Mark 4:1-9 "And he began again to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine, Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
Our Lord Jesus is shown in this passage as the talented teacher. The multitude no doubt crowded him to hear Him as much as to be healed by Him. His teachings astonished the culture as much as His miracles did. A good example of this are the occasions when Jesus healed someone and then said, "Your sins are forgiven." The Pharisees quickly forgot the miracle and struggled at His words. His talent as a teacher is shown by His use of parables and figures of speech. We'll never forget the camel going through the eye of a needle or the Good Samaritan. He also made illustrations that the people of the day would fully understand. We see Jesus telling the people about a man sowing seed -- the vast majority of the crowd which he spoke to lived off the land. In all, He baffled the false teachers at every turn and impressed the whole land of Israel. God was on Earth in simple clothes and was teaching men in astounding fashion.
Then why didn't Palestine turn to God in those three and a half years? The truth shined brighter than the Sun in that day. Yet, the land remained in utter darkness. Christ did not fail -- God cannot fail. We must look for blame in the hearts of sinful man. Is it that no one heard the message or saw the miracles? They saw and they heard just fine. The problem is that they refused to look and listen to God. This wasn't the first time such a tragedy happened. Think back to Moses and Israel in the Wilderness. The Hebrew people saw the plagues in Egypt. They saw the parting of the Red Sea. They saw the drowning of the Egyptian army. They saw God's presence and heard God's voice at Mt. Sinai. Yet, they refused to believe God's promises and a whole generation died in the desert. Christ cries, "Hearken and Behold;" today we would say, "Look and Listen!" "And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." He doesn't want us to just see and hear. A guinea pig can see and hear. A duck can see and hear. God wants us to dwell and what we learn from Him. He wants us to perceive and understand what He's trying to tell us. Spiritual perception requires more than seeing and hearing.
How are we able to perceive and understand the message of God? Do we have to go to Bible college? Sadly, Bible colleges can graduate people who never know God. Do we buy all the best commentaries? Again, you can read all the books about God and not know God. Do we find some teacher or preacher who can solve all of life's problems? John MacArthur and Charles Stanley have people who listen to them and never change. We will see that the problem is not with the sower or the seed. The problem is in the soil. I believe three keys to spiritual perception are presented to us.
The first key to finding spiritual perception is the rejection of idolatry. Why idolatry? We have already conceded that the problem is not with the seed in this passage. The different soils are determining the progress of the seed. Three types of soil are hindering; they are in the way. Anything that gets in the way of our spiritual perception is idolatry. Anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God is an idol. I like to view idols as roadblocks in our highway to God. A common idea in the Scripture is being "upright," which carries the idea of being free of roadblocks and obstacles. We need to remove these idols or "roadblocks," and allow a path for spiritual growth to become "upright."
Not all the possible responses to God's Word are covered by Jesus. We see no example of someone who openly opposes the message. Though He does not explore every possible avenue, Christ firmly establishes the fact that great responsibility belongs to the hearers of the Inspired Text of the Bible.
The first soil or "roadblock" that He speaks of is the idol of self-sufficiency (4:15):
"And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts."
Our "Talented Teacher" here describes the way side soil, that of the footpath between fields. The seed would have about as much chance of growing as birdseed thrown at a wedding. Not only is the seed unable to find a place to spread roots, the birds come down and eat it. This soil is a heart that has no hunger for spiritual things. This conclusion comes about because the soil doesn't attack the seed or reject the seed. The seed simply never has a chance to get into this soil. Such a person is not necessarily hostile to the message, just insensitive. This is a perfect venue to speak about "nice" and "good" people who never see their need for salvation.
All false religions focus on good works that bring enlightenment and salvation. I challenge anyone to find a non-Protestant, non-Christian religion which has "free grace" as a doctrine. Nearly all religious and philosophical systems have the idea of self-sufficiency built into them. My American upbringing has taught self-sufficiency as "Gospel truth," and most of the people I meet desire to be stable and independent. The danger comes when we build our personal philosophy and worldview outside of God's answers and intents to the point where we have everything "figured out."
A coworker of mine is an amiable and moral guy. He volunteered for the Marines during Vietnam, works honestly, supports his mother, and has a strong sense of justice. We have animated and frank discussions on subjects ranging from baseball to court cases. He is always polite and is a pleasure to be around. Yet, he's an atheist. Though suffering from five heart attacks and in favor of the "do not resuscitate" option, he calls death the "dirt nap," simply a point where existence ends. Self-sufficiency is an idol we must smash, a roadblock we must remove or we are well on our way of becoming like the church of the Laodiceans:
Rev. 3:17 "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:"
Another idol that we must reject is insincerity (4:16-17):
"And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended" (4:16-17).
The stony ground soil is that of shallow soil over rocks. Anyone who has ever tried to grow a garden in rocky soil of New England will understand this illustration. I've had particular trouble with growing grass in an eroded area beside my house. I thought that putting in three inches of mulch would do the trick. I got some free black mulch from a friend, spread it two to three inches deep along the side of the house, and put down a good amount of grass seed. In three weeks, I had a batch of deep green grass. Then came one of the driest summers on record. While the rest of the lawn and vegetable responded well in the heat, this new grass just died. I scratched my head in disbelief. While watching a story on the replanting of grass in Central Park in Manhattan, I learned that grass needs eight inches of top soil for optimal growth. The soil was too thin and grass didn't have a chance.
