March 13, 2016
Tana and I have been married for almost 36 years. During that time, we’ve learned a thing or two about each other. For example, when she has an issue with me, we have to discuss it, well, let’s just say, more than once. Now, from my perspective, I say she has to say it several times to get it off her chest – to feel like she’s said it. But from her perspective, she says she has to say it 15 times, because I didn’t listen the first 14 times. I have no idea what she’s talking about. But, about four years ago, she asked me to go see an audiologist. She was convinced I wasn’t hearing well. So I went, and you can imagine my joy to find I had lost some hearing in my right ear – in fact, the audiologist said I would have trouble hearing higher tones, like women and children. You say, why were you glad to find this out? Coming home and saying, see, my hearing’s fine, would not have been a win.
Well, for you married people, or for anyone who has ever been in relationship with another person, you know there is a difference between hearing and listening. Which reminds me of this post I once saw, “Husbands are the best people to share secrets with. They’ll never tell anyone, because they aren’t even listening.” How many times have you had, we’ll call it a discussion, and one says to the other, you’re not listening to me. I don’t know what you mean – I’ve heard every word you’ve said. But there’s a difference between hearing and listening.
Hearing the words coming out of your mouth is one thing. Understanding, comprehending, acting upon those words is something altogether different. It’s why Jesus one day said to those hearing Him – He who has hears to hear, let him hear. Now, if you were with Jesus any amount of time, you knew everyone had ears to hear – if they didn’t, He’d heal them. So there must be something more to hearing than the mechanics of distinguishing sounds.
Every week, I stand up here and talk. And you hear. Here’s my question – are you listening? Because what I have to say today – actually, what Jesus has to say today is of eternal consequence. So He refers to hearing – listening – several times today. In fact, He uses the word for hear or listen or ears like ten times in these verses. He starts this long section of teaching with the word, Listen. He tells His first parable and says, He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Tells another parable, and says those same words again. There’s a difference, you see, between hearing and listening – understanding, comprehending, and acting on what you hear.
We arrive this morning at the first of what have been called the Parables of the Kingdom. Through these parables in Mark 4, Jesus begins to reveal to us the mystery of the kingdom. Last week, we found the word parable comes from the Greek word parabole, meaning to throw or lay something alongside. Through this literary device which, Jesus mastered, He’s uses everyday stories which are familiar and lays them alongside spiritual truths – to illuminate those truths. Last week, we saw, surprisingly, why Jesus used parables: first, to conceal truth from those who refused to believe, and second, to reveal deeper truth to those who do believe. To be clear, parables help darken the line between insiders, and outsiders. Spiritual truth is for insiders – which is why He explained the parables to His disciples. It is not for outsiders, which is why He spoke in parables.
You see, while Jesus, and Mark, have presented undeniable evidence that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, there has been a variety of responses to the proof. Surprisingly, there have been those who doubted, others who resisted, and those who rejected and opposed Him.
So at this point, while there are large crowds, while popularity is rising, so is opposition. And that opposition came from those you would expect to accept. Religious leaders – this was a religious movement, right? His family – I mean, if His own brothers don’t believe, why should anyone else? And so a question begins to arise, is this kingdom going to make it? After all, Jesus does have some followers, but the twelve He chose to be leaders of His band – no one else would have selected – fishermen and tax collectors, Zealots and no name Galileans, sinners. The respectable, the religious of the day were rejecting Him. What will become of this kingdom?
And so, lest there be any doubt or confusion, Jesus launches into a series of parables which describe the nature of His kingdom. In these parables, He assures us – despite all the opposition, despite all the rejection, the kingdom will succeed. It’s going to grow. Let me just give you a little preview – that is the mystery revealed here. The seed will spread, and some will fall on good soil. Sure it’s going to fall on bad soil – sure, there will be weeds and rocks to contend with. But, the good seed will grow, and it will produce miraculously. The kingdom is like a mustard seed – it’s small now, but it won’t remain so. And after 2000 years of church history, we’ve found that to be true. And the kingdom is growing today – to those who have ears to hear. Are you listening? Turn to Mark 4 with me. Let’s start by reading verses 1-9.
I’m going to outline the text like this:
- We’ll look at the Parable in verses 3-9. Jesus is giving a physical story, laying it alongside spiritual truth.
- Then, in verses 13-20, which we’ll read later, we’ll see The Interpretation of the Parable. Jesus explains for us the spiritual truth He was illuminating. And as we look at the interpretation, we’re going to apply this parable in some practical ways in our lives.
