He Spoke to Them in Parables
Topic: Expository Scripture: Matthew 13:1–13:23
Synopsis: In this message (He Spoke to Them in Parables) from Matthew 13:1-23, we study the Parable of the Sower, one of Jesus’ most famous parables, and wrestle with several key questions. Why did Jesus use parables? How does the context of Matthew 12 help us understand this dramatic new development in Jesus’ ministry? How did this parable help Jesus’ followers know what to expect in the development of God’s kingdom? How does it help us as we engage in kingdom work? And then a probing question for self-evaluation – what kind of soil are you?
On the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, there is a perfect, semi-circular, natural cove, with a gently sloping shoreline. It forms a natural amphitheater. Acoustic tests have been done there, showing that it would be possible for a speaker with a reasonably strong voice to speak to an audience of several thousand without benefit of amplification.It is called the Sower’s Cove. While it cannot be proven, it is certainly easy to stand there and imagine it as the very spot where Jesus climbed into a boat and addressed the crowd, beginning with the words: A sower went out to sow.
Matthew 13 contains the third major discourse in Matthew’s gospel. We have already studied the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, and the passage of instructions which Jesus gave to his disciples before he sent them out on their mission in Matthew 10.
In our last message two weeks ago, I said that Matthew 12 represents a major turning point in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry. In that chapter, we see the opposition of the scribes and Pharisees hardening to the point that they accused Jesus of doing his miracles by the power of the Devil. Jesus responded by calling this “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” and calling it an unforgivable sin.
Following that climactic moment, Jesus’ public ministry began to change. One of those dramatic changes is on display in Matthew 13. He began to teach in parables. Before we look at the opening parable itself, let’s explore a little further why this represented such a dramatic shift in Jesus’ ministry strategy. Let’s begin reading in verse 10:
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 For 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.
This passage must be read in light of Matthew 12 and the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus and his claims. We tend to think of Jesus’ parables as an effective teaching device, a powerful way to convey spiritual truth in a memorable form. And it is that. But this passage also tells us that the parables are a way of concealing truth from people who have already hardened their hearts to it. The passage that Matthew quotes is taken from Isaiah 6. It is the passage where God commissioned Isaiah as a prophet after Isaiah had the vision of God in heaven with the angels all bowing before him and proclaiming: “Holy, Holy, Holy!” In his commission to Isaiah, God warns Isaiah that the nation of Israel will not receive his message – that his preaching will fall on blind eyes, deaf ears, and hard hearts.
Now this same nation had refused to receive the Messiah himself, responding to his message about the kingdom of heaven with the same blindness, deafness and hardness of heart with which they had responded to Isaiah’s ministry. In judgment because of their rejection of him and his message, Jesus now says that he is going to speak to them in parables, in a kind of code which they will not be able to understand. By rejecting the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he testified to Jesus, the Messiah, they will now be prevented from understanding the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”
In contrast to this judgment on the Pharisees, Jesus also points out the great privilege his own disciples were enjoying. They were hearing things and seeing things that the prophets of old had longed to hear and see. And because they had a heart of faith to welcome Jesus as the King, his followers were now given the privilege of knowing and understanding the “secrets of the kingdom,” which Jesus was now presenting in parables.
With that background, let’s now consider the opening parable. As with so many of Jesus’ parables, it was a simple story, drawn from the everyday life experience of his audience. “A sower went out to sow.”
In the farming practices of Jesus’ day, the fields where the farmers grew their grain crops were not set off by fences or walls, but only by individual stones used as boundary markers. Often, well-trodden pathways led across these fields, by which people traveled from field to field or from town to town.
Plowing was done with a simple wooden plough drawn by one or two oxen or one or two donkeys yoked together. Generally, the ground was first plowed. Then the sower walked systematically across the field, carrying a basket or sack of seed which he cast widely across the plowed earth. When he finished sowing the seed, he would normally plow the field again in a direction perpendicular to his first plowing, in order to cover the seed. This was the everyday scene Jesus’ used to tell his first parable.
Not only the scene, but the telling itself was true to life and held no surprises. As the sower scattered the seed, some fell on the hard, beaten path ways. Birds came quickly to snatch these seeds away.
