Introduction [After having read all of verses 1-23]: I recently read a testimonial from someone who attended the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Here is a part of that testimonial:
I have, for a long time, been passionate about making the Bible relevant in contemporary culture and talking to people where they are at. So when I found that LICC was running a course teaching practical skills on just this subject, I thought it would be good to take part.
Notice the emphasis on the need to “make the Bible relevant in contemporary culture.” This statement betrays a bias that sees the Bible as inherently irrelevant. It can only become relevant to those in our modern culture if we make it so.
Contrast this with a statement from John MacArthur in an online article entitled What Does This Verse Mean “to Me”?:
We don’t make the Bible relevant; it is inherently so, simply because it is God’s Word. And after all, how can anything God says be irrelevant?
You see the difference? One approach sees the ultimate determination of relevance as rooted in what our contemporary culture thinks is relevant, whereas the other approach sees the ultimate determination of relevance as being rooted in the authority of God Himself. The Bible is relevant because He revealed it, and if we do not think it is relevant – and therefore resist hearing it on its own terms – then the problem is with us, not the Bible.
The reason I bring up this issue is because I believe that the Parable of the Sower speaks to it as well. And today, as we examine the parable in context, it will become apparent that Jesus simply preached the Word faithfully, expecting that not all would see its true relevance. But He saw the problem as lying within those to whom He preached, not the Word itself.
So, let’s take a look at the parable and observe first of all that it is an allegory, in which the various elements of the story correspond to people or things outside it. Thus, we will see that the sower in the parable refers primarily to Jesus, although he can also refer to others who share the Word as Jesus did, i.e. the disciples and all of us who follow in their footsteps. In the parable Jesus is describing the different reactions to His teaching ministry and why these different reactions exist. The seed, then, refers to the Word of God that Jesus preached and that we share with others as well. And the various types of ground refer to the various types of people who hear the Word, or, even better, to the condition of the hearts of those who hear.
As we examine the parable and Jesus’ explanation of it, we will focus upon what happened to the seed as it was sown on each of the four different types of ground. So, without further ado, lets take a look at each of these.
I. The Seed That Fell by the Wayside
Jesus first spoke of this ground in verse 4:
NKJ Matthew 13:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them.
The “wayside” refers to a path along the field. This path had become hardened due to the foot traffic it received. Thus the seed couldn’t penetrate the soil, and it just lay there so that the birds were able to eat it. Jesus explained the meaning of this ground in verse 19:
NKJ Matthew 13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.
Notice a couple of important things about the wayside person:
1) Jesus says that this person hears the Word but does not understand it. But notice that the fault does not lie here with the sower or the seed, but rather with the ground. The sower has done His job well enough, having sown good seed, but the ground is unable to receive it. This explains the many people who heard Jesus teach but who lacked the spiritual understanding necessary to take it in.
2) Notice also that, since these people were unable to understand and thus respond in faith to Jesus’ message, the “wicked one” – that is, the devil – was able to snatch it away. Now, Jesus doesn’t explain how the devil accomplishes this. He just says that somehow the devil deprives these unbelievers of the word they had heard.
As the Apostle Paul told the Corinthian church, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
Application: There are a couple of ways that we can begin to apply what Jesus is saying here.
First, we can learn from the way that Jesus operates versus the way the devil operates. We do know that the devil is a deceiver, and that he seeks to prevent people from believing the truth by filling their heads with lies that they find more acceptable than the truth. In other words, he is quite willing to tailor his message to fit what sinful people want to hear. But Jesus would never distort the message in this way! And neither should we! We must understand that there will be many hardhearted people out there who simply cannot and will not receive the word of God. But it is never our job to try to alter the message in order to make it more acceptable to them. It is our job simply to be faithful in proclaiming the message as we have received it from the Lord. As James White is fond of saying, “the Gospel is ours to proclaim, not to edit!”
Second, we can reflect upon what kind of ground we are. Ask yourself, “Am I a hardhearted person? Have I really understood the Gospel?” I suspect that most of you here this morning can answer, “Yes,” to this question. I suspect, for example, that you can say, “Yes, I understand that I am a sinner, as the Bible says, and that the only way for me to be saved is to trust in Jesus’ death on the cross, where He bore the wrath of God for sinners, and to believe that He rose from the dead that I might have everlasting life. I know that I must repent and seek His forgiveness for my sins and give my whole life to Him.”