Let’s start by looking at the Parable. It’s important we remember the context. Jesus has just finished His denunciation of the scribes. They had seen it all, heard it all, and rejected it all. As a result, they were in big trouble They had committed the unpardonable sin. Not only that – His own family had come to get Him because they thought He’d lost His mind. Wasn’t anybody listening? What would become of this movement?
Having finished, Jesus left the house and went down to the Sea of Galilee, got into a boat, sat down, and began to say many things to the crowds, in parables, starting with the parable of the sower. Now, the flow of the chapter goes like this. He’s going to give us five parables. The first is addressed to the crowds, but only explained to His followers. The next four appear to be given only to the disciples. So, we’re looking at that first parable – the parable of the sower, spoken to the crowds, but explained only to the disciples. Because the parables revealing spiritual truth is not for outsiders – they’re only for insiders.
The parable is an agricultural metaphor. It’s not difficult to see. Perhaps Jesus, from the boat, even pointed toward a farmer off in the distance doing his work. The farmer, the sower, would have a bag around his neck, in which he held the seed. As he walked along the furrows, he would broadcast the seed by hand.
Now, bordering the field would be paths that separated the fields and led from one field to another. They were the roads of the day, hard-packed from years of being packed by travelers. In the field, there would be rocky soil. By that, we shouldn’t see soil with a bunch of rocks lying on top. A good farmer would have taken care of those. In Palestine, lying right beneath the surface of the soil, an inch or two deep, could be a layer of limestone rock. That’s what Jesus is talking about – it looks like good soil, but it only goes so deep before it hits a bedrock of resistance. And then, of course, in the field, in any garden, there would be those inevitable weeds, here called thorns, thistles which were everywhere. The farmer didn’t plant them any more than you planted your dandelions. They just appeared.
So, as the sower broadcast the seed, some would land on the path. The birds would come behind and eat the seed still lying on top. You see, it would never penetrate the road, it was too hard. Some of the seed would fall in that shallow soil with the limestone rocks lying right beneath. The seed would spring up quickly – all that growth that usually goes down goes up – it was the only way to go. Not only that, the rocky soil was warm from the warmth of the sun. But, as soon as it sprung up, the plant would wither, because there was no depth of soil – it was shallow – no water, no roots.
And some of the seed would fall among the thorns. Oh, you didn’t see the thorns and weeds at first – it was right after winter, right after the field had been plowed – they hadn’t grown up yet. But they did, right along with the good seed. And because they were so tenacious, as weeds usually are, they choked out the good seed. They robbed it of water and soil and sun, and it died.
But, finally, Jesus tells us, there will be some seed that will fall on good soil. Dark, rich, deep, moist good soil. And the seed will flourish and yield a good crop, some a hundred, some sixty, some thirty fold. You might be interested to know that back then, before all the chemicals and fertilizers and irrigation and technology that we use today, a good crop was considered to be an eightfold increase. This was an abundant harvest – miraculous even.
Let me point out some things here that interpreters notice. First, there were three bad soils, followed by good soil with three different yields. That’s probably to balance the story – two sets of three. Notice second the first three soils all had things that ultimately destroyed the seed – the birds, the scorching sun, and the thorns. Notice third the increasing nature of the bad soils. First, the seed on the path didn’t do anything – it just laid on top until it was eaten by the birds. Second, the seed on the rocky soil immediately sprouted, showed some promise, but then soon died. The seed among the thorns grew, continued to grow, but produced no crop – it was fruitless. All three, in increasing measure, started with some hope, but ultimately accomplished nothing.
Well, what does all that mean? Of course, for many of us, the story is so familiar, it seems glaringly obvious – we figure the disciples must have been sort of dense not to figure it out. In fact, this is the first of several times Jesus refers to the denseness of the disciples. But before we’re too hard on them, remember, we have 2,000 years of familiarity with the parable – and we’ve probably never read it without its corresponding interpretation. And even with the interpretation given, there is still a fair amount of disagreement as to what it means. Let’s look at it in our second point, The Interpretation of the Parable. Let’s read verses 13-20.
What does all this mean? Notice as we begin, Jesus doesn’t identify the sower. In Matthew’s account, the next parable after the parable of the sower is the parable of the tares of the field, the sower is identified as the Son of Man, or Jesus Himself. Certainly, the sower could be Jesus – the kingdom message started with Him. But beyond that, I think that parable applies to us today, and the sower is anyone who shares the seed.
