The Parable of the Sower: The Four Soils

Sermon by David Strain on April 25

Matthew 13:1-23

Well do please take a copy of the holy Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 13. Matthew’s gospel, chapter 13. You can find it, if you’re using one of our church Bibles, on page 818 in the New Testament section of the Scriptures.

This morning we are beginning a short series looking in some depth at Jesus’ teaching in the famous parable of the sower. In the run-up to Easter, remember, we took four weeks to consider the final hours of the Lord Jesus prior to His crucifixion and resurrection. And before that, you may remember we spent time in John chapter 3, considering in depth the doctrine of the new birth. And it seemed to me, as I thought about how best to follow up all those messages, that the teaching of Christ provided here would be very helpful in pressing home the urgency of personal dealing with the risen Christ as He speaks to each one of us in the holy Scriptures.

The parable of the sower is the only parable of the Lord Jesus recorded in all three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. And it’s special importance is further underlined in Mark’s version of the parable, Mark 4 verse 13, where our Lord prefaces His interpretation of it for His disciples by asking, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” In other words, this is a parable about parables. It is teaching about the nature of teaching. It is the Word of the Lord that explains the character of the ministry of the Word of the Lord. It’s message, therefore, isn’t particularly obscure or difficult to discern. It is clearly on the surface of things an analysis of the responses of the human heart to the ministry of the Word of the Gospel. And as such, it really has two primary lines of application.

First of all, the parable of the sower is intended to help the perplexed disciples understand why it is that people respond so very differently to exactly the same message, even when that message is preached on the lips of the greatest preacher who has ever lived, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. So this parable is meant to be comforting and clarifying and assuring for Christians who are on mission for Jesus, preaching and witnessing and sharing the Gospel, and yet meeting with an array of different responses to the message.

And then secondly, this parable is intended to challenge every one of us who hear that Gospel, whether we are Christians already or not, to make sure that the soil of our hearts is well tilled and receptive to the message, lest it fail to bear fruit in our lives. Luke’s version concludes with the exhortation, “He who has ears to hear let him hear.” We are to make sure that the seed that is sown does not fall uselessly on our ears, on our consciences, and on our hearts.

Well now this morning we’re going to take time to consider some general observations about the parable as a whole, and then God willing we’ll come back in the weeks ahead to look at each one of the four soils in turn and consider the different ways that our hearts tend to react to the ministry of God’s Word. To help us organize our thinking today, we’re going to ask four very simple questions; simple questions with obvious and simple answers. First, “What is the seed that is sown? What is the seed?” Secondly, “By whom is the seed sown?” Thirdly, “How is the seed sown?” And finally, “Where is the seed sown?” Alright? That’s our plan. We’re asking, “What?” “Who?” “How?” and “Where?” Before we do, let’s bow our heads again as we pray together and ask for God to help us. Let’s pray.

Lord, before us is a parable about how our hearts respond to Your Word. So please, may the Holy Spirit come and plow up the soil of our hearts now to make them fertile and receptive as the seed of the Word is planted within us that we may bear much fruit. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Matthew 13, beginning at verse 1. This is the Word of God:

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.’

Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

‘’You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.’ For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Hear then the parable of the sower: When 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet 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. As 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. As 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.’”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.

Well there are two words which, whenever I hear them or come across them in advertising and marketing, immediately spark my skepticism – “Results Guaranteed.” “These pills will make you smarter – Results Guaranteed!” “This system will make you rich in Vegas – Results Guaranteed!” “This perfume or this cologne will make you devastatingly attractive – Results Guaranteed!” And yet there are still a lot of stupid, poor, ugly people in the world! So much for results guaranteed! We know better, don’t we, when we hear, “Results Guaranteed!” And yet, when it comes to the work of the Gospel, there can remain a certain expectation that here at least, here, surely here, results really ought to be guaranteed. The Gospel ought to work we instinctively feel. And so we share the Good News with our friends, we bring them to an evangelistic event, we bring them perhaps to church to hear the Word preached, we put the best Christian literature in their hands, we pray hard for them, we think about their objections and we find strong arguments in defense of the truth – we can pour ourselves out in the work of evangelism, loving our friends and our neighbors with the good news about Jesus – and still they do not believe. It can be immensely disappointing, can’t it? What is going on? How do you account for that?

