Praise God that some were coming to faith! Sadly, others were becoming firm in their unbelief. Many were indifferent to Christ’s wonderful words of life, and were only intent on the physical yet temporal blessings he provided. That is why at this moment Jesus began speaking to the multitudes almost exclusively in parables. For those who had hearing ears truth would be revealed as they responded to the truth. For those without hearing hearts truth would be concealed as they rejected the truth proclaimed. This is a solemn, sobering reality for those who regularly sit under the teaching of God’s Word yet fail to positively respond. If that pattern is continued there may well come a time when such a one becomes so hardened to the truth that he not only will not but cannot respond.
Jesus Christ is the Light of the world; sent by God the Father into the world, not that the world might be condemned, but that the world through Christ might be saved. There is condemnation, or judgment, however, and it is this: the light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. Multitudes of people witnessed Christ’s miraculous works and heard his marvelous words of life, yet many of them did not recognize him as their savior or receive him as their Lord. They were exposed to the One True Light but they rejected the light; either by outright hostility or by unresponsive carelessness. But to all who received the Light, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.
Praise God for that!
When God speaks, as He does through His word, we must listen and respond accordingly. Hear then the parable of the sower from Mark 4:3-9.
Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
The scene of a farmer with a seed bag slung over his shoulder, walking up and down the furrows of his field broadcasting his seed, would have been a familiar one to all who heard this parable. They may have even been able to see this very sight off in the distance as Christ spoke. The point is this: the figures which Christ used in the parable were recognizable. Jesus was taking the known and laying it next to the unknown so that those who had ears to hear might learn the mystery of the kingdom.
Once this parable was told to the multitude Christ provided no explanation, but he did extend an invitation: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Out of the mammoth crowd there were a few who responded to that invitation. Verse 10 says, “When he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.” In addition to the Twelve there were others who had hearing ears, and they desired to understand the parable’s meaning. It was to these folks Christ did supply an explanation. It is found in Mark 4:14-20:
And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive [it], and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.
There are three elements to this parable: the seed, the sower, and the soils.
The Seed – v. 14
“The sower soweth the word.” The word of God is the seed. Luke is just as explicit about that in his account of this parable. Luke 8:11, “The seed is the word of God.” It is important to understand that the only thing we have worth sharing; worth broadcasting in this world is the seed, the word of God. Likewise, it is imperative that we understand this: we do not manufacture our own seed; we simply and exclusively use the seed which God has provided. In his commentary on this parable John MacArthur wrote:
The work of Christ’s witnesses is not to manufacture a message, to create a synthetic seed, or to modify the seed given to them, but to sow God’s revelation by proclaiming it exactly as He has given it. The power of new spiritual life is in the word, just as the power of plant life is in the seed. The seeds in the parable are all of the same nature, sown from the same bag by the same sower. The only variables are what happens to those seeds when they are sown on the different types of soil. (pg. 356)
Scripture is God’s living word. It is living and active; discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. In His first letter the apostle Peter wrote, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” (1:23) The Spirit uses the word to produce life. It is the truth of the gospel that saves and that truth alone.
Last Friday NPR aired a religion piece for its Morning Edition program. The story was about “a new kind of Sunday school, where families from a range of religions gather to teach virtues to their young children.” I am all for Sunday school, and I believe virtues are wonderful. I am not, however, all that crazy about the teaching of the “Sunday school” featured in NPR’s piece. Listen to this excerpt from Barbara Hagerty the story’s author:
Layli [the teacher] calls the children to the dining room table. In front of each child sits a little lamp shade.
"Remember how we talked about how religions are a lot like lamp shades?" she asks the group. "They may look different, they may be different colors or sit in different rooms, but they all have the light of God inside of them."
