Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 13, as we continue our study in this great gospel. We already said that in Matthew 11, the majesty of Christ was set forth in each of the events recorded there. In Matthew 12, His character is over and over again contrasted with the character of His opponents, the Pharisees and the scribes. And in Matthew chapter 13, Matthew gives us a glimpse of the method of His teaching. Jesus teaches in parables.
Matthew 13 is somewhat of a turning point for the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew has recorded a few parables up to this point. Remember, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, verses 24 to the end of the chapter, and a parable, the parable of the man who built his house on the sand and the man who built his house on the rock, and then there is a parable recorded for us in Matthew chapter 12 as well.
But in Matthew chapter 13 we have seven parables recorded and from this point on to the end of the book, there will be numerous parables of the Lord Jesus recorded, indicating to us that at this stage, Jesus' teaching, to the multitudes at least, takes a decided turn and He begins to use, more than ever before, parables as a means of conveying His message.
Now, there is a reason why He does that and we're not going to study that reason this week. We're going to wait until Matthew 13, verses 10 through 17, where that reason why He's teaching in parables is discussed in explicit detail; but we can say at least this about it: Jesus talked to the multitudes, to the crowds in parables in order to simultaneously reveal and conceal His message.
Now that's a strange thing for a communicator to do. Most communicators want to reveal or convey their message but the Lord Jesus, by parables, intended both to reveal and to conceal His message. Listen to what William Hendriksen said: “Jesus now, more than ever before, begins to speak in parables in order to further reveal the truth to those who accepted the mysterious, but to conceal it from those who rejected the obvious.” And that is precisely what He does in this passage. Matthew chapter 13 contains 7 parables, all of which center around the theme of the kingdom of God, or, as Matthew calls it usually, the kingdom of heaven. That is the kingdom which the Messiah of Israel would establish.
Now you remember that the Israelites had a definite conception of what that kingdom would be like and what the king – what the Messiah – would be like. The Israelites knew that when the Messiah came there would be a great conversion, not only of the people of Israel who were apathetic towards God, but even of the Gentiles. And so the Israelites expected that when Messiah came, He would set up a kingdom in which all of Israel would be converted into true faith in God, that all the Gentiles would stream into Jerusalem and worship Him, that Messiah would kick the Romans out of the land and establish a land ruled by the Torah, the law of God. He would reign in justice and righteousness and there would be a great and a glorious kingdom just like in the days of David and Solomon.
The Lord Jesus, throughout His ministry had to say, “I think you've missed some important things that the prophets taught about the kingdom.” Just as the people had a misconception about what Messiah would be like, they also had a misconception of what the kingdom would be like. It's very interesting that in each of these parables in Matthew chapter 13, Jesus is correcting a popular misunderstanding of the kingdom held by the people to whom He was speaking, and even His disciples. You remember the disciples are constantly asking Him, “Is it now that we will reign? May I reign at your right or Your left hand? May I have the position of honor?” The disciples were expecting the Lord Jesus to set this messianic kingdom up imminently and indeed He did, but not in the form that they expected. And so in this passage the Lord Jesus, in these parables about the kingdom, teaches us the true nature of the kingdom.
I want you to note three themes that keep coming up over and over in this passage. First of all, there are many of these parables that teach us things about the King Himself. This passage, which we'll look at today, the parable of the sower, teaches us something about the nature of the King. This passage also, however, will speak to us about the nature of the kingdom. The Jews and the disciples as well were expecting the Messiah immediately and completely to establish the kingdom. The Lord Jesus, in this parable and in the parable of the wheat and the tares, is going to convey the truth that the kingdom is going to progress slowly and it's going to be established, but its not going to be established with the immediacy, the completeness, and the instantaneousness that so many were expecting.
Also in this passage the theme of the king's subjects – that is, those who are the members of this kingdom of heaven – will be addressed. Through each of those three themes, over and over again in these parables, Jesus teaches us about the true meaning of the kingdom of God and corrects both His disciples' misunderstandings and the misunderstandings of the crowd.