Some seed fell on stony soil; ground that had a thin covering of soil over bedrock. Here the seed germinated and sprang up. But there was nowhere for the roots to grow, and when the hot sun dried out the shallow soil, the plants withered and died.
Other seed fell among thorns. This seed also germinated and began to grow. But the surrounding thorns and weeds grew faster and soon choked the good seed so that it produced no grain.
At this point, one is tempted to feel great sympathy for the poor farmer. All his work is for nothing. Why does he even bother? But Jesus is not quite finished. Some seed fell on good soil. This seed sprang up, grew and produced a crop: some a hundred, some sixty and some thirty fold. The fruitfulness of the seed that fell on good soil made all the farmer’s effort worthwhile.
One can imagine the farmers in Jesus’ audience that day, nodding, and saying to themselves: “Yes, that’s the way it is with farming!”
And for the majority of Jesus’ audience that day, that’s where the story ended. There was no explanation, no interpretation. He simply concluded with a challenging but cryptic statement: He who has ears let him hear. In other words, Jesus is giving them a clue that there is a deeper meaning to his words and they are challenged to figure it out. What were they to make of this new form of teaching? What did they take away from Jesus’ story? It was only to his disciples, his followers, those who were ready to follow him as members of his kingdom to whom Jesus privately explained the parable.
This is Jesus’ explanation. The seed represents the word about the kingdom of heaven. It is the message that first John the Baptist and then Jesus and then Jesus’ disciples have been preaching throughout Galilee. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The kingdom is here, because the King himself has come to earth. The Messiah has come! This announcement, along with Jesus’ teaching and his miracles, demonstrating his authority and his credentials – this was the seed which was being scattered abroad.
But the gospel, gospel preaching and evangelism are like a sower scattering seed – because the message falls, like seed, on different kinds of soil.
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.”
With this interpretation, what is the significance of Jesus’ parable, and why did he tell it at this point in his ministry? Jesus told this parable for the benefit of his disciples. He told it to explain what was happening in his ministry, as well as to prepare them for what would happen in the years of ministry that would unfold in the future. We may take it for granted now, but it was important new truth for them.
Like the rest of the Jews of that day – at least those who were devoutly awaiting the coming of the Messiah – Jesus’ disciples had certain expectations. They had every reason to expect that when Messiah appeared, it would be a day of great revival and spiritual renewal in the nation. Everyone would cheer as Messiah made himself known and performed mighty works of power to set his people free – like Moses of old. Jesus had come. He had proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. This message was being announced to the nation – along with accompanying signs and miracles. But to their shock and dismay, not everyone was cheering! Not everyone was bowing down to worship! What was wrong? Was their faith misplaced? Why were the Pharisees so hostile? Why were the crowds so fickle? Why were the loyal followers so few? Had they joined a losing cause?
This is the reason Jesus told this parable at this critical juncture of his ministry, as Jesus faced growing opposition and skepticism. It helped his disciples understand what they were witnessing. And it prepared them for what lay ahead. This parable provides important perspective for all kingdom workers today as well. As those who would engage in kingdom work – in evangelism and disciple making – we sometimes think it is all up to us and to our efforts. If we can just get the message right and the technique right; if we can start the right program and use the right materials – then all will be well and the multitudes will come. But the reality is that there are many discouragements in kingdom work.
As I look at the four kinds of soil in the parable from the perspective of almost 40 years of ministry, I could give many examples of each kind. But I want to go back to my earliest days of personal evangelism. I grew up in a kind of Christian bubble on the mission field, surrounded by Christian family, friends and teachers. It wasn’t until I enrolled in a state university: Western Washington State College – that I had my first real exposure to unbelieving peers.
I was blessed to receive some good training in evangelism from Campus Crusade for Christ. In that training we were told that “most people want to receive Christ. They just don’t know how.” Encouraged by such an optimistic expectation, I began to share my faith.
