Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9)
In Matthew 13 our Lord used seven parables to describe the condition that He saw the kingdom would take on earth as a result of His rejection. This series of parables is divided into four that were spoken in the open air by the seaside, and three that were given to the disciples only after they had entered into the house. The first of this series is not a likeness of the kingdom, as in the case of the other six. When the Lord explained the parable of the sower to His disciples, He said it was given to them to know the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, thus equating the sowing of the Word with the spreading of the kingdom in its secret or mystical form through the world. Therefore in this parable we see the seed of the kingdom sown in the earth and the results.
In verse 1 the Lord’s action (He “went out of the house, and sat by the sea side”) seems to be parabolic. This, in itself, appears to indicate the break with Israel after His countrymen rejected Him. Multitudes gathered about Him, however, pressing closely to the water. He entered into a ship, probably Peter’s fishing boat which Luke 5:3 tells us was once used as a pulpit, and addressed the multitudes standing on the shore. The hills at this particular locality rise gently from the shore, thus making a natural open-air arena or theater, where the voice would carry easily to great throngs standing on the shore or sitting on the hillside.
“Behold a sower went forth to sow.” The sower in the first instance was the Lord Himself. He went from place to place sowing the seed of the Word of God. It should be a matter of encouragement to all those who engage in the same blessed occupation that even when the divine preacher Himself was ministering the Word, fruit resulted from the Word that was sown in only one out of four hearts; and even then the amount of fruit produced varied.
In verses 4-7 we read of three types of non-productive soil. The first soil was the trampled wayside where the fowls of the air devoured the seed almost as rapidly as it was strewn. Then there was the stony ground where the seed appeared to take root; green sprouts came up, but only to be parched by the sun, to the disappointment of the sower. Other seed fell among thorns, which soon choked the tender shoots so that there was no fruit whatever.
That which fell into good ground took root, sprang up, and became fruitful—some producing a hundred times, some sixty times, and some thirty times what was planted.
This was the parable. For the moment the Lord made no application, but left it for His hearers to weigh His words as He exclaimed, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
Parable of the Sower Explained (Matthew 13:10-23)
When opportunity arose and the multitudes had gone, the disciples came to Jesus asking for an explanation of the parable. To those who trusted Him and set value upon His words, the Lord was always ready to explain anything that seemed difficult for them to apprehend. In response to the question, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” Jesus replied at once, “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” The word mysteries as here used does not necessarily mean something mysterious and difficult to understand, but rather secrets that are revealed only to initiates. The Lord was ever ready to take into His confidence earnest seekers after the truth. He used the parabolic form for a double purpose. He desired to test His hearers as to whether they really wanted to know the mind of God or not, and also to illumine His discourses. Where people already had faith and had accepted His testimony, He was prepared to give more. But where there was no real confidence in His message they would become more bewildered by the parabolic form of instruction than if He had spoken in plain language.
Some have quibbled over this, as though it indicated on the part of the Lord Jesus a deliberate intention to blind the eyes and close the ears of those who listened to His words. It was really the very opposite. Those who were anxious to know the truth came to Him as the disciples did, asking for an explanation of what was beyond their comprehension. Those who were indifferent turned carelessly away and became even more unconcerned because of not understanding the meaning of His illustrations. Jesus quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10 in which this very method of teaching was predicted. It was never God’s desire to harden anyone’s heart or to close anyone’s eyes against the truth, but it is a principle that runs throughout the Word of God that the truth either softens or hardens. The very same gospel message that breaks down honest hearts and leads to repentance, hardens the hearts of the dishonest and confirms them in their path of disobedience.
Jesus pronounced a blessing on the apostles because they had eyes to see and ears to hear. Theirs was a place of peculiar privilege. Throughout the centuries that had gone many prophets and righteous men had looked forward in faith to Messiah’s coming. They had longed to see and hear what the followers of Jesus were then seeing and hearing, but this had been denied them (see Luke 10:23-24).
