|Vol. 2, No. 2||Page 2||February 2000|
The Parable of the Sower
Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15
IntroductionJesus, the Master Teacher, frequently used figurative language in his teaching. Some people classify nearly all these colorful illustrations as parables (e.g., Matthew 5:13-16). However, strictly speaking, Jesus began to use fully developed parables in Matthew 13. Our Lord’s disciples acknowledged that he changed his method of teaching and asked why. “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10).
The parables of our Lord were very effective. Jesus outfitted “. . . each parable with lines as sharp as an etching.”1 His parables are noteworthy for their brevity and simplicity. In theme he appealed to the familiar circumstances of agriculture, home life, merchants, civic duties, social life and nature to teach spiritual truths. Hence, a common definition of parables is that they are earthly stories with heavenly meanings.
The Parable of the Sower received its name from Jesus himself (Matthew 13:18). It is one of only two of our Lord’s parables that he interpreted for us. (Jesus also explained The Parable of the Tares, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.) Therefore, a thorough understanding of these two parables is necessary to have sufficient insight as to the meanings of the rest of them. Understanding The Parable of the Sower (and The Parable of the Tares) is the key to understanding all the parables of Christ.
Jesus also explained why he spoke in parables (Matthew 13:10-17). Our Lord recited a phrase that was applied often to the Jews throughout their history (Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 6:9-10; Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 12:2). The apostle Paul likewise portrayed some of the people to whom he preached as insensitive to God’s message for them (Romans 11:8).
“Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:13-16).The Parable of the Sower is one of about a dozen kingdom parables. The concept of a spiritual kingdom arises in the Old Testament and is an object of prophecy, preparation and fulfillment. “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom . . .” (Daniel 2:44). This kingdom was the subject of preaching by John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, their disciples, Philip, Paul and John (Mark 1:15; 3:1-2; Acts 8:12; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 1:9). These and similar New Testament passages variously refer to the kingdom and often use the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” interchangeably.
In this parable, the Lord’s kingdom is compared to a plant. Similarities that readily appear include gradual, nearly imperceptible growth and an orderliness. Patience, then, is necessary for either the growth of crops or the expansion of the kingdom (James 5:7; Luke 8:15).
“In Christian growth we should not expect the ear before the blade.”2 Orderliness and growth of the kingdom directly relate to individual conversions and subsequent spiritual maturity. Babes in Christ must feed on a steady diet of God’s Word (1 Peter 2:2) to mature. Christians (and the kingdom) are stunted in their growth when they fail to mature (1 Corinthians 3:1-4; Hebrews 5:11-6:2). Christians (and consequently the kingdom) must grow though the growth may be gradual.
Fortunately for the sower, who today in principle is each Christian, he does not have to know how the seed grows. The sower must, though, choose pure seed, know how to plant and how to harvest. “. . . The seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11).
Further, all the sower has to do is to sow. It is beyond his power to make the seed grow.3The joint participation of God and man is essential to both successful agriculture and growth of the kingdom. Especially concerning the kingdom of God, man cannot grow the kingdom without God, and God will not grow the kingdom without the obedient participation of man. The apostle Paul observed: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). “A principle of partnership must operate if there is to be a harvest.”4
The Parable of the Sower may have been calculated (besides its primary application) by Jesus Christ to help prepare the apostles for certain disappointment in their ministries. The apostles ultimately suffered the loss of their Teacher to death on the cross. Before and after that event, they encountered opposition to the Gospel message that they preached. Jesus apprised the apostles of rejection and persecution before sending them on the limited commission (Matthew 10:16-25).
The rejection of the Gospel from the mouth of Paul is chronicled throughout the latter half of the Book of Acts. Paul’s afflictions appear in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. Especially in Athens, the preaching of the Gospel met with little success (Acts 17).
If reduced to percentages, The Parable of the Sower indicates only 25 percent of evangelistic efforts will meet with lasting success. Few, comparatively, will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14). However, still there will be multitudes innumerable in heaven (Revelation 7:9). At one point, the apostles acknowledged that there were voids in their lives because they followed the Christ. What, then, they asked, shall we have instead? Jesus assured them of divine compensation exceeding all losses (Matthew 19:27-30).
