The Nature of the Gospel audio (5MB)
Do you see what I see?
When you look at this picture, I wonder what you see? A young lady in silhouette, or a cartoon man playing the saxophone? There’s only one picture, but people see different things. By the end of Mark 3, the disciples must be wondering the same thing about Jesus. How is it that people have such different reactions to him? Some people, including Jesus’ own family, thought he’d gone mad. The religious leaders said Jesus was a monster, that he was Satan or at least on Satan's side. The disciples saw Jesus differently though. He was the one they'd chosen to follow, even if they couldn't understand everything he said or did just yet. To them Jesus wasn’t mad or a monster, but their master. But they must have wondered, why doesn't everyone see this? Why doesn’t everyone follow him?
It's a question we might still ask today. Why are there so many different reactions to Jesus? You might know that the word gospel means good news. The news that Jesus came to restore us to full relationship with God, isn’t just good, it’s great! It’s the best news in the world! But if that’s the case, why doesn’t everyone respond with joy? Why is it that people still reject the gospel?
Jesus addresses this question at the start of chapter 4 in Mark. As the crowds gather by the seaside, Jesus climbed into a boat & began to teach them many things in parables. He doesn’t share the secrets of the universe. He doesn’t give us the director’s commentary on God’s plans for the world. Instead, Jesus tells a little story about a man sowing some seed. It’s something the crowds would’ve been very familiar with. Before giant fields and massive machinery, farmers had to walk up and down the fields, scattering seed to be planted. It's not like planting tomatoes in the garden, where you do it one by one. You'd try to be careful, but of course you can't control where each seed lands, let alone foresee what the soil is like where it falls.
Secrets of the Kingdom
It doesn’t take much to work out Jesus isn’t giving a lesson in first century farming. But if Mark had stopped at verse 9, I wonder if you’d have worked the parable out? The disciples couldn’t. They come to Jesus in verse 10 and ask, ‘Why all the parables?’ ‘What do they mean?’ ‘Why can't you just tell us what you want to say?’
Jesus’ answer isn’t what we might expect.
11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that
‘They may indeed look, but not perceive,
And may indeed listen, but not understand;
So that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
Jesus admits the parables aren’t just nice stories. They’re lessons about the Kingdom of God. But this good news is a secret. If you're on the inside, you'll get it. If you're on the outside, you won’t! Jesus says that’s why he’s teaching in parables, to keep the secret.
The key is in what Jesus means by secret. It’s not a secret we’re to keep to ourselves. The seed in the parable represents the gospel. It’s mean to be sown, meant to be shared everywhere. Christianity isn’t a mystery religion, or a cult where only a few get told the hidden message. Nor is the gospel isn’t some riddle that you have to solve yourself. In fact, it’s not something we can work out for ourselves. God reveals it to those who choose to follow him. But to those who don’t, the gospel will remain a mystery. It will appear as foolishness or weakness. The parables won’t be anything more than nice stories for these people.
This first parable illustrates that. Jesus uses the four soils to explain why people respond so differently to the gospel.
On the Path…
In the parable the first seed fell on the path and didn’t even have a chance to get started before Satan snatched it away. This is like those who hear the gospel but it goes in one ear and out the other. These are people we share the gospel with who never seem to hear what we’re saying. Who never respond with more than a 'that's good for you.' Or who automatically object to anything to do with God.
We need to remember that some people are like this because that’s how the world conditions us to respond. We’re constantly told that church is an outdated relic. That Christianity is no more than a fable. That God is either absent or a tyrant. The same thing happens when the gospel is reduced to a series of rules, just instructions on how to live. All these are things that don’t make Christianity sound like good news at all.
So we need to pray for people who are like this soil. We need to pray that God might hold Satan back for long enough for the word to take root. That they would listen and hear. And we need to pray that God will soften people's hearts of stone, just as he promised to do in Ezekiel.
We need to be careful that we don't drift into this kind of response ourselves. We need to ensure that when we hear God's words read, we actually listen. That when we read the bible, to do so carefully. We need to be able to remember what we’ve read for more than thirty seconds. Otherwise we might as well be like the path that the seed falls upon.
If the first seed didn't even get a chance to start, at least in the second soil it get's going.
