In our world success is often measured by numbers: how many units were sold, how much money was made, how many people attended. This may be a way to measure success in the pursuits of the world but it is not a measurement to be used in the spiritual realm.
Attendance figures can be deceptive. We could fill our sanctuary every Sunday if we concluded each service with some kind of raffle. Think about how many people would fill the sanctuary if we required so many weeks of attendance before you would be eligible for the drawing for a new car! It would bring a sharp increase in weekly attendance but it would not tell us anything about a true response to the gospel.
In the beginning of Luke 8 we learn that at this stage in the ministry of Jesus He was drawing big crowds. As we compare the other gospel accounts we learn that the crowd was so large that Jesus needed to get into a boat so he could teach without the people crowding around Him. Jesus knew that most of the people in the crowd were not there because they had responded to His message but rather because they wanted to see miracles and they hoped Jesus might be able to meet their material needs.
The parable before us is the most popular parable Jesus told. It is recorded in three of the gospels (also in Mark 4 and Matthew 13). Before Luke gets to the parable he gives us a little background about those who supported the work of Jesus.
Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. [1-3]
Jesus moved around from town to town. His goal was to speak to as many people as possible. As He traveled He took His disciples with him (it was great internship training). Also in His entourage were some women who had been healed by Jesus. These women supported Jesus financially.
Three of the women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna. Sometimes Mary is thought to be the same woman we saw at the end of chapter 7 who was a “sinful woman” but there is no reason to draw such a conclusion. We are told that Mary was a woman who had been possessed by demons and had found deliverance from Christ and became one of his loyal followers. Mary was not the girlfriend of Jesus but she was the first person to see Jesus after the Resurrection.
Joanna came from the palace of Herod. Her husband managed the household for the King. We don’t know how Joanna became a follower of Jesus. It is intriguing to thing that it may have been through talking with John the Baptist while he was in prison. Joanna also went to the tomb of Jesus on the first Easter morning [Luke 24:10]
The third woman, Susanna, is only mentioned here. These women played a vital “behind the scenes” role in the ministry of Jesus. Two things to notice. First, the message of Christ was not anti-woman. Jesus valued women just as He did men. Second, these few verses remind us that any ministry depends on a bunch of people doing what they can do.
The Purpose of Parables
Before we look at the parable itself jump down with me to verses 9 and 10 where Jesus explains the reason he speaks in parables.
His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’”
This sounds like Jesus is saying, “Look, I speak in parables so it will confuse people.” But that is not the point of His words. Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9. God was telling Isaiah, ”Go and deliver my message, but don’t expect them to pay any attention to it. The effect of your preaching will be their persistent refusal to accept what you say, to the point where they will have rendered themselves incapable of accepting it.”
Isaiah, like Jesus spoke very plainly. Parables are illustrations designed to make truth easier to grasp (much like illustrations in a sermon). However, you have to think through the parable. Those who were not interested in truth would not take the time to listen to the point of the parable. They were too lazy. Jesus used parables as kind of an initial filter to distinguish those who were open to the truth and those who were not. You cannot get to the real message of Jesus by a detached curiosity. You must seek Him.
The Four Types of Hearers
Let’s get to the parable. This is one of the easiest parables to understand because Jesus tells us the parable and then told the disciples what it meant (and fortunately, they were taking notes!) There are three main parts to the parable: the sower, the seed, and the ground. The seed represented the Word of God. The sower represented anyone who proclaims God’s word. The ground represents the hearts of those who hear.
This parable explains why two people can be sitting in the same pew, hear the same message, and yet respond differently. Jesus identified four different kinds of responses.
Unresponsive heart The first person has an unresponsive heart. The seed falls on this ground but it cannot penetrate the soil. It lies on top of the soil until the birds come and eat the seed. These are the people who hear the Word of God and have no response to it at all. They can sit through a time of teaching but they don’t see any of it as relevant to their own soul. They may read their Bible once in a while but they are merely reading words; they are not listening for the voice of God. They are not interested.