So let's look then at God's holy word in Matthew chapter 13, beginning at verse 1: we will read from verse 1 through 9, and then we'll skip to verse 18. Now, I know that Matthew had a reason for putting in the explanation of parables in verse 10 through 17 and I don't want to detract from that at all, but since we're going to try and look at both the parable of the sower and its explanation all at once, and the parable of the wheat and the tares and its explanation all at once, we'll read the two passages side by side, even though they're disjointed here in Matthew 13. So let's look at Matthew 13, beginning at verse 1. Hear God's holy and inspired word:
“On that day Jesus went out of the house, and was sitting by the sea. And great multitudes gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole multitude was standing on the beach. And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, 'Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as He sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. And others fell upon the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil, and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.'”
Now if you'll look over with me at 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 the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. And the one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. And the one upon whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”
Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's look to Him in prayer.
Our Father, we thank You for this word and we ask now that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment, especially because this parable is so familiar, we pray that You would give us spiritual eyes to see things in it that we have not seen before, or, O Lord, to have brought to mind things that we have learned in the past, but have forgotten or have not applied in our lives before you as we ought. Teach us then, by Your Spirit according to the word. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
This parable looks at how the message of the kingdom, and the Messiah Himself, will be received. The Israelites – and indeed the disciples – expected that all of Israel would flock to the Messiah, would respond to His message, would trust in Him; indeed, the Gentiles would flow from the corners of the earth to come to Jerusalem when they had heard the message of the Messiah, when they beheld the works of the Messiah. But this parable tells us that though the Messiah is glorious and though the message of the gospel, the message of the kingdom, the word of God is glorious, there will be people who will reject it.
Indeed, the proportions of the parable are staggering, aren't they? One in four, alone, accept the message of the Messiah. The message of the kingdom of heaven. This parable reminds us that individuals will respond to the message differently, and their response is based upon what is in their hearts, the state of their hearts, the desires of their hearts. The disciples expected a mass conversion and a following of the Messiah when He came. Jesus, in this parable, reveals a shocking truth. As a matter of fact, He says, individuals will respond differently to my message. It won't be that the message is different. It won't be that the messenger is different. It will be that the hearts of hearers are different, and so will respond to the message of the Messiah differently.
And I can think of few parables more significant, more appropriate, more important for us to meditate upon than this parable of the sower, today. The parable itself is given to us by Matthew in two parts. The parable is described, itself, and then there is an explanation of the parable. But today as we look at it, I'd like you to look at the context of the parable and then look at the content of the parable.
I. The context of Jesus’ teaching.
In Matthew chapter 13, verses 1 though the first part of verse 3, Matthew gives you the context in which Jesus delivers this parable, and I want you to note that Jesus reveals truths about His kingdom even in the way that He preaches. Jesus reveals to us things about the nature of the kingdom even in the method that He uses to communicate and Matthew gives us a good deal of information about it. Look with me again at verses 1, 2, and 3. “That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea, and large crowds gathered to Him so He got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd was standing on the beach, and He spoke many things to them in parables.” Notice first of all that Jesus gave this message on the same day that He had said the word from Matthew chapter 12. He had been preaching in the house. His mother and brothers had come to see Him. They desired to speak with Him. They were outside the house while He was preaching inside the house, and that's how Matthew 12 closes. On that same day, Matthew tells us that Jesus goes down to the seashore, gets out in a boat, and begins to continue to preach.
That tells us something about the King, doesn't it? Though He is the King, though He is the Messiah of Israel, He has not come to be served, to be waited on, to serve and to minister. This man works all day long in the preaching of the gospel. He starts in the morning preaching in the house, preaching the gospel. The Pharisees oppose Him, His parents interrupt Him, but He goes to the seashore and continues to minister. When I read this passage, I am reminded of the words of C.S. Spurgeon, who said, “I work myself to death and then I pray myself alive again.” He gave Himself to the ministry of the gospel. He threw the whole of His being into this work of the message; and is that not an example to us, that we ought always to be committed to laboring for the kingdom? The kingdom was a priority, and His labor reflects His desires and the priority of the kingdom in His life.