The Lord then proceeded to explain the parable. “When any one heareth the word of the kingdom,” He said, “and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart.” This is the explanation of the seed scattered on the wayside, only to be devoured by the fowls of the air. Note that the message is called distinctly “the word of the kingdom,” making it clear that it is by sowing the Word that the kingdom makes its way through the world. Satan and his emissaries are ever busy trying to annul the effect of gospel preaching. It is their sinister aim to fill the hearts and minds of the hearers with prejudice and unreasonable opposition so that they do not fairly weigh the message as it comes from the preacher’s lips; thus there is no favorable response whatever. The Word heard only with the outer ear is soon forgotten.
In vivid contrast to these utterly indifferent hearers we have next the stony-ground hearers. These represent those exuberant people who are ever ready to take up with almost any kind of religious propaganda. They listen to the proclamation of the gospel and its clearness without any depth of conviction or evidence of repentance. They profess faith in the Word, apparently receiving it joyfully, but because there is no root in them, nothing but empty profession, they soon fall away, particularly when they find that the Christian way of life entails tribulation and persecution.
The thorny-ground hearers have never counted the cost of faith in Christ. They are not characterized by the single eye but are double-minded, occupied with the cares of this world and seeking after wealth. The temporal responsibilities connected with these pursuits choke the Word, and so there is no fruit.
In contrast to all these others we have the good-ground hearers, whose soil has been prepared by the plowshare of conviction. The Word falling into an honest heart is received in faith, and the message is understood as the Holy Spirit opens it up. The result is that the soul is born again, and the life becomes fruitful for God. There are degrees of fruitfulness, however. All do not give the same evidence of devotion to Christ and appreciation of the truth; and so the Lord speaks of those who bring forth an hundredfold, others sixty fold, and others only thirtyfold.
Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30)
This second parable is definitely said to be a likeness of the kingdom of Heaven. In this parable the kingdom of Heaven is not Heaven itself; neither is it, as used in this part of Matthew’s Gospel, to be confused with the coming glorious kingdom of our God and His Christ when all the world will be subjected to Jesus as King. The parable of the tares speaks of a mixed condition of things, such as has prevailed in Christendom ever since the beginning of the present age. Tares, which are the children of the evil one, are mingled with the wheat, the children of God, thus depicting the Satanic imitation seen in the church today.
This parable is also explained farther on in the chapter. We now need only to take note of the fact that the Lord was portraying a state of things in which false converts and true believers would be found together. The great difference between the two is that those who are genuine bring forth fruit; whereas the others are without fruit, and even are hurtful rather than helpful. The tares themselves are actually poisonous weeds. “His enemy,” Jesus said, “came and sowed tares.” That enemy, we know, is the devil. But when the servants of the householder came asking if they should root up the tares, the answer was in the negative. Not until the time of harvest would the great separation take place.
Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32)
We are not to understand from our Lord’s words that the mustard seed is the most infinitesimal of all seeds in the entire vegetable kingdom, but it is the least of the seeds of the garden herbs; yet when it is grown it becomes the greatest of all the herbs, towering over the rest, so that it forms a place of shelter. The parable was not explained so far as the record goes, but it is easy to understand it in the light of other Scripture passages. It speaks of the development of the kingdom of Heaven into a great world power. Such dominions were frequently likened to large trees with spreading branches, as in the case of Babylon (Daniel 4), Assyria (Ezekiel 31:3), and other similar powers. So that which began as a field of wheat developed in the course of centuries into the mustard tree. The professing church of God became a power to be reckoned with among the nations, but its branches sheltered all kinds of false professors and evil teachers. The birds of the air, lodging in the branches of the mustard tree, represent the hosts of evil. It is a most graphic picture of what Christendom became throughout the course of centuries when the false church seemed to dominate the world.
Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33-35)
This is the fourth parable spoken by the Lord as He sat by the seaside. Perhaps of all the teachings of the Lord nothing has been more misunderstood than the parable of the leaven. The general idea among Christians is that the woman here represents the church; the three measures of meal, the world; the leaven, the gospel through which the whole world will eventually be converted. Nothing could be more contrary to the teaching of the Word of God than this. It is a solemn fact that after nearly twenty centuries of gospel preaching there are more unbelievers in the world today than there were when Christ commissioned the apostles to go and evangelize the nations. Scripture nowhere warrants us to expect to see a converted world before the coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In order to understand this parable one needs to inquire as to the meaning of leaven. Throughout the Word of God leaven is always used in an evil sense. The people of Israel were to put all leaven out of their houses during the Passover season, and the apostle Paul explained this when he said, “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Leaven, then, speaks of malice and wickedness, and the Christian is to put these out of his life. The Lord Jesus warned His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy and self-righteousness; the leaven of the Sadducees, which is false doctrine and materialism; and the leaven of Herod, which is worldliness and political corruption. In Leviticus 2 we have the meal offering, in which there was to be no leaven. This offering represents our Lord Jesus Christ’s humanity which was absolutely without sin.
In the parable the woman is surreptitiously hiding the leaven in the meal offering. The three measures of meal certainly do not represent the world, but rather the truth of God concerning His Son. The woman is not the church, but the false church—that woman Jezebel of whom we read in Revelation 2:20, who calls herself a prophetess and teaches the servants of God unholy principles that are subversive of the faith. Therefore in this parable we see the false church inserting the leaven of corrupt teaching into the food of God’s people. Is not this exactly what has been taking place during the past almost two millennia of church history? “The mystery of iniquity” began to work in apostolic days, and it has spread throughout the centuries until today there is practically no great doctrine of Scripture that has not been perverted by false teachers.
With this fourth parable the Lord ended what we might call His public ministry for that occasion. He had opened up secrets that God had kept hidden until that time, even as it had been declared by Him prophetically in Psalm 78:2.
Parable of the Tares Explained (Matthew 13:36-43)
Dismissing the outdoor gathering Jesus entered the house, followed by His disciples. In this place of seclusion the apostles came to Him a second time asking for further explanation. He delivered three more parables and explained that of the wheat and the tares.
He explained that He Himself was the sower of the good seed. The field is not the church, but rather that world out of which the church was eventually to be gathered. It is important that we remember this because of what follows. “The good seed,” Jesus said, “are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one.” Here we have the result of the sowing: those who believe the gospel message are the wheat; those who accept the teachings of Satan are the tares, for the enemy that sowed the evil seed is the devil himself. He has ever been busy sowing the tares wherever servants of God have sown the good seed. But Christ’s servants are not to attempt to destroy the tares during this age. Our understanding is too limited. We might make the fatal mistake that Rome made of rooting up the good in order to destroy the bad. At the end of the age—it is not the end of the world He has in mind but the end of the present age—”The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire.” Notice that the Son of man will send forth His angels. What a definite proof of His deity we have here! He is both Son of God and Son of man in one blessed, adorable person. The angels are His, and they do His bidding.
Then observe the mixed condition that prevails in the kingdom down to the end of the age. The angels gather out of His kingdom all things that cause scandal. There will be false professors mingled with the true in the world, down to the end of the age. “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” This is the heavenly side of the kingdom into which the Lord will gather His own in that day. Again the challenge comes, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
Parables of the Treasure, Pearl, and Net (Matthew 13:44-53)
In the fifth parable the treasure is not Christ, but Israel. The sinner is not seeking Christ, but the blessed Lord is coming from Heaven to earth to find His own people who were of inestimable value to Him. In order to redeem Israel to Himself Christ died upon the cross, but they were not yet ready to receive Him as their King, so the treasure was hidden in the field, and would remain hidden until He returned.
