Parable of the Four Soils
Please open up to Luke 8:4-15, the Parable of the Sower. I figure that this is the last of the “Building Faith during Difficult Times Series” that I started at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown and it’s time to get back into the expositional study of the Gospel of John that we were doing before that.
You can probably tell, by now, that my devotions of late have been from the Gospel of Luke. It’s been such an encouragement to work my way through Luke, section by section, doing a little study – but mostly just reflecting on it and asking God to speak through it.
Which leads naturally into today’s message, which I think is a very fitting end to the series – and which I believe speaks directly to where we are at today.
Let’s read together, starting in verse 1:
“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable…”
So there’s the context. Jesus, His disciples, and some women who were supporting (literally deaconing) His ministry, were going through “cities and villages” proclaiming the “good news of the kingdom of God”.
There’s a lot going on in this introduction. Notice a few things. First, that lots and lots of people are hearing the gospel from Jesus. Cities and villages all over the place.
Second, notice the diversity of the people following Jesus. The 12 were already a pretty diverse group including scholars and tradesman, a tax collector, a religious zealot, some singles, some married, some brothers, young and older, faithful people and sceptical ones… but also there was a diverse group of women there. Mary Magdalene had suffered greatly with mental and physical anguish brought on by demon possession. She was probably quite the social outcast. Contrast her with Joanna, who was a wealthy and powerful, Roman woman whose husband served as a sort of business manager to King Herod. That’s a huge variety of people – and it shows that Jesus’ message wasn’t just for a certain group – but for everyone. The good news of the Kingdom of God wasn’t for a select few, or a certain kind of person – not just for the poor and outcast, or the very religious or scholarly, or just the men, or just people who had their act together… it was for everyone!
Here we see Jesus as the coming King announcing His Kingdom. As the Messiah, come to heal the sick and cast out Demons with the power of God. As the gracious one who didn’t discriminate against anyone. As the missionary who needed financial support for his food and travel. Jesus Christ, the son of God, proclaiming the Gospel and gathering a huge diversity of followers.
Remember that context for the parable we’re about to read. Starting at verse 4 again:
“And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, ‘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. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.’ As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’”
Jesus often spoke in parables, little stories, that were meant to convey big truths to common people. They weren’t merely “sermon illustrations”, but were actually the very message themselves. Most often, the parables were used to convey one, big truth, but interpreters over the years have often seen much more – sometimes too much as they way over analyze every detail. Suffice to say, parables are more than “simple stories”. One commentator “describe them as both ‘works of art’ and ‘weapons of warfare’.”
In verses 9-10 we see that Jesus was asked why he spoke in parables and what the parable meant.
“And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘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.’”
What does Jesus mean? Essentially, that people can only know the truth if God reveals it to them. We’ve studied this many times before. People love sin and want to stay in the darkness. It requires a miracle from God to shed light into a dark soul, to expose them to the truth, and for them to see their sin and feel the weight of guilt and shame. Unless God shines the light on them, unless God calls them, unless God anoints them (1 John 2:20, 27) unless God explains it to them, reveals it to them (1 Cor 2:10)… they just can’t see it, and they don’t want to.
That part in quotations in verse 10, is taken from Isaiah 6:9-10, where God commissions the prophet Isaiah to go and preach to the people of Israel – but to realize that every word he says is going to have absolutely no positive effect. His messages would be absolute truth, the very voice of God, but instead of softening the hearts of the rebellious, they would only harden them further. Instead of opening their eyes, they’ll shut them tighter. Instead of opening their ears, they will stuff more cotton in. Instead of repenting and giving their hearts to God, they will sin all the more and their heart will become calloused.
That’s what Jesus is saying here about why He uses parables. For those who want to know God better, who the Spirit is working in them, who are asking, seeking, and knocking… they will receive, and find and will have the door open to them. But those who don’t want to hear it, who love their own sin, their self, who feel justified in their actions, who don’t want to be lorded over by anyone else – the parables will only harden their hearts further.
Why? Because, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“…the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The story of the gospel, the message that Jesus was spreading far and wide, to cities and villages, to a diversity of people everywhere – is a divisive message.
Consider the parable. What is the common factor? The seed, right? What’s the difference? The soils. As verse 11 says, “The seed is the word of God.”
Every soil gets the same seed. The message isn’t changed based on the audience. Jesus didn’t tell the rich people one thing and the poor people another. He didn’t tell the Romans one thing and the Jews another. He didn’t alter His message to be more palatable to the audience He was facing. He preached the same message, the same truth, to everyone.
