Parable of the Sower Ed Miller

(More aptly named “The Parable of the Soil”)

General observations

As you know, the message of Matthew and the life of the Lord Jesus was a life of rejection.  All the way through, especially through His three and a half year ministry He was being increasingly rejected.  As you go through the book of Matthew, especially, the rejection on the earth deepens, and as it does, the acceptance in heaven also deepens, and God says, “This is My Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”  There were three big stages of rejection in the ministry of Christ, and in every stage it came to a climax, like right here, where the Pharisees had come to a point to say, “You have a demon.”  They said, “You are casting out the devil by Beelzebub, the prince of the demons.”  It was just an outright rejection.  Then He started speaking in parables.

Then He went on in His life, and there was another heated time of tremendous rejection, and then you have a second group of parables.  And then, just before the cross, He spoke in judicial parables; His parables took on another flavor, full of judgment, and He poured out a whole third set of parables.  In the Bible, that’s what you have.  You have three sets of parables.  We’re studying the first set.  This set of parables was by the lake of Galilee, and it was in the light of the Pharisees first rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The second set was uttered after the Mount of Transfiguration when, again in Luke 10-18, tremendous rejection took place, and this time they even went beyond.  They not only said you have a demon but they almost accused Him of being the incarnation of Satan himself; a terrible opposition and rejection.  The third set of parables is in Matthew’s gospel and starts in chapter 18-25 when He gives the awful “Whoa, whoa, whitewashed sepulchers and all the rest; very heated and He begins to speak in parables—the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and all of that; very full of judgment.

The parable in Matthew 13:11 I call “Kingdom of heaven parables”, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”  So, you don’t think I’m reading this in, glance at these verses; verse 19, “the word of the kingdom,” verse 24, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared”, verse 31, “the kingdom of heaven is like”, verse 33, “the kingdom of heaven is like”, verse 38, “these are the sons of the kingdom”, verse 41, “they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling blocks”, verse 43, “then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father”; verse 44, “the kingdom of heaven is like”, verse 45, “the kingdom of heaven is like”, verse 47, “the kingdom of heaven is like”, verse 52, “therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like,” and He goes on to give another description.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that these are parables about the kingdom of heaven. 

In our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount we spent an awful lot of time nailing down what God meant by the expression “kingdom of heaven”.  Let me summarize it now by telling you what it’s not, and what it is.  The kingdom of heaven is not the visible church on the earth; the blending of the good and the bad; Christiandom, as we know it, with both the good and the bad, the wheat and the tares growing together, the good fish and the bad fish in the same net, the evil birds coming to the mustard tree as well as the good birds.  Some people say that’s what the kingdom of heaven is; Christianity with all of its good and all of its bad, permeated with leaven, so that it’s not all good now, and a lot of it is bad.  It embraces both spiritual Christians and nominal Christians.  That’s not the kingdom of heaven, not what He’s talking about. 

The kingdom of heaven is the rule of heaven, and is where the King rules.  Its’ the principles by which the place called “heaven” is governed.  I’m talking about when you die, if you know Jesus, where you’ll go.  You’ll go to heaven.  What is that kingdom like up there?  How is it ruled?  By what principles does it operate?  What is the kingdom of heaven like in heaven?  There the inhabitants, glorified saints, angels, cherubim, seraphim do the will of God without bondage.  They delight to do the will of God; they worship, adore and praise Him.  It’s not a mixture in heaven.  It’s pure and it’s holy. 

