A parable has been described as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. A parable can illustrate or it can overcome initial resistance. But it can also, ironically, conceal the truth. In Matthew 13:1–23 Jesus tells you that his parable of the sower does both.
See the sower working in his field. Listen to the parable of the sower. Matthew introduces a series of Jesus’ parables. The setting is beside the lake, with Jesus sitting in a boat with the crowds standing on the shore. The chapter contains a number of parables. The theme of the kingdom runs through them. The farmer sows his seed by broadcasting it (as is still done in the Middle East). Seed that falls on various kinds of poor soil is non-productive. However, some grows and produces an abundant harvest.
Understand the emphasis of the parable. Jesus is not saying that three-fourths of the Word is non-productive—though we can learn something about dangers to our listening to the Word. Sometimes the message of the kingdom is snatched away by the evil one before it has even begun to take root. In other cases, a promising reception withers because of persecution or trouble. Beware of the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth which can choke the Word. Jesus focuses on what the farmer is looking for—an abundant harvest, thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was planted. Despite the problems, despite losses in some areas, despite discouragements, the sower eventually receives an abundant harvest. But the parable goes beyond merely encouraging you to respond correctly to the sowing of the Word. What is sown is the Word (or message) of the kingdom, v.19. This parable, no less than the others in the chapter, focuses on the kingdom of God.
Understand the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. Unbelieving eyes are blind to the truth of the kingdom. Hopefully this parable helps you understand a little better the nature of the kingdom of God. Yet, for those who reject Christ, the truth is concealed, verses 11,12. Jesus appropriates for his own situation the language which the Lord used to commission Isaiah. Isaiah had witnessed the thrice glorious presence of the Lord in the temple. Conscious of his sin, his transgressions were forgiven, his tongue was purified by fire, and he was set apart for his prophetic ministry. Yet the Lord’s words to him must have been discouraging. His preaching would have the effect of hardening hearts. What Isaiah’s prophetic ministry anticipated comes about in the preaching and teaching of Jesus. In the context of rejection (Matthew 12:38,39; 13:57,58) the parabolic teaching, conceals, rather than reveals the truth about the kingdom. The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom is a mystery, understood, not by human wisdom, but only by eyes, ears, and hearts opened by the grace of God. “But this mystery is so called, not because it is still hidden in the present, but because it had been unknown in the past. Now—of all things—it has been made public by the gospel of Christ, is proclaimed by the apostles as the stewards of the mystery of God (Rom. 16:25, 26; Col 1:26; 1 Cor. 4:1; Matt. 13:11; 1 Cor. 4:1), and from now on will be increasingly manifested in history (1 Cor. 15:51, 52; 2 Thess. 2:7). The New Testament term [mystery], accordingly, does not denote an intellectually uncomprehended and incomprehensible truth of faith but a matter that was formerly hidden in God, and was then made known in the gospel, and is now understood by believers.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics,Vol. 1, pages 619, 620) Matthew emphasizes the unbelieving blindness by inserting Jesus’ explanation about his parabolic teaching between the parable and its interpretation.
But not all eyes are blind, not all ears are deaf. Your eyes and ears are blessed. The knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, verse 11. A mystery is something that had been concealed, but now is revealed. Its understanding is a gift. You appreciate Jesus’ teaching and you enter his kingdom, not because of your innate wisdom, but because the Father has graciously revealed these things to you. You, like Jesus’ disciples, have seen the coming of the King. You are blessed in a way that the prophets and righteous men of old could only long for, verses16,17. “[I]n the basic instruction of this parable Jesus gives a very fundamental insight into the kingdom that has begun with his coming. . . . [The] all-conquering coming of God into the world goes the way of the seed. . . . The Messiah who has been given all authority and power by God assumes the figure of the sower. . . . In spite of Satan’s power, of the hardness of hearts, of the cares of the world and the delusion of riches, the crop is prepared by God’s powerful word and the work of Christ.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p.132) By God’s grace you can appreciate that the kingdom of heaven is like the situation in this parable. (The seed is the “Word of the kingdom,” verse 19.) The coming of the great, messianic kingdom is like seed. The powerful Messiah is the sower. Where the seed is sown, the kingdom is present. Its present appearance does not necessarily indicate the glorious harvest to come. Don’t be discouraged by the trials faced by the citizens of the kingdom. The opposition is there. The evil one, opposition, the cares of the world, are real dangers. Beware of them. It can be easy to become discouraged as you see the cause of the gospel seemingly moving backwards. But, despite the opposition of Satan and the world, the kingdom moves forward. Because of who the sower is, the harvest is certain, and it will be abundant. The unbelieving world does not realize that, but by God’s grace you know it is coming.
Listen to Jesus’ parable. But don’t just see a farmer. Recognize that parallel to the growth of the crop is the progress of the kingdom of heaven. Marvel at what God is doing.