Now, assuming you understand all this, let me ask you another question: Do you really believe it? Have you really trusted Christ – and Christ alone – to save you from your sins? Have you relinquished all your own efforts as worthless and relied solely upon the work of Christ and the grace of God to save you? If not, then perhaps you are not so different from the wayside person after all, since you have done nothing with what you claim to understand. Or maybe you are just a stony ground kind of person, about whom we shall read next.
II. The Seed That Fell on Stony Ground
Jesus first spoke of this ground in verses 5-6:
NKJ Matthew 13:5-6 Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. 6 But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.
This ground is not ground that just has a bunch of rocks in it. Rather it is ground found in many parts of Palestine, where there is a thin layer of soil with limestone beneath it. The seed germinates quickly because the soil is warm and loose, but as it grows in the sun it cannot take root deep enough to survive. Jesus explained the meaning of this ground in verses 20-21:
NKJ Matthew 13:20-21 But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
The stony ground person is different from the wayside person in that he appears to understand the Word. He thus receives it with great joy. Such a person apparently has quite an emotional and excited reaction to the Gospel. But herein is the problem. This person’s acceptance of the Word seems to be no more than an emotional reaction, because when difficulties come because of the Word he does not persevere. In fact, he gives up very quickly. As Jesus says, “when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles” (italics mine). As William Hendriksen, in his commentary on Matthew, observes:
Today’s evangelical revival gatherings, undoubtedly sources of blessing for many, add illustrative material. Investigation has established that by no means all those who at the spur of the moment – emotionally affected by the message and personal appeal of the evangelist, as well as by the music and the words of the old familiar hymns – were led to come forward and to sign the pledge card, have remained faithful. (BNTC, e-Sword)
But most of these people have nothing like the reasons Jesus gives here for some people’s lack of perseverance in the faith. He speaks of “tribulation and persecution because of the Word.” One can only imagine how many more people today would fall away under genuine persecution for the faith. But, as the author of Hebrews says to true believers, I trust that “we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:39).
Application: Again we can begin to apply what Jesus is teaching here in several ways.
First, we can remember that not everyone who seems enthusiastic about the Gospel is necessarily a true believer. Emotional reactions are not necessarily the best measure of a genuine acceptance of the truth.
Second, since we know this is true, we should not seek to emotionally manipulate people into expressing faith in Christ, as is too often done in evangelistic crusades and so called “revivals.”
Third, we can again reflect upon what kind of ground we are. Ask yourself, for example, “After the initial excitement about my new-found faith in Christ began to wain, did my faithfulness to Him seem to go with it?” Perhaps you are still going to church and going through all the religious motions, since there is not the kind of persecution that would have weeded you out of the body of Christ by now, but you know you really don’t trust Christ in your heart, and even the smallest problems in your life begin to reveal your lack of trust in Him. It could be that you are not so different from the stony ground person after all.
Or maybe you are just a thorny ground kind of person, about whom we shall read next.
III. The Seed That Fell Among Thorns
Jesus first spoke of this ground in the parable in verse 7:
NKJ Matthew 13:7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.
Here Jesus refers to seed that is sown in a part of the field where there are thorns growing. Perhaps the thorn bushes had been burned off by the farmer, but the roots were still intact, so that, when the seed began to grow, the thorns grew up with it and kept it from getting the nourishment it needed. Jesus explained the meaning of this ground in verse 22:
NKJ Matthew 13:22 Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.
The thorny ground person is so filled with the cares of this world and the thought that they may be relieved by worldly means that there is no room for the Word of God. He may not actually be a rich man, but he has succumbed to the deceitfulness of riches nonetheless. Again William Hendriksen is helpful in driving home the point:
[A] heart filled with worry with respect to the workaday world and beclouded by dreams about riches thwarts any influence for good that might otherwise proceed from the entrance of the kingdom message. Such a heart is preoccupied. It has no room for calm and earnest meditation on the word of the Lord. Should any such serious study and reflection nevertheless attempt to gain entrance, it would immediately be choked off. Constant anxiety about worldly affairs fill mind and heart with dark foreboding. When this person is poor he deceives himself into thinking that if he were only rich he would be happy. When he is rich he deludes himself into imagining that if he were only still richer he would be satisfied, as if material riches could under any circumstances guarantee contentment.
