The Parable of the Sower

Series: Training for Kingdom Living

Sermon by David Strain on Mar 23, 2014

Matthew 13:1-23

Download Audio

Now let me invite you please to take your copies of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 13.  Matthew’s gospel chapter 13.  If you’re using one of the church Bibles you’ll find that on page 818.  Before we read God’s Word together, let’s bow our heads and ask for His help as we pray.  Let us all pray.

O Lord, as the seed of the Gospel, the seed of the Word of the kingdom is read and preached now, is broadcast, would You be pleased that it might fall on the good soil, receptive hearts, that our lives might bear fruit - a hundred fold, sixty, or thirty - to the glory and honor of the name of Jesus, in whose name we now pray.  Amen.

Matthew’s gospel chapter 13, reading from verse 1.  Hear now the Word of Almighty 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 ones 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 the 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 to us in His holy and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Parables of the Kingdom and the Parable of the Sower

Well last Lord’s Day we began to look at the series of seven parables that we find here in Matthew chapter 13 and we began, if you recall, by looking at the very last parable in the series in verses 51 and 52 because it is there that Jesus explains to His disciples His target, His purpose and design in teaching these parables to them.  And explaining it to them He says He wants to train them for life in His kingdom for a life of joyful obedience to Jesus.  This is training for kingdom living.  And with that premise in place, now we’re going to turn today to the very first, probably the most famous parable in the sequence of seven, the parable of the sower. 

In the first nine verses Jesus tells the parable to the crowds and the disciples who’ve gathered by the Sea of Galilee to hear Him.  The details are no doubt familiar to many of us.  They depict certainly a common enough scene for most of Jesus’ first hearers.  The farmer is broadcasting the seed but his fields have various soil types who receive, which receive, the seed differently, variously.  There are, for example, paths that run through and around the unfenced fields and the seed that falls there remains on the surface and is soon eaten by the birds - verse 4.  Then there’s the seed sown on those spots where the limestone bedrock rises too close to the surface leaving an inadequate amount of top soil - verses 5 and 6.  Soon the rainy season ends, the sun rapidly warms the shallow soil, the seed quickly springs us and appears to promise the best harvest of all, but the relentless summer sun requires deep roots in order for plants to survive in those arid conditions.  For the limestone bedrock, the rocky ground, prevents the root system reaching the water and so the hot sun parches the plants and they quickly wither. 

Still other seed, verse 7, falls among the thorns and the weeds on the edges of the cultivated land.  There they sprout and shoot up but they have to compete for resources and it’s not long until the wild and therefore heartier thorn bushes begin to choke the plants and deprive them of sunlight and nourishment.  But then in verse 8 some seed, at least, that is scattered by the farmer does in fact fall on good soil.  True to life there is of course a variety of yields when the harvest comes around.  Some produce a hundred-fold, some sixty, and some thirty.  And as people heard Jesus recount the parable and depict the scene they would all be nodding with the familiarity of it all.  But verse 9 clues us in and clues them in on the challenge of the parable.  “He who has ears let him hear.”  More is going on than meets the eyes in other words.  There’s a depth of meaning here that demands careful reflection and spiritual insight if we are to grasp its meaning and benefit from its message.  And so with an intriguing and ambiguous ending like that one, “He who has ears let him hear,” we ought not to be all that terribly surprised when, in verse 10, after the disciples have Jesus alone they come pressing Him for an explanation.  They want help to understand His methods. 

How Does it Work?: The Christian Life and The Word of God

You know when I was a young boy I loved trying to figure out why things work the way they work or didn’t work the way they were supposed to.  I remember on one occasion sitting at our dining room table with the electric toaster in pieces trying to figure out why it did what it did.  I wasn’t the best mechanic as you might expect, and so after disassembling and reassembling it there were several bits and bobs that were clearly surplus to requirements left over after I put the thing back together.  Needless to say, the toaster never really worked again and that was my first and last foray into electrical engineering.  But I do still like to know why the world is the way that it is and why it works the way that it works.  And actually I rather suspect you do too.  We like to understand how life works, right?  We want to know why things are this way and not that way and how does it all fit together.  Why does it work like this?  That’s not a bad attitude at all to cultivate; it has its uses in the Christian life.

And the disciples are certainly eager for their part to learn why Jesus takes the approach He does in Matthew chapter 13.  “Why teach in parables?”  That’s their question.  And in 11 to 23 we have Jesus’ reply.  “Here’s why the Word of God works the way it does in the lives of those who hear it.”  That’s what Jesus is saying in 11 through 23.  Here’s why the Word of God that He is preaching works the way that it does in the lives of those who hear it.  If we’re going to be trained for life in the kingdom of God we do need to understand, as perhaps the most important and foundational principle of all, the way the Word of God works.  As the parable of the sower itself will make plain, the Word of the kingdom, the good news about Jesus, is literally seminal.  It is the seed.  It is the essential means by which the principle of spiritual life is implanted into the heart by which we become citizens of the kingdom that Jesus brings.  And so I’m sure that you’ll agree with me that nothing is more important for us today than to have a clear view, a proper understanding, of how the Word of God works. 

