Three times a year, as I make my way through my Bible reading plan, I come across the same parable. (A parable is a story that tells a moral truth.) This particular parable is found in Matthew 13, in Mark 4, and in today’s passage, at the beginning of Luke 8. Three times a year I know it’s coming; three times a year I think I know what to expect; and three times a year it knocks me on my tail.
It knocks me on my tail because it describes me, in painfully accurate detail, at various points in my life. It describes me as I see myself, and it describes me as I want to be. It’s painful, and it’s wonderful, every time.
As we read before, Jesus is traveling from town to town preaching the good news. And at an undisclosed place, a crowd gathers around him and he tells them a parable about a sower. The sower goes out to sow seed, and he throws it on four different types of ground:
• ground along a path, where there are lots of birds;
• a rock, which has no soil the seed can grab on to;
• soil filled with thorns, which chokes the fruit;
• and “good soil.”
So he begins to explain his parable, and that’s where we’ll be our whole time today. (I’ll read the verses from the parable first, then I’ll read the corresponding explanations Jesus gives to his disciples.)
On the Path (v. 5, 11-12)
5 A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it… 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
So that’s the image: there are people who hear the Word, but it has no impact at all. It barely has time to get in their ears before the devil comes and plucks it out. They hear the gospel, they go, “Uh-huh,” and they continue on their merry way. Physically speaking, these people have no hearing problems whatsoever; but spiritually speaking, they are deaf.
How many people do we know like this? How many people do you know who have heard the gospel and have not responded at all? How many times did you hear the gospel before you really heard it?
I grew up in church. I had heard the gospel, told in one form or another, thousands of times during my childhood. I heard this very parable taught dozens of times. And it did nothing for me at all. I heard the words, but I didn’t have ears to hear, so although I heard it (at least in an auditory way), I was at that time unable to receive it. And many of you have had the same experience: you went to church all your life, you heard the gospel hundreds of times, and up to a certain point in your life, it did nothing to you.
If you’re hear this morning, and that’s you—if everything I’m saying amounts to nothing more than a kind of religious curiosity for you—then you need to know what Jesus says about you. He describes you as “not believing,” and so “not saved.” The devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. If you hear the word and don’t believe it this morning, Jesus says you’re lost.
Now, why would I bother saying that, if it won’t mean anything to you? Why take the time to tell you that Jesus says you’re lost if you don’t believe this stuff? Because everyone here who believes and has faith in Christ, at one point or another, was in the exact same place you are today. Everyone here was at one point totally unable to believe. But here’s the thing: although during all that time we were totally unable to receive the gospel when we heard it, we heard it all the same. Someone shared the gospel with us. We sat under the preaching of the Word. God in his sovereignty allowed someone to share the gospel with someone who was totally unable to accept it.
And at some point or another, the gospel we heard brought us back to life. We had heard the gospel a hundred times, and the hundred-and-first time, it did something to us. The Holy Spirit used it to wake us up…and suddenly we couldn’t not believe. So even if what I’m saying means nothing to you, I’ll say it anyway. And I’ll pray that eventually, hearing the gospel will make it so that this part of the parable no longer describes you, but that you believe it, and accept it.
On the Rock (v. 6, 13)
Next he turns to another kind of heart, another kind of soil—v. 6:
6 And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture… 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
Let me give you a correlative picture of this. When kids are young, they often believe in Santa Claus. If you ask a young child whether or not Santa Claus exists, they will emphatically affirm that absolutely yes, Santa exists! And they’ll look at you like you’re crazy for even suggesting otherwise. This is their time of belief.
Then they get a little older, and they start learning about things like gravity, and animals, and matter, and time. They learn that sleighs can’t fly (nor can reindeer), and that one man couldn’t possibly visit all the children of the world in a single night, and that even if he could, he’s too big to fit down a chimney. This is their time of testing.
And when they start comparing what they believed about Santa to what they’ve learned about the world, they eventually relent and stop believing. Why? Because there’s no root there. Belief in Santa is an inconsequential belief that changes nothing about their lives, except maybe for a few minutes once a year. No big loss.
This is how many people operate when they hear the gospel. They hear the gospel and receive it with joy—they recognize that this is good news! Let someone else take punishment that I supposedly deserve, so that I won’t be punished? Sure! I’ll take it! Or they’ll hear a version of the gospel that they simply like: “Come to Jesus, and he’ll solve all your problems!” That’s not a hard sell: if you ask anyone, “Do you want your problems to go away?”, not many people will answer, “No thanks.”
What it all amounts to is that they have heard the gospel (or some semblance of it), they recognize it as good news, but it remains wholly theoretical to them. There’s no moisture there; there’s no root; there’s no life; it never goes from their head to their heart. And for a while, that doesn’t matter, because the theory alone is enough to please them.
But very quickly, times of testing will come.
“You mean you want me to read this whole book?”
“You want me to talk to someone I can’t see?”
“My friends will think I’m nuts.”
“My family will reject me.”
Or, “I just learned I have cancer. And you want me to add to my struggles and fight temptation too?”
Or again, “They said Jesus would solve all my problems, but they’re all still here.”