How do they live up there—by what principles and by what rules, and what motivates them?  Those spirits of just men made perfect quite literally free from the flesh, and in their spiritual beings, quite literally living in heavenly places, on what principles do they live?  The kingdom of heaven in heaven was announced by the Lord Jesus, and that was the excitement of the Sermon on the  Mount, that there is now a way that the kingdom of heaven can come to earth, and all those who live on the earth can live by kingdom of heaven principles.  We can do the will of God with the same freedom and deliberateness as all those who are in heaven do it.  We may now have a heaven on the earth and He taught us to pray Matthew 6:10, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it’s done in heaven.”  The same way things are done up there, He says is now possible to be done on the earth.  It doesn’t have to be a bondage to obey God and there doesn’t have to be a heaviness and a struggle in your spirit to do the will of God.  There’s a kingdom of heaven on the earth.  The kingdom of heaven is that spiritual life, the principles of grace, the principles of the gospel, the good news that Christ can rule your life, and you can now have the same principles that they have in heaven.  It’s the laws of grace.

Back to the parables.  All of these parables are parables on the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of grace, every one of them.  They are parables on the spiritual walk, the spiritual life, and how to do the will of God without a bondage, and how to be excited, and never be in any kind of a struggle or effort in worshipping God, and bowing before and adoring Him.  These are kingdom of heaven parables. 

One commentator said that these parables actually cover all of church history, and they compare them to the seven churches in the Revelation; so that the sower is a picture of the church of Ephesus, the backslidden church; and the wheat and the tares is a picture of Smyrna, the persecuted church; and the mustard seed is a picture of Pergamus, the licentious church, and so on.  Some interpret the parables, and say, “This parable carries you from the first century to the third century, and then the next parable of the wheat and tares goes from the third century to the middle of the fifth ,” and they do it that way. 

Others go through history, and the truth gradually increases as the day approaches .  So, for example I can expect rejection.  That was true of Jesus’ time and that’s true in the first century and third century, fifteenth century and is true today.  I can expect rejection or I can expect the kingdom to grow like a mustard seed or to spread like the weather.  That was true in Jesus day and it was true in the first century and that was true later on, and is always true.  What we’re going to do is take it one at a time just to look at the kingdom of heaven.  If you get those principles, they’ll apply in every age and generation.

The parable of the sower

Matthew 13:1, “On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea.  And great multitudes gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole multitude was standing on the beach.  And he spoke many things to them in parables, saying, ‘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.’”

Matthew 13:18-23, “Listen then to 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 sown with seed beside the road. The one sown with seed on the rocky places, this is the one 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 occurs because of the word, immediately he falls away. And the one sown with seed among the thorns, this is the one who hears the word, and the anxiety of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. But the one sown with seed on the good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces, some a hundred, some sixty, and some thirty times as much.”

In Luke 8:18 where He records the same parable we read, “Take care how you listen.”  I think that is the heart of the parable of the sower; how you listen.  In this parable the Lord Jesus compares the heart to four different types of soil; the wayside soil, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and then good soil.  The work of the sower, the hope that the seed has for surviving, depends upon what kind of soil it falls in.  The Lord Jesus said that the seed was the word of the kingdom.  It’s a word about the realm of grace, about spiritual life, about the truth of God.  This is a parable about how you receive the word, what kind of soil it falls into.  How is the message received?  The four soils are pictures of four possibilities of the condition of the heart.  They proceed from total rejection to total acceptance.  They are progressive.  But his main point is that the kingdom of heaven can only bloom in the heart that is receptive.

I realize great books have been written on the will of the man, what part man has, and what part God has, and how much God influences what part man has.  There are some people who say that man has no part, and God has 100% every part.  God does it all and man does nothing.  There are others that leave God out altogether, and say that man does everything.  In this parable, even though it wasn’t written to answer this question, I think it gives a good illustration of the truth of God.  The soil is a picture of man; the heart of man.  Some people say everybody has a divine spark within, and all you have to do is discover it, and develop it, and it will grow.  You don’t have a divine spark within.  The seed had to be brought to the soil.  The soil had nothing.  The seed had to be brought to the soil.  If the sower never sowed the seed, then the soil would never get the seed.  The seed comes from without.  It’s the seed that has the life and not the soil.  It’s God’s part to sow the seed.  It’s man’s part to receive the seed.