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question, notice, comes in two main parts.  In verses 11 to 17, first of all, He explains the way God works by His Word; the way God works by His Word.  Then in 18 to 23, as He interprets the parable of the sower, He explains the ways we respond to the Word.  The way God works by the Word and the ways we respond to the Word.

I. The Way God Works by the Word

  Let’s think about 11 to 17 first.  Here’s the ways God works by His Word.  Notice two things.  First, our Lord says that His use of parables and really by extension all of His preaching ministry, is designed to serve the purposes of God in His sovereignty.  It is designed to serve the sovereignty of God.

The Word of God: Sovereignly Saving His Elect

Verse 11, “To you it has been given to know the secrets or the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.  But to them,” that is, to the crowds, those who are not Jesus’ disciples, “it has not been given.”  Understanding the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven is not simply a matter of logic and reason alone.  Reasons involve - we saw that last time as we looked at the importance of the mind in verses 51 and 52.  But reason needs to be enlightened.  Sin has left us, Ephesians 4:17, with futile minds.  We need illumination.  We need God the Holy Spirit supernaturally to intervene if ever we are to grasp to the salvation and growth of our souls the message that is proclaimed. 

The story is told of William Wilberforce, you know the great crusader and campaigner for the abolition of slavery in England, bringing his non-Christian friend, the Prime Minister William Pitt, to hear one of the greatest evangelical preachers in London, a man called Richard Cecil, in the hopes that Cecil’s ministry might in some way make an impact for eternal good in the life of William Pitt.  Well on this occasion, Cecil was at his very best, filled with eloquence as he extolled the Lord Jesus, on fire with zeal for God’s glory, passionate and forceful and articulate and clear.  And Wilberforce was thrilled with the preaching.  He was hanging on every word just soaking in it, drinking it in, and all the while wondering what was happening to his friend William Pitt under so powerful a presentation of the Gospel of grace.  Well as you might expect with some eagerness after the service Wilberforce waits for the verdict from William Pitt, who turns to him and says, “You know Wilberforce, I haven’t the slightest idea what that man was talking about.  I haven’t the slightest idea what that man was talking about.”  Richard Cecil was a mighty preacher and the Gospel he preached was crystal clear and William Pitt, for his part, was a brilliant man, a political genius, but it had not been given to him to know the mysteries of the kingdom.

The Word of God comes to us in the form that it does, and the parables in particular come in the form they do to highlight this great fact - salvation is not a matter merely of intellectual comprehension or of the agreement of your will to some moral proposition.  Grasping the truth to the salvation of your soul is a sovereign work of God in the heart.  And in verses 16 and 17 Jesus explains that that actually ought to thrill us if we are Christians; it ought to thrill us.  “Blessed are you for your eyes see and your ears hear.  There were many others,” Jesus says, “who long to see what you see and didn’t see it and hear what you hear and didn’t hear it.”  Grace, free, sovereign, unconditional, unmerited, extravagant grace is the reason you are a Christian today, believer in Jesus.  God took His Word, declaring to you by the mysteries of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, and in the power of His Spirit caused you by that Word to understand.  To you it has been given to see, to hear, to understand to the deliverance of your soul from the bondage of sin and the condemnation it brings. 

And now what once seemed irrelevant and unimportant, even incomprehensible and strange as you heard the preaching of the Gospel, now becomes to you wisdom from God and food for your soul and a light for your eyes, life to your heart.  To you it has been given to know and to see and to understand.  “Blessed are you,” Jesus says.  It ought to make our hearts thrill even as it lays us in the dust of humility in amazement saying, “While all our hearts and all our songs join to admire the feast.  Each of us cries with thankful tongues, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?  Why was I made to hear Your voice and enter while there’s room, while thousands make the wretched choice and rather starve than come?’”  It’s stunning, stunning that God should set His love on rebels like us and, by His grace, give us to know the mysteries of the kingdom. 

The Word of God: Justly Judging the World

The Word of God comes to serve the sovereign purposes of God in the election of grace, but then secondly Jesus explains in 12 to 15 that the Word of God comes the way it does, the parables are the way they are, to serve the purposes of God in judgment.  Verse 12 - Jesus states a principle that we all ought to recognize to be true in everyday life.  If you’re faithful with the little you have typically more comes along and you have an abundance.  So athletes who train hard win races, students who study hard pass exams, businessmen who invest wisely make a profit, but the careless who take what they have for granted, the unconcerned find that even the little they have erodes, it falls apart, there’s atrophy and entropy and it’s taken from them.  We’ve all seen that, haven’t we?  Perhaps you’ve even experienced that.  And that’s the reason Jesus says in verse 13 that He speaks to the crowds in parables, because they’re not willing to hear and listen and receive the message.  Listen to how He describes them.  He says, “Seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”  The Word of God comes in the form it does so that those who will not receive it will instead stand judged by it. 