The kids glue symbols of various religions onto the shades — a Christian cross, a Buddhist wheel, a star and crescent for Islam. Then Layli calls out, "Come to the light!" And the children, one by one, place their decorated lamp shades on a light bulb. (Emphasis mine)
That sounds charitable and peaceable, but it is actually damnable. It is a counterfeit gospel. Jesus Christ is the only Light of the world; not one light of many, and His light cannot be distorted or altered with any lamp-shade of man’s religion. Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3? Nicodemus was using the lamp shade of Judaism, but Christ said “You must be born again.” In order for Nicodemus, or anyone else, to be born again the Son of man had to be lifted up on the cross; that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Whosoever believes in him should not perish but will have everlasting life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Christ said (John 3:18), “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (Emphasis mine)
The only light worth coming to is Jesus Christ, the One True Light, and whoever comes to Him will never be cast out.
The Sower – v. 14
The seed is the word of God; in particular the good news of salvation by grace through faith. The sower is any believer who broadcasts the gospel seed. That seed may be sown by any number of methods: preaching a sermon, teaching a lesson, conversation over coffee, or sharing your salvation testimony. It may be communicated in an email, a letter, in the break room at work, or over the dinning room table after supper. The seed should be sown everywhere and all the time. The seed should be sown…
- Purposefully – our evangelism should be intentional and not only accidental. Sowing seed is every believer’s responsibility and privilege. It is a way of life and not only a church program. Mark 16:15; 2 Timothy 4:5
- Passionately – Christ wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41; 13:34); displaying His tender heart for the people who, for the most part, rejected him. The is a good reason why Psalm 126:5-6 is so well worn, because it displays the very heart of Christ – “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves [with him].”
- Patiently – No seed which is planted bears fruit overnight. James illustrated the Christian virtue of patience with a farmer in 5:7, “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.”
- Perspectively – The Christian’s responsibility is to sow the pure seed of the gospel. We are not in charge of making it rain, making it take root, or making it grow. We are only accountable for sowing the seed. As Paul said to the church at Corinth, “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
- Prayerfully – Christ taught us how to pray in this area. He said, “The harvest truly [is] great, but the labourers [are] few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). As we pray for lost souls our prayers should be focused on God’s people, starting with me, being busy in the field.
The Soils – vv. 15-20
There are four kinds of soils, and they are representative of four heart conditions. Notice that I said four heart conditions not four types of persons. This is not a people categorization, but a description of heart conditions at any given moment. The question is: in which condition do you find your heart at the moment?
Way-side Soil – the Hard Heart – v. 15
The “way side” refers to the narrow beaten paths that crisscrossed and separated one field from another. These paths were the main avenues of passage through rural areas as travelers walked from one part of the country to another. The soil beside these paths would be packed down hard from the constant traffic. The seeds that were sown on this type of soil would be immediately consumed by birds, or trodden under foot by passers-by.
This type of soil represents a hard-hearted condition. The problem is not with the seed, but with the soil’s condition. There are three reasons why people have hard-hearts. They are indifferent, belligerent, or ignorant of God’s word and its implications on their lives. Because of their indifference, belligerence, or ignorance concerning the word of God, the seed never penetrates the soil. It lands on the surface and is “immediately” snatched up by the enemy. If he cannot prevent the seed from being sown, he will do his best to snatch it away once it has been broadcast. His methods of snatching away the seed from the hard-hearted are numerous: false teachers, lies, pride, fear of man, doubt, prejudice, love of the world and of sin, a combination of all these and so many more.
Can a hard heart be changed? Absolutely! The wayside, hard soil can be plowed and prepared to receive the seed. The prophet Hosea said, “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for [it is] time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you.” (10:12 Emphasis mine)
Stony Soil – the Shallow Heart – vv. 16-17
Initially, this kind of soil appears promising. The seed was sown; it sprouted and showed some signs of life. The soil was deceptive, however, because a thin layer of soil covered a shelf of rock. Therefore the seed had no depth of root, and when the sun burned hot the sprout dried up and died. As John Phillips wrote, “There was just enough soil to give promise but not enough to give performance.”
This heart belongs to the person who has made an emotional response only to the word of God; there was a profession of faith, but there is no possession of Christ. The word was initially received, and with gladness, but the response is superficial, shallow, and temporary. This type of shallow, superficial response is always a shame, and even more so when it is the result of an inadequate gospel explanation. John MacArthur writes:
Sometimes shallow acceptance of the gospel is encouraged by shallow evangelism that holds out the blessings of salvation but hides the cost; such as repenting from sin, dying to self, and turning from the old life. When people are encouraged to walk down the aisle, raise their hand, or sign a card without coming to grips with the full claims of Christ, they are in great danger of becoming further from Christ than they were before they heard the message. They may become insulated from true salvation by a false profession of faith.