What was that message? “Repent, believe, and follow Me as your only Lord and Saviour.” Remember last week’s message on Luke 6? How did it end? With the parable of the two house builders. One built on the Rock, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and obeys. The other built on sand, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and rejects it. Both hear the same message – to one it becomes the very foundation of their lives – to the other, it’s optional, foolish, offensive, and they reject it.
This is how it’s always been – from the very beginning of time, through every verse of the Old Testament, in every nation, through the ministry of Jesus, and into the days of the Christian church, there has been one message: Acknowledge you are a sinner, doomed to judgment by a righteous God. Repent of that sin by acknowledging that you cannot save yourself, but your only hope of salvation is to give up everything, take yourself off the throne of your life, cast yourself upon the grace and mercy of God, and trust Him alone in every part of your life. In short, simply to believe that what God says is the highest authority and good that you can know or experience — and then live like it.
That’s been the message since the beginning of time. And that message has either enlightened hearts unto repentance and humility and salvation – or hardened hearts unto hell.
You’ve experienced this in your own life, your own heart, and when you’ve shared the word of God with others.
In your own life, there have been times when you’ve had to choose between believing the Word of God and obeying, or doing things according to your own ideas, traditions, or feelings. This pandemic, and all the craziness it’s brought, has been a refining and revealing fire that has given us so many opportunities to trust God or not to trust Him.
Maybe you’ve faced financial struggles. The Word of God says,
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31–33)
Jesus says that an unbeliever will worry, get anxious, start to prioritize money and security over seeking God and living rightly before Him. Their worry will drive them to do selfish or sinful things. That’s an opportunity to either trust God or not.
Some people have had to face some serious difficulties in their close relationships. The stress of the lock-down and all that came with it has revealed things about their friends and family and church that they may not have known was there. Some news places are reporting that there is surge of divorce filings, domestic violence, and substance and alcohol abuse, right now. The US and Canada are facing race riots and hyper politicizing of the epidemic. Small cracks that were present before have been blown wide open.
The Word of God says,
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27–29)
It says, stay married and do the hard work of reconciliation. (Matthew 19:9; Eph 4:32)
The Word says, “Do not get drunk…” (Eph 5:18) and “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” (1 Peter 4:7). Jesus says, “If your eye or your hand causes you to sin, get rid of it.” (Matt 5:27-30)
And you’re presented with a choice. Humility before God, getting rid of the alcohol or whatever, getting rid of the computer… doing the hard work to love and forgive the people who hurt you…… or ignore God and keep turning to substances and anger and bitterness and rage.
You see, the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t just, “Yay, everyone gets saved.” It’s, “I have good news for you. The absolute corruption of your souls, the curse that makes it so you can do no good thing, that has driven you into slavery to sin and Satan… can be broken. But… you are not going to go from slavery to freedom… you are going to go from slavery to slavery.
Romans 6:20,22, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness…. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”
That’s the good news! The opportunity to change gods, change lords, changes bosses, change allegiances, change slave masters, is placed before you. You didn’t have a choice before – you didn’t even know you had a slave master – but Jesus comes and tells you how bad off you are. He shines light into your dark heart, and that light illuminates a whole lot of your sin, guilt, shame, fear, prejudice, and greed…
It’s like you’re sitting alone, in a pitch-black room, eating something. It’s all you’ve ever known. And suddenly, Jesus breaks open a door you didn’t even know was there, and light floods in all around you. And you see that what you’ve been eating is muck, garbage, poison… and He says, “You don’t know it, but you’re living in a prison. You’re sentenced to death. I’m offering you a way out.” And then He presents an option to you. Follow Him through His door, take His path, go His way, live under His rules, with Him as your ultimate authority. He’ll cure your poison, but you must take His medicine. He’ll pump your stomach, but it’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to have to let Him. He’ll take your punishment for you, take your death sentence for you, but you must give up the muck, leave the prison, and call Him alone your God.
Or… you can tell Jesus to get lost, say He’s crazy for saying you’re in prison, that you’re offended that He would call you condemned, kick the door closed, embrace the darkness, and stay in the room pretending that you were never shown the truth.
Jesus offers that choice to everyone who hears Him.
The Four Soils
Now, take a look at Jesus’ explanation of the Parable in verse 11,
“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
I think this parable has special, devotional significance for believers here today. In light of everything happening in our world, our homes, our church, right now. Because of late we have faced a lot of these sorts of situations and have been given the opportunity to trust God’s word or not. We can see ourselves in the various soils.
And remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples. The unspoken question is perhaps, “Why doesn’t everyone accept this Gospel? Why doesn’t everyone do what God says? Jesus is awesome, powerful, gracious, kind, and offers salvation from death and hell. His way is always better! Why wouldn’t everyone take Him up on this? Wherein lays the difficulty? Why would people we know, we love, who are reasonable, and are more than willing to trust us about so many other things – have a completely different reaction when we start talking about Jesus or the Bible?”
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the seed, and the sower is doing their best to spread it all over the place, so why won’t it take root and grow?
Some people who hear the Word of God are those whose heart is like a hard path – the words just bounce right off. They “heard” the words, but their hearts are like pavement. They are like the religious leaders who followed Jesus around, but only criticized, scoffed, and argued. It’s not a “passive unbelief”, it’s an active refusal to humble themselves and obey.
There’s an element of spiritual warfare here to because it says the “devil” comes and “steals away the word, so that they may not believe and be saved.” In other words, these are people who not only refuse to believe Jesus, but have so completely rejected Him that it’s like Satan has locked their minds and hearts and thrown away the key. They are worldly people, believing their own ideas, and only have derision for God, Jesus, and believers.
How can one get through to this person? Well, how would you turn a hard packed road into fertile farm land? It’s going to require something to break through that ground – and that often comes in the form of suffering, fear, and facing death. God has to send a big, hard tiller – before the healing rains can penetrate that ground. All we can do is pray.
For us Christians, devotionally, can you see yourself in the hard-packed ground? Are there parts of the Word of God that you simply won’t believe, won’t obey, no matter what? Are there parts of your life that don’t line up to what God wants, but no matter how many people point it out, how many times God brings it up in study and prayer, how many messages you hear about it, how many spiritual authorities tell you to submit – there’s just no penetrating that part of your life? You are doing yourself and your soul damage if there is. And you’re giving your spiritual enemy a foothold in your life and family.
Then there are those whose hearts are like stony ground. They hear the word, receive it with joy, but don’t take root. They believe for a while, and then fall away. What causes them to fall away? Testing. These are people who seem like they are Christians, love worship music, small groups, potlucks, and hanging around with believers. It gives them comfort and hope and peace. They feel loved and accepted.
But there are two problems: They have no roots and there are some huge rocks in their field. The roots represent spiritual maturity. Think of Psalm 1,
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” (Ps 1:1-4)
Blessed is the person who takes counsel from the godly, has left the way of sinners, and has given up his pride, his scoffing at God and God’s people, and replaced it with humility. They love God’s word, meditate on it, study it, pray about it, lets it penetrate their soul and change their character. And their roots grow deep as they drink from the stream of God’s Word.
But, there are people who look and sound like believers, but have no roots. The rocks in their field are false ideas they refuse to give up, sins they refuse to repent from, and a sense of arrogance that they keep, believing that they are better than everyone else. They hear messages about repentance and humility – but they assume it’s for other people. They don’t have study habits in private, and very little prayer life, except when they’re around other Christians. They don’t submit to Godly authority or God’s Word. The only interpretation they want is their own.
And then testing comes, trials, suffering, difficulty comes – and they have no framework built for it. Jesus is supposed to be the answer to all their questions, the fixer of all their problems, the great gift-giver in the sky that makes their life better. But then God ordains a time of difficulty, a time of spiritual training, of discipline, of maturing – and they say, “Forget this! Christianity is too hard, too strict, too constrictive. I’m going my own way, coming up with my own ideas, and create my own version that I like better.” And they fall away. I’ve seen this many times, and I’m sure you have too.
Can you see yourself in this one? Has this time of testing and trial that we’ve been going through revealed any weaknesses in you, any big rocks you need to deal with? Has it shown you the true depth of your roots? That’s a gift from God! That’s an invitation to spiritual maturity. Don’t reject it, don’t give up, don’t quit. Instead, humble yourself, accept correction, accept discipline, find some spiritual authorities to get under, and allow God to deepen your roots so you can face adversity with grace and courage.
Then there’s the “thorny ground” people. This is similar, but opposite to the rocky ground people. This person also lacks maturity. They might grow a little more than the rocky people, but in the end they end not much better – they are immature and fruitless. What is the cause of their immaturity? “cares, riches, and pleasures”. In other words, “life”.
They see their sin, want to be saved, and come to Jesus. The seed penetrates the ground, and it grows. But God isn’t planting just to have a seed sprout – He wants fruit! He wants to take this believer and train them in righteousness, use them for His Kingdom, show His glory and bring His love to the world through them.
But that requires maturity, and they don’t like that. Instead, their heart is full of cares, worries, anxieties. They are worried about comfort, security, pleasures, and money. Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” “I have given you a gift, a talent, and a place in my body of believers. I’ve set aside good deeds designed just for you, now go!”
