The Mystery Explained.

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.” – Matthew 13:18-23 ESV

Things are heating up. The confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel are becoming more frequent and intense. They have officially rejected Him as their Messiah and are looking for ways to destroy Him. For them, tolerance is no longer an option. And Jesus is aware that the majority of the Jewish people are going to reject Him as their Messiah, refusing to accept His role as the suffering servant. And their rejection of Jesus was going to open the door to the Gentiles. Little did they know that the Messiah’s kingdom would be all-inclusive, embracing people of every tribe, tongue, and nation. And in this section of his gospel account, Matthew records Jesus addressing His disciples about that kingdom through the means of parables.

These somewhat simplistic-sounding stories left the disciples confused and wondering why Jesus chose to speak in such a cryptic manner. While the imagery He used was familiar to them, the meaning behind His words was lost to them. So, they had asked Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10 ESV). And Jesus had responded, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11 ESV).

This answer must have left the disciples shaking their heads because, if there had been a secret made known, they had missed it. They were just as clueless as everyone else. And yet, Jesus was about to reveal to them what would remain hidden to the rest of the nation. Because of their faith in Him, Jesus was going to give them insights into His coming kingdom that were a mystery to the people of Israel. 

Jesus told these men that their unique relationship with Him would yield even more significant benefits as time passed.  

For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance…”  – Matthew 3:12 ESV

When these men had decided to follow Jesus, there was much they did not know. They were operating on scant details and stepping out in faith. But over time, Jesus had begun to reveal aspects about Himself that further clarified His role and solidified their faith in Him.  They had each left all to follow Him and, while they did not fully grasp the significance of who He was and what He had come to do, they eagerly listened to what He had to say. This is what led Jesus to say of them, “blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16 ESV).

And it was their child-like faith in Him that prompted Jesus to explain the secret of the parable to them. The story was simple, relating the efforts of a single sower who sowed one kind of seed on four different types of soil. And, as the parable reveals, the outcome of the sower’s efforts was mixed. Some of the seeds were eaten by birds, never having time to germinate. Some seed fell on rocky ground and, lacking the necessary depth of soil, they sprang up but quickly withered. Other seeds fell among thorns and, while these seeds were able to germinate and grow, they could not survive the harsh environment. Finally, a portion of the seeds actually made it into good soil where they not only survived, but thrived, producing an abundance of grain.

But what’s the point? That’s what the disciples wanted to know. They could fully understand the various scenarios described by Jesus but had no idea what it had to do with the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” So, Jesus explained the meaning behind the story.

The seed represented the message regarding the kingdom. If you recall, both John the Baptist and Jesus had proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They had been referring to the kingdom of the Messiah, the one of whom the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied, and God had promised to send. And Jesus was the fulfillment of those prophecies and the promise. He was the long-awaited Messiah. But He had not come to set up an earthly kingdom. At least, not yet. As Messiah, He had not come to save the Jews from the tyranny and taxation of the Romans, but from slavery to sin. His arrival was not to mark their release from Roman oppression, but from the condemnation of death they all faced as a result of their rebellion against God.

But that message, while widely disseminated, would not always find receptive “soil.” What’s interesting in the story is that the sower seemed to know that his seed was falling in places where it would prove unfruitful. He doesn’t seem to worry about the outcome as much as he did about getting the seed distributed. The apostle Paul understood the significance of this thought.

After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. – 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 NLT

The sower simply sowed and left the results up to God. And the seed, or the message of the kingdom, made its way to the various soils, but with varying degrees of success. There was nothing wrong with the seed, but the receptivity of the four types of soil would play a significant part in the ultimate success of the sower’s efforts.

The seed that fell along the path was quickly devoured by birds. Jesus compares the birds with Satan, who snatches up the message of the kingdom before it can take root in the heart of those who hear it. The apostle Paul describes Satan’s efforts in stark terms:

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

Jesus’ reference to “the path” seems to indicate an uncultivated, unprepared heart that is unfit to receive the Word. The path is worn down and compacted, providing an unwelcome environment for the Gospel. And the enemy uses “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16 ESV) to distract the hearer, while his “birds” carry away the message of hope contained in the Gospel.

The seed that fell on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and respond favorably to its content, but their enthusiasm is short-lived. As soon as they encounter the first sign of persecution because of the message, they bail. The Greek word translated as “falls away” can also mean “to stumbles.” These people find it difficult to maintain their walk with Christ because they find the trials and tribulations that come with the message too difficult to bear. Jesus is not describing true believers who lose their salvation, but those who find the Gospel message appealing, but who fail to commit to Christ because His call is accompanied by trials and difficulties.

The third scenario involved seed that fell among thorns. Once again, there appears to be a brief period of receptivity. The seed takes root, but there no fruit is produced because “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matthew 13:22 ESV). These people hear the Gospel, respond to it favorably, but because of their love affair with the world, they never experience the fruitfulness the message was intended to produce. Jesus promised to give abundant life (John 10:10), but these people never experience it in their lives because they allow worldly things to choke out the message before it’s had time to produce fruit.

Finally, there are some who hear the message and allow it to take root in the soil of their lives. They are receptive to it and fully embracing of it. They hear and believe. They listen and receive. And their lives produce fruit because they allow the message to take root. The degree of their fruitfulness varies, but that is the work of God.

The primary point of the parable has to do with receptivity to the message of the kingdom. That is why Jesus told His disciples, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 13:12 ESV). Those who receive the message of the kingdom and allow it to take root in their lives will see their lives produce abundant fruit. The seed or message will end up multiplying into far more than they could have ever imagined. Their willing receptivity to the message of Jesus Christ and His kingdom will result in abundant life and a growing understanding of all that He has come to offer.

The Pharisees and scribes had refused the message. The majority of the Jews who made up the crowds that flocked to hear Jesus speak and watch Him perform miracles would also refuse the message. But there were some who, like the good soil in the parable, would respond favorably, allowing the seed of the Gospel to take root in their lives. And they would experience the joy of watching God produce His fruit in their lives.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson