How do you sway people to a new perspective in an age when we tolerate every perspective? When every point-of-view and idea is said to have equal value and weight, what can the church do to continue to present the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as the most important fact in history and Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father?
There’s one approach that says, “Just work harder. We gotta get the message out there. If every minute isn’t spent doing something for the kingdom, then you’re not spiritual and might not even be a Christian.”
The opposite approach isn’t to throw your hands up and ask who cares but to say, “God has decided who is saved and so there’s nothing for me to do. God will sort everyone out at the last day.” But that almost sees God as writing a tragedy and disregards clear command to make disciples.
There’s no debate that the insistence on tolerance in our culture has made evangelism difficult. Not only do we as individuals have to know the Bible, but we have to think about presentation. Are we being too soft? Are we going too hard? Do we know enough about who we’re talking to to get through to them?
How does the church make sense of all that the Bible teaches about presenting the gospel to the world? Do we work harder? Do we give up? Well, if the gospel is the good news about what God has done and not what we do, then the way we present that good news should be in line with that foundational truth.
Salvation is not based on my power to persuade but in God’s promise to save.
We’re reading today from Mark 4 where Jesus tells several parables, all of which have to do with the mystery of what happens when a seed is planted in the ground. Each of the three parables reflect on sowing, growth, and a harvest way more grand than what was to be expected. And in general, all the parables that Jesus told, in whichever gospel we find them, are ultimately centered on the kingdom of God.
So when a parable comes up about planting a seed and watching it grow, we connect it to the person and work of Jesus, who has brought the kingdom of God to earth. The very presence of Jesus and the good news of what he’s accomplished is the seed that is planted and which will eventually bring about a harvest in the age to come, when every eye will see him and every knee will bow.
Since we’ll be looking at several parables today, we need to be clear on what a parable is. A parable teaches truth through concrete pictures instead of long, wordy essays. It doesn’t focus on the abstract; it stays grounded. But by using a common, everyday kind of experience to teach about the kingdom of God, Jesus was able to actually hide the truth from those who had no interest in hearing it. Why do you think Jesus pulled his disciples aside to explain the parable of the sower? Because it wasn’t for the crowds; it was for the disciples. After the parable of the sower, Jesus tells his disciples,
“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.’” (Mk. 4:11-12)
A parable stretches your thinking. You can take it at face value and miss the point, or you can ruminate on it, read it through the whole of Scripture, and let it show you something about the kingdom of God.
In the first and longest parable, the parable of the sower, Jesus explains that this parable is key to understanding all of the rest. If you don’t know who sows the seed, what the seed is, and who’s in charge of the harvest, you’ll come to all sorts of conclusions about salvation and the kingdom of God that don’t come from the Bible.
Jesus had no problem teaching the crowds, but he did expect them to listen to him and put in some effort to understand what he said. By calling them to listen, he urges them to pay close attention and go beyond a superficial answer. He demands a response.
In this parable, it’s often assumed that the sower is the lone Christian and the seed is the gospel. But as Jesus tells the parable, we are not to think that the sower is careless in where he scatters the seed. Is he wasting his efforts by scattering seed where there are thorns and rocks? Of course not! No farmer wastes anything. He scatters intentionally.
When people walk along the path, thorns and weeds might get squashed, but they’re still there. And they choke the good seed. And like all weeds and thorns, they don’t need much, if anything, to grow, and they will choke the life out of what you want to grow. And when he scattered seed on the rocky soil, he’s not being careless there, either. The rocks are beneath the soil which aren’t obvious. The farmer is intentional in everything he does.
When the kingdom of God, in the person of Christ, came into the world, it was not without its obstacles. Jesus was betrayed by a disciple, the religious leaders plotted his murder, he died an agonizing death. But those obstacles are offset by an enormous harvest. The kingdom was not hampered one bit. With the kind of harvest mentioned here, 30-, 60-, and 100-fold, how can you even consider the seed that fell on the path, thorns, and rocks waste at all?
With such an impressive harvest, the point can hardly be that some seed fell in some bad areas. The point of the parable is this: The coming kingdom of God will be more glorious than any obstacle it faces now. God is planting seeds right now which will result in the fullness of an unimaginable harvest later.
When Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, he says as much. The word is sown, like a seed, everywhere. But some will hear it and have it taken away by Satan. Satan is the accuser. And there will be those who stand accused of their sin and find no mediator, no substitute, no savior, in Christ. They are those who reject Christ flat-out.
The rocky soil are those who think that Jesus can do a lot for them, maybe they really enjoy being with other Christians, but otherwise they never put down any roots in the faith. They don’t know what they believe or why. And just like a plant with no roots, as long as the weather is fair, there won’t be a lot of problems. But as soon as water gets scarce or a storm comes, as soon as Christians begin to be mocked for their faith or are forced to take an unpopular position culturally, they fall away. They default to being in the majority.
The thorny soil are those who hear the gospel of Jesus but aren’t wiling to die to themselves. Their identity comes from others’ opinions of themselves, from the comfort that money affords, or from the general ease of life that comes along with going wherever the wind takes you. And suddenly, the gospel is asking too much of you.
But be assured that the seed will bear fruit. There might be soils that aren’t conducive for farming, but when the seed falls on good soil, there is no holding it back. The return on investment can only be thought of as divine.
Throughout the Old Testament, the harvest is always thought of as something that takes place at the end of the age, when the new creation breaks in and does away with the old. In the book of Revelation, and angel with a sickle comes and harvests the earth. In Joel 3:13, we read, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” And here we’re given the assurance that no matter the appearance of things right now, when that takes place, those who receive the word and bear fruit will be ushered in to the kingdom of God as sure as a seed bears fruit when planted in good soil.
And when explaining this parable, Jesus also says that a lamp is not meant to be hidden. Why do you turn on a light when you enter a room? So you can see what you need to. It only makes sense that Jesus is himself the lamp that has been lit and has been preached to the whole world. Jesus is insisting that the point of the parable is the revelation of the kingdom of God, both now and at the end of the age. The seed is sown and grows into an unimaginable harvest that far outpaced the normal growth of seed, and there will be a revealing of Christ’s glory and majesty that, even though it might not seem like a normal, man-made kingdom that we expect, will be greater than we might ever expect, and it will be eternal.
And because the future revealing of the kingdom then will be the deciding factor in the eternal state of everyone who’s ever lived, understanding the point of these parables is critical today. Depending on the reception of the seed that is sown, depending on the response to the person and work of Christ, you have a corresponding share in his kingdom. Those who respond with joy and obedience will receive a greater share in the harvest than they expected. Those who respond with coldness or just continue living as if it’s not the ultimate reality or that they will deal with their sin on their own will receive less than they think they deserve. What you receive in the coming kingdom of God depends on whether you are living in the kingdom of God today.
In his next parable about the kingdom of God, Jesus teaches about the inherent power of the kingdom. If you called that parable the parable of the sower, you’d call this parable the parable of the seed. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Now the focus is on the power of the seed that gets released as it is scattered. When a farmer sows the seed in the ground, plenty of time passes between the sowing and the first signs of growth. And then even more time passes between the first signs of growth and the final state. Christ might return at any moment, but that any moment might way farther away in time than any of us think. But regardless of the time in-between sowing and harvest, the power is still at work. It is not an insignificant period of time.
And what does this farmer do after sowing the seed in the ground? Does he work himself ragged and live a life riddled with anxiety about his seed? Does he dig the seed back up to check on it and replant it? Of course not. He goes to bed. He wakes up. He goes to bed. He wakes up. The ability of the seed to grow depends not one iota on the work and anxiety of the farmer.
The farmer knows that he must sow the seed in the sowing season, but when it comes to how the seed grows, “he knows not how.” Friends, we need to understand that the power to bring about regeneration resides not in our power to persuade but it God’s promise to save. If we live our lives thinking that it’s up to us, that if we say the wrong thing, that if we have a moment of fear and hesitation, and if we have obstacles to talking to people, then they’re doomed forever, then we have an unbiblical view of evangelism. A lot of modern evangelism books and popular thoughts sound like customer retention manuals rather than the revealed, totally-sufficient word of God.
