Understanding the parable of the sower


Matthew 13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 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, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.” 10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 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. 12 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. 13 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. 14 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. 15 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.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 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. 18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 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. 22 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. 23 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.”

I can remember early in my Christian life, hearing about the parable of the sower and about the “wayside Christian” and being perplexed and even scared at times. I didn’t want to be that one who heard the gospel and continued for a while only to eventually fall by the wayside. After all, it was one thing to backslide, but all together worse to fall away completely.

I suppose the truly perplexing part of this parable and the teaching I had heard was the seeming contradictions. On one hand I had been taught “once saved, always saved”, and on the other “don’t fall by the wayside”. Unfortunately, there was never really much explanation on this parable. It was one of those passages that was lightly touched, but seldom expounded upon due to the anti-evangelical themes introduced. Consider for a moment the exchange between Jesus and his disciples. “Lord, why have you changed your preaching style? You’re teaching the multitudes in parables. Why?” And the Lord answers them, “I preached to them in parables because their hearts are hard and they won’t understand me. They’ll hear me, but won’t understand. They’ll think they see what I am trying to illuminate, but they won’t really perceive the truth of what I am saying. If they did, they might be saved.”

One of the primary reasons this passage has been so confusing is we’re taught that Jesus spoke with simplicity so that even a child could understand. Yet in this passage, even the disciples are perplexed. I will do my best to clear up some confusion and false teachings shortly. I hope this will be a help to some individuals, whether pastor, teacher or church member who is seeing contradictions amongst the assembly and not sure why he might be standing out.

The change in style

Talk to just about any Christian about Jesus’ teaching style and you will probably be told it was parabolic in nature. “Jesus spoke in parables so that he could be more easily understood.” But if you read this passage and then engage your brain, you should walk away with the understanding that such statements are in fact rubbish. The bible warns of false teachers. But to what degree of error do we finally take note and decide something’s wrong and that we had better search things out? The saints in Berea were more noble, we’re told, than those in Thessalonica because they searched the scriptures daily. Daily! They searched the word of God on a daily basis to see whether the things taught to them were indeed truthful.

It was here in chapter 13 of Matthew that Jesus began to teach the multitude in parables. This wasn’t at the beginning of his ministry. Rather, it was approaching the end of it. He had spent much of his time elaborating on the Law and the Prophets. He performed miracles. And here he is teaching the multitudes in the form of a parable– something he hadn’t done before. And his disciples questioned him on it. “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?'” They were perplexed. And rightly so.

Probably more perplexing to them was the answer. Again, we’ve heard that Jesus used this convention on a regular basis. This is false, as we can see here. But we’ve also been told that he did it to convey mysteries in a simplistic fashion. We’ll see next that that is also false.

The obscurity of the parable

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 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. 13 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.

Jesus spoke to the multitudes in a parable, not that they might understand it better, but because they would NOT understand it. And consider the subject matter. He’s talking about the Gospel. He isn’t talking about Revelation or Ezekiel. He’s not talking about the secret to living the sinless life. He’s talking about giving the Gospel. And they couldn’t understand what he was saying. Why?

Have you ever seen a person go forward on an alter call, ask Jesus into his heart and some time later he disappears, never to be seen or heard from again? Sometimes these individuals are offended and never return to church. I’ve seen some go and join the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons. I’ve come across some who have become Buddhists or Muslims. Such drastic departures. Have you ever wondered how that could happen?

Jesus explains these things in this passage. But before he does so, he clarifies that it had already been prophesied long ago that their hearts would be incapable of understanding these spiritual truths because they lacked any illumination. They heard the words, but not the message. And this is a very important concept for the pastor, teacher or evangelist to understand. It is not about the presentation or dumbing down the gospel that’s vital. Jesus saw many more converts under his ministry than any of us have. He didn’t have to dumb things down. He preached and taught with much authority, and rightly so. Moreover, he had a very intimate relationship with his father and with the Holy Spirit that he could illuminate the truth for anyone. Yet here he declares that these people were not listening.

I have a lot going on in my life. And while I like to think that I’m a good listener, there are occasions when my wife will remind me of a conversation we’ve had and I’ll be dumbfounded. I have no idea what she’s talking about and can’t even recall having the conversation. Of course this could also be a ploy on her part. Perhaps she’s making things up. For the sake of preserving peace in the home, I’ll give her benefit of the doubt. The bottom line is sometimes I am simply preoccupied and while I might hear her and acknowledge what’s she’s saying to me, I really am not listening to her. Well, a similar thing was happening to these people. For whatever reason, they were hearing the words, but not receiving the underlying message.

