Observations from Mark 4.
The crowd that gathered that day along the shore of the Sea of Tiberias to hear the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ would have been the envy of any open-air preacher. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that a “great multitude” assembled to hear Christ’s teaching. But because they were all pressing to get near Him, the Lord Jesus had to get into a boat for His preaching platform. While the Savior “taught them many things by parables” that day at the seaside, the only parable cited in Scripture is the parable of the sower. The sight of a sower walking through a field, reaching into his bag and casting seed onto a field that had been plowed, was a very common sight in Israel.
The Lord used that ordinary event of daily life in Israel to teach a vital lesson about how we should listen when the Word of God is being preached. The metaphors are clear: the sower casting his seed represents the preacher engaged in preaching the Word. The ground or soil speaks of the heart that comes under the sound of God’s Word. What happens to the seed as it falls on various types of soil represents the results of hearing the Word. This parable deals with both the right and wrong way to hear the preaching of God’s Word, and the point Christ was driving home to His audience that day was that it is only a right hearing of the preaching of God’s Word that produces any real and lasting benefit to the soul.
As far as benefiting from your minister’s sermons, much depends on how you listen to them. How vast is the multitude that has sat under the clear preaching of God’s Word for years, yet there has never been any indication that they have truly heard the doctrine that has been taught. How different is the outcome of those who have heard the Word of God as it should be heard and as it must be heard. The vital question is this: What is it that marks a true hearing of God’s Word?
Christ teaches us that a true hearing of the Word and a hard heart are totally incompatible. Some of the sower’s seed fell by the “way side.” The fields of the farmers in ancient Palestine were long, narrow strips of land divided by small roads. As the people and wagons went up and down these roads every day, the soil became packed and hard, and completely unsuitable for planting seed. It was easy, however, for the birds to swoop down and devour it immediately.
Christ explains that these people “hear” the preaching of the Word, but they receive no benefit and remain completely unaffected by anything they’ve heard. They come to church and hear the sermons, but they can’t see any real connection between the Word of God and themselves. The problem is not the preacher or his message.
The problem is that their hearts are hard. Does this describe you? You hear sermons week after week, but they don’t make any sense to you and the truth of the matter is that you’re really not interested in what the preacher is saying. Could it be your heart is sin-hardened and there’s not a place in it where God’s Word can be received and understood?
Unless the Lord plows up your hardened heart, all the preaching in the world to you is in vain. It is only the Spirit of God that can take away the hard, stony heart and replace it with a tender heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). If this is you, then it’s time to pray to God that He will break up that hardness and give you an understanding heart. Otherwise, you will die as you have lived with a hard, unrepentant, unbelieving heart, without God and without any hope of heaven. “Take heed therefore how ye hear” (Luke 8:18).
In the second place, the Lord shows us that a true hearing of God’s Word and a shallow heart are not compatible. Some of the seed fell on “stony ground.” This was not a field with a lot of stones in it, but parts of a field where there was “not much earth.” In Palestine, there were parcels of land where there was a thin layer of soil covering a bedrock of limestone. As the sower cast his seed, some of it fell on the kind of soil in which the warm sun caused it to sprout very quickly and send down its roots for water and nourishment. But then it hit the bedrock, and as the sun got hotter, the plant soon withered and died.
Christ saw people in that large crowd who seemed enthusiastic about what He was preaching. As a result of His powerful preaching and miracles, the crowds thronged to hear the Savior. Many of them were even happy to refer to themselves as His “disciples.” But it would not be long before many of these same disciples would go “back and walk no more with him” (John 6:66). What happened?
The Lord said that when such people hear the Word of God, they experience wonderful feelings, but they are shallow and fleeting because their understanding of God’s Word is such. This is evident by the way they respond when persecution and trials come to them as a result of the Word they profess to believe. Like the hot sun withers the seed that falls on stony ground, so the fiery trials wither those where the Word of God has not taken deep root. Luke tells us that they believe for a while “but in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13).
It is sobering to think that someone can have a deeply moving experience under the preaching of God’s Word, but end up at the last without Christ and go to hell. C. H. Spurgeon tells the story of a man who spoke to his minister just after the sermon about how wonderful a thing it was to see so many people weeping. The minister responded, “I will tell you something more wonderful still, that so many will forget all they wept about when they get outside the door.”
Beware of trusting in feelings and emotions when you hear God’s Word. You may be moved to tears by a message. Your heart may be stirred by the comfort of its promises and the depth of its doctrines. Do not place your trust in what may well be passing impressions. There is nothing like affliction or tribulation to test whether or not the seed has fallen on good ground. “Take heed therefore how ye hear.”
In the third place, Jesus indicates that a true hearing of God’s Word is incompatible with a worldly heart. The Lord continued, “Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.” Some people hear the preaching of God’s Word, and it seems like it has been received into their heart because of how their life begins to change. But Christ says that they become unfruitful and “bring no fruit unto perfection.” What causes this spiritual barrenness? Thorns grow up and choke the seed, so it is unable to produce any fruit. Jesus said that these thorns are “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things.”
Although these thorny-ground hearers may seem to have received God’s Word in their hearts and go so far as to abstain from many things which God’s Word condemns, even adopting many habits which it requires, yet they go no farther. They never give their heart completely to Christ because the cares, riches, and lusts of this world have a choke-hold on them. This keeps them from a right hearing of God’s Word, which will always produce real spiritual fruit. “Take heed therefore how ye hear.”
The Lord speaks of a fourth and final kind of hearer of the preaching of God’s Word: a true hearing of the preached Word which will be followed by a true heeding. Three things stand out from the other three kinds of hearers. Unlike the others, the ground upon which the seed fell was “good ground.” Unlike the others, the Word preached was understood. Unlike the others, the seed brought forth fruit, albeit of varying degrees.
Why was it “good ground”? The owner of the field had prepared the ground for the sower and his seed. God alone prepares a man’s heart for a right hearing of His Word. The Holy Spirit alone can open the heart to God’s truth and illuminate a man’s understanding so that he grasps spiritual truth. Wherever these two works of God take place, there will always be fruit to prove it. Hardness of heart will be removed, the Word of God will take deep root in the soul, and all of life’s fiery trials will be a means of drawing the true believer further and further from the cares, riches, and lusts of the world by drawing him closer to Christ and His Word. The work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a man cannot be hidden. Thank the Lord, there will be fruit, “some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.”
The simple conclusion that must be made from this parable is this: It is what we do after hearing the preaching of God’s Word that determines whether or not we really heard it. The only religion that saves and sanctifies the soul is the religion that not only hears the Word of God, but harkens to the God of the Word. Mere professions of faith, deep religious emotions, and even an understanding of Bible facts have never produced Christ-likeness and will never be able to give peace when it comes time to die. If, after hearing many sermons we bear no fruit, the gospel has been preached to us in vain. “Take heed therefore how ye hear.”