A Bible Lesson on Matthew 13:1-23

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a lesson on one of Christ’s most famous parables, then one of His “hard sayings,” and then His explanation of the parable.  The parable is that of the sower/soils.

A parable is literally a “laying or casting along side of each other” two things for comparison purposes.  Many people have described them as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.”   They’re short and to the point, intended to make a few points clear by drawing analogy to things that the hearer already knows.  They are not extended allegories, where every detail is meant to have significance.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory; the story of the sower/soils is a parable.

The parable of the sower/soils addresses a question that we all ask ourselves and was surely in the minds of the disciples as they began to perceive the different reactions to the Master.  “How is it that some respond to the Gospel and others do not?  How come everyone doesn’t want to follow Him?”

Matthew 13:1  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.

The context is that Jesus has begun to receive serious opposition.  In Matthew 12:14 we can read that the Pharisees have already begun to plot to murder Him.  They are accusing Him of being demon-possessed and demanding that He show them signs.  At the same time there have been huge crowds pressing in on Him and He has been healing their sick.  By this point, Jesus has chosen the disciples and they’ve already had their first experience on the road, preaching without Him physically present.  Now another large crowd gathers and Jesus begins to teach.  Notice that there are at least two different groups listening here: the crowd and the disciples.  This parable will speak to both of them.

3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow.

Apparently, this could be better translated “the” sower: Jesus, or us as His representatives.  It’s, of course, possible that as Jesus is teaching there is a farmer visible on the horizon, working his field near the lake.  Fields of this day and area were long narrow strips separated by footpaths used by both men and beasts.  There wasn’t a nice Iowa county road system, but these footpaths were tramped down by use, baked in the hot middle-eastern sun and hard as concrete.

4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.

Farming practice of the time was to broadcast seed by hand over land that had either already been plowed, or would subsequently be plowed.  The point here is that since the field ran right up to the footpath, inevitably some (small) part of the seed was going to fall on the path.  And there’s another factor at work for that which hits the path.  The birds come and snatch it away.

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,

This rocky soil isn’t soil with a few stones in it, or big surface rocks that could be dug out and made into a stone fence.  It was a thin layer of pretty decent soil over a hard continuous limestone base.  It was soil that would support some shallow growth, but that when the sun really began to cook, didn’t have enough moisture in it to support any substantial plant.

6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.

The sun gives life to plants that are healthy and properly rooted.  It withers those that are not.

7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

From what commentators say, it seems that there are many weeds in Palestine that produce serious thorns.  If one fails to get a weed’s root, even otherwise good soil can harbor them and ruin a crop.  The soil here is simply already occupied.  It cannot support both the weed and the good seed.

8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

The seed, on good soil, produces a crop.  There are a couple of points here.  In the first place, the life is in the seed, but it is unfruitful without appropriate soil.  The seed is the same, location to location!  There is nothing wrong with the seed where there is no crop.  In the second place, there is a picture of real abundance here.  Apparently, for this time and place, a 30-fold yield was a normal/good one.  Here the yield is at least 30-fold and as much as 100-fold … all of this soil is good soil, even though some of it produces more than the rest.

Now, before Jesus explains the parable, He tells the disciples some things in plain language about how the Word of God comes to and affects both the believer and the unbeliever.  This has to do with how that Word was presented by Jesus and how the church should think about both its acceptance and its rejection.

9 He who has ears, let him hear.”

He who has ears: both those in the crowd and the disciples.  There’s warning here for those who would be either callous or casual about the Gospel.  There is encouragement here for the disciples whose job it is to sow, but may be beginning to ask “How come not everyone is joining up???  Why the resistance from the Pharisees? What happened to the cheering crowds that were here a few days ago?”  There’s instruction here for you and me as we think about how those around us do or do not respond to the Gospel.

10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”

We need to let Jesus answer this question for Himself.  Modern theologians want to make parables out to be purely verbal illustrations.  They are verbal illustrations, but that is not all they are.  They are more than just a word picture that makes a point easy to understand.

11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

To you it has been given.  Here is the sovereign hand of God.  Why is it that some humans see the grace and God and flee to Christ, while others do not?  It is clear that anything like a complete “understanding” of this is beyond our finite capacity.  But it is not beyond the control or knowledge of our Creator.  That “to you it has been given” is no basis or reason for pride.  It is not a matter of merit on the part of the “you’s.”  It should rather be a matter of gratitude and humility and wonder.

God’s kingdom is a secret or mystery, not in the sense of being hidden from plain view, or being abstruse or hard to comprehend, but in the senses of 1) not being anything we would have guessed if God hadn’t revealed it to us, and 2) not being something that can be understood by approaching it in the frame of mind of a self-sufficient rebel against our Creator.  It was formerly unknown, but is now revealed to all who will see and approach in humility.  To those who refuse to bow the knee, it remains incomprehensible.

