The Word Sowed Today
Although its meaning was hidden from the Jews, the general teaching of the parable of the sower is clear to those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit, who helps us understand the Scriptures.
As explained earlier in the magazine, the parable refers to the Lord’s preaching when He was on earth. The preceding article provides an application of the parable to the preaching of the gospel. In addition, it can legitimately be applied more widely to any preaching of God’s Word, including to believers. This article seeks to challenge us as to whether our state of heart as we attend ministry meetings and the like is as it should be, such that the reading and exposition of the Bible will accomplish the purpose for which God has sent it (Isa. 55:11) — namely that we will bear fruit for Him (Matt. 13:23).
Matthew 13:3–8 describes a sower who went out to sow and the results of his sowing of seed, which are divided into four categories depending on where they fell: the wayside, rocky places, amongst thorns and, finally, in good soil where they produced fruit. The importance of the parable is then emphasised by the words ‘He that has ears, let him hear’ (v. 9). After the discourse with the disciples regarding judicial blindness already discussed in this magazine (vs. 10–17), the Lord graciously interpreted the parable (vs. 18–23).
The meaning of the parable is straightforward. Although not expressly stated in the interpretation, the sower is the Lord Jesus (see v. 37). The seed is the Word of God (Luke 8:11), although its designation here as the ‘word of the kingdom’ (Matt. 13:19) is significant for reasons which will be addressed later. The four types of ground on which the seed falls picture the hearts of those who hear this Word (vs. 19–23).
The immediate subject of the parable is the Lord’s oral ministry concerning the kingdom. However, the parable can be applied more widely to each occasion on which His Word is preached, whether in a gospel setting or a meeting for the blessing of the Lord’s people. Put another way, and while the Lord was unique in His preaching and His words were always perfect, a sower goes forth to sow on every occasion on which the Word of God is ministered.
Three of the four illustrations concerning the reception of the preaching are negative, while only one is positive. The parable is not intended as a mathematical rule (e.g. that 75% of unbelievers hearing the gospel on any occasion will reject it, or that only one quarter of believers attending a ministry meeting will go on to bear fruit in respect of what was presented). Nevertheless, something of the hardness of the human heart is revealed in that the Lord has more to say about the rejection of His Word than its reception. There is implicit counsel in this for believers as well. The flesh and the carnal mind, which remain in us while we are on earth, have no interest in God’s things, least of all His Word (see Rom. 8:5–8). If our daily walk is not as it should be, we will experience what is set out in the first part of Romans 8:5: ‘they that are according to flesh mind the things of the flesh’. We will also experience this during the ministry meeting. If we are not walking according to the Spirit throughout the week, it should come as no surprise that we are not enjoying the things of the Spirit (see the second part of the same verse) when God’s Word is being preached. If we are finding the Sunday afternoon or evening meetings dull, or consider them to be unprofitable, the fault is most likely to be with ourselves, rather than the preacher, and certainly not with God’s Word.
‘When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart’ (v. 19).
The words ‘understandeth it not’ in verse 19 do not refer to deficiency in what might have been preached or lack of capacity on the part of the hearer. The subsequent reference to ‘that which was sown in his heart’ shows that what was ministered started a work in the hearer’s heart. Accordingly, not understanding the word in verse 19 refers to a failure to assimilate what was preached due to the hardness of heart pictured by the wayside — something of which we would, no doubt, confess that we can be guilty.
In addition to being powerful (Matt. 12:29), Satan is an active enemy. While our primary conception of his endeavours against believers may be of persecution, with a view to causing them to become weary and faint (Heb. 12:3), or laying temptations before them so as to lead them to stumble, Satan is also ‘wicked’ or malicious in that he does not want them to grow as Christians or enter fully into their spiritual blessings. He knows where and when ministry meetings are taking place, and may be active after they have concluded. If we choose not to comprehend the oral ministry of God’s Word — whether through conscious disinterest or mere indifference — we risk falling prey to his devices in that, after leaving the meeting, he may put something before us which causes the good seed which the Lord has graciously sown to be snatched away, with the result that we miss out on the help which He desired to give us.
‘This is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, but has no root in himself, but is for a time only; and when tribulation or persecution happens on account of the word, he is immediately offended’ (vs. 20–21).