Shallow responses to the gospel, which are purely emotional but have not, penetrated the heart and intellect will wither and die when there is affliction and persecution. Just as the sun helps the plant to draw up water and nourishment from the soil, so suffering and persecution help the true believer trust the Lord and draw on His great resources. The opposite is true if there are no roots. Certainly authentic faith involves great emotion, but true faith is also a matter of the mind and will. Genuine conversion is not solely a matter of emotion, nor is it only intellectual assent to Biblical facts. Instead it is both combined. Genuine salvation is not reformation or rejuvenation but transformation.
Sadly, we have all known shallow soil people. They seem to do well at first. They are present for every service, Bible study, and fellowship opportunity. They appear excited and eager. They may even shame older believers for their coldness. It is afterwards, when the cost of discipleship becomes too high, that this person abruptly falls away. In his commentary on this passage Kent Hughes writes that he is “convinced that…many enemies of the faith come [from stony soil. Having] tasted something of God’s power, but not true conversion…they have become bitter and jaundiced and terribly lost.”
It is encouraging, however, that the persecution with dries up the false believer will make the true believer even stronger. “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution…But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle [you].” (2 Timothy 3:12 & 1 Peter 5:10)
Thorny Soil – Crowded Heart – vv. 18-19
The problem with the hard heart was a lack of understanding. The problem with the shallow heart is a lack of depth. There are a variety of problems with the thorny soil, which represents a crowded heart. I want to stress once again that the problem is not with the seed but the soil. Jesus lists three weeds that choke out the seed in this type of soil:
- Worry – “The cares of this world” – preoccupation with the pressures of life.
- Wealth – “The deceitfulness of riches” – preoccupation with plenty; gaining and keeping it.
- Wants – “The lusts of other things” – a want list of all sorts of things that are both lewd and legitimate.
The gospel seed cannot take root in the crowded heart because it is strangled by one or more of these weeds: worry, wealth, and wants. The person who has a crowded heart does make some gestures toward Christ. He “hears the word”, but the distractions of this ages draw it back. This type of heart is divided. The division is between irreconcilable loyalties; literally a focus on the things of this world.
A young man proposed to his sweetheart. He said:
“Darling, I want you to know that I love you more that anything else in the world. I want you to marry me. I’m not rich. I don’t have a yacht or a Rolls Royce like Johnny Brown, but I do love you with all my heart.”
She thought for a minute and then replied, “I love you with all my heart, too, but tell me more about Johnny Brown!” (Walter Underwood, The Contemporary 12, as quoted by Kent Hughes, Jesus Servant & Savior, p. 108).
That is a painful illustration of a crowded and divided heart!
A heart that is consumed with the worry, wealth, and wants of this world is not a believing heart. All three of these weeds are aspects of worldliness, which is anything that focuses your attention on this world rather than the world to come. The person who refuses to let go of his worldliness is a person in whom the gospel seed has not taken root.
Good Soil – Fruitful Heart - v. 20
The fourth and final soil is the only ground that bears fruit. It is representative of the only heart of the four which is truly saved. This heart is “good ground” because it has been rightly prepared. This ground is good because it receives the word, heeds the word, and holds on to the word. The word prevails and proves its presence by the production of fruit. Christ is to be seen in the believer’s life. Not all will bear the same amount of fruit, but they will bear the same kind of fruit. Christ will be seen in the life of the truly converted. Genuine believers bear fruit.
The Christian has the blessed responsibility to sow the seed of the word. We are not responsible for producing the seed, the soil, or the fruit. We are only accountable for faithfully broadcasting the seed as far and as wide as possible.
What kind of heart do you have? Is it hard, shallow, or crowded with the cares of this world? These are descriptions of the hearts of the unsaved, but they can also apply to the Christian who has neglected to cultivate his heart and the soil has deteriorated.