The Parable of the Sower
A Message by Pastor Eric Chang
We continue our exposition in Matthew. Chapter 13 onwards, but today, instead of reading Matthew 13, I will read the parallel passage in Lk. 8:4-8 and 11-15. Today we commence our study in the teaching of our Lord Jesus regarding the parables. The Lord Jesus taught in parables and we have over 30 parables in the NT. And so by the Lord’s grace, I shall be expounding the parables systematically week by week until we go through these 30 precious parables of the Lord.
We begin with what we can call the foundation parable: The Parable of the Sower. You will remember that we have had occasion in the past many times to refer to this parable, though we had not expounded it systematically. This parable is extremely rich and I shall then aim to bring out one particular point to establish our understanding of this parable as we go along. In Luke Chapter 8, vv4-8 is the parable itself and vv11-15 is the explanation of the parable. The Lord Jesus gives an explanation and teaches his disciples to understand parables. In the next message, we will study why the Lord Jesus uses parables at all, and whether they are meant to help us in our understanding or whether they are also meant to conceal something.
Let us read the parable in Lk. 8:4-8:
And when a great crowd came together and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
That is the parable, and then the Lord Jesus himself gives the explanation from vv11-15. And this is what we read here:
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.
From Mk. 4:13, we see that this is a foundation parable where the Lord Jesus says, “If you don’t understand this parable, how would you understand any parables?” Therefore it also occurs as the first of the parables. In all the Synoptic Gospels, you will see that the Parable of the Sower comes forth as the first of the parables.
What is the parable about? Well, the Lord Jesus says that a sower went out to sow the seed. This is a picture which is very familiar in an agricultural country. You walk around the road and you will see people sowing seeds in the field. And He says, “Well, you know that when the farmer sows the seeds, he just scatters them. He uses a scattering motion when he scatters the seed. He carries a seed bag, a pouch in front of him, a bag that is hung around his shoulders, and he takes a handful of the seeds and slings it forth and the seeds are then scattered in an arch across the field. He walks along and he scatters them back and forth as he goes.
As he scatters the seeds, of course, some of the seeds fall upon hard ground, for example, where people walk, where the path is a very hard surface because people keep walking back and forth and press the ground together. The seeds that fall upon this hardened ground (for example, the path where people walk), of course, are not able to enter into the ground; they lie on top of the surface of the soil. As you have often seen, wherever the farmer is sowing, you often have a whole flock of birds following behind, waiting to pick up the odd seeds. Thus, some of the seeds fall upon the path, the birds come along behind and they pick up these seeds which are on the path - the seeds which have not gone into the soil where the birds cannot get it.
Then he says that there is another group where the seed does fall into the soil, but the soil is not that deep. When the rain comes down and the soil is then beginning to wrap itself around the seed, very quickly the seed begins to grow. It seems to give forth a very good response. But after a time, as the root begins to grow, it finds that down below there is rock. There is a limit to how far it can go down. It hits the rock and there it stops. Since there is rock underneath, the root cannot go down for moisture and so it withers. It dies because it has not enough moisture.
The other kind is one that is sown into the ground, but this ground is not pure. This ground contains other types of seeds, other types of roots, other types of vegetation in there. This kind of seeds or vegetation in the soil is not visible, and as Luke makes it very plain to us, they grow up together with the wheat and they choke it. When it was first sown, you did not see that there were any thorns or any other vegetation there. But after a time, as Luke tells us, they grow up together with the seed. Then the roots of those thorns, the roots of those weeds then tangle with the roots of this young plant, this new grain of wheat, and then it chokes it so that the wheat is not able to get the nourishment that it needs. So in the same way, this new grain of wheat, this new plant dies.
The Different Soils Are Different Heart Conditions Of People
When we look at this, we find that we can analyze this parable and categorize the different soils into two groups, and each group has three categories. Each of these categories are quite different in each group and that you need to observe. Not all unbelievers are alike, nor are all believers alike. We must not imagine that all non-Christians have exactly the same heart condition, the same spiritual heart condition as the other non-believer. They have each a different situation and are going to have a very different response to the Gospel.
What are these three categories in the first group? The first group are those who are not saved. The first category of this ‘unsaved’ group are unbelievers, the other two categories are believers, as you will see in the Lord’s own description of the matter. Of course there is a lot of teaching in the churches which is contrary to this, and I am not concerned myself with the doctrines in the churches. My task is to expound the Word of God. And I hope, as we have said before, that our hearts will be open to the Word of God and let the Word of God take us wherever the truth leads us.
