The Parable of the Sower


Matthew 13:1-23

Text Comment

We begin in 13:1 the next section of the Gospel, a section devoted to the Lord’s teaching.  We had such a section in chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, another in chapter 10, and now the third that begins here and ends in 13:52.  You remember we said that Matthew organizes his material in alternating sections of teaching and narrative.  This next section of teaching is a collection of the Lord’s parables concerning the kingdom of heaven.  The narrative section we just concluded concerned various responses that men made to the Lord’s ministry and teaching.  That is an underlying subject of this next section of teaching as well.

Teaching in parables was a special technique of the Lord Jesus.  Other teachers of the time used parables, but no other NT writer uses a single parable while the Lord used dozens and no one used the method as effectively as did the Lord.  Nowadays, all over the world the Lord’s parables are known and loved.  The Lord used this form of teaching both to convey truth vividly and memorably and to hide it, as we will see.  Matthew relates in this section 7 parables, all of which concern the kingdom of God in some way.

v.2       The parable was taught to a large crowd.

v.3       The parable draws on the experiences of everyday life.

v.8       This statement has been subjected to a variety of fanciful explanations through the ages.  That is a danger interpreting parables: they are vulnerable to interpretations imposed on them. Jerome, the 4th century church father, took 30 as a reference to marriage, the 60 to chaste widowhood, and the 100 as virginity.  It is rather a simple reference to varying measures of fruitfulness in a Christian life.

v.10     Vv. 10-17 are an excursus.  The parable itself was given in vv. 1-9 and its interpretation is given in vv. 18-23.  These verses in the middle explain why the Lord spoke in parables, why an explanation is necessary, and why it is given to the disciples and not to others.  This conversation was not with the crowds; indeed it seems clear that they were not present.  Christ is speaking only to his disciples.

We learn in v. 34 that parables, at least by this time in the ministry, were the Lord’s characteristic way of speaking to the crowds.  Their meaning was not immediately obvious and so required interpretation.  But this interpretation was given to the disciples only, not to the crowds.

v.11     To know the truth about the kingdom of God is to know secrets. A secret is only a secret if not everyone is in the know.  Parables, which to the uninitiated were only homely stories, would yield their riches to those who were in on the secret.

v.12     Perhaps the point of the last statement is the ultimate uselessness of false religion.  [France, 222]

v.15     We have already noted in a previous sermon that, by and large, this generation of God’s people had passed the point of no return.  They had so hardened their hearts that they would not believe and God had lost patience with them and would not make them believe.

v.17     Vv. 16-17 complete the contrast between those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and those who do not.

v.18     The title of the parable can be misleading.  It is a shorthand way of speaking. The parable, as it will now be explained, is not about the sower.  He is not mentioned or identified in what follows.  It is about the seed and the soils into which it falls.  All hear the same word – that is, all four soils receive the same seed – but they differ in how they receive that word.

v.22     Matthew has already to this point made a great emphasis of the Lord’s teaching that true discipleship is more than an intellectual assent to the message about Jesus.  There must be the commitment of one’s life and such a commitment that it withstands opposition and difficulty.  We said at the outset of our studies in the Gospel of Matthew that a special interest of this Gospel is the nature of true discipleship.

In the first three soils then we are reminded that when men fail to embrace the gospel and be saved, the fault does not lie in the message, the Word that is sown, but in the quality of the ground, the receptiveness of their hearts.  This is the hard-packed or shallow soil. What is more, there are difficulties that make it harder still to follow Christ:  the troubles and temptations of life and the persecution of the world.  And standing behind all of this is the Devil himself.  What is amazing is not that people do not believe, but that anyone does!  That takes God’s work!

This parable, alone of all the Lord’s parables, appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is clearly a parable of great importance.  I have heard, over the years of my life, a number of powerful and searching sermons devoted to this parable of the sower or, as it is also sometimes called, the parable of the soils. It is a parable which preaches itself, in some ways, because of its universal application. What it describes we ourselves see and have seen happening before our very eyes. The four groups of people, or four responses to the Word of God, we can as easily find today in any assembly of hearers of the Word as Jesus found them in his day.

Usually, the point of those sermons has been to press us to examine ourselves to see which of the four cases best describes ourselves — are we the path on which the seed never took root; or are we the shallow soil that dries up so quickly that the plants which grew there in the wet soon wither away; or are we the soil still secretly inhabited by last year’s thorns which, once the growing season has begun in earnest, will grow up and, being so much tougher than the wheat, soon choke and kill it; or, are we the rich soil which yields a crop, thirty, sixty, or one hundred times what was planted?

