The Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23

Pastor Scott L. Harris
October 17, 1993

The Parable of the Sower
Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23


If you have been attending the worship services here for any length of time, you may have noticed that one of the elements that is consistently in my prayers is that God will open our hearts and minds to understand the things of His Word that we might live according to them. The reason for that prayer was in part the subject of last week’s sermon. Unless the Holy Spirit enlightens our minds and teaches us the truths of the Scriptures, then there is no way that we will understand God’s revelation to us. It is as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that “the natural man” – man without the Holy Spirit – “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (examined).

Last week we saw that the very purpose of Jesus speaking to the multitudes in parables was so that He could reveal truth to His followers, while at the same time concealing those same truths from His enemies. The spiritual understanding of His followers would increase while what little understanding the rest did have would be taken away.  (See: The Purpose of Parables)

This morning we are going to venture into a practical application of this principle. In a real sense we do this every time the Word of God is proclaimed here, for regardless of how accurately I or someone else who is teaching understands the Bible and how clearly we may communicate that understanding to you, if all you go home with is some additional Biblical knowledge and maybe a warm feeling, then you will have wasted your time. I strive to present to you an accurate and clear exposition of the Scriptures and to exhort you to live according to them, but it takes the Holy Spirit working in your heart to effect a change in your life. I can tell you what the Scriptures say is sinful, but it is the Holy Spirit that convicts you individually of sin. I both encourage and admonish you to live by Biblical principles, but it is the Holy Spirit that leads you into applying those principles and precepts in your own life.

Today we will venture into a practical application of this principle because we are going to start examining the parables of our Lord in Matthew 13. Many have stumbled in interpreting these stories. Liberal theologians have failed because they presume that by their supposedly superior intellect they can discern what each element of the story means and thus interpret it, but again, without the Holy Spirit you absolutely cannot understand the Scriptures. Conservative theologians have often presented erroneous interpretations too – sometimes due to the same intellectual pride as the liberals, but also many times because of a failure on the opposite end. They isolate the text and fail to do the diligent study they should to understand the context and what the other Scriptures say.

In order to keep from stumbling into any of these traps, I want to quickly review again the purpose of Matthew’s gospel account and the nature of salvation as presented by Him.

The Nature of Salvation

The book of Matthew documents that Jesus is the promised Messiah and presents His kingdom program. Matthew shows that Jesus fulfills prophecy after prophecy concerning the Messiah. He was conceived by God, He was born of the right genealogy, He was born in the right village, He went to Egypt at the right time and returned to grow up in the right town. He fulfilled all righteousness when He was baptized by John the Baptist and proclaimed the right message – “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus resisted temptation and defeated the devil, He taught with the authority of God Himself and performed miracles that only God could do – healing every kind of disease and sickness, casting out demons, raising the dead, as well as controlling nature by His command, and forgiving sin. Even Jesus’ speaking in parables was the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. There should have been no doubt that Jesus was the Messiah – but the self-righteousness and jealousy of so many of the Scribe and Pharisees refused to acknowledge the truth.

There also should not have been then, nor should there be now, such confusion about what Jesus taught about Himself and the nature of Salvation. Yet, we find that man is still often more interested in using Jesus’ words to prove his own thoughts than in conforming his thoughts to what Jesus taught.

What is the nature of salvation? It is not, as many teach today, simply a change of mind that may or may not have consequences in one’s lifestyle. It is not verbalizing, “Jesus is Lord,” and going on your merry way. The nature of salvation is an extremely radical change in a person’s very being. As Paul put it in Ephesians 2, that which was dead in trespasses and sin is made alive with Christ due to God’s love and grace. Nowhere does Jesus even suggest that entering His Kingdom is through mere intellectual consent. Instead, it is always presented as a matter of believing in Him which includes following after Him. You would be intellectually and pragmatically dishonest to claim to “believe in Jesus” and then refuse to obey His commandments. To “believe in Jesus” includes believing His claim to be the Messiah, God in incarnate. How could someone believe that Jesus is God and remain indifferent to everything else He says?

Jesus presents salvation usually in the terminology of “entering into the Kingdom of Heaven,” or “Kingdom of God.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says plainly that only those whose righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees would be able to enter. Playing religion as they did will not be enough. Jesus describes the characteristics of the truly righteous in the Beatitudes – beginning with being “poor” or “destitute” in spirit, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” True righteousness begins with an understanding that you have no hope and no means by which to gain hope that God will redeem your sinful soul except to beg that He will, based solely on His mercy and grace. Salvation begins with humility – not good self-esteem. Salvation includes the other elements of the Beatitudes as well – mourning over sin, meekness, hungering, and thirsting after righteousness.

