The Parable of the Sower: The Seeds Sown on Rocky Ground

Sermon by David Strain on May 9

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Do please keep your Bibles in hand and turn this time to the New Testament scriptures and to the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 13; Matthew 13. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find that on page 818.

On Sunday mornings we have been working our way through the teaching of the parable of the sower, and last time we considered the seed that fell along the path. That is, we considered what happens when the seed of the Word of God falls upon an unreceptive heart, an unreceptive heart. Today, we turn to the next soil type – there are four types of soil in Jesus’ parable – the next type in Jesus’ extended metaphor is the rocky ground. So we’re thinking about rocky ground hearers. That is, we’re asking, “What happens when the seed of the Word of God falls on a superficial heart – a heart that makes only a superficial response to the message?”

And as we consider this part of the parable, there are two principles being taught to which we need to attend. First, Jesus is warning us that how we begin is no guarantee of how we will go on. How we begin the Christian life is no guarantee of how we will go on. And secondly, Jesus is teaching us that the secret of endurance is depth. The secret of endurance is depth. How we begin is no guarantee of how we will go on, and the secret of endurance is depth. Those are the two big ideas in this part of the parable. They could not be more important for us to grasp in these days. Before we look at them together, however, we need to read the passage, and before we do that we need to look to the Lord to give us the illumination of the Holy Spirit. So let’s pause again and pray and ask for God to help us. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, Sower of the seed, give to us now the Holy Spirit that the seed of Your Word may be planted into deep, rich, fertile soil and produce a harvest in every heart here today that hears it. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

We are reading 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 verse 18:

“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 to us in His holy Word.

How We Begin is No Guarantee of How We Will Go On

I read a story on Friday about a Belgian farmer. Did you see this? It was all over the media. The Belgian farmer came across a large stone in one of his fields and so he dug it up and moved it about seven feet away. The stone, you see, was not in a convenient place for his plowing and his sowing and his reaping, and so it had to go. What the poor man didn’t realize was that by moving the stone those seven feet he was sparking an international incident. The stone had the date 1819 etched on one side and had been placed in that location in that field since the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in order to mark the then newly drawn boundary and border between France and Belgium. And there it had remained, forgotten, overlooked, for some 200 years, and now along came this hapless farmer who, by digging up the stone and shifting it out of his field, made Belgium all of a sudden seven feet bigger and France seven feet smaller. There he was, preparing his fields for planting – I don’t know, was it cabbages or potatoes or something – and inadvertently redrew the map of Europe! When he was interviewed about the story, the mayor of the nearby town in Belgium said, “I was happy my town was bigger!” though the mayor of the neighboring French town just across the border didn’t quite see it that way. “However,” he said, “we should be able to avoid a renewed border war!” In fact, so serious is the issue that if the farmer does not comply and put the inconvenient stone back in his field it might require the recalling of the Franco-Belgian Border Commission that has been defunct since 1930 to resolve the matter – all because the farmer wanted to move a rock from his field. Honestly, I’ll bet the poor guy wished he’d never gotten out of bed that morning.

Here’s the point – rocky ground is a problem if you want to have a good harvest. But as I hope we’ll learn from Jesus’ parable, we need to do whatever it takes, no matter the consequences, to ensure that the fields, the soil of our hearts, are not rocky ground. So that when the seed of the Word is sown in them, into our consciences, into our hearts, it can take root and grow and bear a harvest.

Jesus sets the scene for us in verse 5. When the seed was sown, some indeed did fall on rocky ground, “where they did not have much soil.” “It is typical of Palestine,” writes one commentator, “that a considerable portion of its tillable soil is found on top of layers of rock. In such a situation, the seeds in the process of sprouting have only one way to go – namely, up.” So the shallow soil warms rapidly in the hot sun and so the seeds quickly sprout under those conditions. But since the soil is so shallow and the sun is so hot, it’s not long before what moisture there was in the ground dries out completely and the layer of rock below the surface prevents the roots from getting any deeper in search of necessary nourishment. And so the fast-sprouting seed quickly withers and dies. So that’s the picture. Do you see it? You’ve got it in your minds? There’s the picture.