And this person responds, “But Lord, that’s not comfortable. What about my retirement? What about my stuff? Won’t that cost me some money? That seems kind of risky, Lord. I’m not so sure. I really like being healthy, comfortable, warm, and well rested. Plus, every time someone sticks their necks out around here, someone smacks them down like a game of whack-a-mole. So, I’m just going to keep my head down. Stop asking me to serve in areas where it’s not…. easy… . Stop convicting my heart to do difficult things. Stop telling me to use my gifts in ways that might get me in trouble. Thanks for saving me… but that’s all I want from you. Other than that, please leave me alone.”
Do you see yourself in this? During this time, have your fears, concerns, and worries, caused you to tell God that you don’t want to obey Him because it’s too risky? Has God told you to share something and you said, “No, I’m might need it.” and then kept it? Has God told you to serve somewhere and you said, “No, that might put me at risk or get me in trouble.”? As the stress and anxiety grew, did you start clinging a little harder to your worldly pleasures, worldly riches, worldly comforts, because you were afraid you might lose them?
Maybe you’ve lost out on a real blessing, real spiritual fruit, missed out on being used by God in a special way, because your concern for yourself overwhelmed your trust and obedience to God – and the thorns choked out your fruit.
Good Soil – Conclusion
The final soil is the good soil. People who hear “the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” What a rich description. They hear it, grip it, bind it to their life, glue it to their souls, in their “honest (or “noble” or “beautiful”) and good heart”. Their heart is “honest”, they’re not lying to themselves or anyone else. It’s beautiful, unmarred by the blackness of sin because Jesus has washed it clean. And it’s good, meaning it’s actively positive. No rocks, no thorns, because they’ve fully repented, totally turned their lives over to Jesus, and keep repenting and tossing out rocks and weeds every time the Holy Spirit shows them one.
Here’s the thing: It’s not that these people are special.
I recently watched a movie about Mr. Rogers (a wonderful, Christian man I greatly admire and respect) and at one point a reporter who is doing a piece on Mr Rogers turns to his wife, Joanne, and says, “He must be a saint.” Her reply was profound,
“I don’t like that word. If you make him out to be a saint, then nobody can get there. They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature. If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked.”
In other words, it’s not that Mr. Rogers was special… or “otherworldly”. It’s just that he was obedient to Jesus. Jesus did a mighty work in his life, changed his heart, cleansed his sins, broke the curse, and Mr Rogers thanked Jesus by obeying. He took God’s Word seriously and applied it to His life as a servant of God. He said what he believed Jesus wanted said, did what He believed Jesus wanted done, reacted the way He believed Jesus wanted Him to react, and forgave as he believed Jesus wanted him to forgive. His soil took the seed of the gospel, and God was able to produce much fruit through him.
Jesus doesn’t want special people. The motley crew following Him proves that. And the motley crew that makes up most Christian churches proves that too. Jesus doesn’t have a “type” or a “favourite kind of person”. All that He requires is a person that hears His Word, believes it, and humbly obeys – even when it’s hard, risky, inconvenient, or they don’t feel like it.
The question is: How receptive is your heart to trusting Jesus?
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Parable. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Life Application Bible Commentary – Luke – Pg 202
We’re getting back into the Gospel of Mark today, but as we step back into it – into Chapter 4 – I want to do it by way of a mini-series, of hopefully only two or three sermons, about something that is very near and dear to my heart – meeting God through bible-reading and devotional journalling. I’ve preached on “how to study your Bible” a few times, but this is different. This is about listening to God speak to you, individually, every day. This isn’t about studying God through His book, but listening to God as He speaks to you from His book.
God Still Speaks
My premise today is that God still speaks, and we need to be careful to listen. I hope you can appreciate what I just said. I hope that fills you with awe, and wonder, and hope and fear. “God still speaks.” I don’t mean “God wrote the bible, and we need to read it” or “I’m preaching so you better listen to me because God’s speaking.” No, what I mean is that “God Himself still communicates with His people, in special ways, on an individual level.”
The Creator of everything – the One who holds all things together – who writes history, knows the beginning and the end, formed the oceans, the moon, the stars, the mountains and even you yourself in your mother’s womb. I believe, with every fibre of my being, that He still communicates with people on an individual basis, in special ways, today.
Don’t Misunderstand Me
I realize that what I have just said is an incredible statement. One that can be misinterpreted and turned into something very dangerous. I’m not saying that God is giving new Bible books to people. No, we believe that the providence of God has given us the full counsel of scripture – what theologians call “the closed canon of scripture.”
