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September 2, 2020
The parable of the sower is one of the most clearly convicting parables Jesus uses to convey truths about the kingdom of God.
Hidden in this parable is a truth that is as difficult to hear as it is true about the church.
It is relevant to many aspects of church life, including giving, repentance, godliness, humility, and love.
In this article, I’m going to share:
Let’s get right into it.
Before you understand what it means, it’s important to understand that it is a synoptic parable—this means that it was a parable Jesus told that was recounted by three different gospel authors (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), who likely have the same lineage of source material for writing their gospels.
Let’s take a look at each of its different forms in the Synoptic Gospels:
“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:3-9)
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 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, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:3-9)
“‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.’ As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’” (Luke 8:5-8)
Note that all three are very similar, with differences in inflection, metaphor, and emphasis.
In Matthew and Luke, the parable of the sower is about the multiple ways in which the word of God is received. In Mark, however, the emphasis of the passages lies more on the perseverance of the gospel through persecution and its ability to grow.
Mark presents the parable just after a delineation of a growing hostility toward Jesus and his ministry by pharisees. It highlights the ability of the church to produce fruit in spite of intentional and malicious violence against it. This has more of a corporate implication for the power of the gospel in the world.”
In Matthew and Luke, the emphasis is on the personal responsibility of individuals to respond rightly to the gospel, even when they have reasons not to—including misgivings toward the church, upbringing, custom, and religious affiliation.
The church fathers have taken this parable to mean basically the same thing about the power of the gospel in the face of external and internal adversity. However, it will be helpful to hear revolutionary church leaders, preachers, and theologians of the past weigh in on the exact implications of this parable for their time. It will help us to better understand how to use it in our own time.
Augustine of Hippo:
“In one the fruit is more, in another less; but all will have a place in the barn. Yesterday I said all this, today I am addressing the tares; but the sheep themselves are the tares. O evil Christians, O you, who in filling only press the Church by your evil lives; amend yourselves before the harvest come. Say not, I have sinned, and what has befallen me? God has not lost His power; but He is requiring repentance from you. I say this to the evil, who yet are Christians; I say this to the tares. For they are in the field; and it may so be, that they who today are tares, may tomorrow be wheat. And so I will address the wheat also.”
“How exquisitely proper is this parable to be an introduction to all the rest! In this our Lord answers a very obvious and a very important question. The same sower, Christ, and the same preachers sent by him, always sow the same seed: why has it not always the same effect? He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!”
“One who sowed went out to sow his seed, and while he was sowing, some fell near the road, and the fowls of heaven ate it up. And some fell on a rock, and when it was sprung up, it withered, because it hath not moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns springing up along with it, choked it. And some fell on a good soil, and, springing up, produced fruit a hundred-fold.
Saying these things, he exclaimed, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And his disciples asked him, saying, What was this parable? But he said, To you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest by parables; that seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand. -- (A little after,) Consider then how you hear. For whosoever hath, it shall be given to him; and whosoever hath not, even that which he thinketh that he hath shall be taken from him.”
“Now the preacher of the Gospel is like the sower. He does not make his seed; the seed is given him by his Master. It would not be possible for a man to make the smallest seed that ever germinated upon the earth, much less that celestial seed of eternal life. The minister goes to his Master in secret, and asks Him to teach him His truth, and thus he fills his basket with the good seed of the kingdom. What the minister has to do is go forth in his Master’s name and scatter precious truth. If he knew where the best soil was to be found, perhaps he might limit himself to that which had been prepared by the plow of conviction.
But not knowing men’s hearts, it is his business to preach the Gospel to every creature—to throw a handful on the hardened heart yonder, and another handful on that overgrown heart, which is full of cares and riches and pleasures of the world. He has to leave the fate of the seed in the care of the Master who gave it to him, for well he understands that he is not responsible for the harvest, he is only responsible for the care, the fidelity, and the industry with which he scatters the seed, right and left with both his hands.”
Notice how each church leader interprets the parable with a sensitivity to how God can work in the hearts of his people in his own time.
For Augustine, the issue was clarifying who were true converts and who were not true converts to Christianity in a time when doctrinal orthodoxy was still cooling from the forge of persecution and Nicaea.
For John Wesley, the issue was still conversion, but a conversion based on a conviction about personal responsibility and the capacity of each person to choose for himself or herself the good of repentance or the evil of self-reliance.
For John Calvin, the parable communicated the raw theological value of the gospel and its urgent spiritual implications for believers in his time. This parable brought all of human life under a razor thin depth of field to highlight the stark contrast in which the gospel’s light places all human choices.
For Charles Spurgeon, the parable was instructive for his methodology as a preacher. He saw his unique task of preaching the gospel as a task of sub-sowing—sowing at the behest of the great sower, who supplies the gospel.
