The seed and the soils: Jesus’ kingdom parables. Mark 4:1-9; 14-20

We’re back in the gospel of Mark today, in chapter 4, looking at the parable of the seed and the soils, sometimes called the parable of the sower. Chapter 4 is one long teaching by Jesus centered on parables. And this teaching is a response to the rejection Jesus has just experienced from various Jewish leaders and even his family.

Such rejection raises the question, ‘Why have so many not believed in Jesus and his message of the kingdom?’ The teaching today helps explain this, and it gives a message to his disciples as well, which we will need to pay attention to.

We’ll be looking at the parable in vs. 1-9 and the interpretation Jesus gives in vs. 14-20 to his disciples in private.

Introduction

1Again 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. . .

So once again there’s a large crowd gathered around Jesus. And it says he was teaching them many things in parables. Parables have to do with comparing two things to make a point.

3“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.

So we have a farming image, that, as we will see makes a point about the kingdom of God. These are the two things being compared.

From Jesus’ explanation to his disciples we learn that –

14The sower sows the word.

Jesus is talking about the good news of the kingdom of God that he’s sharing with everyone (1:15).

And then we come to the focus of the parable –

The four soils

The sower and the seed are all the same, but the seed lands on different kinds of soil. And these different kinds of soil represent different people in different spiritual conditions.

The first soil is that of the path.

4And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.

Jesus is here talking about ground that is a walking trail next to, or through a field. So the soil is packed down and hard. The seed can’t get into the dirt. It lays on top of the ground and so the birds eventually eat it.

And then we have Jesus’ interpretation in v. 15 –

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.

These people hear the words of the gospel but they don’t sink down into their minds or hearts. Their hearts are hardened. They might be religious, but they aren’t open to hearing God’s word concerning the kingdom. The result is that Satan takes away the seed.

So here there’s no germination of they seed. These people dismiss and reject the message Jesus brings.

And then we have the rocky ground.

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.

The idea seems to be some dirt laying on top of a large rock in the ground. The seed can germinate quickly because it doesn’t have a lot of dirt to break through. But it can’t sustain itself because the soil is not deep enough for roots. When the sun comes out it withers away.

Next we look at Jesus’ interpretation starting in v. 16 –

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.

These hearers receive the message, but it doesn’t go deep into their lives; it doesn’t become firmly rooted in their heart. And so when things get difficult they fall away from the faith.

So here there’s genuine faith and there’s germination and life, but only for a short time.

And then we have the thorny soil.

7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.

This soil is productive because the seed grows. But there are other seeds or plants in the soil that grow to choke out the good seed so that there’s no fruit.

Then we have Jesus’ interpretation –

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.

These people believe and grow for a time, but other concerns and pursuits “enter in” to their lives. They focus on worldly worries, trying to get more wealth and don’t have a single minded focus on the kingdom of God. These are the thorns.

The result is that the new life of the gospel in their lives is killed off and no fruit is produced. So here there’s real faith, there’s germination and life, but it dies before the time of harvest.

Notice the progression here – from no germination, to a sprout that quickly dies, to a growing plant that eventually withers away. Only the last soil actually bears fruit.

So let’s look at the good soil.

8And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

Notice how the seeds here finish the process –

  • they germinate, unlike the hardened soil of the path
  • they continue to grow, unlike the shallow soil
  • and they bring forth a harvest, unlike the thorny soil.

And then we have Jesus’ interpretation –

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.

These hearers fully accept the message of the gospel.

  • In contrast to the soil of the path, their hearts are not hard to God’s word. They receive it.
  • In contrast to the shallow soil, the word goes deep into their lives. It is nurtured through attention and study. It is firmly rooted.
  • In contrast to the thorny soil, they stay focused on the kingdom and not the things of the world: getting caught up in maintaining our earthly lives with all the busyness and going in all directions at once that this involves; seeking security and comfort in getting more and more wealth; and pursuing entertainment and leisure.

These people get it and mature as disciples of Jesus and are blessed in the fullness of the kingdom.

Notice the description of a bountiful harvest – “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” So even though ¾ of the total seed sowed bears no fruit, here the harvest is abundant. Even though so many don’t respond to Jesus, the harvest on the final day will still be great.

This leads us to the question we began with –

Why have so many not believed?

 The sower is the same, Jesus. The seed is the same, the good news of the kingdom of God. What’s different is the kind of soils that the seed lands on; the spiritual condition of people who hear the gospel.

