LEARNING BASIC BIBLE STUDY METHODS
An Inductive Guide to the Study of the Bible,
Using the Gospel of Matthew
THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER AND THE SEED
(Note: This is the 19th lesson in this series on learning the basics about studying the Bible. To learn all the principles as they have been developed through these lessons, start with the Introduction and proceed through the lessons in sequence. These have all been stored in the archives of this web site.)
In the last chapter of the book we saw how strong the opposition to Jesus had grown, and how Jesus warned the people of the danger they were in if they rejected Him, their Messiah. Now that their rejection has been officially recorded, Jesus began to teach the people with parables. We shall have to learn why this different style of teaching was now used by Jesus, as well as how such parables should be studied. This is a large subject, as you could probably guess (some seminaries have courses on the parables), but we shall work with the basic principles to follow.
Reading the Text
On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. 2 And great multitudes were gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat down; and the whole multitude stood on the shore.
3 Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; 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. 7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. 8 But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
and seeing you will see and not perceive; 15
for the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
so that I should heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
18 Therefore, hear the parable of the sower: 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. 20 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. 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, 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.”
Observations on the Text
Matthew 13 is filled with teachings about the progress of the kingdom of heaven in this age. The chapter is a set discourse of Jesus, and not a collection of truths taken from the Lord’s ministry at different times and set out by Matthew as a sequence of teachings. Verse 53 of the chapter makes it clear that these seven parables were delivered on one and the same occasion by Jesus. Accordingly, they develop a unified theme.
Jesus, the King, was approaching a crisis in His presentation of Himself when it would be necessary to challenge peoples’ faith concerning His mission and indeed His identity. In view of this He chose to use parables to begin to uncover the faith of true disciples, and to demonstrate judgment on those who refused to see and hear..
In verses 1-3a we find they when the multitudes gathered around Him, He spoke to them in parables. In verses 10-16, after the first parable, Jesus explained to His disciples why He spoke in parables to the people. In verses 34 and 35, after the parables, Matthew explained why Jesus spoke in parables. Then in verse 53 we have the summation of the discourse.
So why does Jesus turn now to use parables? He had used some parables in His teaching so far, but now it becomes the supreme method used. The disciples noticed the changed and asked the reason. To answer it we have to note the circumstances of the chapter.
We are not left to speculate about these things, for the text records Jesus’ answer. But first, what exactly is a parable? The Greek word literally means a throwing or placing things along side of each other, for the purpose of comparison. The technical definition of a parable is that it is an extended simile. The comparison is expressed clearly (“the kingdom of heaven is like . . .”), but the comparison is a story or a prolonged comparison, not a simple simile. Some times it might be an extended metaphor, or, an allegory, since it might not use “like” or “as.” The Hebrew word for it is masal [mah-shal]), which means “to be like.”
The parable is a story or an illustration placed along side of a truth with the intention of explaining the one by the other. An old definition says a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning--some familiar thing of life on earth is placed alongside of some mystery of heaven, that our understanding of the one may help us understand the other. Jesus drew from the common life of the people to explain some principle or teaching about the kingdom of heaven. In following this method a point of similarity is communicated, as well as a disparity between this life and the life in the kingdom.
If Jesus were here teaching with parables today, they would all be different because the culture is different. So to understand parables the student of the Bible has to get into the ancient culture a good deal. A good reference work, or a book on the culture, or on customs and manners would be most helpful.
The purpose of using a parable is revelation by illustration. Parables are designed to communicate truth in every day terms. But the text says that they also conceal the truth from those who refuse to believe. So how do we explain these things?
There is one common view that has trouble with the idea that Jesus did something so that people could not understand the truth. After all, He came to reveal the truth. And so they emphasize that the parable was a clear attempt by Jesus to reach those who did not believe or understand. To them, parables are aids to understanding truth, not hindrances. They reason that Jesus explained in this passage, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Then He went on to say that “whoever has, to him shall be given.” The disciples had something, and because they possessed it, the knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom was given to them. But then He added, “whosoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that which he has.” It was not given to the people to know the mysteries of the kingdom because they did not possess something, there was something they lacked. They lacked what the disciples possessed, the possession of which created within them the capacity for receiving the mysteries of the kingdom. So what was it that the disciples possessed and the others did not? It was their faith in Christ. The disciples had received Jesus as the Messiah, and because of their faith in Him as their King they were able to receive and understand the mysteries of the kingdom. They may not have understood everything Jesus did, but they trusted Him as their King.
