Luke 8:1 “After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”
I often quote to you the mistaken saying that our Lord did not come to preach but he came to do something for us to preach. You will see from the opening words of this chapter how mistaken that view is. Here we meet a dynamic Jesus, someone who is constantly on the move from one town and village to another, and everywhere he goes he preaches. He evangelizes and teaches the good news of the kingdom of God. He has left us with an example of what is to be the priority of the whole church and each individual congregation. The climax of our gatherings is to do what Jesus did and proclaim the gospel and for all of us to be engaged in this.
I once went to a synagogue on a Friday night in Jerusalem with my friend Sid. We sat amongst the men with our hats on, the woman somewhere apart and the rabbi speaking in the front. It was a scene of bedlam. The children were noisy and playing; men were talking loudly everywhere to one another. A few were listening to the rabbi who was carrying on as if this was a normal synagogue service. How different here. A couple of strangers come in, let’s call them Geoff and Sid, who have never been to a church before and they are struck by the seriousness which you attend to the preaching. If children get a little restless then parents take them out. Nothing is to distract from the Word of God preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. Geoff and Sid are as impressed with your obedience of faith as I hope they would be with my message.
This is what we see here, the Lord Jesus going to this town and to that little village, no place too mean for him to declare the gospel, and everywhere he went the Twelve were with him, listening intently, learning, getting their values and ideas changed and established. Also there were some women with him. These women had been helped by him and now they helped him. That is always the pattern. God in grace has served us, and we in gratitude serve him. Three women are named and they were probably alive when Luke wrote this gospel. There was Mary Magdalene and she had been terribly infested with evil spirits. I have told you that there was such a unique outburst of the activity of the devil when the Son of God was proclaiming the kingdom, and that many demoniacs had been delivered by a word of Jesus. There is no hint that Mary had been a woman of the streets or that she was the same woman who had wept over his feet. Another woman was Joanna and we are also told something interesting about her. She was married to Cuza and he was the manager of Herod’s household. That was a very important position. From the very beginning leaders of society and thinking men and women were attracted to the Lord Jesus, centurions, Joseph of Arimathea, Luke, Paul, Nicodemus and Joanna, people of substance and intelligence. The followers of Christ were no country yokels, people easily duped. Joanna was temporarily away from home and from her husband because she had money and health and the freedom to go and work for Christ. We often think of Peter leaving his wife and becoming a disciple of Jesus; the pattern was evident here with women also. Then a third women named Susanna is identified, and we don’t know who she was, or why Luke mentioned her. She was presumably well known in Christian circles at the time Luke wrote this gospel. However, three women alone are mentioned; his apostles were men. His followers were not sighing women with rolling eyes. They were thoughtful people.
So you see the picture, the Twelve leading a group of disciples and a band of women of whom three are named, and this large company entered a community and then Jesus preached. Did they sing a psalm? We are not told that. Are we being given some guidance as to how our unbelieving nation is to be evangelized in the future by gatherings of a few dozen Christians with the preaching of the message of the Lord Jesus at the centre. This would be followed by the people being spoken to afterwards. I think of Jay Smith on Sunday afternoons at Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park in London getting up on his aluminium ladder with the Koran in one hand and his Bible in the other and a dozen Christian men scattered through the audience and the policemen wandering about keeping a eye on things. Then Jay starts to quote from the Koran and from the Bible showing the utter superiority of the message of Jesus Christ. He really expounds it fully, and then the hundred Muslims in the audience argue loudly about it and Jay’s supporters turn to them here and there in the audience with their Korans and Bibles. “What’s your problem?” They present the gospel to these Muslims and answer their questions. The meetings may go on until 10 at night in the summer. I think there is something utterly New Testament about such a procedure; I think the Spirit of the Lord Jesus is present today in such an outreach as his presence and activity in the world is made known to those who have ears to hear. We must cry to God that such openings and such great faith and vision will be the future of this church, that we won’t be simply waiting for people to come to us but that we will go out to them. Now what did Jesus speak about and how did he speak?
