You have likely heard the statement, “The mind can absorb what the seat can endure.” I would like to suggest a similar statement, “The mind can absorb what the heart’s living for.”
The parable of the sower contains key ministry training considerations. Jesus used this parable as a starting point for training His disciples. Knowing that Proverb 11:30 states, “…he who is wise wins souls,” we want to do all we can to proceed with wisdom when dealing with the souls and salvation of people.
Before “unpacking” the elements of the parable itself, there are a few important pieces of information that precede the parable.
- Jesus reveals that the parable contains information that prepares us to receive “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.13:11; Mk.4:11; Lk.8:10), which are deeper insights into God’s kingdom as it pertains to life on earth. This is important to note. The crowds that were gathered to hear the parables had previously been exposed to great amounts of truth as Jews raised on the law and the prophets. A proper response to such fundamental truth would have been sufficient for inspiring “saving” faith. As well, it would have positioned them to receive further truth / revelation. Jesus indicated that the problem with the general population was that “the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes.”
- Understanding the information in this parable is key for understanding other parables containing insights into “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Mk.4:13).
- This is information that is intended to contribute to the training of the disciples that Jesus had chosen from among the nation of Israel (Mt.13:11; Mk.4:11; Lk.8:10) – information designed to prepare them for effective ministry.
- As a central theme of this parable is understanding (Mt.13:13-15, 23), we learn that it takes a certain level of understanding before one is a candidate for more understanding (Mt.13:12).
Interestingly, the majority of Jews living during the earthly ministry of Jesus had been exposed to significant amounts of good seed (the word of the kingdom) throughout their lives. However, it appears as though very few of them had sufficient understanding that would make them candidates for the truth Jesus planned to share (Mt.13:13-15). Therefore, Jesus chose a mode of communication that would guard against confusion on their part.
This is a parable about communicating truth and the reason for the truth being responded to in different ways. Simply stated, but important to emphasize and clarify, it is a heart issue. In each of the four accounts in the parable, truth is being communicated. There is no indication that the truth being spoken is inaccurate or deficient. Even though the truth is not deficient, we find that the truth spoken does not always produce good fruit. The question to raise in response this fact is, “Why?” A quick response to this question is that it has something to do with the soil upon which the seed falls – the heart (Lk.8:15) of the individual in question. This is an important point to which we will return.
This parable is broken into four sections, revealing that only one of the four produced fruit. In response to this, some have said we can expect that only one quarter of the people we minister to will bear fruit – that is not the point of the parable. The basic point, before evaluating each segment, is that unless the soil is prepared, the seed cannot be fruitful. This, as well, is something to which we will return.
The first type of person referenced became subject to Satan’s efforts to prevent the seed from taking root and sprouting (Mt.13:19; Mk.4:15; Lk.11:12). Paul informs us that “…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, who is the image of God” (2 Co.4:3). According to the way it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Satan “takes away the word from their heart.” As stated in Matthew 13:19, we learn that, “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 point is extremely important – the fundamental problem being considered is a heart problem which prevents understanding and belief. This makes it possible for Satan to promote blindness to God’s provisions for salvation. Again, Paul provides the same insight when writing to the Ephesians. “…walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Ep.4:1-18). Following Paul’s line of reasoning we see that their hard heart produced an ignor-ance that affected their mind and understanding which affected the way they lived.
This point will be reiterated as we consider the fourth of the four categories present in this parable.
The next group is represented by rocky soil. This is soil (a heart) that is still not suitable for receiving seed and producing fruit. Here we learn something very important about the heart of some who appear to respond in a proper and acceptable manner, but do not produce fruit. Notice that Mark compares the first group and the second group with the words, “In a similar way…” Such individuals respond the way every minister / teacher wants people to respond to truth, they “immediately receive it with joy.” If we, as ministers, are too quick to react to such a scenario, we might give such people assurance of salvation which eventually complicates their case.
This gives rise to the consideration of their heart condition that makes it “rocky” and prevents the production of fruit. I am confident that this category is more common than we might suspect in an age when our evangelistic efforts do not call people to repentance. We dangle before them all the wonderful benefits God can provide (of which there are many) and then ask them to “accept Jesus” in order to get these benefits. People can joyfully respond to this proposition from an utterly selfish motive. It has become increasingly rare that we lead people to a change of heart. Consistent with the parable, such information is good seed – it is true that there are great and wonderful benefits. Then what’s the problem? I would like to address the problem on a two-fold level. One pertains to the heart of the individual in question and the other pertains to our handling of truth (the seed, the word of the kingdom).
Those who receive the word in this way are largely producing a selfish response to something that will personally benefit them. As a selfish response, this is a reaction originating from the same selfish heart that produced all their other choices in life. It is true that they are choosing something that pertains to God and religion as oppose to drugs, money, sex, etc. but that which has not changed is their motive or purpose; their heart. It might be cliché but, this cannot be emphasized strongly enough in this age when repentance is not clearly taught or preached.
Regarding our handling of truth, it is wise to offer a well-rounded representation involving both the benefits and the challenges that come with following Jesus. This does not guarantee a change of heart but it does guard against some of the selfish responses. Jesus indicates that it is wise to first “…first sit down and calculate the cost…” if we are to consider whether we can persevere to the end of something (Lk.14:28; Mt.24:13).
