MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 28, 2003 FROM MARK 4:1-20
This morning we continue to examine a biblical truth the importance of which can scarcely be understated. We have been looking into the Scripture and studying some very important texts that speak to the issue of true and false conversion. On a very practical level this study answers at least two questions. The first is, “how can I know if I am a Christian?” and the second is like it “what are the biblical grounds upon which I can have assurance of my salvation?” These are obviously of tremendous importance to anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ and the bible makes clear these are questions we need to revisit occasionally. The bible teaches this need of ours both implicitly and explicitly. We see the bible teaching this implicitly in many places but perhaps most often in the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. It is Jesus who looks into the future judgment and relates the stomach-turning account in Matthew 7:22-23 where he says, “On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty words in your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Here are people who are totally self-deceived about their spiritual condition. They are active in what could be called miraculous ministry and doing it in Jesus’ name, yet when they see Jesus he says, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
This is not the only reference of this type in the teaching of Jesus. A few verses earlier in 7:13 he says, “Enter by the narrow gate, For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” There are several sobering elements about this teaching but among the most bracing is that this teaching is not given to the general secular public, but to people who according to 5:1 are his “disciples.” He is telling people including the 12 and others who were following him that THEY must enter by only the narrow gate. This narrow gate is found by only a few and those who do discover it find the way that leads to life is hard. How different that is from what we see in the evangelical church today. The gospels are replete with this division of the false and the true, the many and the few, those who say and those who do.
Jesus in Matthew 25 teaches about the 10 virgins, five of who were wise and five of who were foolish but both groups were waiting for the bridegroom. Both were in some way looking to the bridegroom, Christ. The foolish ones beg to be let into the bridegroom but are shut out from his presence. They were waiting for Jesus and were shut out. There’s also Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 13 of the wheat and the tares. You’ll recall the tares or the weeds are growing in the midst of the wheat and looking much like the wheat but at the end of the age they are gathered up and thrown into the fiery furnace of hell.
Do you hear how prevalent these distinctions are in the ministry of Jesus? There are also explicit warnings on this topic in texts like 2 Corinthians 13:5 where Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you” unless indeed you fail the test!” This teaching of the bible that it is possible to be entirely self-deceived about your spiritual condition raises many very urgent questions and we began our quest for answers related to this topic in the book of James where he helps us dissect this crucial teaching of Scripture. In 2:14 he says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works” Can that faith save him?” The unavoidable answer to that question is, no—that kind of work-less faith saves no one, which means it is possible to have a faith that may seem very real and vital to you, but in the end it will not save you.
Obedience and faith are very tightly tied together in the New Testament. Jesus speaks of believing and obeying synonymously in John 3:36. There he says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not OBEY the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” We expect Jesus to say, “whoever does not BELIEVE the Son shall not see life.” He substitutes “obey” for “believes.” Two weeks ago, we sought to underscore this truth and clarify it by going to a well known text in John where Nicodemus comes to Jesus and Jesus tells this seeker he must be born again by the Spirit. Nicodemus was one of several of people who believed Jesus’ signs and teachings and in some way believed in him, but John makes it clear these people weren’t yet in the kingdom and Jesus would not entrust himself to them.
From this text we also saw that in order to have this saving faith, a person must first be born again of the Spirit of God. Before faith comes there first must be within a person a miraculous, life-imparting transformation of the heart. You must be born again first and saving faith grows out of that new life in Christ. We saw this explicitly in First John 5:1 where the apostle says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…” The tenses of those verbs in the original language force us to conclude that we must first experience the new birth and from that new spiritual life God has birthed within us, saving faith in Jesus springs forth. Saving faith comes from a work of God, not man.
One text that helps clarify this distinction between a faith that saves and a faith that does not save is John 12:42-43 where John says, “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” That tells us that there were many who believed at one level or another but their non-confessing, man-centered faith was clearly not redemptive. We see the crucial distinction even more clearly in John 8:30-32. In verse 30 we read, “As he [Jesus] was saying these things, many believed in him.” There’s the statement of belief—these were believing people. But in the next verse Jesus says, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and [v.32] you will know the truth and the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Notice Jesus draws a bold line between on the one hand, mentally believing in Him on account of his teaching or his miracles and on the other, those who abide in his word and are therefore his liberated disciples. To abide in the word of Christ is to abide in Christ who, as we were reminded last week is the Word incarnate. In John 15 Jesus, using a different metaphor again speaks of what marks a true disciple of Christ. That is--one who has been born again by the Spirit and whose faith is genuine and saving. He says in verse 8 of John chapter 15, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. True spiritual life is seen in the production of fruit. A dead plant and a living plant may in some cases look similar but there is one thing a dead plant cannot mimic—it cannot produce fruit. It is those who bear fruit that is, those who obey Christ--those who do good, Christ-manifesting works who prove they are disciples of Christ--whose faith is genuine and saving. So, to review—it is possible to have a faith that does not save but be deceived into thinking you are in the kingdom. Those who are truly saved have this saving faith because saving faith grows out of a new heart they receive the new birth. These are true disciples of Christ and true disciples of Christ are fruitful—that is, they obey Christ, doing good works that show they belong to Him.