The people up to this point had by and large rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and so he could not give to them the mysteries of the kingdom — they would not have understood. They were unable to see, or enter into the kingdom. And because they did not receive Christ, they were in danger of losing all that they did possess, their religious heritage and preparation.
So, as the argument continues, with these people who were incapable of grasping the secrets of the kingdom, Jesus adopted a new approach. He would give them pictures to draw them to the kingdom. So in a sense the parable would provide an even wider door for people to enter if they had any faith at all. Using parables, then, reveals the patience and pity of the Lord on a deeper level. They had rejected Him out of hand, and He tried to reach them a different way, through parables. Even for a while Jesus had to use parables for His disciples, and explain them to them, for they had not quite developed in their faith and understanding of the message of the kingdom.
That is one view of parables. But there are two difficulties with it. First, it does not do justice to what the text says, especially the citation from Isaiah; and second, if people failed to believe when Jesus said things plainly, it would be hard to see how they would suddenly understand when He spoke in parables.
So the second view is that the parables had as part of their purpose concealing the truth from unbelievers, as Isaiah’s message had in its day. And this view does justice to the text.
Jesus delivered this discourse to the crowds, not the disciples, but He explained things to the disciples. The crowds are “this generation” that Jesus has already denounced; here they are not given the secrets of the kingdom.
Matthew records two rationales for parables, one for outsiders and one for disciples. Jesus explains the parable to the disciples because revelation is given to some and not to others. Jesus’ explanation of the reason for parables cannot be softened, because part of His answer to the disciples is that one of the functions of parables is to conceal the truth, or at least present it in a veiled way. In biblical usage the “mysteries” to which Jesus refers are plans or decrees often presented in veiled language and made known to the elect. They usually refer to eschatalogical events. What is being revealed to the disciples is not the person of Jesus or the nature of God, but the coming of the kingdom into history in advance of its glorious manifestation (Ladd, Presence, pp. 218-242). It was commonly know that God was going to bring in His glorious kingdom by supernatural manifestations and judgments. But the mystery of the kingdom is what no one was expecting, that the kingdom which is ultimately to come in great power has already begun to enter the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within people. All of the parables deal with this present form of the kingdom, which Jesus explained to the disciples, but did not explain to the crowds expecting some dramatic deliverance. Even the parables that are teaching some ethical truth have to be understood in the light of the present form of the kingdom.
Matthew is showing that what is taking place on the one hand is the fulfillment of prophecy and the decreed will of God, and on the other hand a gross rebellion of unbelief and spiritual ignorance by the crowds. The responsibility for their unbelief is their own entirely, because mortals always do as they choose. And the fact that God foreknew they would do this does not in any way diminish their culpability.
So the use of parables fits into the midst of this issue. It would be too easy to say that the only reason Jesus used parables was to conceal the truth, for parables are a means of communication. If that were His sole desire, all He had to do was stop teaching entirely. But He came with a mission to call people into the kingdom. So using parables is a way of teaching the truth or preaching about the kingdom without casting His pearls before swine. The parables will harden those who are already hardened against Him, and enlightened His disciples about the kingdom. Parables challenge the hearers in matters of the faith. The parables do not contain esoteric truths that only the initiated or enlightened could understand--they seem pretty clear. No, the parables present the claims of the present form of the kingdom in such a way that only those who trust Jesus will understand the new direction in the plan of God. After all, He was announcing a different form of the kingdom than they had expected. The parables challenge the hearers to respond with faith. The parable of the sower would require the hearers to see the truth that the kingdom is slowly progressing, and if that be so, to determine what kind of soil they were. For those who are hardened like the rocky soil, the parable is a message of judgment; for those who are open to the words of Jesus, their “soil” will respond to the “seed” or message of the kingdom. Like Isaiah before Him, Jesus’ proclamation of the word will succeed in dulling the spiritual sense of those who are already self-righteous or calloused to the word, because they do not want to repent or change--they want the reward of a glorious kingdom, but it will also succeed in “producing fruit” among those submissive to the will of God.
Jesus does not explain why the kingdom is not now coming in power and glory, only that there are certain characteristics of the kingdom that need to be accepted.
There are several things to keep in mind when reading and interpreting a parable.
1. Preference should be given for the simplicity of interpretation. To discover the intent of the parable the simple, straightforward meaning is most likely to be the correct one. There is a tendency to study these parables in order to find hidden meanings that have never been seen before. There is no doubt that this can be done, for anything Jesus said would have eternal truth behind it and in it. But these were meant to illustrate truth, to reveal truth to the multitudes. A meaning that no one ever would have gotten is out of the question.