The Seed Is The Word Of The Kingdom
I should mention the key to the parable is quite simple. First, the seed is the Word of God. This is made to us very plain by the Lord Jesus. This means that the person who sows the seed is the preacher. If the Word of God is the seed, then who preaches the Word of God is the sower. That is, whenever you stand up to witness for Christ or preach the Word of God, you are sowing. In the first instance, the sower here is the Lord Jesus, but from there on, we who preach the Gospel are all sowers. That is why the disciples are also sowers of the seed, as we see in Matthew 10. Their task is to sow the seed.
The seed is the Word of God, or it is also in Mt. 13:19 described as the Word of the Kingdom. It is the message concerning God’s rule, God’s government. Last time, we saw that the will of God is the central thing in our relationship to God. There is nothing that matters more than the will of God. The will of God is the one thing that matters in our lives. So the will of God is represented by this word ‘kingdom’. The word ‘kingdom’ means God’s rule, God’s government, God’s will. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s will is done. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” That is why ‘kingdom’ and ‘will’ are the same thing because the kingdom is where God’s will is done. The Word of the Kingdom is the message which calls upon people to submit their lives to God.
Any preaching that does not have this as the central point, which does not preach that every true Christian is a person who lives under God’s will, is not preaching the Word of God faithfully at all. If we preach salvation by just saying, “Come to Jesus for peace and joy”, that is not preaching the Word of God. We must first and foremost preach, “Come and live under God’s government, under God’s will. Let God be the King of your life.” That is preaching the Gospel. When you so live, there will be inner peace and joy. There will also be tribulation, persecution and suffering, as we shall see in a moment. Any preacher who does not mention that is really not fit to preach the Gospel because he is not preaching the Gospel as the Lord meant it to be preached. We are not here to sell candies. We are not here to sell sweets. We are here to proclaim the truth, not to tell people what they like to hear, but to tell them what is the truth. The truth is not always everything that you want to hear. A doctor often has to tell you the truth. You may not like to hear it, but it is the truth. Nobody likes to be told that he is not well, that he is sick, or that he is dying. So here we find that preaching the Word of God is preaching God’s kingdom, living under his sovereignty, under his lordship.
Now that is the Word of God and the sower then is the one who proclaims these things. In the first place, the Lord Jesus was proclaiming that Word, and now we are proclaiming that Word. Not only the preacher, but you, whenever you witness to a friend, whenever you speak the Word of God to others, you are sowing the seed.
If the seed is the Word of God, and the sower is the preacher, then what is the ground? The ground, which received the seed, that the Lord Jesus tells us, is the heart. The heart of the person is compared to the soil, the ground on which the seed is sown. You see that in Mt. 13:19. The seed is sown in the person’s heart. This means that whenever we speak of the different types of soil, that is, when this parable describes the different types of soil, it is actually describing the different kinds of attitude of heart.
Soil Along The Path
So, prepared with this , we can now turn to these three categories (one category of unbelievers and two categories of believers), but all alike - unsaved - by examining the facts what makes the difference between them. So, the first category of those who are not saved are the people who are described as the path on which the seeds fell, but [these] could not enter because the path, the surface, the soil is hardened. That is to say, this represents the kind of person whose heart is entirely hardened against God. You preach the Gospel and it is just like water off the duck’s back. You sow the seed and you might as well have sown it on rock. It is like going up to the Rocky Mountains and trying to plant wheat on the rocks. It is useless. It does not penetrate. This kind of person, this first category, is completely adamant; they will not have anything to do with the Gospel. Their hearts are hardened against the Gospel. They do not want to listen to the Word of God. Or if they do listen, they just listen in order to sneer at it, in order to reject it. They trample the Gospel under foot. In this way, the Gospel is utterly unable to penetrate. They do not believe at all.
Soil With Rock Underneath
The second category in this group of those who are not saved are not like this at all. Their heart in fact, on the surface, is very receptive to the Gospel, and so the Lord Jesus compares their heart to a situation in which you have rich topsoil, but rock underneath. This is the kind of person who you have to describe as superficial. And this kind of person is always a great problem to the church, but they are the delight of a certain type of evangelist, because they are the people who make quick responses. They are the people who at meetings raise their hands very quickly. They do not seem to struggle very hard. As the Bible tells us, they receive the Word of God “with joy.” They gladly receive the Word. You see that here in v13: “the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word,” - the Word of God - “receive it with joy;” but they have no root. They have no depth. We find these words here set out for us very clearly, especially in Mt. 13:5, in the words “they had no depth”.
