“The Parable of the Sower”
“Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower” (Matthew13:1-23)
In this chapter our Lord Jesus Christ taught the gospel to his disciples by seven parables, seven distinct and striking illustrations of divine truth drawn from the book of nature. He calls these parables “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (v. 11). When we study the parables, several things need to be kept in mind.
The one thing taught in the parable of the sower (vv. 1-23) is the necessity of hearing the Word of the gospel with a believing heart. The message of this parable is a fact that is verified continually before our eyes. Wherever men and women gather to hear the Word of God preached and expounded, the sayings of our Lord in this parable are manifestly found to be true. It describes what goes on, as a general rule, in all congregations where the gospel is preached. Let me show you five things in this regard that are clearly established in these twenty-three verses of Holy Scripture.
Before looking at the parable itself, it will be profitable to take notice of the ministry of our Savior as the Servant of the Lord, as it is set before us by God the Holy Spirit in the opening verses of this chapter (vv. 1-3).
(Matthew 13:1-3) “The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. (2) And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. (3) And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow.”
Our Savior was relentless in preaching the gospel. This was “the same day” in which he had preached the message contained in chapter twelve. He took no rest, though he was as weary as any other man would be after such labor. What a rebuke this should be to all who are called of God to this great work, but choose to pamper themselves,rather than be utterly consumed with the work of the ministry. All who are called and sent of God into the field of harvest should devote themselves completely to their work. I do not mean that pastors and gospel preachers should never rest. Our Savior did, and so must we. But faithful men give themselves wholly to the work of the gospel (1 Tim. 4:15). Our Master said, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4). Let all who are called of him to preach the gospel follow his example.
Observe, too, the place of where he preached. He was not now in the temple or synagogue, but the seaside. Robert Hawker wrote, “All places are sanctified when the Holy Ghost makes them so.” And “great multitudes were gathered” to hear him. How anxiously they gathered to hear the Lord Jesus preach the gospel, “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29). Let every man who stands to speak to eternity bound sinners seek that authority that only God the Holy Spirit can give to deliver God’s message to the hearts of those who hear him.
“Behold a sower went forth to sow” (v. 3). — Gospel preachers are like sowers. The preacher is a man who casts the bread upon the waters and waits for it to return only after many days (Eccl. 11:2). He “goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed,” and “shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps. 126:6).
Like the farmer, the preacher has to sow good seed if he wants to see fruit. The seed sown must be the pure Word of God, the gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. The man who does not preach the gospel does not preach the Word of God, though he may do nothing but recite Scripture. To preach the Word of God is to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Pet. 1:25). “We preach Christ crucified,” not the traditions of the church, not a confession of faith, not the doctrines of men, and not the philosophy of the age, but “Christ crucified.”
Like the farmer who diligently sows his seed, the preacher must be diligent in the work of the gospel. He must spare no pains. He must use every means he has. He must seize every opportunity God gives, and earnestly labor in God’s vineyard for the furtherance of the gospel. “Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters” (Isa. 32:20). He must “be instant in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). He cannot be deterred by difficulties and discouragements. “He that observeth the wind shall not sow” (Eccles. 11:4).
My wife and I raise a large garden every year. We are fully aware that we cannot cause the seed to germinate, and grow, and bear fruit. But if we do not plow the field, sow the seed, water it, and keep the garden weeded, we are not so foolish as to expect an ingathering of vegetables at the time of harvest. So it is with the preaching of the gospel. Success does not depend upon the preacher’s labor and diligence; but success will not be attained without it. The preacher can no more give life to men than the farmer can cause the seed to germinate, and grow, and bear fruit. That is God’s business and God’s prerogative. But he can plow the ground, sow the seed, water it with prayer, and wait for God to give the increase as he sees fit, knowing all the while that “it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63).
Luke tells us, “The seed is the Word of God” (Lk. 8:11).
(Matthew 13:4-9) “And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: (5) Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: (6) And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. (7) And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: (8) But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. (9) Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
The Word of God is the Seed of life (1 Pet. 1:23-25; James 1:18; Rom. 1:16; 10:17; Eph. 1:13). I will not attempt to explain what I do not understand. But I know this. – As sperm invading the egg brings forth life, so the Word of God invading the heart of a dead sinner, by the power of God the Holy Spirit, brings forth life. As the egg cannot be impregnated without sperm, so, too, a sinner cannot be born again without the Word of God. Why? Because God has so ordained it.
