“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…instead of thorns the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.” Isaiah 55:11-13
I am about to share with you a secret that not many people know. This secret is not hidden. Anyone with ears can hear it. But few will understand it. This has been a vital principle of growth for our community.
One of my favorite parables Jesus tells is of the four soils. I had heard it many times before, but I didn’t understand it until God started teaching me through it in late 2016. It’s through this story that He rescued me from panic attacks and anxiety. I’m going to tell it to you in three layers. I’ll tell you the story first, then we will try to really understand how it is like the Kingdom of God by truly perceiving each “character” in the story the way Jesus did, through the lens of the natural, the spiritual, and the personal.
Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times. (Mark 4:3-8)
Jesus explains what this means.
The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown. (Mark 4:14-20)
THE MAIN CHARACTERS: SEED, SOWER, AND SOIL
The seed is the “word” (verse 14) The word can be understood in the natural realm as something that is spoken, the message, the logos. It can also be scripture, which is called the “Word of God” because it is inspired by His Spirit. But do you know who is called “The Word/Message/Logos”? Jesus! Jesus is the word who was with God and in God and through whom the world was made. He was “the word” made flesh who dwelled with us, pitched His tent with us, abiding among us (John 1).
Further support for understanding Jesus as the word/seed is found in Paul’ calling Jesus the “seed of Abraham” (Galatians 3:16). Looking at Jesus asa second Isaac. God promised descendants through Abraham (his natural son was born of natural means), but Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Abraham was asked to sacrifice His son (but was stopped because God provided a sacrifice), but God, the Father gave His son as a sacrifice for sin so that the descendants of Abraham could know the presence of God and multiply to include the gentiles. Christ is the seed, the kernel of wheat, that fell to the ground and died, and now produces many seeds. (John 12:24) Jesus is the message. He is the Word. He is the seed.
Who is the sower, the one who sows the word? It is anyone who speaks the message–but in this case it is also the Father. Jesus was sown by the Holy Spirit into Mary’s womb and spoken to us by the Father, first by prophecy (Isaiah 53), then by the Messiah Himself. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (Jesus, the Word) that whoever would believe would not die, but have life unending.” (John 3:16) The sower is the one who speaks the message of the truth and love of Christ. He is invested in seeing the message grow and multiply. He is a world changer.
What is the soil then? It is our hearts. The seed is sown “in them” (verse 15). In this parable, we are the soil, not the thing that grows. What Jesus is talking about here is how the message of Himself is being received. How do you receive or host the seed of God’s Word–Christ Himself? Each one of our hearts represent a type of soil. Let’s explore our heart conditions.
THE FOUR HEART CONDITIONS
Which of the following best describes your heart?
The soil of the path has been hardened somehow. Hardness can be a result of being trampled, cold, or dry. Maybe you have been trampled and crushed by something from your past–from growing up, from past trauma or pain. Some people have naturally hard personalities. It’s almost in their make-up. If this is you, you might be stubborn, which can mean you are very capable and resilient. But God doesn’t want resilience from you. He wants reliance on Him. You might know a lot about Jesus and even believe He is the son of God, but you may have never accessed the Living Water of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17; Acts 18:24-25; Acts 19:1-6).
Are you hard towards God? Whether you are hardened by the past, hard by make-up, or hard from spiritual dehydration, nothing good can come from hardness. If you hear about the truth of the joy of Christ taking over your life it will not sink in. It will stay on the surface and the enemy will steal it. You will not even remember it’s there. You will forget. And you will stay hard. No one will be able to convince you.
Or…you can ask God, the Sower, to plow your heart wide open so He can speak to you. It will hurt. You will feel exposed. But He will speak to your heart and you will be soft again. And you will come alive. God loves to sow in impossible soil. Remember Abraham and Sarah the ones too old to bear children, or Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus? Hard soil is no match for the power of God. He is after your heart.
