Luke8v4to15: THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER

(A) Introduction (Read the passage.)

The Parable of the Sower, perhaps the first that Jesus told, is one about whose meaning we can be certain thanks to the obtuseness of the disciples. It is a supremely effective parable because it resonates with our experience. However, notwithstanding Jesus' interpretation of this parable it is not without its problems. I will examine it under three headings: the seed, the soil and the sower.

(B) The seed.

(1) Its nature.

The seed stands for the word of God and not just the gospel. A person may respond positively to the gospel but be deaf to other aspects to God's truth. We should never lose sight of Paul's great declaration: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. 2Tim3v16.

(2) Its distribution.

There are a variety of ways of sowing seed. We still sow grass seed on the bare patches of the Brockley cricket square in the old fashioned way - broadcasting it by hand. Farmers drill their wheat and barley in straight rows. I dig a little hole to drop my runner bean seeds into. In the same way there are many methods or spreading God's word from preaching in the open air to making sermons available on the World Wide Web; from singing a gospel song to gossiping with a friend.

(3) Its purpose.

God's word is like corn. It should not all be hoarded for private consumption but some must be scattered as widely as possible. The Bible is not primarily for study like a Geography textbook. It is more like a book of recipes. Even a cookery book can be read in two ways. I can read the cookery books in my kitchen out of interest - just to see the sort of recipes they contain - or I can put them into practice in order to improve my culinary skills. So it is wrong to study the Bible merely for the intellectual exercise. That is not what it is for! God's word is for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2Tim3v16. It is surprising the number of sermons I listen to that lack application. If God's word is to bear fruit it must influence our attitudes, character and especially our conduct. I wonder how many messages actually change the behaviour of the hearers!

(4) Its potency.

Seed, although it appears lifeless, has great potential and potency. The seemingly inert bean does have life in and of itself and if the conditions are right will germinate, grow, flower and bear fruit.

The word of God is just like this. The words of Scripture - just black shapes on a white background - how harmless they appear - but what power there is in them. They have power to change lives, power to shape lives and power to makes lives wonderfully fruitful. I have provided many, many examples of the transforming power of God's Word on this website. One of the most moving is found in the exposition on Heb4v12.

(C) The soils

Jesus likens the consequences of good seed falling on different sorts of soil to the various ways people respond to God's Word. Now it is obvious in real life that the soil cannot change the way it is. This is a weakness in the analogy because it seems unlikely that Jesus told this parable just to illustrate what would happen when God's truth was broadcast. It seems more likely that Jesus was warning people about their reaction to God's Word. A warning presupposes that people will take heed, examine their lives and change. There is little point issuing a warning if you know that no-one will benefit from it. When I warned pupils of the error of their ways I did so in the belief that the pupils were responsible for their behaviour and could change it.

I am going to look at the responsibility of the hearer as illustrated by the four sorts of soil:

The compacted soil

"Some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up." v5.
"Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved." v12.

Soil beneath a footpath is compacted and seed that falls upon it never gets into the ground. Some will be trampled underfoot and the rest gobbled up by crows. Lets look at this in more detail.

    (a) Soil is compacted beneath a footpath by the pressure of many feet. When soil resists pressure it hardens.

    Bible truths can be resisted. If a person resists frequently their heart will harden and the truth may never be accepted and acted upon. I know many who attend church who have heard the gospel over and over again but never made a commitment to Jesus. They have become gospel hardened. But it is not just unbelievers who reject God's word - many Christians do as well. Teaching on baptism, church membership, forgiveness, unity, possessiveness, generosity and the spirit of retaliation is ignored. I heard of two Christians recently who had a tremendous bust up because one had taken the parking place of the other. The pastor tried to bring about reconciliation. He appealed to both men to forgive for Christ's sake. But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Christ's will was resisted.

    A footpath is the product of habit. It is the customary and familiar way. Familiarity can breed contempt. Young people brought up in a Christian home who attended church throughout their childhood can stop listening because they believe that they know it all. They are a bit like some of my pupils who after being taught Geography by me for three years gave it up thinking that they had learned all they needed to know about the subject.

    (b) Many careless feet trample underfoot the seed that fell by the wayside.

