1 On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea.
2 Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat down, while the whole crowd stood on the shore.
3 Then He told them many things in parables, saying: “Consider the sower who went out to sow.
4 As he was sowing, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
5 Others fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t much soil, and they sprang up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep.
6 But when the sun came up they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered.
7 Others fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them.
8 Still others fell on good ground, and produced a crop: some 100, some 60, and some 30 times [what was sown].
9 Anyone who has ears should listen!”
18 “You, then, listen to the parable of the sower:
19 When anyone hears the word about the kingdom and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the one sown along the path.
20 And the one sown on rocky ground—this is one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy.
21 Yet he has no root in himself, but is short-lived. When pressure or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
22 Now the one sown among the thorns—this is one who hears the word, but the worries of this age and the seduction of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
23 But the one sown on the good ground—this is one who hears and understands the word, who does bear fruit and yields: some 100, some 60, some 30 times [what was sown].”
(This parable also is found in Mark 4:1-9, 13-20 and in Luke 8:4-8, 11-15.)
Jesus probably is staying with Peter at his home in Capernaum. He has just tussled with the scribes and Pharisees who accused him of eating “unlawfully” and of healing on the Sabbath. He has foiled a plot by the Pharisees to kill Him. He has cast a demon out of a man and then answered the Pharisees’ accusation that He is casting out demons by Satan’s power. He has rebuked the Pharisees for demanding a sign that He is the Christ. And he has denied his own family’s request to see Him by declaring that His family consists of all who believe in Him. Now, in chapter 13, the Scripture says in verse one, “On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea [of Galilee].”
It is significant that in chapter 12 Jesus shows clear evidence He is the Messiah and that His kingdom has invaded Satan’s kingdom:
- He declares Himself greater than the Temple and is indeed “Lord of the Sabbath.”
- He casts out demons and heals the sick.
- He foretells His death, burial and resurrection as the one sure sign He is the Son of God.
- He rebukes the Jews of His generation for their wickedness and foretells their judgment (which falls in 70 A.D.).
- And He declares that His true family is not earthly but heavenly, not of flesh and blood but of spirit.
Matt. 12:28 is crucial in setting the stage for Jesus’ parables in chapter 13: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Jesus declares that the long-awaited kingdom of heaven has come – but not in the way the Jewish leaders were expecting. Rather than as a political and military machine, the kingdom has come quietly and with great spiritual power, invading Satan’s kingdom and binding him (the “strong man” of Matt. 12:29) so that He may plunder the evil one’s kingdom.
The scribes and Pharisees will have none of this teaching and reject the King and His kingdom. So in chapter 13, as Jesus leaves Peter’s house and sits beside the sea, multitudes gather around Him, having witnessed His miracles and having heard His declaration that the kingdom of heaven has come. So Jesus gets into a boat – perhaps Peter’s boat or a boat made available for Jesus’ use whenever He needed it – and begins a series of eight parables on the kingdom of heaven. In this first parable – the parable of the sower – it is possible that farmers on the hillsides along the sea were in their fields sowing seed, with the ever-present birds hovering in the air above them.
The central theme of this parable is that the kingdom of heaven has come among men and yet men can reject it. As George Eldon Ladd writes, “The mystery of the Kingdom is this: The Kingdom of God is here but not with irresistible power. The Kingdom of God has come, but it is not like a stone grinding an image to powder. It is not now destroying wickedness. On the contrary, it is like a man sowing seed. It does not force itself upon men…. This was a staggering thing to one who knew only the Old Testament…. One day God will indeed manifest His mighty power to purge the earth of wickedness, sin and evil; but not now. God’s Kingdom is working among men, but God will not compel them to bow before it. They must receive it; the response must come from a willing heart and a submissive will” (The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 56-57).
Christ no doubt is the sower, but in a sense every believer who shares the gospel is a sower as well. In Jesus’ day, farmers walked through their fields scattering seed by hand broadly across their property, knowing that a high percentage of the seed would not bear fruit. Normally, another member of the family would follow the sower closely and plow the seed under. But many of the seeds were eaten by birds as they fell on footpaths; others landed in shallow soil with a stratum of rock beneath; and others fell at the fringes of the property among thorn bushes that the farmers used to build small cooking fires. Still, the seed is broadcast widely, and some seed finds the good soil, thus raising up a crop.