2. One should restrict the application of these pictures to the limits set out by Christ in the narrative. A parable is designed to focus on one aspect of the kingdom, in one period of the development of the kingdom. To press every detail of the story into service for all the incidentals about the kingdom is going to far.
3. One should have a consistent use of the figures employed, both within the context and the general use of Scripture, except where specifically otherwise stated. Figures that Jesus used in the parables are used consistently. They all work together to capture the reader and draw him into the story as a participant.
4. There will be a primary point and often secondary points made in a parable. To say a parable is a simple allegory that only makes on point does not do justice to the literary type. Jesus on occasion made more than one point out of parables. But having said that, it is not always easy to determine in a proverb what is a point being made and what is merely part of the story structure.
5. Not all the parables in the Bible work the same way. There is diversity in the parables, and so each one has to be studied as a literary unit in its context.
6. Parables are designed to call the listener into participation, to identify with someone or something in the story. They divide the audience into the believer and the self-righteous unbeliever. They call for a commitment of faith and obedience that will indicate whether one is in the kingdom or not.
The passage, then, provides us with an introduction (1-3a), then the parable itself (3b-9). This is followed by the explanation of the reason for using parables by Jesus (10-17). Finally, Jesus explained the meaning of the first of His parables, the sower and the seed (18-23). The passage is almost entirely the teaching Jesus, except for the introduction to the passage, the question by the disciples, and the citation from Isaiah.
Analysis of the Passage
I. The Setting of the Discourse (13:1-3a). Matthew begins the section with “That same day,” clearly linking these parables with the events covered in chapter 12, the opposition arguments. The reference to the house connects the material to the event at the end of the chapter. So, in view of the conflicts, Jesus now begins to use parables more fully. This is one of the few discourses that is addressed to the crowds in general, and not specifically to the disciples (and by disciples we would mean the people who believed in Jesus and followed Him, numbering far more than the twelve).
The posture of Jesus sitting, first by the lake, and then in the boat because of the crowds, is one of a teacher. He was a teacher, here teaching people about the kingdom. The usual posture of a teacher was to sit, while the people stood and listened, or sat all around and listened. Matthew tells us that Jesus taught them many things in parables.
II. The Parable of the Soils (13:3b-9). This is one of the most familiar parables in the Bible, and probably will not need so much explanation, especially since it is one that Jesus interprets clearly for His disciples. This section is most helpful then, because not only does it explain why parables were being used, but gives the meaning of the parable itself.
The parable is about the ground more than the sower. A sower goes out to the field to sow seed, and he finds that as he scatters the seed it falls on different kinds of ground. There were paths that ran through the unfenced field, and in those places the ground was beaten down so that it was too hard to receive seed, and the birds ate it. There were rocky places where the limestone bedrock was just beneath the topsoil, or where the rocks had worked through, and the seed could not take root because of the rocks. Any seed that started to grow in the shallow soil soon withered in the intense heat and died because it could not sink roots. Other seed fell under the thorns of hedgerows which took the moisture and grew up, choking the seed that had fallen among the thorns. Anyone who has visited the holy land can appreciate the rocky soil, the beaten paths, the thorn bushes—the fields are in this condition and the farmers must sow in spite of it.
And a good bit of seed falls on good soil and eventually produces crops of various yields. So the same seed produces no crop, or some crop, or a great crop. And so Jesus warns his listeners that the parable needs careful interpretation — “He who has ears, let him hear.” Of course, everyone has ears. But Jesus is indicating this will take more than ordinary listening to understand.
A good number of commentators will try to interpret this parable without reference to the next section, Jesus’ explanation as to why He used parables (largely because they think verses 18-23 are not authentic, that they were added later). But the text has recorded Jesus’ explanation, both of parables and of this one, and the meaning Jesus gives is far more compelling than what some of these commentators settle for in their discussion.
III. The Explanation of Parables (13:10-17). We have already discussed a good deal of this material in the introduction. But a few things need to be clarified now in the verses in context. The situation is the question that the disciples ask, to which Jesus gives this full answer. Matthew’s account is longer than Marks (4:10-12) and Luke’s (8:9-10; 10:23-24) and preserves more of the use of Isaiah than they do. Jesus first gives a basic answer (13) which is then applied to “them” (14, 15) and then to the disciples (16,17).
