Last time we began our study of Matthew 13 with a general overview of parables. In particular, we examined in some detail Jesus’ answer to His disciples when they asked Him why He always taught in parables.
Matthew 13:1-9 & 18-23 – The Parable of the Sower
Now that we have a firm grasp on the general nature of Jesus’ parables, and at least a partial understanding of why Jesus chose to preach His Gospel only in parables except when He was alone with His disciples, let’s begin to examine the parables that Jesus taught while sitting in a fishing boat anchored at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew 13 gives us several of these parables starting with perhaps the most familiar of all Jesus’ parables – The Parable of the Sower.
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. [Luke 8:5 – his seed] 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root [Luke 8:6 – no moisture], they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9He who has ears, let him hear.”Matthew 13:1-9 [ESV] (Mark 4:1-9 & Luke 8:4-8)
Recall from our previous study that Jesus had been disputing earlier in the day with the religious leaders of Capernaum and their followers, calling them “a wicked and adulterous generation.” Then He went out along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, sat in a boat moored along the beach, and began to teach the crowds who followed Him in parables. As we noted in that study, a parable is an illustrative story with a moral lesson that likens intangible ideas or principles to familiar concrete items and events from everyday life. To understand the parable, the listener must try to determine what underlying esoteric and intangible things, these familiar things in the parable are meant to represent.
Matthew the gospel writer has saved us the needed serious reflection on the meaning of the Parable of the Sower by providing the explanation that Jesus gave His disciples in private later on (Matthew 13:18-23). But let’s pretend for a moment that we don’t have that explanation available to us. What are the everyday items found in the parable, and what might they represent?
- The Sower
- the path
- seed springing up
- seeds withering
- good soil
- seed sowing
- the birds
- the sun
- seeds producing grain
- rocky ground
- choking the seeds
The Sower – Even absent Jesus’ explanation of the parable to His disciples, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus is referring to Himself as the Sower. As we saw in Matthew 12:23 some in the crowd on this day had begun to ask whether Jesus was “the Son of David” – a reference to the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah.
1There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, [David’s father]Isaiah 11:1-2 [ESV]
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
So at least some in the crowd listening to this parable might have understood that The Sower in the parable is Jesus Himself, and that Jesus is the anointed One – מָשִׁיחַ māšîaḥ – whose coming was foretold in prophecy.
Seed Sowing – Since some in the crowd likely understood that the Sower represents Jesus, then the sowing of the seeds must represent what Jesus had been doing – healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, forgiving sin (something only God can do which implies necessarily that Jesus is God), and preaching about the kingdom of heaven. None of these things except that last one really fits with the symbolism of the sowing of seeds.
Seeds – So if Jesus is the Sower, and His sowing is His preaching that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, then it follows logically that the seeds are the Word about the kingdom that He preaches. We who have His written Word available to us have the advantage over those who listened to Jesus teaching this parable from the boat that afternoon in Galilee. We know that Jesus Himself is also His own Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.John 1:1 [ESV]
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:14 [ESV]
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.Revelation 19:13 [ESV]
Once we recognize that Jesus Himself is the Sower in the parable, some of the other symbolism in the parable is also easily discerned even for those whose hearing is dull and whose eyes are not opened.
Seeds Springing Up and Producing Grain – Apparently, the seeds which are the Word of God should produce some sort of effect upon the hearers that is represented by the seeds springing up and producing grain. But exactly what would that look like? How should the lives of the hearers be affected? We know in hindsight that the springing up of the seeds represents our salvation in Christ that results from saving faith in His Gospel, and that the seeds producing grain represents the idea that those who have been saved out of death in our sins by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection should then go on to share the Good News of our salvation with others who need to hear. But those who first heard Jesus teach this parable wouldn’t necessarily have understood what He meant. In fact, most of them missed the boat (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk) that day, and most people still fail to grasp the Truth taught through this parable even today.
Seed Withering and Thorns Choking Out the Seed – So if the seed of Jesus Word concerning the kingdom of heaven is meant to bring about some sort of change in those who hear it, then it logically follows that the seed withering and the thorns choking out the seed represent that intended change in the hearers not taking place. Even if they didn’t really understand what the change in them should be, it is clear that if the seed of the Word doesn’t have any effect on us then that is what the parable represents by the seed withering and being choked out.
Good Soil – So if the Word of the Sower represented by the seeds is intended to have some effect upon the hearers, then the good soil in the parable clearly represents the hearts and minds of those among the hearers in whom the Word does indeed cause the desired change (whatever that might be).
From this point on, the parable would have become harder to decipher for those who listened to Him teach it from the shore. To understand what the parable represents as the path, the birds, the rocky ground, roots, and thorns we need the revelation of God’s Spirit and the explanation Jesus gave His disciples later. Praise God we have both.