Much of the soil in American Christianity is much too thin soil for the seed to grow. I see lots of excitement, production, and noise; I don't see much depth. What I characterize it as is Christianity without sacrifice. Most professions are shams; preachers are not talking about "counting the cost," "taking up the cross," or "surrendering all." A great illustration of this come from my experiences in music. Many children want to learn the guitar overnight. A parent goes out under the dread of a demanding and whimsical child, buys a $200 guitar, and then watches the child give up after seeing how difficult learning guitars can be.
We all need to "test the spirits" in our worship. We need to be particularly careful of empty emotion, vain music, and "lip service." American churches have been guilty of making lots of babies and them neglecting them. Real troubles come to the new Christian; so often they are allowed to starve without sound teaching. Further, I think this really comes down to false conversions. Though I strongly oppose "Lordship Salvation" (being way too close to "good works" salvation), genuine regeneration will bring a Holy Spirit powered willingness to reject sin. A "Gospel" which focuses on license and is no Gospel at all.
The last of these roadblocks to remove is the idol of insecurity. (4:18-19)
"And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful" (4:18-19).
We have look at hard soil and thin soil, but now, let us review the familiar problem of weeds. We all understand the problem of weeds in the garden. We often let weeds grow in our hearts. Our relationship with Christ is only thing that should be growing. Things get into our hearts that make us worried and preoccupied. Other thing distract us. Still, other things brings false and temporary pleasure. Christ is describing Christianity without faith. Christ gives three competitors of Himself. The first of these are life's affairs (cares of this world). The second of these is material wealth (deceitfulness of riches) The third is satisfaction in desires (lusts of other things). Lust is not inherently wrong. Lust is simply an emotion -- a strong form of desire. Likewise, anger is an emotion and is not wrong in itself. God is angry at sin. Lust is not wrong if we lust after the path of righteousness that God has prepared for us.
"No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Luke 16:13).
Before we can accept Christ, we have to see our need. We would never see the necessity of salvation by grace unless we learn that we are not self-sufficient, that we need a true change in life, and that we cannot find security by any worldly means. Yet, if He wanted the people to change, why did Jesus used parables that even His close followers didn't understand. In verses 4:10-13, we see Christ telling the disciples why:
"And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:
That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them."
These verses demonstrate that our acceptance of and faith in Christ is the Work of God. Christ makes the point that the inner circle of twelve men were chosen in a special way. This is not to say that God has distinctly damned others. All humans are already damned because of our sinful heritage in Adam. God in His love has told us that "many are called, but few are chosen." The point I want to make here is that we are nothing special without God. We did not come to Him first or impress Him in any way to deserve the blessing of deliverance.
Yet, we cannot help to see that there is something wrong in Jesus hiding spiritual truth from the people. The crowd on the shore hearing these precious words never had a chance to believe. They could not believe; but, I feel they could not believe because they would not. Jesus knew the hard hearts and the blind eyes and the closed-up ears in that gathering. He knew that they would never accept the message about Himself. He allowed them to do what they wanted all along. Unless the Lord arrests the direction of our lives, we would no doubt reject the Father and the Son.
The gaining of spiritual perception and understanding demands the rejection of false idols and the acceptance of the true God. Yet, we must go further. Accepting Christ as personal Savior should always change a life. The Lord brings understanding and power over sin through the Holy Spirit. But the Lord has decided to use His Word to make us complete Christians. To know God, we must know the Bible through the guidance and filling of the Holy Spirit. In Mark 4:20, we see that the acceptance of His message in also required to gain spiritual understanding:
"And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirty fold, some sixty, and some an hundred."
Different levels of production crop up in this verse. Thirty fold increase is incredible, but we can do better. Spiritual perception and understanding rely on our perception and trust in God's word. It is our duty to nurture and fertilize our relationship with Christ through reading and doing His commands. Christ said: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." Are we going to allow the Spirit to control our lives? God has things in store for us that will astonish us. The water will not move in the Jordan until we take a step. Likewise, God's Word is useless if it is only found on the printed page.
Let's take responsibility for listening to God's message. Christ was blamed for the condition of Israel and they crucified Him. With actions they said to Him, "we cannot believe in you, therefore, you must be wrong." We cannot blame our teachers and preachers for our lack of growth. A church does not need programs, it needs revival. We need sensitivity to the Word, so the seed can get in. If we think that we can make it without God's input, we are in for a world of hurt. Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that certain doctrines don't apply to us. We also need a deep faith in the Word so we won't stop growing at every crisis. Plus, Christianity should not be like getting psyched-up before the game. Don't think that we can follow Christ without paying the price. God may want us to give up some things that we don't want to give up. It hurts sometimes to deal with sin. We need to trust in God's Way alone, so that the Word will not have to fight for competition with false philosophies and views. We need to look and listen because spiritual perception requires more than seeing and hearing.