Jesus is teaching near the Sea of Galilee, but the crowds are so large that he climbs into a boat and moves out into the water. The crowds then gather on the beach to hear him. This takes place well into his ministry, possibly two years.
Unlike his previous teaching, he only communicates parables to the crowd. R. V. G. Tasker and I. H. Marshall explain the meaning in the New Bible Dictionary:
‘Parable’ is ultimately derived from Gk. parabolē, literally ‘putting things side by side.’ Etymologically it is thus close to ‘allegory,’ which by derivation means ‘saying things in a different way.’ Both parables and allegories have usually been regarded as forms of teaching which present the listener with interesting illustrations from which can be drawn moral and religious truths; ‘parable’ is the somewhat protracted simile or short descriptive story, usually designed to inculcate a single truth or answer a single question, while ‘allegory’ denotes the more elaborate tale in which all or most of the details have their counterparts in the application. Since ‘truth embodied in a tale shall enter in at lowly doors,’ the value of this method of instruction is obvious.
The first parable he teaches is known as the Parable of the Sower. The sower is scattering seeds on the ground to grow a crop. However, when the sower scatters the seeds, they fall on four different kinds of soil: soil along the path, soil on rocky ground, soil with thorns growing in it, and finally good soil. As most of Jesus’ listeners were familiar with scattering seeds, they would have understood the imagery Jesus is using to tell the parable. However, since we are two thousand years removed, here is some background from Michael J. Wilkins in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary):
Seed was sown ‘broadcast’ style by scattering it in all directions by hand while walking up and down the field. The average rate of sowing wheat varies from twenty pounds per acre (22.5 kilograms per hectare) upward, which allowed for wasted seed. Fields were apparently plowed both before the seed was sown and after, plowing across the original furrows to cover the seeds with soil. . . . It was common for seed to be scattered on the hard paths that surrounded the fields. Birds would swoop down as the farmer walked on and eat the seed.
Conditions for farming in many areas of Israel were not favorable. The hardships that many people experienced included insufficient amounts of water and soil. The terrain in most cases was uneven and rocky, with only thin layers of soil covering the rock. Seed that landed on this shallow soil could begin to germinate, but it couldn’t put down deep roots to collect what little moisture was in that parched thin layer of earth. Sprouting seed would soon wither and die in the hot sun (13:6).
Sometimes thorns were also hidden in the soil, so the farmer could not see them to pull them out by the roots. Therefore, when seed was planted beside the thorns, the thorns would grow rapidly and crowd out the seeds.
With regard to the good soil, Craig Keener notes in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament:
Thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold are tremendously good harvests from Galilean soil. The Jordan Valley normally yielded between ten- and a hundredfold, so a hundredfold need not be a miraculous harvest (Gen 26:12; cf. Amos 9:13). But for much of Palestine, the average yield was tenfold (meaning that 10 seeds were harvested for every seed sown), and all the figures Jesus reports here are very good yields.
Once Jesus has finished, his disciples pull him aside and ask why he has started teaching in parables. Jesus explains that only those who are truly following him (his disciples) will have the parables explained to them. The parables are revealing the secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven. Those who aren’t following Jesus will not hear the parables explained, and thus will remain ignorant about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.
What does Jesus mean by the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven”? Up until Matthew 13, Jesus has been presenting himself to the Jews of Galilee and Judea as the Messiah, the long-predicted King of Israel. He has performed miracles, he has fulfilled prophecies, he has taught with authority, yet most Jews were rejecting his claims to be the Messiah. In fact, in Matthew 12, the Jewish leadership attributes his miracles to the power of Satan!
Given the rejection of Jesus as their King, Jesus will now start revealing to his disciples that the kingdom of God (heaven) that the OT predicted will be delayed until Jesus returns to the earth some time in the future. Until he comes back, however, the kingdom of God will exist, but in a different form than what the Jews would have expected. Jesus, then, is going to reveal to his disciples the characteristics of this new form of the kingdom which will exist between his first and second coming. This new form has never been revealed before, so that is why it is referred to as a “secret” or “mystery.”