I’m also not saying that God always speaks audibly to everyone. Clearly, that’s not the case. There’s no biblical reason that says God wouldn’t speak audibly today, and we certainly have enough proof in scripture that He has. Over the course of the 1000s of years of history the Bible covers, God speaking audibly only happens a handful of times, so clearly this is the exception, not the rule. And even then, it’s not always clear that it’s not just an “inner voice” or a “mental impression”. (Got Questions)
What I’m saying is that if a Christian is paying attention to God, He will communicate with the believer regularly and specifically.
God speaks “Regularly”, meaning that we’re talking something that happens all the time – in daily devotions, during special prayer times, during times of crises, during worship times, or after asking for wisdom and guidance.
God speaks “Specifically” meaning that it’s He doesn’t just speak in general principles, but gives unique and clear answers to current and relevant situations that believers face every day. He may point to a principle, or to a general rule, but it will apply to the specific need in the believer’s life.
Only Special People?
I’m not sure that most Christians really believe that God speaks regularly or specifically though. I haven’t met many who do, anyway. Sure, they believe that Jesus died for their sins, and that they need to be renewed, and that God gives really good principles for living, and even listens to our prayers… and even answers our prayers. But I don’t know many Christians who really believe that communication with God is a two way street – or have experienced it.
There are some Christians who will say that God still speaks today, but just not to them. God speaks to foreign missionaries, and people like Mother Theresa, but He doesn’t speak to everyone… does He? I believe that He does! I believe that God’s voice is available all the time, that He is sowing seeds all the time, and that it is not He who has stopped speaking, but we who have stopped listening.
We read stories like Moses and the burning bush, or the young boy Samuel hearing God when he was in bed, or Job hearing God’s 70 questions to him, or the appearance of the angel to Mary, or the tongues of fire coming on the people at Pentecost, or Paul’s Macedonian dream… and we think in our heart of hearts… “Why doesn’t God come like that anymore? If I could just have that kind of experience, then my life would be changed!” My message today is that the experienceyou are longing for is available today, and you can truly hear from God regularly and specifically, if you are willing to listen for Him.
That’s where my passion for this topic is coming from. I’ve experienced the difference in my life that comes from hearing God speak regularly and specifically in my life, and I want that for you.
Imagine how radically different your life and ministry would be if you heard from God regularly and He was addressing specific issues in your life. Imagine how different the churches, families, marriages, and communities around would be if people were coming to God for direction, listening to what God was saying, and then obeying Him in what He told them to do! What a world this would be!
Access Isn’t The Problem
I believe that God is always speaking, but most don’t listen. It’s like a radio station. It’s always on, the waves are in the air, but most people aren’t tuned in. Or, to use an illustration from Jesus, God is constantly sowing seeds, throwing them everywhere, easy to find, but people are not allowing that seed to penetrate the soil of their hearts, let it germinate in their souls, and grow and bear fruit in their lives.
We live in a time that is literally called the “information age”. We are inundated with messages all the time. We can access information on anything, at any moment, almost anywhere. If I want to know the capital city of Uganda, I can pull it up on my phone while waiting for the bus. If you can’t remember the name of a song, there is software that you can hum the tune into and it will tell you what song you are humming. People anywhere in the world can connect with people anywhere else in the world instantly!
And we who are seeking God’s will, and who want to hear from Him, not only have access to him in prayer and Christian friends, pastors and counsellors, but we have access to more Bibles, commentaries, preachers, teachers, schools, retreat centres, nature walks, Christian book stores, internet sites, blogs, songs, radio stations, than any culture in history. We can pray everywhere about anything. There are dozens of churches and pastors and elders and Christian counsellors around to ask questions of, and a zillion other resources that can help us understand God’s word.
We have more time-saving devices and technological help than any generation before us, but we are busier and more stressed out than ever. Our work has become easier and more efficient, but we remain anxious and overwhelmed. God has given us the time to be able to do exactly what He wants us to do, and the energy to do it – and access to Him for the wisdom, resources and help to get it right – but our society is more distracted, relationally distant and addicted than ever!
What’s the deal? It’s because we aren’t connected to God every day. We are lost, and at the end of our means and abilities, and instead of turning to God for help, comfort and sustenance – we go elsewhere. We get busier.
God voice can be heard all the time, everywhere. He speaks externally to our eyes and ears, and internally to our hearts, minds and spirits. The question is simply… are we listening? The need to hear His voice and feel His presence is desperate, and we all feel it, so then, why don’t we do it?