The prophecy of judgment there in verses 14 and 15 drawn from Isaiah 6:9-10 makes exactly that point.  Just as in Isaiah’s preaching ministry to his generation so now in Jesus’ preaching ministry to that generation and even in the preaching of the Word to this generation before us here today there is a solemn separation being effected between those who receive the Word and those who reject it.  For those who reject it, the Word they hear that may actually sound to them incomprehensible, irrelevant, impenetrable - they’re wondering, “Why doesn’t he just cut to the chase?  Give me three things to do; four quick principles.  Why couldn’t it be plainer, clearer?”  But it’s very form, do you see, is effecting the purpose of God in judgment, excluding you if you stand in rebellion against the claims of Jesus Christ, leaves us in the darkness we choose for ourselves.  It’s a solemn thing.  And so along with the surprising, for those of us who are believers, even frankly baffling reminder that Jesus’ followers understand savingly the good news about Jesus Christ because of the gift of God’s sovereign grace along with that there comes a solemn warning - beware how you respond to the Word of God.  That’s the point Jesus is about to make shortly in the explanation of the parable of the sower in 18 to 23.  Beware what you do with the good news.  Those who do not embrace it are judged by it.  Those who do not welcome it are excluded by it.  Those who prefer not to have, even the little they have will be taken from them.  The purpose of God in His Word is both a purpose of sovereign, electing grace and a purpose of solemn, holy judgment.  The ways that God works by His Word.

II. The Ways We Respond to the Word

Then secondly look at 18 to 23.  Here are the ways we respond to the Word.  The parable of the sower that originally provoked the disciples’ question back in verse 10 and led to the excursus in verses 11 to 17 turns out itself to be a parable about the Word of God.   There are these four soils, remember, each of them yielding a different result as the seed of the Word is sown on them.  Notice that the seed is the Word of the kingdom and the soil, Jesus says in verse 19, is the human heart.  That is to say, this parable is speaking to the heart.  It is provoking and challenging; it wants to get in under our guard, so get read.  That’s what He’s saying.  And also notice that there are multiple ways that the seed of the Word can fail to penetrate the soil but only one way that it ever produces fruit.  There are many paths that will take you to tell and I’m sure you can find one that is precisely to your taste, but there is only one way - narrow it is and few there are that find it - that leads to eternal life.  “No one comes to the Father but by Me,” says the Lord Jesus.  But there’s only one way, one narrow path, that leads to life, so the stakes are high, aren’t they? God is going to speak to our hearts by His Word and I pray that we hear Him.

Seed Sown on the Path: An Impervious Heart

Let’s take a look at Jesus’ interpretation of the parable of the sower.  The first soil is there in verse 19.  It is the seed sown on the path.  This is the picture of the impervious heart; a heart impervious to the Gospel.  The seed doesn’t penetrate at all.  Instead, the devil, like a bird snatching seed from the sidewalk, snatches away what has been preached.  J. C. Ryle, I think, gets the point exactly right.  He says, “From Satan come wandering thoughts and roving imaginations, listless minds, dull memories, sleepy eyes, fidgety nerves, weary ears, distracted attention.  In all these things Satan has a great hand.”  So the candy has been passed down the line, you’ve got yourself comfortable, now the preacher starts his interminable droning on.  Is that your queue to tune out, to switch off?  Oh beware what is happening in your heart as the seed of the Word is sown.  Satan seeks to snatch the seed away to the destruction of your soul. 

Rocky Soil: A Superficial Heart

The second soil Jesus deals with in 20 and 21.  It’s the seed sown where the bedrock, the limestone bedrock rises closest to the surface; it’s the rocky soil.  Here’s the picture now of the superficial heart.  First the impervious heart; now the superficial heart.  It’s the picture of the almost-Christian - the person who is genuinely intrigued by the good news about Jesus, her imagination is captured by the message, she appears to enthusiastically embrace it even.  He is the one who is quick to make loud declarations of how much he loves the church and loves the preaching and loves the people.  He at first seems to make great strides; he’s a real encouragement to everyone who watches him.  Whenever the doors are open he seems to be there.  This is the person, verse 20, who “immediately receives the word with joy.”  But then the enthusiasm begins to fade.  Conditions become adverse.  Opposition arises, tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word - verse 21.  His social life takes a hit because he’s trying to identify himself with the Lord Jesus and His people.  The implications of putting Jesus first for his pocketbook are beginning to be a little too radical.  The cost of living openly for Christ in the workplace is just a little too much to bear.  And so like a plant under the hot sun in shallow soil, because this person has no root, no depth, nothing that drinks in the Word of God to the sustenance of his soil, he withers and he falls away.  It’s a description of a superficial professing faith in Jesus.  It doesn’t last; it’s not real.  It is temporary.