Tim was one of three roommates in the same suite of rooms during my first year at Western. He and I came from totally different worlds. As my world had been totally surrounded by church, the Bible and Christianity, his was totally secular – even pagan. On the very first night of the term, as we were all getting to know each other, I shared my testimony and the fact that I was a follower of Christ. I don’t think he understood a word I said. He looked at me like I came from a different planet. During the year, I tried to bring the conversation around to spiritual things on a number of occasions, but with no real success. Until one evening: Tim came bursting into the room, very agitated, very frustrated. He had just come from an anti-war rally. He expressed himself loudly: “Questions! Questions! Questions! Everyone has questions! And no one has any answers!” It was an opportunity, and I took it. As he calmed down, I was able to share again, as clearly as I could, that the only real answer to life’s questions was to be found in Jesus. For the first time, I felt like he tuned in and really listened. At the end of the conversation he thanked me, and promised to think about what I’d said. I was excited. It felt like a breakthrough. But in the days and weeks that followed, every time I tried to bring up the subject, he would duck and weave and try to avoid it. He reverted to being the same, cynical, slightly hostile Tim. The year ended, he transferred to another school. I never saw him again.
Did I fail? Did I not make the gospel clear enough? Was my technique flawed? Was I not persistent enough? Or was Tim an example of seed that fell along the path; on hard soil – and the birds snatched the seed away?
Rod was a teen-ager in the high school youth group I led while I was still in college. As a freshman, he made a profession of faith in Christ. He came to youth group regularly. During the summer Esther Ruth and I took a group of teens to California to attend an evangelism training course at Arrowhead Springs. Rod was younger than most who wanted to go – but he pleaded with us and was allowed to make the trip. He loved it; especially the evangelism outings. I remember when we got back home from the conference, he said to me: “I can’t wait for school to start so I can share Christ with my buddies on the basketball team.” School started. Then basketball season started. Rod started showing up less and less at church or youth group. Concerned, I dropped by the gym during basketball practice one afternoon to find out what was going on. I slipped in the side door to watch. He didn’t see me. It was a typical high school basketball practice – but to my disappointment, the guy with the worst temper, the most arrogant attitude and the foulest mouth on the court was Rod. I kept trying to reach out to Rod, but he kept pulling away, refusing my invitations to meet, to talk, to pray. The peer pressure and ridicule he’d experienced from his friends were just too much for him. When I lost touch with him, he was still far from the Lord.
Did I fail? Was I not aggressive enough in my discipling or in my follow-up? Or was Rod an example of seed that fell on shallow soil?
Steve was another room mate of mine during that first year at Western. Steve was a happy-go-lucky guy with a soft heart. We became good friends. As with the others, I had a chance to share my testimony with Steve. I invited him to come to some of our campus outreach meetings. He came. And at one of them, he indicated his desire to follow Christ as Savior. It was a great evening when he told me that. About the same time, Steve met Connie. Connie was a sweet girl, but she belonged to the cult of Christian Science and was not a follower of Christ. But Steve was smitten. I remember one evening he came into the room, bubbling over. “I am just so happy!” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve become a Christian or because I’m in love with Connie.” But sadly, as his relationship with Connie became more serious, his interest in spiritual things began to wane. By the next year, he dropped out of spiritual activities completely. To my knowledge, Steve never came back to the Lord.
I have always felt bad about Steve. Did I fail him? Did I not use the right discipleship material? Was I not attentive enough to his spiritual needs? Or was Steve an example of seed that fell on thorny soil?
Dave was another man I met during my first year at Western. He was a roommate of a Christian friend of mine – so we often sat at the same table in the cafeteria. Once again, Dave and I came from totally different worlds. He was 5 years older than me. He had experienced life in the corporate world. He was sarcastic, foul mouthed and cynical. I remember my Christian friend Ed coming by my room one day, totally discouraged. He had tried to share Christ with Dave, and Dave had responded with total disinterest and disdain. “I’m just wasting my time on him!” was Ed’s conclusion.
So we were both surprised a couple weeks later. Ed and I were standing in the foyer of our church when who should walk in but Dave! He looked rather sheepish. But he shared his story. After Ed shared the gospel with him, he had been ill, and then fell into a depression because he was so far behind in his studies. In his depression, the spiritual truth that Ed had shared kept running through his mind. Finally, in desperation, he prayed and cried out to God – and God had answered him. He became a follower of Christ.
Dave was one of those people we used to describe as “born running” in the spiritual realm. He joined the campus outreach ministry and was regular in discipleship activities and church. He and I became good friends and even roomed together the next semester. He followed me to seminary and eventually became the pastor of that same church where he served for 20 years before retiring just a couple years ago.