1. THE LORD JESUS SPOKE IN PARABLES.
Our Lord varied his style of teaching. His Sermon on the Mount was long and extremely logical. His discourses in the upper room and also the prayer with which they ended as recorded by the evangelist John were different again, quite dense and profound. Jesus also spoke in aphorisms, one line sayings of memorable power. In the synagogues he read from the Scriptures and taught their meaning, scroll in hand like a scholar. Facing the crowds he preached like an evangelist calling on the people to repent and believe the gospel. But he also used parables when he spoke to them.
I think of parables as something like the dreams of the Old Testament, vivid unforgettable stories requiring an interpretation. If you know the symbols you will understand the purpose of the parable. Jesus’ purpose in speaking in parables to the crowds was that those pictures would lodge in their minds and lie dormant for a while. Their meaning wouldn’t be clear to them until they believed on him as their Lord and Saviour, that is, until after he rose from the dead and poured out his Spirit, but the parables were hooked into memory cells in their brains and couldn’t be forgotten. So Jesus’ desire for freedom to minister and disciple for a few more years is one of his motives in choosing the medium of parables to describe his kingdom. When he interprets the parable to his disciples he tells them: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables” (v.10). Jesus wasn’t giving the code of his parables to the unbelieving world. They had to puzzle over Jesus’ words and not understand them while not being able to get them out of their minds. They saw them and heard his voice speaking them but they did not see it and they did not understand it (v.10). But those who loved him, these men and women were told the meaning of this parable.
Didn’t Jesus want the common people to understand? Yes, one day he would make it clear. He would send his disciples again to Jerusalem and all Judea with the full gospel, but at this time in his early ministry the people were confused as to what the Messiah would do, and what the Kingdom of God would be like. It wasn’t possible for him to be straightforward. For example, what response would Herod get when he asked Cuza his manager, “How is Joanna?” “Oh, she is off helping the rabbi Jesus.” “Oh yes? What is he talking about?” “Good question. What she tells me are some wonderful stories he tells of a lost coin, and a sower sowing, and a man digging a hole and discovering treasure.” Herod is relieved and he doesn’t arrest him after the disaster of the arrest of John the Baptist.
Again, if the common people understood that Jesus’ kingdom was one of rejection and sacrifice, they wouldn’t listen to him at all. They would have thought of him as just another failed extremist. Jesus had to train the twelve and teach the word of God widely for a few more years, breaking up the fallow ground of Israel before pouring out his Spirit on them. So he keeps their interest, and tells his mysterious parables, and one day it would become clear to those who believed.
Think of Warfield’s picture of the Old Testament just by itself, like a dimly lit room full of shapes and dark corners and gloom. Then read the same 39 books with the light of the New Testament shining on it. Nothing changes except you’ve filled it with the light of the Lord Jesus, and the Lamb of God, and the cross and the resurrection, but you’ve illuminated everything. It is virtually the same with the parables. We read them today in the light of the reign of the Lord Christ in glory and the spread of the church and they make sense to us. They are the same parables that Jesus once spoke from the boat to the crowds, but now Christ has been declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead. Pentecost has happened, and the gospel has gone out into the whole world, and we’ve been regenerated and taught by the Father.
What does this careful concern of Jesus in explaining his kingdom in parables to his first hearers have to say to us today? One lesson would be that Jesus Christ sends people out as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, as he himself was. I think of the skill of Christian teachers in state schools speaking at a morning assembly, not overtly evangelizing but clearly teaching the Bible. This is how young Thomas Bilney first brought the gospel to the priest Hugh Latimer. They were dangerous days to be evangelical Christians. You could lose your life for biblical beliefs, and so what Tom Bilney did was to go to a confessional and he confessed at length to Latimer all those ideas he was getting from studying the New Testament. He succeeded in planting many truths in Latimer’s mind so that when the Holy Spirit began to work in Latimer the Spirit had all that material to use that Bilney had planted in Latimer’s mind – in the confessional. He was as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. What then is the message of this first of all parables, and the longest that Jesus ever told?