18“Hear then the parable of the sower: 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.Matthew 13:18-19 [ESV]
To begin with, Jesus confirms to His disciples the assumptions previously detailed that the Sower is Jesus Himself, and that the seed represents Jesus’ Gospel message – what Jesus calls here in Matthew 13:19 “the word of the kingdom.” Jesus then detailed four possible responses to the Gospel message. In this, Jesus confirms what we already knew. The Gospel message is intended to elicit a response from its hearers.
10“For as the rain and the snow come down from heavenIsaiah 55:10-11 [ESV]
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
The first response to His Word that Jesus mentions is really no response at all. Most people either don’t understand the simple message of the Gospel, or understand it but don’t accept it. In order to understand and believe the Truth of the Gospel message, sinful people need the guidance and urging of God’s Spirit. Jesus alluded to this in His answer to His disciples’ question why He only taught the crowds in parables that we looked at in some detail in our previous lesson. Most of us who have not accepted salvation in Christ by the time we become adults find it very difficult to come to a saving faith later on because our eyes are closed, our hearing is dull, and our hearts are hardened against the Truth.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.John 6:44 [ESV]
Nevertheless, I can testify from personal experience that God will continue to proclaim the Gospel message to an unbeliever repeatedly until the person accepts and believes the message unto salvation, the person dies in unbelief, or the time comes when God chooses to stop pursuing the unbeliever. This is what Jesus refers to when He says that the evil one (represented by the birds in the parable) snatches away the message that has been sown in the person’s heart. God has clearly ordained that such a time might come for every unbeliever at which their heart becomes so hardened against the Gospel message they become permanently unable to hear the Truth at all.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.Romans 1:28 [ESV]
In this hardened state, the unbeliever becomes simply unable to hear the Gospel Truth anymore – at least for a season, and possibly forever.
20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.Matthew 13:20-21 [ESV]
Our salvation in Christ is a twofold process. The first – justification – is the completed work of Jesus on the cross. By His sacrifice of His own life in our place – taking upon Himself the rightful punishment of death for our sins – Jesus exchanged our unrighteousness for His perfect righteousness, and saved us out of death into eternal life with Him. In the very instant that we first believed in His resurrection and confessed aloud His lordship over us, our justification was ensured by the sealing of His Spirit dwelling within our hearts.
But our justification was just the beginning of our new life in Him. In the instant of our justification, He also began the process of our sanctification through which He is perfecting us into His own very image so that when our bodies die and our spirits are transformed in an instant and brought into the presence of God Almighty in Heaven, Jesus may present us as His spotless bride before the throne of His Father. The process of sanctification is sometimes painful to us as He cleanses us and perfects us by the power of His Spirit. Yet through it we know that the crown of perfect righteousness awaits us at last.
The process of our sanctification consists partially of discipleship. The very first Christian disciples received their teaching directly from our LORD Jesus. Praise God that two of them – Matthew and John – wrote down those lessons in their gospel accounts so that all believers could share in them. But the vast majority of Christians receive their discipleship through other Christians. Personal fellowship with other believers is essential for us to grow in our faith. Otherwise we can’t establish the deep and sustaining spiritual roots required to bring us through times of trouble.
Christian fellowship provides two vital services which every believer needs. The first is the discipleship just mentioned. The more seasoned believers in a healthy Christian fellowship train up new believers in the essential doctrines of the faith so that they will be able to defend their faith when it is questioned by unbelievers, and so they will be able to withstand the spiritual assault of the evil one upon their faith. Secondly, a strong Christian fellowship provides support for one another when the inevitable troubles and persecutions come. Notice that here in Matthew 13:21, Jesus doesn’t say if tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, but when.
Iron sharpens iron,Proverbs 27:17 [ESV]
and one man sharpens another.
Beware of those who preach a “rainbows and unicorns” gospel implying that after a person comes to a saving faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the person’s life will be clear sailing from then on. Such teaching flies in the face of what Jesus Himself taught.
18“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.John 15:18-20 [ESV]
22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.Matthew 13:22 [ESV]
As previously mentioned, the Word of Jesus’ Gospel has been sent forth for a specific purpose ordained by God Almighty. The Gospel must bring about a change in the heart of the believer. Indeed it is our faith in Jesus’ Gospel alone, not anything we ourselves do that brings us to salvation.
4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.Ephesians 2:4-10 [ESV]
Notice in the last verse of Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians that by His grace, God has made us new creations in Christ Jesus so that we might accomplish various works in His Name using the specific spiritual gifts with which He endows each individual believer. But to do that we must make a conscious decision to forsake the things of the world and commit to following our LORD Jesus wherever He might lead us and performing whatever works in His Name He has foreordained for us. Put more bluntly – we must repent of our sins and turn and follow Him.