Well at this point, Matthew 13, at this point in the Gospel record, certainly the disciples were confronted with the very same hard reality of rejection. Back in chapter 10, Jesus had sent them out to preach, to witness, and to evangelize. But lest they went in the mistaken impression that they would be riding, you know, on the crest of a wave of universal welcome, Jesus told them that actually they were being sent out as “sheep in the midst of wolves.” Sounds ominous. “They will deliver you over to the courts,” He said, “and flog you in the synagogues.” How does that sound to you? Not so exciting, right? Sheep amidst wolves, flogging in the synagogues – “Wait a minute, I’m having my teeth cleaned that day, Jesus. Something else has come up!” I’m sure, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the disciples were beginning to get a little nervous about the whole enterprise of evangelism. And yet that’s the kind of response He was telling them they’re going to encounter – mixed responses at best.

And then in Matthew chapter 11, we have an account of Jesus’ own itinerant preaching ministry. And what do we find? Even under the mighty preaching of the Messiah Himself, very many who heard Him were not converted. “Woe to you, Chorazin,” He said. “Woe to you, Bethsaida, for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago!” People did not respond uniformly with equal acceptance of the Gospel, not even under so mighty a ministry as that of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Isn’t that astonishing? And so naturally the question arises, “Why doesn’t the Gospel work for everyone? Surely the results ought to be guaranteed!” Isn’t that how we feel? So where does the fault lie? Is it in the message? Have we just misunderstood the content of the Gospel? Or is the fault with the messenger – maybe some flaw of personality, some quirk of temperament that is hindering Gospel effectiveness? Or perhaps it’s the method that is defective. Maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and rethink our strategy and come up with revised techniques that will reach a new generation.

And for sure, there may well be legitimacy in each of those concerns and questions, at least when it comes to our evangelism, flawed as it must always be. Right? But none of these questions really work when it comes to understanding the mixed results that were attendant upon the ministry of Jesus Christ. We’d never suggest, I hope, that the mixed responses to His preaching had to do with Him misunderstanding His message or some flaw of His personality or some failure of appropriate method on His part. Would we? So then assuming all other things are equal, how do we account for the mixed results that come from the proclamation of the Gospel? That’s the question that Jesus is answering in the parable of the sower. In verses 1 to 9, we saw Him delivering that parable, the parable to the crowds, standing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and then later on, 18 through 23, He gives His own exposition of the parable when He is alone with His disciples. The very simple, central metaphor focuses on a farmer sowing seed in his field.

What is the Seed the Farmer is Sowing?

And our first question for Jesus in His teaching here is, “What is the seed the farmer is sowing? What is the seed?” What does the seed represent in the parable? Look at verses 18 and 19. “Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown.” Or listen to Mark 4:14. Even more simply and directly in Mark’s version, Jesus says, “The sower sows the Word.” “The sower sows the Word.” So what is the seed that is sown? It is the Word of God. It is the Word of the kingdom. It is the message of Jesus Christ. The farmer can till the soil, the farmer can purchase the latest tools and gadgets to use on the farm, the farmer can irrigate or do any number of important, even necessary things, but if he does not sow the seed there will never be a harvest. There are any number of things we can do as a church to reach out to our city that have value and that will prepare the ground. We can cultivate meaningful relationships with non-Christians. We can engage in mercy ministry. We can practice hospitality. We can work at being better neighbors. But unless and until we sow the seed of the Word of the Gospel there will never be a harvest. No one can be converted without the Gospel message. No one. We can feed hungry bellies, we can help fearful hearts, we can untangle broken relationships and do countless good works for the welfare of the citizens of our city, and we should and we must, but we have to understand as we do they will not result in a single sinner passing from death to life, not one, unless that sinner hears and believes the good news about Jesus Christ. Unless the seed of the Word is sown, there will not be a harvest.

When I was a child, my parents read me a story that really captured my imagination about a man who found an old boot and planted it in his garden. And eventually, over time, the old boot sprouted and grew into a tree with peculiar fruit hanging from the branches. It was a shoe tree! It was a fun story that really gripped my imagination, but of course what made it so fun is its absurdity. Isn’t it? You prepare the field for planting, you get everything ready, then you plant your old boots in nice neat rows a few feet apart, you know, to give them plenty of room to grow. And then you cover them carefully with good, rich soil, and at the end of all your hard work, what will you have? You will have a field of old boots and nothing more.

So listen, if you win people, if we win people with gimmicks, we will have won people to gimmicks, but not to Christ. If we sow the latest trends and fads in church growth, we might well gather a crowd but we will not gather a single sinner saved by grace. We must sow the Word. The expectation of Jesus for any fruit from His own ministry, for any harvest at all, rests not on His winning personality or in adopting some clever technique or in gimmicks or in show. It’s interesting, it did not even rest in the mighty miracles our Savior performed. When the scribes and the Pharisees asked for a sign in the chapter immediately prior to this one, chapter 12 verse 38, Jesus answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign!” Jesus rests all His confidence for any harvest at all on the proclamation of the Word of the Lord. The seed is the Word. Whatever else we do, whatever else you do with your unconverted child, your unbelieving colleague, your dear friend who does not know the Lord Jesus Christ, you must tell them about Jesus. You must sow the seed of the Word if there is to be any prospect of a harvest, of a change of heart. So our first question is, “What is the seed that is sown?” What’s the answer? The seed is the Word. Preach the Gospel. Open your mouth and speak for Jesus.

By Whom is the Seed Sown?

Then there’s the second question. If the seed is the Word of the Gospel, by whom is the seed sown? Who is the sower in the parable? Well the context helps us here. Look at Matthew 13, verses 1 and 2. “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables.” Mark says very simply, “He began to teach beside the sea.” So in the context, Jesus is the sower of the seed. Here He is, right here, sowing the seed. It’s a simple point but it’s one, I think, must continue to be insisted upon even now. It’s true, of course, that we are all called in a sense to sow the seed of the Word of the Gospel. Particularly true that Gospel preachers are to sow the Word in their ministries. But the New Testament teaches us that even then it is still Jesus. Jesus remains the true and ultimate sower of the seed. The Word of the kingdom is the Word of Christ, and when the preacher or when you say what the Scriptures say, faithfully and accurately, Christ Himself says it. He is sowing the seed of His Word through you and through me.

Paul makes that point very clearly in Romans chapter 10 beginning at verse 13. Listen carefully to Romans 10:13 and following. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Now our English version there slightly obscures what Paul is really saying when he asks, “How are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?” The Greek doesn’t say that. The Greek actually says, “How are they to believe in Him whom they have never heard?” Do you see all the difference in the world that change makes? Paul is saying when the preachers preach the Word faithfully, accurately, who is it that they hear in the preaching of the Word? Not just the voice of the preacher, but the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. You hear Him in the ministry of the Word.

Now that has two, many actually, many startling implications. Let me just mention two. First of all, doesn’t that highlight for us the glory of preaching and the wonder of sharing the Gospel? Every time you open your mouth to tell somebody about Jesus, something supernatural is happening. Whenever the Scriptures are faithfully expounded, Christ, the risen Lord, is sowing the seed in His field. It’s not just the preacher droning on, you know. It’s not just the Christian friend on his soapbox again with his unconverted neighbors. No. The Lord Jesus Christ is sowing the seed of His Word in human hearts. What a privilege entrusted to us that something as glorious and dramatic and mighty as that should happen and that we should be the instrument of it, sinners though we are. Paul talked about having this treasure in jars of clay. It’s an apt, though different metaphor. The treasure of the Gospel – what are we but old clay pots? And yet what a treasure entrusted to us. Christ Himself speaking to the world and calling sinners to salvation.

The second important implication of Christ being the sower is that it reminds us once again of His sovereignty. The sovereignty of Jesus Christ. You’ll notice in verse 18 Jesus Himself names this parable the parable of the sower. And if you think about it for a moment, that really is an interesting title for this parable because, after all, we learn virtually nothing about the sower in this story. Do we? All the focus rests entirely on the variety of soils and the different responses to the seed of the Word that each produced. So why is it called the parable of the sower rather than, say, the parable of the soils as some prefer? Well perhaps it is intended to remind us that the sower owns the field. The field is his. The seed is his. The crop is his.

And so as we begin this series of sermons, let’s pause to acknowledge, once again, His Lordship in the great matter of salvation. In fact, I think if we miss this actually a major emphasis of the whole parable will be lost to us. It is intended, remember, to comfort us and to encourage us as we see all the different responses to the Gospel, many of them quite negative, and we wonder what’s going on and we’re losing heart. Well nothing will give us more heart, more courage to press on, more boldness to keep sharing good news, to keep praying, keep witnessing, keep preaching, than remembering to whom the field belongs; to whom the seed belongs, to whom the harvest belongs. It is all His, not ours. Our task is not to make more Christians. It is not to create the harvest. That is His work alone. Our task is to broadcast the seed.

How is the Seed Sown?

What is the seed that’s sown? The seed is the Word. Who sows the seed? It is sown by the Lord Jesus Christ. Thirdly, how is the seed sown? And the answer, as we notice where the seed falls, is that the seed is sown indiscriminately. Do you see that? It is sown indiscriminately. If I can be a little provocative, we might even say the seed is sown carelessly, without regard to where it falls. It falls on the path that marks the boundary of the field where the ground is hard packed and baked solid. It falls on the rocky ground where there’s just enough top soil for it to take root but the roots can’t penetrate very far. There’s a layer of impenetrable rock just below the surface. The seed falls on the margins of the field where there are weeds and thorns that choke it. And it falls on the deep, rich, fertile soil where it can produce much fruit. The same seed falling in each place. The image is not, you see, a farmer stooping over nice neat long rows that he has plowed up in his field and with his thumb, pushing a single seed very carefully and deliberately into the ideal soil type in order for it to produce a bumper crop. That’s not the image. No, the image is of a farmer with a bag of seed, of grain, hanging from his hip. And he’s walking up and down in his field taking fists full of the grain and he is broadcasting it, throwing it everywhere, till all the ground is covered with seed without any regard to where it may fall. That is the picture.

