Once again God has blessed our undeserving nation with a good agricultural harvest: ‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease’ (Genesis 8:22).
This is a blessing we should never take for granted, even as the petition ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11) reminds us. Harvests fail in some localities while they prosper in many others; God’s care for his creation, amid the current pandemic and other tribulations, continues unfailingly.
The Lord Jesus Christ drew attention to another kind of harvest, that of precious souls for the kingdom of God. He told a harvest parable, which he said was a key to understanding all his parables (Mark 4:13). It is often known as the Parable of the Sower from its opening words, ‘Behold, a sower went out to sow’ (Mark 4:1-20).
It deals head-on with the realities of success and failure in reaping a spiritual harvest. Three out of the four sowing occasions Jesus describes fail to bring lasting fruit. Only one succeeds, although with an astonishing productivity (Mark 4:20). From this parable we learn some encouraging lessons about how God’s kingdom progresses.
The first is that Jesus doesn’t automatically pin any failure of harvest on the sower. The sower can be interpreted as either being Christ (Matthew 13:37) or the servant of Christ ministering God’s Word.
Provided his job is done properly, the sower is nearly (though not quite!) irrelevant to success or failure: ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase’ (1 Corinthians 3:6-7; cf. Mark 4:27-28).
Nor does Christ ascribe any cause of failure to the seed. The seed is ‘the word of the kingdom’ (Matthew 13:19). Even in failure, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not need altering in any way; it is not up for genetic modification!
It is a tragedy when Christians tamper with the seed because ‘there is no fruit’. It is a disaster when, in order to get results, Christians quietly shed from their message those aspects of biblical teaching that the lost find unpalatable.
What then is the cause of success or failure in the spiritual harvest? The key is, as the parable makes so vividly clear, the state of the soil: whether there is any soil to speak of in the first instance (wayside); whether the soil is shallow (stony ground) or weed-infested (thorns); or whether it is clean and deep (good ground).
The soil stands for the human heart. The heart of every person born into this world is unable to turn naturally from being ‘deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’ (Jeremiah 17:9) apart from the electing grace of God. Only when sovereign grace is at work can someone understand God’s Word and turn from sin to Christ. That is what that difficult section of Mark 4:10-12 is all about!
To understand the centrality of these truths to kingdom progress is key to understanding the other parables as well. Christ came to bring heart-religion through repentance and faith in himself. True religion is so different from the religion typified by the Scribes and Pharisees, with its emphasis on human traditions and codes of external morality.
Moreover, divine election works in surprising ways. Jesus’s method of teaching by parables was intended to make it, at that time, more (not less) difficult for the Jewish nation ‘to know the mystery of the kingdom of God’.
His purpose was that ‘seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them’ (Mark 4:11-12). But even that severe judgment was for the greater purpose of God’s grace, for Israel’s fall was ‘riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles’ (Romans 11:12).
In other words, there will always be some good soil to be found for the seed, but only in God’s time and place. So ‘in the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (Ecclesiastes 11:6).