It always ends the same: because there is no root there, because they don’t really feel the weight of the gospel, it is so light in their minds that even small trials like reading the Bible or praying, not to mention the greater trials we might meet… None of it seems worth the effort.
So although they seem to be going in the right direction for a while, they fall away.
Among Thorns (v. 7, 14)
7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it… 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.
These people are not like those who came before. These people hear the Word, and they accept it, they begin to live it, and even to some degree, they bear fruit. There are things that have changed about their lives. The gospel has landed on their hearts in a real way, they have felt the wonder of God’s grace, and they are changed by it.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t describe them like he did the seed sown on the path, those who don’t believe, or the seed sown on the rock, which falls away. These are, by all appearances, genuine Christians who have real faith.
But their fruit does not mature. Their faith remains small. Their lives are changed, but only just. If they were to look at their lives today, they’d see little discernible difference between their faith today and their faith a year ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago. Or they may even see that they used to bear much fruit; they used to follow Christ with everything they had…but not so much anymore.
Why is that? What causes these people’s “fruit” to not mature? Jesus tells us: as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.
I’d venture to say that this is where most Christians in our society find themselves today. The fundamental challenge of the Christian life is that when Christ saves us, we become like fish out of water. We are “new creations,” as Paul puts it (2 Cor. 5.17). Physiologically, we’re just like everyone else, but spiritually, in our souls, we’re no longer even of the same species. And yet at the same time, we’re called to live in the same world as before, surrounded by the same people, the same temptations, the same troubles…
And living as we do in this fallen world, it’s very easy for us to forget that we are new creations.
We have a living hope in Christ, yes…but it’s hard to remember that when you spend all day long throwing up because you’re undergoing chemotherapy.
We have all we need in Christ, yes…but it’s hard to remember that when we’re unable to pay the bills. (Or, for that matter, when we have the opportunity to make a good deal more money than we used to.)
We have new desires, yes…but these new desires still compete with our old desires when we are still single after all this time.
The seed is sown, and it starts to bear fruit, but we become so distracted by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life that we neglect to tend to that fruit, and it never matures. Our spiritual lives are, quite literally, choked by the things we love.
We live in the most distracting period of history in one of the richest countries in the world. For most of us, we can have or buy virtually anything we can imagine; and if we don’t have it ourselves, we can at least distract ourselves by seeing it on TV and pretending for an hour or so that we do.
Brothers and sisters, we all reach a point when it becomes hard to prioritize between the things we love and the One we’re meant to love. There are so many things we want that it becomes difficult to remember we should be wanting something more. There are so many treasures to be had, we have a hard time believing that Jesus really is better. And as long as we remain stuck in that tug-of-war between God and all these other things, our fruit never matures.
So three soils—on the path, on the rock, and among thorns. None of which are where we are meant to be.
What’s the alternative? Jesus tells us in v. 8 and 15.
The Good Soil (v. 8, 15)
8 And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold… 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.
If you look closely at what he says, you’ll see that there are two things that make this “good soil” good: the first is an honest and good heart in which we hold fast the Word we hear.
Both words here (“honest” and “good”) can be translated by “good.” The reason they’re translated this way is because it communicates a subtlety that the Greek gets across: people like this have good hearts, and they show it. What you see is what you get—the good in them works its way out in their lives.
So what does that look like? What does it mean to be “good,” and how does it come out? Well, Jesus has already addressed that, hasn’t he? Earlier in chapter six he used this same language—with these same two words. Chapter 6, verses 43-45:
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit... 45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good…
Remember when we saw that a few weeks ago? It is only when we love what we should love that we are able to truly do what God calls us to do. It is only when we love the right treasure that we are able to bear good fruit. So an honest and good heart is a heart which has the right treasure, which is firmly and unwaveringly set on God, and which acts out of that love.
If you want an example of what this looks like, think of the sinful woman we saw last week in Luke 7.36-50. Think of it—she’s heard Jesus preach; she’s heard him call out sinners as sinners. She’s not offended by that; she recognizes it as true. She is broken by her sin, and drawn to the forgiveness she knows she’ll find in Christ. And because she is forgiven much, she loves much. And we saw that reality work itself out in a very honest, very raw display of love for Jesus; what’s inside her heart is good, and it comes out in the clearest, most brutally honest way possible.
When people like this hear the Word, they don’t endure it like they would a root canal, knowing that that’s what Christians are supposed to do; they cling to it like a treasure—they “hold it fast”—because they know it comes from the One they love more than anything.
The second thing that makes this “good soil” good is endurance. These people hear the word…and bear fruit with patience (or “perseverance,” cf. Rom. 5.3-4).
These people know the Christian life is hard; they live in this world, and they meet all the same trials and pleasures and temptations as anyone else. But they know the treasure that awaits them; they know what is truly valuable; and they don’t let themselves get distracted. They push through. They ignore the neon signs along the side of the road, begging for their attention, and with laser-like focus, they press on toward the goal.