The man in question cannot be richly blessed nor can he be a blessing. The word as it affects him cannot be fruitful. There is nothing wrong with the sower. Also, there is nothing wrong with the seed. With the man, however, everything is wrong. He should ask the Lord to deliver him from absorbing cares and dream-world delusions, so that the kingdom message may begin to have free course in heart and life. (BNTC, e-Sword)
Or as Kent Hughes illustrates the point:
This is the divided heart – like the heart of the girl to which a young man once proposed. He said, “Darling, I want you to know that I love you more than anything else in the world. I want you to marry me. I’m not rich. I don’t have a yacht or Rolls Royce like Johnny Brown, but I do love you with all my heart.” She thought for a minute and then replied, “I love you with all my heart, too, but tell me more about Johnny Brown.” (Mark, Vol. 1, p. 108)
You see, such a person may appear to be a true believer at first, but as time goes by and growth is expected, it just never seems to happen. Fruit is sought but never found. This is because they are never truly serving Christ, who Himself warned that, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24).
Application: Again we can begin to apply Jesus’ teaching to our own situation in a couple of ways.
First, we can recall the deceitfulness of riches and denounce those who would seek to preach the Gospel as a means to personal wealth. In my view, this is exactly what the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” seeks to do. It is a false gospel that appeals to people’s love for riches and essentially tells them that God and mammon are one and the same! But the so-called churches that teach such heresy are filled with many, many false believers.
Second, we can again reflect upon what kind of ground we are. Ask yourself, for example, “Do I allow worldly cares to crowd out any real relationship with God?” Or, “Am I so focused on worldly things that I have no time for God’s Word?” If the answers to these questions are not what they should be, then you may be more like the thorny ground kind of person that you might have thought.
But there is still one more kind of ground, and that is good ground. It is the kind of ground I believe there is a great deal of here in this congregation! So let’s turn our attention now to this kind of ground.
IV. The Seed That Fell on Good Ground
Jesus first spoke of this ground in verse 8:
NKJ Matthew 13:8 But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
This ground obviously refers to soil that is ideal for planting. It is not too hard or too shallow or infested with thorn bushes. This kind of ground can thus produce crops with varying degrees of fruitfulness. Some parts of the field may be more productive than others, but all produce. Jesus explained the meaning of this ground in verse 23:
NKJ Matthew 13:23 But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Notice a couple of important things here about the good ground kind of person:
1) This person is the only one whom Jesus says understands the word. He has earlier said that the wayside person doesn’t understand the Word at all, but now it becomes apparent that even the stony ground or thorny ground person doesn’t really understand the Word either, however much they may seem to understand it. All the kinds of people described by Jesus hear the Word, but apparently only the good ground person truly understands it. The good ground person is, then, the only one who is a genuine believer.
2) The good ground people demonstrate their true understanding of the Word in that they bear fruit. Of course, they don’t all bear the same amount of fruit. Some bear less and some bear more. But they all bear fruit because they all truly understand the Word and thus have genuinely received it.
As Jesus told the disciples on another occasion:
NKJ John 15:3-8 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. 8 By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
Thus, a genuine believer bears fruit because he genuinely understands and believes the Word. But what kind of fruit does Jesus have in mind? Well, we can say from John 15 that such fruit consists of whatever in our lives brings glory to the Father. But we can also look at passages such as:
NKJ Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.
Or perhaps to Paul’s example:
NKJ Romans 1:13-15 Now I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that I often planned to come to you (but was hindered until now), that I might have some fruit among you also, just as among the other Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. 15 So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also.
Here Paul speaks of what we might call “Gospel fruit” – the fruit of others coming to know Christ through the preaching of the Gospel. But we can all produce fruit in whatever ministry we have been given by God, whether it be the fruit of children who come to know the Lord, or others growing in their faith because of our teaching or encouragement, or perhaps the way in which we meet the needs of others through giving of our time and money. Whatever we do that magnifies Christ and glorifies God in our lives is fruit, and the true believer will always bear such fruit to some degree.
Application: The application here is pretty obvious. You and I can be assured that we have genuinely understood the Word and have been transformed by it when we see genuine fruit in our lives. Do you have such fruit? Even just a little? Then be encouraged, for you have passed the test that Jesus gives here. It is the same test that Paul put to the Corinthian church, when he said, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you are disqualified” (2 Cor. 13:5).
Conclusion: I will conclude where I began today, by emphasizing that God’s Word is relevant, and we do not need to make it relevant. We may try to help people see how it is relevant – as I have sought to do in suggesting applications for us today– but this doesn’t mean trying to tailor the message to what people want to hear. For, if they are good ground, they will hear it and receive it as it is. And if they are any other kind of ground, telling them what they want to hear will only exacerbate their problem. Let us be the kind of sower that Jesus was, faithfully sowing the same seed, and trusting God to sort out the rest.