The Parable of the Four Soils
Please open up to Mark 4:1- 20:
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
I know that there have been times in my life where I have chosen not to listen, been too distracted to let it take root, or allowed negative thinking or worldly gain to become more important than God’s voice — and there have been times when I have listened very carefully. And I can tell you that during those times when I really want to hear from God, He has never let me down, and is always there to tell me something, show me something, or let me experience something that tells me more about who He is, explains something I’m going through, or where He simply allows me to know that He is near and draws me closer to Him.
But that doesn’t happen when I allow my heart to get hard. And I believe, based on scripture, the hardness or softness of our hearts is based on the choices that we all make.
How Does a Heart Harden?
Hardness of Heart is something that happens as a result of our decisions and by the will of God. Both are present in scripture. When a person’s heart gets hard, two things are happening. First, the individual is rejecting the Word of God. They have sinful habits or attitudes like pride, hatred, lust, addiction, gossiping and it produces a condition where their hearts are not as soft towards God. While at the same time God is allowing this to happen as a consequence of their sinful attitudes. Their hard heart is their decision, and God is allowing it to happen. Let me read you a few scriptures.
In Hebrews 3:8 we read an exhortation from God saying, “…do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness.” Here, God is saying that just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, our own bad attitudes, frustrations and grumbling about our situation can harden our hearts towards God.
A couple verses later Hebrews 3:13 we read, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Before it was our attitudes, but here, our decision to sin causes the further hardening of our hearts.
Both of these imply that the hardening of our hearts… or from the parable, the condition of our soil, is a choice we make.
Our desire for sin allows satanic birds to land in our hearts and steal away what God is trying to say before it ever really reaches their ears. Our lack of listening to God means we are probably listening to other voices – and that allows anxiety and fear to take over as the primary voice in our life. Or, our hearts move from loving God to loving the world and we start to believe the “deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things enters in” and we are no longer listening to Jesus who says, “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) and our soil gets harder and God’s words about simplicity, generosity, and storing treasures in heaven don’t take root.
Confusing Verses in the Middle
Which helps us understand the somewhat confusing verses that come in between the parable and the explanation in verses 11-12, which I want to look at first. It says,
“And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
What is Jesus saying? And why is it here? He seems to be saying that He tells these simple stories, these parables, no so that people will understand and get saved… but so they won’t understand and they won’t get saved! What does that mean?
Well, this goes right back to the condition of our hearts. We’ve all asked the question, “Well, if God really wants to make Himself known, why doesn’t He just show up in the sky? Write a big message on the moon, or take over all the tv’s and show us that He’s there. Make the ocean freeze over, or turn the Rocky Mountains upside down or something. Why doesn’t He make it obvious?”
What Jesus is saying here is part of the answer. Jesus says that the reason that God doesn’t do these things is to show the conditions of people’s hearts. To those who are listening, and who want to hear, and want a saving relationship with Him, His Word is available loud and clear! For them, these parables unveil truth, open up mysteries, change their lives, and let them know God better. But to those who are like the Pharisees, with hard, rebellious hearts, these simple stories are mysterious, confusing and frustrating.
Think of it this way. It’s like going to a 3D movie. Imagine if some of the people knew it was 3D and got the glasses, but others didn’t. For those with the glasses – the eyes to see – the movie would be jaw dropping, beautiful and interactive – a great experience. They would tell their friends, and would want to go back and see it again! But for those who did not get the glasses, who didn’t have the eyes to see – their experience of the same movie would be blurry and confusing and they would walk out complaining, confused and want their money back. Same movie, but only some had the eyes to see.
I believe that today, the movie is playing all the time… God is speaking all the time… but He does in a way that expresses the condition of a person’s heart. Only those humble hearts that desire His voice… quiet minds that want to listen… repentant hearts that know they have done wrong… broken people who know they need mending… lost people who know they need finding… sinful people who are desperate for cleansing… only they have the soft heart to listen.
That’s why Jesus speaks in parables and why God wants us to come to Him humbly. It shows Him, and us, the condition of our hearts.
Which Soil are You?
But there’s not just one condition of our hearts – and not just one way that our hearts get hard. In Jesus parable there are four kinds of soil. That’s an amazing thought. Even though Jesus is the sovereign Son of God, with power over every atom in creation, He does not take over our freedom to make a choice. He allows us to choose. He opens the door, and invites us to walk through. He sets out the food, and invites us to eat. He brings out the signed adoption papers, but asks us to put our name on the line. He sows the seed, but we are the ones who control the condition of our soil… and there are four types of responses.