I can remember my Nicodemus experience. I basically wanted to learn a little more about this Christianity stuff so I could get to know this girl a little better, while in college. So I went to talk with Jeff Beal who lived on my dorm floor. Christian Jeff is what we all called him. Well, he began telling me that except a man be born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. “That’s great Jeff. Tell ya what. I’ll get myself a bible and begin reading it. And then I’ll start applying what I learn.” That’s what I told him. And certainly he was enthusiastic of my response, right? Nope. He told me that same verse again, which really got me frustrated. I had a different understanding of biblical truth than he had, which resulted in me hearing things according to my own presuppositions. I still operated under the notion that being born again or getting saved was something that I did vs something that God did to me.

So, here we are given a glimpse at the human condition, which includes an inability to hear God’s message. This is one of those topics that whether intentional or not is often debated. We like to believe that if we labor enough, we can affect a change in a person’s ability to hear and to understand. To a certain extent there’s some truth in that expectation. But the truth part relates to us being free and open to give the gospel and to elaborate. Basically, there has to be a willingness on our part to teach. But the expectation that the hearer will all of a sudden hear or understand, if we work enough, is a bad one. And if we’re not careful, we can manipulate people into giving false responses.

In the mid-1800s, a new method of evangelism emerged, known as the New Measures. Charles Finney believed that the Holy Spirit was not an essential ingredient in converting souls. Rather, psychological means were not only more than sufficient, they were more appropriate. Sadly, this method of evangelism, which is the basis for today’s revivalism, is largely status quo in most of today’s evangelistic churches.

“If you died today, would you go to heaven, to hell, or don’t you know? If I could show you from the bible how you can know for sure that you’d go to heaven, would you do what the bible says?” This is the basic start for most of the “evangelistic” exchanges I had when I first moved from Westside Baptist Church in Jacksonville FL to North Valley Baptist Church in Santa Clara CA in 1992. Back in Jacksonville, the emphasis was on feeding the flock and on being a personal evangelist. The ministry I had come from was a teaching one where the preaching was expository. My move to the Santa Clara church marked my formal introduction into formalized training on New Measures. Each church service was focused on evangelism within the congregation. This made it very difficult to actually feed the flock. It was not their main purpose.

I still recall one particular New Years Eve service where we were given a book from Finney. I can’t recall the title of that book. But at the time, it was a pretty big deal. If you think about the gesture, it was pretty generous. But if you think about the damage that Finney has helped usher in, you can see the start of the mess.

The bottom line is the Holy Spirit is absolutely a necessity when it comes to distinguishing who hears and who doesn’t. We’re reminded of this in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” Now, there are those who will argue that the fact that the hearer and the evangelist are having a meeting is proof enough that the Father has drawn the individual. But it’s poor logic. Consider what Paul wrote in 1Cor 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” What does this mean? Just as Jesus explains to his disciples, Paul is telling us that the unconverted man, or unsaved man, cannot possibly understand any spiritual truth that is presented to him. It requires an intervention by the Holy Spirit.

The conduct of the sower

“A sower went out to sow.” That was what he did. And as he did, some seed fell on different soils. The sower didn’t distinguish ahead of the time the type of soil he was sowing the seed in. Had he done that, he might of been able to make better use of his time. But that would be a humanistic and rational approach to sowing. In today’s church, this might consist of going to the poverty ridden areas around our major cities. It would probably include staying away from more well to do areas as needy people are more apt to need Christ and to receive a message concerning him. But the sower in this parable was faithful to do one thing and one thing only, he sowed.

It is not our job or place to question the soil type as a condition for sowing. If you study this out, you’ll find that it is God who determines the condition of the soil. We are incapable of properly discerning soil types when it relates to the hearts and minds of men. Trying to intervene is to do the work of God and to predetermine that God is incapable of doing his own work.

It is also important to understand that with the exception of the fact that the sower sows, the sower is virtually irrelevant. He sows. He sows indiscriminantly. He sows the seed. And there really is only one type of seed. There is no credit given to him for the type of seed he chooses to sow. We’re not told how he reads the soils to determine how to produce the best crop. He has no part in that. He just sows the seed. And that seed is the word of God.

Apart from his obedience, the sower is virtually unimportant. In 1Cor 4, we read how the Corinthians were contentious about from whom they were discipled. Some argued the merits of being from Paul. Others felt Apollos was a greater teacher. Paul, could have easily defended himself to them. Instead, he pointed out that both were merely ministers whom God chose to send unto them.