Notice also that He preaches to great multitudes. We are told that there are crowds down on the seashore hearing Him preach, following Him. But I want to remind you that though these crowds had gone way out of their way to follow the Lord Jesus Christ – to hear Him – that does not mean that they truly believed on Him. Though they were very interested in hearing what He had to say, though they were very captivated perhaps by both His manner and the content of His message, yet, not all of them believed.
In fact, that's one of the interesting ironies of this passage. Even as Jesus is telling a parable about how some people hear the word and don't believe Him there are people standing on a seashore hearing the word who don't believe Him. It's an ironic thing, going on as Jesus delivers this message.
Now, these crowds had to go out of their way in order to hear the Lord Jesus. So let's not short-change them. We're not picking on these folks or making fun of them. In fact, they probably had to do a whole lot more to hear the Lord Jesus than we do to get to church. They had no nice parking lot to pull into. They had no air conditioned sanctuary. They just had to get, as best as they could, from the village to the seashore to hear the gospel. So I'm not making fun of them. We could perhaps learn a thing or two from this particular crowd, but don't think that they all believed the Lord Jesus Christ.
They were there to hear Him, but hearing, Jesus makes emphatically clear, will not get you to heaven. There must be more.
And so we also see the location the Lord Jesus is preaching from. He's preaching by the seaside. He's not only preaching on the same day, He's not only preaching to a crowd, He's preaching on the seaside. He doesn't have impressive surroundings but the truth doesn't need impressive surroundings. The Lord Jesus speaks impressively without a beautiful cathedral or a great Roman theater, or even a nice house to preach in. He's on the seashore. Matthew Henry says, “Sometimes there is more power in religion where there is the least pomp in religion.” There's very little pomp and circumstance on that seashore that day, but there was great power in what the Lord Jesus taught, and we need to remember that because its very easy to confuse the beauty of holiness with the holiness of beauty. Pomp and circumstance, great ceremony, beautiful edifices and music can confuse us into thinking that we are having a spiritual experience because the aesthetic overload is so tremendous when in fact, we're quite empty spiritually. We must not confuse those two things.
Notice also that Jesus preached many things to them; more, apparently, than are recorded here. The Holy Spirit had Matthew record these specific things for our edification, but Matthew himself says He taught many things to them, only a few of which He records for us here.
It's also interesting that He taught sitting down. Notice the words: “The crowds gathered to Him and so He got into a boat and He sat down.” Apparently at that time, and in that region, it was customary for the speaker to sit down and for the audience to stand. Now, we don't normally do it that way. Normally we have the speaker stand and the audience sit, but that was apparently not the way it was done there in that day and time.
And we're told that He spoke to them in parables. Parables are extended comparisons; where Jesus sets forth spiritual truths by common, or natural, or everyday events. He illustrates and sets forth and explains and applies spiritual principles by common, everyday events described in typical language of daily life. Now, that's the context of the parable.
The content of the parable is recorded for us from the end of verse 3 all the way down to verse 8; and then, again, from verses 18 through 23 it is explained. And we are told in between – in Matthew 13, 10 through 17 – that the disciples themselves were having a hard time understanding: ( a ), why it was that Jesus was speaking in parables and ( b ), what exactly He meant by this parable.
