Sermon by Rev. Nollie Malabuyo | Preached by Rev. Lance Filio
Dear Congregation of Christ: Our text today contains a disturbing teaching from one Jesus’ Parable of the Seeds, popularly known as the Parable of the Sower. What’s disturbing is not that most of the seeds will die; most Christians agree with that teaching. What’s actually disturbing is what most people do not even notice in this parable.
When Jesus taught in parables, he most often prefaces his teaching with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Although in the Parable of the Seeds, he did not say this, he was clearly teaching about the kingdom of God. He explained to his disciples why he taught in parables, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” His parables therefore reveal the secrets of the kingdom of God to his disciples. What is the nature of the kingdom of God? How would it be revealed? Who would belong to it? What are its laws? How would it operate? And most importantly, who is its king, and where is this kingdom located?
All of these questions would be answered by Jesus in his many parables in the Gospels, especially in Mark, Matthew and Luke. If these secrets are revealed to his disciples when they were alone with Jesus, how about those who are not his disciples, those whom he calls “those outside.” The secrets of the kingdom are hidden from “outsiders.” In this chapter, Jesus also teaches that the kingdom will grow unexpectedly.
So our theme this morning is, The Secrets of the Kingdom of God, under three headings; first, Revealed to Its Citizens; second, Hidden from Outsiders; and third, Sprouts and Grows Unexpectedly.
Revealed to Its Citizens
But first, what is a parable? Literally, a parable means placing two things side by side for comparison. So, it can be a simple metaphor or simile, such as when Jesus introduces a parable by saying, “The kingdom of God is like a …” Jesus did not teach in vague, abstract terms, but used real-life illustrations from first-century life in Palestine. Parables, then, are stories “told to provide a vision of life, especially life in God’s kingdom.” (The Holman Bible Dictionary, 1071).
And what a variety of true-to-life analogies! Jesus used pictures of farming, wedding feasts, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, trade and commerce, masters and servants, and righteous and wicked people. His topics range from calling people to a decision, to kingdom life, to neighborly relations, to business affairs, to preparing for his Second Coming. But all of these parables are about the kingdom of God—entering into it, its people and life in it, and its completion.
In answering his disciples’ question why he taught in parables, Jesus divided his audience into two groups: those to whom God has revealed “the secret of the kingdom of God”; and those to whom everything remains as parables with hidden meanings. What is this “secret”? The word secret is sometimes translated as “mystery.” In the Bible, a mystery is not just something hidden or mysterious, but something that used to be hidden, but is now revealed. Paul says that the gospel of Jesus Christ was “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” (Rom 16:25). The “secret” is that God saves his people in Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, you are blessed beyond imagination. Did you know that the Holy Spirit has revealed to you these “secrets” that the prophets of old inquired for ages? In addition to your inclusion into God’s salvation plan, the Spirit has revealed to all of you the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7), the incarnation of the Son of God (1 Tim 3:16), the indwelling of “Christ in you” (Col 1:27), and your final resurrection (1 Cor 15:51). You who believe in Christ are greatly blessed because the Spirit has revealed to you the great doctrines of Bible, including justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone.
Therefore, to his chosen disciples, Jesus reveals the secret of the Parable of the Seeds. In this parable, the emphasis is not on the sower, but on the soils. Having said that he has brought the kingdom of heaven with him, he focused on those who belong to the kingdom. The soils are the hearers, and some of the hearers are kingdom people. God is the sower, and the seeds are the gospel, as Jesus explains later. In the ancient Near Eastern world, farmers often scatter the seeds before they till the soil. The seeds, also probably typical, fell into four types of soil: (1) hard path; (2) rocky soil; (3) thorny soil; and (4) good soil.
The hard paths are well-worn paths that the sower himself or other travelers walked on. The seeds here never made it below into the soil, so birds quickly plucked them up. Jesus explains that the birds represent the devil who snatches the gospel away by keeping their ears deaf and hearts dead. Therefore, they will never understand and receive the gospel.