The significance of the seed

When we consider the seed that is being sown, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that it is the gospel. This parable deals with evangelism and so the seed must be the gospel. However, what is the gospel? This is a serious topic for discussion. Many will be content teaching that the gospel is merely the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But if the mandate for salvation is to believe on the Lord Jesus, then one must seriously consider who Jesus is. Now, we can certainly discuss how there are those who believe Jesus was a great teacher, or a miracle man, or just a man that history has distorted the truth. But it’s really the variations amongst those who put their faith in Christ that should concern us. If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t matter what else follows unless it is couched in what the bible says about him. Opinions don’t matter. Speculations don’t matter. And our imaginations don’t matter. We either serve and follow and believe in the Jesus of the bible, or we believe and follow a lie– a manufactured Jesus. So, the purpose of the sower is to sow the truth about Christ.

These days it seems popular to emphasise that one reads MacArthur or Piper. Certainly with the increasing popularity in reformed theology, there are many more people embracing the writings of the likes of Spurgeon. Basically, we want to establish ourselves by who we read. But are we not following in the same vain as the Corinthians? Why can’t we be content being known as the Bereans for how we personally study the word of God on a daily basis? That’s what they did. They weren’t known for how they searched popular biblical authors or how they searched the commentaries. Now, to an extent, there is nothing wrong with that. But if it’s foremost in our personal studies, then we’ve gone astray in a serious way.

Do we espouse our beliefs of Christ based on what we’ve heard, been told or read? This is of vital importance. We’re told that non-Christians are incapable of discerning the word of God. But non-Christians are great at repeating things. They can even memorize scriptures. Consider Israel in Moses’ day. They had a language that consisted of just 22 consonants, and no vowels. You try telling whether BR is representative of BAR, BEAR, BORE, or BOAR without any vowels. It sort of requires context. Without memorization, the Israelites could not even recite scriptures. Despite all of their memorizations and recitations, most perished apart from God. They were constantly giving themselves over to pagan ways and to idolotry. When believers read the scriptures, their interpretations are based on their presuppositions of who Christ is. This mechanism uses what is known as faith. Faith is imparted by God unto the Christian when they are regenerated. It is the gift of God, according to Ephesians chapter 2.

Telling a prospective convert a few truths about Christ and then asking him to believe them or to pray a prayer does not result in regeneration. Regeneration must come from God. However, the interpretation of the seed that is planted and the belief that follows is a manifestation of whether or not a person may have been regenerated. It’s a first sign, for lack of a better description. Ultimately, this belief, the ability to understand scriptures, and the desire to obey them, work together to show the true nature of an individual.

So, the seed that is planted and watered is vital. It must be real seed. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”, we’re told in Romans 10:17. This great truth cannot be glossed over or missed. Nor can it be trivialized.

The seed as a delivery vehicle

We are told in the Old Testament that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness. We similarly find that Noah believed God when he built the arc. Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus when he too becomes a believer. What do all of these events have in common? Faith came by virtue of the word of God that was given to these individuals. And in each case, it was not the same word. It wasn’t a formula, a poem, or something to be chanted. It was merely the word of God.

What we glean from this is that we need to be diligent in the whole bible. We need to be consistent to teach all of it to our flocks. And our flocks need to also be diligent like the Bereans.

We cannot know the end results that the word of God might produce when shared with any individual. But we can know and trust that each time we share it, it is in fact the delivery vehicle for faith. Without the word of God, faith cannot possibly be imparted to an individual. The bible does not state that faith can come by our good intentions or hard work. It solely comes through the word of God.

The type of soil is a gift from God

I can remember when I was first learning hermeneutics. We had a clever summary for it–  three points and a poem. We were supposed to capture the hearts and imaginations of the audience, and surely gimmicks were a good way to go about this.

Sadly, it wasn’t until years later that I discovered, and not from a class or from seminary, that no amount of preparation on the preacher’s part could adequately prepare the intended soil to receive the seed. Hence, there was no way to predetermine the type of soil upon which to make a seed deposit. That function was the sole work of the Holy Spirit.

And contrary to our normal instincts where we might look for suitable soil to cultivate and to plant our precious seed, we are instead informed that the seed brings with itself the ability to cultivate itself. I do realize this might be a little difficult to immediately grasp, so I will explain.

The word (seed) is the vehicle for delivering faith. But it requires faith to understand and comprehend the word that was just delivered. Without such faith, we are told that it is impossible to understand. And if we cannot understand, how can we believe? We cannot.

So, what we are left with is that the seed also cultivates its own soil, which it lands upon. If only we could simply stop here it would be quite simple. But we know from experience and from the scriptures that there are in fact different types of soils. Hence, many people will in fact reject the gospel. The part that might rub some or many people the wrong way is when we assert that the difference in how the soil is cultivated is in fact the gift of God.

Is the soil thorny? It is lacking nutritional value? Or is it good soil that it welcomes the seed and can nurture it? In this latter case, the soil is the gift of God that Paul describes. And  it’s solely by the grace of God that some soils are capable of taking the seed of faith and then growing.

The manifestation of the type of soil



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