From of old, Israel was recognized as God’s special treasure (Exodus 19:5). The Lord Himself is represented by the man who found and hid this treasure. At Calvary He sold all that He had and bought the field, which is the world (Matthew 13:38). Israel was purchased with the world but remains hidden among the nations during the present age. When Israel turns to the Lord, they will be revealed as Jehovah’s peculiar treasure (Malachi 3:17, rv), and through them blessing will come to all the Gentile nations.
“The kingdom of heaven,” is likened next “unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls.” Again the seeker is Christ, who came from the throne of glory to this poor world, seeking for jewels to adorn His crown forever.
“One pearl of great price.” This is the church, which is of supreme value in His eyes. He gave Himself for the church. At the cross He “sold all that he had, and bought it.” There He literally impoverished Himself to purchase the church as His own choice pearl (Ephesians 5:25; 2 Corinthians 8:9). Many think of salvation as the pearl and the sinner as the merchantman, but that is to invert completely the message of the gospel.
“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net.” It is literally a dragnet. This parable illustrates the present work of the professing church when vast numbers of both saved and lost are gathered in from the waters of the nations (Revelation 17:15) and are numbered among the professors of faith in Christ.
“Gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.” When the dragnet is full it is drawn to shore, and the good and bad fishes are separated from each other.
“So shall it be at the end of the world [age].” It is not the end of the world that is in view, but the consummation of the present age of grace, immediately preceding the ushering in of the age of the kingdom in full manifestation.
“Wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Judgment does not necessarily produce repentance. When the final separation takes place the false professors will be cast away in judgment, which results in wailing because of their suffering, and gnashing of teeth because of their hatred against God and His Christ (Psalm 35:16; Lamentations 2:16).
Having presented this remarkable panorama of parables covering the entire present age, and reaching into the tribulation period, thus viewing its consummation at the second coming of the Lord, Jesus questioned His disciples as to how much they had really apprehended. Though they declared they had understood these things, it is evident they but feebly entered into them. But a groundwork had been laid in their hearts and minds on which they could later build. So the Lord likened them unto scribes instructed unto the kingdom of Heaven, who in days to come would be able to bring forth out of their treasure things new and old. With this Jesus closed that particular period of ministry and returned to Nazareth.
The Prophet Without Honor (Matthew 13:54-58)
“Whence…this wisdom, and these mighty works?” Even in His own country—that is, in the city of Nazareth—there were few who responded to the message of the kingdom. They heard His teaching and saw His miracles with amazement, but failed to recognize Him as the Messiah (see Luke 4:16-24).
“Is not this the carpenter’s son?” The answer is no. He is the eternal Son of God, born of a virgin, but brought up under the fostering care of Joseph, from whom He learned the trade of the carpenter.
“Whence then hath this man all these things?” They were frankly puzzled. Jesus was so different from others of His townspeople. His wisdom and power were inexplicable from a merely human standpoint. Without scholastic training, He was more profound than the scribes.
“They were offended in him.” They were stumbled by His lowliness and took offense when He intimated that their very familiarity with Him in past days, when they knew Him as a simple artisan, blinded their eyes to the fact that He was God’s mouthpiece.
“Because of their unbelief.” Even God Himself is restricted by man’s unbelief. He who does for faith “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20), may be hindered in His working by stony-hearted opposition and unbelief.
The one great truth that this chapter in the life of our Lord demonstrates clearly is that unbelief on the one hand, or faith on the other, are not dependent on intellect or logic. The secret of both is the state of the conscience. Where one is determined to go contrary to what he knows to be right, he will continue in unbelief and refuse to submit to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. When one repents of his sins and honestly seeks deliverance from them, he will have no difficulty in believing the record God has given of His Son (1 John 5:11). It may be safely said, without fear of successful contradiction, that if one claims to have intellectual difficulties about believing the Bible, it is because he is living in some sin which the Bible condemns and from which he does not wish to be delivered. Unjudged sin is responsible for lack of faith in God.