Now we believe, don’t we, as good Presbyterians, that salvation is the work of the sovereign God alone. Only the elect of God believe the Gospel. And no one believed that truth more firmly than the Lord Jesus Himself. When the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida did not respond to Him in repentance and faith in chapter 11, immediately what did Jesus do? Well immediately He turned to prayer and in His prayer at the end of Matthew 11 He rehearsed the absolute sovereignty of God in election. “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden such things from the wise and the understanding and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for such was Your gracious will. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father and no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” That is as strong a statement of the doctrine of election and of irresistible calling as you can find anywhere in the holy Scriptures.

And then, with that clear reminder of God’s sovereignty ringing in His ears, what does Jesus do next? Do you remember? Does He say to Himself, “Well, I’ve forgotten I was a Calvinist. But now that I have remembered, I realize I was wrong to go to Bethsaida and Chorazin and preach to everybody willy nilly like that!” Is that what He does? Well no. Listen to what He does. In verses 25 through 27 of Matthew 11 He confesses again the sovereignty of God in salvation. Then Matthew 11:28, He turns from prayer and returns to preaching and says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Jesus sees no contradiction between the highest doctrine of the sovereignty of God and the freest invitation to all people without distinction everywhere to come and believe in Him. At this point, the most ardent Presbyterian can stand shoulder to shoulder with an Armenian like Charles Wesley and sing with equal conviction, “Happy if with my latest breath, I may but gasp His name, preach Him to all, and cry in death, ‘Behold, behold, the Lamb!’” Preach Him to all, to all without distinction; to every class and every person. The whole world. Go say to everybody, “Jesus is a Savior for you! Come and trust Him.”

Where is the Seed Sown?

What is the seed? It is the Word. By whom is it sown? Jesus is the sower? How is it sown? It is to be sown indiscriminately, without care or regard to the type of soil; to everybody, everywhere. “When 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.” Where is the seed sown? It is sown in the heart. It enters by the ear. It must penetrate the understanding and the heart responds. The seed of the Word is sown in the heart. That means, as the parable of the sower demonstrates, what you do with the seed of the Word lays bare the truth about your heart. It reveals your heart before God. Do you see that? The parable actually starts to get rather uncomfortable at this point. Doesn’t it? Jesus brilliantly characterizes the four possible heart responses to the Word of God. His description of each soil type is meant to make us search ourselves, our own hearts.

You notice the one thing, of course, that isn’t mentioned in the parable is the preparation of the ground because that’s your work and it’s my work, not His work. We must pull up the weeds that compete for our attention with the Word of Christ. We must dig out the rocks that stop the Word sinking down roots into our hearts. We must plow up the hard packed ground so that the Word can penetrate. The fault, Jesus was teaching the disciples, does not lie with the sower. It does not lie with the seed. It does not lie with the method of sowing. The fault lies with the soil, with the soil. What sort of soil is your heart? How have you prepared today to receive the seed of the Word? Will it lie on the surface or will it penetrate? Will it bear any fruit? If there is no fruit, Jesus is teaching, the fault is ours alone.

One last thing before we close. I can’t help wondering if it was perhaps just a little bit discouraging for the disciples to hear Jesus’ proportions – three soil types failed to respond and bear fruit. Only one flourishes. Is Jesus saying only one in four people will be saved? Is He saying you can always be guaranteed a 25% yield on your evangelistic efforts? Well no, I think all He’s really saying is that, “Yes, while many, many people will reject the message or seem at first to respond with gladness only to fall away later, so don’t be discouraged; don’t be surprised. This is how it’s going to be. Nevertheless, there will certainly be a harvest.” That’s the point. There will certainly be a harvest. So keep sowing the seed. Do not give up. Broadcast the seed of the Word. Keep preaching the Gospel. Tell them about Jesus. The harvest is coming.

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, thank You for sowing the seed into the soil of our hearts. We ask You for grace to tear up the thorns and thistles that choke it – the cares of the world; to plow up the rocks that stop it from putting down deep roots. We pray that it might be planted deeply into receptive, fertile soil, so that it may bear much fruit – 100 or 60 or 30 fold, in every heart here who hears it today. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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