Now, I don’t dispute that such sermons are a fair application of this parable and that it is right to draw such lessons and warnings and challenges from it.  All of this detail is not mere window dressing.  Jesus, as he explicitly says, is describing different people who respond to the gospel of the kingdom in different ways.  We certainly need reminding that it is not by making a profession of faith in Christ and seeming to follow him for a time that one gains eternal life, but by a life of persevering faith and faithfulness to God. It is right and important that we be reminded that the mark of God’s salvation in any life is that it bears the fruit of true holiness and service to God and man. It is a fair use of this parable to turn it into a warning against nominalism and false assurance and to urge upon professing Christians that they be sure that they be not among ‘those who shrink back and are destroyed but among those who believe and are saved.’

But, having said that, I must say that that is not the first purpose of the parable as Jesus taught it. That is not the great application of that parable as Jesus preached it to his disciples and to the great crowd that gathered by the lake that day.  We are alerted to that fact when the whole parable is summed up, in v. 11, as the knowledge of the secret of the kingdom of God.

The parable is not, then, simply a description of the various ways people respond to God’s Word when it comes to them or even the difference between true faith and false. It shows us that, of course, but that is not the main point. It is instead chiefly a description of the kingdom of God, of the coming of that kingdom into the world and of its progress in the world. And, as Jesus plainly says, in v. 11, it is a message for those who are already the disciples of the Lord, already his true followers. It is for those with ears to hear. It is first not a message of warning to those represented in the first three soils or the first three groups of people who hear the Word of God; it is for those represented by the last soil, the good soil. It is for Christians who are Christians in earnest that Jesus told this parable.

Let me demonstrate and elaborate this in three ways.

  • First, Jesus taught the parable of the sower to explain that the kingdom of God would come in an entirely unexpected way and to prepare his followers for that fact.

These parables which Jesus taught were not meant to convey the ethical commonplaces of life. They were not little stories with a moral. They were, as a body of teaching, meant to bring home to the Lord’s hearers the situation they were confronting as a result of the fact that the kingdom or reign or presence or action of God himself had come among them in the person of Jesus Christ.

The kingdom of God, Jesus was saying, is like a sower who sowed his seed. Now, it is easy for us to miss the tremendous impact, surprise, and even terrible disappointment of those simple words. We are accustomed to those words, and we find in the parable a perfectly clear and simple, as well as charming, metaphor about the preaching and hearing of the Word. But, if it is so clear and simple, if the symbolism is so obvious, if the parable has no other aim but to convey this general message about how the Word of God is received in the world, then why did the disciples not understand it and, still more, why did Jesus suppose that this parable – for all of this simplicity and perspicacity – actually hid its true meaning from most of his listeners?

You see the fact is that this parable amounts to a startling and totally unexpected revelation. “The kingdom of God is like a farmer who went out to sow…” It is? That is hardly the image any of these people would have chosen to describe the coming of the kingdom of God. They might have spoken of a warrior atop his charger at the head of a vast army. They might have thought of great happenings in the heavens and earth: lightning, thunder, and earthquakes. As Jews, they would naturally have thought of the dramatic and wonderful phenomena which heralded the coming of God’s reign, the inbreaking of his power, when he lifted Israel out of bondage in Egypt on eagles’ wings. They might have thought of great battles fought, of the angel of death coming down to slay the enemies of God by the tens of thousands, the ten plagues, and so on. They might have spoken of any of these things – the very kinds of things, by the way, which the Scripture says will accompany the Lord’s second coming – but no one then, no one among Jesus’ hearers or even his disciples, would have ever expected to hear that the kingdom of God would come like a farmer going out to sow seed. How prosaic, how uneventful, how ordinary! A farmer went out to plant seed…

Throughout the Gospels we encounter the difficulty people had crediting Jesus as the Messiah and his coming as the coming of the kingdom of God, precisely because he did not fulfil their expectations. His coming was not the immediate triumph for the righteous and the catastrophe for the wicked that they had imagined it would be. His coming was marvelous to be sure; his disciples recognized that. His miracles took their breath away, his teaching was unlike anything they had ever heard, his own life and example were a piece of heaven on earth, but where was the great battle, the pillar of fire and cloud, the angel of the Lord wrecking devastation on the enemies of God?

This, of course, is not the only place and time that the Lord told his disciples that the kingdom of God has come into the world in a very different way than that which they expected, and that their lives, as his followers, would be much different and more difficult than they might have supposed. It is a common theme in Matthew, as we have seen. And it is this theme which is the great message of this parable of the farmer who sows his seed.