K. Bailey (Poet and Peasant, pp. 61f.) has observed the pattern in this answer is easily laid out in a chiasm, a typical Hebrew way of ordering stories and materials. It is named after the Greek letter chi, which is “X” shaped. In other words, motifs and expressions in the first half have a corresponding motif or expression in the second half, and at the center of the story is a turning point. It shows the balance of the story, but also the heart of it.
Therefore I speak to them in parables,
1 Because seeing they see not and hearing they hear not, nor understand
2 And it is fulfilled to them the prophecy of Isaiah which says
3 Hearing you shall hear and shall not understand
4 And seeing you shall see and not perceive.
5 For this people’s heart has become dull
6 and the ears are dull of hearing
7 and their eyes they have closed
7’ lest they should perceive with their eyes
6’ and hear with the ear
5’ and understand with the heart, and should turn again and I
should heal them.
4’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see
3’ and your ears, for they hear
2’ For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men
1’ desired to see what you see, and did not see, and to hear what you hear, and did
This ordered arrangement of Jesus’ answer emphasizes the judgment aspect of the parable at the center, but also the mercy aspect of the climax of the explanation with the disciples.
Jesus makes a distinction between the crowds and the disciples. The emphasis is not so much on the disciples’ ability to understand, which they have in part but not completely, but on the fact that revelation has been given to them.
This is the way that judicial hardening works. The disciples followed Jesus by faith. They did not understand everything, but asked. The crowds did not, on the whole, follow by faith, but demanded a compelling sign. Further revelation was not given to them. They are like the crowd that Isaiah dealt with.
Isaiah lived about 700 years earlier than this. He announced the judgment of God on the nation for its unbelief. That judgment would take the form of judicial hardening--they would hear but not understand, the preaching would make their spirits dull. In other words, the message would only harden their resistance to God. This judgment may seem harsh, until one realizes that the nation of Israel in 700 B.C. had had the sanctuary, the priesthood, the prophets, the scriptures for centuries. And yet in their sin and rebellion they had moved farther away from God than the people of the earlier centuries. Finally God gave them up, meaning He ceased to work in their hearts by His Spirit to reveal His truth to them. Rather, He let them alone to have their own way. And their natural way was to reject the words of the prophet. This gives us a good idea of what the psalmists and prophets meant when they said to seek the Lord while He may be found. While the prophet will be there proclaiming the message, if God is not causing it to take seed in their hearts, there will be no response of faith. And God will stop doing that if people persist in rebelling against Him.
In the days of Jesus this prophetic message of Isaiah found its fullest meaning. The people had been listening to Jesus preach and teach, had seen the authenticating miracles, and yet accused Him of Satanic works and rejected His word. Some of those people would be hardened in their unbelief; and the simple theological truth is that the revelation of the mystery of the kingdom was not given to them. They might intellectually hear the parable and make something of it — but it would not make sense to them because of their hardened unbelief, rejection of Jesus, and pre-conceived idea of what the kingdom should be. The Savior was still among them, and they could still follow Him and trust Him. But God knew the hearts of the people, and if they did not believe the words and the works of Jesus in their midst, no further revelation would be given to them.
But the disciples believed in the person and the work of Jesus, and so further revelation came to them, not just in the immediate explanation of the parable, or in the constant teaching of Jesus, but in the fact that the Spirit open their “eyes” and their “hearts” to understand. He had already said that revelation was necessary for people to know Him and to know the Father (Matt. 11:25-27) and He would say to Peter later, “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matt. 16:17).
How long would the hardening continue? Isaiah said in his day “until the cities lie in ruins.” This means, until God judged the nation for unbelief and scattered them abroad. That happened in Isaiah’s case with the exile. In Jesus’ day the pattern would be repeated: they were looking for Messiah to build them a glorious kingdom, but the city would be ruined and they would be scattered. The failure of most of the Jews to discern the spiritual things would lead to judgment. And part of the judgment was their being hardened in unbelief. This hardening was a subject Paul picked up in Romans 11, a hardening which God used to turn to the Gentiles with the Gospel and raise up a people who would make Israel jealous.
The disciples were blessed above any others who had come before, both prophets and righteous men. They looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, but the disciples received Him, walked with Him, witnessed His mighty works, and were shown things that the prophets never knew.
What the passage is saying is that the crowds stand in the tradition of the “wilfully blind” of the Old Testament, and the disciples stand in the tradition of the prophets and the righteous people of the Old Testament. The disciples truly believed in Jesus, and so accepted what He was saying, namely, that the message of the kingdom was at a critical turning point.