The gospel message was, for Spurgeon, not a seed that the sub-sowers invent, but a supply given to preachers by Christ himself. And the resiliency of this message to the persecution Jesus mentions relies upon the seed remaining unaltered and unadulterated by the sowers. In other words, the parable charges preachers to proclaim what God says, rather than to use their office as a pedestal for their own self-help schemes.
When writing your sermon, this parable has multiple implications for the life of the church.
First of all, the parable of the sower can challenge the church to take a more serious attitude toward its responsibility to advance the gospel for the cause of Christ throughout the world.
Persecution will always rise up against the expansion of the kingdom, but the church is still charged with its mission to sow the seed of the gospel through evangelism and discipleship.
Second, it can prompt individual believers to reflect upon whether their repentance and confession of faith is genuine. In other words, are they persevering, or are they playing the Christian game because of the benefits it brings them in the short term? This is an uncomfortable (but very real) challenge every believer must answer for himself or herself.
Third, it gives believers the comfort that the seed which produces change in their hearts, and which they are charged to preach, isn’t something they have to come up with. It’s not a formula they have to invent. The truth of Christ crucified and raised for the forgiveness of sins stands on its own as a compelling spiritual truth that cuts through all the communicative pretension of marketing wisdom.
Simple proclamation is the basic unit of measurement for faithfulness to God’s kingdom work in this age. The rest of our work is an extension of this basic act of sowing. The sower’s job is to sow so much that the weeds cannot keep up.
Consider John Calvin’s words again:
“Consider then how you hear. For whosoever hath, it shall be given to him; and whosoever hath not, even that which he thinketh that he hath shall be taken from him.”
When we realize what we have been saved from, we will take stock of what we have received from God and seek to help others engaged in this good work more eagerly.
Perhaps we give to talented sowers who have committed their lives to sowing.
Perhaps we give to the persecuted church whose growth is fighting the weeds that are trying to choke them out.
Perhaps we tithe to the church to give to mercy ministries so that the church can preach the gospel to those in need and help hack against the weeds of poverty and unwellness that combat the growth of the gospel with messages of self-reliance.
Giving is one of the basic engines that drives sowing.
And those who have received much through sowing will give much to sowing, because they recognize the eternal implications of moving the ball down the field in this regard.
Sowing is directly related to church growth.
The Apostle Paul actually borrows this parable’s metaphor to explain his own work: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
Paul attributes the growth to God, but he recognizes that this growth is still dependent on his faithful response to God’s call to sow seed in the first place.
All of the “growth” ministries that we have in place are going to be ineffective unless we first place an emphasis on sowing—which is preaching the gospel through words associated with actions (and, of course, through clear proclamation of the word of God to the people of God).
Crucial to all church growth strategies must be a heart for evangelism—for sowing seed eagerly, excellently, and in great quantity.
The church should be convicted by the parable of the sower to make sure a decent percentage of their resources are allocated toward evangelism.
The implications of the parable of the sower for discipleship are very important.
Most importantly, there can be no discipleship without the seed taking root.
This means that there should be some concern for genuine conversion. Church leaders must have a category of false professions of faith, and recognize that false professions require pastoral sensitivity. Real people need real help making a genuine profession of faith and articulating the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.
Second, discipleship is riddled with hardship.
This means that church leaders should place a significant emphasis in their discipleship efforts on helping Christians persevere through the weeds of persecution and suffering to make their calling and conversion all the more certain.
Third, disciples should eventually sow the seed themselves.
Christians in whom the seed of the gospel has taken root ought to become sowers. This should be a central message in your membership classes and discipleship philosophy at your church: “Disciples share the gospel.” Disciples sow seed.
In summary, the parable of the sower changes your church leadership’s internal model for discipleship in three ways:
The parable of the sower isn’t just an idea.
It refers to a reality that both you and I must respond to genuinely.
In the words of Jesus—”He who has ears, let him hear!”
This must be true first of all for you and me before we make it a message we preach to others.
Anything less is hypocrisy.
Let us allow the word of God to affect our hearts deeply and may we pray continually that it produces the effects in us that God desires.
Again, this is one of the most clearly convicting parables Jesus uses to convey truths about the kingdom of God.
Make the parable of the sower a central fixture in your church’s vision for evangelism and discipleship.
Don’t be satisfied with surface-level conversions.
Don’t be ambivalent about the suffering and persecution the people in you community endure for the sake of the gospel. Take it seriously and provide pastoral care for those people.
Be inspired by it to share the gospel more fully and more often with those who need Christ.
Remember the words of Spurgeon:
“But not knowing men’s hearts, it is [the preacher’s] business to preach the gospel to every creature—to throw a handful on the hardened heart yonder, and another handful on that overgrown heart, which is full of cares and riches and pleasures of the world."
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on May 29, 2020 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.