Reading Time: 21 minutes

Planting trees you’ll never sit under

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 13:1-23

Thesis: Your lasting success is defined by your spiritual effect on other lives.

Charles Spurgeon admonished his people: write your name on hearts, not headstones. Write your epitaph on the lives of those you influence. And your influence will be eternal.

If you were to die today, how would you be remembered? What lasting impact has your life made on your world? Your legacy is in people. Your spiritual effect on other lives is the only permanent, enduring effect your life can leave. When your possessions are possessed by others and your life is done, the spiritual “fruit” you produce in the eternal souls of others will be your success.

Today Jesus will show us the hindrances to such a harvest, and the commitments which it requires. Then we will decide whether or not to pay the price of true success.

Listen to your Lord (vs. 1-3)

We will study this week one of the most important parables Jesus ever taught, in that it is foundational to the rest of his theology and ministry. Here he makes clear the definition of true success with God, and how it is to be achieved.

It may be that the other six parables of Matthew 13 are enlargements and commentaries upon this one. In this view, the parable of the wheat and tares explains the seed which falls by the wayside; the mustard seed and leave explain the seed on stony ground; the treasure and the pearl explain the seed among thorns; and the dragnet explains the good seed (Gardhardsson, cited in Hagner 363).

The text opens: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake” (v. 1). This has been a stressful day for our Lord. Jesus has already defended his disciples for eating grain from a field, and healed a man with a withered hand, incurring the wrath of the Pharisees. He has healed the sick and a demoniac, and been accused of being demon-possessed himself.

Now he “went out of the house,” most likely the home of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum and “sat by the lake,” the Sea of Galilee. But “large crowds gathered around him” (v. 2), so many that he could not see or speak to them all. And he cared for every person in this multitude, as he does today. Note that this is the only one of Matthew’s five teaching discourses which is addressed not to the “disciples” but to the “crowds” (Carson 300).

So he “got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore” (v. 2). This was most likely Peter’s fishing boat, close at hand. The Jewish rabbi typically sat down, while his students stood to hear his words and lecture (thus originating the “chair” at a university). There is a cove near Capernaum which would be especially suited for this scene, where Jesus’ voice would carry easily across the water to the crowds (Keener, IVPNTC 236). Spurgeon comments: “The ship became his pulpit, and the little space between it and the shore gave him breathing space, and enabled the more to hear him. The shelving beach and the blue sky would make a grand auditorium. . . . The teacher sat, and the people stood: we should have less sleeping in congregations if this arrangement still prevailed” (164).

Now Jesus began to teach: “he told them many things in parables” (v. 3). This is the first occurrence of the word “parable” in Matthew’s gospel (France 215), although he has already recorded seven parables in the Sermon on the Mount and two others following it. And it is the only parable which Jesus titles (v. 18).

Note that Jesus taught anyone who would listen to him. The parables recorded in Matthew 13 were given at the end of a particularly busy and stressful day (Robertson calls it the “Busy Day,” 1.100). Our Lord sat by the lake, presumably to rest. But when the crowds came, he had compassion on them and taught them the word of God (cf. Matthew9.36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”).

He will do the same for any of us who will listen to him. If you have not heard from the Lord lately, the fault is not his. If we will but make time to listen to him through Bible study and prayer, he will speak to our hearts and needs. What he did for the people in that first-century Galilean crowd, he waits to do for us today.

Sow in faith

Now the parable begins: “A farmer went out to sow his seed” (v. 3). The Greek original begins with the word “Behold!”, a term used to call attention to something important (Broadus 285). What follows is of the utmost urgency.

And it is delivered by a very common occurrence. Palestinian fields could be sowed in the fall or the spring. Sometimes the field was prepared by plowing, and sometimes the seed was first scattered and then plowed into the ground, as is the case here (Boring 303). And so “the” sower went out sowing (the definite article is present in the Greek). Jesus expects us to see the man as he steps forward to begin scattering his seed. Most likely a farmer in a nearby field alongside the Sea of Galilee began this actual work just as Jesus began teaching the crowds, and Jesus took him for his text (Barclay 2.57).