He had to prepare his disciples for what was to come – not a thunderous catastrophe in which all of history would be resolved into the triumph of God’s kingdom – that comes much later, when Jesus comes a second time into the world. They thought the Messiah would come but once, not twice. No, the coming of the kingdom was going to be the progress of his Word, of the good news about him, spreading step by the sower’s step, and unevenly throughout the whole world.

  • Second, Jesus taught the parable of the sower to prepare his disciples for the disheartening, discouraging, and unsettling developments which were to come as the kingdom of God made its way in the world.

We know, of course, as readers of the four Gospels, that the Lord’s ministry developed in ways which his disciples found difficult to accept. They were confused by the fact that the better Jesus became known the more ferocious grew the opposition to him. They were discouraged by the fact that so many people – including many who had received healing from him – who were, at first, his enthusiastic followers, later deserted him and turned against him. Why was the religious leadership so adamantly opposed to him?  They should have welcomed him with open arms. No doubt the treachery of Judas and then the crowds who had been so enthusiastic just days before further confused and demoralized them. Even Jesus himself sowed seed in the shallow and thorny soil. Throughout the course of the three years of the Lord’s public ministry we see his disciples over and over again failing to grasp the fact that though Jesus was the Messiah he was appointed to suffer ignominy and death at the hands of men. And great as these disappointments were, once the Lord had risen from the dead and they began to understand more of how the kingdom of God comes to pass in the world, they had still further lessons to learn.

First of all, it took some getting used to the fact that though Jesus had risen from the dead and the facts were in the public domain, opposition to him remained as fierce as ever. Even then the seed fell on the path and was plucked away by the Devil. Of course, as they began to preach the good news of Jesus and the resurrection, multitudes began responding with joy. But, strange as it might have seemed to them at first, not all of them continued to follow the Lord. Some lost interest and drifted away from that pure joy which once they had. Others turned on the gospel and the church with a vengeance and walked away from Christ with a high hand. This was so commonplace among congregations in general that several books of the New Testament were written to address the fact of these defections, to draw lessons from them, and to warn all those who professed Christ against doing the same. 1 John and Hebrews are two such books. These betrayals occurred even among the leadership of the church. We think, for example, of Demas, Paul’s assistant who, after some years of ministry side by side with the great Apostle, deserted him, Paul says, because he loved the world too much.  It boggles the mind that a confidant and assistant of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, a witness of that man’s powerful ministry, would return to the world. But he did.

Of course this had been the story of the progress of the kingdom all along. It was a sad and dismal story often repeated in the history of Israel. How often that people made a good beginning in what seemed at the time to be a true faith, only to crumble under the weight of this world’s temptations. But, no one among the pious in Jesus day thought that that same discouraging history would be repeated after the Messiah came.

Here Jesus tells them and us that it would and that it would be the story of the kingdom of God in this world until he comes again. The Word seeming to take root only to prove in many cases not really to have done so. The whole course of church history from that time to this is simply the unfolding of the story which Jesus told about the farmer who went out to sow his seed. During the persecutions visited upon the early church multitudes of erstwhile believers in Christ went back to the world. During times of prosperity the world won many back to its fold from the church. There were so many who started and didn’t finish that the Puritans in their day even coined a name for such folk. They called them ‘temporaries.’ In the days of the Great Awakening, the number who began to follow the Lord under the powerful spiritual impressions made by that great preaching in those wonderful days was much larger than the number of those same folk who were still following the Lord at the end of their lives.  At one time during the awakening in Northhampton, Jonathan Edwards believed that virtually the entire town had been saved.  But a few years later he wrote, “[though] there were numerous instances of saving conversions, the number of true converts was not so great as was then imagined.”  [In Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 372]

And so it is today. To the great discouragement of the Lord’s people, many make what seems to be such a great beginning only to lose interest or to forsake the kingdom of God to return to the world. We can think of many individual cases among people of prominence. I think of the prominent British biblical scholar who was a devoted member of the Inter-Varsity chapter at his university during his collegiate years, but who now has no sympathy for evangelical Christianity and published, a few years ago, a scathing attack on it.  Or take the man who wrote a gripping book about his experiences as a prisoner of war put to work by the Japanese on the railroad they built in Thailand and Burma, who admitted that he probably could not have endured the horror of that experience apart from the Christian faith he had embraced as a teenager, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, but who abandoned that faith in the years following the war.