But the lusts and pleasures of this world are very effective tools in the hands of our great enemy to distract us from the path that Jesus has laid out for us. We are all sinful creatures by our very nature, and even believers frequently choose to let our sinful flesh reign over us rather than the Spirit of God dwelling within us. When we do so, we prevent the Word of the Gospel Jesus has sown in our hearts from accomplishing its intended purpose – both within our own hearts and among the people around us.
15Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.1 John 2:15-17 [ESV]
23As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”Matthew 13:23 [ESV]
Jesus finished His explanation of the Parable of the Sower with the only proper response to His Gospel message. Those whose hearts are fertile soil for God’s Word will not only receive salvation out of death in our sins, but also accomplish those things for which God sent His Word to us both within our own hearts – cleansing us of our inherent sinfulness – and in the society around us – sharing with them the wonderful news of our salvation in Christ.
The Lessons of the Parable of the Sower
For many years after I became a Christ follower and began to study God’s Word, I thought of the Parable of the Sower with its four different responses to the Gospel message as describing four separate classes of people. But over the years, I have come to realize that I myself have responded to the Gospel in each of these four ways at various times. The Parable of the Sower isn’t about classifying people into different castes which remain forever separate. Instead it is describing the spiritual journey each individual must undertake in response to the Gospel. Sadly, some of us (perhaps even most) never make it out of the starting gate on this journey – never coming to a saving understanding and faith in Jesus’ Gospel. Others pass through various phases of our lives in which we respond to Jesus Gospel in some or all of the ways Jesus describes. Of course, I can only speak from my own Gospel experience, I can’t speak for anyone else, although I suspect that most people’s testimonies are similar to my own.
As for me, I went through my entire childhood and most of my adolescence without really understanding the Gospel message – much less coming to a saving belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Thus my initial response to the Gospel seed that was planted in my heart along the way was really just to ignore it – not seeking to understand it, and certainly not committing to faith in it. During this phase of my life, I was one of those Jesus describes in the parable for whom the seed of the Gospel fell along the path, and the evil one whom I didn’t acknowledge any more than I acknowledged the LORD was easily able to snatch the seed away – distracting me with secular life so that the Gospel had no chance to even germinate within me.
Then as a young adult, I heard the Gospel message once more from a street evangelist in Alexandria, VA one summer evening. On that day, I realized that I did truly believe in Jesus resurrection and in His substitutionary atonement on the cross for my sins (although I didn’t fully understand the Gospel message). Yet although on that evening I became a believer, I remained highly suspicious and skeptical of so-called “organized religion” (and for very good reason if I may be so bold as to say so). Over the next quarter of a century I continued to live my life as a “lone ranger” Christian believer, but never committed to being a true Christ follower. I occasionally attended church services with Christian friends, and even twice answered an alter call at those services. But I never joined a Christian fellowship, so I never received the discipleship and support of fellow believers that I needed to grow in my faith. My relationship with Jesus during this time was peripheral in my life rather than being the central focus it should have been. My prayer life was a repeated 911 call asking for Jesus’ help with various earthly trials, and not accompanied with any real faith that God heard my prayers or would really help me with my requests. Thus during this time my response to the Gospel was that of the one in whom the Gospel seed was planted in rocky soil and the one for whom the cares and lusts of the world choked out the working of the Word in my heart, preventing it from bearing any fruit within me or for the benefit of those around me.
Then on Memorial Day 2000 a dear Christian sister witnessed the Gospel one more time to me when I was 46 years old. I had attended church with her and her family the day before while I was visiting them. I had to leave early Memorial Day afternoon to make a 10-hour drive back to my temporary job location. Along the way, I stopped at Arlington National Cemetery and visited the grave of my father. The long drive back gave me time to reflect in solitude (or so I assumed) on life, death, and the Gospel message that my friend had shared. When I finally got back to the place I was living temporarily that evening, I was praying in my usual 911 call fashion, and heard God whisper to my heart, “How can you expect me to hear your prayers when you continue in your sin.” On that evening I finally made a commitment to be not just a believer in Jesus’ Gospel, but to submit myself to Jesus’ lordship over my life. After years of patiently pursuing me, on that evening God finally transformed my heart into the good soil that His Gospel seed needed to flourish and bear fruit.
CAVEAT – Like every other Christian, I am far from being the perfect image of Jesus that God wants me to be. Like everyone, even as a committed Christ follower, I continue to sin frequently. But the difference now is that by His grace and the power of His Spirit dwelling within my heart, I struggle against my sinful flesh and try my best to walk with Him in His Spirit.
12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:12-14 [ESV]
God willing, next time we will examine more of the parables that Jesus taught from the boat in Matthew 13.