"How to Be Good Ground"
Mark 4:3-9, 14-20
(Delivered Sunday, March 15, 2009 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Please turn with me to the very beginning of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. There's a scene described there that many of us have often pictured in our minds:
Just imagine what it must have been like to have been among that crowd. It was so great a multitude that, if the Lord Jesus had sought to teach from within the midst of it, He wouldn't have been heard. Too many people were pressed-in around Him. But He had wonderful things that He wanted them to hear; and so, He got into a boat, pushed off from the shore, and taught the people "many things by parables" from the sea. All those who sat along the shore could hear Jesus, the Master Teacher. I suspect that none of them would have ever forgotten the things they heard from Him that day.
And among the unforgettable things He taught them was this parable:
Jesus often taught people through things that were very familiar to them. And here would have been something that they saw often: a man—perhaps a farmer—walking along, occasionally reaching his hand into a sack of seeds that hung from his side, and randomly casting those seeds out into his field.
Now; even though the people loved to hear the parables that Jesus taught, they didn't always understand what it was that He was saying to them. I suspect that, sometimes, folks actually walked away scratching their heads. But His disciples did what you and I should always do: They went to Him privately—which in our case would be through prayer—and asked Him to help them understand. The twelve disciples did this; and it's then that we discover—to our amazement—that He didn't really intend for everyone to understand. He actually meant for His words to fall like the seeds in His parable—seeds that were all scattered broadly, but only some of which took root.
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Now; very often, when we read this parable, we think of it in terms of the task that the Lord has given us of spreading His gospel in this world. We often think of the different kinds of people there are who hear the word of God—and the different kinds of responses they give to it. Some people barely get a chance to hear the word before the devil comes and snatches it away from them. With others, the word seems to fall on stony ground where it doesn't go in very deep. With others still, the word seems to take root for a little while, but then gets chocked out by the things of this world. And with a few, it produces fruit.
But have you ever thought of turning this parable around in the other direction? Have you ever thought of allowing Jesus' parable to teach you and me how we can best be on the receiving end of the ongoing ministry of God's word?
Stop and think about how many times you and I hear from God's word in the course of our lives. If you attend church regularly, you hear 52 expositions of the Scriptures over the course of the year. And you hear even more of them if you attend one of the Sunday School classes or the mid-week Bible study groups. I trust that you also spend some alone-time in the Bible often—sitting, as it were, at the feet of Jesus and allowing yourself to be taught by Him from His word in a personal way. And then, of course, there are the books you read that teach from the Scripture, and the Bible-teaching programs on the radio or television, and all the portions of Scripture we might hear on CD or on our media-players. I would imagine that each family here has a surprising number of copies of the Bible at home—along with all the concordances and maps and Bible study tools that help make the meaning of God's word clear.
When you think of it, you and I are truly blessed with an abundance of God's word sown our way! But have you given thought to how we personally receive it all? When it falls on us, what kind of soil does it fall on to? How might you and I receive it to the very best benefit in our lives? What kind of habits do we need to have in receiving God's word so that it bears the fruit in our lives that God wants it to bear?
I believe that we find some of those habits revealed to us in our Lord's parable. And if we heed what the Lord tells us in it, we will learn to receive the word of God in such a way as to see it produce abundant fruit in us—"some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred".
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Now let's begin by affirming a few things. First, let's recognize that the heavenly Father desires to see good fruit borne in our lives. In fact, He desires to see much fruit. He wants to see His word spring up in us, increase, and produce thirtyfold, or sixtyfold, or even a hundredfold. Jesus once said, "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples" (John 15:8).
Some people think that simply believing on Jesus and being forgiven of their sins is all that is really important. And of course, that is important. But it's not God's desire that things stop there. He wants us to grow and bring glory to Him. The Father wants our new lives in Christ to give clear evidence that He exists and is active in this world. And that happens when "much fruit" is produced in us. It's in this way that Jesus says that we glorify the Father, and prove that we truly are His disciples.
This is very important to keep that in mind. If we do so, we'll never become content with the idea of God's word simply being sown upon us without anything else happening as a result. We will learn to expect "fruit", because it's the natural course of things as true followers of Jesus that such fruit be produced.
But another thing I suggest that we need to keep in mind is that it's not we who produce that fruit in our lives. It's God Himself who produces that fruit through His word.
The Bible teaches us much about the power of God's word to produce His fruit in us. Think of the first three verses of Psalm 1 for example;
Or think of the promise of God concerning His word in Isaiah 55:10-11;
And so, if it's God's design that we bear much fruit for His glory in our lives, and if it's God Himself—working through His word—that produces that fruit in us, then it's crucial that we take care how we receive the word that He 'sows' in us! And when it comes to those of us who have already been brought into His kingdom by faith, there are some important spiritual 'habits', expressed in this parable, that teach us how we are to continue to receive God's word for the greatest possible fruitfulness in our lives.
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Let's look again at the Lord's parable. Only one type soil was called "good ground"; and that “good ground” alone was the one that produced fruit. And if we look back at the other three types of soil in the Lord's parable, I believe we can see what it is that would make us good and fruitful recipients of His word.
The first thing I suggest that we see is that good ground . . .
1. DOESN'T PERMIT GOD'S WORD TO BE STOLEN AWAY BY THE ENEMY.
In His parable, our Lord said that as the sower sowed seed, "some seed fell by the wayside". It didn't fall on the places of ground that had been prepared for seed. Rather, it fell along the pathways; "and the birds of the air came and devoured it" (v. 4)—where it was exposed and unprotected and, you might say, 'easy-pickins'. And Jesus then explains that "these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts" (v. 15).