2. THE PROGRESS OF CHRIST’S KINGDOM IS THE PROGRESS OF HIS WORD.
This seed that Jesus is speaking about is the word, isn’t it? “The seed is the word of God” (v.11). Have you seen a concrete path cracked and buckled by some seed underneath sending its mighty growth up and up, lifting the slabs? We are being confronted here with something alive and powerful that is the source of energy and dynamism in our world – the word of God. When Jesus says that “a farmer went out to sow his seed” (v. 5) then his disciples, who had been instructed in Old Testament Scripture, would have their minds locking into what they’d learned about the word of God. Jehovah had done so many things by this means in past times. By his word the heavens were made, the earth too and all that it contains. It was by the breath of his mouth that all things that exist were created. Jesus was focusing their minds on the mighty word of God. Jehovah spoke, and it was done: he commanded and all things stood fast. That is what we are talking about, that creative and life-giving word – “Let there be . . . and it was so” – the breath and speech of God that brings into being the very creation of God itself. By his word the Lord calls into existence things that are not.
It is that very word that Jesus tells us is in the farmer’s hand. It is God’s speech, the God-breathed word, that is being scattered by the farmer, that which brings things into existence, that creates organic life which grows and fructifies in the world. It is the wonder-working speech of God we are talking about here. How life-transforming it is. A minister called Bertram Hardy died a few years ago aged 94. I had not heard of him but I learned from his obituary that he was one of eight children, the son of a quarryman from a village near Wells in Somerset. During the first World War as a lad of 8 he came across a funeral service in his village. He looked intently at the scene, the widow was weeping bitterly and Bert followed her to the church. When they got there the minister began to read great truths from the word of God. Very quickly a change came over the woman; her grief ended and the words she heard transformed her bearing and Bert was doubly impressed, by the word itself and by the impact of the same word on her. Young Bert drank it all in, the truth of the words and the metamorphosis in the grief-stricken woman at the entrance of God’s word. It was the beginning of grace for him. Later on he became an evangelist and Christian colporteur, cycling vast distances over Wales and Scotland selling Christian literature. The word of God wrought the change.
So in the parable of the sower we are being lifted to a different awareness of the power of the kingdom. The Bible which God has given to the church is a miraculous book. It comes from another world. To its very jots and tittles it is inspired. It says exactly what God wants it to say. It does things to men. Peter says, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (I Pet. 1:23). It changes us, and it rebukes us, and it corrects us, again and again. How can we drift into mean and beggarly attitudes when we are engaged in a divinely conceived work in which God always has the first word and the last word, a work in which we are utterly impotent in achieving anything without the Lord? “Without me you can do nothing.” Then let me and the whole church be obedient to God and do things God’s way, because that must be the best way.
The seed is the word and the Farmer is Jesus Christ. He is broadcasting the word. In other words, we are looking at what Jesus himself is doing in the world. It is not what is being done by the skilful communicator, not the well-structured organisation, not the beautifully produced literature, not the mid-week course of meetings, not the earnest friend, not the super church and all of its activities that ultimately brings men from death to life. They are means but the one who comes and gives life by his word is the Lord. The farmer who sows the word is Jesus Christ alone. No one is with him. What do we have in our Sunday services that can save men? All we have is Jesus Christ teaching the word, reproving, correcting, instructing in righteousness, putting the truth in the heart and mind, germinating it, watering it and nourishing it until it is fruitful. I can’t do that. I don’t have the power nor does any man, and if Christ is not here sowing the word we have nothing. We can’t say, “Well, if he’s not here we can still fall back on an orator, or a singing group, or talks on family life or debt; we still have beautiful people.” No. Without Christ working we have nothing. He has to build his church. He is going forth conquering and to conquer. You see him walking through the book of Acts sowing abundantly in Samaria, and in Antioch, and Asia Minor, and Greece, and finally Rome. Christ strides like a colossus across Europe with his word, scattering it wherever he goes, and leaving fruitful growth behind him, and ever since that time he has done the same. Today he is still the Sower walking across the nations of the earth, and at this very moment he is sowing his word in every continent. We have that seed, and we have that Sower in our congregation every Lord’s day, don’t we, even if only two or three are gathered together in his name? Are you convinced that the highlight for you each week is to receive that seed from that Sower Sunday after Sunday? If not, you’ll have no desire to convince others that they should sit here will you? But if you are persuaded that you have the seed of the word of God how involved you will be in broadcasting it abroad!