So far, His discourses had been fairly straight forward and understandable and now He is explaining spiritual truth in this parabolic form. And they're not quite sure what He means. This is very interesting. Liberal scholars say, “Aha, it couldn't be possible that Jesus' own disciples wouldn't understand what He was saying and, therefore, this is clearly a fiction made up by someone who came along later.” But, my friends, there is every reason to believe the disciples themselves did not understand the Lord Jesus from time to time. In fact, there are several reasons why it is perfectly logical for the disciples to be struggling with what Jesus was saying here. They did not have the light or the perspective at this time, that they would have on the other side of the resurrection and the ascension and Pentecost. They had not seen the end of the game. We, as it were, when we read this parable, are watching a replay. The game is already over. We know who won; and everything is seen in that light. Have you ever gone back and watched a game that was a cliffhanger when it was first played and while you watched it your heart was hammering and you had to keep pressing it back inside your chest and you go back on the replay and you can be so cool and calm and collected as your team does bone-headed thing after bone-headed thing because you know in the end they get the last basket! Well, we can look at this parable and we know how the Lord Jesus' ministry and His testimony of who He was and the nature of His kingdom has panned out. His disciples had not seen the end of the picture yet.
On the other hand, this parable itself teaches us that the way that the kingdom grows is slowly, imperceptibly, just like plants grow in a field. So, also, the disciples grow in that way and because they were not instantaneously sanctified and instantaneously wise, it is not surprising that they might have a hard time understanding what Jesus said. Have any of you ever had a problem understanding what a professor said? I'm sure it wasn't His fault, by the way.
Notice also that these disciples were still grappling with the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ to be Messiah, and we are going to find out in just a few chapters that they were already grasping the fact that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah of Israel; and now, suddenly He's saying “I'm the Messiah and I'm somewhat like a farmer.” Then the disciples are going, “Wait a second! We know that you're the King of Israel! We know that you're Messiah! What do you mean you're sort of like a farmer?” Those things just didn't go together, and the disciples are struggling with it.
And of course this parable, also, assigns considerable responsibility to human hearts for success in the spiritual results of the kingdom. How could it be that the Messiah's kingdom depends on the response of human hearts? So there are lots of reasons why the disciples would have struggled with this parable.
You see, it's God's grace that gives us understanding but it's our duty to give our minds – to apply ourselves – to that understanding.
II. The content of the parable
Now the meaning of the main features of this parable are very, very clear. Jesus, Himself, in verses 18 through 23, tells us what each of those main features mean. The sower, the seed, and the soil are all specifically identified by the Lord Jesus Christ. We don't have to guess what they mean. He's told us here in His word. In verse 37, for instance, we are told explicitly that the Son of Man is the sower. It is the Lord Jesus who is the sower and of course, by extension, all who also faithfully share the message; they too are in a sense the sower. But it is primarily – it is the Lord Jesus – who is the sower. This parable is about Him and about the fact that though He is the Messiah, and He preaches the word of truth, yet there are a lot of people who don't accept Him out there. And so He is the sower.
What is the seed? The seed – again we are explicitly told – is the message of the kingdom. It is the word of God which Messiah, Himself, brings. The seed, we're told in verse 19 and also in verses 11 and 17, is the message of the kingdom.
And the soil; what is it? Well, it is men's hearts. In this passage it is described in different ways. All men's hearts are not the same way, and in verse 19 we are told that the soil is the heart of men. Matthew Henry says, “As we are, so is the word to us.” In other words, as our hearts are, so we respond to the word. That is the great truth of this parable. If you've missed that, you've missed the truth that the Lord Jesus is pressing home.
In each of the four instances of this parable the soil, or the heart, is different. I want to focus on those soils with you today just for a few moments. First of all, you will see an unresponsive heart described in verse 4 of the parable, and in verse 19 of the explanation. There, we have a description of a person who refuses to hear the word. The word is clearly shared. The word is clearly true, but this person refuses the word. This person is unresponsive to the word. This person has lived a life which has gradually, more and more, hardened him to the truth of the word to the point that this person even rejects the message. This person doesn't even want to hear the message. Have you ever tried to plant grass seed in hard, dry Mississippi soil and see that grass seed become bird seed in a few hours? This person is just like that. The seed falls on top. It never penetrates the ground and it’s perfect pickings for the birds. It never gets through. This person is callous; this person is hardened, and is unresponsive. This is intended to teach the disciples not to expect an easy and complete triumph for the kingdom. In fact where are they standing? As Jesus is sitting in that boat teaching this parable, the entire crowd is on a seashore. Not the best place to plant. It's a picture of how unfertile some soil can be. So Jesus is warning the disciples, “Don't expect everyone to embrace the kingdom.” Sometimes when the message is rejected, we sort of go back to the drawing board and think, “Hmm…, Should we change the message?” The message is not the problem, folks. The heart is the problem – and Jesus is pressing that home to both us and to His disciples.