Jesus interprets the parable for His disciples:
- The seed is the word of God (Luke 8:11) – the good news that the kingdom has come in the Person of Jesus the Messiah and that all may enter into the kingdom by faith in Him, the Word (Logos, John 1:1).
- The birds represent Satan, who “takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12).
- The seed along the path stands for the impact of the word on hearers who do not understand. Their hearts are hardened like the footpaths winding through ancient wheat fields. They cannot believe because they will not believe, much like the Jewish leaders Jesus described in Matt. 13:12-15.
- The seed on the rocky ground represents the impact of the word on shallow, uncommitted hearers. They may have an emotional response to the gospel but walk away when the reality of kingdom living – which may include pressure or persecution – sets in. Jesus’ followers who left him in John 6:66 are examples of those who loved Jesus’ miracles but balked at the call to discipleship.
- The seed among the thorns illustrates the impact of the word on worldly hearers. Though understanding the gospel of the kingdom, they prefer the “worries, riches, and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). The rich young ruler who encountered Jesus falls into this category of hearers (Luke 18:18-23).
- The seed in the good ground represents the impact of the word on those who, “having heard the word with an honest and good heart, hold on to it and by enduring, bear fruit” (Luke 8:15) – “some 100, some 60, some 30 times [what was sown]” (Matt. 13:23).
In Jesus’ day, farmers sowed widely across their fields, knowing that perhaps one in three seeds would grow to maturity. As believers, we are to sow the gospel of the kingdom widely and indiscriminately, trusting God to grant the harvest.
Regarding the kingdom, Jesus’ parable of the sower is a clear message that His kingdom would not at this time come in power and great glory; instead, it would reside in the hearts of willing believers and be resisted by many. This is not what the Jews were expecting, and many rejected Jesus and His call to the kingdom because He is not the political and military leader they are seeking. At the same time, Satan, whose kingdom Jesus has invaded, will hover watchfully and snatch the gospel away from those whose hearts are hardened against it, lest, person by person, he lose power as “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4).
Matt. 13:10-17, 34-35 (HCSB)
10 Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
11 He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.
12 For whoever has, [more] will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.
14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back— and I would cure them.
16 But your eyes are blessed because they do see, and your ears because they do hear!
17 For I assure you: Many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see yet didn’t see them; to hear the things you hear yet didn’t hear them.”
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and He would not speak anything to them without a parable,
35 so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: I will open My mouth in parables; I will declare things kept secret from the foundation of the world.
A parable is a story drawn from everyday experience to illustrate a deeper truth – in Scripture, a spiritual truth. The teaching of parables goes back to antiquity. The first parable recorded in the Bible is that of the trees choosing for themselves a king (Judges 9:7-15). There are numerous parables in both the Old and New Testaments, but the most common parables are those taught by Jesus. While Jesus was not the first to use parables, He endowed them with unparalleled originality and spiritual depth. In fact, more than one-third of all His recorded sayings are parables.
Two Greek words are translated “parable” in the New Testament: parabole (48 times), meaning “to represent or stand for something,” and paroimia (four times in John), meaning “an adage, dark saying, proverb, a presentation deviating from the usual means of speaking.” As Herbert Lockyer writes in All the Parables of the Bible, “Parables prove that the external is the mirror in which we may behold the internal and the spiritual.” Parables also reward the faithful learner. As Matthew Henry writes in his unabridged commentary, “A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent, but keeps it from the slothful.”
Parables and the mystery of the kingdom
Many of Jesus’ parables describe “the mystery/secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). The term “mystery” means something God has held in secret throughout the ages but has finally disclosed in a new revelation of His redemptive work. In this case, the mystery of the kingdom is that God’s kingdom has come in an unexpected way – a way not fully revealed in the Old Testament.