The rocky soils are those who are very excited and enthusiastic when they hear the gospel. Then as quickly as a passing fancy, you never hear him talk about his faith, or never see him in church again. We all know many people who belong to this category of the second soil: soil that is full of rocks that roots do not grow as deep as they should. So the seeds sprout, even with joy, and endures for a while. But when the heat of sufferings and persecution comes, they wither away. This means that the plants do not take root and quickly die. These are those who go to churches that do not teach any foundational roots of solid and sound doctrines and wisdom for Christian living. Maybe their churches preach false gospels and heresies such as the health and wealth false teaching. So their faith is not saving faith and is built on sand that quickly erodes away.
How about those seeds that fell among thorns? Who is the thorny soil? These are the ones who respond positively to the gospel. But unlike the rocky soil, these ones remain faithful for a time, even maybe through sufferings and persecutions. But then, finally, they also fall away. What overcame them? It was thorns, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things.” Sometimes we allow the cares of life to fester, not knowing that they slowly eat our faith out. Our families, friends, careers, games, or even hobbies replace church worship, Bible studies and church life. The second destructive thorn choking our lives is the deceitfulness of riches. Here again, we may value our moneymaking jobs or hobbies more than the Lord’s Day. We spend more than we make, so we work a lot of overtimes to the neglect also of our families, and our Bible reading and prayer time. The love of money is a root of all evil, including decadent lives enjoying the ungodly pleasures of this world.
How can we then weed out these thorns and vines slowly choking our faith? It is only through consistent, conscientious attention to God’s Word, Holy Communion and prayer in church. In addition, in the privacy of our homes, our roots are nourished by the Word and Spirit of God. It is through the careful, attentive weeding out, fertilizing and pruning that thorns and vines are contained and prevented from surrounding our lives. Rather than allowing thorns to surround his good plants, our Great Sower plants other good plants around them. These are our brothers and sisters who surround us with their comfort, encouragement and wisdom from the Spirit.
Jesus then explains the seeds that were sown on good soil that produced grain, some a hundred, some sixty, and some thirty times what was sown. This good soil is “the one who hears the word and understands it.” Out of the four soils, only one is good. It bears good grain or fruit. This means that believers will be a small minority in the world. Only a few enter the narrow gate of salvation, but many enter the wide gate of destruction (Matt 7:13-14).
Why were they good soil? Because the Spirit transformed their hard, rocky and thorny minds and hearts to soft, fertile and pure topsoil, so that upon hearing the gospel, they understood it and believed. This is a work that only God can do. No entertainment, gimmicks and innovations can make a heart fertile and fruitful.
In Luke’s witness of this parable, Jesus says, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). Their conversion is a continuing process in an honest and good heart: they hear the Word, they hold it fast, and bear fruit with patience. Here we find a warning and an encouragement. The good soil will bear fruit in an honest and good heart, but it will be a struggle so that they have to be steadfast in what they have heard, understood and believed. Some of us will bear much fruit, some not as much, some just enough to evidence our faith. We sometimes lose patience because our family, friend or neighbor never seems to hear the gospel and believe. But God commands us to plant and water the seeds, and he will give the growth (1 Cor 3:6-7).
What a blessing you have as Christians! We do not boast, but we boast only because of the mercies of God the Father, who have chosen us in the Lord Jesus Christ. God has chosen you to be “insiders,” to whom he has revealed these truths.
Hidden from Outsiders
But for countless others who don’t believe, whom Jesus calls “outsiders,” the kingdom of God remains as a secret because the Spirit has not opened their eyes and ears to these great Biblical truths. In the Parable of the Narrow Door, he called evildoers those who “stand outside” knocking at the narrow door to enter in (Luke 13:25). He also frequently referred to those who were not saved as being “outside” of the house where the Bridegroom is (Parable of the Ten Virgins, Matt 25:10-12), or outside Noah’s Ark of salvation (Luke 17:27). But he will never “cast out” those who come to him and believe. They will enter into the kingdom. Those outside are passed over by the Spirit, the only Giver of life and light.
