It’s alive in the air. Anyone can catch it, because it does not discriminate. It’s more dangerous in crowds, which was the case in the story we’re about to consider. It’s transmitted orally and will change your life forever. According to Jesus, you have a one in four chance of being irreversibly infected.
In our story, some put on religious masks so as not to catch it. They covered themselves with the mask of self-righteousness. They didn’t want what Jesus was passing on to the crowd. As you’ve guessed, I’m not talking about the coronavirus, but something much older, more upending, the Christ virus.
This is the pandemic of grace.
In Mark 4:1-20, Jesus taught a very large crowd by the sea. It was so large he had to quarantine himself in a boat off the shore to make room. He told them a strange parable about a farmer who went out to sow seed. Some seed fell on the path, but the birds came and devoured it immediately. Some seed fell on rocky ground, but its roots could not go deep enough, so when the sun came out, it withered and died. Some seed fell among thorns, which ended up choking out the seed, so it produced no grain. But the last seed fell into good soil, and produced much fruit for the farmer, even a yield of up to a hundredfold.
The parable confused the disciples, even though Jesus said it was the simplest parable. If they couldn’t understand this one, then there’s no way they could understand any of the other parables (Mark 4:13)! Jesus explained to them the seed was the word of God. Then he said the birds along the trodden path were Satan; the rocky ground was the tribulations and persecutions of life; and the thorns were the cares of the world, deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things. But the seed that produced a harvest were those who heard the word and accepted it, bearing fruit.
The disciples still didn’t understand why Jesus had to teach the crowd with parables. Since he had such a great opportunity to influence a large crowd, why didn’t he simply make himself as plain as possible? But Jesus wasn’t interested in clarity, because he wasn’t merely instructing like the Pharisees did; rather, Jesus was doing something else altogether, bringing spiritually dead people to life. So Jesus told them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:11-12).
This is where most people are confused about Jesus Christ. They think he was just a good teacher, but Jesus didn’t come to be a teacher (he came to be a Savior). In fact, he tried hard to make his lessons confusing, not clear. Jesus didn’t teach us formulas or definitions, but secrets and mysteries. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” Again, why did he do this? He did it so people would not be able to figure it out on their own, so that, “they may indeed see but not perceive…lest they should turn and be forgiven.” Wait, what? Did Jesus teach in riddles in order to keep people from being able to understand and find forgiveness? Sort of, but let me explain.
Jesus was not interested in educating people so they could figure out life on their own, because he knew it wasn’t possible in this world. Jesus did not come to give us more rules to learn and keep; God had already given the world a set of commandments, and Lord knows how that turned out. Instead, Jesus came to give us himself and make us alive. And the way to do this is not through instruction, but proclamation, which is what’s meant by sowing seed in the parable. Jesus wanted to confine people to the only pathway to finding forgiveness, which was through him. To find forgiveness apart from Christ was not possible, the proof being nobody had been able to instruct the soul to forgiveness in the history of the world, no matter what the religion, philosophy, or leader had been.
So the sower sows the word of God. The word of God is a seed, which contains the life of God in it. This seed, even though small, has the potential to plant the kingdom of God in your heart. You and I are dead because of sin, so the only hope for us is not instruction, but renegeration. We do not need to be instructed by the word of God, but infected by the word of God. The word of God needs to hijack every cell in our being, replicate itself, and start a new life from the inside out.
God’s word needs to be planted into our hearts, take root, grow, and bear fruit. The Pharisees thought they could bear fruit apart from the word of Jesus, but they were mistaken, as are most people today. In our time, there’s a movement that revolves around advanced intellectual instruction, via podcasts and other media formats, seeking to help us flourish with the best possible instruction. I’m thinking of Jordan Peterson, in particular, or TED Talks. Don’t get me wrong, I love to listen to Jordan Peterson and learn much from him! On one level, everyone can benefit from this sort of first rate teaching. But, and here’s the point, this sort of high level teaching has been around for millenia, so there’s nothing new about it. It will help you for a while, but that is all. It will improve your life, but that’s its limit. Jordan Peterson had nothing on the Pharisees, for they could teach just as well as he could, if not better.