This is not a parable on God’s part.  This is a parable on man’s part.  He illustrates God’s part.  God will sow the seed.  He’ll get it to you.   Don’t worry about that.  God will get the seed to your heart.  No matter where you are or where you live in the whole universe of God, God will get the seed to you.  Now the question comes, and here’s the parable, how you receive it.  What is your reception like?  What kind of soil do you offer God?  I think that’s the main point of the parable.

We know that God is the first cause of all things in the whole universe, and yet I don’t need to clear my throat to say that God has created man with a heart that is free to receive everything that He gives.  Over against the instinct He put in animals where they obey instinctively, He gave man a free will.  When He gave man a will, He made man a cause in His universe, so we can’t lay sin at God’s door, and we can’t say that He’s the cause of sin.  He gave man a will, and man has the power to reject, and the power to fail.  He’s got the sovereign power to destroy himself, if he wants to.  It’s an awesome thing.  God is going to influence the will on both sides.  He’s going to repulse it, and He’s going to attract it.  He’ll always work in man’s heart to make him fear or hope, but the bottom line is that man has got to give Him a soil, and has got to give Him a reception, or the seed is not going to do him any good, no matter how much He sows.  Man has a choice what kind of soil he offers to the Lord.  God is not going to fail on His part, and this parable appeals to man not to fail on his part; to be open and receptive; to offer God good ground. Preaching the kingdom of heaven is like scattering sparks.  If it finds tinder, it will attract itself to that tinder and it will kindle itself into a flame; no tinder, no fire.

The wayside soil

First of all, Matthew 13:19 calls it “the wayside soil”,  “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it…”  Matthew is the only one that adds that key, “does not understand it.”  It’s very graphic.  This is a hard packed down foot path in the field.  This is where the donkeys walked and the wagons rolled and the workers walked in between the rows of crops.  It was hard and impenetrable.  The seed could only get to the outside of this soil because it was hard.  There was not even an inch of penetration.  It was hard, pack down ground and had no receiving.  What kind of a reception did this first soil give?  The answer is none.  The seed laid on the top.  It didn’t have a chance, and therefore illustrated by the birds, the devil came and took it away. 

The Greek word for understanding is, “They understood not.”  According to Robertson, it’s a comprehended not; they didn’t put it together.  He said that it comes from the idea that they gave it no attention.  You might get the idea just by saying that they understood it not, that it wasn’t the soil’s fault.  Isn’t that God’s fault?  He’s the One that’s supposed to turn on the lights.  He’s the One that’s to make me understand it.  It’s not their fault that they didn’t comprehend it.  They heard it, and they didn’t understand it.  Isn’t He the Illuminator?  Isn’t He the One that is supposed to show me?  That’s not the point here. 

The point is this.  It’s not a lack of light but it’s a lack of attention.  He’s hard and he doesn’t want to know.  He doesn’t pay attention to it.  That’s the idea.  This hard ground just doesn’t care.  I believe that’s why it’s first.  Attention is the first claim of the gospel.  The truth of God, and the understanding of man can never be brought together unless first there is attention.  If you don’t give God your attention, if you don’t listen, then the seed can never grow.  I believe man’s highest obligation toward God is attention.  In the context here, attention is voluntary.  I can choose the things I want to be attentive to. That first soil, the wayside soil, the trodden path, if it had a tongue or a big sign on it, the tongue or sign would say this, “Free passage here for everything but Christ.”  That’s why it was so hard.  The first soil is hard; outward rejection, and no penetration at all.  Satan takes it out of his mind as soon as it lands there because nobody spends time thinking about it.