Well, what is the seed? Jesus identifies that for us in verse 14 – it is the word. The word is the message of the kingdom Jesus has been teaching all along – Repent and believe the gospel, for the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s the same message we preach today – the message of the gospel of the kingdom. Repent, for the kingdom is at hand. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died for sinners. Turn from your sin, make Him the Lord and Savior of your life, and you will know the forgiveness of sin. This seed is being broadcast – which soil are you? Are you listening?
So, the sower went out – whether that’s Jesus, or His followers whom He commissions in chapter 6 – or us – and we broadcast the message of the gospel. Notice, first of all, we spread the seed everywhere – on anyone who will listen. Notice also the seed was the same, as was the method of broadcast. Same sower, same bag, same seed, same process. Meaning, it’s not so much a matter of how the seed is spread – we’re not talking about a good presentation of the gospel verses an inadequate presentation – rather, it’s a matter of how it is received. Along the path, along the rocky soil, along the thorn-invested soil, and along the good soil. We broadcast the message – it is then the soils responsibility to receive the seed and do something with it.
And Jesus identifies four types of soil or hearts which correspond to four kinds of hearers of the message of the kingdom. Those who hear, and those who listen.
The first is the seed sown along the road, and represents the unresponsive hearer. Jesus says this is the kind of person who hears the message, but doesn’t understand it. Why? Because the path is hard – the heart is hard – there can be no penetration of the truth of the gospel in this person’s heart. The problem isn’t with the seed – there is no deficiency in the message. The problem is with the reception. The truth just sits there and does nothing. This person is unconcerned with the things of God – he doesn’t have time for it, he’s not interested. He’s got other more important things to do – all this Christianity talk is just foolishness. Over and over as the seed hits the heart, it becomes more compacted – harder, more indifferent to the truth. His heart is never softened by remorse, never broken by the conviction, never cultivated by even the smallest desire for anything godly or good.
Paul says of this person (II Corinthians 4:3-4): “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,”
In fact, birds, or Satan, comes and snatches away what has been sewn in the heart. It’s very possible Jesus is talking about the scribes here – ones with whom He has just done battle. They’ve heard it all, they’ve seen it all, but it does nothing. There is no reception of the truth – their hearts are hard.
The second seed falls on the rocky places and represents the superficial hearer. Remember, the seed sprouted quickly – but then, it withered, because it had no root. Jesus describes this hearer as the one who hears the truth of the gospel and receives it quickly, with joy. This is great stuff – I like church, why, this contemporary approach to ministry with hip choruses and scintillating dramas and relevant messages – I like that. Or maybe, I like all the promises of the gospel. I like the promise of abundant life. I like the idea of eternal life. I like the benefits of Christianity – healing and forgiveness and grace and life. This person’s on an emotional high, a spiritual euphoria. Notice, the seed sprouts quickly – this guy is all zeal – very excited, all talk, no depth. No reality.
It’s very possible this person heard the gospel preached as some kind of spiritual lollipop – anybody here want to live forever, say I do. Raise your hand, sign a card, walk an aisle, sign me up – and the truths about the costs of following Jesus are never shared, never heard.
This person never read the fine print. He is unaware the true follower of Jesus must take up His cross daily. This person is unaware of what Jesus said, if they hated me, they will hate you also. You will be scourged in the synagogues, you will be handed over to governments. People will hate you because you name the name of Christ. People will behead you are a follower of Jesus.
This person doesn’t understand there is a cost. There is no root, so when the sun of affliction and persecution arise because of the word, he falls away. Notice, this is persecution or affliction because of the word. This isn’t just difficulties at work, financial stresses, problems at home – that’s the next soil. These are trials because of the word – the message of the kingdom. People turn on you, just like Jesus said they would. There are people, lots of people, who don’t like the gospel.
The third seed sown among the thorns represents the worldly hearer. This man, like the last, hears the word. In fact, much like the rocky ground, this seed sprouts up. But, so do the thorns of this world. Jesus describes them as the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches. In other words, they are the things in this life that compete for our attention or affection. These may be the challenges of home, of work, of school, of relationships. These are the things in our society that demand our time, our resources, our loyalty, and our love. And when you give into those worries and wants, when you make them the number one priority in your life, then spiritual life dies. It becomes unfruitful.
Which is why Paul said in I Timothy 6, “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs,” and John said, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.
