When the disciples asked Jesus why He taught in parables, Jesus explained that He was concealing the true meaning from those who rejected Him and revealing the truth only to those who trusted in Him (Matthew 13:10-17). With an explanation like that, I would expect Christians to understand Jesus’ teachings, but unfortunately many are being led astray. Therefore, I’m starting a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings, beginning with The Parable of the Sower, also known as The Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:3-8, Mark 4:3-8, and Luke 8:5-8).
Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times what was sown.
Jesus didn’t always explain His parables to the disciples, but in this case He did (Matthew 13:18-23, Mark 4:13-20, and Luke 8:11-15). It’s important that we study His explanation, because it is the key to understanding the other parables. Here’s what Jesus said:
Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear the message about the kingdom and do not understand it. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and snatches away the word that was sown in their heart, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed seed falling among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed sown on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word and understand it. They retain the word and by persevering produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.
In light of Jesus’ explanation, we learn that this is a parable about evangelism. That’s why Jesus doesn’t say much about the sower: because it doesn’t refer to anyone in particular, but rather to any Christian who preaches the Gospel.
Jesus says that the seed symbolizes the Word of God, but more specifically it symbolizes the message about the Kingdom: repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s shed blood (Romans 10:17 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-3).
The seed is being sown in the soil, which represents the unbelievers’ heart, and Jesus groups these unbelievers into four main categories:
- Hard Soil – These are the hardhearted, the stubborn, and the stiff-necked people that will face God’s wrath (Proverbs 29:1 and Acts 7:51). Certainly this group includes militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, but it also includes “Christians” who deny core doctrines such as the Trinity. Keep in mind that Jesus was addressing a Jewish audience, including the scribes and Pharisees. These were people who believed in both God and the Messiah, but they refused to worship the true Jesus.
- Rocky Soil – These are false converts who make shallow decisions to follow Jesus, hoping for rewards or an easier life, even though the Bible promises trials and persecution (1 Thessalonians 3:2-4 and 2 Timothy 3:12). At the first sign of opposition, they will abandon their faith because it has no depth, whereas true Christian faith is strengthened through trials (1 Peter 1:6-7).
- Thorny Soil – These are people who claim to be Christ followers but who have never turned away from their sins and worldly concerns. This is a form of cognitive dissonance that the apostle James referred to as being “double-minded” (James 4:8). If these people continue to straddle the fence, their sins and monetary idolatry will eventually overtake their faith, preventing them from inheriting eternal salvation. Jesus warned that we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24), and He promised to provide for our worldly needs if we seek first His kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
- Good Soil – These are God’s elect⸺unbelievers to whom God has granted the gifts of repentance and faith (Acts 11:18, Ephesians 2:8, and 2 Timothy 2:25). When they hear the Gospel, they understand it and experience a true and lasting conversion that will have a positive influence on the lives of many others. This type of exponential impact is what allowed Christianity to grow from a few dozen people in Israel to millions of people globally.
Where People Go Wrong
The most obvious way that this parable gets misapplied is in support of the Word of Faith prosperity gospel. A greedy televangelist will say something like this: “If you want to get a harvest of corn, you have to sow corn. If you want to get a harvest of money, you have to sow a seed offering into my ministry. God promises to give you a harvest equal to thirty, sixty, or even one hundred times what you give.” Here’s a classic example from Kenneth Copeland:
“The whole kingdom of God operates according to the principles of planting, seedtime and harvest. The hundredfold return is God’s principle of return on your giving. What are you planting into the kingdom of God? Expect a hundredfold return on whatever you give, whether it be words, faith, money or any other seed you plant.”
Joseph Prince even uses this parable to teach that God promises to heal us:
“The parable of the sower teaches us that once we receive God’s Word into our hearts regarding our situation, God’s blessings will manifest in progression…Today, if you have seen only a thirtyfold increase in your situation, don’t give up. The sixtyfold, then hundredfold increases are on their way to you!”
If Christians would just open their Bibles, they would never fall for these scams. Jesus clearly says right there in the text that the seed is the Word of God that saves people. It’s NOT money or a promise for healing, it’s the Gospel!
Another, less obvious way that this parable gets misapplied is when Christians completely ignore it. For example, many of today’s megachurches were founded on the mistaken belief that we need to make Christianity more appealing to nonbelievers to get more people saved. That’s like saying that a really skilled sower, using the perfect technique and a variety of seeds, will get better results, and that’s really the opposite of what Jesus was saying.
Megachurch pastors often point to their massive weekly attendance numbers as evidence that this “church for the unchurched” approach works, but they’re deceiving themselves. They are simply padding their numbers by including the hard soil, the rocky soil, and the thorny soil in their counts, but how many people in these seeker sensitive megachurches are the good soil⸺the true born-again Christians? Judging by the scary results from a recent Lifeway Research survey, not many.
There are no shortcuts or secret weapons in evangelism. We just need to faithfully preach the Gospel and let God worry about the results.