The Parable of the Sower is more logically the parable of the soil – since that is what really makes the difference here. The seed, or the living word of God, is sown into all kinds of soil – just like a First Century farmer would do accidently. Some of this soil has been specifically prepared by the farmer to receive the seed; we would call this the good soil. Spiritually, the Holy Spirit has been working on certain human hearts to make them receptive of the ‘word’. But nevertheless, some ‘word’ falls upon less receptive soil / hearts and it has much less of an impact. In most cases the long-term effectiveness is zero.
What is the take-home message of this parable? I don’t think Jesus was talking to the people in general, but it was specific teaching for the disciples. Look to spread the gospel to the soil that God has prepared already, where the Spirit is already operating effectively. No farmer deliberately throws good seed onto a slab of concrete! The point of ploughing a patch of ground is to prepare it for receiving the seed. Jesus tells us – in a separate parable – not to cast our pearls before pigs (Matthew 7:6). This means, in practice, that, up to a point, one assesses the ‘soil’ of a person’s heart before launching full tilt into the gospel. Jeremiah 4:3 counsels us: “Break up your unploughed ground and do not sow among thorns”. In Luke 10, Jesus refers to “finding a person of peace”, someone who is hospitable to the ‘Sower’ and at least willing to consider the gospel. The person of peace will not be the ‘path’ in our parable, although they may turn out – with hindsight – to be the rocky soil or the thorny ground; there are no guarantees! The caveat to all this advice is that only God really knows a person’s heart and, in his sovereignty, he does sometimes transform radically the most superficially unpromising of men and women – people that we would have long given up on. Saul of Tarsus would be a classic example of this.
We can help prepare the soil of men’s hearts by prayer and by the love and example of our own lives. In the end, though, we can only do what we see our Father in Heaven doing – only that brings the harvest of heavenly fruitfulness that will make a difference to our world and that will cause His will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. The parable of the Growing Seed is a counter to our desire to be in control; in the end, God determines the increase and the life – we are just his little helpers!
A mustard seed (v31) is a brilliant metaphor for the Kingdom of God. Just as this seed contains the entire DNA of a mustard tree and yet at one time it is virtually invisible, so the message of the Kingdom is complete – but requires time and nurturing to grow to its full stature. DNA is all about replication and, once activated, it reproduces automatically and unthinkingly. If we can inject the DNA of the gospel into the right human ‘cells’, then Kingdom will emerge almost effortlessly.
EXODUS 25, 26, and 27
The Tabernacle was a royal tent inhabited by the presence of God in a way that enabled his chosen people to meet with him under carefully regulated conditions.
Despite the Lord being omnipresent, he specifically chose to reveal his glory and presence in a special and unique way in this tent. Being a tent, it was highly portable – unlike the temple in Jerusalem – and so also illustrated the presence of God’s glory wherever his people were on Earth. As he said to Jacob: “I will be with you wherever you go”. Ephesians 2:22 perhaps describes the function of the local church as a New Covenant equivalent tabernacle – carrying within it the power of God’s presence and his glory into each and every local situation.
The varied and expensive construction materials were supplied by God’s people, through voluntary donations. Where on Earth did a slave people in a desert obtain the precious metals and stones, luxurious fabrics and expensive spices required by God for this massive project? Answer: They were given everything by their Egyptian masters, whose hearts were changed towards the Israelites by God. Therefore, indirectly the gifts to God came from God. It is really no different today; we give our generous financial offerings to Him, but these are but a fraction of everything that he has given us first.
The Ark of the Covenant – more correctly called the “Chest of the Covenant Laws” – was a box or chest of a wood like oak (nothing very grand) covered in hammered gold. Gold symbolises royalty. Solid gold would have been impossibly heavy to move around the desert! In the ark were the tablets of the Law, the terms of the covenant. On top of it was the Atonement Cover, a single piece solid gold slab with heavenly creatures shaped into it; onto this the blood of the annual atonement sacrifices was sprinkled. The word ‘Atonement’ means to turn away the just penalty for an offence by paying the due price for that offence. Its effect is to reconcile men and women to God, where previously their sins had been a barrier to that relationship. A play on the English word gives us ‘AT-ONE-ment’ – which is of course the desired effect. Christ, by his death and resurrection, paid the full price for our sins; he is therefore the ‘sacrifice of atonement’ turning away God’s wrath towards us, and once for all time, taking that upon himself.
Skilled workers made the furnishings and coverings of the Tabernacle. The Most Holy Place – where symbolically God the King would live – was ten cubits long, wide, and high; a perfect cube! (The same shape as the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21). The Holy Place, where a King would receive guests, was double the length but the same width and height. A great curtain separated one room from the other, protecting the priests from the full presence of the Lord and being accessible only once a year by the high priest. When Christ died at Calvary, the curtain of the Jerusalem temple was torn (by God) from the top all the way to the bottom, symbolising God removing of all barriers for those who have trusted in Christ.
A huge courtyard of bronze posts and joining curtains surrounded the Tabernacle. Within the courtyard was a bronze altar of sacrifice – bronze symbolises judgment – whereas the posts and fittings around the Tabernacle itself were silver, symbolising redemption. The giant altar between courtyard and Tabernacle was the only gateway between the two structures.
What does all this tell us? God is very precise, very particular about how he is to be approached and worshipped – too often we seem to saunter into the presence of God (or so we think!) as though we were dropping into our local pub, inattentive and casual. God’s terms of acceptance are actually impossibly tough, and we can only satisfy them because someone else has already satisfied them on our behalf: “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice, he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” – Hebrews 10:12-14 (NIV).