This is describing the work of the devil with respect to the spread of the gospel. When someone hears the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done—before they have a chance to understand it or believe it—the enemy quickly comes to snatch it away. It may be that he sends one of his representatives along to mock and make-fun of the message of the gospel. Or it may be that he seeks to confuse the pure message of the gospel with ungodly philosophies or popular cultural opinions. Or it may even be that he quickly places a favorite sin before the hearer to distract them from the message that would save them.
But I suggest, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that the devil will seek to do the same with you or me even after we have believed! If he cannot keep us from being saved by the word of truth, then he will do all he can to keep it from becoming fruitful in our lives.
I saw an example of this on television just the other day. I turned on the public television channel and listened to a discussion of the Book of Genesis. The scholar who was speaking on the first book of the Bible was analyzing it from the standpoint of this philosopher and that philosopher; but she was in no respect treating it as if it were God's word. She made it very clear that, to her mind, great harm is done whenever people treat the Bible as if it were true. She argued that only a very uneducated and closed-minded person would take it as if it were teaching something historical and literal. And as I watched this discussion, I wondered what the effect all of this would be on someone who had just placed their trust in Jesus. Wouldn't they come away very doubtful about God's word? Wouldn't they come away confused by it all? Wouldn't they wonder if they had made a mistake listening to the Bible at all? And as I thought back on this passage we're studying this morning, I realized that I was—right then—watching the devil working to snatch the word of God away from someone who might believe and be saved by it!
I believe that's one of the strongest ways that the devil seeks to snatch God's word away from new believers—by persuading them to doubt its integrity and authority. As I thought of this, I thought of the story of Billy Graham; and of his own crisis of faith very early in his ministry.
He was working for Youth for Christ with his friend and colleague Charles Templeton. But Charles had begun to doubt the integrity of the Bible. He came to the conviction that it was foolish to believe in the authority of the Bible in a modern and enlightened age. And soon, he was seeking to persuade his friend Billy to join him in those doubts. He'd challenge Billy's simple faith in the Bible and show him alleged contradictions in the Scripture. "Poor Billy;" Charles said; "If he goes on the way he's going he'll never do anything for God. He'll be circumscribed to a small little narrow interpretation of the Bible, and his ministry will be curtailed. As for me, I'm taking a different road."
This tormented Billy deeply. Charles' doubts bothered him; and he wondered how he himself could expect to preach a gospel about which he himself had no certainty. Finally, at a Bible conference after supper one night, Billy went off by himself to his cabin and read what the Bible said about its own authority. He read of how the Lord Jesus Himself loved and quoted from the Scriptures—and never once indicated that He thought they might be erroneous in what they said. And then, Billy went out into the forest with his Bible, placed it on a stump in the moonlight, knelt down and said, "Oh, God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this Book by faith as the Word of God."1
Billy Graham made a conscious decision that night not to doubt God's word any longer. And within a month or so of that resolve, he conducted the now-famous Los Angeles Crusade that launched him into national attention. And within a year, the New York Times had called him "America's greatest living evangelist".
Dr. Graham would not allow the seed of God's word to be snatched away from him by the enemy—even if the enemy was speaking to him through a dear friend and colleague. And wouldn't you say that the fruitfulness of God's word in Billy Graham's life speaks for itself even today?
That's one of the characteristics of good and fruitful "soil". It keeps the word that was sown, and doesn't permit it to be snatched away by the enemy.
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I believe that another characteristic we can draw from our Lord's parable is that "good ground" . . .
2. ALLOWS GOD'S WORD ENOUGH TIME TO TAKE ROOT AND GROW DEEP.
Jesus said, "Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth: and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth" (v. 5). I would imagine that a sower might be a bit excited about the sight of some of the sprouts popping up out of the ground. "But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away" (v. 6). Jesus then goes on to explain; "These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble" (vv. 16-17).
Do you notice how often our Lord uses the word "immediately" with respect to this second soil? The seed sprouts in the stony ground "immediately". And similarly, some people "immediately" receive God's word with joy. But as "immediately" as they rejoice at hearing it, they just as "immediately" become offended at it when they must suffer tribulation or persecution because of it. And this repetition of the word "immediately" suggests a "superficiality" with respect to the gospel. It suggests that the word had not been given time to get in to their thinking in a deep way; or for it to transform their life practices and habits.
And I suggest that the same is true, dear brothers and sisters, for those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus. Our own treatment of God's word can be superficial and "immediate" as well. But when the tribulations of life or persecutions arise because of our faith—trials that are designed by God to help us grow to put His word into action in our lives—we stumble instead. The word doesn't bear fruit through us because we haven't allowed it sufficient time to grow deep in us.
It's very important, then, for us to allow God's word to sink in deeply into our souls. We need to mediate on it, analyze it, memorize it, and seek diligently to put it into action in our daily experience. I think here of what James wrote in his letter;
This, then, is another characteristic of good soil. It not only retains and protects the word of God that was sown; but it also allows that word to go down deep—much deeper than just a superficial experience of "joy" at having received it. Someone who bears much fruit in their lives from God's word allows it to become so established in them that it isn't 'scorched away' by the trials and troubles of life. Instead, it becomes that which sustains them through those trials.
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There's one more thing. I believe that Jesus' parable can teach us that good, fruit-bearing ground . . .
3. KEEPS GOD'S WORD FROM BEING CHOKED OUT
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