The farmer could put his bag of seed on the back of his donkey, cut a hole in it, and let the seed spill out as the donkey walked along. But more likely he was scattering the seed by hand (Keener, BBCNT 82), probably wheat or barley seed (Lenski 508).

We will soon learn that the “seed” being sown is the word of God (v. 20), making clear several spiritual implications. One: God constantly scatters his “seed” across the world. Jesus’ words are in the present tense, indicating that the sowing is a continuous action. He is always giving his word to us (Albright 166). Two: none of us will be able to claim ignorance of God as an excuse for disbelief or immorality. The seed has been scattered—the fault is not with the sower but with the soil (Davis 125).

And three: we who teach the word of God must give it to as many as possible, leaving the results to the Lord. We cannot know the condition of our hearers’ hearts before we speak, so we sow in faith (Keener, IVPNTC 237). Ecclesiastes offers sound advice: “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening do not let your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (12.6). Speak in faith.

Pray before your preach

Now Jesus describes the soil which the seed finds. Farmers in the first century did not plant in tidy rows, but scattered the seed along the ground. The very results Jesus notes were common. In fact, all four conditions we find in our parable were typical of the same field, if it was of any size at all (France 218).

Some soil typifies the deceived heart: “some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up” (v. 4). The “path” would be both the footpath worn by years of farming, and the roads which passed through the farmland. The wind scattered the seed onto these rock-hard surfaces, where it sat exposed to the birds. Even today it is common in the East to see a large flock of birds following the farmer as he sows his seed, eagerly picking up every grain which has not sunk into the soil (Broadus 285).

This soil may have been valuable for farming at one time, but no longer. External forces have been at work against it. The pressure of farmers and their animals and wagons, the passing of traffic and first-century vehicles has made once-loose soil into concrete. And now the seed can find nowhere to dig its roots (Maclaren 203-4).

Jesus’ point is spiritual, as his interpretation shows: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (v. 19). This is a preventable tragedy. If our hearers understand the word we give to them, Satan cannot snatch this truth from them. But if we do not make plain the word and will of God, our enemy gains the victory.

As a Christian, you are engaged in a spiritual battle. Your enemy is a prowling lion (1 Peter 8) masquerading as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11.14). He wants nothing more than to deceive and confuse those you are called to teach. Only the Holy Spirit can defeat his strategies, for “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2.14).

Our battle is spiritual before it is intellectual. We must first ask the Spirit to open the minds and hearts of those we teach, and seek his protection from the enemy. We must pray for the souls of our people before we can teach their minds. Otherwise Satan will see to it that they do not understand what we teach, and steal the truth from them.

It has been my great privilege to preach in Cuba on three different mission trips. Each time I have prepared as fully as I could the best message I could preach. However, very few in the congregation could understand it. Abel, the education minister in the First Baptist Church of Camaguey and one of the best interpreters I’ve ever met, must translate my words into the language of his people. Only then can the truth impact their lives. The better a sermon I preach, the more he has to work with. But he must do his work well, or mine is immaterial.

So it is with all ministries. We prepare to share the word of God as effectively as we can. Then we must ask the Spirit to protect our hearers from the distractions of the enemy and translate our words into the language of the soul. Otherwise we may be sowing God’s word on rock-hard ground, to no good purpose at all. When last did you pray for the Spirit to make your words into soul truth?

Measure faith by faithfulness

Now Jesus describes a second agricultural problem: “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” (vs. 5-6). Thin soil is a persistent problem in Palestine, where so much of the ground is limestone covered with a layer of topsoil (Robertson 1.102, Lenski 508). Here our Lord shows us the wrong and right ways to measure the faith of our people.

One wrong way is by appearances. The seed in this rocky soil “sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.” A week into the agricultural season, this part of the field looked to be the most productive. The rocks just beneath the surface of the earth would heat the soil quickly, so that seeds planted here would germinate (Broadus 286). Water and fertilizers on the surface of the soil could penetrate quickly to the roots of the new plant. And so the sprout “shot up quickly,” to translate the Greek literally.

But the sun came up, as it always does. The sprout in shallow soil could not put down deep roots to trap the moisture of the ground (Hagner 369). And so the plant “withered” and died.