Jesus is teaching us here that God is not forcing people to receive his kingdom. He allows us all to choose to receive it or not. And so many, if not most, will reject it. And specifically with regard to the Jewish leaders rejecting Jesus, the explanation is hardness of heart. The seed of the good news fell on the hardened path in their case. (See Mark 3:5)

And then we come to –

Jesus’ message to us

Beyond an initial reception of the gospel, which his disciples and we have done, that is weren’t not hard hearted toward the gospel, we must continue to overcome obstacles that stand in our way. What are the two enemies of disciples identified in this parable?

1) Living a shallow Christian life so that when testing comes we fall away.

2) Being focused on this life and not the kingdom of God.

And Jesus really wants us to get this message because he begins his parable by saying, “Listen” and he ends it by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Are you listening this morning?

Honoring God’s Name

Today I would like to share with you on the topic of honoring God’s name, specifically how we use God’s name in our speech. And this, of course, leads us to the third of the ten commandments.

Exodus 20:7 – “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Also Deuteronomy 5:11)

This is the English Standard Version and is a fairly traditional rendering. The New Living Translation says, “You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.”

Now, we all know this verse, but let’s look at each part carefully so that we know what it teaches. First, we have the phrase –

Take . . . in vain

What does this mean?

  • “take” – means to lift up, utter, pronounce
  • “in vain” – means in a deceitful, empty, worthless or insincere way

As we saw, some newer translations put these words together and simply say “do not misuse the name.” The idea is don’t use the Name in a deceitful, empty, worthless or insincere way.

Now let’s look at –

God’s Name

God’s personal name is spelled YHWH. This is found over 6,000 times in Old Testament. In our translations this word shows up when you see “LORD” or “GOD” in all capital letters.

In the ancient world Hebrew writing didn’t have vowels, they were only added in when the words were spoken. And since the Name was eventually deemed too holy to speak (in part with regard to the 3rd commandment) its pronunciation was actually forgotten among Jews. So we just have the consonants – YHWH.

A little history here. When Jews read the Bible, they would say “Lord” or sometimes “God” in place of the divine Name in order to avoid saying it. Later, when vowel marks were added to the Hebrew Bible (ninth century), the vowels of the Hebrew word “Lord” or Adonai were put with the divine Name, as a cue to say “Lord.” This is where the word “Jehovah” comes from. When you put the consonants YHWH plus the vowel sounds of “Lord” together, you get “Jehovah.” But it wasn’t until, perhaps as late as the 1500’s in Europe, that people starting reading this as a real word, even though it was not. Now, of course, we have made it a real name or reference for God.

YaHWeH” seems to be the best pronunciation or the best way to add in the vowels. This is based on some early Christian texts that have vowels with the divine Name, the pronunciation of Samaritan priests who have pronounced the Name throughout the centuries, and archaeological finds with inscriptions that spell out the divine Name.

Well, it’s this personal name of God that is focused on in the 3rd commandment. It says, literally, “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

In New Testament times, Yahweh wasn’t used. But the concerns of this command are applied to other references to God:

  • In Romans 2:24 when Paul refers to God’s name being blasphemed, he applies the concern of the third commandment, not to misuse the Name,  to the word “God.” (Theos in Greek)
  • In Matthew 6:9, when Jesus calls God, “Father” and then prays, “Hallowed be your Name,” he applies the concern of the third commandment, to honor God’s name,  to the word “Father.”

So, the scope of the command covers all our references to God“God,” “Lord,” “Father” and certainly also to “Jesus,” “Christ” and “Spirit.” However we name God, that’s what’s covered by this command.

Now let’s look at –

Wrong uses of God’s Name

First, it should be noted that we can dishonor God’s name without ever saying anything. That’s because we bear God’s name as God’s people and we bear the name of Christ, as Christians. So when we don’t live up to this in our actions, when we sin, we dishonor and thus misuse God’s name (Romans 2:23-24). But we’ll keep to our focus and look at wrongful uses of God’s name with regard to our speech.

1. Swearing falsely. The basic idea here is that if you invoke God’s name in an oath and then, for instance, don’t tell the truth, you have misused God’s name. You use the name to give the appearance of telling the truth, but it is really being used as a cover for a lie.

Leviticus 19:12 makes the connection between swearing oaths and the third commandment. It says, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.” Swearing falsely profanes the Name.