When you read the book of Acts and learn about how the gospel spread, it took place by Christians bringing people into their homes and hosting a Bible study. An apostle would go to a place, preach for a time, move on, and leave the church in the hands of the elders and the congregations. There were no church buildings. Before Christians had buildings to gather in regularly, they met in homes or in public. There were no sanctuaries, no programs, and no seminaries. Christian homes were the sanctuaries, programs, and seminaries. The first Christians knew the gospel that they believed well enough to preach it to people in their spheres of influence. And because of that, the church exploded. Now, are sanctuaries, programs, and seminaries bad? Not at all. But they are secondary to the simple, scalable preaching of the gospel. The power is in the gospel message about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, not any one thing the church does, however much it supports that message.
Because who harvests the ripe grain at the right time? The same one who sowed it. It is God who sows, and it is God who harvests. It will take place at the perfect time. The seed follows its appointed course by the one who sowed it. The harvest is certain, regardless of the time it takes for the seed to grow and become ripe. The harvest is certain because of the power in the seed itself. The harvest is irresistible. It is certain. And it is coming.
Jesus tells another parable like the first two. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus here focuses our attention to the contrast between the size of the seed and the size of the shrub or the tree. There’s no time spent talking about the growth. It just happens, again, by the power built in to the seed. Jesus says the kingdom is like what happens to the mustard seed. It seems to have an insignificant beginning, but when it is full-grown, there is more than enough strength in its branches to provide and protect all of those who find themselves there. It is nourishing. It is comforting.
The day will come when the glory of the kingdom of God will finally and fully be the undoing of every other kingdom that stands against it. That began in the ministry of Christ and the apostles, and it will conclude when Christ comes again.
These parables have remarkably little to say about the actual casting of the seed. That’s not to say it’s not important, but Jesus is emphatic that the power lies in the seed itself—the gospel. That means you should do what you can to present the gospel message to those in your circles, but the paradigm shift for many of us is if our definition of evangelism is rooted in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” or the Bible.
Jesus can simultaneously command us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18) and leave the harvest in the sovereign hands of God. The best way that you as an individual, day to day, can make disciples of all nations is to be faithful where you are and be clear about the gospel you profess to believe. Pray for those you have the ability to influence. If God has placed you in your family, in your workplace, in your community, then he has also placed the Holy Spirit in you to present the gospel there. So what does it mean to share the gospel and trust God for the harvest?
Simply share the simple gospel, not just your testimony. The gospel is what God has already accomplished. When you read the presentations of the gospel throughout Scripture, one of the key themes that comes up nearly every single time is the history of God working among his people. Stephen, in Acts 7, does just that. He summarizes the Old Testament in a single chapter. So you don’t need to have an exhaustive knowledge of every Israelite king or exact dates, but can you present Jesus Christ as the culmination of everything that God has done to redeem his people?
We also don’t need to pressure people into saying they made a decision that they didn’t actually make. Emotion is not evangelism. Faith and repentance come from God, not emotional frenzy. One sign of true Christian experience is reverence for the things of God, not bouncing off the walls. If you have to froth someone up to get a response, then they will have a short-lived experience, as promised in the seed sown on the path.
Don’t evangelize like it depends only on you and on this single moment. Evangelize like God sows the seed and the harvest will be greater than you can imagine. The apostle John tells us in Revelation 7:9-10, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
The sovereignty of God in salvation is a doctrine worth dying for, because the only other alternative is that it’s up to me and you. Christ is the good shepherd. We’re his sheep. He was the one who was pierced for our transgressions, the one who bought with his blood people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people, and he bore our sins on the tree.
The sovereignty of God in salvation is also a massive comfort to believers. Salvation is not only possible; it is decided. It is finished. It is a reason to fall to our knees and worship. Untold numbers of believers from the whole world, from all ages and places, will worship God for their salvation. Because it is him and him alone who works salvation for his people. We go into the world to make disciples, without qualification, but we do so knowing that the harvest is coming, and the one bringing about the harvest has all the power do to so.