Salvation is the sovereign prerogative of God alone. If language has any meaning at all, verses 10-17 cannot possibly be read without concluding that there is such a thing as sovereign, distinguishing grace. God gives life, and faith, and understanding to his elect, and does not give it to others (vv. 10-11).
(Matthew 13:10-11) “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? (11) He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.”
When people refuse to walk in the light God gives them, the light that is in them becomes darkness (vv. 12-16). — “Take heed how ye hear” (Lk. 8:18).
(Matthew 13:12-16) “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. (13) Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (14) And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: (15) For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. (16) But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.”
The seeing eye, the hearing ear, and the believing heart are gifts of God. — “For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (v. 17). Compare Rom. 9:16; Eph. 1:19; 2:8; Col. 2:12.
Most people who hear the gospel preached receive no saving benefit from it. According to the passage before us, the vast majority, three out of four people, who hear the gospel preached do not profit by it. Our Lord is not talking about those who hear some false gospel, but those who hear the gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. The vast majority of those who hear the true gospel receive no spiritual, everlasting benefit from it.
Some are described as wayside hearers. —”Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side” (vv. 18-19). Careless, thoughtless, and unconcerned, the gospel has no more affect on their hearts than water has upon a rock. As fast as the Word falls on their ears, the devil plucks it away. They go out just like they came in, unaffected. Christ crucified means nothing to them (Lam. 1:12).
When the Lord Jesus speaks of the devil, under the figure of the fowls of the air, catching away that which was sown in the heart, he is talking about the ministry of the word, and not the grace of God and the gracious operations of God the Holy Spirit, which are always effectual and irresistible. Satan does not and cannot take away what is sown by sovereign grace in the heart. That grace implanted by the Lord can never be taken away. Satan causes graceless hearers to forget what they heard. In them Isaiah’s striking prophecy (Isa. 6:9-10), which is quoted no less than six times in the New Testament (Matt. 13: 14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26-27; Rom. 11:8), is fulfilled. — “And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”
Others are called stony ground hearers. – “But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended” (vv. 20-21).
These people hear the sermon with pleasure. They are quickly excited. The message brings forth a plentiful crop of warm feelings and good resolutions. But the stony ground hearer’s religion is religion without depth. As soon as the cold blasts of opposition or the hot sun of temptation and persecution comes, their religion withers away. Many love to hear a gifted preacher preach good sermons, who have no interest at all in that which is preached. The mere love of good sermons and good preaching is not a sign of grace (Ezek. 33:32).
The sun rising upon the stony ground hearer is not Christ, the Sun of righteousness, who rises “with healing in his wings,” but the scorching, drying sun of opposition and persecution (Song. 1:6). The stony ground hearer was never rooted in Christ. The seed did not fall into the ground, but upon stony ground. Because they were never rooted in Christ and Christ was never in them, they fall away in time.
Then our Lord speaks of thorny ground hearers. –”He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful” (v. 22).
These people appear to be more hopeful than the others. They hang around much longer. They seem to really love the gospel. It appears that they really want to honor God and do his will. But other things constantly claim their affections. They know the truth. They hope one day to be decided and devoted followers of Christ; but they love the world! How many thorny ground hearers sit in the pews of our churches. They never make up their minds to “seek first the kingdom of God.” They have real struggles trying to have both Christ and the world, not willing to give up either. But, in time, the care of the world and the deceitfulness of riches destroys them.
Wherever the Word of God produces life, it brings forth fruit. — “But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (v. 23). Because every human heart by nature is evil, we know that the “good ground,” into which the seed is cast, is meant a heart renewed and made good by God’s sovereign, saving grace.
God’s method and order of grace is set before us in this parable, just as it is throughout the Scriptures. First, he causes the chosen, redeemed sinner to hear the gospel. Then, by the hearing of the gospel, the sinner is born again by the incorruptible seed, the Word of God. And being born again, the believing sinner brings forth fruit unto God. We do not all bear fruit to the same degree. But all believers bear fruit; and the fruit they bear is the same (Gal. 5:22-23; John 15-16). All is of the same quality, though not in the same quantity. A single drop of morning dew on a blade of grass is as truly water as the ocean. And grace is grace, be it small or great. It is all of Christ, and from Christ, and to Christ.
Grace in the heart produces heart fruit: repentance and faith, love, joy, peace. God the Holy Spirit causes the believing sinner to bring forth the lip fruit of prayer, confession, and praise. And Christ formed in the chosen sinner, being made partaker of “the divine nature,” causes the believing sinner to bring forth the life fruit of love and consecration to Christ. “Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have” (Luke 8:18).