2. Use of God’s name in profanity. You know how it works, adding the word “damn” to God’s name in anger or saying “Jesus” and/or “Christ” in anger. This is using God’s name to vent our anger or to try to be vulgar or to curse others or to get attention. We treat God’s name as a plaything that is at our disposal. We use God’s name for effect. This is not what God’s name is for.

3. Use of God’s Name to justify our ideas or actions. In Scripture this shows up when people speak in the name of God, for instance prophets, but are really only saying their own thoughts (Jeremiah 14:14; Ezekiel 22:28)

Today we have similar ways of doing this. For instance, politicians, who wrap themselves in “God language” in order to gain legitimacy for their ideas and agendas. And, has there ever been a war that wasn’t warranted by reference to God? And that, paradoxically, on both sides? These are examples of using God’s name to justify our actions, much or all of which have nothing to do with God.

We too need to be careful when we use God’s name to justify our actions. For instance, “I feel like God wants me to quit this job” – when really we just want to quit and don’t want to give the real reason. Or when we say, “God wanted me to tell you such and such . . ..” Well, if he didn’t, you have misused God’s name. You are using it to give more weight to what you have to say, when God doesn’t have anything to do with it.

4. Careless use of the Name. This is where we treat the Name as common, or use it in a casual way. This is, perhaps, where we have the most work to do. For instance everyday exclamations – “God knows!” or “O My God!” (texting OMG) or “For God’s sake.” These phrases may have all begun as real references to God, but that’s not how we use them. In these and in similar examples, what we are doing is trivializing God’s name into a kind of verbal punctuation mark for our conversations. This isn’t what God’s name is for!

Another example would be using God and God’s Name in humor. There may be differences of opinion on this, but it’s my counsel to you that it’s just best to stay away from this. We live in a very casual, informal culture and I am fine with that, but we still need to show deference to God. We need to treat God differently. I would encourage you to leave God out of your humor.

Well, we need to be careful with how we use God’s Name, especially as we look at –

Why this is so serious

A name in the Bible is connected to who you are. It has to do with your reputation and character. 1. So how you use a person’s name reflects how you view the personWhen we misuse God’ name we show that we have a low view of God. We don’t understand God’s awesomeness. We don’t have a proper reverence for God in our hearts, and so our mouth speaks out what is in our hearts – words that misuse God’s name.

2. This is serious because we will be judged for doing it. Exodus 20:7 ends with the warning, “The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.” (NLT). This is a promise from God that you don’t want to receive. God looks after his name. Rather, we need to ask for and receive forgiveness from God for our misuses of his name, and learn to be more  careful.

Let’s end with looking at –

How to use God’s Name rightly

  • Psalm 119:132 – We are to love God’s Name.
  • Psalm 102:15 – We are to fear his Name.
  • Psalm 113:3 – We are to praise God’s Name.
  • Psalm 103:1 – We are to bless God’s Name.
  • Matthew 6:9 – We are to hallow God’s name. That is, we are to treat it as special, not common. Just as God is holy, so is his name.

We should only use God’s Name reverently, sincerely, and thoughtfully.

How to overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21

When someone wrongs us a struggle is unleashed within us to see whether we will be overcome by it so that we respond in kind, or whether we will overcome the desire for payback and choose love. This is what we’re talking about this morning.

According to the world there’s really only one way to respond – we should strike back; we should harm our enemies in return. Now God put a limit on this when Moses taught in the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-2, Deuteronomy 19:19-21 in contrast to Genesis 4:23-24) That is, the payback has to be in proportion to the injury suffered. But still there is in our world an endless cycle of people harming each other through personal vengeance, the justice system and warfare.

But Jesus shows us another way; the way of love. For when Jesus’ enemies sought to kill him he endured the harm and suffering of the cross and returned good for evil. And in doing so he shows us how to overcome evil with good. He wasn’t overcome so that he did harm back to his enemies. He overcame through the power of love.

Paul speaks of this in –

Romans 12:19-21

And I want us to look more closely at this passage today.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

First we look at the negative side of this –

Being overcome by evil

This comes from the phrase in v. 21 – “do not be overcome by evil.”

This is how it works. Someone harms you. This can happen on a small scale, for instance, someone insults you. Or it can be something truly terrible – for instance, someone kills a loved one of yours.