IV. The Interpretation of the Parable (13:18-23). Jesus now lays out the parallel ideas to explain the meaning. He does not explain every detail — no explanation is given for the sower, or the path, or the rocky ground, or the diverse yield. The general point is that the seed is the message of the kingdom. It receives varied responses from the people; and it will take time to develop because of the difficult times and difficult people. But in time the message will produce a harvest.
The Israelites understood farming because it was their culture, so they could appreciate what Jesus was saying, whether they got the intended analogy or not. They should have gotten it, because it was used in the Old Testament already. Psalm 126 spoke of the perseverance of the sower with tears and trouble, indicating that eventually he would bring in his sheaves. That psalm was written at the restoration of Israel from the captivity. It was not about farming, but about proclaiming the message of the kingdom at that stage in God’s program — convincing Jewish people to leave the east and return to the land to help build the program of God in the land of promise. It was difficult, because they were now settled in their homes and businesses in Babylonia-Persia. But the principle was that if they continue to sow, if they continued to expend any effort for the greater cause, there would be a result, there would be people coming down the road from the east to return to the land.
The seed that is sown is the message of the kingdom. The soils are the people, the human hearts, who make the decision about the message. They can be compared to the different kinds of soils who receive the seed (which does not mean they became Christians, but heard and considered the message). So the parable is probably about the ground, which would mean the people who heard Christ’s message. The good ground received the seed, the word, it took root and grew, meaning it was believed and it produced the fruit of righteousness and obedience.
Some hear the truth, but like hardened paths they do not let it penetrate, and before long Satan takes the truth away. If people do not receive and respond to the word with faith, their opportunity will be stolen by the evil one.
Some hear the message with great joy, but like the rocky soil he does not let it take root. It is a superficial response like the people who followed Jesus all over. But because it was not received with genuine thoughtfulness and faith, under external pressures, it quickly fell away. They were outwardly enthusiastic about Jesus, but inwardly they did not take it to heart. There are a lot of these folks in churches.
Some hear the message, not with joy now because they are as the ground under the thorns. Life has too many other troubles and commitments for them to take the message to heart. Worries about worldly things and devotion to wealth choke out the message of the kingdom. They would have to give up too much to make a commitment to Christ. No fruit results, and that shows that there was no life. The person remains in the thicket of the problems and cares of life.
But some hear and believe. These are the disciples, of course. They are only marginally better than the other people in their understanding, but they are on the right way. Their hearts receive the message with faith, and the seed will take root. The message of the kingdom will gradually grow and produce results in them, in varying quantities, and then not instantly. But they are the good ground. Even the soil that produces a small crop is “good.” It will take a good deal more of Jesus’ teaching, not to mention the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, before they really understand the mysteries of the kingdom.
Conclusion and Application
There is much more that can be said about the parable and about parables, but this will be enough for now. There are two lessons in one here: (1) the meaning and use of parables in general and God’s dealing with unbelievers, and (2) the meaning and application of the parable of the sower and the seed.
The main point of the passage is the meaning of this parable. The explanation of parables is explanatory for it and the others to come. The parables will teach people the form that the kingdom will take before the great coming in glory of the king. It is a mystery form of the kingdom.
In this parable the sower sows the seed. God prepares the ground that will receive the message by faith. But the ground, the human heart, might be hardened in unbelief, only superficially happy about the message, or too entangled with the cares of this world. There are many reasons that people do not respond by faith to the word. But those who do will produce “fruit.” The faith that they have will be developed by revelation being given to them. To those who have, more will be given.
To put the lessons simply:
1. We like the Sower (Christ at first) have the responsibility to proclaim the message of the kingdom, the gospel, to the world. It is the Word of God that will produce results.
2. We will be aware that not everyone will receive it by faith. That is not our business; our business is to continue to proclaim the good news.
3. The evidence of those who receive it by faith and act on it is that their lives will change and they will produce righteousness. The evidence of saving faith is a growing spiritual life.
4. The advance of the kingdom, the spiritual life, does not occur instantly, but over time. But it makes continual progress. Those who believe, like the disciples, do not instantly understand it all. But the Spirit of God, using the Word of God, illumines their understanding daily. Eventually, stumbling disciples will become bold apostles.
5. It is our task to know and understand the message well, so that we can present it as clearly and meaningful as possible. The rest is not up to us. And if we do that, we know that only some will receive it. We dare not consider some who share God’s word and see only a small response to be less spiritual or talented than those who share God’s word and see great responses. God gives the increase.
 The translation used here is the New King James Version.