Jesus taught, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” It is hard to respond to this message selfishly unless the response is one of rejection. In fact, the first part of this “invitation” requires that one deny self-supremacy before proceeding.
The one who “immediately receives it (the word) with joy, yet has no firm root in himself” is not prepared for the challenges which come along with this new direction in life, the affliction, persecution and temptation. Due to the fact that such things do not appeal to their selfish expectation, their “commitment” is only temporary and “immediately they fall away” (Mk.4:17). This is contrary to the teaching of Jesus when He said, “the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Mt.24:13).
Again, the bottom-line with such a category is that there is no true change of heart. Though they are considering or willing to be involved in “religious” activity, the heart, motive, purpose or intention behind this choice and activity is supreme self-interest, not a change of resolve from pleasing Self to pleasing God. Such a response is possible when speaking of deliverance and freedom from an area of moral bondage such as drug or alcohol dependency.
Next, we have “the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns.” Though it might not be evident immediately, this too has to do with the commitment of one’s heart. The heart of such an individual is captured (committed to – though it is usually not a clear, conscious commitment as much as a “default” mode) by the worry of the world, the deceitfulness of wealth / riches, the desire for other things (other than God’s will, His kingdom and His pleasure) and the pleasures of life. Such descriptive terms are characteristic of a wide variety of general distractions that people pursue with a sense of priority over seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Mt.6:33). Paul states, “No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” The person described in this portion of the parable, is entangled and not focused on pleasing God. The result is that the truth that could lead to freedom is choked out and cannot produce the fruit of a changed life and righteousness.
Finally, we are given information about those who produce fruit. Such insight and understanding is very helpful as we assist and encourage people in this process. This fundamental perspective must not be dismissed because of other assumptions we have about God, ministry and the role human beings play in salvation and transformation that might lead to the idea, commonly expressed in various ways, that it does not matter what we do, God’s will is always mysteriously accomplished. If this were so, none would perish (2 Pe.3:9).
As stated earlier, all four groups heard the word of the kingdom. In other words, the problem was not with the seed. The idea we must keep in mind is that the problem lies with the soil. Based on the rendition found in Luke 8, we understand that the soil represents a person’s heart (Lk.8:15). Therefore, a principle we must incorporate into our ministry is that good teaching and truth will only take root and produce fruit if the heart of the individual is right. When a person has “an honest and good heart,” he / she can hear the word with understanding (Mt.13:23). As we saw in the section between the telling of the parable and the explanation of the parable, the essential problem with the people was that “the heart of this people has become dull.” Consequently, this opening parable teaches of the necessity of promoting a change of heart before other efforts to communicate truth can be productive. Therefore, early efforts in ministering to people should concentrate on encouraging a genuine surrender of heart; genuine repentance from sin, repentance toward God (Acts 20:21). If the heart is not right, we can bombard people with a lot of good information, some of which they might receive with joy, but it will not take root nor produce good fruit. Before moving toward a conclusion, allow me to offer an illustration.
Imagine a farmer purchasing a plot of land. Upon examining it closely, he realizes that the land is very poor; lacking nutrients, rocky and overgrown with weeds. In response to his findings, he decides he needs to buy the best, most expensive seed he can find and proceeds to toss the seed across his nearly purchased land. Before long, the harsh reality sets in that the seed did not produce a crop. In response to this fact, he determines that he must spread more seed, more often. The result is a few sporadic, isolated plants sprouting to no avail. Were he to continue this approach, he would soon suffer grave consequences, threatening the existence of his business. It should be easily seen that the action to be taken is that of preparing the soil and breaking up the fallow ground.
As the above illustration suggests, adequate attention must be given to the heart of a person before it is reasonable to sow great amounts of truth upon them. Much of the truth being shared might be legitimate and very meaningful to one with a right heart, but cannot produce fruit when landing upon a heart that has not been prepared. Consequently, we must understand what Scripture teaches about encouraging and promoting, first, the change of heart known as repentance. This is why John told the Pharisees and Sadducees to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Therefore, we should spend significant time considering what truth is appropriate for challenging people on the level of their state of heart. If adequate ministry toward the unrepentant is not pursued, hearts remain unchanged and fruit remains unproduced.
Technically, repentance means “to change the mind.” However, it is a change of mind regarding something very specific – it is a change of mind over one’s supreme commitment, motive and goal in life. The mind of a sinner is committed to the supreme purpose of pleasing Self. For such a person to experience Biblical repentance, a change of mind from the supreme purpose of pleasing Self to the supreme purpose of pleasing God must take place in all sincerity.
It seems that we live in an age in which repentance is not understood, preached or taught in an effective manner. This has a huge impact on the state of the church and, consequently, the state of society; our culture and the nation.
Even after such a radical change, one must “hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Lk.8:15). There are many things to which one must give attention if we are to endure to the end (Mt.24:13), among them, keeping guard over our hearts with diligence (Pr.4:23). It is never appropriate to lead a person to assume that the Christian life, maturity and the production of good fruit automatically unfold. It begins with a change of heart and continues as we experience ongoing renewal of mind and transformation of life consistent with proper attention to a wide variety of disciplines (sometimes inconvenient or even unpleasant) in the midst of opposition within and without.