Consider (as Barclay suggested) the Lord’s Supper as an example.  What does that look like to those outside the Christian faith?  It seems a strange little ceremony where Christians nibble a little bread and drink a little grape juice.  To believers, it is something quite other, a corporate declaration of the essentials of the faith, an appropriation of the sacrifice of Jesus for our sin.  It is in plain sight and genuinely precious, but apparent nonsense where there is no faith.

12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

Moderns don’t like the sound of this verse.  It’s not egalitarian.  It’s not “fair.”  It’s not “generous.”  But that is just our mush-headed silliness talking.  This is a statement about the way that life is.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.  We never stand still in life.  We are either getting stronger or weaker.  We are either moving toward Christ or away from Him.  There is no neutral.  We either embrace the light that we are given and are given more, or we dodge it and go further into darkness.  This is no unfairness on God’s part, this is simply the nature of being.  How could it make any sense for a person to have contempt for what he or she knows of the Gospel and to also be showered with deep insights into the faith?  That would be absurd.

13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

In the Mark and Luke versions of this statement, it is “so that they do not see.”  Here it is “because they do not see.”  The idea is not that Jesus came to hide things from humans.  Rather, He came to make the salvation of God evident.  He declared the truth in plain terms.  God doesn’t keep humanity in the dark.  But there is also the matter of not throwing pearls before swine.  Where there is no heart for the truth, where there is no taking of the first step of humble submission to Christ, where simple obedience is lacking, it would be inappropriate to speak of further matters in explicit terms where they would be held up to disdain and mockery.  Parables express profound realities in the clothing of simple stories that look like “nothing” to the person at war with God.  The consequence is that seeing they don’t see and hearing they don’t hear what is really being taught.

Jesus now quotes here from Isaiah 6:9-10

14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.

15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’

This is

Isaiah 6:9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’  

10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

The context in Isaiah is the call of the prophet.  God is saying that Isaiah’s preaching will have the ironic effect of causing hard hearts to be harder, and ultimately bringing God’s justly deserved judgment.  There is pathos here, no hard vindictive condemnation.  But it is a fact that truth rejected brings judgment, not blessing.  Jesus is saying that His parables will have the same effect as the prophet’s preaching.  To soft, honest hearts, desirous of God’s glory, the parables will bring light and life.  To ones proud and hard, they will not be understood and will not bring light.  Cole rightly said, ” …parables test not the intelligence, but the spiritual responsiveness of the hearer.”  One can’t really “get” a parable without having bowed his or her heart to Christ.  They must first be approached in Christian humility if they are to be rightly understood intellectually.

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

As in the beatitudes of Matthew 5, Jesus exclaims “How fortunate your eyes and ears!”  How to be envied your position, to really see, to really hear.  This is great mercy and privilege.  We’ve been given the whole of God’s great Gospel.  We have light abundant.

17 Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

The light God has given is to be cherished, not presumed upon or treated lightly.  We never exhaust its depth.  Jesus points us back to the saints of old who looked forward to His coming.  They could only cast themselves on the mercy of God without any clear understanding of how God was going to deal justly and finally with human sin.  But we know.  How fortunate our eyes and ears.

As we walk through life, there are those we’ll come in contact with who will fail to bow the knee.  They are not to square one.  There is no sense in expecting them to understand the teaching of Jesus.  One can only begin to do so from a place of submission to Him.  But those who know Him, who have ears, ought to hear.  Jesus now gives the meaning of the parable.

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.

Some people are like seed along the path. — We want to know “why?” (more or less like the two year old who asks “why, why, why?” to a series of answers his parent gives). — Jesus doesn’t tell us why.  Instead, He states the empiric fact that some people are like seed along the path, and He says plainly that there is a second influence at work, the enemy of our souls, Satan.  But note that this influence is possible only because of the condition of the soil.

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.

The joy in verse 20 seems to be genuine.  There is again pathos here.  These people recognize the Word of God for what it is, and have some intent to embrace it.  But there is no staying power.  Jesus has told us plainly that in addition to the ordinary trials that come with living in a fallen world, His disciples will experience trials because they belong to Him.  It’s part of discipleship.  But while those trials establish true faith and dependence upon Christ, they destroy shallow and rootless attraction to the Gospel.  Again, we want to know, “But why?”  Jesus simply leaves us with the empiric fact.

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.

 Here is not quick withering, obvious quick death.  Instead it is just slow strangulation.  Other, competing things just get in the way.  We know from other of Jesus’s parables that the end of this is not good either.  The unfruitful plant is good for nothing and is eventually dug up so the space can be used by another.

This would be a most disheartening picture if we stopped here.  But Jesus goes on.

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.”

There are ways that Jesus has laid out that the Word can fail to produce fruit.  But the fact is that in spite of this, the farmer will have an abundant crop!  God has promised:

Isaiah 55:11  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

We and the disciples want to know “Why don’t they believe?”  Some of us even think we have it figured out and are willing to argue about it.  But Jesus tells us all we really need to or can know.  The seed is the same.  The seed is good.  Somehow, the only difference is the soil.  In some cases, the soil will not be productive.  But on the other hand, there WILL be a harvest, an abundant one.  God’s Word will do its work!

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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