And the main lesson Jesus is teaching us by it, of course, has to do with the absolute necessity of perseverance. The absolute necessity of perseverance. If we want to be saved, we must endure. We must endure. That point comes out first of all in the form of a warning. The parable warns us that how we begin is no guarantee of how we will go on. If you’ll look with me at Jesus’ exposition of the parable in verse 20, you’ll notice how things begin in the hearts of some who hear the Word. Look at verse 20. “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the Word and immediately receives it with joy.” Now remember, the roadside hearers, the ones where the seed is sown along the path in verse 18 and 19, they heard the Word too. Didn’t they? But their hearts were so hard that they make no observable response to the Word of Christ at all. It just sits on the surface and it never penetrates, it never sinks in. That is not at all the condition of this class of hearers. No, these are people who hear the Word and they welcome it.

In fact, each word that Jesus uses in verse 20 tells their story. Look at them with me. Notice how they are described in verse 20. First of all, they welcome the Word “immediately.” Immediately they receive the Word. They don’t need to be talked into anything. They are suddenly swept up and enthralled by the message that they hear. It strikes their hearts and without any hesitation they respond with affirmation. “Yes, this is what I want! This is what I need!” That’s what they say. Immediately.

Secondly, Jesus says they “receive the Word.” It doesn’t sit on the hard-packed surface of their impenetrable hearts like the seed sown on the path. They embrace what they hear. They seem to see that this is in fact the Word of Christ to them. They don’t dismiss the Word or argue with the Word or distort its message to accommodate their tastes. “Immediately they receive the Word.”

And what’s more, they even do so, in the third place – look at this language – “with joy.” There’s joy as they receive the Word. The Word of the Gospel awakens in them enthusiasm and pleasure. They’re happy to hear it. They find pleasure in the message as it is proclaimed. They’re not complainers. They’re not grumblers. They’re not even questioners or skeptics. They hear the Word and they are very pleased with it. It feels good to them to be among Christians hearing the voice of God in the exposition of the Scriptures. And so they respond to the message. They want to know more. They find themselves attracted to Christians, to the life that they lead, and they even begin to make some changes to their lives. They stop swearing and cursing. Drunkenness does not appeal as once it did. They try to mean what they say and say what they mean in their business dealings. They open their Bibles once in a while. They try to pray. They join a small group. They get involved in ministry. They go on a mission trip and they give to support other missionaries. The seed sprouts and it grows and it springs up rapidly. To every outward appearance, they are bright converts who show every observable evidence of really having come to know Jesus through the ministry of the Gospel. They learn the jargon. They become fluent in Christianese very quickly. They adapt to the moral expectations of the church. They find genuine pleasure in being with other professing believers. They may even well be received on perfectly acceptable and appropriate grounds into communing membership in the congregation. After all, they seem to understand the Gospel message. They can repeat its basic contours clearly. Their lives are moral and upright. They show great affection for the worship of God.

And yet, verse 21, and yet, all is not well. All is not well. Look how Jesus completes His description. Even though He immediately receives the Word with joy, “yet he has no root in Himself but endures for a little while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, immediately he falls away.” This is amongst the most painful things a pastor or an elder ever endures as he seeks to shepherd the flock. His people, he sees the seed sown in their hearts and there is every outward sign of a hopeful harvest of real spiritual life, so far as he can see without being able to know his congregants’ heart. This person has really been converted! And then after a few months, their attendance at church starts to be sporadic. The pastor notices a cooling of enthusiasm. They drop out of the small group they were at first so eager to join. To be sure, church members call them and text them and offer to meet for coffee. He rarely replies now. When he does, he makes an excuse. He assures them, “Oh yes, I’ll be back, once things calm down a little. I’m so busy right now.” But he never does come back. He endures for a while, but it’s not long before he is back living like the worldling he once was, without much thought for the things of God or much concern for his never-dying soul.

Now we’ll come back in a moment to think about why – why has this happened? – but for now I just want to stop here and note the simple facts of the case. The seed sprouted and showed great promise. In fact, I suppose if the farmer had looked out over the field where he had broadcast his seed there might be very little to see in large sections of the field for quite a long time. And yet over here, where the soil is shallow, so far as the farmer can tell things look best of all. Of course he can’t see the rocks under the surface. He doesn’t know how shallow the soil really is. All he can see is that in this one spot in his field there is rapid growth. The seed has sprung up there fastest of all. It shows great promise, and yet to his terrible disappointment, soon the hopeful stocks of grain wither and die.