Notice, also, in verses 5 and 6 of the parable, and verses 20 and 21 of the explanation of the parable; we see another kind of heart. This is the impulsive heart. This is the person who seems to accept the word. This is the person who at the evangelistic rally raises the hand or bows the head or goes forward with great excitement. This is the person who, when you share the gospel, they respond in immediate fashion and yet they don't seem later on to persevere in the faith. This is the person who may have a strong emotional response to the message of the gospel at first, and who at first heartily embraces the gospel; and yet later on, has fallen by the side. They make apparent significant progress in the word. They hear the word. They hear the word quickly. They hear the word with rejoicing and they even endure for a little while, but eventually they fall aside. When trial comes, whether that trial is an affliction or it's a persecution, this person is found to be without faith. This person is found to be faithless.
Why? Jesus tells you in the parable. Because this person was rootless and their 'faith' was circumstantial. As long as things were good, they were willing to believe in God. As long as things were good, they were willing to embrace the gospel. As long as things were good, they were ready to acknowledge Jesus the Messiah. But when it went bad, they wanted to have nothing to do with it, and they fell aside. Their faith was rootless and circumstantial. And I want you to notice that Jesus doesn't say that this person's heart changed. It went from being unbelieving to believing and back to unbelieving again. That's not what the Lord Jesus says. He says that the faith was shallow from the beginning. The soil contained in itself the seeds of its own defection. This is not something that is surprising. No. Because the soil was shallow, being rocky, there was no place for rootage to be put down and therefore the plants sprang up, it looked like it was a good plant, and yet there was no root system. And therefore, when the sun shone, the plant died.
Oftentimes, we see in our own lives an unwillingness to bear the cross prevents people from embracing the gospel. Isn't it interesting that Paul tells us “to you it has been granted not only to believe, but also to share in the fellowship of His sufferings.” That's the lot of every believer, and that message is not popular. People like the part about “showers of blessings” but “losses and crosses”? No, that's not one of the favorite top ten best seller messages. And yet, that's part of the gospel, and some fall away from it.
Isn't it interesting that in these two first soils, we see two examples of different kinds of worldliness. One utterly rejects the gospel. You see in that a cynical heart, a callous heart. One embraces the gospel hypocritically, but hearing the gospel never got any one to heaven because the Messiah is looking for what He described in the end of Matthew chapter 12 – someone who does the will of His heavenly Father. The Messiah is looking for fruit bearers. The Messiah is looking for those who are blessed in order to be a blessing and so His word bears fruit in their lives.
Notice the third kind of soil that is described, the third heart. In verse 7 of the parable, and in verse 22 of the explanation, we're shown a picture of the preoccupied heart. This person hears the message of the gospel, but alternative desires choke off the faith. This person apparently responds to the gospel and yet there are other desires in this person's heart that finally the desire for the kingdom is choked out all together. And, this person is shown to be faithless and without hope in this world. Notice two things – two kinds of worldliness – that keep this person from embracing the kingdom. On the one hand this person, we are told, is laden down with the cares of this world. This person is preoccupied with this life. This person has anxiety about this life. Maybe this person is consumed with accumulating in this life. Maybe this person is consumed with surviving in this life. But whatever the case is, they're preoccupied with this life, so much that they cannot focus the heart of hearts upon that which is most important and that is God, and His kingdom. And because of those preoccupations, this person's 'faith' dies out. It's a professed faith, but its not a real faith.