With the coming of Jesus the Messiah as the Lamb of God, or the Suffering Servant, He invades Satan’s kingdom and reigns in the hearts of men. Yes, the day will come when God’s kingdom overcomes human authority, when the Lion of Judah appears in power and great glory to sit on the throne of David and rule the earth, but first He must come humbly and lay down His life as a ransom for lost sinners, destroying the enemies of God: sin, Satan and death. Jesus uses parables to reveal these previously hidden truths about the kingdom.
George Eldon Ladd puts it this way in The Gospel of the Kingdom: “But the mystery, the new revelation, is that this very Kingdom of God has now come to work among men but in an utterly unexpected way. It is not now destroying human rule; it is not now abolishing sin from the earth; it is not now bringing the baptism of fire that John had announced. It has come quietly, unobtrusively, secretly. It can work among men and never be recognized by the crowds. In the spiritual realm, the Kingdom now offers to men the blessings of God’s rule, delivering them from the power of Satan and sin. The Kingdom of God is an offer, a gift which may be accepted or rejected. The Kingdom is now here with persuasion rather than with power.” (p. 55).
Why Jesus used parables
In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower, His disciples ask Him why He is now employing this form of teaching. His answer is revealing:
- Because the mysteries/secrets of the kingdom have been given to Jesus’ disciples but not to others (v. 11). Jesus would spend three full years with the apostles, teaching them about the necessity of His death, burial and resurrection. Others would be taught the mystery in parables and, if they inclined their hearts toward God, would understand.
- Those who received the gospel of the kingdom would benefit from the truths revealed in Jesus’ parables, while those who insisted on a political and military Messiah would no longer be entrusted with the Scriptures – a reference to the Jewish religious leaders (v. 12).
- Those who already are rejecting Jesus as Messiah are so hard of heart they cannot understand these simple parables. Just as the Jews in Isaiah’s days had rejected God – leading to judgment – so the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day would face judgment in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., as well as judgment after the kingdom comes in power (vv. 13-15). As Matthew Henry has written, “A parable, like the pillar of cloud and fire, turns a dark side towards Egyptians, which confounds them, but a light side towards the Israelites, which comforts them, and so answers a double intention.”
- Jesus’ parables of the kingdom reveal spiritual truths that the prophets of old could only see in shadow form; the apostles should rejoice that they are witnessing the coming of the kingdom in mystery (vv. 16-17).
- Jesus’ parables fulfill prophecy. The psalmist wrote that Messiah would “declare wise sayings; I will speak mysteries from the past” (Ps. 78:2), and that’s exactly what Jesus did (v. 35). See also Deut. 29:29; Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; and Col. 1:26.
How we should study Jesus’ parables of the kingdom
We will study Jesus’ parables of the kingdom by considering:
- Context. We will ask: To whom is Jesus speaking? When? Where? Why? Who else is present? How does this parable compare with other parables and teachings of Jesus, and with other Scriptures?
- Theme. We will locate the central theme. Parables normally focus on a single key point. Jesus’ parables of the kingdom reveal key aspects of His reign.
- Character(s). We will identify the central character or characters and see how he, she, it or they relate to the central theme. We’ll also ask what role the other characters play in the parable.
- Details. We will look at the details of each parable, being careful not to impose unintended meanings.
- Personal application. We will explore what understanding, attitude or action Jesus is demanding of His listeners – and of us.
The design of speaking in parables
According to Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Jesus has the following four things in mind as He tells each parable:
1. To convey truth in a more interesting manner to the mind; adding to the truth conveyed the beauty of a lovely image or narrative.
2. To teach spiritual truth so as to arrest the attention of ignorant people, making an appeal to them through the senses.
3. To convey some offensive truth, some pointed personal rebuke, in such a way as to bring it home to the conscience. Of this kind was the parable which Nathan delivered to David (2 Sam. 12:1-7) and many of our Savior’s parables addressed to the Jews.
4. To conceal from one part of his audience truths which he intended others should understand. Thus Christ often, by this means, delivered truths to his disciples in the presence of the Jews, which he well knew the Jews would not understand; truths pertaining to them particularly, and which he was under no obligations to explain to the Jews (see Matt. 13:13-16; Mark 4:33).