1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
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.”
David Platt has mentioned a fascinating little story from the life of the great evangelist of yesteryear, George Whitfield.
George Whitfield, the passionate and powerful preacher of the First Great Awakening, used to preach to massive crowds numbering in the thousands, and people were greatly affected by his evangelistic message. When Whitfield was asked how many people were saved, he would say, “We’ll see in a few years.”
What strikes me about this answer is (1) how very different it is from the very certain announcement of numbers that we get from many of our evangelists today and (2) how wise this response is in light of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds. It is not that we should be skeptical of those who profess Christ. Rather, Whitfield’s response is, in my opinion, a simple affirmation of an abundantly evident truth: sometimes those who profess Christ end up revealing that they never truly took hold of Him.
Again, Jesus said as much in Matthew 13 in words that are sobering and critically important in our day.
The movement of sowing.
When one considers the famous parable of the sower and the seeds—i.e., the parable of the sower who throws out seed and sees varying results—one can identify four basic movements.
Movement #1: Seed is Sown
The obvious first movement is that the seed is sown by the sower.
3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4a And as he sowed…
This raises two important questions: (1) who is the sower and (2) what is the seed? To the first question, the answer is, first and foremost. Christ. Remember that the chapter immediately preceding this is filled with Christ’s teaching, demonstrating the Kingdom, and receiving both faith and opposition from those who heard. It is a chapter, in other words, of various responses to the seed that Christ was sowing. So the context would support the proposal that Christ is the sower.
So, too, does the way that the seed is defined in the parable. It is defined four times, the first definition being more specific than the final three definitions.
- The word of the kingdom (v.19)
- The word (v.20,22,23)
The seed is the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom, the good news that (1) we have a King, (2) He loves us and has laid down His life for us, and (3) we can enter the Kingdom by grace through faith. So Jesus sows the seed of the gospel and receives different reactions.
At this point, however, it also needs to be said that while Christ is the Sower, all who proclaim, demonstrate, and call people into the Kingdom—all who bear witness to Christ—are also sowers. This is what it is to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). We are sowers beneath the Sower who has given us the seed of the Kingdom.
Movement #2: Seed is Received
And how is the seed sown? In the parable we see that the seed, the word of the Kingdom, is presented and heard. It is interesting how many times “hearing” is referenced in this parable. We see it in verses 18, 19, 20, 22, and 23.
Someone proclaims the gospel and the gospel is heard. But biblically hearing is not merely a physical, auditory reality. It is more than that, as Paul demonstrates in Romans 10.
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
That last verse is key: (1) faith comes from hearing and (2) hearing through the word of Christ. Here we find the first two elements of the parable, namely, “word” (i.e., sowing) and “hearing.” Paul fleshes this idea of hearing and faith out beautifully in Galatians 3.
2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
Hearing that is true hearing that is bathed in faith. “Faith comes from hearing.” “Hearing with faith.” This is not just a matter of certain sounds making it into the side of somebody’s head. This is a matter of certain truths being received by faith and resulting in faith.
Movement #3: Seed Meets Soil
To understand that we need to ask one more question. Where is the soil? If the seed is the word of the Kingdom and it is sown by being proclaimed and demonstrated it is received by hearing unto faith, what is the soil upon which if falls. Jesus gives us two insights into this in the parable.
- “what has been sown in his heart” (v.19)
- “he has not root in himself” (v.21)
The soil is the inner reality of the person who hears the sown word of the kingdom.
The soil is the heart.
Yes, this is a picture of the sower sowing seed in the world, but to say that is simply to say that the sower sows seed in the hearts of all who hear.
This is the picture that Jesus is painting. He is sowing the seed of the gospel in the world and the hearts of those who hear are either hearing it in faith or hearing it and ultimately rejecting it. In reality, Jesus points to four different possibilities for the hearts that hear the sown word of the Kingdom.
The soils and their results.
The power of this parable can be seen in the nuance of the picture Jesus paints of the ways people receive or ultimately reject the gospel that He brought into the world. Here are the possibilities Jesus describes.
What a picture this is! Of the four examples, the first three are negative. We find here:
- a hearing that withers under Satanic attack;
- a hearing that is scorched under the hot sun of suffering;
- a hearing that is choked by the concerns and pursuits of the world.
Is the point that all three of these categories represent lost people and only the last represents somebody who is saved?
Perhaps we should be careful here. All three are negative, that is true. And it is quite possible that Jesus is creating a picture of three categories of lostness. Or it could be that, say, the first one or two depict the lost but the third represents somebody who is truly born again but has stopped walking with Jesus. Again, we should be cautious here. After all, there are those who are truly saved who struggle and fall and, of course, we all know what it is to struggle and fall!
But this much seems true: the first three pictures are not pictures of what life in the Kingdom with our King is intended to be. They are not good pictures. They are not healthy pictures. Whatever else you may say about them, they are indeed warnings.
Do any of these resonate with you? Do you see any of these in your own life or have you seen them before in others? Do you know the person who hears the gospel and burns with white hot intensity…but only for a moment? Do you know the person—or are you the person—who hears and appears to believe but then you keep throwing yourself among the thorns of the world? Are you the person who wants the word in your heart and who loves Jesus…but deep down you do now want to pay any price to follow Him?
The deeper question, is this? Has the word of the gospel that Christ has presented to you (however He did so) truly taken root in your heart?
In his great book, Spiritual Depression, the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:
I am suggesting that this is the case with large numbers of people still. They have assumed that they are right about the first things, but they never have been right about their justification, and it is just here that the devil causes confusion. It suits him well that such people should be concerned about sanctification and holiness and various other things, but they can never be right until they are right here, and that is why we must start with this. It is no use going on to deal with the superstructure if the foundation is not right. [italics mine]
Yes! This is so! I am not saying we should live stuck in morbid introspection never resting in the assurance of Christ’s love for us, that we should every moment torture ourselves with, “Am I really saved?!” No, we have been called to trust in Christ and rest in the certainty of His promises. However, surely it is right to ask ourselves soberly, “Am I saved? Has the word taken root in my heart? Or am I one of these first three pictures?”
The fourth picture, though, gives us hope.
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.”
This is the way of the Kingdom! This is what we have been called to. This picture of fruitfulness is vivid and encouraging and soul-stirring! Craig Keener offers some helpful background.
Thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold are tremendously good harvests from Galilean soil. The Jordan Valley normally yielded between ten and a hundredfold, so a hundredfold need not be a miraculous harvest…But for much of Palestine, the average yield was tenfold (meaning that 10 seeds were harvested for every seed sown), and all the figures Jesus reports here are very good yields.
This tells us that there may be times when we are more or less fruitful (i.e., hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold)…but we are all called to bear fruit! This is the joyful privilege of the Kingdom, the privilege of walking with King Jesus and evidencing His life increasingly in our own.
Let us return to Whitfield.
When Whitfield was asked how many people were saved, he would say, “We’ll see in a few years.”
May the Lord and the watching world say of us, “Yes, he is saved. Yes, she is saved. Look at their lives! Look how the seed of the Kingdom has taken root in his/her life! Look at how much he/she looks like Jesus!”
May it be so. Lord, make it so.
 Platt, David. Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. Kindle Highlight Loc. 269-72.
 Craig S. Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993, p.82.