The Impulsive heart. The second kind of person is the one who is like seed that has fallen on a thin layer of dirt covering a rock base. The seed may grow quickly but it cannot develop any root system. It will quickly die because it cannot find any moisture. These are the people who respond enthusiastically and emotionally to the gospel message. They may walk an aisle, say a prayer, make grand professions, get baptized and depart all excited. But it doesn’t last. They respond impulsively but never consider the true nature of the commitment called for by Christ (that of self-denial, sacrifice, obedience). They have no root. When the novelty wears off they drift away.
The preoccupied heart. The third group are the preoccupied or distracted. Jesus said, “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.” (v.14) This seed falls into the soil and begins to grow but is overcome by weeds and thorns. It cannot get any sun or moisture so it eventually dies.
This is a picture of people who are so preoccupied with the things of this world that they just don’t have any time to give attention to their spiritual life. These people are distracted by their portfolios, their competitions, and their enjoyments. They spend their time running after their children, their favorite team, trying to be successful or find happiness. They are too distracted to follow Jesus.
Many of these people had a vibrant testimony once. They may have stories about their past experiences of following Christ. The problem is that their whole Christian experience is something past – they are devoting their lives to something different now.
Jesus spoke plainly
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).
I believe these first three types of responses are not genuine believers. Two of the three look genuine initially but it is temporary. They are not real followers.
The fourth type of person is the one with the receptive heart. These people are like good soil. The seed takes root and grows into a healthy and fruitful plant. These are people who hear the Word of God and they take it to heart. They put the message into practice and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in their life. These people, by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, keep going. When they fall they get up. When they drift, they quickly return. They continue to repent of their divided mind and seek God’s strength to serve Him faithfully.
These people let the Holy Spirit and the Word of God get inside of them. They are open to the correction and direction that God gives us. As a result, the Word of God becomes the center of their life. Their heart begins to change and the Word begins to bear fruit in the way that they live their lives. You can see the evidence of Christ in their lives.
Let me draw some applications from this parable. First we find a reminder: There are many different ways to serve the Lord and many different gifts needed for the advance of the Gospel. As we read about the women who traveled with and supported Jesus and the disciples we are reminded that there are a number of ways to make an impact for the Kingdom of God. Some of those ways are very public (like Jesus and the work of the disciples) but there are others who have support ministries that are just as important.
You may not be a person who can get up and preach, teach, or sing. You may not have any interest in serving on a board or committee. This doesn’t mean you can’t serve the Lord. You can serve by
- ·Your sacrificial giving
- ·Your persistent and diligent prayer for the church, the leaders, for the programs
- ·Inviting friends and family members to participate the work of the church
- ·Looking for and taking advantage of opportunities to share your faith with others
- ·Doing practical works of service for those in need (giving food to the hungry, adopting a child through Compassion or some other agency, doing home or auto repairs for the single mom, sitting with a person who is homebound, or babysitting for someone who needs time away.)
Both public and the support ministries must work together. You can’t have one without the other. It is impossible to rank areas of service. God has designed us to be interdependent. Our task is to determine where we can serve the Lord and then do so faithfully.
Second, There is a warning: Make sure your faith is genuine and deep. There are many people who have concluded that they are “good with God” because they said a prayer, walked an aisle, or had some kind of experience somewhere in their past. Three of the four kinds of hearts that Jesus mentions had an “experience” but only one of the three was a genuine follower of Christ. The person who is a true follower is the one who actually walks with Christ! They are the fertile soil. They are those whose commitment to Christ is not destroyed by the trials, worries, or demands of life.
Take a good look at your heart. Is your relationship with Christ something that is vital and growing? Have you gone beyond those first few steps through the door of discipleship? Are you merely fascinated with Jesus or are you His follower? Were you merely swept up in an emotional moment or did you really place your faith, hope and trust in Christ?