This kind of person is the problem for every preacher because when you preach the Gospel to them, they receive it with joy, saying, “Oh! Hallelujah! This is great stuff. Oh, this is wonderful!” And you say, “What a tremendous Christian! Look at him! He receives it with joy!” If you say, “Raise your hands - anyone who makes a decision for Christ”, their hands shoot up like a rocket. They are the ones “Come forward!”, swoosh, they rush to the front. No problem! They are the ones who get their heads counted in all the statistics at evangelistic crusades. Now, of course, I do not want to say that everybody who raises his hand at an evangelistic meeting is of this type. There are others, too, who raise their hands and who really love the Lord, and who really have depth. So do not get me wrong. I do not at all want to say [that]. But the problem is that this kind of person tends to be too often in a great majority. There are many, of course, of those who raise their hands at meetings who go forward with fear and trembling, and who remain firm to the Lord to the end. This type we must not overlook.
I often see people come to the Lord with tears, and with fear and trembling. This kind of person are often much more steady. But there are other types who just rush forward, and I am afraid of that type. So here we find that people in this second category have no depth. So, they receive the Word of God and immediately they start growing. Oh, they grow faster than everybody else! The specialists tell us it is because the rock underneath provides extra warmth. Therefore the seed germinates faster; it responds more quickly. So you see this one shooting up really fast, the other one growing much more slowly. This type shoots up fast and you say, “What a wonderful Christian this is!” Not so fast! If you are experienced in God’s Word, not so fast. Do not be too excited about that yet. Time will tell whether there is root in the plant or not.
So what we see in this category then is the kind of person who is superficial. There is spiritual response, but the response is not deep enough. Why? It is because underneath, there is a basic resistance, hardness to the Word of God. They are willing to go so far and no more. They are not totally committed persons. They commit themselves, but up to a point. That is why I have constantly warned you that the faith that saves in the Bible is always an unconditional and total commitment because if it is not total, that means that you have drawn a line somewhere underneath. You alone know. Maybe you do not even yourself know where that line is, but one of these days, that root will hit that rock. It will go no further, and then what happens is that the plant above dies.
Those of us who have served the Lord long enough have seen too many die, too many spiritual collapses, too many for our liking. Too often, it is the majority that collapses. I would like you to examine your own heart. You have made a response to God, yes, but is it an unconditional response? Have you drawn the line somewhere in your heart and said, “Now, I’m going to be a Christian, but I’m going to stop at this point. I’m going to go to church and I’m going to be a good Christian, but I’m going to draw the line here. I’m not going to let the Word of God do any more than this; it’s got to stop here. Above there, I’m going to be enthusiastic. I’ll serve in young people’s groups. I’ll do this and that in the church, I’ll be active.” Oh, they are very active, provided it does not go beyond this line. They have mentally, or in their hearts, drawn the line beyond which they will not go. If you press it far enough, if you take a test of it, you will find that if you press the rod down into the ground, you will hit the rock somewhere and it will stop. It does not have to be very deep. The roots of a wheat does not go that far down, even at the best. So you will find that the soil is very shallow. Here then, we need to be aware of these matters and observe very carefully these points.
But what I would like you to notice about this second category is that they do believe. They are and will be categorized as “Christians”. They are the kind of people, who having received the Word of God, will get baptized, will do this and that and all kinds of things. So it tells us that they really do believe, but unfortunately what is described of them in v13 is that “they believe for a while and in time of temptation”, they “fall away”. They believe! How can it be said, in the light of scriptural evidence that once you believe, you are always saved? It completely bewilders me the more I study the Scripture. We are told in the Lord’s own words that “they believe for a while and... fall away”. They are finished!
I am here and see again, and I do not want to spend so much time with our friends who do not really want to listen to the Word of God, who invent their own doctrines and theories, quite in rejection, in countering to the Word of God. Let no one say to you otherwise. Do not stand in deep self-confidence, saying to yourself, “Well, I’m okay now, I have believed. I have been baptized.” Maybe you belong to this category, I hope not! But perhaps, what if you belong to this category? You were baptized, you believe, you were all heated up for a while, you got really excited for a time, but when the pressure came, when the tribulation comes, you depart, you will fall away. I pray to God that none of you will be in this category. So this is the second category, who do believe, but who also believed just for a while.
