The parable of the sower

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 'Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, 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 and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.'

Then Jesus said, 'Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.' (Mar 4:1–9)

The parable of the sower is one of the better known parables of our Lord and provides us with valuable insights into the kingdom of God.

Mark begins his account by telling us that such a large crowd had gathered that Jesus got into a boat, pushed out into the lake and sat down to address them. Standing up would have made him more visible, but it was customary for rabbis and teachers of the Law to sit down while teaching.

The fact that Jesus did sit down to teach would have galled any Pharisees who were present. Here was someone who had not studied with them or been authorized by them, teaching in Israel; and to make matters worse, large crowds were flocking to hear him.

Why Jesus spoke in parables

Before we look at this parable in detail, let's look at what Jesus said about parables in general.

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, 'The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, "they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!"' (Mar 4:10–2)

Some people think that Jesus spoke in parables, using illustrations from everyday life, so that the people he was speaking to could understand what he was saying. However, quite the opposite was true. Jesus spoke in parables so that the people would not understand what he was saying and would not be forgiven.

God only reveals spiritual truth to those he has chosen to save—his elect (2Th 2:13; Mar 13:20). Others hear the truth, but are not able to understand it, because they don't have the Holy Spirit to give them understanding (1Co 2:14).

Because we, the disciples of Jesus Christ, have been chosen by God for salvation, we've been given his Spirit and can understand spiritual truth.

The seed is the word

Then Jesus said to them, 'Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word.' (Mar 4:13–4)

Jesus said that the seed the farmer sows is the word of God or, more precisely, the message about the kingdom (Mat 13:19). The message about the kingdom is the message of salvation—the gospel, the good news of the kingdom (Mat 9:35)—that invites us into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the spiritual kingdom we enter when we are born again (Joh 3:3–7).

Traditionally we've expected people to come to church to hear that message, but how many people attend church nowadays? It is right and proper that the gospel is preached in our churches, but we shouldn't wait for people to come to church to hear it.

As the farmer went out to sow his seed (Mar 4:3), so the church needs to go out to sow God's word (his invitation to his kingdom) into his field, which is the whole world (Mat 24:14).

Scattering the seed

'As he was scattering the seed…' (Mar 4:4)

In this age of high technology farmers use precision drills to place seed in the ground at precise distances apart, but in Jesus' day broadcasting the seed was the only method available. It may have been wasteful in respect to the amount of seed used, but it holds spiritual lessons for us.

To sow his seed in Jesus' day, a farmer would fix his eyes on a point at the other side of the field and walk towards it, rhythmically taking handfuls of grain from his pouch and scattering them in a sweeping action from one side to the other.

He wasn't watching where the seed fell, but was making sure he kept a straight line across the field. Consequently the seed came to rest in various places.

The Christian's task is to sow God's word into people's hearts. We won't know what kind of soil we are sowing it into but, as we have the opportunity, we should scatter the seed wherever we can. And the seed we sow doesn't have to be the gospel. All of God's Word is alive and active (Heb 4:12). God can reveal himself to a person through any part of his Word.

The parable of the sower is about two things: the kingdom of God (salvation) and the human heart. Jesus taught that in respect to the kingdom of God mankind can be divided into four categories according to the kind of heart they have, their hearts being illustrated by the type of soil the seed fell on.

1 The seed along the path

'Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.' (Mar 4:15)

Matthew gives us more information:

'…when anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.' (Mat 13:19)

Those like seed along the path are those who hear the word but cannot understand it; and as birds take away seeds that are sown on a path (Mar 4:4), so Satan takes away the word that is sown in their hearts.

As we saw earlier, only those whom God has chosen to save can understand spiritual truth. These are people who have not been chosen for salvation, so they cannot understand the word and respond to it:

But why does Satan take away the word from people who are not elect and can never be saved? He does that because he is the enemy of God and of the truth. Jesus said that there is no truth in him (Joh 8:44).

Satan doesn't want anyone to obey God's word, whether they are elect or not. He tried to turn Jesus from the truth (Mat 4:1–11) and will try to turn us also. We must resist him, standing firm in the faith (the truth we have believed: 1Pe 5:8–9).

2 The seed on rocky places

'Others, like seed sown on rocky places, 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.' (Mar 4:16–7)

Some believe that those in this category are not true believers and make only an outward confession of faith. I cannot accept that for four reasons:

Jesus knows whether a person has believed in him or not. These are born-again believers but they don't develop a root system. Consequently, when persecution comes because of the word they've received, they quickly fall away.