But, much more to the point, we can, in this congregation, even now, summon up the face of someone we know who made a good beginning in our midst, whose conversion – so we thought at the time – was a matter of great happiness to us, but who is nowhere to be seen in this sanctuary today. In times of testing they fell away; the cares of the world or riches and pleasures turned their heads and choked to death their interest in Christ and his kingdom.

How thankful we all ought to be, that our Savior prepared us for this. It is the way in which the kingdom of God will come in this world until the Lord brings all things to their consummation when he comes again. He meant for us to be prepared for what was to come. He wanted our faith not to be shaken by the betrayal of those we thought were our brethren in the Lord. And so he told us ahead of time what to expect. And now, the Lord be thanked, not only do such betrayals not undermine our faith, in a strange kind of way they actually confirm and support it, as once again proving true what the Lord has said.

  • In the third place, and finally, the Lord taught the parable of the sower to encourage and hearten his true disciples by the prospect of the fruitfulness of their lives and of their vindication in the day of judgment.

The true followers of the Lord are, of course, those represented in the parable as the seed planted in the fertile soil who yield a crop thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times as much as was sown.  And this is the great reason for this parable. It is not only designed to temper the hopes of his disciples and to prepare them for the provisional character that the kingdom of God would have even after Jesus had come into the world [Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 132], it was meant to revive the hopes of his followers and to direct their attention to that wonderful consummation which is certainly coming, even if further distant than they had thought it would be. This is one of the many passages in Scripture whose great point is to remind us that the fullness of our salvation is not to be expected in this world, but only in the world to come and that, therefore, we are to live with our hearts fixed on what is to come.

You see, it is not easy to see the fruit being born. Until the harvest, it is impossible to measure it and to know that it has born a hundred times as much as was sown. With so many discouragements along the way, with the kingdom of God often advancing so slowly and actually at times seeming to move backward instead of forward, it is hard to see how the true and gracious purposes of God are being brought to pass in the world. When so many refuse to listen at all, when so many others make only a half-hearted and temporary commitment to Christ, those who truly love and trust the Lord Jesus can begin to think that they are on the losing side and that unbelief will prevail over the Christian faith in the world.  We heard this morning in our congregational petitions that the 14 years of gospel witness in Kazakhstan has produced a church of between 11,000 & 18,000 Christians.  But how many will there be in 50 years or 150 or 1,050 years?  Only the Lord can see the harvest that will be reaped from the seed being sown today.

No, says the Lord; the seed will sprout and it will bear a great harvest, greater than which anyone can see or know while we wait in this world for that harvest to come. We are not here told exactly what the fruit is which grows up by such a wonderful and powerful multiplication. But we can assume that it is all that the Bible elsewhere suggests it is.

It is purity and holiness of life, it is the devotion and goodness and love which is in this world because of the followers of Jesus Christ seeking to do his will and demonstrate their love for him. It is all those who have been brought to the light and to eternal life through the nurture of Christian parents and through the witness of the church in the world — a number like that of the grains of sand on a seashore or the stars in the heavens. We cannot see it now, but does not the Bible suggest, when it says that the day is coming when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, that at the end, at the harvest, it may be that there are many more in heaven than shall be in hell. It is all the beauty that is brought to be in this world, all the help that is extended to others, all the justice that is fought for, all the peace and happiness which are enjoyed, all the righteousness which is defended and exemplified in the world because multitudes of people in this world, in loyalty to the Lord Christ, are seeking to give glory to God in their lives. It is everything in this world which is truly good, pure, happy, holy, and beautiful — everything that is that is from God through Jesus Christ and worked out in and through the lives of men and women who love God.

We cannot see but the tiniest part of this fruit. We certainly do not now see the hundredfold. But our Savior told us to expect it. However slowly, even imperceptibly, the kingdom of God advances before our eyes, he tells us to expect that at the harvest what that seed, so quietly and uneventfully sown, has become will take our breath away!

The Lord is speaking to his true followers and he is saying to you all: it may seem as though the kingdom of God is advancing very little in your day; it may even seem to you that it is advancing very little in your own heart and life. But, believe me when I tell you: if you will devote yourselves to me and seek first my kingdom, I will make of that seed a great harvest. You may not see that full harvest until the last day, but you will most assuredly see it then!

You will face the same temptations, the same worries, the same fears, the same opposition, the same mysteries, the same questions as believers always have, the same obstacles that have destroyed the faith of those who only seemed to be Christians, but, keep on.  Keep on! As the author of Hebrews puts it: ‘do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.’ Or, as Paul put it in Galatians 6: ‘Do not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ You can’t see that harvest – and that is why Jesus told us this parable. However, what you can’t see, the Son of God, who cannot lie, has promised will be yours at last.