The rocky soil

The second soil is the rocky soil.  Don’t think, as I did for years, that this is soil with rocks in it.  That’s not what He means by rocky soil.  Plants will grow in rocky soil.  The roots will just grow right around the rocks.  This is not rocky soil.  The Greek helps us out.  It’s a thin layer of earth with a bedrock pavement under it.  It’s not rocky; it’s bedrock.  It’s a cement slab.  It’s not little rocks in the soil that you can take out.  This is bedrock, with a hard base.  That’s the second picture of the human heart.  It looks a little bit better on the surface than that packed down soil, but it’s just as bad because this is just as hard; it’s hard under the soft.  It looks good.  It has an early promise but it also has early failure.  This is the one who wants the kingdom of God, now watch.  He wants the kingdom of God as long as God doesn’t go too far.  Matthew 13:20&21, “The one on whom the seed is 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.  When affliction and persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.”  The rocky soil has no moral courage.  I’m not saying we should be indifferent to trials and troubles, and pretend that they don’t bother us, but if we’re open to the truth of the kingdom of heaven, then our goal will not be our own safety, comfort and happiness, but we’ll lay hold of principles that are higher than that, and overrule those dangers.

If you ever have the privilege of sowing seed, sharing the grace of God with anybody, individually or in a group, don’t put too much stock in first receptions.  This rocky soil received it with joy.  I used to come home from a conference all excited, “Boy, they just received it with great joy.”  The years tell the story.  It’s not the first reception.  Let’s follow ten or twenty years, and then you’ll see if there was soil there.  Maybe it’s a shallow reception.  The test of all reality is fruit.  That’s not only from this chapter, but it’s from the whole New Testament.  As long as there is no price to pay, this soil says, “Okay,” but if the sun comes up, and it gets hot, or there is any trouble with it, forget it.  Those who meet the Son of God in reality are going to quickly see that He is not of this world, and this world is not of Him.  To receive the good seed you are going to go outside the camp, and you are going to walk in a narrow path, and you are going to be a peculiar people, and you are going to be crucified to the world, and the world is going to be crucified to you, and through tribulation you are going to enter the kingdom of heaven. No wonder Jesus said, “Take heed how you hear and let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

The thorny soil

The third soil is the thorny soil.  The thorns are described in Matthew 13:22, “The one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man that hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke out the word and it becomes unfruitful.”  I used to picture intertwining vines and choking out the poor stalk, getting all wrapped around with a weed and being choked to death.  That’s not the point at all.  The answer is that the soil can’t bear both the plant and weeds.  It chokes it out by the weeds eating up all the nutrients.  It takes all of the nourishment.  That’s why you weed your garden; not that the weeds are going to jump up and take all your eggplants or tomato plants.  They aren’t going to do that.  They are just going to sap out of the soil all the necessary nutrients that your good plant needs.  The soil can’t support both.

This is a picture of the crowded, preoccupied and divided heartHe wants both; he wants the world, the kingdom of the earth, but he doesn’t want to throw the kingdom of heaven out the window, either.  He wants gold and God; he wants mammon and the Lord.  But he can only feed one.  Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters.”  There can only be one, so the Lord is the one that gets choked out.  The love of the world always neutralizes the gospel; it always does.  This third soil wants position and power in the world, wants wealth, wants comfort, wants pleasure, wants security, wants influence, wants authority, wants approval, wants fame, and feeds those things, and gives all his energy to those things, and lives for those things, and throws the Lord in on the side, and He is choked out, and the principles of the kingdom are choked out.  The parable asks, “How do you receive?”  The third soil says, “I receive it conditionally; on the condition I can keep all the other stuff.  I still want the pleasures of this world.  I don’t want to have to give it up.  If I accept Christ, and I give myself to Him, I’m going to have to give up too much.  It’s going to cost me.  I still want to think about my houses, about my lands and about my pleasure and about my money and about my success, my attainments, my dreams, my ambitions, my education and about going to the top.  If I can still do that, I’ll be glad to be a Christian.  I receive it conditionally.”