And you will have spotted that word, “immediately,” again in Jesus’ description, I’m sure. Do you see it in the text? “Immediately he received the Word with joy,’ and now, “Immediately he fell away.” You get the point? As quickly as this person made a profession of faith in Jesus and threw themselves into the life of the church, just as quickly they’ve now turned their back on it all and are plunged once again into all the emptiness and sorted sin of the world. It’s a very sobering picture, isn’t it? Very sobering. You can receive the Word with joy, you can show all the outward marks of an apparently sincere profession of faith in Christ, and still be lost. How we begin, you see, is very important, it matters, but it’s no guarantee of how we will go on. That’s the warning. Don’t look back at your past experiences, at all the emotion of it, how your heart was pounding in your chest when you responded to the Gospel, how with tears you prayed the sinner’s prayer. Don’t look back to some mountain top moment at camp or at a conference or when some visiting preacher came and really connected with you and tell yourself, “Well that’s how I know I’m saved.” Experiences like that may well accompany true conversion in your case, but they can also accompany false professions of faith too. An almost-Christian can look as sincere as a real Christian does for a time. An almost-Christian, as much as a true Christian, can feel deeply, can weep strongly, can pray fervently, can rejoice greatly in the wake of a particularly moving sermon. Your past experiences are no measure of your present convertedness or your future security.

Don’t look back and say, “Well, I’ve not opened the Bible in years to be honest. I’ve not prayed in months. I’m living with my boyfriend. I’m living for the pursuit of money or pleasure or career or reputation. But, when I was sixteen, I stayed behind at youth group to talk to my youth pastor and that’s when I gave my life to Jesus. So I’m all good now. Right?” No, no, no. If that’s your story, how do you know you are not a stony ground hearer? It is not past experiences that can give you confidence in Christ’s saving mercy. It is present trust in Him, present repentance, and a continual turning from life on your terms to life on His. It is a running to Him today – not from Him but to Him – that will ground your assurance for time and eternity. Please don’t be deceived. How we begin, however precious the memory of it may be, is no guarantee of how we will go on. Your security must rest in present repentance and faith; trusting Jesus today, right now. Do you trust Jesus today, right now? That’s the issue. If you don’t have that, you ought not to comfort yourself that you have any sure hope for tomorrow. How we begin is no guarantee of how we will go on.

The Secret of Endurance is Depth

Well what has happened to this stony ground hearer who did fall away? How do you account for that tragic and all too common reality? Much more to the point, what can be done about it? Well if the first lesson of this parable is to show us that how we begin is no guarantee of how we will go on, the second lesson is that the secret of endurance, of going on, is depth. The secret of endurance, of perseverance, is depth.

You’ll have noticed that the parable speaks about the hot sun beating down on the shallow soil. Verse 21 explains that that is a metaphor for tribulation or persecution on account of the Word. The word, “tribulation,” there is the Greek word, “thlipsis,” which you may know literally means, “to press” or “to squeeze” like grapes in a winepress. Here, it means the suffering caused by pressure from the world and the flesh and the devil that just builds and builds and builds in an attempt to squash all spiritual life out of you. Tribulation. Have you experienced that in your Christian life? The other word Jesus uses, “persecution,” overlaps with “tribulation” in its meaning. Here, likely it intends more direct hostility from people who want to make your life difficult because you build your life around the Gospel. Tribulation and persecution.

And notice carefully that Jesus doesn’t say, “If tribulation and persecution comes immediately he falls away.” What does He say? He says, “When tribulation and persecution come.” If you profess to follow Jesus, please understand it is not a matter of whether you will suffer hardship for the sake of the Gospel. It is only a matter of when you will suffer hardship for the sake of the Gospel. The world, the flesh, and the devil will bring every pressure they can to bear upon you to crush your faith in Christ. People around you who do not, will not, follow Jesus will see you as weird, as old fashioned, as out of step with the spirit of the age. Your classmates in school will mock you and leave you out. Your colleagues will gossip about you and marginalize you at work. Your family will try to tolerate your unpopular opinions but they’ll get frustrated with you pretty quickly if you choose the way of Christ over the way of the world. People will find your ethics offensive and regard your theology as fantasy. To be sure, they may at first indulge you, telling themselves, “Well, you know I’m glad she’s found something that works for her. It’s just not my thing. But hey, live and let live. Right?”

But that attitude won’t last long if you’re really serious about the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ – that there is no other name under heaven given amongst men by which we must be saved. You’ll be overlooked and excluded. They’ll laugh at you behind your back. They’ll prefer those who reinforce their sin or who will leave their slumbering consciences undisturbed. The cancel culture will call you out on social media or report you to human resources for attending a church that teaches that homosexuality is sin. If you follow Jesus, tribulation and persecution on account of the Word are coming soon.