    Many worldly feet trample underfoot the word of God. The world is at best unsympathetic and at worst antagonistic to God's truth. Take for example the world's obsession with individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness. This is something that infected the church at Corinth where there were Christians fond of saying, "Everything is permissible for me." Paul told them: "Everything is permissible for me but not everything is beneficial." We cannot do just as we please, we have to ask whether it is beneficial to ourselves, our fellow Christians and the church as a whole. See exposition on 1Cor6v12to20. Paul gives this further advice: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Phil2v3and4. The world would say look to your own interests irrespective of the interests of others. Sadly many Christians are so influenced by the world that they follow suit.

    (c) Much seed lying on a footpath will be lost to birds before it can get into the soil and bear fruit.

    Sometimes God's word does make an impression but if that impression is not acted upon quickly Satan soon removes it. The conviction fades and is lost.

    Procrastination is a great enemy of the church. Many people have felt at one time or another that they should: submit to Jesus, be baptised and join the church, give more to charity, pray in a disciplined way, pay a visit, write a letter of appreciation, say sorry - only to put it off and lose the intention. Procrastination keeps us from bearing fruit, denies the church much blessing and robs Christ of his reward. See exposition on Ecclesiastes10.

I am sure Jesus would say that nobody has to be like the compact wayside soil. We can decide to be open to the word of God. We don't have to share the world's prejudices. We can make up our minds to stop procrastinating and act decisively in obedience to what God says.

(2) The shallow soil

"Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. v6.
"Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away." v13

In Palestinian fields there were places where the rock was close to the surface and the soil consequently thin. A shallow soil is a warm soil. A grain of barley falling into such a soil will germinate and grow rapidly. The barley, however, is unable to put down roots to any depth and in a dry spell is starved of moisture, shrivels and dies.

Christians of long standing all know people like this. They hear the gospel, make a profession of faith and make rapid progress as believers. These new converts are often very enthusiastic and keen to serve - usually in a rather ostentatious way. But then comes a time of testing - a dry period - caused by a change in circumstance - a friend moves away, the pastor moves on, a period of ill health occurs, there is disappointment in love - and the new Christian way of life is abandoned.

It may help to look at the rocks close to the surface that do so much harm:

    (a) Ignorance. New believers may be unaware what Christian discipleship involves. This is a very dangerous rock if nothing is done about it but it is also relatively soft and can be broken up quite easily. Young converts need to study the Bible, read Christian biographies and helpful books like those by C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and talk with older, mature saints.

    (b) Selfishness. So long as this rock is close to the surface a Christian is always in danger of becoming unfruitful. It may not seem so pernicious as ignorance but it is much harder to do anything about.

    I am sure that the best place for a new convert to remain is near the cross. The old Sankey hymn, 'Jesus keep me near the cross,' contains this verse:

              Near the Cross! O Lamb of God,
              Bring its scenes before me;
              Help me walk from day to day,
              With its shadow o'er me

    It is not easy to be selfish and obsessed with personal happiness if we remember on a daily basis what our salvation cost the Lord Jesus Christ - who endured the cross, despising its shame, for the joy that was set before him.

    (c) Unrealistic expectations. When a young person, especially if they come from a non-Christian background, is converted in what I would call untypical conditions like at a Christian camp, convention, rally or festival they may have unrealistic expectations of what the Christian life is going to be like. They may think it is going to be like the Christian festival - fun, jolly, with warm fellowship, exciting, thrilling, loving, uplifting and easy. Well of course it is not always going to be like this!

    Unrealistic expectations can be overcome by talking things through with other relatively new converts. It is a great help to honestly share experiences. I can remember attending crystallography classes in my first year at University. I confessed to my fellow students that I couldn't make head or tail of my professor's lectures whereas they all claimed to find them perfectly comprehensible. This distressed me rather! I felt like giving up!! However, I soon found out - as we began to trust one another - that my fellow students were as confused as I was. During my career as a teacher there were always some colleagues who would never admit to having problems with difficult pupils. This was crass stupidity for two reasons. First, they were deluding themselves and second, they made others feel inadequate.

    It is also helpful to talk about difficulties and disappointments with an honest, realistic Christian who is mature in the faith and has some tips about how to cope. One of the reasons I find Corrie ten Boom's books such a blessing is because she writes about the problems she had as a believer and how God helped her to deal with them.

(3) The crowded soil

"Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants." v7.
"The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature."

There is nothing wrong with the crowded soil - it is deep and fertile. But the very properties that encouraged the good seed to germinate and grow also led to a fine crop of weeds. In my garden the weeds grow most luxuriantly where the soil is best. So we have the sad picture of a growing crop gradually succumbing to vigorous but unfruitful weeds.