1. The No-Growth Response
First there will be the No-Growth response. There are people who will walk around the gospel and the message of salvation, who will have the scriptures and the love of God available to them, who will have access to the voice of God… but they will not listen. Verse 15, “And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”
This has less to do with the birds and more about the condition of the soil. God speaks something to them. either through a person, a book, a song, a billboard, or into their heart, their mind or their spirit… , something that specifically address their deepest need, that tells them exactly what they need to hear to find peace and joy and hope… and as soon as they hear it, even though it is absolute truth that can change their lives forever… they have a hardened shell of emotional or intellectual barriers that simply won’t let God’s voice in. Their wills are set against repentance. They may hear it, but there is no way that they are going to change their minds, or turn around and go the other way with their lives. So the seed bounces off and goes nowhere. They outright dismiss the wisdom and guidance of God.
You can hear these folks, and perhaps you’ve even done this in your mind. A truth comes in like “You need to put that down… you need to admit your wrong and ask forgiveness… you need to submit to that authority… you need to soften your heart… you need to be generous with that blessing…” and immediately it’s countered with “NO! That’s mine! I don’t want to! I earned that! It’s their fault! I need it! That’s crazy! That’s too hard!” And our hard heart causes God’s voice to bounce right off, the seed takes no root, and no effect happens at all.
This is most often what happens when unbelievers hear the Gospel message, but their hearts are hard towards God. They won’t listen to the Gospel. But this also happens to Christians who are caught in habitual sin or are distant from prayer and reading their bibles. God’s voice gets quieter until it has no effect. And it happens so gradually to believers that sometimes they don’t even notice! They don’t realize they’re ignoring God. He’s been speaking, but they’ve been tuned out.
What does one do about this? This requires a miracle, so we must pray. No matter how much seed we scatter on dry ground, it won’t take root until the rains come. We must pray that God sends rain. If you sense your heart getting hard, then pray and ask others to pray for you. If you know someone who has a hard heart, who won’t listen to God, who is falling away and is despising the word of God… the only response is prayer. No matter what you say, it won’t penetrate. Only God can change a hard heart into a soft one.
2. The Shallow Growth Response
Second is the Shallow-Growth response. These are the ones to whom the voice of God is like seeds “…sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away”
So God is speaking, and these people hear what He says. Their soil isn’t dry and hard, but it’s full of unhelpful things. At first, God’s message is very exciting to them, but it doesn’t go deep. They hear of Jesus dying on the cross for their sins… but they don’t repent of their sins. They hear that God has a plan for their life, but they don’t make Him their Lord. Their love for Him doesn’t captivate their wills, change the way they see life, reorient their hearts, and put them onto a totally new path. They are emotionally affected, or intellectually stimulated, but it doesn’t impact the rest of their life. They don’t grow in maturity. For them, a relationship with God is about what they get from Him… not about knowing Jesus as their Lord, Saviour and Friend.
These are the folks that are “born again” at a revival, or turn to God during a tough time in their life, or they feel something during a powerful moment of someone sharing with them… and they are interested in a time, but it doesn’t go anywhere. They never get involved in a church. Or if they go to church, and they stay on the periphery. They don’t share their burdens or sins or temptations with others, and never go deep with the Christians around them. Their prayer life is scattershot, their bible reading is sparse, and when they do pray it’s more like a list for Santa Clause, or like a note to the suggestion box, telling God what they want and don’t want, rather than the deepening of a relationship with someone who loves them.
And so when tough stuff happens they don’t have a substantial relationship with Jesus which can sustain their spirit. They never anchored themselves to Him, and are still adrift. They don’t have the answers to tough questions like “Why does God let bad things happen?” and “What do I do when I’m tempted?” or “Does God still love me when I sin over and over?”, or someone starts to mock them, or challenge their faith… they don’t know what to do. So, they fall away out of guilt, or shame, or fear. God isn’t saying what they want to hear, so they go back to the voices they used to listen to… and their spirits shrivel up.
This happens to a lot of church people, and most people I know who claim to be Christian are in this position. They like the idea of God’s love and forgiveness, but not of His wrath, judgement and requirement of obedience. Being a real Christian becomes too demanding for them. Jesus asks for too much. He wants full commitment, but the cost is too high. They were fine when it was about being saved and going to heaven, but when Jesus starts asking them to give up their idols, their addictions, their comfort, their relationships… it’s too much. They love being forgiven by Jesus… but granting forgiveness is another thing. So they say no.
So they come to church, sing the songs, but when anything tough comes, they walk away – join another church that requires less of them and talks less about sin, they stay home for a few weeks, or quit coming altogether. And they form a Jesus in their own image that does things the way they want him to.