The apostles and other early Christians had cause for discouragement (Acts 8:1-4). Even today rejection hurts when we attempt to tell someone about Jesus. They and we, however, have reason to rejoice in our redemption and the comparatively few others who obey the Gospel.
BackgroundThe Parable of the Sower was spoken by Jesus to “great multitudes” outside and near Capernaum. Jesus used a boat as a platform from which to address his audience on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 13:1-2).
Earlier in the day, Jesus healed a man possessed with a demon (Matthew 12:22), which generated interest and controversy (Matthew 12:23-37). The Pharisees asked for a miracle but Jesus refused to give them additional signs or miracles (Matthew 12:38-45). Jesus’ earthly family came to see him but because of the crowds they could not (Matthew 12:46-50). Now, “the same day” Jesus spoke in parables, including The Parable of the Sower.
“And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow” (Matthew 13:3).Sowing seed was a familiar activity to our Lord’s auditors. Anyone can sow. Even a small child can cast seed to the ground whereby it can grow. Similarly, all Christians can sow the seed of the kingdom (Acts 8:4; 2 Timothy 2:24; Hebrews 5:11-6:2).
When Jesus said “Behold,” he may have gestured toward someone beyond the crowd, who in a field not far away was sowing seed as Jesus spoke this parable. It was usual for first century inhabitants of Canaan to live in villages and cities. To sow seed or any other agricultural activity they literally “went forth.”
“And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up” (Matthew 13:4).The parable assumes that pure seed was sown. The same good seed was sown in each instance under consideration in the parable. It is axiomatic that there could be no crop to harvest unless seed was first planted. The crop is predictable according to the seed sown; seed produces after its own kind (Galatians 6:7-8; Genesis 1:11). Any harvest will be proportionate to the amount of seed planted in fertile soil (2 Corinthians 9:6).
The seed in this parable is the Word of God (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:14; Luke 8:5, 11). This seed is living, incorruptible and eternal: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Peter 1:23; Isaiah 4:8). Like seed sown in fields, the Word of God when planted is fruitful:
“For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).This spiritual seed, the Word of God, is able to save souls (James 1:21). The words of Jesus when planted in honest hearts are life to the soul (John 6:63). Instead, one can choose to sow sinful seeds of death (Galatians 6:7-8). Fruitlessness results in destruction (John 15:2, 6).
The “wayside” soil is the first of four soils represented in the parable and into which seed fell. Though called by Christ The Parable of the Sower, emphasis in this parable is not on the sower. The sower is not blameworthy for a poor harvest.
The variables lie with the soils. The soils represent the Bible hearts of men (not the muscle in one’s chest that pumps blood). The Bible heart is comprised of intellect (Romans 10:9-10), emotion (Matthew 22:37) and will (Romans 6:16-17). “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23; Mark 7:20-23).
The wayside soil is a compacted pathway. Sowing seed there is comparable to scattering seed on a highway. The wayside soil is unaffected by the seed. The seed lies uselessly on top of the ground. It does not germinate. Fowls, representative of the devil (Matthew 13:19), eat it before it can grow.
From Matthew 13, verses four and 19, it is apparent that the heart represented by this soil heard the audible Word but ignored it. That person has a closed mind. Therefore, as Matthew 13:19 reads, “understandeth it not.” “They do not understand because they will not understand.”5 That person has a hard heart toward or is not interested in the Gospel.
Without a change of heart, such a soul cannot be saved by the Gospel that he rejects. Though unlikely, it is possible for a hard heart to be softened. “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12).
“Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away” (Matthew 13:5-6).A thin layer of soil over a bed of rock, according to the illustration, is incapable of sustaining a crop through to the harvest. The seed germinates in the shallow soil but it has no staying power because it is not well rooted. Therefore, when tested by the heat of a sunny day, whereas plants rooted in good soil thrive, the plant in this soil withers and dies.