Many people start the Christian life who are nothing like the superficial believers dealt with in the other section. They are well informed, with a sense of duty and an awareness of what Christian discipleship involves. But gradually other commitments - to family, worldly advancement and leisure pursuits - begin to erode the time given to private devotion, public worship and practical work for the church. If prayer and Bible study are neglected, church attended at best spasmodically and Christian service shelved because of 'pressure of work' a believer will drift away from Jesus. Calvinists, who assert, 'once in Christ in him for ever,' ignore both experience and the plain teaching of Scripture. See exposition on Hebrews2v1to4.

Christians need to take responsibility for their spiritual well being. Paul wrote to the Philippians: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Phil2v12. Peter wrote: Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. 2Pet1v10. There is absolutely no point Peter writing this if our election is sure regardless of what we do.

Believers must prioritise and make space to grow and bear fruit. We must weed out from our lives some of the things that preoccupy us. The truth is we can always make time for what we really want to do. There have been times in my life when I have been very, very busy - working hard as a teacher and fulfilling my responsibilies to my church. However, it did not matter how busy I was I always had time to play cricket on a Saturday afternoon. Jesus said, and we disobey him at our peril, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness .... ." Mt6v33.

(4) The good soil.

"Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown." v8.
"But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop." v15.

A deep, fertile, weed free soil will inevitably produce a crop so long as the right seed is sown.

Not much is made of the noble and pure heart in the commentaries I have on Luke! We surely do not have a noble and pure heart by nature! So the fertile soil represents someone who has become a Christian by the grace of God and through faith who then responds responsibly and productively to the teaching contained in the New Testament. If we are to bear fruit we must receive God's word in public worship and private study to the extent that it becomes part of us - informing our lives and determining our conduct. There are at least five ways we can bear fruit:

    (a) By winning others for Christ. Paul wrote to the Romans: I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you ..... in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among other Gentiles. Rom1v13.

    What a wonderful privilege it is to bring others to Jesus. I like the challenge of the old Sankey hymn:

            "Must I go - and empty-handed?"
            Thus my dear Redeemer meet?
            Not one day of service give Him,
            Lay no trophy at His feet?

            "Must I go - and empty-handed?"
            Must I meet my Saviour so?
            Not one soul with which to greet Him?
            Must I empty-handed go?

    (b) By being generous. In his epistle to the Romans Paul congratulated the saints in Macedonia and Achaia for the money contributed for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem. He writes: So after I have completed the task (of taking the money to Jerusalem) and have made sure that they have received this fruit I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. Rom15v28.

    Money - if it is given away - accomplishes an enormous amount of good. When I was a young student I visited two friends of my mothers who attended the Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Surrey. They were both old spinsters who may well have been in love with my grandfather, Pastor Hughes. Anyway, they told me a story about their father. He was a student at Spurgeon's College in the days of the great preacher himself. Miss Haddler's father was called to a small fellowship in Kent who hoped to build a bigger chapel. Charles Haddon Spurgeon counselled Mr Haddler not to commence building until he had the money. But the young pastor somewhat impetuously decided to proceed with the project in faith. Later, when C.H.S. asked him how things were going, Pastor Haddler had to admit what he had authorised. Spurgeon said to him: "Well brother - I'll give you 50 - for ignoring my advice." I was so pleased to be linked through those two old ladies to Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his genial benevolence. What a blessing that 50 was in so many different ways.

    (c) By Christian character. But the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Gal5v22and23. I love that - against such things there is no law!

    We should never forget that the quality of our lives brings honour to Jesus. Paul tells the Corinthians that the saints will judge the world - they will even judge angels. I believe this means that the quality of saint's lives shows up the inadequacy of the world and rebukes the those angels who had doubts about God's plan of redemption. See exposition on 1Cor6v1to11.

    (d) By doing many good works. Godly conduct springs from Christians of exemplary character. Paul's prayer for the Colossians was: And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him every way: bearing fruit in every good work .... . Col1v10. Jesus said: "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Mt5v16.

    Godly conduct produces something tangible. Peter got called to Joppa when Dorcas died. Luke records: All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Lk9v39. The clothes Dorcas made and distributed to the poor widows were a testimony to her kindness. See exposition on Acts9v32to43.

    (e) By praising the Lord. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name. Heb13v15. Whenever we praise Jesus - and this can be done in a great variety of ways: testimony, song, musical composition, poetry, architecture, painting, drama and dance - we bear fruit to his glory. One Christmas I watched an old black woman singing 'Silent Night' with the tears running down her cheeks. Her tears were a sacrifice of praise.

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