Now that we have reviewed and have a biblical grid on this issue, let’s turn to our text for this morning, a well-known parable of Christ. This parable is in all three of the synoptic gospels but we will look at Mark’s version of it as he records it in Mark 4:1-20. The word of God says of Jesus, “Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3"Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." 9And he said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven." 13And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14The sower sows the word. 15And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while. Then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold."
First, notice all the seed is good seed because it is the word of God. The lack of fruitfulness is attributable to bad soils, not bad seed. We have every reason to believe that the seed that did not bear fruit on the path would have indeed born fruit if it were placed in good soil. Jesus critiques the soil, not the seed, which he says in verse 14 is the word of God. Don’t miss this! There is no fruit without the word of God. If you are not satisfied with the amount and variety of fruit your life is producing, one of your problems is you are either not getting enough of the word into you or you are allowing some barrier to separate you from the life-changing power of the word of God. The new birth brings about faith and faith brings fruit but the word of God is the catalyst or the means of grace necessary for both faith and fruit or good works to occur. Paul says in Romans 10:14, “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” It is the preaching of the word of God that is the means of grace by which people believe.
The word of God is sewn into the fabric of every element of salvation. People cannot believe without it and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us the God-inspired scripture equips us for every good work. Paul says it is the word of God that equips us for good works. If you want more faith, devour this faith-inducing word. If you are not satisfied with your level of fruit or good works—get equipped for more by diving headlong into this book. Jesus in Mark four tells us the word is the seed that within a healthy spiritual heart produces fruit.
Now, let’s turn and look at this parable of the soils and notice four characteristics of a genuine, believing heart. Jesus tells us the soils represent human hearts in various conditions. He describes four hearts and three of them have within them certain limitations that keep them from being fruit producing, genuine disciples. The fourth heart is a fruit-producing heart because it is absent those limitations. Therefore, we can see what a genuine fruit producing heart looks like by contrasting it with the three hearts that have within them limitations to fruit production. The first characteristic of a fruit producing heart is that a fruit producing heart receives the word and in so doing thwarts Satan from stealing the word. The seed sown on the path never penetrates the heart—the heart is hard toward the word and according to Matthew’s parallel does not understand the word. Jesus says in verse 15, “…Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”
We must hear this text’s implied warning to us about Satan and his mission to steal the word. He knows what we often forget and that is that the word of God is nothing less than miraculous in its power to transform minds and hearts. He fears the impact of the word of God and therefore his best, most effective strategy is to steal it before it can have this transforming effect on people. He steals it from the hearts of individuals, he steals it from cultures, he steals it from education and he works most vigorously of all to steal it from churches. He steals it through his lies. He lies to individuals telling them that they don’t need to study and memorize the bible regularly. He steals it from our culture telling it through his lie disseminators, who communicate that the bible ordains hatred, is contrary to their warped understanding of love and tolerance, and is believed only by narrow-minded people. Sometimes we in the church unwittingly propagate those lies through our ignorance and lack of Christ-like love. He steals the word from the academies by telling the highly educated that the bible is an antiquated product of one ancient near eastern culture, is therefore hopelessly locked in time and hence irrelevant to sophisticated, post-modern, miracle-bashing people like us. And he steals it from churches by telling church leaders that they will be summarily thrown out if they teach those parts of the word that are at that moment most in need of being taught. We must not be ignorant of Satan’s agenda to steal the word. Genuine, fruit producing disciples are those who have received the word into their heart and have therefore prevented Satan from stealing it. We must sincerely take this word to heart when we read it and hear it being taught. Do we come to the word prepared to receive it or do we come with hearts hardened by unconfessed sin and selfish agendas that filter out what we don’t like?
A second characteristic of a fruit producing heart is implied verses 16-17. Jesus says,
“And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while. Then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” This second characteristic of a fruit-producing heart is it has enough depth to endure times of tribulation and persecution brought on by the word. Jesus here points to people who process faith on only one level—emotional. They receive the word-that is, they understand it on some level and they are so happy they are forgiven, that they are going to heaven—that they have a church family, that life will be so much easier for them now that they are saved. They are just thrilled about it. The problem is that this word that they have understood not only promises blessing, it also brings with it tribulation. It brings tribulation because as you live out this word to love God and love others, life can be incredibly hard. Its hard to love people—they will kick you in the teeth at times, but that tribulation comes because the word brings it. Persecution also comes on account of the word because the world and the devil hate this word. And when you begin incarnating this word or hanging out with people who do, you get heat. Tribulation and persecution comes to all who live out the word.
Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Persecution is just as much a mark of a disciple as love is and a person who makes a decision for Christ only because it will produce wonderful, joy-filled blessing soon fall away when the heat is turned up. Genuine fruit-producing disciples do not have at the top of their agendas their own personal happiness. They have a new heart and out of their God-wrought, saving faith they go much deeper—they want to be like Christ and bring honor to him. And so when trials and persecutions come, they count it all joy because they know [Romans 5:3] that “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not put us to shame…” These people’s hearts have enough spiritual depth that they take the persecution that comes with the word as part of the cost of following Christ. They say with Paul they want to know the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings because they love Him and if some parts of fellowship with him can only be experienced in suffering, they say, “bring it on.”
A third characteristic of a fruit producing heart is implied in Mark 4:18-19 where Jesus says, “And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” Fruit producing hearts like those that belong to true disciples do not allow the things of this world to choke off their love for Christ. Jesus says in Matthew 6:24 "No one can serve two masters, for 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 God and money. There are two kingdoms and two masters and you cannot at one and the same time serve both. They are mutually exclusive to one another and Jesus gives three ways the influence of the word is choked off by sinful allegiance to this world. The “cares of this world” are the worries and anxieties of this world. Jesus here implicitly warns us that if we are regularly worrying about things that are native to this world, the word’s influence on our lives is being choked off. There are some people in the church who would die before they would commit sexual sin or steal anything, but their hearts are super-glued to this world because they worry about the things in this world—time, things, and people. What gets makes their hearts most anxious are not the things of heaven, but the things of earth.
Second, people’s hearts are choked by “the deceitfulness of riches.” As we mentioned repeatedly during the capital campaign, the riches of this world are potentially lethal to us spiritually if we allow them to compete with our love for Christ. And Jesus here notes that this particular spiritually strangling quality of this world is uniquely dangerous because it is “deceitful.” By that he means that material riches will snake up around your spiritual windpipe very slowly and ever so gradually squeeze off the influence of the word in your life. They will do it under cover—deceitfully until the influence of the word is gone in you except for your evangelical jargon and the most superficial of habits like going to church. The word’s influence is dead, choked off by the idolatrous love for things and money.
Those whose hearts are fruit-producing know the dangers of this area and shield themselves against it by giving more and more of their worldly treasure away, piling up a heavenly investment they can place at the feet of Jesus who is their unrivalled and greatest treasure. The third word choker is “the desire for other things.” The word for desire is also translated “lusts.” There are other things this world has to offer beyond money that can choke off the word. The desire for stature, position, reputation and admiration are also word-stifling, worldly rivals to Christ whose Name ALONE we should be concerned about. Those non-material things can also choke off the word and if you find yourself drawn to those, realize that they are a dangerous as material wealth in their capacity to cause us to fall away and live defensively toward them.
A final characteristic of a fruit producing heart is it will bear much fruit. Jesus says in 4:20, “But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” It is tempting to get hung up on the fact that some seed produces more than other seed and miss the bigger truth. That is, for a seed to produce even 30 fold is an awesome display of fruitfulness. Think about it. Who here wouldn’t like to see their financial investments increase 30 fold? That’s a 3000 percent return if my math is correct. The point is that the good soil is not just fruit producing; it is even at its smallest yield, enormously fruitful. This only makes sense when you understand that this is a person who has the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity living within them. Their lives will be full of the fruit of the Spirit, their God-called, God-directed ministries will be teaming with fruit and they will be spreading the aroma of Christ around so that the fruit of other converts will either directly or indirectly flow from their lives. There will be good evidence of Christ’s work in their lives. It’s not just that they will be absent the limitations to fruit production, but they will bear much fruit.
True disciples produce fruit. How about you? Do you receive the word with sincere and open hearts or is your heart hardened by unrepentant sin, a lack of forgiveness or spiritual pride that causes you to think you already know most of what you need to know to be a good disciple of Christ? How deep is your love for Christ? The presence of the word brings tribulation and persecution? Is it doing that in your life? Do you undergo persecution on account of the word of God? And if you do, how do you respond to it? What is your heart’s relationship to the things of this world? Are you anxious about things that won’t matter one whit the moment your heart stops? Repent of this word-choking anxiety and come to Jesus and find rest for your souls. Is the material wealth of this world influencing the decisions you make more than your love for Christ? If so, know this—they have wound their way around your heart and will choke off any fruit you can have for Christ. Is your life producing 30 or 60 or 100 fold? Jesus says that is what happens in the good soil of a good heart. If your life isn’t very fruitful, spend some time before the throne and find out why this is. The problem isn’t with the seed of God’s word, it’s with our hearts.
If you see much fruit coming from your life, praise God—the word is doing its thing in your life. Be thankful that God’s word is doing what it does and seek to even more immerse yourself in it so that your faith can be strengthened and you may be equipped for even more good works for the glory of God. May God give us much grace to produce much fruit for Christ.
Page last modified on 1/12/2004
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