So at the end of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus calls out, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). But God does not give “outsiders” ears to hear, eyes to see, and minds that understand. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, and puts an exclamation point at the end, saying, “lest they should turn and be forgiven.” Though Isaiah was describing unrepentant Israelites, Jesus used these words to warn unbelieving Jews of coming judgment against them because they rejected Jesus the Messiah of God. But at the end of Mark 4, Jesus leaves room for repentance, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it” (Mark 4:33).
Therefore, Jesus used parables as a two-edged sword: to reveal his kingdom to believers, and to hide it from unbelievers.
Sprouts and Grows Unexpectedly
Next, Jesus tells them three very short parables. The first is the parable of the lamp. A lamp is not hidden under a bed or inside a basket, but its purpose is to give light to the whole room or house or wherever it is placed. This lamp is the gospel that the whole world will hear. His disciples will later realize that he is the Light of the world. Those who receive him as Savior will be granted the blessings of forgiveness of sins, the righteousness of Christ, and eternal life. Those who reject this light will be cast out into the darkness of eternal punishment. He will lose everything.
The second parable illustrates how the kingdom of God starts: it is a seed sown, as in the Parable of the Seeds. The farmer sows the seed and sleeps. One morning, the seed sprouts and then it grows. How the seed sprouts and grows, the farmer does not know. It’s a mystery. He’s not a scientist who has learned the intricacies of how a seed germinates, nourished by the soil and water. The farmers sows and tends the garden, but God decides whether that seed will sprout or die. If the Lord wills, he will send rain and nourishment from the ground. The sprouting and growing of the seed are the mysterious works of the Holy Spirit. Who is the sower? It was Jesus at first, then his apostles, and then all true believers who have heard and believed in the gospel.
The third parable is the mustard seed. It is the smallest seed in those days, but when it is planted, it grows into one of the biggest trees in the garden. Its branches are large and strong and becomes a nesting and resting place for birds. This is the kingdom of God, a tiny and seemingly powerless kingdom at the start. It starts out with Jesus alone, then his 12 apostles, and after his resurrection, on the day of Pentecost, only 120 believers. At the most, there were 500 who saw him after his resurrection. But now, the kingdom of God is a resting place for believers from all nations, peoples, tribes and languages of the world.
And this “weak” kingdom was opposed and harassed at every turn, from the Roman empire, to the Islamic empire, down through the ages. It was only a dying ember during the medieval age when the church’s clergy, from the village priest to the Roman pope, were uneducated, corrupt and divided. Today, the church is practically non-existent in Europe. In America, it is overwhelmed by the false teachers of health, wealth and prosperity. Only in some parts of Asia and Latin America is the church thriving. Persecution from Muslims and liberal politicians and celebrities is getting worse by the day. But the kingdom of God that sprouted and grew unexpectedly and unnoticed will withstand the gates of hell. And God promises redemption and vindication to all of his people. Our Lord Jesus will be King of kings and Lord of lords.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you are the good soil if you bear good fruit even through Satan’s temptations, sufferings and through persecutions. The Word of God continues to till and fertilize the soil and to prune the fruit-bearing plants. The gospel pollinates the plants, so they multiply all over the field. Jesus pronounces a blessing on the good soil. We are more privileged and blessed than the prophets of old because we have heard the gospel from the lips of the Son of God, the Messiah himself. We are more blessed because God has given us ears to hear and eyes to see so we may understand the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners like us from our sins.
Today, when Christians and the church are under assault from all sides, instigated by Satan himself. So we must stand firm and strong in the faith through reading, studying and meditating on God’s word, prayer, attending worship services on the Lord’s Day, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper that nourishes our souls. Without these things, we will crumble before the assaults of God’s enemies. But with these things, we have peace, comfort and rest in the kingdom of God.