Notice the other kind of worldliness that chokes out. It's the profession, the false promise of riches. “The deceitfulness of riches” is the phrase that the Lord Jesus gives. He's telling us, in that phrase, that worldly comfort and wealth is deceitful. In other words, it doesn't deliver the satisfaction that it promises. All of us, from time to time, are fooled into thinking that things in this world can deliver the satisfaction that they promise. Who, among us, has not from time to time, thought that just x more amount of money would make life so much better for us. “If I could only pay off those bills, or if I could only put this away for my children's future or my retirement, life would be better.” We really believe that from time to time. The Lord Jesus says, “Worldly riches are deceitful. They promise something that they cannot deliver.”
I had the privilege of hearing Howard Deaton speak at a retreat this weekend and he told a story that was so intriguing, I had to ask him about it afterwards. He said that a friend of his had recently been approached. He'd built up a business from a small business to a large business, and he had recently been approached by a would be purchaser who offered him $5 million for his business. Now Howard said, if someone came up to me and offered me $5 million for my business, I probably would take it without thinking about it, but he said, “I want to think about it for a while. I want to do some research on that.” And so his friend decided that he would go around and ask other people who had had their personal businesses sold for $5 million or more, he would ask them what life had become like, or been like, after the sale of their businesses. It was interesting. He went to 19 people, all of whom had sold their businesses for $5 million or more. Each of them had sold that business in order to spend more time with their families, in order to enjoy the fruit of their labor, to be around their wives and their children more, in order to enjoy the blessings of this life. Seventeen of the 19 were divorced; 12 of the 19 were divorced within the first year of the sale of the business. Nine of the 19 were professing Christians, 3 fairly committed Christians; 8 of the 9 Christians were divorced, 4 in the first year.
Now, I don't know those folks and I don't know what was going on there, but I do know this – for those Christians at least – something looked like it was going to bring happiness and satisfaction that didn't. I don't know anything else about it. I pass no judgment about anything else, but I do know that something looked like satisfaction but didn't bring it. Preoccupation with this world and the deceitfulness of riches choked out the root of faith and, my friends, the tragedy of that story is – the horrors that have happened to those families are only symptomatic of deeper problems of eternal significance.
There is a final soil that the Lord Jesus speaks of and it is the only soil which is believing. Don't be fooled! There are people who will preach this parable as if it describes three kinds of Christians and one kind of unbeliever. Don't you believe it. The Lord Jesus Christ has already defined for you what a believer is: “One who does the will of Him who sent Me.” And in this final soil, in verse 8 and verse 23, we see a fruitful heart. This is the person who hears and obeys and lives and blesses others by the kingdom message. One thing and one thing only distinguishes the good ground, the good soil, from the rest: fruitfulness.
I want you to note Jesus does not say that the good ground lacks thorns and lacks rocks. Just that it bore fruit. We are not sinlessly perfected in this life, much as we might want to be, but we do bear fruit when God takes hold of us by grace. They hear and they understand. God has taken hold of their minds. They live according to the gospel; their will, their affections, their desires, their actions flow from a transformed heart, and though, thank the Lord, they are not equal in their fruit bearing. We're not called to keep up with somebody else in fruit bearing – we're just called to bear fruit. Thank the Lord we don't have to keep up with whoever's doing the best job in fruit bearing. The Lord will give the return. We must be faithful. We will bear fruit, but some will bear 100 fold, some will bear 60 fold, some 30 fold. Its great for all of us down there at 30. We don't have to keep up with the 100 fold set. We just have to have our desires in the right place to see the word of God, by His grace, bear fruit in us.
As we listen to the message of the soils today the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, is asking you, “What is the soil of your heart?” I trust that you can look in and then look to Him and say, “You and You alone are the desire of my life, and I will bear fruit of Your glory by Your grace.”
Let us pray:
Lord God, we shut our mouth before Your word. How awesome is the teaching of our Lord. Help us to embrace it! For His sake and ours, amen.