How will we respond? It’s natural to be angry and to want justice; in fact, we usually want more than “an eye for and eye;” we want to give back much more harm than we got. Evil is very powerful. Once we fall victim to it, it gets into our system and tries to replicate itself through our anger so that we start doing evil as well; so that we start harming people.

The question is, ‘What will we do with our anger?’ 1. Usually we give in to our anger to one degree or another; our desire for justice. And when we do this 2. we return harm for harm. In various ways through our words and our deeds we seek to hurt and destroy our enemy.

How to overcome evil with good 1

The result is that you are now harming another person, just as your enemy harmed you. You are doing the same thing. You have been overcome. You are now caught up in the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm just responding to others based on how they’ve treated you.

But harm for harm never truly satisfies, even, for instance, if someone kills your family member and the criminal is executed. It doesn’t restore what was taken away from us. It doesn’t give us peace.

You may even the balances and that might feel good on a certain level, but you will never overcome the evil done to you with more harm. So we should set this response aside. As Paul says in Romans 12:17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” or as it is better translated “harm for harm,” referring as it does to the teaching of “an eye for an eye.”

Let’s look now at the other side of this –

How to overcome evil with good

Paul tells us to do this in v. 21 – “overcome evil with good.” There are three steps in this process. When an enemy injures us:

1. Endure the harm without giving it back. Paul says in v. 19 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”

Now, there’s a lot that we can do, within the limits of loving our enemies. That is to say, this doesn’t mean be passive and just take it. We can stand up for ourselves and for what is right. We can point out wrong. We can use force to stop an evildoer from what they’re trying to accomplish. There are redemptive things we can do in relation to our enemy. But fundamentally the point here is that we should not return evil for evil, harm for harm.

So let’s say someone breaks into my house and wants to hurt my family. If I could, I would stop them, let’s say disarm them. They have a bat and hit me hard, but I eventually take it away. What I can’t do is then take the bat and beat them. And I certainly can’t kill them because Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not destroy them.

2. Look to God for your justice. v. 19 goes on to say, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

It’s normal to have anger when someone harms you. This is due to our sense that an injustice has happened. This is how God made us. We are not to deny this or try to suppress it. And indeed God gives us the capacity for anger to stir us up to act to make things right.

Anger is not wrong. It’s what you do with your anger that’s the issue. Paul teaches us that we are to place our angry desire for payback in God’s hands. This is the key to overcoming evil and breaking out of the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm – giving the agenda of justice or payback over to God.

He can fight for us and judge our enemies according to his will. This is what God says he will do, “I will repay.” Not, “you will repay,” but “I will repay, says the Lord.” So when we suffer harm from an enemy, pray something like this, “God I have been wronged. Take note of this and act for me in a way that is pleasing to you. I give it into your hands and trust you with it.”

It’s our trust in God that sets us free. We know that God can handle it. It might not happen right away; it might not happen until the final day, but all wrongs will be righted by God. We can trust God to take care of us.

3. Love and do good to your enemies.  Once we’ve placed the agenda of payback into God’s hands this frees us up to love our enemies and do good to them. We can focus on mercy, since we know that God will take care of issues of justice.

Paul says in v. 20 – “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Rather than harming our enemies we return good for evil.

How to overcome evil with good 2

This is counter-intuitive. It goes against what our flesh desires, for sure. But we can only overcome evil by returning good for harm; by choosing mercy and love. This releases us from being captive to the cycle of anger, hatred bitterness and harm for harm. The circuit is broken. We’re set free! Our trust in God sets us free.

Now we hope that such acts of love will lead our enemy to repent, and we should pray for this. But if not, we know that God is more than able to deal with them. Such judgment is described in v. 20 as “burning coals” coming down on their heads. 

Let me end by pointing out that Jesus modeled for us these three steps of overcoming evil with good when he died on –

 The cross

When his enemies conspired against him:

1. He endured the harm without giving it backAs 1 Peter 2:23 says, on the cross, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.”

2. He looked to God for vindication. 1 Peter 2:23 tells us that while he suffered, he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” He gave the agenda of payback and justice into God’s hands.

3. He continued to love his enemies doing good to them. As Luke 23:34 tells us, while he was on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, for mercy and forgiveness. While they were busy murdering him, he was dying for their sins.

Jesus models for us how to overcome evil with good on the cross. As Peter says Jesus left us an example, “so that (we) should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:21.