Rooted in him

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Col 2:6–7)

Paul urges all who have received Jesus Christ to continue to live in him and to root themselves in him. In that way they will build themselves up and become strong in the faith.

A plant's root system serves three functions: it anchors it to the ground and enables it to absorb moisture and nutrients, with moisture being the most important. In Luke's Gospel Jesus said that when the plants came up they withered because they had no moisture (Luk 8:6). They had no moisture because they had no roots to absorb it.

Water supplies the moisture a plant needs and water, in the Bible, is used to symbolize the Holy Spirit (Joh 7:38–9). Water symbolizes the Spirit, because the Spirit is as essential for spiritual life as water is for physical life.

These people don't put their roots down into God to draw on the life-giving moisture of his Spirit, so when the heat comes (the time of testing) they shrivel up and die. Jeremiah spoke about such people:

This is what the Lord says:

'Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.

That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes.

They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.' (Jer 17:5–6)

Christians who trust in human flesh for their strength, rather than in God, are of three main types:

Those who trust in their own strength

These are Christians who trust in their own strengths, abilities and skills. They don't need God to help them in life, other than to be their Saviour. That is pride. It's humbling to say, 'Lord, I cannot do this myself. I need your help; please help me.' These people rely on their own strength rather than on God's strength.

Those who trust in the strength of others

These are Christians who love to fellowship with other believers (which is not wrong), but their lives become unbalanced. They spend their time in meetings and doing things, so much so that their private time with the Lord is nothing more than a few brief moments snatched during the day (if they have the time).

They don't spend time reading their Bibles, or in prayer. If they have a problem, others pray for them. We should pray for each other (Eph 6:18), but the Word also says: 'Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray (Jam 5:13a).'

God wants us to present our requests to him ourselves, and to see him answer our prayers, so that our faith in him will grow. These Christians never rely on God directly, they only rely on him through others, and so, in the time of testing, they fall away.

Those who trusted in God, but do so no longer

These are Christians who used to trust in the Lord, but as the years go by they start to trust in other things. King Asa, in the Old Testament, is a good example of this (2Ch 14:1–15;16:1–10). Jeremiah said: 'Cursed is the one who trusts in man… and whose heart turns away from the Lord (Jer 17:5).' We can only turn away from the Lord if we once trusted in him.

God sent a prophet to Asa to ask him why, having once relied on the Lord, he was now looking to human flesh for his deliverance. Asa was so angry with the prophet that he put him in prison. Sometimes we don't like to be confronted with the truth. Jeremiah continued:

'But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.' (Jer 17:7–8)

These are Christians who have taken time to develop their own intimate relationship with God. They read his Word and spend time at his feet, listening to his voice (Luk 10:38–9).

They have put their roots down deep into God and draw constantly on the life-giving power of his Spirit. They trust in the Lord, and continue to trust in him. Consequently, no matter what comes against them in life—troubles, trials, persecutions or testings—they will stand, because God will make them stand.

They can go through drought and heat without effect because their confidence is in the Lord and not in those around them. The Word says that they will be blessed in what they do and will never fail to bear fruit.

It doesn't matter how well we begin our walk with the Lord, it's how we finish that matters (Heb 3:14). Asa began by trusting in God and was blessed because of that, but when he looked to human beings for deliverance, the Lord said, 'You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.' In other words, trouble will be your lot (2Ch 16:9b).

God doesn't like it if we stop trusting in him.

3 The seed among thorns

'Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.' (Mar 4:18–9)

'The seed that fell 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.' (Luk 8:14)

To my mind this is the saddest of the categories Jesus spoke about. As the people in the previous category are true believers, these also are true believers.

The Greek word translated 'crop' in the parable of the sower is karpos (Mat 13:8; Mar 4:8; Luk 8:8). It means fruit, crop, harvest. The word is also used in the analogy of the vine and the branches (Joh 15:1–17), where it's translated as 'fruit', and in Gal 5:22 where it describes the fruit (karpos) of the Spirit.

That means that the parable of the sower and our Lord's teaching on the vine and the branches deal with the same subject—our production of spiritual fruit for God.

The literal translation of the final words of Mar 4:19 reads: '…and it becomes that which does not bear fruit, a crop or a harvest.' That means that before it was choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures it was producing fruit, a crop or a harvest.

These are people who hear God's word, are born again and begin to produce spiritual fruit (the grain starts to form in the ear), but they allow the things of the world to choke their spiritual growth and they stop producing fruit.

