6. Lessons for Modern-Day Sowers
Matthew 13: 1 - 9; 18 - 23
The famous parable of the seed and the sower is obviously important because is found in 3 different places in the gospels with Jesus’ explanation. Context is all-important in understanding this parable. It stands 1st in a list of 7 stories Jesus told in Matthew 13. Jesus gave these parables on “the same day.” What same day? On the same day that the Jewish leaders accused Christ of working miracles by the power of the devil. The die was now cast; the religious leaders had made their choice. They will now do whatever it takes to get rid of Jesus.
This story is placed first because it reveals something crucial about the response to Jesus’ message. After the public controversy with the Pharisees when they accused Jesus of doing his miracles by the power of the devil, one logical question would be, “If you are who you say you are, why doesn’t everyone believe? Why did the religious leaders reject your message?” That question rings across the centuries in many different ways. Why does a wife believe and her husband reject? Why does one brother become a missionary and the other a slave to pornography? Why do two children raised in the same family end up with completely different values? How is it that the same Word of God produces such differing results in the human heart?
Most messages on this parable discuss it from the standpoint of the 4 soils. I want to look at it in terms of - What does this parable teach us about doing ministry today? I find at least 8 principles that both challenge and encourage us.
1. Build the Ministry on the Word of God
Jesus said the seed is the Word of God. It’s the only thing that has the power to change the human heart. Preaching alone won’t do it because we cannot talk people into a new heart. Our words have no power in and of themselves. Programmes won’t do it. The contemporary church is programmed up to its eyeballs. It’s necessary in our day to reach people where they are. If we don’t reach them, we can’t win them or train them or send them out to minister to others.
But it’s possible to mistake busyness for godliness and activity for spirituality. The only thing that produces lasting growth is the Word of God. Preaching and programmes without the Word may produce quick growth but it won’t last. We need Word-centred ministry—and that must start from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Preachers who preach about everything under the sun except what God has actually said rob their congregations of the one thing they desperately need.
I’ve been around long enough to see the trends come and go. Here’s a short list: Church growth movement, Evangelism Explosion, Charismatic renewal, Contemporary worship, Seeker-friendly churches, Purpose-Driven churches, and Cell group movement. I have been deeply involved in some of those things.
Here’s what I want to drive home. Be a student of the trends. Study your culture. Learn from what others are doing. Don’t reject things out of hand without looking into them. But above all, never substitute a trend or a fad or the hottest new thing for the simple, systematic teaching of God’s Word. Without the Word, our churches may grow but they will not produce fruit that lasts.
2. Good Ministry Produces Differing and Unpredictable Results in the Hearers
This is the central teaching of the parable. Remember that there is nothing wrong with the seed. The same seed that the birds eat is the same seed that produces a good crop. It’s the same seed that produces a plant that withers away or gets choked by the thorns. Good ministry can’t be defined solely in terms of its visible results.
Good ministry is like that. A man may see huge results in one church and then struggle for years in another church. One tribe is open to the gospel; another is resistant. One country welcomes missionaries; another opposes them. So it goes around the world. Today in China the door is open in many ways. Yet opposition seems to be on the increase.
You can’t know in advance how your ministry will be received. Past success may be a good indicator but it is not a guarantee. That’s why Jesus told this story. Our job is sow the seed but as we sow, we need to be realistic and not starry-eyed dreamers. Some seed will fall on the hard path, some on the stony ground, some on thorny soil, and some will fall on good soil. But you can’t know in advance where all the seeds will fall.
Good ministry of the Word produces differing results. That happens in every church and in every ministry. Jesus told this story so we won’t be surprised and we won’t be discouraged when things don’t go the way we expected.
3. Don’t be Misled by Early Success
Often when we enter a new ministry, there is a sudden growth spurt. This is followed by a plateau followed by a period of much slower growth. This makes sense because a new pastor brings new excitement, a fresh perspective, new ideas and an infusion of energy. It’s not unusual for people to come to church to check out the new guy. So the first few months of a new ministry normally produce a bump in attendance. It’s easy for a pastor to be misled by that bump. He can start to think, “Hey, this is easy.” The ministry may be many things, but it is not easy.
Some people that seemed so excited at the beginning drifted away. No problems. No controversy. They just disappeared. They were there and then they were gone.
But that’s precisely what Jesus told us to expect. The longest portion of Jesus’ explanation deals with the seed that fell on stony ground. Remember, it sprang up quickly. Early success! Nothing better than that. We’re going to have a bumper crop this year. But that seed sprang up quickly because it had no deep roots. When the sun beat down, the young plants withered and died.
So let us take the warning to heart. Wise farmers know that there is always a long period between planting and harvesting. The “early risers” won’t always be around when harvest time comes. Don’t be misled by early success. It’s not always a guarantee of things to come.
