us to have, secretly hidden almost, if not altogether unperceived by ourselves, things which are weighing against the challenge of the fulness of Christ. We would say, if it were put to us, that nothing whatever would weigh with us against the fulness of Christ, but things do! The fact is that secretly in the heart there are considerations which are not standing against the bold presenting of the fulness of Christ, but standing against the costly way of reaching it. There is the fulness of Christ, but there is a way to be gone. There is a way of letting this world go. Do we say: "This world has already gone for us"? Yes, in a way - forms of pleasure, amusement, and all that we call "the world"; and yet, is not what Christian people think of us also a worldly element? Is it not Christian public opinion? Is it not in its very essence and nature the same thing as worldly public opinion? If you and I are going to hold our hand from going on with the Lord in some way because of what will be said in certain directions, though those directions be in the direction of Christians, what is the difference in that in principle from any man caring what the world thinks about it? We are using this as an illustration. There may be a secret, subtle hold of things upon us, as to amount to hesitating before we will take a further step which would involve us in having to let them go, lose more popularity, lose more acceptance, lose more of the opportunities which men could give us. It is a divided heart.
It is not the initially divided heart, which, on the one hand, is in the world, and on the other hand wants to be Christian; but all the way through to the end we shall find the challenge along this very line as to the dividedness of heart. On specific issues again and again there will be two sides; one the call, the other the cost; one the end, the other what must go to reach the end. The divided heart represents somewhere, somehow, in some degree, an unconsecrated heart. When you come to the man of Philippians 3 you come to the man who says: "One thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind...". There is no divided heart there.
4) A Spirit Renewed Heart
This is the positive side. What is the good ground? What is the prepared heart? Obviously it is that which is without any of the things which have gone before, or, to put it on the positive side, it embraces all those things which were lacking in the other three. It is a heart enlightened through the exercise of faith. It is a heart broken and open to the Lord through deep work in the secret place. It is a heart wholly for the Lord, undivided, without reservation.
It is a Holy Spirit renewed heart: "Be ye transformed", said the apostle, "by the renewing of your mind"; the renewing of the Holy Spirit.
The Distinction Between the Three and the One
One, two, and three represent degrees of what we are going to call "upon-ness". Number four represents inwardness. We may settle it once and for all that if a thing only comes "upon" us we are not going to have fruit, neither hundred, sixty or thirty-fold. If we begin to take truth upon us, we are going to have a bad time. On that side you have calamity, tragedy, misery, and there is no fruitfulness. On the other hand, supposing you had an intellectual power of grasping truth without transmitting it to your nervous system, that you could cope with it intellectually, you are no more fruitful in that realm than in the other. Spirit and life are different things altogether from either the emotional or intellectual taking on of truth. Barrenness will be the result of both.
Some come to the barrenness because of that awful conscious inability to grasp, to understand, to come into the truth which has come on them. Others come to the cold, icy, stony barrenness of a merely intellectual grasp of the truth, and they think they have got it, and it is still a wilderness so far as spirit and life are concerned.
Let us go to the Lord and say: "Lord, that is something presented to me naturally - I may understand it in a measure, and be able to take it on mentally, or naturally - I cannot grasp it, do not understand. I ask You definitely, as I hold this thing before You Lord, to make that thing live in my heart." I open my heart to the truth. I say: "Lord, I want with all my heart to be in all that You want me to be in, to know all of Christ that I should know. But the only way in which that can be is that my spirit is renewed by the Holy Spirit, and I now in faith count on You to do that, and I wait and hold on like that, that that shall be done." Take that attitude towards truth; otherwise there will only be a barren time.
The way into Life is the way of the renewed spirit, the renewed understanding, the renewed, enlightened, quickened heart. Ask the Lord for that. That is why Paul in his prayer did not pray that they might have the eyes of their intellect enlightened. Paul was surrounded by crowds of people who had the eyes of their intellect enlightened, and he saw the tragedy of that. He prayed that the eyes of their heart might be enlightened. Ask the Lord for that. Seek that. That is the way of fruitfulness.
The measure in which we are prepared to pay the price, and to forsake the ground of the divided heart, the unbroken heart, the darkened heart, will be the measure in which the fruit is borne in us. A hundred-fold? Yes! But how utter that means in our going on with the Lord! Sixty-fold is quite good, but speaks of a reservation somewhere. Thirty-fold is good, but it is less than half of that which the Lord would have, less than half of that which we could have. The measure is the measure of Christ; but the measure of Christ is the measure of our capacity for Him; and the measure of our capacity is the measure in which these things which make fruitfulness impossible are forsaken; and the measure in which, going on with Him, things become inward.
The more you have of Christ, the more inward the life is. You may have a measure of Christ upon a certain level, or in a certain realm, towards the outside, a mere objective apprehension. You get another measure, and there is a mixture between the objective and the subjective apprehension. But when you get the fulness of Christ it will all be inward. It will all be Christ in your heart. That will mean that you have come to the place where nothing outside matters. All things which are supposed to represent Christ on the outside, all evidences, all proofs, all systems, have gone, and you have Christ in fulness. That is where Paul was at the end. Everything on the outside went. All they in Asia turned from him, and so on. But he had come to the place where it was all inside. Christ was the fulness within.