I believe this is the greatest danger facing Christians in the West today. It's not persecution that is threatening our walk with the Lord, but the worries of this life, our love for the world and the desire for its riches and pleasures.

Riches and pleasures

Paul wrote that Demas, because he loved this world, had deserted him and had gone to Thessalonica (2Ti 4:10); and that others, eager for money, had wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1Ti 6:10).

Do we believe we are more pure than our first-century brethren and that such actions are beyond us? Surely never before in the history of mankind has such a huge range of pleasures been available to so many people, together with the means to indulge in them. We are truly living in a pleasure-loving and a pleasure-seeking world.

There is so much around us to entice us away from our sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2Co 11:3). What would you rather do: watch your favourite television programme, or pray? The Lord may not mind if you watched the programme, but if he wanted you to pray at that time would you find it difficult?

Pleasure, if it doesn't involve sin, is not wrong and can be beneficial, as long as we keep it in proper perspective in our lives. But if it occupies first place in our hearts we are guilty of idolatry. Idolatry is not just creating an idol and bowing down to it; idolatry is allowing anything to come between us and God.

The first commandment God gave to his people was that they should have no other gods before him (Exo 20:3). The Hebrew word translated 'before' means in front of. But why didn't he just say they should have no other gods?

He said that because something that is not a god can become a god to us if it becomes more important to us than God. It's not the thing itself, but the position it occupies in our hearts.

Nothing in our lives should come before God. God is a jealous God (Exo 20:5); he commands that we love him more than any person or any thing in this world (Mar 12:28–30; Mat 10:37; 1Jo 2:15).

When John wrote: 'Dear children, keep yourselves from idols (1Jo 5:21),' he didn't just mean that we shouldn't bow down to statues, but that we shouldn't allow anything to become more important to us than God.

The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. (1Ti 5:5–6)

Christians who put pleasure first in their lives face spiritual death.


But riches and pleasures were not the first thing Jesus warned about. He said that the worries of this life can also choke our spiritual growth, making us unfruitful. What did he mean by 'worries'? The Greek word is merimna. It means worry, concern, anxiety. The same word is used in our Lord's conversation with Martha (Luk 10:38–42).

Martha was a godly woman whom Jesus loved (Joh 11:5), and she’d invited him into her home. She wanted to be a good host but her sister Mary wouldn’t help her with the work. Instead she sat at Jesus’ feet listening to what he said.

Martha complained to Jesus about this, but he defended Mary’s actions. He told her that she (Martha) was worried (merimnao) about many things (the everyday problems of life); but few, or indeed only one thing is needed.

Jesus was emphasizing the importance of salvation. He was saying that, ultimately, there is only one thing we need to do in life, and that is to make sure that at the end of our lives we inherit eternal life. Mary was putting that need first, and Jesus wouldn't stop her.

We must never allow anything in our lives—even the many things we have to do: earn a living, look after our families, look after our homes—to keep us from spending time with the Lord. Jesus said:

'I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.' (Joh 15:5)

Remaining in Jesus involves spending time with him. If we stop spending time with the Lord, we will stop receiving the nourishing sap from the Vine (the Holy Spirit) who enables us to bear fruit for God.

4 The seed on good soil

'Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.' (Mar 4:20)

'But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.' (Luk 8:15)

When a farmer sows his seed, he does so with one aim in mind—to reap a harvest.

He won't see what fell along the path: it didn't germinate and has disappeared. It will sadden him to see the dried, withered plants on the rocky soil and the short, stunted plants that were choked by thorns. But his delight will be in the plants that have continued to grow and produced a crop—for that is why he sowed his seed. The same is true with God.

Even though we sow the seed on God's behalf, God is the farmer in this parable as much as he's the gardener in the vine and the branches. In both he is looking for a crop.

God expects to reap a harvest from the spiritual seed he sows in our hearts, and that harvest is the fruit of his Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance (patience with people), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22–3).

That fruit (or crop) takes time to grow and to ripen in our lives, and reaches its fulness as a Christian matures. (The plants that are choked by thorns do not mature: Luk 8:14.) It grows as we allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God to change us.

With modern hybrid cereals each plant yields almost an identical amount of grain, but that was not so in our Lord's day. In his day yields varied greatly from plant to plant; and so it is with us. We won't all yield the same amount of fruit for God, but we can all produce a crop if we persevere.

Perseverance is continuing on despite difficulties. The trials and testings we experience in life develops perseverance in us so we can become mature and complete crop-bearers for God, not lacking anything (Jam 1:2–4).

