Storytelling is an important teaching tool. Stories capture the imagination and engage those who hear them far more easily than facts. Also, stories make a great tool because they are easy to remember.
Think back to your childhood and picture yourself in grammar school, walking in the door and meeting a teacher. Most of us could tell a story about what it was like going to school when we were children. None of us could likely repeat the lesson that the teacher gave that day. We have general perceptions of the things we learned, and of course, we still know how to read and do simple math. But when we think back, it’s the stories that come to the forefront of our minds.
After Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven, four men sat down to write to us and tell us about Jesus life and teaching. The work of these four men is found in the four gospels. Jesus had experiences, like his baptism and crucifixion. Jesus preached sermons like the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus told stories about real events. Jesus told stories that were parables.
Parables are stories that are designed to teach, but not to reflect specific people. For example, there might have been a man somewhere in Israel whose son went off and squandered his inheritance. But when Jesus told the story of the prodigal, the response was not supposed to be - Oh yeah! He must be talking about Joe from Capernaum. It’s simply a story designed to teach a lesson.
We begin with the parable of the sower and the soils. This parable is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It communicates how God spreads His message and ultimately how we must accept or reject His good news.
Jesus uses this parable to teach his disciples how the gospel comes to people. The gospel is spread very generously. The response to the gospel is not based on the gospel itself, but on the heart condition of the one hearing the gospel.
In this parable we get insight into why some people hear the gospel and are saved, and some people hear the gospel and remain lost. There are four kinds of hearts that the gospel might touch, and those four hearts are our four points:
Principle One: The Word of God and the Hardened Heart. (Mark 4:1-4,14-15)
Mark 4:1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
Mark 4:14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.
Mark gave the setting of this parable by telling us that Jesus was teaching “beside the sea.” The crowd is pressing him toward the water. So Jesus got into a boat so that he could set this up as a speaker with an audience.
We also need to make note that the Gospels often distinguish between “the disciples” and “the crowd.” When he tells the parable, the crowd and the disciples are present. Later as he’s explaining the meaning, it’s privately with the disciples only. Understanding parables takes the spirit of God. They’re just interesting stories, unless you see the spiritual point that Jesus is making. With his disciples, he helps them understand what the story means.
We do need to look at the types of soil, but don’t miss this: The farmer is sowing seed in an unusually generous manner - it almost verges on wasteful. He’s throwing seed on a pathway, and we’ll see him throw more in the rocks, in the thorns and in the good soil. Seed is going everywhere.
This isn’t what you expect from a farmer. There were many farmers in the church I grew up with. They were typically a very methodical lot. They got up at the same time every day. They had a routine of chores. They planted and harvested carefully. They were not a wasteful group. I’ve never met a farmer who would sow seed on a sidewalk.
Don’t you think there’s a lesson there for us? It’s not a lesson regarding farming techniques. It’s a lesson regarding how we treat the gospel. With the heart, we can’t know it’s readiness to receive the message. We might assume that a person is hardhearted and would never respond, and that might cause us to not share. We might assume a person is soft hearted, and then become disillusioned when they don’t respond in faith. The actions of the sower tell us that the condition of the heart is not our concern. Does that seem like a valid principle to you?
Although the word of the kingdom is preached to all, all don’t respond in the same way. Some believe, some do not. The reason? Opportunity to respond does not guarantee response. Jesus’ story is meant to tell us about the different responses people will have to the gospel, yet we are not to let our perception of the “soil” dictate where we scatter the seed. As we share about God’s kingdom in Christ, we sow the word even in places where it may never take root. Only in this manner can we fulfill our obligation to share the good news with others.
Hard hearted people will hear the gospel, and it doesn’t penetrate. Jesus spoke next of rocky ground, where the soil is shallow and unable to sustain a sufficient root structure:
Principle Two: The Word of God and the Shallow Heart. (Mark 4:5-6,16-17)
Mark 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.
Mark 4:16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
This second category of people demonstrate an initial, positive response to the gospel. These are people who are excited about the prospect of not going to hell. Perhaps they enjoy the camaraderie that they find among Christians. The music, the logic of the preaching - they’re drawn to Christianity and receive it joyfully.
But then something happens, and they’re out! Mark describes it as tribulation or persecution on account of the word. What might that be? Maybe it’s persecution in the form of their friends mocking them. Maybe their circle of associates rally to them and have an intervention in order to free them from this goofy new faith.
