Today we are beginning a new sermon series titled “The Parables of Jesus”. Over the next several months we are going to explore many different parables found in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some of these parables are included in all 3 books, while others are in just 2 of them, and the rest in only 1. Most Bible scholars agree that there are no actual parables mentioned in the gospel of John.
Depending upon whose list you use (and I’ve seen several), there are anywhere from 25 to 60 parables. The number changes depending upon how one defines and/or characterizes a parable. For the purposes of this series, we are going to address 35 stories that I personally consider to be parables based upon my definition of the term. These will include many very familiar stories such as the Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son.
A parable is a simple story that is used to illustrate a spiritual truth or teach a spiritual lesson. Jesus spoke in parables quite frequently - often to the crowds, sometimes to His disciples, and on occasion even to His accusers. Parables feature common characters and circumstances that would have been quite familiar to His listeners. In a true parable none of the characters are specifically identified, but rather they remain anonymous. The content of a parable is clearly fiction, though its meaning is quite true. Though it may be very short, a parable presents a complete story, not just a single idea or thought.
Many of Jesus’ parables speak to a common theme. Such parables can be grouped together based upon their related subject matter and can be studied simultaneously. Other parables, however, focus on a unique topic or issue. These are best considered independently. During this series, we will order our exploration of the parables according to their main emphasis or idea.
Our first topic in this study will be the Kingdom of God. Today we will discuss 2 similar parables that both concern the manner by which the Kingdom of God grows or increases.
I. THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER - Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:3–9; Luke 8:5–8
The Parable of the Sower is included in all 3 synoptic gospels. Its rendering is very similar in all 3 accounts with no significant variation of details. Jesus delivered the parable while teaching from a boat positioned in the shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee just offshore. He was addressing a large crowd who had gathered there on the beach to hear Him speak.
The parable tells of a sower who went out to scatter seeds. Some of the seeds fell beside the road, on presumably hard-packed ground, where they were quickly eaten by hungry birds so that none were left to germinate and grow. Other seeds fell onto rocky soil where they were able to quickly spring up, yet unable to develop deep or strong roots. As such, when the scorching sun beat down upon them they quickly withered away. Still other seeds fell among thorns, and despite their coming up, they were choked out by the thorns and were ultimately unfruitful. Lastly, some of the scattered seeds fell on good soil. Unlike the others, these grew to maturity and produced desirable crops - some more bountifully than others.
Unlike many of the parables, this one includes an explanation. Sometime later, after the crowds had dispersed, Jesus pulled His disciples aside and explained its meaning. The seed represents the Word of God which is to be spread everywhere. Some will hear it, but Satan will come quickly and snatch it away so that it doesn’t take root in their hearts. Others will hear it and receive it joyfully, but without healthy roots to sustain them, they will soon wither away due to the trials and persecutions of life. Still others will receive the Word and sprout up, but the cares of this world will captivate them and render them unfruitful. Finally, those that remain will hear the Word of God, apply it to their hearts, endure and overcome the trials of life, and mature into productive believers.
II. THE PARABLE OF THE GROWING SEED - Mark 4:26–29
The Parable of the Growing Seed is only included in the gospel of Mark. Apparently Jesus told this parable to His disciples during the same conversation in which He explained the Parable of the Sower - after the crowds had departed. Many Bible scholars believe that the Parable of the Growing Seed was intended to address concerns that arose among the disciples resulting from the Parable of the Sower.
This parable begins by stating that a man has cast seeds onto the ground. Following this, he goes on about his life sleeping at night and rising by day, paying little to no attention at all to the seeds’ growth. Meanwhile, though the man doesn’t know how, the seed germinates and begins to grow. Over time it develops into a full and healthy plant, without receiving any assistance from the man who had originally scattered the seed. Once it has fully matured, then the man harvests the crop.
The Bible does not give an explanation for this parable, but we can still ascertain its meaning. In this parable, the seed seems to represent the Kingdom of God itself. The man has nothing to do with its growth, nor does He truly comprehend how it grows. Even though he sleeps and is seemingly oblivious to its progress, the Kingdom still grows. This increase is due solely to God, not to the man, and it takes place just as the LORD wills and completely within His timing.
Although the man in this parable makes no attempt to nurture or care for the growing seed, it is incorrect to assume that such activity is forbidden. God repeatedly commands more mature believers to teach, encourage, love, and support to developing Christians. This is absolutely necessary in order to make disciples. The neglect of the seed in this story intentionally emphasizes God’s sole responsibility for its growth, and should not be interpreted as an endorsement for such behavior on the part of Christians.
III. UNDERSTANDING THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Before we seek to reconcile the meaning of these 2 parables, let us first consider their topic - the Kingdom of God. Many people are confused about the meaning of this phrase. Some think of it as Heaven or the dominion of Christ during the Millennial reign. Their understanding is akin to a political kingdom. While these depictions may be partially accurate, neither provides a complete understanding of the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps you have heard someone say that “The Church of God is not a place, but a people.” While the word church can be used to refer to a specific location or building, it most often refers to those who have been born-again through faith in Jesus Christ. In a similar way, the Kingdom of God is not merely a realm over which Jesus rules supreme. It can also be understood as a people - namely, those who are its redeemed citizenship. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is present wherever its population is found (including Jesus Himself).
The Kingdom of God includes the righteous of all ages. The Church is but a subset of the broader Kingdom of God. The Kingdom also includes the faithful children of Israel as well as ancient believers who lived prior to Abraham. The Kingdom will also include Tribulation Christians who profess authentic faith in God despite the Church’s absence on earth. Ultimately, the Kingdom of God abides in the hearts and lives of all of God’s children.
The parables that we’ve discussed today both relate to the growth or expansion of the Kingdom of God. If we view the Kingdom as the citizenry of God, under the headship of Jesus Christ, we can more easily understand that it will grow as more and more people are saved. The Parable of the Sower teaches us to spread the gospel far and wide, so that some will hear it and join the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, it also reveals that most who hear the message of salvation will reject it. This widespread rejection can lead to frustration on the part of the sowers (a truth I’ve experienced personally on more than one occasion)...
For those who feel that they’ve wasted much of their lives scattering unfruitful seeds, it is important to remember that God alone is responsible for the growth. This is the message of the Parable of the Growing Seed. So, as we consider these 2 parables together we learn that though Christians have been given an important role to play in the growth of God’s Kingdom, ultimately God is responsible for its growth. Therefore let us not become discouraged by what seems at times to be a dismal failure, but rather let us keep faithfully sowing the seeds of God’s Word while trusting that He will take care of the end result.
Next week we will examine 2 new parables that also deal with the growth of the Kingdom of God. While the parables that we discussed today were centered on the manner in which God’s Kingdom grows, next week’s parables will focus on the extent and magnitude of its growth. Until then, may we all go out and scatter more seeds...