The good soil

The fourth soil says, “I receive it unreservedly.  I’ll give it my full attention.  There will be no reservations and no conditions.”  Look at Matthew 13:23, “The one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth some one hundred fold, and some sixty, and some thirty.”  Mark 4:20 says, “They hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit thirty, sixty, a hundred fold.”  The basic ingredient of good soil is reception.  They accept it.  Luke 8:15, “The seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word with an honest and good heart, who hold it fast, and who bear fruit with perseverance.”   The one is unreservedly open to receive the seed of the kingdom. 

The good soil also has birds flying around it trying to get the seed, and it also has the hot sun shining upon it, and also has the potential of noxious weeds growing up all around it, and choking it out.  But this good soil, by an act of volition, by an act of the will, has offered to God an unreserved reception.  It gives all of its attention, come what may.  There is no line at which it says, “Okay, Lord, you can grow in me but if it comes this far, I’m not giving up my family, I’m not giving up my car, I’m not giving up my job.”  There’s no reserves, and there is no bedrock.  It’s just the soil that gives itself unto God and says, “No matter what, Lord; let the sun shine, let the persecution come, let the trials come, let the cares of this world come, let all the pleasures of life come.  It’s not going to choke it out.  I’m going to hold it fast, with perseverance.  I’m going to embrace it.”  That’s good soil.  The proof, the evidence, the test of good soil is always fruit.  Where there is an unreserved reception of the seed, the living seed of the word of the King of all heaven, there will always, and there is never an exception to this, be fruit. 

Some people make a big deal out of the fact that Matthew says 100, 60 and 30 and Luke says 30, 60 and 100 and reverses the order.  I think God did that to show you that the order is not important.  I don’t think God is comparing some good ground Christians produce more than other good ground Christians.  I don’t think He’s contrasting fruit with fruit.  I think He’s contrasting fruit with no fruit.  The point of 30, 60 and 100 is capacity.  In good ground we all produce fruit.  But the 100% is not to be desired over the 60% or the 60% over the 30%.  He’s talking about capacity.  Good ground is good ground and all you can ever give God is good ground.  You can’t give Him anything else than that.  You can’t do better than giving Him an unreserved reception of His word as it comes to your heart.  But we’re not all going to produce the same way.  We all have different capacities, we all have different mentalities, and we all have different gifts of the Spirit of God.  He’s not condemning someone for only bringing forth 30%.  If you had a roomful of thirty percenters, equal capacity, you’d have a roomful of one hundred percenters.  The thirty percent is 100%, if you produce to full capacity.  The whole purpose of comparing 30, 60 and 100 is just to say that we’re not going to produce the same.  There is going to be differences among us, but we are all going to bring forth fruit unto the Lord. 

The appeal of the parable is how do you hear; how do you listen?  What do you give God as a receiver?  The wayside soil says, “I don’t give it any attention.  I’m hard.”  The rocky soil says, “I’m shallow.  I accept it, but with reservations.  Don’t go too far.”  The thorny soil says, “I’m a little bit preoccupied.  I accept it with conditions.  Let me feed my own pleasures and I’ll be glad to throw a little in toward the Lord.”  And the fourth soil answers back, “I receive it unqualifiedly and without any reservations.  Come what may; hell or high water, as they say.  I’ve given myself over to it.  I want the seed of the kingdom.”

Life Principle #1

Don’t be discourage if three quarters of people reject it

Before leaving this, let me state for you five general principles of application.  I won’t develop it a lot but you’ll see that it can be easily developed.  Principle #1: If you are modelled after this sower, if you have the privilege of sharing the message of the grace of God with anybody, don’t be discouraged if three quarters of the people you speak to reject it.  Three fourths of these soils were rejected.  If the Master Sower, the one who did it always right, if He had that kind of reception, I have an idea that we who are not Master sowers may increase that percentage a little bit on rejection.  Don’t be discouraged if people don’t listen.  There is always going to be those who are hard and shallow and divided.