Rocky soil in the natural realm is where growth is constantly frustrated from underground. Unlike the soil in the path, here the soil itself is soft but it is full of hard things. The seed will start to grow and then the roots will hit the rocks, allowing the plant to grow, but only to wither under the heat of the sun. There is no fruit. If this is your heart, maybe you feel like you keep running into the same obstacles to growth: habitual sin, pride, fear of man, anxiety, doubt, insecurity, love of self, etc. No matter how hard you try, you just run headlong into these hard, immovable obstacles. When you receive the offer of Jesus talking over your life, you can’t see how that would be possible. There’s too much blocking Him. You are discouraged and feel the weight of failure. It takes enormous amounts of energy to even think that there is hope. That you could ever lift these things out of your life. Guess what? The hope is found in the fact that you cannot–it is impossible–for you to move these things.
But friend, the invitation is that you have a good sower who can lift these rocks out of you, above the surface. Out of the way. And all the things you have been hiding. They will be finished. And what used to be an impossible obstacle will become an uncut altar of remembrance. And just like the altars of the old days, it will be a marker of The Sower’s power and His faithfulness. Your testimony will be about His strength in your weakness. The shame will be gone. You will be free. And we who love you and who have prayed for your freedom will worship when we see the thing above ground that used to keep you root-bound.
Our God is the great mover of stones. And there was one stone that was rolled away that was also immovable. He does not want you living in darkness. He is perfectly willing and able to move the huge thing standing impossibly between you and resurrection life! He is strong enough.
It is growing lots of things in it–things that choke the life out of the plant. Thorns are sharp and pointed. They are like daggers, wrapping around and puncturing all life-giving things, until they have taken over the territory. Thorny soil is soft, but it is divided in attention. Thorns and weeds steal nutrients, they are invasive and they are nearly impossible to kill. When you pull them up, which is painful, it will regenerate if only one bit of the vine falls back to the soil.
There’s only one way to kill thorns. You have to burn them. The only problem is that you cannot do that. Because in this parable, you are just soil. So we see here that the thorns of anxiety, worries, cares of this world, desire for things, and the deceitful love for money and the things it can buy.
We try to “find time” but really, if we are honest, we have lots of time, we just spend it on what seems more rewarding or urgent. But urgency is often created by false fears and pressures. We have not decided that God is the best thing. We are still trying to balance being a Christian with being in this crazy world. These are mental distractions that steal our time and attention from Christ.
We find our minds filled with everything but fruit. We can look and talk like we are excited about Jesus but there is too much else competing. We need to weed things out but we don’t know how. We don’t know what it would look like to live from a place of rest because we have been taught that productivity and responsibility are the marks of a good Christian. But we’ve been going about that all wrong. The most responsible thing we could do is to return God in rest, quietness and trust (Isaiah 30:15) and let Him produce the fruit. He is zealous for His own name. This spiritual rest not breed laziness. Quite the opposite. You will never be more delightfully busy than when you are only focusing on Jesus. The difference is, you will be doing work that builds His kingdom, not yours.
Does this seem impossible? Could all these weeds of worry, reliance on money, and desiring more technology, furniture, clothing, cars, better houses, upgrades on those houses, activities for our kids so they can be well-rounded, the pressure of serving at your church, the pressure to keep up expectations of others and ourselves. How do we make it stop? Well, we can’t. We are soil. The only way to make it stop is to lay down and surrender.
Because…the seed of Abraham, Himself, laid down on the altar of shame and disgrace, our sin upon Him, and wrapped around His fixed eyes, over his anointed head, around His pure mind–a crown of our thorns. And HE was bruised and crushed for our idolatry and distractedness and our misguided affections.