How do we combat this problem with having soil that is too shallow? The answer is commitment. We need to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to God. Fish or cut bait. No lukewarm faith. In or out. It means going all in with Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord and our God. Not dancing on the outsides in cultural Christianity, or religious feel-goodness… but saying to God, “I’m all yours and I will do whatever is necessary to obey you!”
Have you made that commitment yet? Is Jesus your Lord? Your Boss? Your Commander? Combat shallow faith by committing wholeheartedly to Jesus.
3. The Stunted Growth Response
The third response are those who have Stunted-Growth. This is where God speaks, and is received, and their heart is affected, and they want change… but they have a divided mind. They are seeking to worship two gods, live two lives, have two sets of priorities, and it kills their faith.
These are the ones who Jesus says the voice of God is “…sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
These people become a large plant, they have deep roots, emotional faith, intellectual faith, good standing in the church, and may even have a regular prayer life. They really try to listen to God… but their heart is divided. Their trying to grow two things at once in their soil – fruit and thorns – and hoping they will coexist.
They have worries and concerns about all the other things in their life other than the kingdom of God. They want financial security, a good job, comfortable living, a good reputation, lots of friends, an easy life, new things… or something else they value as much as their relationship with God, so they forfeit times of spiritual growth so to ensure they get it.
If you ask them about their faith, and they can tell you their testimony, when they were saved and baptised, and all about the scripture they read that week. And with the same energy, though usually more, they can just as tell you all about their job, their boat, their stock options, retirement plans, sports teams, tv shows, the clothes in their closet, the car in their shed, favourite hobbies, exercise routines… and all these other desires choke out the priority of hearing God’s Word. They are distracted by these other good things, and they lose out on the greatest thing.
Yes, they have deep roots, but when it comes to bearing fruit, they can’t. Lots of height, lots of depth… no fruit. This is another group of Christians I meet in the churches I’ve pastored. People that can quote bible verses and attend every event, but they don’t share their faith with anyone. If you ask them for a story of something God has done in their life, the stories they tell are decades old – because they haven’t seen fruit in many years.
They are nice, but they don’t sacrifice their time for others. They are happy enough, but they don’t spread joy. They sing songs and serve in church, but there is no passion in their hearts. They give out of their excess, but never at great cost to themselves. Their time is divided between their worldly interests and the Kingdom of God, and if push comes to shove, the Kingdom comes in second. Their money and energy are tied up in gathering toys or building worldly security, so it cannot serve God’s purposes, and they bear no fruit.
They will attend a dozen business meetings and talk about whether to spend 50 or 100 dollars on something… but there is nothing in their life that God is using to change their neighbourhood. They will get elected as teachers, deacons and elders because they’ve been around, know their Bibles, and are willing to take the position… but they have not borne fruit, are overwhelmingly dispassionate about ministry, and skate over the surface of everything they are involved in. They don’t prepare for teaching, or meetings, or anything because after all “it’s just the kids, it’s just small group, it’s just the church”… and all the people they affect are equally dispassionate… because the church follows their leaders.
Their branches grow high for all to see… they have roots in God and will be saved in the end… but they bear no fruit because they have two loves – God and the world. Whenever God tries to steer them towards Kingdom things, in their hearts the Kingdom is put at the same level as the world, and the voice of God is choked out.
What must we do to solve this? To have our priorities straight. Jesus said it this way,
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”(Matthew 6:19-21)
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2-5)
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:15-17)
It is not that we ignore material things, but they must come after Kingdom things. Our anxieties and worries are not to be ignored, but they must be seen in the light of our faith. Our other pursuits may be of value, but they must come second place to the kingdom. Our other interests are often gifts from God, but they can be used by Satan to distract us from His voice, and become so important to us that we are unwilling to obey what God wants from us.
Jesus says in John 15 that God prunes us so that we will bear more fruit. But if we love the world too much, we will not submit to that pruning – we won’t let go of the things that are stopping us from bearing fruit – and we will become a dead branch.
4. The Full Growth Response
Let’s end on the good news. The Full-Growth response. “But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (vs 20)
I hope that today, you are able to say that you are fertile ground, accepting the seeds that God is saying casting onto your heart. I hope you’re tuned into his station. It is my deep prayer that you are receptive, listening, not distracted, and soft enough to embrace what He is saying and do what He is asking you to do.
That’s my prayer for my life. That I would hear God’s word, accept it readily, and then go out and bear much fruit. The only way that I, or anyone, is going to be able to be able to hear the words “well done my good and faithful servant”, is if we are willing to give it all up for His sake. To listen and obey. To till the soil of our hearts and be open to whatever He desires.
And over the next couple weeks, I hope to give us a tool to be able to do that.