Soil With “Other Things”
Thus, it is also with the third category. But then the third category is again entirely different from the first two. This category has no problem with rocks at all. Their heart is open to the Word of God. There is no rock inside there at all. The soil is good. It is deep. It is fine. So what is the problem? When the Word of God is sown, they received the Word of God into their hearts, like the second category, but this time it is not said “with joy”. They are much deeper. People who are deeper often do not make a very superficial response. There is no expression in all three gospels that they received the Word with joy. Obviously they received it with hesitation, with trembling maybe, with struggles. They do not here have this response. It is very remarkable in the teaching of the Lord how precise it is. He reserves the words “with joy” only to the second category. The third category does not come this way.
Maybe they came forward in a meeting with tears; they wept; they trembled. Their heart was open to God. There is no reservation there, but - but what? But there were other things in the heart. Their heart was not pure in its devotion and commitment to the God. They had not taken out the seeds of other things inside. So what happens is that whereas the Word of God does grow in them, they do make a definite response, but soon what happens is that those “other things” - the word here is “other things” - come along and choke it, and it cannot grow. That is the great tragedy of this group. They fail to take into account the words of the Lord Jesus, “You cannot serve God and mammon”. [Mt. 6:24, Lk. 16:13] You cannot do both! You cannot serve God and Belial. You cannot serve God and other idols. You cannot serve God and the world. Have you made up your mind? Do you know where you stand? Is your heart pure with God?
That is why the Lord Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, as you remember when we were expounding it, “Let your eye be single”. [Mt. 6:22] For He says that if the eye is not single, you are going to suffer from double vision, and then the light in you will be darkness. Then the Lord Jesus says that if the light in you is darkness, “how great is that darkness” [v23], all because your eye is not single. Your eye is defective. You do not fix your eye on God. You try to look at God; you try to look at the world; you try to look at this idol; you look at the pleasures of life. You cannot survive like this! You have to be unconditionally, totally committed to God to survive. There is no other way.
Look at your own heart before God. Look at it! Notice: it does not say anything about sins here. Notice carefully. It does not say that their hearts were full of sins. No, no! They received the Gospel. They do love good things. They do love the church. They do love the Word of God. But it is the Word of God plus this, plus that, plus the other thing. It is Christ plus this, plus that. And once you do that, if Christ is not all in all, you do not survive.
So we are told in this passage what happens with this third category. Especially if we look at the passage in the Gospel of Mark, in Mk. 4:19, we will notice that here we have this problem - the Word of God is choked by these other things. This category also is very, very worrying because many times, I have seen Christians who have started out so well. They seemed to have a very great depth. Their responses are not superficial, but they lack single-mindedness, single-heartedness. You do not survive without that.
Rejection Of God’s Sovereignty Results In Falling Away
So now we can see that in all these cases, all these three categories are entirely different. We have noticed that of these three categories who are not saved, only the first are unbelievers, who never accepted the Word of God; the other two categories have accepted the Word of God but then fall away. So what happens, as we see in Luke’s passage is that “they believe for a while and” then they “fall away”. And the word ‘fall away’, by the way, is very final in the Scriptures. The same Greek word is used in 1 Tim. 4:1: “some will depart from the faith”. The Holy Spirit says expressly that in the last times, in these last days, “some will depart from the faith”. The word translated as ‘depart’ is the same Greek word as we have there in Lk. 8:13. Also in Heb. 3:12, we find again the same word translated in the English as “fall away”.
I will just read Heb. 3:12 to you, since it is a very important verse because these words are addressed to Christians: “Take heed brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” How can you speak to Christians about “an evil, unbelieving heart”? What does he mean by “an evil heart”? Here, ‘evil’ does not mean in the sense of going out to commit murder and robbery; no Christian would think of doing that. But here it is an ‘unbelieving’ heart, that is, not letting God rule in your heart. It is not letting God be King in your life. It is evil because not letting God be King in your life is an act of rebellion. It is a rejection of God’s sovereignty. The result of this is to fall away from the Living God.