So, what did we do right with Dave that we didn’t do with Tim or Rod or Steve? Or was it really not about us at all, but simply a case of seed that fell on good soil – and produced an abundant harvest?
What is the take-away from Jesus’ parable? First and foremost, by way of interpretation, this parable and those that follow in the rest of the chapter give us a template or framework to understand the unfolding of Jesus’ ministry and the progress of the gospel and the growth of his kingdom. It gave his disciples a reason for continuing to follow him – even though the crowds may turn away and the hostility of the nation’s leaders became more fierce. The reaction to and reception of the King and his kingdom would vary from person to person and community to community. This was important to their understanding even as it is important to us today.
The second take-away is for us as kingdom workers. We need this parable because it tells us what to expect. It will prevent us from going into kingdom work with unrealistic expectations – that everyone out there is just waiting for us with open arms. It will keep us from taking the whole weight of responsibility for achieving results and kingdom growth upon ourselves and our abilities and our techniques and our programs. The very greatest ability, the best technique and the most finely tuned program will still produce a range of responses. No one ever had greater ability, better technique or a more powerful gospel presentation than Jesus himself! Yet people responded to him in different ways. So will they respond to us.
I am not saying we should not work hard and strive for excellence and constantly evaluate our methods and programs for effectiveness and strive for greater faithfulness. We are to sow the seed. But ultimately we are not in control of the outcome. There is an interaction between soil and seed which ultimately lies between God and the individual hearer of our message. We should not be surprised when some turn away, uninterested. We should not despair when some fall away when the going gets hard or their lives becomes cluttered with other things. Kingdom work is hard, just like farming. Kingdom work is full of disappointments, just like farming. Jesus is warning us about this going in.
But there is another side to the parable that keeps us going. There is good soil out there too. Keep on working. Keep on sowing. Keep on sharing the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Some seed will, by the sovereignty of God, fall on good soil. And then the harvest will be worth all the effort. 30 fold, 60 fold, 100 fold!
There is one more application I want to make in closing. We have been looking at this parable from the perspective of the sower. I think this is right. I think this is the primary purpose of the parable for Jesus’ disciples and those who would come after them as kingdom workers. But we can also turn this parable over and look at it from the other side. Every one of us in the room this morning also represents one of the four types of soil in Jesus’ story. Which one are you?
Are you the hard soil by the road side? You have heard the gospel, of the Son of God who came to give his life as the atonement for the sins of the world. You have heard it – maybe once, maybe many times. Each time you’ve brushed it off or put it aside to think about another day. But the seed and the opportunity to respond will not last forever. Satan will snatch it away, just like those hungry birds in the parable. Now is the time to respond.
Or maybe you’re the shallow soil. You have made a shallow commitment at some point in your life. But it was just too hard – people made fun of you, laughed at you, or your family rejected you. And you’re ready to give up – and just forget it all.
Or maybe you are more like the cluttered soil. You have made commitments to Christ in the past. But life has become so busy, so complicated. There is still a level of faith in there somewhere, but it is so lost among all the other urgent priorities of life – that there is no real kingdom fruit to show for it. Do you need to ask the Spirit of God to do some weeding in your life?
My prayer is that all of us are or desire to become the good soil that Jesus talked about. We have heard the word of the kingdom. We have understood it and received it and responded to it. And the good news of God’s kingdom is bearing fruit in our lives.
- Briefly review the content and the developments of Matthew 12. How do you think Jesus’ disciples might have been feeling at this point? What questions might they have been asking themselves?
- Read Matthew 13:1-23 together.
- How does this parable (and Jesus’ explanation) address the disciples’ dilemma and answer their questions?
- What is Jesus saying in verse 12 and how does it relate to the Pharisees and other skeptics in the crowd? So you think the parables were given to reveal truth or to conceal it?
- Does this parable (and Jesus’ explanation) encourage you or discourage you in sharing your faith? Why?
- Some churches are criticized for having a “wide back door” (meaning lots of people come but not many stay). Could Jesus’ ministry have been subject to the same criticism? Apply this parable to both the churches mentioned and Jesus’ ministry. Same? Different?
- When people turn away and/or fall away from following Christ, how much responsibility lies with the discipler and how much with the disciplee?
- What kind of soil are you? Would you have answered that question differently at different points in your spiritual journey?