The nature of salvation is regeneration of the soul, going from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-10), being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13), from seeking your own kingdom to seeking God’s kingdom (2 Peter 1:10, 22), becoming a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17) that will be conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

Why this emphasis on the nature of salvation? Because it is vital to our understanding of the first parable that Jesus gives in this chapter. Remember that these parables are given to reveal the nature of God’s kingdom to Jesus’ disciples while hiding that same truth from Jesus’ enemies. This first parable, the Parable of the Sower, deals with the message of the kingdom of heaven and how it would be received and what it would accomplish in individuals. The mystery being revealed is that the kingdom would come through the proclamation of a message that some would receive and others would not. The Jews expected the kingdom to come by the force of a conquering King. The question of who is saved and who is not is part of the message of this parable, and so we must understand what Jesus teaches about the nature of salvation if we are to understand this parable.

The Parable Explained

Jesus gives the parable in Matthew 13:3-9. Remember that Jesus has already had a very busy day in which He cast out the demon and healed the man who was blind and mute. He has had a very serious confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees in which He has condemned them because of their Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – their accusation that Jesus was doing His miracles by the power of Satan rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has also revealed that our relationship with Him is superior to that of even blood relatives. Jesus is now sitting in a boat just off the shore of the Sea of Galilee and teaching the people many things in parables.

Follow along as I read the parable from Matthew 13:3-9. “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.”

This is a simple story that the people would have understood easily since they were an agrarian society. They would have easily pictured this man going out and sowing his field. He would have carried a sack or a basket full of seed, and as he walked through his field he would reach in, grab a handful of seed and then toss that seed in front of himself and to each side. They could easily picture the seed falling into each of the types of soil that Jesus described. They understood the story, but they did not understand the message – and neither did the disciples.

As we pointed out last week, in Matthew 13:10-17 we find that the Disciples come to Jesus privately to ask Him why he was speaking to the multitudes in parables and to explain some of them to them. Jesus told them that they were blessed to be “granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” which things into which the “prophets and righteous men” of old desired to see, but did not. In contrast, Jesus said the parables would also conceal these mysteries from those who would not follow after Him – those who “seeing do not see and hearing do not hear.” Those who have hardened their hearts and closed their eyes to the things of God.

Jesus explains the parable in Matthew 13:18-23 . Follow along as I read, “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 on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understand it; who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.

The seed is the word of the kingdom – or as Luke puts it, “The word of God.” It is the good news that Messiah has come and salvation is being offered to those who will repent and believe on Him. The sower is not specifically identified here which leaves room to understand that there could be many involved in sowing the seed of the Word of God. However, the sower in the Parable of the Tares is the “Son of Man” – the Lord Himself (verse 37), and ultimately it must be recognized that regardless of whoever is physically going out and proclaiming the Word of God, it is the Holy Spirit that is at work to accomplish that. There are four different types of soil and they affect the ultimate outcome of the sown seed. Let’s look at each.

Seed on the Road

The first condition is the seed that falls by the road which is eaten by the birds. In this case the Word of God is proclaimed, but the hearer does not understand it. Their lack of understanding is compounded as the devil comes and takes away even what little had been sown in their heart. Why? As the passage in Luke puts it, in order that they may not meet the first condition leading to salvation – believing the message. Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:3, 4, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

The seed, the Word of God, was sown in the heart – and please remember that “heart” in the scriptures refers to the seat of the mind and will, not the seat of emotion as we use it figuratively in English – the seed was sown, but there was no effect for the individual did not understand it, and then the devil took away what little was there. This is by and large the largest category. The gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and those hearing it do not understand it, they turn their backs on it, and the devil leads them even farther down the path leading to destruction.

We must remember that the gospel is “foolishness” to those who are perishing. The devil uses different means by which to “snatch” away the word of the kingdom and to lead them to believe it is foolishness. Some reject that the Lord God created everything and the devil uses the lie of Evolution to blind their minds. Others accept a creator God, but they reject the idea of having to be personally accountable before Him. The devil uses the lie of universalism – that all paths lead to God and no one will be punished by Him to blind their minds. Still others may believe that there is a creator God who will hold people accountable, but they believe that their religion is the means by which to appease Him and gain His favor. The devil uses the lie of false religions and cults to keep people from Jesus Christ. Jesus, as He said Himself in John 14:6 is “the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, but through [Him].”

The seed by the road speaks of all those who hear the message of the kingdom of God, but they reject Jesus as the Messiah and the only means of reconciliation between God and man.

Seed on Rocky Ground

The second condition is explained in verses 20 and 21, the seed that falls on the rocky ground. More properly it may be described as shallow soil over a rocky ledge. I can go out in the field behind the church and show you this situation. There are some areas back there that fit the description given here of shallow soil over a rocky ledge. The plants come up quickly since the rain does not drain away quickly, but since the soil is shallow the roots are also shallow and once it gets hot, that shallow soil dries up very quickly and the plants wilt and die.

That is the case with these people who hear the word of the kingdom and immediately they get excited about it. They are on an emotional high and thrilled about what they have heard. The parallel passage in Luke tells that “for a season they believe,” but when difficulties come, when life is not turning out like they thought it was supposed to, they fall away. The word here is the verb form of apostatize; they abandon what they have believed for some other belief.