A second wrong way to judge faith is by emotions. In Jesus’ interpretation of the parable he says, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy” (v. 20). Unlike the heart hardened by deceptions and distractions from the enemy, this soul welcomes the word instantly. The “joy” which results is clear and early proof of the sincerity of this person’s faith. Or so we think.

But nowhere does the Bible say how it feels to become a Christian, or to walk with him. Our emotions are to be the caboose at the end of the train, not the engine driving it. Our emotions depend on the pizza we had for dinner, or the weather, or the stock market, or a million other variables. Do not judge faith by emotions. This sprout had joy, but not for long.

Judge faith by faithfulness. Jesus warns the person with quick but rootless faith: “since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away” (v. 21). “Trouble” translates the word for pressure, difficulty, stress. It was literally the word for the roller used by Romans to press wheat into flour (Robertson 1.106).

Such trouble is to be expected by Jesus’ followers: “We were under great pressure, far our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor 1.8). Jesus warned us: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16.33). (The italics translate the same Greek word as in Mt 13.21.)

And we will have “persecution.” This word speaks to the deliberate infliction of intentional pain, usually for religious reasons (France 219). Some of our struggles as Christians are the result of a fallen world. Others are the result of fallen people with fallen motives.

Whichever is the source of the struggle, the short-rooted hearer “quickly falls away” from the faith. The Greek uses the word “immediately.” “Falls away” translates the Greek word for “tripped up,” showing not a gradual loss of interest but a sudden collapse under pressure (France 219). The word of God does not collapse under such stress: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40.8). But those who do not grow in their faith may soon prove that they do not possess it at all.

There is encouragement here regarding those who do not respond immediately to the word of God as we share it. It may well be that the seed is simply taking time to find deep roots in the soil of their soul. An immediate response may be worse rather than better. Judge faith by faithfulness.

Refuse the weeds of wealth

Some soil in the farmer’s field was too hard to receive the seed. Some was too shallow to give it roots. And some was too filled with weeds to let it live: “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants” (v. 7). “Other” seed, of the same quality, sown by the same farmer. The difference is not in the message, but its recipients.

“Falling among thorns” was a common agricultural problem in Jesus’ day. Farmers had no access to chemicals which would destroy weeds and their root systems. So they had two remedies. They could plow the field under, which would tear up the growing weeds but do nothing to their roots. Or they could burn the field, with the same effect. Either way, the farmer could not see the weeds hiding in the soil where he sowed his seed.

But they were there, and they “grew up and choked the plants.” Luke used the same word translated “choked” for the hogs who rushed into the lake and “were choked” or drowned (Luke 8.33; cf. Robertson 1.103). What weeds choke us spiritually?

Jesus names two varieties which are especially deadly: the “worries of this life” and the “deceitfulness of wealth” (v. 22). “Worries of this life” translates the Greek “anxieties of this age,” meaning worldly concerns and interests (Rienecker 1.39). The “deceitfulness of wealth” translates “deceit of riches,” the “uncertainty or deceit inherent in wealth.” Sin is deceitful in its very nature (Hebrews 3.13), and sinful wealth especially so: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6.9-10). Money is not evil, but pursuing it can be deceitful.

How do riches deceive us? We think we are better than those who do not have them, though Jesus and most of his apostles were poor. We believe we have earned and deserved what we possess, though our every ability, gift, and opportunity has come from God. We believe wealth will ensure happiness, though Jesus’ parable warns us that the opposite is more often the case. Some of us think that wealth proves God’s blessing and poverty his punishment, though Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus prove just the opposite (Luke 16.19-31).

Note that this problem is especially acute for those with the greatest capacity for good. This is good soil, with depth and richness of character. It is well able to support a bountiful crop, but the weeds which have infested it will kill its harvest. Likewise, those who are bearing fruit for God now must be especially on guard against worldly cares and the deception of riches, for they plague most those who are driven to achieve and succeed. Here the crop is the result of purpose, not ability.

At issue is not “worldly” possessions themselves. The God who made the material world pronounced it good. Jesus used Paul with his education, Joseph of Arimathea with his wealth, and Lydia with her business success. Job, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses were all men of enormous means.