Let me contrast two Christian men who made a lot of money in the construction business. One man was Bernard Coffindaffer of Craigsville, West Virginia. In September 1984 he began to use his fortune to erect three huge crosses on hilltops all across the USA, and even in Zambia and the Philippines. He had them made out of telegraph poles ten metres high painted in pastel colours. He set up an organisation ‘Crosses Across America, Inc.’ to further this work and to maintain them. He had set up 2000 sets of them before he died in October 1993. He believed he was doing “the greatest work since the calling of the apostle Paul.” Those were his actual words. The other Christian man also in the construction business was Ernie Reisinger of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Cape Coral, Florida, and he chose to use his money to buy the seed of the word of God, that is, to give away thousands and thousands of Christian books. He distributed them to friends, and to people he bumped into, and to theological students and pastors.
Which is the most God-honouring enterprise of those two businessmen? It cannot be Bernard Coffindaffer’s because the New Testament does not simply tell us to remind people of the fact that the Lord Jesus died on a cross between two other crosses. Christianity is not a statement of certain facts that occurred in history, that “Christ died and was buried and was raised”, as basic to our faith as such facts might be. There is no gospel in those uninterpreted facts. “Jesus died – how sad!” There has to be the essential New Testament interpretation of those facts: “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world . . . Christ died for our sins . . . he loved me and gave himself for me . . . he had by himself purged our sins . . .” That is the gospel, not just acquaintance with the fact that the Son of God died on a cross, but that we explain the meaning of the death of the Son of God, and we do that in words, officially from the pulpit and privately in conversation and written in literature; we spell out the consequences. The achievement of Christ which was fresh and new 2000 years ago is not antiquated today. Its message is not found in crosses on hillsides, or in stained glass windows, or in the Quaker’s silence, or in the chant of plainsong, or in symbols, but it is in speaking the New Testament word, both privately and publicly, that the message comes. So the word always has to be central, but of course the power of it is utterly dependent upon Jesus working by his Spirit.
3. THE PROGRESS OF JESUS’ WORD IS CARRIED ON IN THE FACE OF MUCH FAILURE.
That is the bluntest way it can be said because this parable comes with that kind of message. The picture, of course, is of a farmer sowing his seed, and when he sows he recognises that some of the seed which he sows is going to be unproductive as far as the ultimate crop is concerned. Our Lord, with such audacity, is saying about his own work in the world that it too is going to meet with rejection, and Jesus wanted the Twelve and these women to experience that. That would be a foretaste of what lay before them all in the work of the kingdom. They must shake their heads in sad amazement when multitudes left Christ. They would encounter villages where Jesus would not do his wonderful works because of the mockery of disdainful and contemptuous unbelief.
All such failure is not due to his lack of power. It is not any impotence in the seed itself, but rather in that seed being confronted with the fallenness and fickleness of men in sin and under the power of the devil. We sow and publish and broadcast the word of God in enemy-occupied territory; it is given over to the god of this world. While the devil has been judged, and is a muzzled cur dragging his chains behind him, he yet labours unwearyingly in malignant spite against any work of God. Jesus says that as soon as some hear the word, “then the devil comes and takes away word from their heart, so that they may not believe and be saved” (v.12). The devil is busy while I preach and after I preach and he gets into the car with us on our way home and sits with us while we eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and he takes away the word from our hearts.