There are many who are like this. There are so many I have met in the last ten years or so that fit in this condition. They suddenly appear at church and are very excited about everything that is going on. They tell everyone how much they love Jesus and how wonderful life is. Then just as suddenly, they disappear. You go to them and what do you find? Some difficulty has arisen in their life. It may be directly related to their proclaiming that they are believers – they start getting some flack about being a Christian. Maybe a loved one or a close friend starts to give them a hard time. But more often in our society – for it still for the most part views Christianity as a positive – they have entered into some personal difficulty. Maybe it is physical illness or financial problems or a troubled relationship – whatever the particular it becomes the basis upon which they doubt God and then reject what they heard before, and they depart from the faith. They become apostate.

Some have tried to claim that these people are still saved; others say they were once saved and now are not saved. Others just keep asking how such a thing could occur to someone who was so enthusiastic about Christ. The truth is that they were never truly saved and it took the troubles they entered into to allow the truth about themselves to be manifest.

Remember that the nature of salvation is a radical change not in a person’s life, but in their very being. A change of life must arise from that, not the other way around. They may have been excited and enthusiastic and their life may have even changed for awhile, but that is not proof of salvation. The very fact that they departed from the faith is evidence of an error in their faith. What did they really believe? Was Jesus just fire insurance to them to keep them from hell or the Messiah who is God incarnate and is to be obeyed? Was salvation to them a promise of a good life without troubles and trials or a promise that God would see them through all the troubles and trials of life? Did Jesus come to do their bidding or did He come so that we could serve Him? Was their faith in faith or in Jesus Christ?

The apostle John explains the true condition of apostates in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they are not of us.” Those who heard the word and received it with joy but later became apostate had a shallow faith that did not go deep enough to change their hearts. They were and remain unregenerate.

Seed among the Weeds

The third category is the seeds that fall on weed infested ground. These are people who hear the word of God, but as time goes on other interests, concerns, and a desire to gain the riches of this world choke it out so that the Word has no effect on them. Many are those in this category too. Demas was such a fellow. He is mentioned in Colossians 4:14 as being a co-worker with the Apostle Paul, but a few years later Paul writes of him in 2 Timothy 4:10, “Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” You cannot love the world and God too. John put it this way in 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”

Those in this third category bore no fruit, for they loved the world and what it has to offer more than God. We had better be careful about what we think is important in life. I have said before and I will say again, let me examine where you spend your money and where you spend your time and I will tell you what is most important to you. Is it God? Is it serving Him? Riches are deceitful in two ways. First there is the pursuit after it, which leads to all sorts of evil. Paul’s warning about it in 1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” Such was the case of Demas.

But riches also have another negative side, both in the accumulation of them and after getting them there is the worry that accompanies them. Afraid you will not get all you want, fearful someone will take them from you, envious of anyone who has more. No wonder that though this nation has one of the highest per capita incomes and living standards in the world, survey after survey show that our people are one of the most unhappy. Riches do not satisfy – only God does. They heard of God and followed Him for a short time, but as time went on the true desire of their heart became evident. They were of the world and loved it, not God. These also are unregenerate.

Seed on Good Soil

The last category is the seed planted on good soil. These are the people who hear the word of God, understand it, respond to it, and bear fruit – much fruit. The hundredfold, sixty fold and thirty fold – increases of 1,000 percent, 600 percent and 300 percent respectively demonstrates the fruitfulness that comes from those who are truly sons of the kingdom.

What kind of fruit? The fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22, 23).These are the things that evidence a changed heart, a change in being in keeping with the nature of salvation.

It is only this last category that has fulfilled the reason the sower went out to sow. It is only those who bear fruit that fulfill the positive purpose of the Gospel being proclaimed. That is part of the point of the parable – True believers produce fruit!

The Message to us

So what does all this mean to us? First, if the Lord Jesus Christ is not yet your personal Lord and Savior, then keep in mind as you come and hear the Word of God proclaimed that you cannot understand all of this by yourself. You need to be asking God to graciously open your mind and will to Him. You also need to keep in mind the nature of salvation. Becoming a Christian is serious. You do not “try Jesus.” You recognize your own sinfulness and the need for His forgiveness, and you yield your life to Him. That is why there is a change of life. Consider the condition of your heart – is it hard like that by the roadside? Is it shallow and superficial? Is it weed infested with the cares of this world? If so, then ask God to break up that fallow ground and prepare your heart to understand and receive the full gospel message without reservations or competing loyalties.

Second, let’s be mindful of the purpose of our salvation and that is to bear fruit for God. Romans 8:29 tells us that those who are truly God’s children are “predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” Ephesians 2:10 tells us we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Let us make sure that it is Jesus Christ that we believe in, and that it is Him we are following, and that it is God whom we love.

Third, we are responsible to be “sowers” who proclaim the Word of God to the lost and dying world around us. We are responsible to proclaim God’s message as accurately and as clearly as possible, but we are not responsible for the harvest itself. And remember that an untrained Christian faithfully scattering his few seeds will produce a greater harvest than the most learned and experienced believer who never bothers to sow at all. So sow the seed of the Word of God, the gospel message, and let’s see what harvest God will reap from it.

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