But their teaching was not in the same category of the simple proclamation of Jesus.
Jesus was talking about preaching the word of God, which makes dead hearts come to life. This is why he did it in a way some couldn’t figure out, because if you could figure it out with your intellectual skills, then it wouldn’t be a gift of grace. If you could figure it out on your own, then it would be a religious “work.” The Pharisees were good at figuring things out, but they couldn’t figure out Jesus Christ and his simple parable of the farmer and his seed! It wasn’t that it went above their heads, but it went below their heads and bounced right off their hard hearts.
Instruction and high quality teaching do not make the grass grow.
Instead, we need to expose ourselves to the Christ virus. We must drop our masks of self-sufficiency and breathe in deeply the orally transmitted, preached word of God. There is no other way to come alive. And we know this from experience. No matter how much we learn, how good our habits, and all the positive practices we attempt to put to use, at the end of the day, we still manage to muck up our lives. Can you relate?
I’ve got eleven intellectually informative podcasts I listen to on a regular basis and none of them can keep my heart from envying others. None of them can keep my eyes from lusting. None of them can keep my lips from lying to make myself look better. None can keep my intellect from thinking it’s better than others or from judging those with whom I disagree. None can keep my conscience from being riddled with guilt and despair, to the point where I want to give up. Can you relate?
We know from experience that we cannot save ourselves, but if left to ourselves, will ruin ourselves and take out others in the process.
Jesus didn’t come to give us more of the same, but he came to infect us with the word of grace and bring us to life. He came to plant a tiny seed of hope in our hearts that would grow into the size of a kingdom, apart from anything we do. If you’re infected by the Christ virus, you will come alive and then have the potential to infect others to life.
The application for this text is remarkably simple and clear. Jesus is calling us to listen to Bible preaching, allowing the Bible to drip feed into our souls. There’s no replacement for this. I’m not talking about instruction or fancy teaching, but the word of grace proclaimed to you, week after week after week. We need to hear about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We need to be infected by the truths of justification and redemption. Other teachings might be able to show you where you need to go, but they can’t take you there, for they have no intrinsic power. The preaching of the gospel, on the other hand, has intrinsic power, just as a seed has life within itself.
Jesus said there were four kinds of soil: trodden, rocky, thorny, and good. Since God is the farmer, then surely he knows the difference between good and bad soil; any experienced farmer, let alone a divine one, would know not to plant seed into trodden, rocky, or thorny soil. So why doesn’t the farmer discriminate? I’d like to suggest that at some point in our lives, we are all of these. The farmer doesn’t sow seed just once, but year after year. Likewise, in the different soil seasons of our lives, we need to continue to expose ourselves to the seed of the farmer. Let Him sow the seed in good times and in bad, healthy and sick, plenty and want.
When all else fails, and it will, listen to the preached word of God. You may think you don’t need it, but so did the Pharisees, whom Jesus condemned. You may think you don’t need church or sermons, but Jesus is clearly telling us we do; remember, this is the easiest parable to understand. If you don’t understand why you need to listen to the proclaimed word of God, then nothing else can be done for you. And it’s not because you’re a bad person, per se, but it’s because you think you’re too good. Your heart is hard, just like the trodden soil in the parable.
Faith does not begin with our actions, but ends with them—thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. Faith begins in secret, with the word of God floating through the air, entering our hearts, and taking root. And it’s all by grace. God is not safe, but God is pandemic.
- Why do you think Jesus chose to represent God as a farmer? Why did he choose to represent people as soil? What do they have in common?
- Think about the four types of soil. Which one seems most like you right now? Which “season” are you in? Why? Be detailed.
- When was the last time you heard a sermon based on the Bible? In our time, it’s easy to access quality sermons; are there any you listen to regularly? Two Bible preachers to check out are Colin Smith (Unlocking the Bible podcast) and Timothy Keller (Gospel in Life podcast).