Jesus took these thorns to upon Him so you would be free. Your mind can be clearly focused on the Kingdom of God. Your love of money destroyed by the call of the one who says drop your nets and “follow me.” Though, as descendants of Adam and Eve we once live under the curse of the ground, (Gen. 3:17ff), but that curse has been lifted (Genesis 8:20–21). We have a powerful God that wields a refiner’s fire (Mal. 3:3). We have a sower that gave Christ who baptizes with the Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11; Acts 2). “The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briers.” (Isaiah 10:17)
We need everything to be burned out of us. And we know it will hurt, we know this burning out is something we must ask Him for and then withstand throughout the process as all the things we thought were important burn. All the “other things of the world” that garner our affection, resources, and attention get pulled up and out of us and it looks like we are left with nothing.
Which we are…finally.
Good soil is empty soil. It is open and ready to accept seed. It simply rests and then yields–first to the seed, then to the roots, then to the water, then to the fruit! A seed planted in good, moist, soft, empty soil is re-hydrated by “living water” (that is water under the surface). Then the seed grows out of the soil and produces a harvest. In the case of wheat or corn, the kernel planted simply multiplies more of itself, 30, 60, 100 times more!
Good soil hears, accepts, and yields to fruit. That’s it. Doesn’t that take the pressure off? We simply yield as Christ grows in us and takes over our lives. My effort does not produce His fruit. We just get to pay attention to Him and follow Him into love-driven obedience as He multiplies His kingdom through us.
What were we made of in the beginning, friends? We are made of dust and to dust we will return. (Gen. 3) We are formed from the earth and breathed into by the breath–the very Spirit, of God. And though we are just dust, like the Sower will tell you that we are His greatest treasure and His greatest hope for multiplying His Word, His seed, Christ to the world!
For us, it means that we must be emptied. Andrew Murray gives a beautiful picture in his book, Absolute Surrender, regarding a cup of tea. We will use coffee because I am American and coffee is better than tea. So say that you have a half a cup of coffee and you ask someone to please fill it with water. Suppose the person you ask simply tops off the coffee with water? What will you have? Some really disgusting watered down coffee. So, if you have a cup of coffee and you want water, you need to empty the cup.
Some of us have never truly emptied out completely.
If you keep trying to pour water into coffee, you just keep drinking watered down coffee. You need to empty out so there is room for fresh, pure water. What do you need to empty?
Truth is, there is no balance when it comes to our lives. It is all Christ or nothing. There is no balance–He demands everything of us, our very death to the things of this world and to self.
God wants all your sin and accompanying shame and guilt. That should have happened at conversion. But what He wants now (if you have not given it) is complete permission to take you over. That means everything else has to go. You cannot serve both God and man, or God and money, or God and your own desires.
Not only that, but our good stuff is demanded of God as well. Our good reputation dies, because we will be persecuted. Our renown and legacy and fame no longer matter, because our one goal is the glory of God. Our abilities, skills, acquired areas of learning and knowledge are counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (Philippians 3:7-11) We lay each earned and valuable thing down that has been defining our identity in order to only be identified with Christ. (1 Cor. 2:2)
We are His. That is all. And that is enough.
We become literally poorer because we no longer work ourselves until all hours of the night for profit and we give generously to all who ask. We become humiliated and less socially appreciated because while we used to be able to juggle all the parties, meetings, assignments, and social things, now we only want to be at the feet of Jesus. We don’t care about climbing the ladder of success because we realize our reputation we were trying to gain so that we could be an “influencer FOR God” is actually a waste of time, because He is the influencer–He is the mover of hearts. He is our very capable leader. We see that those who are truly seeing fruit multiplying out of their lives are those who are going lower not higher.
We go lower and emptier and we finally become good soil.
We rest. And then, we start seeing the astounding beauty of Christ, the seed of Abraham, the root and the shoot of Jesse (Revelation 22:16, Isaiah 11:10). We rest and we sit at His feet and we listen to what He has to say and we finally understand the depth of His love for us. And we decide that learning to listen, and hear, and love Him in the way He wants to be loved is the best thing to waste our lives doing. We pour out our expensive time and energy on His feet. We waste ourselves in worship.