Why would Jesus only want his closest followers to be told about the new form of the kingdom of God? Because the crowds that are coming to hear him speak are mostly composed of people who don’t accept his claim of being the Messiah and who don’t want to dedicate their lives to him.
Reflecting on verses 13-15, Craig Blomberg writes, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary:
The hidden aspect of the parables’ message is thus both a cause of and a response to people’s unwillingness to follow Jesus. ‘Seeing’ and ‘hearing’ are each used in two different senses here, once for simple sensory perception and then for the kind of insight that leads to acceptance of the gospel and discipleship. ‘Understanding’ is a key word for Matthew in this chapter, especially in vv. 19 and 23, where he adds the term to his sources. The language of v. 13 is taken almost verbatim from Isa 6:9–10, LXX. Jesus declares that the words of Isaiah are now being fulfilled.
The word for ‘fulfill’ here (anaplēroō) is different from before, the only time in the New Testament this verb is used with reference to Scripture. Verse 14a probably means the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them—i.e., the pattern of behavior in Isaiah’s time is repeating itself and being completed in Jesus’ day among those who reject him. . . . Meanwhile v. 15 explains the current plight of those who reject Jesus. God confirms such people in their hard-heartedness in response to their freely chosen disobedience (as in the larger context of God’s call to Isaiah to prophesy to rebellious Israel; cf. also the sequence of events in Rom 1:18–32). Jesus sees his preaching in parables, in part at least, as a kind of judgment from God upon unbelieving Israel.
As for Jesus’ disciples, they are blessed. They will be taught the meaning of the parables, and thus the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. They are learning things about the kingdom that not even the great prophets and saints in the OT were privileged to know.
In verses 18-23, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to his disciples. The seed represents Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven. The four soils represent four different kinds of responses to Jesus’ teaching.
The first kind of person (soil on the path) never understands Jesus’ words and Satan snatches away the words before any understanding does occur. This does not a represent a person who simply needs more instruction to understand. This person willfully rejects the message they are hearing and they are therefore culpable.
The second kind of person (soil on rocky ground) receives Jesus’ words, but as soon as he is troubled or persecuted for his beliefs, he abandons Jesus.
The third kind of person (soil with thorns) also receives Jesus’ words, but money and earthly distractions make him an unfruitful disciple.
The fourth kind of person (good soil) receives and understands Jesus’ words, and becomes extremely fruitful in the kingdom of heaven. This is the only kind of person whom Jesus commends. To be fruitful means to be obedient to God in everything you do. Michael Wilkins adds his thoughts about the crop produced in the life of the good soil:
Many think that this ‘crop’ refers to converts won to Christ through the believer. This no doubt is partially correct, but in this context it refers to something more fundamental—the transformation of a person who has encountered the kingdom of heaven. In the fourth soil the crop represents the outworking of the life of the divine seed (cf. 1 John 3:9), with special reference to the production of the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22–23), and the outworking of the Spirit in the gifts of the Spirit in the believer’s life (1 Cor. 12). This results in personal characteristics produced by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), the external creation of Spirit-produced righteousness and good works (e.g., Col. 1:10), and indeed, new converts won through the believer’s testimony (e.g., Rom. 1:13). The ‘crop’ produced is the outward evidence of the reality of inward life of the kingdom of heaven.
Even though it is depressing to learn that only one of the four soils actually succeeds as a member of the kingdom of heaven, it should also be noted that the fourth kind of person produces a new crop that is thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold. Thus the fourth soil more than makes up for the other three soils and their failure to produce.
A final word about the parable. Although the parable primarily speaks of fruit-bearing, there is a sense in which Jesus is referring to entrance to the ultimate kingdom of heaven. In other words, he is speaking about what we commonly refer to as salvation, or being saved.
Most commentators agree that the first soil is not saved and the fourth one is. However, there is no consensus about the second and third soils. Some argue they are not saved and some argue they are. I do not know the answer to that question, but I will say that everyone agrees that the only soil Jesus commends in the parable is the fourth. So, any Christian who does not aspire to be like the fourth soil is completely missing the point of the parable. The first three soils don’t cut it in Jesus’ kingdom.