Even though in general God's harvest of His sons and daughters in the resurrection will be a success, we should consider that, individually, it may not be. We do not care to think about it, but we can fall away and neglect or reject God's gifts through what we do during our period of conversion, typified by the seven-Sabbath count to Pentecost. The Parable of the Sower and the Seed in Matthew 13 exemplifies a number things that can happen to prevent us from having a place in God's spiritual harvest. We will focus on the second scenario, where the seed falls on stony places without much earth:
Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. (Matthew 13:5-6)
Jesus' interpretation appears in Matthew 13:20-21:
But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
The question arises as to whether the people represented here were ever converted, as the parable does not specify one way or the other. However, there are good reasons why we should consider that it could apply to the converted. For one thing, only in the context of the first group—the seed sown by the wayside—does it say that the Word of God is not understood (Matthew 13:19), indicating a lack of conversion. The first group could consist of anyone who hears the truth but lacks the ability to respond correctly to it as the firstfruits have. This description is absent from the other scenarios, seeming to be specific to the seed that lands by the wayside.
Additionally, the Bible gives multiple warnings and reproofs that relate to the conditions found in the second scenario. Any one of us could find ourselves in this scenario, at least in principle. In the same way, the third scenario—involving the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of riches—is also one to which a converted person could succumb, which is why we find many biblical warnings about the love of money and the pulls of the world. They have the potential to play out in the lives of people whom God has given the Holy Spirit.
In this second scenario, the truth of God fails to penetrate deeply because of the soil's stony condition. The parable is describing an underlying hardness of heart, equated in Scripture with unbelief (Mark 6:52; 8:17; 16:14; Hebrews 3:7-19). The individual, receiving the truth, believes some of it—some fertile soil is present—but since it is not deep enough, he cannot endure when times worsen. He withers because his depth of belief—his relationship with Christ—is insufficient to sustain him throughout the difficulties that inevitably arise when one is living God's way and constrained by His Word. He may start out strong, but in the end, there is nothing to harvest.
In verse 5, Jesus says that the stony places had little dirt, and the plants immediately sprang up. He describes a thin layer of soil on top of bedrock. Interestingly, the presence of bedrock close to the surface creates an environment that retains both heat and moisture in the dirt. The bedrock absorbs the heat from the sun during the day and keeps the soil warm, while simultaneously preventing rainwater from soaking in deeply and leaving the topsoil dry. These conditions are ideal for the seed, so visible growth occurs in short order. But such growth cannot be sustained because these same conditions keep the plant from developing healthy roots. Its growth becomes stunted, even though it appears to start off so well.
The overall lesson of this second scenario, however, is that the speed of apparent growth is far less important than the depth and health of the roots providing that growth. The seven Sabbaths in the count to Pentecost symbolically represent a long time, and during it, many trials will arise in which healthy roots are more valuable than stems and leaves, which may look healthy for a time but cannot endure to the end.
The parable employs a scorching sun to illustrate tribulation or persecution. The tribulation Jesus mentions is general and not specific to the time of Jacob's Trouble. The word simply means "affliction," "trouble," or "pressure." In Acts 14:22, Paul and Barnabas tell some new converts, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God." The road is not only difficult but also long—remember, this holy day looks back on a substantial duration of time. Deep roots are required to survive spiritually through the long weeks in the sun. For this reason, the Bible makes patient endurance a regular theme, mentioning it seven times in the book of Revelation alone. Four of those mentions appear in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2 and 3). Patient endurance is a vital requirement for the end-time church.
Typically, the major catastrophes of life are not what overwhelm God's people and cause them to suffer spiritual collapse. Instead, it is the lighter, repeated, relentless blows of tribulation that pummel us to the breaking point and make us want to throw in the towel. But God promises us that He will not allow the temptation—the trial—to go beyond what we can bear (I Corinthians 10:13).
It is entirely possible for a tender plant to survive the scorching sun! Doing so, though, depends on the condition of the heart—whether it is stony and hard or whether it is pliable and conducive to God's work in us. In Part Three, we will explore hardness of heart and discover how we can prevent it from undermining our Christian growth.
David C. Grabbe