The heart described by this soil quickly embraces the Gospel but as quickly backslides or apostatizes. This parable, then, here and the next soil to be discussed, implies the possibility of apostasy. The disciple with a stony-soil heart makes an emotional response and lacks strong convictions. He may be impulsive and has not sufficiently ‘counted the cost of discipleship’ (Luke 14:27-33). The lack of earnestness evident in him causes his faith to fail when faced with the tribulations, which encountered by others cause them to mature (James 1:2-4). It is easier to become a Christian than to practice Christianity.
A plant cannot survive that is not adequately rooted. One must be rooted in Christ (Col. 2:7; Eph. 3:17).6
The thorny-soil heart, though he responds to the Gospel, is preoccupied with the influences of the world and materialism. “A thorn is anything that crowds Jesus out of our lives.”7 Thorns may be money, pleasure, power, authority, popularity, family, education, hobbies, recreation, sports, etc. Even legitimate interests, if unrestrained, can undercut effective Christianity. Thorny-heart Christians are lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16) and have set aside their first love (Revelation 3:2). They neglect the reality of eternity and the preparation necessary for a heavenly hereafter, for fleeting moments of pleasant distraction (Hebrews 11:24-25).
Man cannot equally serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). Christians must get their priorities in the proper order (Matthew 6:33).
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).The thorny-soil heart also implies the possibility of apostasy. Contrary to objections, the Bible teaches that a child of God can sin so as to be lost. Numerous passages teach this, though one verse of Scripture is sufficient to teach any truth (2 Peter 2:20-22).
“But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:8).The good soil permitted the good seed unhindered growth. The crop continued to thrive through the growing season to the harvest. Good soil plus good seed resulted in fruitfulness.
Good-soil hearts are those who “heareth the word, and understandeth it” (Matthew 13:23), “hear the word, and receive it” (Mark 4:20) and “having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit” (Luke 8:15).
These last souls are the ones upon whom the Lord can depend. Jesus is the Captain of their salvation (Hebrews 2:10; 5:8-9). Instead of being immature (Hebrews 5:11-6:2), they are “apt to teach” (2 Timothy 2:2, 24). Good-soil heart Christians comprise the church that will weather every adversity for the faith (Acts 8:1-4), evangelize the world (Mark 16:15-16), exercise pure living (Titus 2:12) and gladly worship together (Hebrews 10:25). These souls know that they know that they have been redeemed (1 John 2:1-3). It is for these alone Jesus will return in the clouds to receive his bride (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; John 3:29; Revelation 21:2; 22:17).
“Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9).No one has to be lost. Every accountable soul can hear, (i.e., “having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit,” Luke 8:15). Every man and woman can make a course correction this side of eternity.
Conclusion(1) Satan knows the power of God’s Word and will attempt to snatch it away from us. (2) “But sowers, especially preachers of the Word, must learn from the parable before us that much of their labor is hard and sometimes fruitless from a human standpoint. It may seem as if much of their work is wasted.”8 (3) Whereas James 3:1 and Romans 16:17-18 address the responsibility of teachers, The Parable of the Sower teaches the responsibility of hearers. (4) God’s Word, like a small seed, is powerful. (5) Like a seed, God’s Word produces fruit. (6) Like a seed, God’s Word must be planted, cultivated and protected. (7) “Church members like to blame teachers and preachers for their lack of spiritual growth, but perhaps the problem is dull hearers.”9 (8) We need the attitude of 1 Samuel 3:10, “And the Lord came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak; for thy servant heareth.” (9) One needs to hear; it is important what one hears; it is important how to hear. (10) It is always time to sow God’s Word. (11) God’s Word is as powerful today as it has ever been. (12) One’s heart is not honest and good if when presented with truth he does not obey it.
1Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, p. 144.
2Neil R. Lightfoot, The Parables of Jesus, Vol. I, ACU Press, p. 19.
3Lockyer, p. 177.
4Warren W. Wiersbe, Windows on the Parables, Wheaton, Scripture Press, p. 24.
5Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile, Star Bible & Tract Corp., p. 15.
6Ibid., p. 16.
7Lightfoot, p. 12.
8Lockyer, p. 176.
9Wiersbe, p. 31.
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