Life Principle #2

Don’t blame the sower or the seed for non-reception

Since God lays full responsibility upon us as the soil, to receive the seed, don’t blame and pass the buck when you are not receptive.  It’s not the Sower’s fault because He’s not drawing me, “He didn’t convict me of that yet.”  Don’t blame the Sower.  And certainly don’t blame the seed.  The seed has life.  Don’t say, “The word of God is so dry, and so boring; they’ll never get anything out of it.”  The word of God is alive because the Bible is the shell and Christ is the life.  The only thing more precious than the Bible is what it contains; the revelation, the Living Word of Christ Himself.  It’s alive.  Don’t blame the seed.  Don’t blame the birds, “It’s not my fault.  Satan came along and took it.”  Don’t blame the sun, “I’m going through all these problems and trials and difficulties, and I can’t turn to the Lord now.  I’m pretty busy.”  And don’t blame the thorns, “I didn’t mean to get involved in all of this, and get so busy that I didn’t have time for the Lord.  I didn’t mean to get swallowed up with all of this fiscal irresponsibility and snowed by all of this debt.  I didn’t mean to get lured away into these places of bad relationships and unholy alliances with unholy people.”  Don’t blame the thorns, don’t blame the sun, don’t blame the birds, don’t blame the seed and don’t blame the sower.  You’re responsible before God to give Him a soil that will receive the truth of God and there are no excuses.

Life Principle #3: 

Praise God for being a liberal sower!

We have reason and cause to praise God for what kind of a sower He is.  “Very sloppy throwing that seed all over the place, and getting it out of the farm, and onto the hard ground, onto the path.”  Praise God for the kind of a sower we have who will throw that seed all over the place, even though the ground is not receptive.  He still throws it on the ground, leaving man without excuse.  Glorious sower we have!

Life Principle #4:

The condition of the soils are not permanently fixed 

You are not locked into one particular soil.  That’s why He said, “Take heed how you hear.”  Don’t think, “Well I’m good soil and I’ll never be anything else.”  The fact is that at any moment in your life you can be any one of those soils.  Every time the word of God goes out, you have an opportunity to be one of those four soils, and you are every time.  I look back in my life and there are plenty of times that I did not give my attention to the word of God.  It just laid on the top.  I’m not fooling anybody.  There’s plenty of times too that I buckled under the pressures of persecution and the trouble.  I was a rocky soil, reserved, “Come this far, Lord, but no further.”  There’s also plenty of times when the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches choked out the good word of God.  And there’s also been some good soil.  You are not locked in.  That’s what is so glorious about this thing.  It’s not once and for all, “The first three are unsaved and are going to hell.”  The first three did reject in that sowing but I know the Lord sowed again and again.  How many times?  When the Lord first sowed His seed upon me, I’ll tell you, I was not in church with my head bowed.  When God first sowed His seed on me, I was a well-trodden path, and God was so good.  We have much reason to rejoice.  At any moment in your life you can be any one of these four soils and so can I.

Life Principle #5

The evidence of good soil is fruit

The test, the evidence, of good soil is fruit.  What kind of fruit?  Well, the fruit is like the seed, and the seed is the word of the kingdom, so the fruit will be the blossoms of the kingdom, the evidence that the kingdom of heaven is increasing in your life, and you are being enculturated in the ways and principles of God, and you are being conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, being made like Him and being made fully.

Let me give you a clincher verse to wrap all this up.  In the book of Kings God told Solomon to ask anything he wanted and God would give it.  1 Kings 3:9 KJV says that he asked for wisdom.  But he didn’t ask for wisdom.  That’s what I like about the New American Standard.  In the margin it gives the literal.  This is Solomon’s prayer, “Give Thy servant a hearing heart.”  Isn’t that something!  Can you pray in your heart to the Lord 1 Kings 3:9, “Give Thy servant a hearing heart.”?  Oh, that we might be the good soil that gives unreservedly an openness to receive the seed of the kingdom!