Guess what happens then? Fruit.
People come to Jesus when they experience His presence, specifically, when they experience us in His presence. My attention has been on Jesus for the last three years. It has been a reshaping and a tearing up and a deconstruction like I never could have imagined. I am not the same person.
I was the wife who idolized and found her identity in her husband and children and in my job and my church ministry, and who now worships only Jesus. I still love my husband and children, and I still love to teach and minister to people, but I find my identity rooted in Christ and His life growing up in me. I rest now. I open up to Him. I show Him my heart wide open. I ask Him every day to tend to me. To cover me. To be the one thing. To grow and multiply Himself out of the soil of my heart.
Now all of this starts to make sense:
Christ IN ME, the hope of glory. (Col.1:27)
For I am crucified with Christ and yet I live, not I but Christ who lives WITHIN ME. (Gal. 2:20)
What if we all let lay down like soil and let Jesus just take us over? What if we let Him grow in and through and out of us and see Him multiply Himself out of all this “going lower”? What if those seeds dropped to the heart soil of those around you and took root? What would that look like?
It would look like multiplication–the Kingdom of God taking over the world!
THE GROWING KINGDOM
The kingdom is this unseen thing, spreading sometimes invisibly underground. Within the soil. It is a kingdom of hearts who have given all their allegiance, even their very lives, to the King of Heaven.
20 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; 21 nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is in you.* Luke 17:20-21
Wherever you go, you carry the seed of the Word in your heart and mouth that it falls onto heart soil whenever you yield the fruit of His Spirit in you—love, compassion, humility, peace, joy, and goodness and righteousness. This is God’s means of multiplication and kingdom expansion. The kingdom of God is within you, growing out of you, and it’s growing fast!
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” 33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Matthew 13:31-33
By the way, did you know that mustard plants are notoriously invasive? You know what mustard and yeast have in common? They both multiply very quickly. Yeast multiplies by budding. The bud multiplies through cellular growth where the nucleus splits itself and becomes the center of a new a daughter cell, which may separate or stay in a chain formation connected to the mother cell. Sound like a house church? The kingdom grows like that!
Mustard seed germinates almost immediately. Germination is the process of growing from a seed to a seedling. It requires a warm and soft environment (receptive heart), water to reconstitute the seed (the Holy Spirit), and the root grows down and the shoot grows up, sprouts leaves and is now a seedling, viable to produce food from photosynthesis. In fact, there were laws against planting mustard in Jewish gardens. It would cross over fences and walls. It was out of control. I love thinking about the kingdom of God this way.
“[Mustard] grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”**Pliny, the elder, in 78 AD writes about mustard
That is how the kingdom is supposed to grow. It should spread quickly and pop up in unexpected places so that it is impossible to get the place free of it once it has taken root. We are talking about growth that is often unplanned, wild, and “happily disorganized” to borrow a term from Mother Teresa. I think we are about to see an expansion of the gospel that is out of control because we are going to realize our role in it. First, to rest as soil, to let Jesus grow out of us fueled by Living Water of the Spirit, bearing His fruit in the world, then to rise in this new life and sow everywhere, in every heart God puts in our path. Now that we are in his agenda, not ours, now we can actually be about His glory not ours, and actually be effective for the kingdom—on the front lines!
God does not want our projects. He wants our hearts. It’s time to get back to God’s principles of growth. Speak seed. Go back to soil. Let’s just focus on the “one necessary thing”–the seed-word, Jesus. Let’s spend our lives in worship at His feet and see what He does!
*Some translations say “among you,” but the you in the Greek is singular, and it seems like it doesn’t make sense to say the kingdom is among you, singular. “Within you” is a much more consistent translation with the message of Jesus that a person must be born again from the inside out by the Spirit.
**Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by Harris Rackham, Loeb, 1950, Book XIX, Chapter LIV.