DUNCAN/The sower – told and explained
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 13:1-8. This parable looks at how the message of the kingdom, and the Messiah Himself, will be received. 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. We will see two things from this text. First, the context of Jesus’ teaching. And second, the content of the parable.
I. The Context of Jesus’ Teaching
In Matthew 13:1-3, 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. We read in verses 1-3: “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 that Jesus preaches to great multitudes. 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. 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. So far, His discourses had been straight forward and understandable and now He is explaining spiritual truth in this parabolic form. 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. And of course this parable, also, assigns considerable responsibility to human hearts for success in the spiritual results of the kingdom. You see, it’s God’s grace that gives us understanding but it’s our duty to give our minds to that understanding.
II. The Content of the Parable
The meaning of the main features of this parable is very, very clear. Jesus, Himself, in verses 18-23, 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. 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.
What is the seed? The seed is the message of the kingdom. It is the word of God which the Messiah Himself brings. And the soil; what is it? It is men’s hearts. In this passage it is described in different ways. All men’s hearts are not the same, and in verse 19 we are told that the soil is the heart of men. As our hearts are, so we respond to the Word. In each of the four instances of this parable the soil, or the heart, is different. 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. This person doesn’t even want to hear the message. The seed falls on top. It never gets through. This person is callous; this person is hardened and is unresponsive.
Notice, also, in verses 5-6 of the parable, and verses 20-21 of the explanation of the parable that 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 when you share the gospel responds in immediate fashion and yet doesn’t seem later 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. 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.
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 altogether. 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.
There is a final soil that the Lord Jesus speaks of and it is the only soil which is believing. 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. May we respond in faith to His Word.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at email@example.com.