So there is the power of darkness, and there is also the hardness of man’s hearts and because of this we meet with difficulties and failure. When we are engaged in any kind of Christian activity – praying, evangelising, counselling, pastoring, giving – inevitably we’re going to meet with failure. If you don’t appreciate that reality then one day you are going to have a rude awakening. You’re going to be jarred alert, gasping, “What in the world is happening? I didn’t think the Christian life was like this.” You’d been ignoring the devil and underestimating the power of sin in men’s hearts. The Lord Jesus in this parable informs the church that failure is always going to be a feature of the ongoing work of the kingdom.
There is in fact a variegated failure. There’s a range of responses to the mightiest preaching of the word of God. The Lord warns the church of a threefold sterility.
i] Sometimes our witness simply comes to nothing. The word lies dormant on the surface of men’s lives. There is no penetration at all, no roots. It lies on the path where it leaves no mark at all. It’s food for the birds, and that’s all – birdseed (v.5). It is like spilled muesli on formica. We see nothing coming as a result of sowing that seed. There was no human response at all. Teenagers and unconverted spouses look blankly back at the sower year after year. The only thing we can look forward to in regard to such failure is the commendation of our Saviour, “Well done.” We have been the savour of death in such a case. We often know that.
ii] Sometimes our witness accomplishes a momentary change of emotion; there is a temporary joyful response to our message. Isn’t that true? Sometimes seed falls on rocky shallow soil and it does come up – not like the seed that falls on the path (v.6). Jesus explains it; “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in time of testing they fall away” (v.13). Here are people who hear the word for the first time and quickly and joyfully receive it. “Yes!” they say triumphantly, and yet a little later when they are faced with the requirements of credible godliness, the cost of walking step by step with Jesus, the teasing they are meeting, the sheer inconvenience of being a 24/7 Christian then what happens? John Bunyan says, “they give God the slip.” Don’t we all know it? Haven’t we seen it in new ‘converts’? I meet many parents who say that none of their children are now Christians although they made professions when they were younger. Don’t we find ourselves thinking at baptismal services, “Time and the devil will tell” and yet praying that they will shine for the Lord Jesus?
iii] Sometimes our witness produces a more lasting change. It puts down some roots in a person’s life, but as the word grows so thorns are allowed to grow alongside it (v.7). Don’t you know that those weeds are competing for the same light and energy and food your life needs? What is going to win? They are growing side by side, week after week, month after month, and Christians looking on get concerned. You can’t see them as distinctively Christian as you’d hoped they’d be. They had started so well, but why aren’t they nailing their colours up? The salt seems to be losing its savour. Why are they allowing all those weeds to grow around them. Is the word going to destroy the thorns, or are the thorns going to destroy the word? It’s got to be life for one of them and death for the other. Which is it going to be? O Christian, the Holy Spirit is a wonderful weed killer. Why don’t you use the weed killer? What are these thorns? The Lord tells us that they are very ordinary sins, “life’s worries, riches and pleasures” (v.14). The result is no maturity. Early enthusiasm doesn’t lead to the long haul. Nothing spectacular there at all. Those pressures are just samples of the kind of thorns that compete for life and energy that we need. They strangle the word of the gospel. That trio is a pretty comprehensive list – worry, the itch for more ‘stuff’, and pleasures. They are three merciless giants who’ve killed their thousands, and if you’re not David with a sling and a stone then Goliath and his brothers are going to slay you too. Every single Christian has got to kill remaining sin by the power of the Spirit, or sin will kill him.
Failures in particular circumstances don’t mean the failure of the kingdom. Our Lord is faithfully warning us from the beginning that we are going to meet with a variety of failure and that that is always going to pain us. One thing we must never do and that is to turn every failure onto ourselves and say, if only we as a church had been a more loving, and a more holy and a more evangelistic congregation then there’d have been no failures. The minister too must resist personalizing the loss of every one who turns back, and blaming himself: “If only I were a more powerful preacher and more hardworking pastor then there would be no falling away.” Of course, let’s all seek to be more holy and loving and evangelistic, and let’s be steadfast and unmovable and always abounding in the work of the Lord, but don’t get crushed down into sinful lethargy because some you know and love have given up the faith. Keep going, keep sowing, keep farming! We carry the weight of such disappointments for the rest of our lives, and we go over all the circumstances too much so, but they must drive us to God not to despair. There is a work to be done and a harvest to be reaped.