This chapter brings to us a new revelation in connection with the kingdom. We saw in the preceding chapter how the leaders of the people of Israel crossed the deadline, and refused the offered kingdom by deliberately discrediting all the credentials of the King. They attributed His power (which they could not deny) to Beelzebub, and so committed the sin against the Holy Spirit for which there could be no forgiveness, either in that age or in the age to come. This resulted eventually in the setting aside for the time being of Israel nationally, and the introduction of a new order of things that God had foreseen from eternity. In its fullness this new order involved the revelation of the mystery of the church as one body called out from Jews and Gentiles, but the time had not yet come to unfold this mystery. Preliminary to that time, Jesus could speak of other mysteries that had been kept secret from the foundation of the world, the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven.
In concluding let us notice the distinction between the kingdoms of God and of Heaven. We are told that God’s kingdom rules over all (Psalm 22:28; 103:19) and is from age to age (Daniel 4:3). The expression the kingdom of God is never found in the Old Testament. The kingdom of God takes on different forms at different times. During the present age it is designated in Matthew’s Gospel, and there only, as “the kingdom of heaven.” From Matthew 13 on, the expression refers specifically, not to the final establishment of the kingdom of God over all the earth, but to the mystical form in which that kingdom was to be revealed between Christ’s ascension to Heaven and His second advent.
In Matthew, the King is seen as rejected by men and having returned to Heaven, from which place He directs His saints on earth. These saints disseminate the Word of the kingdom, causing a vast throng of mankind to acknowledge Him, at least outwardly, as earth’s rightful King. When He returns He will come in power and glory to root out of His kingdom all offenses and destroy all who work iniquity. He will gather out of His kingdom all who are unreal. Those who are genuine will have their part either in the heavenly or the earthly sphere of the kingdom of the Son of man, which will be the aspect taken by the kingdom of God in the millennial age.
In the parables of Matthew 13 our Lord set forth the condition that He saw the kingdom would take on earth as a result of His rejection. This was all foreknown to God and provision was made for it. Christ, refused by the leaders of the nation of Israel made propitiation for sin by His sacrificial death upon the cross (Acts 2:23; 1 John 4:10), and then, as the rejected man, left this world, ascending to Heaven, where He sits exalted at God’s right hand. The kingdom of the prophets is in abeyance until His promised return to build again the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down (Acts 15:16). But during His personal absence the Holy Spirit has come in a new way as the Comforter, to enable His servants to preach the Word in convicting power (John 16:7-11). Wherever the gospel is carried, it is the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8:11). As a result we see in the world today a great body of people who recognize in the Lord Jesus earth’s rightful King, and give Him heart allegiance. There are millions more who give Him lip-service and in an outward way own His authority, though their hearts are far from Him. These together constitute the kingdom in its mystical form (Matthew 13:11).
The kingdom promised to Israel by the prophets depended upon the reception of the King by the chosen nation. In rejecting Him they lost their opportunity, and so the kingdom was taken from them (Matthew 21:43). When they turn to the Lord, He will appear in glory, and all things that are written concerning the kingdom will be fulfilled. In the meantime, as the Word of the kingdom is proclaimed, there will arise a mixed group who profess to recognize the authority of the Lord Jesus. This group constitute the kingdom in mystery. It is a wider sphere than the church, inasmuch as it includes both true and false professors. The separation of the two groups will take place at the end of the age, after which the kingdom of the Son of man will be established over all the earth.
Men often speak of “building the kingdom.” This is an expression in common use, but never found in Scripture. We are commissioned to preach the gospel to every creature, and when men believe the message they become members of the church, the body of Christ. As such they are in the kingdom of Heaven also, but our primary object is to lead them to recognize Jesus as Savior and Lord.
No one can enter the kingdom of God in reality except by new birth. Many profess allegiance to the absent King but have never yielded their hearts to Him. These are in the sphere of the kingdom, but are not actually of it. Let us be sure our faith and profession are real.