But you know what I see most often? The tribulation of the Word comes from the Word itself. They are confronted with a truth claim that they just can’t accept. “Wait a minute. I didn’t realize that following Christ would men that I can’t keep living with this girl. I didn’t realize that Christ forgiving mean would imply that I need to forgive others. The Word itself can cause tribulation!
We need to be careful with how we gauge regeneration and measure professions of faith. Immediate fruit is not the same as consistent, lasting fruit. We cannot take the position that a profession of faith is proof of salvation. I sometimes receive emails from people who are passionate about disciplemaking. They will say something like “we were sharing our faith at NCSU and we welcomed Mary into the Family of God.” The reason that’s dangerous language is that we are not saved by prayer and we’re not saved by profession.
Prayer and profession are part of the transaction that takes place in salvation. But people are saved by faith, and when you are speaking with someone, you can’t see faith.
Right now today - the hope of your salvation needs to be resting in faith. If asked - “How do you know that you are saved.” The answer should be something like “Because I am trusting God to keep His Word and I’m resting securely in that faith.” An answer that would concern me would be something like “Because when I was 8, I prayed to receive Jesus.”
Jesus is telling us that there’s a whole category of people out there that will make an initial profession but not a true and lasting profession.
Principle Three: The Word of God and the Distracted Heart. (Mark 4:7,18-19)
Mark 4:7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
Mark 4:18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
This soil is different than the other two in a specific way. The hard soil and the rocky soil have no depth for roots. The thorny soil is deep enough to sustain growth. We know that because the thorns are thriving. A crop could be produced by this soil, but the weeds overtake the maturing seed and choke it out.
Those pictured by this soil believe they have repented and will be counted among the sheep. The fact is, they are actually goats who are in among the sheep. Their love of other things causes them to be unfruitful for God’s kingdom. They are the barren fig tree that Jesus curses for not bearing fruit in Mark 11.
Remember - the parable is about the heart condition. These people might be self deceived and might have us deceived. There can be years and even a lifetime of being in a church with an unregenerate heart.
Of course, we know from personal experience that the issue all boils down to the heart. The thorns that Jesus describes are not sins in themselves. Don’t we all have cares in this world? Don’t we all find that riches are deceitful? Don’t you sometimes find yourself desiring other things?
The thorns of the world are not to blame, but the corrupt heart response to the thorns. it’s possible to be rich and not be deceived by riches. It’s possible to have cares of the world and not to be choked by them.
This parable is a wakeup call to people who occupy pews but have unfruitful lives. The Holy Spirit works in the lives of those who have been regenerated by Him. Lets be clear: If there is no fruit, there is no regeneration. If there is no regeneration, there is no Spirit. If there is no Spirit, then there is no salvation.
Principle Four: The Word of God and the Fruitful Heart. (Mark 4:8-9,20)
Mark 4:8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Mark 4:20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
The handbook has this encouraging paragraph: Even the most evangelistic Christian becomes disheartened sometimes. Sharing the gospel over and over while seeing no results can lead one to doubts. Am I doing something wrong? Does my presentation need tweaking? Will everyone in our day reject the gospel?
Jesus concludes the parable by answering these questions with a resounding no! There is one farmer. The farmer that sowed seed on the hardened, shallow, and thorny soil received no harvestable crop. The same farmer sowed the same seed on good soil and produced an amazing harvest.
This is the twist in the story - the super-abundant harvest in verse 8. Records of ancient farming results in an area like Palestine sho yields not even close to this. A regular harvest was eight fold, and a good harvest was about ten fold.
The encouragement in the parable is that the gospel which is rejected by so many “soils” is also astonishingly effective with those in whom it takes root. Verse 8 is an important clue that the growth is not owing to human activity but to God’s providential power. God is at work, hidden and unobserved, in Jesus and the gospel to produce fruit that is disproportionate to any human involvement.
First, Jesus teaches us that the word is to be cast among all. The sower did not evaluate the ground before he cast his seed. In the same way, we have a duty to proclaim to all people the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and its effect on our sin and rebellion. The sower tossed his seed liberally as he went, and so should we.
Second, many who hear of God’s kingdom ultimately will reject it. While we should feel a burden for those who reject the gospel, there is no reason to feel guilty for their choices. The Scriptures are replete with references that God’s kingdom isn’t the majority with language like “remnant” and “narrow gate.”
Third, there will be a minority who will receive the word and will produce a miraculous harvest of grace-filled, kingdom-affirming works. This should be satisfying to our souls. We can rest confidently that our efforts at sharing the truth about Christ will have an effect on some people. We can rejoice that God’s kingdom is spreading and reproducing in miraculous ways despite the number of times it is rejected by human beings.