Chrysostom (died AD 404), the archbishop of Constantinople and a man acquainted with prosperity, was right: “He said not ‘the world,’ but ‘the care of the world’; not ‘riches’ but ‘the deceitfulness of riches.’ Let us not, then, blame the things, but the corrupt mind. For it is possible to be rich and not to be deceived; and to be in the world, and not to be choked with its cares” (quoted in Broadus 294).

The issue is the priority we place on our possessions and activities. William Barclay: “It is characteristic of modern life that it becomes increasingly crowded and increasingly fast. A man becomes too busy to pray; he becomes so preoccupied with many things that he forgets to study the word of God; he can become so involved in committees and good works and charitable services that he leaves himself no time for him from whom all love and service come. His business can take such a grip of him that he is too tired to think of anything else. It is not the things which are obviously bad which are dangerous. It is the things which are good, for the ‘second best is always the worst enemy of the best.’ It is not even that a man deliberately banishes prayer and the Bible and the Church from his life; it can be that he often thinks of them and intends to make time for them, but somehow in his crowded life never gets round to it. We must be careful to see that Christ is not shouldered out of the topmost niche in life” (2.60-1).

Measure success by fruitfulness

At last we come to the good news: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (v. 8). This “good soil” is bereft of footpaths, rocks, or weeds. But the farmer cannot know this until the harvest is in. The success of the soil is not measured by its appearance or its early successes, but only by its fruitfulness.

Here the harvest was bountiful: “a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” Some interpreters have seen this description as exaggeration, “typical oriental hyperbole” (Beare 291). Jeremias interprets this harvest as symbolic only of the spiritual results at the end of the age (p. 119). But Genesis 26.12 states that “Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him.”

And this was exceedingly fertile land. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, described the Galilean plains this way: “its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty; its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it. . . . One may call this place the ambition of nature, where it forces those plants that are naturally enemies to one another to agree together: it is a happy contention of the seasons, as if every one of them laid claim to this country; for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruit beyond men’s expectation, but preserves them a great while; it supplies men with the principal fruits, with grapes and figs continually, during ten months of the year, and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together, through the whole year” (Wars 3.10.8).

The same God who created the earth can make it as fertile as he wishes. And our souls as well: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3.6-7). As he grows our souls into fruitfulness, he uses us to reproduce the harvest in our culture: “This is the method of Christ’s work, sowing the seeds of the Kingdom in the society and age in which we live. Jesus influences the age through the presence of the sons of the Kingdom” (Criswell 74-5).

And so we must commit ourselves to lives of fruitfulness. Keener is right: “The only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship” (IVPNTC 239). We are to measure our lives and ministries today by this one standard of success: how many are following Jesus because of us? How many have I won to Christ? Discipled in the faith? Helped spiritually? Who is closer to Christ because of me? Who is more like Jesus because I am like him?

“Strain every nerve to belong to the best . . . and this will be all the more imperative, if you find that you are producing, not thirtyfold instead of sixty or a hundred, but nothing at all” (Plummer 191). What has been your harvest? What harvest would you pray for today?

In my study of this parable I was challenged to become more intentional in helping people follow Jesus through my life and work. And I was encouraged in that work by this comment from William Barclay. When you are discouraged in teaching the word of God, remember: “No farmer expects every single seed he sows to germinate and bring forth fruit. He knows quite well that some will be blown away by the wind, and some will fall in places where it cannot grow; but that does not stop him sowing. Nor does it make him give up hope of the harvest. The farmer sows in the confidence that, even if some of the seed is wasted, none the less the harvest will certainly come. . . .

“When a man sows the seed, he must not look for quick results. There is never any haste in nature’s growth. It takes a long, long time before an acorn becomes an oak; and it may take a long, long time before the seed germinates in the heart of a man. But often a word dropped into a man’s heart in his boyhood lies dormant until some day it awakens and saves him from some great temptation or even preserves his soul from death. We live in an age which looks for quick results, but in the sowing of the seed we must sow in patience and in hope, and sometimes must leave the harvest to the years” (2.62, 63).

Sow in faith. Pray for the souls of those you teach. Measure their faith not by appearances or emotion, material success or worldly gain, but faithfulness and fruitfulness. Measure yours the same way. And may the harvest of the ages be yours.