Responding to the Kingdom: Belief and Unbelief


Take some time to read Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23, 44–46.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”—Matthew 13:1–9

Core Truth: God calls his people to be sowers of the Word and vigilant in faithfulness.

Part of the scandal of the gospel is the reality of unbelief. Jesus announces the kingdom and makes its transformational power evident and available to all who encounter him. Likewise, as followers of Jesus, we work to embody the values and ethics of the kingdom and share its good news for the world. Sometimes followers of Jesus can become discouraged that their efforts bear little fruit or signs of success.

The Parable of the Sower

In Matthew 13:1–9, Jesus tells a parable, or story, that serves as a paradigm for understanding the role of God’s people in the world and how the kingdom of God expands. Jesus draws on the common agricultural practices of his day to communicate an important message for his disciples. In 13:18–23, Jesus interprets his own parable for the disciples. Jesus describes a farmer who goes out to sow seeds. This is pre-modern farming so there are no tools or machines. There are not even nice neat rows. In the ancient world, the farmer simply scattered seeds on the field indiscriminately. The ancient farmer had little control over the outcome of his work. All seeds had the potential for growth, but their ultimate production hinged on the type of soil present where they landed. In Jesus’ story, there are four types of soil. First, some seed falls on the pathways that border the farmer’s plot. Birds on the lookout for an easy meal gobble these up long before they have the chance to grow. Other seed falls on rocky soil. It germinates quickly but withers just as fast because it cannot develop deep roots.

Still other seed falls among thorns. It also germinates and begins to grow, but the thorns choke the plants before they can produce fruit. Yet some seed lands on good soil. These produce an abundant crop that more than makes up for the unfruitful seeds. Jesus explains that this is a parable about the word of the kingdom and its reception by people. First, it is a word of encouragement to God’s people that they must remain persistent and vigilant in widely and indiscriminately declaring the good news of the kingdom. The encouragement comes in the reminder that God’s people are not responsible for the growth of the kingdom. This parable emphasizes that it is the soil that counts. If the word lands on a receptive person, there is the opportunity for an abundant harvest. If the word lands on poor soil, the same word produces nothing. God’s people are thus free from the tyranny of results. They simply proclaim the good news faithfully with the understanding that it will take root in some.

Reasons for the Lack of Belief

The parable also explores reasons for unbelief. By using the poor soils to illustrate why people may prove to be unreceptive to the gospel, Jesus’ words remind God’s people of the hazards and costs of discipleship. Jesus focuses on three areas: the actions of the evil one, persecution and trouble caused by aligning oneself to Jesus’ kingdom, and the allures of life and wealth. Jesus affirms the reality of Satan as the personification of evil and enemy of faith. The New Testament never lifts up Satan as the cause of every evil. In his kingdom, Jesus defeats Satan through the casting out of demons and by teaching his disciples to pray for “deliverance from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). But Jesus’ words remind us that Satan remains the enemy of faith and desires nothing more than to squash faith before it has time to germinate. The two middle soils share something with the fruitful soil. The seeds planted in them begin to grow. But due to the soil, the plants are unable to produce fruit. In the case of the rocky soil, the cause is persecution and hardships. Following Jesus can be risky and costly.

Families may disown converts. Christ-followers may lose jobs and business contacts. During the first century, Christians faced persecution from Rome and from competing religious groups. Even today, Christ-followers may find themselves threatened with death, imprisonment, or physical harm. For some, this pressure is too much and they lose the ability to be fruitful. Their faith withers. For most of us reading this, the gravest threat is the danger posed by the wealth and opportunities of our world. The desire for affluence and prosperity threaten to choke the possibilities of the kingdom. Following Jesus is an all-in proposition (Matt. 16:24). The danger of affluence is the subtle temptation to trade in the life and mission of the kingdom for comfort, pleasure, and security. Sometimes we try to combine these with the gospel, but as Jesus warns, the desire for wealth threatens to choke out our ability to bear fruit for the kingdom.

An Abundant Harvest

Jesus’ words end with an assurance that the kingdom will bear fruit. Yes, few may receive the message of the kingdom, but the faithful must not lose heart because the harvest that will come from the few will be abundant. Harvests of thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold all represent plentiful amounts well above the expectations of the farmer. It is important to recognize the possibility of sliding between soils. The life of faith is a moment-by-moment one. New challenges and possibilities arise with each day. If we desire to follow Jesus, we must be vigilant in guarding our hearts and minds lest we become unfruitful. Otherwise the mission is “Keep sowing!”

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Brian D. Russell (Ph.D.) is author of Invitation: A Bible Study to Begin With (Seedbed) and serves as Dean and Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is also curator of the Deep Dive Spirituality Conversations Podcast (