In Lk. 13:27, the same Greek word is again used, this time by the Lord Jesus, as an expression of utter rejection: “Depart from me, all you evildoers.” There it is translated by the word ‘depart’. “Depart from me, ... you evildoers.” “I do not know you” at all. There he is speaking, remember, to those who profess themselves to be Christians. They have rejected Christ in their hearts by the kind of life they live, not necessarily by their mouths.
This brings me to the point. In these two categories, when it says that they “fall away”, it does not mean necessarily they do not go to church anymore. Some of them do not go to church anymore. But it means that in their hearts, they have rejected God’s kingdom. God’s will is no longer central to them. These are the kind of people who still go along to churches, and then after church they rush out to play “mahjong”. They rush out to put their bets on the horses. They rush out to invest in all kinds of illegal things. Christians are doing this kind of thing. What kind of a Christian are you? Well, maybe once, in former days, they were some sort of Christian. Now they still go to church. After all, going to church can become a habit. You do not feel good if you do not go to church. If you have been going to church for years, it becomes sort of a habit. You do not know what to do with yourself on a Sunday morning or afternoon, if you do not spend an hour or two in church. But that no longer indicates the quality of life. So by ‘fall away’, in the Bible, it does not necessarily mean that they have left the church, though it can mean that, too. Their hearts - we are talking about the heart condition, remember that - have turned away from God.
Now that is the first group. We see the three categories in this first group of those who are not saved all “fall away” and they are not saved.
Bring Forth Fruit A Hundredfold
The second group has three categories again. These are described as those who bring forth fruit: the one thirtyfold, the one sixtyfold, and the one a hundredfold. So we see the parable is perfectly balanced between those who are not saved and those who are saved. I think it is very significant to remind you again, that of those who are not saved, only one category are those who never believed at all, and two categories were those who did believe at one time or another. They believed, as the Lord Jesus says here, “for a while”.
This second group of those who bring forth fruit, they vary again. The main difference is in quality. It is the same seed, but the same seed produces different results in different soil. The Word of God that you hear is the same Word of God that John Wesley heard. But then, why are you not a John Wesley? The Word of God that you hear is the same Word as John Sung heard. Then why are you not a John Sung? He read the same Bible as you read; he has the same Holy Spirit as you have, then why are you different from him? What makes the difference?
Here is one with hundredfold, and the other has only thirtyfold. He has less than one-third the production, less than one-third the results of the one with one hundredfold. What is the difference? The difference again is the soil - the quality of your response to God. You need only to read the writings of people like Johns Sung and Wesley to see the quality of their response. It is a different quality. Therefore they experience God’s power working through them in different measure. It should be a challenge to all of us. Always remember this: the Word of God that you hear is the same Word of God that produced an apostle Paul, that produced an Augustine, that produced a John Wesley, a John Whitfield and so forth and so on. The same Word of God! These are giants; others are pygmies. One produces a hundredfold, the other thirtyfold. Well, it is not the fault of God’s Word; it is not the fault of the Spirit of God that you are not a John Wesley. It is the different quality of response, the different richness of that soil, the heart.
What kind of a Christian are you? Do you want to go through God with mediocrity? Think, on that Day when you stand before the Lord, what will be the difference? Oh, it would be a world of difference. We saw that when we were expounding on ‘salvation’ that if there is no fruit, there is not going to be salvation. We saw in John 15 that any branch that does not bring forth fruit will be cut off and thrown in the fire. The Lord made that very plain already. You may be a branch and you will still be cut off. You cannot get more plain than that. And “thrown into the fire” [v6] makes it exceedingly explicit. You cannot get more explicit than that.
But then, now consider this. Ask before God: “What kind of soil is my heart to the Word of God? How responsive am I?” And do not think it is spiritual modesty to say, “Okay, I’ll only settle for thirtyfold.” That is not modesty! You are hindering the full power of God’s Word. When that seed could produce one hundredfold, you limit it only to thirtyfold. What excuse do you have? So let us pray that God may have full swing in us, that the will of God will be utterly done in us. Without hindrance! Say, “O God! here I am in all my weaknesses, in all my failings, but let the power be of yourself, not of me. May you have full sway in my life! Accomplish your purpose! Grant only that I may not in any way hinder the full potential of your Word.”
Key To Fruitfulness - Endurance In Suffering
But now let us come back to look more deeply at this matter. What makes the distinction between these two groups? This is where I really want to come to the basic point. (To some of you, I may be speaking for the last time, since some of you will leave soon.) This one message I would really like you to bear in your hearts because it is going to make the difference between survival and the failure to survive. It is going to make the difference between becoming spiritually mighty or not even making anything at all, to completely falling away.