On Rocky Ground…
The second type of soil is my favourite, at least when it comes to the weeds in my garden. The weeds that grow in our driveway might big and leafy, but they've got no roots. All it takes is a little tug and they're gone!
When it comes to people who hear the gospel, these are those who start with a big bang. Jesus says they respond with great joy. As long as life is easy they’re OK. But all it takes is a hint of opposition and things fall apart. The work colleague who rants against Christianity, or the family member who ridicules them is all it takes to shrivel up their new faith. A bit of trouble makes them wither and die. Their new faith falls away.
There's a real challenge here for us to nurture, and to build up new believers. It's a great tragedy that the seed gets a chance to start, but can't survive. We need to encourage those who respond to the gospel to keep on building solid foundations. And we need to do the same too. We don't know what challenges lie around the corner.
To ensure our faith survives, we need to allow the gospel to take root in our lives. We do this by reading God’s word, by studying it, meditating on it day and night as the Psalmist says. And we do it by nurturing our relationship with God in prayer.
So in this second soil, the seed starts but doesn't survive. But in the third soil it fares a little better.
Amongst the Thorns…
This is part of our backyard at home. I’ve still got some work to do out there! But a few weeks ago, you couldn’t even see any of these bushes. The passionfruit vine had completely smothered everything else in the garden. The passionfruit had become like the thorns in the third type of soil, choking out everything else in our garden. The other plants were surviving, but they couldn’t grow! The bushes were completely covered. Even the trees were held back as the passionfruit wrapped itself around all its branches.
Jesus explains what the thorns in our lives can be like in verse 19:
the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things that come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.
This is perhaps the greatest danger for us. It’s so easy for the concerns of this world to take over our lives. For worrying about our own wealth to hold us back from giving to the church. For working extra hours at work taking priority over reading God’s word, spending time with friends going into our diaries before spending time with God. For the desire to be popular, or at least well liked and not ridiculed to hold us back from sharing the gospel with others.
It’s not that these things in themselves are bad. I love passionfruit, and I’m very happy there’s a vine in our garden. But that good thing had taken over. Money, relationships, work and play are all good gifts given by God for us to enjoy. But we’re warned against worshipping them instead of God. Jesus warned of the danger of storing up treasure on earth, about being more worried about the things of this world than God’s kingdom. We have to ensure these good things don’t become the ultimate things in our lives. If they do, if they choke out God’s priorities, then the gospel is functionally dead in us. Just like the seed amongst the thorns can’t produce fruit the way it should.
I had to do some serious pruning to get the passionfruit vine at home under control. We need to regularly examine our lives and see if there’s any pruning we need to do. Sometimes we can’t see the weeds and thorns in our own lives, as they slowly creep in and take over. So it’s important that we keep meeting with other Christians, encouraging one another and helping each other keep the gospel central.
In the third soil, the seed started and survived, but didn't bear any fruit. It was functionally dead and in the end no better than the first two types of soil.
Then, after three bad types of soil, Jesus says some of the seed falls in good soil. Here the seed springs to life, grows up and bear fruit. This is the kind of soil we should be aiming to be like. Those who not only hear the gospel, but who also accept it. We’re to allow the gospel to take root and produces fruit in us.
What is this fruit? Jesus doesn’t spell it out here. But in Galatians, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The nature of the gospel is that it transforms us. It transforms our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. The gospel produces fruit in every good work we do, as we lead lives worthy of the Lord.
And the fruit is produced as we increase and multiply. As we go on to share the gospel with others and they too turn in faith to God. This is perhaps what Jesus means when he says that some produces a yield thirty, some sixty, some a hundred fold. The number of people we might see, and help, come to faith in our lives will vary. But we’re all to be bearing fruit for the gospel in this way.
In the parable only one type of seed is sown. But the soil it lands in determines what will come forth. Jesus tells this parable to explain to the disciples, and to us, why there will be so many different responses to the gospel. But the sower sowed the seed regardless. We're not just to seek out those who we think will be good soil. We're to share the gospel with everyone, just as the seed was scattered everywhere in the parable. And then we're to pray that it lands in good soil. That the people who hear the good news about the Kingdom of God will accept it. That they too will grow in the gospel and produce fruit for it. Let’s pray that God helps us to the good soil that bears fruit in abundance for him.