Those who don't produce a crop

But what about those who don't produce a crop, or stop producing a crop? As we've seen, they can be divided into three categories:

The seed that fell along the path

These are people who don't understand the word, so they cannot believe and are never saved (Mat 13:19; Luk 8:12).

The seed that fell on rocky places

These people believe and begin to grow spiritually, but last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word (the truth they've believed) they quickly fall away (Mar 4:16–7). That means they believe and are saved, but turn away from the faith when things get difficult. Will such people inherit eternal life?

Jesus, speaking about the persecution that will occur before his return, said: 'At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other… but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Mat 24:10,13).' If we need to stand firm to the end to be saved, then those who turn away from the faith when persecuted will not be saved.

Jesus described such people as plants that become scorched and withered by the sun (Mar 4:6). We've all seen plants like that; is there life in them? There was life in them at one time—that was how they germinated and grew—but there is no life in them now.

The seed that fell among thorns

These people believe and begin to grow and produce spiritual fruit, but their worldliness stops their growth and they stop producing fruit (Mar 4:18–9). Will such people be saved?

In his analogy of the vine and the branches Jesus said that his Father is the gardener (Joh 15:1). He also said that his Father cuts off every branch in him that does not bear fruit (Joh 15:2). That means that every believer who stops producing the fruit (or crop) of the Spirit, will eventually be cut off from Christ.

In both the parable of the sower and the vine and the branches, Jesus taught that crop-bearing, fruit-bearing—producing the fruit of God's Spirit in our lives—is essential for salvation.

Predestination and free will

Jesus said that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to us (Mar 4:11). The parable of the sower is a parable that explains the workings of God's kingdom (salvation). Jesus was telling us how things are in respect to salvation, and how they will be.

But does that mean that each of us is predestined to be in one of the categories Jesus spoke about and there is nothing we can do about it? The answer is no. Predestination (having our spiritual destiny planned in advance by God) is true only with respect to the first category—the seed on the path—whether we've been chosen by God to be saved, or not.

If we have been chosen, we will come to Jesus and be born again. Jesus said, 'All those the Father gives me will come to me (Joh 6:37).' God will make sure that happens. Which category we find ourselves in after that will depend on the decisions we make as Christians, ie the exercise of our free will.

God has not predestined, it is not his will, nor will he ever cause any of his children, whom he loves (Eph 5:1), to abandon their faith or to be choked by life's worries, riches or pleasures. Those are the results of decisions we make.

Fear of people could tempt us to renounce our faith when persecuted. What did Jesus say about that? He said that we shouldn't fear those who can kill our bodies, but can do no more; we should only fear God (Luk 12:4–5).

But who can do that in their own strength? Jesus said that it's those who have no root (who are not relying on his Spirit) who will fall away when persecuted.

Is it God's will they fall away? Not at all. As we've seen, God wants all he has chosen to root themselves in him and to be empowered by his Spirit. However, we have free will in this matter; it's up to us whether we do that or not. The same is true for those who are choked by thorns. There are things God does for us, and things he wants us to do.

Our responsibility

Col 3:5 tells us to put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry (the worship of self). That is not something that is done for us when we're saved, it's something we have to do. If we don't do it, we will have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5:3–5).

But again, who can do that in their own strength? No one can. It's only when we ask God for help that we can put to death our earthly nature. Paul cried out, 'Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 7:24–5 GNT)!'

It's up to us to remove the thorns from our lives that choke our spiritual growth. God is ready to help us in that task, but it's our responsibility.

Confirm your calling and election

Salvation comes from the Lord (Jon 2:9), but we are told to make every effort to confirm our calling and election to it (2Pe 1:10a). That is something we have to do. The Greek word translated 'confirm' means to make firm, sure, certain.

Does that mean our salvation is not sure and certain? It is sure and certain from God's side; we must make it sure and certain from our side. We do that by obeying his Word.

2Pe 1:5–7 contains a list of qualities God wants us to add to our faith. If we make every effort to do that, we will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2Pe 1:10b–1). That is a promise from God. By obeying him we will have made our salvation sure.

God has chosen us to be saved, he's provided us with everything we need to be saved (2Pe 1:3–4), and his desire is that we are saved; but he will not take our free will from us. If any Christian fails to reach heaven, it will be because they did not do what God told them to do.

Obedience leads to righteousness; righteousness leads to holiness; and the result of holiness is eternal life (Rom 6:16,19,22).

Michael Graham
June 2006
Revised June 2019

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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