What is the key to understanding this? This is the one point I would like to establish in your mind. The whole issue centers on one thing: whether or not you understand the meaning of suffering and are willing to bear it. That is going to make all the difference. At this moment, you may not fully comprehend what I say, but I would like you to think about it for a moment.
The last word in Luke’s account of the Parable of the Sower ends with word (in the English translation - RSV in Lk. 8:15) “patience”. It is not a very good translation, but we will start there for the moment. The word actually means ‘endurance’. Now that is the key. That last word of the parable is the one word of the parable you will do well to remember. If you do not remember the rest of the parable in detail, you will do well to remember this one word - the word ‘endurance’. ‘Patience’, as it is translated here. This word ‘patience’” in Greek does not mean that you sit there patiently waiting for something to happen. That is not the word. That is why I said it is not a good translation. The word is ‘endurance’ - the ability to stand up under strain, to stand up under stress. That is what the Greek word means.
Why Do Believers Only Believe For A While And Collapse?
We are not spending any time with the first category of those who are not saved because they never accepted the Word of God at all. But we are concerned about the other two categories who accepted the Word of God, who became Christians - by the church’s definition - who became believers, but only believed for a while and collapsed. Why did they collapse? Because of the inability to stand the stress. They became Christians maybe because some preacher stood on the platform and said, “You come to Jesus and you’ll have peace and joy”. They offer you a lollipop. Who does not want to accept a lollipop (that is, assuming that you like sweets)? And so, often preaching the Gospel looks like a session of dishing out the lollipops.
That is not the way the Lord Jesus preached. He said to be a Christian is no easy thing. You have to stand up under stress. You have to be able to stand the pressure. The gospels are very explicit about this. The apostle Paul, when he preached the Gospel, never dished out lollipops. You need only look at Acts 14:22 to see that. What does it read there? “We must enter the kingdom of God through much tribulation”. Those are the words of the Gospel. You are going to enter God’s kingdom, yes, but through much tribulation. I thank God for preachers who are honest with me. I have had enough of people dishing out lollipops. Then, when everything goes wrong, you say, “Hey, what happened to me? How come when I become a Christian everything goes wrong?” That is right! When you become a Christian, you will start discovering that everything in the world starts getting you down. Everything starts going wrong. And then you will know you are a Christian. That is the way you will know. If you thought everything is going to be sweet for you, then you have not understood yet. “We must enter the kingdom of God,” the apostle Paul tells us, “through much tribulation.”
Thus, here the Lord Jesus says exactly the same thing. He says that when that seed is sown, three things happen. The first word in Mt. 13:21 is the word ‘tribulation’. The second word is ‘persecution’. And the third word appears in Lk. 8:13, the word ‘temptation’. We need to look at all these three words: tribulation, persecution, and temptation.
These are all three things that are going to put an enormous stress upon you. It is going to put tremendous pressure on you. In fact, that is exactly what the first word means. The Greek word for ‘tribulation’ - a long mouthful of a word in English - simply comes from a word which means pressure. To be in tribulation means to be under pressure, that is all it means. Well, it does mean that in terms of words, but it means in the Christian life to be under pressure, which means a lot. So we find here that this, in fact, is the word which was used in Acts 14:22: “we must enter into the kingdom of God through much tribulation”. That means you are going to be under a lot of pressure all the time. I am sure that those who are just baptized are already beginning to discover some pressure, right? If you have not discovered the pressure, maybe it will be coming along soon. If it does not come along soon, then I am going to worry for you whether you know what it is to be a Christian at all. You are going to be under pressure. That is what the word ‘tribulation’ means.
But what is the attitude of a true Christian? Look at Rom. 5:3 What does the apostle Paul say in Rom. 5:3? Well, those are words that you need to bear in mind if you are going to be a true Christian. The apostle Paul says, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Notice these words: “we rejoice in our sufferings”. The word translated as ‘sufferings’ is in fact the same Greek word, ‘tribulation’. It is the same Greek word of ‘pressure’: “we rejoice in being under pressure.”