Third, we have an Exhortation to see our task in evangelism clearly. The focus of the passage is the seed and how it is received. The focus is not on the one who does the sowing. By the same token we must remember that the focus of our witness is to be the Word of God rather than a method that we use. The key to evangelism is not the personality or charisma of the one speaking, the key is the truthfulness of the Word that is proclaimed.
Unfortunately we have come to think of witnessing presenting the gospel and trying to get people to respond our presentation. We feel we have completed the process when someone says a prayer, walks and aisle, gets baptized, or has some kind of an experience. Jesus pointed out however that the initial response is not the true indicator of conversion.
When Jesus left his disciples He gave them this commission,
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. [Matthew 28:19-20]
Jesus did not tell us to merely get “decisions” but to make disciples. Discipleship is sustained growth. Truly putting our trust in Christ is not about trusting Him for a moment or even a few days, it is about trusting Him with the rest of our lives.
I’m afraid that many people today think they are going to Heaven because they said a prayer back when they were a teenager at camp or because they were baptized. We have told them this is all that is necessary to be saved. Consequently they have developed no root. They have continued to live their life as they always have, confident that the issue of Heaven has been “taken care of”.
Frankly, this is why in our church we don’t emphasize altar calls. It is not because we don’t want people to be saved. We desperately want people to become followers of Christ. However we want to emphasize that a response to the gospel is not necessarily the same as becoming a follower of Christ. It would be great to be able to say X-number of people came to Christ in our worship service this week. However, we don’t really know if these people really have turned to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord or whether they have simply responded to an emotional moment. One is eternal, the other is temporary.
We want to call you to look constantly at the depth and genuineness of your commitment. We want to encourage you to be followers of Christ. We don’t want you to put your trust in an experience you had some time in the past. We want to call you to put your trust and confidence in Jesus Christ as the One who saves you from sin and as the One who leads you and sustains you in daily life.
It is not enough to get people to “say a prayer” we must follow up with them. Jesus tells us to teach them to obey everything He commanded. A new believer needs to be instructed in the Christian faith. Our job is to help growth develop in the life of those who profess faith. They need to learn how to be a follower.
We don’t consider a person educated just because they visited a school . . . even if they did it every week for years. We don’t even consider them educated simply because they attend class. We don’t consider them educated just because they desire to be educated. We consider them educated when they enroll in classes, entrust themselves to the teacher, give attention in the classroom, and learn the subjects that are being taught. We administer exams to see if what has been taught has truly been learned.
It is the same with following Christ. We do not become a child of God just because we attend a church or do the things that church people do. The genuine believer is the one who comes to Him, entrusts themselves to Him and then follows Him in their living. They are the people who, if you will, pass the tests of life. They cling to Christ even in the hardest times of life. They obey His Word even when they do not understand.
Finally, there is a caution that we must beware of becoming distracted. The third type of soil is the one that seems most ensnaring to church people. We should all shudder a little when we read the words about the worries and cares of life choking the life out of a plant.
Too many who call themselves Christians but live their lives distracted. Have you ever been driving along while you were talking to someone and driven right past where you were going? Many people are living their lives that way. They want a relationship with God but they are so distracted by other things that they miss their destination.
Following Christ demands our attention. Every day we must stop to refocus our lives. We must remind ourselves that Jesus is the Lord and Savior in life and He is the One whom we must (and desire) to follow. We need to seek Him in prayer and we must give attention to His Word. We must tell ourselves the truth about our sin and then seek God’s strength to deal with that sin. We must let the Word of God dwell (or live) in us richly. We must regularly take our spiritual temperature by looking at our calendar, our check book, our involvements, and our passions. Jesus says that “no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is worthy of the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)
As a church we too must keep our eyes on the goal. We must remember that our goal is not to build structures but to build the Kingdom. We must be devoted to the word rather than to methods. Our purpose must always be to bring glory to the One who saved us by His grace. Because if we lose sight of these things, it really won’t matter how many people show up for worship on a Sunday morning.