Brothers and sisters, bearing fruit takes time. That’s why this is such a good image: have you ever seen a plant which pops up overnight with ripe fruit hanging off its branches? That might exist, but there aren’t many plants like that; most plants take a long time to go from seed to fully-grown, fruit-bearing plant. It’s a lengthy process. God doesn’t expect us to be fully-functioning missionary geniuses the moment after he gives us faith. He expects us to grow, to hear the Word, to hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and to bear fruit with patience.
Which Soil Are You?
I told you this parable was a painful one (at least it is for me). Jesus presents us with four different types of people, and the implicit question he forces us to ask ourselves is, Which type am I?
So which type are you?
Some of you have heard the gospel preached…and it does nothing for you. You hear the gospel, just to see it bounce right off, like water off a duck’s back. If that’s you, then you need to realize that naturally, that’s how it is for all of us. Not a person in this room didn’t have a point in their lives when that wasn’t their reaction to the gospel. So you’re in good company. But if that is how you’re reacting to the gospel today, then you need to call a spade a spade and recognize that; you need to know it, and you need to admit it.
Others of you have heard the gospel, and like the idea of the gospel, but find it sticking in your brain rather than making the trip down to your heart. When the Bible tells you you’re a sinner, that you’ve rebelled against a loving and holy God, there is no real remorse there, no real sadness. The knowledge of who you are, and who God is, and what he did for you in Christ, doesn’t make you want to do anything in response; you consider what you have, and what you think you’ll lose by following Jesus, and you think, I’ll follow him up to this point…but I can’t go any further than that. You like the idea of Jesus, but there is no root there—at the first sign of struggle you won’t hesitate to drop him.
Others of you, if you look at your faith today, if you look at the lives you live for Jesus today, can see little discernible difference between where you were a year ago and where you are today. You love the same things you’ve always loved, and you have the same small love for Jesus you had at the beginning. You can see a change in your life, yes, and you know God has done a work in you; but you’re not growing; you’re not maturing. You’re still the same adolescent Christian you’ve been for years.
If you are in one of these three cases, don’t despair. Because I don’t believe Jesus gave us the fourth example of the “good soil” so that we could look at it and say, “Without a doubt, that’s me.” I doubt that even the most honest and holy Christian could look at him- or herself today and say without hesitation, “I’m the good soil.” Any mature Christian can tell you that holier we become, the more we realize how unholy we really are; the more mature we become, the more we realize how immature we still are. We’re all still growing. We hope to become this good soil, and many of us may well be more mature than we think. But we’re not there yet. We still have hearts which love things we shouldn’t love, which are sometimes distracted rather than fully engaged.
So given that reality, no matter in what situation we find ourselves, no matter which “soil” you think you are, there are four things we all need to do:
Firstly, we need to pray. You may well know what kind of person you are today; you may be able to rightly discern the state of your heart. And if you’re like me, after hearing this parable you feel the weight of how far you still have to go.
So pray. Pray that God would sovereignly change your heart; that he would cause you to love him and love holiness and hate sin and its effects; that he would fix your eyes on the treasure he is, and actually make you desire it like he said he would, and cause those new loves to work their way out in your lives. Pray that he would help you to hold fast his Word in an honest and good heart.
Secondly, we need to persevere. After we pray that God would change us, we need to get to work and obey. So many of us will pray and then wait. So many of us will only act in obedience when we’re in the mood. We come across a temptation and we don’t feel like God is working in us, and so we’ll call it useless and give in to temptation until we feel God working. But what makes the soil good isn’t just the right motivation; it’s perseverance in obedience to the Word. It’s bearing fruit with patience.
So obey him, even if you don’t want to. Pray he helps you want to obey, and then obey even if you don’t want to. Trust that he is working in you to change your heart, even if you can’t feel it, and obey as if that’s all you ever wanted. Bear fruit with patience. Persevere.
Lastly, we need to preach this parable to ourselves. Don’t leave this parable in your seats when we’re done here; take it home with you, and go back over it, as often as you need to. This parable forces us to examine ourselves—so examine yourselves in the light of what you’ve seen.
Which kind of soil am I? We saw the things keeping the first three examples from being good soil—so examine yourselves in the light of those things. What trials are distracting me? What pleasures are smothering my affections for Christ? What preoccupations? What temptations?
I know that a handful of you are still waiting for me to talk about v. 10. When the disciples come back to Jesus so he can explain the parable, he says,
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’
I know you want me to launch into a discourse on the sovereignty of God over the way we accept the gospel—and it’s true that what Jesus says definitely informs us in that regard.
But that’s not why he says it. Jesus says what he says so that the disciples might be thankful they have received the grace to understand. In allowing us to be cut to the heart by this parable, he is giving us a grace that he hasn’t given to everyone. He’s telling us what kind of Christian we are, and what kind of Christian he saved us to become.
But don’t neglect to see the grace in the call Jesus makes in v. 8:
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Again, don’t sit back and wait to “feel” something. The call of Jesus is active: “If you have ears to hear, then hear. LISTEN! Consider these things! See where you are, and where you need to be, and run that way.” The Christian life is hearing the words of God and applying them to our lives—over, and over, and over again.
Jesus gives us the call to hear his words, and when we obey that call, he works the miracle in us. Pray. Persevere. And don’t stop listening to his voice. Become this good soil; become those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.