Now, the question at this point is, are the first three hearers believers? This is where there is a raging debate, a diversity of opinion. Almost everyone agrees that the first hearer, described as the hard-hearted one, is not a believer – there is, and never has been any life.
But others suggest the next two hearers, the rocky ground and the thorny ground, are either not believers, or believers who have lost their salvation, or believers who are backslidden – that is, there is no fruit, but they’re still saved.
You see, they point out – there was an initial reception of the message of the kingdom. There was life, however short it was, before it was snuffed out. As attractive as that may sound to explain our lives, or the life of some loved one – they’re just carnal believers – unfruitful believers – the Scripture knows of no such thing. James 2 says faith without works – that is, faith without corresponding fruit – is dead. He asks the question – can that kind of faith save a man? The implied answer is no. It is dead – meaning, it does not produce the intended result – the salvation of the soul.
While there was an initial reception of the gospel – there was no real conversion. There is a religious experience, but not a relational one. The feelings changed, the mind even changed, for awhile. But there was no change of heart. These are like those in Matthew 7 who built their houses on the sand, but when the winds and waves came, the house crumbled. These are like those who said to Jesus in Matthew 8 who said, Jesus, we’ll follow you anywhere, as long as it’s comfortable. To which Jesus said, “foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Jesus, we’ll follow you anywhere, but let me bury my father first, to which Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus, I’ll follow you anywhere, but let me go say good bye to my family first. To which Jesus said, “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The point is this. True discipleship, true followership of Jesus is exacting and demanding. True followers are willing to give it all up for Him, and they produce fruit. It’s not the fruit that saves – it just proves you have been saved. Fruitless Christians is an oxymoron. They don’t exist. You will know them by their fruit, Jesus said. No fruit, no life. These are people who liked what they heard, they even accepted what they heard, but there weren’t redeemed. No life. Are you listening?
You see, only the fourth hearer, the good soil, is the true believer – the one who what? Hears and accepts and produces fruit. Not all at the same level. This isn’t a comparison – some will be more effective than others, thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold – but there will always be fruit when the seed finds the good soil of an accepting heart. And they will reproduce – they will yield a spiritual crop.
Notice Jesus doesn’t identify what the crop is. Everyone tries to do that. Some say, a true believer will make others believers. Others say, the fruit of the Spirit will be evidence in his life. Still others say, you will see the fruit of obedience – a holy and blameless life. What is it? I don’t know – perhaps a combination of all of the above. The fact is, a true believer will lead a productive life. But don’t miss this: it’s not the crop that saves him – it’s just proof that the seed found good soil.
I also want you to notice something else. The good soil likely has to deal with the complications of the other three soils. What do I mean? The first soil had the problem of the birds – the attacks of Satan. The second soil had the scorching sun – afflictions and persecutions. The third soil had the thorns – the worries of this world and the deceitful call of riches. A true believer still has to face those things. But because the word has penetrated his heart, and found good soil – there’s depth of soil, there’s nourishment – there strength of character – he is able to withstand all those complications of life. He perseveres to the end.
So, as we close, what’s the encouragement here? What’s the mystery of the kingdom? The message of the kingdom, as clear and as understandable and as reasonable and as wonderful as it is to us, will not be received by everyone. Jesus gives a parable right at the beginning to illustrate the truth of what He said moments before – hearing, they will not hear, seeing, they will not see. The seed of the message will be shared with lots of different people. The success of your ministry is not dependent on how good you sow. It is dependent on the seed – life is in the seed. And no matter how good a job you do sowing, some will not receive it. You’re not going to win everybody. Some will be so hard they’ll reject it outright. Others will initially receive it, only to turn away because it’s too difficult – the demands are too greats. Still others will initially receive it, only to be sidetracked by what this world has to offer.
The mystery of the kingdom is this: the kingdom will grow. The message for us is to follow – at any cost. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. It’s real, it will succeed, it’s worth it. Follow Christ, and in so doing, you will produce a crop – you will prove the reality of your faith.
Stand to your feet as we close. These have been hard words. Jesus told us, many will hear, but not all will believe. Where do you find yourself this morning? I know most of you have believed. As difficult as it’s been, you’ve remained faithful. I just want to encourage you – stay with the stuff. It’s worth it. But maybe, for some of you, your heart is crisscrossed with areas of hardness. Maybe there are some afflictions or persecutions have unsettled you. The worries of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth have sidetracked you. And in this moment, it’s time to recommit.