4. THE PROGRESS OF THE KINGDOM IS YET ASSURED BY THE POWER OF THE WORD AND THE PURPOSE OF THE KING.
The kingdom of God shall be fruitful. That is the message of the gospel. The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ. Many are going to come from north, south, east and west to the marriage feast in heaven. They are a company more than any man can number. They will be like the sands on the seashore. Christ shall bring his family before his Father and shall cry out with joy, “Behold I and the children which thou hast given me!” We know that from this parable of the sower. Some seed falls on the path, and some on stony ground, and some amidst the thorns, but much of the seed “fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown” (v.8). Think of this one man Jesus, and he falls into the ground and dies and what fruit comes from his life. Think of the twelve apostles, and how they spend themselves living and dying for Christ and how in one sermon Peter draws 3,000 men to Christ. We think of the 500 on the Mount of Ascension and how within twenty years Paul can say that the gospel has gone from them into the whole world. We think of the millions of Christians today in every part of the world who all go back and back to the 500 or the 12 or the One. So I am instructed to believe that none of my work in Christ has been in vain, and that I am promised that there will be a hundredfold increase in the weed that I sow, maybe during my lifetime, but certainly afterwards. My words will live on, and there’ll be life coming from them until the day of Christ.
The work of the gospel is bound to be successful. The earth is going to be filled with the glory of Christ. Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth its successive journeys run, and that progress will be marked by much variety. Europe hears, and then South America, and then Korea, and then China hears. God always does a new thing in the earth. There was a revival of religion in Wales a hundred years ago, and mission halls and the Apostolic church came out of it, but twenty years later God did something new, and he raised up a man in London who had no contact with the leaders of that revival and God used him to bring life and leadership to Wales. I am saying that great awakenings never follow historical patterns, they always follow biblical patterns, in terms of the truth preached and the methods the church uses. God’s works are marked by variety and diversity, and even in times of blessing the increase is going to be thirty here, and sixty there and a hundred somewhere else. Variety will mark it, but there will be no life and no growth without the word, and without it being sown.
What does it all mean, this progress of the kingdom? It means that God’s work is going to be fruitful all over the world. “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). We have to trust the one who made that promise and keep sowing the seed of the word, in our own lives, in the lives of our families, and in the lives of our congregations. Whatever the future holds for the church, and whatever new methods of communication are devised the blessing of God will always rest on those who sow the word.
Yet the Lord Jesus is providing the great rationale in this parable for those common heart-aches which all involved in gospel labours meet. John Flavel once said that Christian work is a killing work. Other labourers can leave their task on the bench and come back to it the next day and find it exactly as they left it. The farmer can return to the field and the hedger will be just where it was when he switched off the engine and put on the brake, and he can continue the hedging. But when we Christians return to our work we find that the devil has unravelled and disturbed much of what we’ve done. What are we to do? We carry on. The Lord has given us the very best seed. Honour his seed! It’s a tiny seed, the smallest in the town, but what good things can come from it. Remember, mighty trees come from a mustard seed.
Little drops of water, Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean And the pleasant land.
Don’t sow thorns. The branches are only good when they’re dead and lying on the compost heap. Don’t be carried away by novelties. There are those things that seem voguish and hip now, but they lack the integrity of the word. Be steadfast and do the work of the Lord, and you shall reap, for none of those who trust the word of the Lord and the Lord of the word will be put to shame. No barrenness at all if the seed is honoured. Christ’s fruit will be found – God has made up his mind about that. The day will declare men’s work, of what sort it is. Behold a sower went out to sow!
5th October 2008 GEOFF THOMAS