These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables...”
If you were in the crowd that day when Jesus climbed into the boat to preach you might have felt the effect of safety in numbers. Until he began to preach.
While the Bible has a low view of our ability to understand ourselves (The heart is deceitful above all things...) it also says of Jesus that he “knows the heart of man” (John 2.24), and so his teaching cuts through the crowd, then through our defences, and eventually it cuts right down to the bone.
In the parable of the sower Jesus begins to describe reactions to the gospel and to the truth. In it the descriptions of our hearts are perfectly encapsulated. It forces us to ask; Am I listening? Am I responding rightly? Am I a Christian? What kind of faith do I have? Here are some of the main response he describes.
1. YOU CAN’T HEAR AT ALL
Jesus begins like this: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them” (v.3–4). Later he explains it this way: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path” (v.19).
This person's heart is like hard-trodden soil where nothing grows. They hear the gospel, but it has no impact on them at all. What is going on?
First, such a person hears the word but “does not understand it” (v.19).
This has nothing to do with physical or intellectual ability to understand — as though Christianity were an exam. There are Christians from every kind of background and every level of intelligence.
We know from everyday life that there are things you might know on one level, but not really understand. I was there throughout (almost) all of my wife’s labour, but I will never truly understand what she went through — the pushing, the tearing, the bleeding. I think it’s also important to underline that she will never truly understand what I went through either! So the word ‘understand’ goes beyond intellectual grasp.
The Bible teaches us that the truth of the gospel is not understood for spiritual reasons. A person can understand it at a superficial level, being able to recount the bare facts, but never understand it with their heart (1 Cor. 2.14). Instead, such a person is likely to either reject the gospel entirely (since it is so hard to accept) or be apathetic because they don’t feel any need for it.
Second, whatever is heard is quickly stolen — “the evil one comes and snatches…”. If you do not grapple with the message of Jesus, and if you fail to understand it, whatever you have will be taken away.
We have to wake up to a spiritual dynamic here. Jesus says there are forces you’re not even aware of lying to you, telling you it’s rubbish, distracting you from the truth.
Now here is a conundrum. If your heart is hard, what’s the point in telling you this parable, since you won’t hear it? First, I would say that if you think your heart is hard, it probably isn’t. Second, if your heart is hard, God still has a way of getting through in two ways: (1) He plows your heart. He allows experiences to break up the ground, through suffering. A great many people have been awakened to a search for spiritual things and begun to listen when they suffer. (2) He waters your heart. This is the opposite of suffering. Your heart can be softened when you begin to experience God’s love. “God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance” (Rom. 2.4).
2. YOU HEAR BUT DON’T LAST
There are many people who love the gospel when they first hear it, and respond well, but soon enough they fall away or give up. “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away” (v.5–6). Then the explanation: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (v.20–21).
What’s going on here?
Jesus is describing an emotional response: “receives it with joy” (v.20). Is emotion wrong in these matters? Not at all. The situation is very much like marriage: emotion is good and right, but a relationship built solely on emotion will not last.
But here’s the problem: when emotion is all you’ve got. Relying on a ‘high’ cannot see you through. When suffering comes, that will kill your faith. Why? Because your faith was only based on feeling good, so the moment you don’t feel good you fall away.
This is a significant problem because Jesus says that following him is hard. He tells his followers they’ll have trouble in the world (John 16.33). He tells them that the world will hate them because they hated him (John 15.18–20)! He tells them about the cost of discipleship (Matthew 10.38–39).
What kinds of suffering do Christians experience? He says “tribulation or persecution on account of the word” (v.21), i.e. sufferings that are directly related to you being a Christian. (1) I think of temptation, for example. Before you were a Christian there were many things that you did that you would not have thought of as sin. But the moment you become a Christian your conscience starts to change, and you find all kinds of things in yourself you don’t like, and all kinds of habits you know have to be ended. That can be a kind of suffering, and many people give up because they don’t think being a Christian will make them happy. (2) Another suffering is the response of people you know to your new faith. This is particularly intense when close friends and family begin to mock you or cannot accept it. That is what Jesus is talking about here.
And so, because the Christian life is hard and you don’t always feel good about it, your emotions are going to be strong enough to carry you through. You will need substance and depth.
3. YOU HEAR BUT SOON LOSE YOUR FOCUS
Jesus talks about a third kind of person whose spiritual life is choked away. “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them” (v.7). And then the explanation: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (v.22).
When plants grow side by side they can begin to compete. They want the same light, the same water, the same nutrients, and only one of them can thrive while the other must wither and die.
The same is true of your heart. Your heart can only worship one god at a time (Matthew 6.24) because the things you worship make the same kinds of demands. Let me explain.
Jesus demands that we worship him completely. He calls for absolute devotion to him. When you become a follower of Jesus all of your life has to come under his authority — relationships, possessions, ambitions, gifts, time. Everything is his.
But the other things you desire in life will make demands too. They will demand the same resources. You have limited time, energy, focus, and desire, and it can either be used in service to God, or in service to some other idol.
How do we identify these idols? It's a coin with two sides: the thing you most love, or the thing you most worry about (precisely because you love it). What is the thing that competes with your love for God? What stops you obeying? What crowds your desires, imagination? What are you worried and anxious about (revealing your deepest desires)? These are the thorns Jesus speaks of.
Isn’t it harsh for God to demand everything? Not at all. He demands everything, but he is also your complete supply, and promises to give us more in return (see Mark 10.29-30).
What kind of soil are you?