Now how do you know, how do I know I’m not that person?  I hope that’s a question you’re actually asking.  How do I know that’s not me?  How do I know I’m not a fair-weather, almost believer, a shallow soil convert?  Well ask yourself this - “Do I drink in His Word?  Do I love to be at the Lord’s Table?  Is the prayer meeting the place where I would rather be, hearing the people of God beseech the throne of grace for the cause of the kingdom?”  Ask yourself, “Do I find that trials, instead of shattering my faith actually deepen it?  That opposition, far from causing me to abandon Jesus, make me run to Him and cling to Him the more tenaciously?  That sorrows do not rob me of trust but they make me rest my confidence in a sovereign God whose perfect plan alone enables me to press on through the tears with confidence that all the trials of my life are not aimless but purposeful and shall work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose?”  That is not a description of an almost-Christian.  That’s a description of someone with deep roots who, when the blistering sun begins to shine down on them and opposition and hardship come, they persevere.

Thorny Soil: A Stifled Heart

The third soil we find in verse 22.  Here’s the seed sown among thorns.  This person also hears the Word preached and the seed begins to germinate but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches, Jesus says, choke the Word and stop it having any real chance of life or fruitfulness.  If the first soil is the impervious heart and the second is a superficial heart then the third then is therefore a stifled heart, a heart choked by the demands of the weeds of worldliness competing with the claims of Jesus Christ for supremacy.  For this heart it is not opposition or tribulation, it’s not suffering or criticism that’s the real problem; for this heart it is the relentless, parasitic, choking weeds of worldly pleasure and greed and materialism that overwhelms the call of the Gospel.  Jesus calls them the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.  Spiritual aspirations can be terribly intangible and vague and ill-defined, can’t they, compared to the concrete, pressing need right now to maintain my lifestyle.  And so the credit cards are all maxed out and we are never home because we’re working all hours, not because our jobs require it but because our lifestyles necessitate it.  Our pursuits of recreations and our ambitions for our children can drive us to put such a premium on education or sport or social events that faithful Lord’s Day attendance in our own congregation, week in and week out, can end up far down our list of priorities so that pretty soon, quite unintentionally perhaps, we’ve gone, we are gone from the means of grace more often than we’re present.  And slowly but surely, do you see, the cares of the world have crowded out, they’ve choked out all other concerns.  Money has deceived us; we want more but we never have enough and so we run ourselves ragged but we never get out of the hole and our professed Christianity, if it remains at all, is reduced to a show.  The stifled heart.

The Good Soil: A Receptive, Changed Heart

But it doesn’t have to be like that.  It does not have to be like that.  There’s another way to respond to the Word of the Gospel.  Verse 23 - 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 hundred fold, then another sixty, and in another thirty.”  Here’s a receptive heart.  You see how Jesus characterizes it?  It understands the Word.  That’s the exhortation for us here - understand, grasp the message of the Gospel.  In all its revolutionary, life-changing power, see the grace of God for you in Jesus.  Embrace the liberating power of free forgiveness through faith in Him.  Do not harden your heart.  Don’t choose the fading pleasures of the worldling when solid joys and lasting treasures are offered to you in Christ.  Don’t respond prematurely, superficially, unthinkingly, so that your enthusiasm is easily squashed by the first threat of opposition or the first wave of suffering.  Run to Jesus.  Receive with gladness the implanted seed of the Word.  Repent.  Weep for sin.  Believe.  Trust no longer in the bankrupt riches of the world.  Empty trinkets they are.  Or your own resources that will always, always run dry.  Trust instead in the inexhaustible riches of the grace of God in Jesus and the limitless supply of His grace.  Those who do, Jesus says, bear fruit.  They are changed.  Changed.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control begin to characterize your heart.  You begin to look like the Savior you trust.

The ways God works by the Word - sovereignly saving His elect, justly judging the world.  And then the ways we respond to the Word - with an impervious heart, with a superficial heart, with a stifled heart, or perhaps with sincerity and humility and repentance and faith looking only to Jesus to rescue us and keep us and make us fruitful.  Well as the seed of the Gospel has been broadcast here this morning, what kind of soil has it found in your heart?  Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we praise You for Your Word.  O, grant that by Your Spirit’s work it may put down deep roots and bear rich fruit in the lives of all who heard it, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.