But we must understand in the parable Jesus isn’t saying that these hard, costly realities are the cause of this person’s falling away. He doesn’t fall away because of tribulation or persecution. In fact, in the parable it’s the warm sun that causes the seed to grow. It’s a basic law of nature, isn’t it? Sprouting seed always needs sunlight to grow. The hot sun of tribulation and persecution, under God, are actually designed to be part of the way He works to grow Christians, to make their faith strong. So persecution and tribulation aren’t the problem in themselves. What is the problem in the parable? Why doesn’t this man persevere? Why doesn’t he endure? Verse 21, “Yet having no root in himself, when tribulation or persecution comes, immediately he falls away.” It’s not that tribulation and persecution come, it is that when they come he has no root in himself. That’s what explains why his initial warm embrace of the Gospel just didn’t last. The soil isn’t deep enough. The thick sedimentary rock hidden just below the surface will not allow the roots to penetrate. Persecution and tribulation make the seed send down roots in search of water to nourish and to sustain them. But if there’s no room for the roots, the growth will not last.

That’s the picture. The Word of Christ must go deep if we are to grow strong. The Word of Christ must go deep if we are to grow strong. It must sink its roots down into the deepest parts of our hearts and our lives if we are going to endure. It won’t be a sudden explosion of initial enthusiasm that will carry you through all the trials of life, you know. It must be a steady, deep, drinking in of living water through the deep roots. The Word has sunk down deep into your heart. That’s what will sustain you. A superficial response to the Word is a very, very dangerous thing. Never be content with what you’ve got of the truth. There is always more. Don’t be satisfied with a few sips from the well when there are streams of living water in Jesus to drink and drink and drink. Don’t paddle at the edges of the Gospel of free sovereign grace. Dive into the vast, bottomless ocean of divine, electing, redeeming love. Don’t be content to say with a shrug, “God, the Trinity, it’s a mystery.” Turn the diamond of the divine perfections and the union of the three persons in the indivisible simplicity of the One being till your mind is exhausted and your knees buckle and your heart erupts in wonder, love and praise. Sink your roots down deep. Go as deep as you possibly can. Don’t stay on the surface of things. Get as much of Jesus as you may. You will never exhaust Him. He will always sustain you.

And before we close, since it’s Mother’s Day, let me speak to you directly if you are a prodigal son or daughter and you’re here visiting your family this weekend. What is the best gift you can give your Christian mom today? It’s to come back to Jesus Christ. It’s to stop banking on years old professions of faith from when you were a kid as if they were some kind of insurance policy. Years old, largely dormant profession of faith is a very flimsy thread for a mother’s heart to cling to while you live a life of careless spiritual indifference. No, the best gift you can give her today is to sink down the roots of faith into the rich nourishing soil of the Gospel. Show her you are not a superficial hearer who responds at first with enthusiasm but it doesn’t last. Come back to Jesus for real, for good.

And moms, the best thing you can do on Mother’s Day for your whole Christian household is to resolve today not to stop or ever to rest content with a little bit of Jesus in your life, but instead to go deep and get as much of Him as you can. Sink down your roots into Christ. There are storms coming. There’s a hot baking sun coming. Hard things. Sore things. Sad things, perhaps. But you will weather them all and you will model and teach your family how to weather them too if your roots are sunk down deeply into Christ.

Well do you see something of the urgency of Jesus’ message? How we begin is no guarantee of how we go on. Stop counting on yesterday’s experiences. Start looking to Christ today, for yourself. And the secret of endurance and perseverance, the thing that turns persecution and tribulation into spurs for growth rather than triggers for apostasy, the secret of endurance is depth. Go deep. Sink down your roots into Christ. Drink Him in. He will hold you fast to the end.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we praise You that Jesus saves. We pray that the fullness of that salvation, not just the initial excitement hearing about it can generate but the fullness of the reality might belong to every person here. That You would grant to them the grace of perseverance to sink down the roots of faith deeply into the Word of Christ so that tribulation and persecution only cause them to grow stronger rather than cause them to wilt. We pray for the mothers of our congregation, that they would model precisely this sort of deep-rooted perseverance for their families. And we pray for prodigal sons and daughters. O Lord, may today be the day that they come home, not just physically but spiritually, they come back to You. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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