Although the Bible can and should often encourage us, some of the most well-known verses describing its effect (or intended effect) on those who read or hear it emphasise conviction, correction and other matters which speak to the conscience. For example, 2 Timothy 3:16 states that ‘every scripture is divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’. In Hebrews 4:12, God’s Word is described as working so deeply as to be ‘penetrating to the division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’. The purposes of the meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14 include such results (see v. 24).
Just as an unbeliever’s immediate joy upon hearing the gospel and professing to have been saved may suggest that they have not genuinely been convicted by the Word, a purely emotional reaction on our part to its ministry could imply that it has not penetrated the conscience. To adopt the words of 2 Timothy 3:5, there might be ‘a form of piety’ but not the power of the Word. God’s Word generally works in a gradual way as it takes root in us — that is, as we meditate upon what we hear (and read), as pictured in the clean animals which chewed the cud (Lev. 11:1–8; Deut. 14:3–8). The Bible reveals what we are (see James 1:22–24). The initial response to the solemn matter of conviction before God where correction is necessary should be confession and repentance, rather than joy, although the peaceable fruit of righteousness will then follow (see Heb. 12:11). If we are merely moved by what we hear, and not established in it, it is likely that subsequent tribulation or persecution will prove that we did not genuinely have an ear to hear what was preached.
‘This is he who hears the word, and the anxious care of this life, and the deceit of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful’ (v. 22).
This verse may have the most to say to those of us who live in the Western world. The relative prosperity which we enjoy tends not to make it any easier to put verses such as Matthew 6:25–34 into practice. In fact, we can easily wind up following the pattern of the world in being over-occupied with earthly matters. We may also be directly responsible for distracting ourselves from what we have heard following a meeting. For example, following the ‘Amen’ of the closing prayer at the end of a meeting, is one of our first actions to turn on our mobile phones and see what messages we have received during the meeting? Is a work email or a friend’s Instagram post really the most important thing to be looking at after we have been under the ministry of God’s Word? The frustration of dealing with a difficult client or the distraction of somebody’s holiday photo will only hinder its working.
The deceit of riches is a universal danger — whether it is the aspiration after riches, perhaps in the mistaken expectation that they will make everything easier and enable us to do more for the Lord, or the tendency of earthly comforts to divert us from spiritual exercises. Wealth or the desire for it can take over our lives with the sad result that we become unfruitful for God. The Lord says, ‘The life is more than food, and the body than raiment’ (Luke 12:23). 1 Timothy 6:7 puts matters plainly, and in a manner which even unbelievers cannot deny: ‘we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out’. Paul never lost out, in anything which matters, by treating all of the earthly things which were once gain to him as loss (Phil. 3:7). If you want to enjoy the sort of life he did — to ‘gain Christ’ and to ‘know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings’ (vs. 8, 10) — let God’s Word speak to you — and continue to speak even after a meeting has concluded — and do not immediately re-engage in earthly thoughts, occupations or other distractions which may crowd out the good seed and hinder its growth.
‘This is he who hears and understands the word, who bears fruit also, and produces, one a hundred, one sixty, and one thirty’ (v. 23).
In the Old Testament, God expected fruit from Israel, but did not receive it (Isa. 5:1–7). In our own strength, we could also never produce fruit for God. However, in His grace, the Lord has provided what will cause our lives to be fruitful, namely His Word.
If we want to be a good testimony for the Lord but choose not to attend ministry meetings, we will not receive what God has to say to us, and as a result will be less likely to bear fruit. Forsaking the meetings is also disrespectful to the Lord, to His gracious work in the initial sowing of the good seed and to His servants who seek to help His people today.
While the Bible is perfect and, in and of itself, able to make us perfect (2 Tim. 3:16–17), the pattern established by the New Testament is to have regular meetings for the ministry of the Word. The meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14 is especially beneficial as it is an occasion when the Lord can present what is necessary for us (individually and/or collectively) at that particular time.
If we are present when the Word of God is preached, without a heart hardened like the wayside, but ready to consider carefully what He says through His servants and to give His message its proper place in our lives, the result will be fruit for God. The measure of fruit may vary from occasion to occasion, but is that the Lord’s fault?
Finally, to return to verse 19, God’s Word is referred to in this parable as the ‘word of the kingdom’. In addition to fitting with the dispensational perspective of Matthew, there may be a moral lesson in this expression as well. The truth in the New Testament has been given to us by the Lord during the time of His rejection. When it is preached, His desire is that it might lead us to bear fruit by being faithful subjects and a strong testimony to Him as we await His return.