Think of it this way. Three of the four soils responded positively at first. But only one produced lasting fruit.
4. Don’t Despair because of Early Difficulty
Three of the four soils failed to produce good fruit. Is Jesus suggesting that 75% of our efforts will be for nothing? No, but sometimes it can seem that way. Some churches are hard to pastor, others are easier. Some missionaries see amazing results. Others struggle for years with little to show for their efforts. Good soil can be hard to find. The flip side is that when you find it, it can produce amazing results. And some people will be thirty-fold, some sixty, and some a hundred-fold in what they produce for the Kingdom. God can do a lot with a little. That’s the encouraging news from this parable. A few seeds sown in good soil can ultimately revolutionize a church, a town, a school, a family, a neighborhood, or when God wills it so, an entire region.
5. Your Initial Judgment of People will often be Wrong
This truth cuts both ways. You can’t tell by looking what sort of heart a person has. That is, you can’t infallibly know who will respond to the ministry of the Word and produce the good fruit Jesus talked about in this parable. As the seed is sown in many places, it will find its place in many hearts. You simply cannot tell in advance how people will respond over the long haul. Some people you “knew” would make good elders and deacons will fall away or be tripped up by the cares of this world. Sometimes the unlikeliest people will become mature believers.
We have to give the Word time to do its own work. Eventually the Word reveals the true condition of every heart.
6. Sow Widely because You don’t know where the Good Soil is
The farmer in this parable “broadcast” his seed. He carried it in a pouch slung around his neck and threw handfuls in every direction. He knows that a certain amount of the seed will fall on the beaten path where it cannot take root. What the farmer doesn’t know—and can’t know—is where the stones and thorns are just under the surface. And therefore he also doesn’t know where the good soil is that produces lasting fruit. So it is in his own best interests to sow his seed as widely as possible. The same is true in the ministry. The best way to reach more people is to sow the seed of the Word in as many ways possible, using every avenue open to you, reaching out to every age and every interest group you can find.
7. When You Find Good Soil, Cultivate It
It’s easy for a pastor to be sidetracked into a thousand things that don’t really matter in the ministry. That’s generally a recipe for eventual burnout. No one can do it all.
When you find good soil, cultivate it. That’s what Jesus did. Though he spoke to the masses, and though he had time for individuals, he gave the majority of his time to training the twelve. He found them, he called them and he allowed them to come alongside and be with him up close and personal. He poured himself into that small band of men knowing that after his departure they would become the leaders of the movement he had started.
No one really knows what the pastor’s job is. Even if you have a job description, it’s usually so general as to be almost useless. A pastor doesn’t consult his job description in the morning to find out what he should be doing during the day. If you have 300 people in your church, you’ve got 300 people, each with their own perception of what you should be doing. If you fall into the trap of trying to please them all, your ministry is bound to fail or you will end up frustrated and ineffective. Churches and ministry cultures vary so widely. You have to work it out on your own. That takes time and patience and prayer and wisdom from on high.
Let people see your heart. This isn’t a quick-rewards programme. It takes a long time and it takes a lot of energy and you have to be really committed to it. The best ministry is always life on life.
8. Without Prayer Your Ministry Cannot Be Effective
We do the sowing, the seed must do the work, but it needs a receptive heart to bring forth fruit. What does a farmer do with unproductive soil? He ploughs it up, throws out the rocks, pulls up the weeds, waters the ground, and plants it again. God farms the human heart like that. Jeremiah 4: 3, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” Things don’t have to stay the way they are today. Remember what God promised to disobedient Israel -Ezekiel 36: 26, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
A new heart! A spiritual heart transplant! That goes beyond the parable Jesus told and it takes us into a realm of enormous spiritual promise. The farmer cannot of himself transform rocky soil into good soil. If you’ve ever seen the hillsides of Galilee, you know that they are more rocks than soil. You could never get rid of all the rocks. But God can!
This is why the final word in the ministry belongs to the Lord and not to us. After all, we were all once like the seed sown by the path. But God in his mercy intervened. He removed the heart of stone and gave us a heart of flesh. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves. He gave us a brand-new heart. If God can do that for us, he can do it for anyone.
You may have a prodigal son or daughter in your life at this moment and it seems impossible that they could ever return to the Lord. But with God all things are possible. This is why we keep on sowing, keep on watering, keep on praying, and keep on waiting. We believe God can do things that are far beyond our expectations. He’s done it before. He can do it again. He’s doing at this moment all over the world.
This parable teaches us both patience and hope. We need patience because some of the seeds we sow will never produce the fruit we hope for. But others will produce one hundred times more than we expect. This is why we preach and pray and keep on sowing the Word. There is good soil out there even though it’s not always easy to find. If we keep on sowing the Word, we will reap a harvest in God’s time, by his grace, for his glory. Amen.