How does that compare with your thinking? Today, we have a church full of people who become Christians because they came to collect lollipops. They came to have a good time. No wonder this kind of Christian is going to grumble as soon as the pressure comes on. As soon as the weight begins to crush upon them, they say, “Hey, what’s going on? What’s going on?” Well, what is going on is that you became a Christian. If any preacher did not tell you that the moment you became a Christian, you are going to be under pressure, that preacher should not be preaching the Gospel. He is not fit to preach the Gospel. I have so much trouble given to me by evangelists who go out there trying to collect votes, to get decisions. These people, when they have obtained the decisions, that is the end of it! That is the end of their concern for the poor fellow who made a decision. And then that is where the pastors have to take over and try to sort out the mess. What happens is that people come to me and say, “Why? Why is everything going wrong? My father got sick; my mother got financial trouble; and the business is not doing well. I myself have problems here and there. What’s going on? I became a Christian! God is supposed to give me lollipops!” God never promised you any lollipops. Look at the Bible! If you knew what it is to be a Christian, you would rejoice with the apostle Paul who said, “More than that, we rejoice in our tribulation.” You say, “What’s the matter with Paul? Is he some kind of a nut? Is he some kind of guy who is just looking for trouble? No, but he understands what the Christian life is about; it is to be under pressure all the time. I hope you bear that in mind. (I say that again for those returning to Hong Kong. Remember that: you were called to suffer! I hope you have understood that, at least, in this church. When you go back to Hong Kong, you will be under pressure, I tell you.) And then you will thank God for that pressure. You are going to learn to say with the apostle Paul, “I rejoice”. We rejoice in our sufferings, in our pressures, that we have to bear.
The second word here is ‘persecution’. You will not be much of a Christian if you have not endured some persecution. Sooner or later you are going to get it, and the worst to get it from is to get it from fellow Christians. (I say that again to you, for those of you going back to Hong Kong. Do not be so upset when those who persecute you most turn out to be fellow Christians.) Always remember, as I have constantly reminded you, that those who persecuted the Lord Jesus most were the religious people. The Pharisees, the most religious people of the Jews; the scribes, who are the theologians; and the chief priests, who are the religious leaders of their time - they are the ones who put Jesus to death. Bear that in mind!
John Wesley, a mighty servant of God, all his life was persecuted by fellow Christians. Did you know that? It was not the non-Christians that persecuted John Wesley so much. He was persecuted by non-Christians, too. But it was the Christians. First of all, he was thrown out of the Church of England, from which he was himself a member. He was not allowed to preach in any of the Churches of England because he preached holiness, and the Church of England did not want to hear that. They threw him out so that John Wesley had to preach on the streets, because he was not allowed to preach at any church. But thanks be to God, that through John Wesley, the Mighty Revival came to England and left its mark in history in a way that no other revival ever did! But John Wesley knew that he was going to be persecuted. He bore no grudge against those who persecuted him. He bore no ill will. And today, the Church of England, of course, regrets most deeply what they did to Wesley. Now they are trying to get the Methodist Church back.
Remember this very point. It is those who serve the Lord who will face persecution. If you are faithful to the Gospel, you are going to face persecution from fellow Christians as well as non-Christians. Sometimes you will wonder to yourself, “How come the whole world is my enemy?”
So here we notice these things. The first word then is ‘pressure’. The second word is ‘persecution’. The apostle Paul says in 2 Tim. 3:11 to Timothy, “You have seen my sufferings and my persecutions that I endured.” Then he says in the next verse, v12: “Indeed anyone who lives a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution”. You have to suffer persecution. Do not think you will be an exception! But if you want to be an exception, do not bother to be a Christian. When you become a Christian, understand, “I’m going to suffer it.” But if you do not want to suffer it, then you pack your bags and forget it. You are not going to be a Christian at all.
The third word, which we see in Lk. 8:13, is the word ‘temptation’. The word ‘temptation’ in Greek has two different types of meaning. The first type of meaning of the word ‘temptation’ means to be under God’s test or trial. That is, it may be that God is testing you. There you should not translate the word as ‘temptation’; it is testing, to be under God’s testing. This word is used in 1 Pet. 4:12 in this sense of testing. This is what the apostle Peter says: “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Here the word is translated as ‘reproached’ - suffering reproach for the sake of Christ - and being under testing in this way. But the word ‘testing’, being tried by God - tried in fire, as it were - is very much a part of the Christian life. You are bound to be tested. We shall see that again in a moment.
The second type of meaning of this word ‘temptation’ means to be tempted to sin. Here the sense is different. The sense is that Satan is behind this work. Of course, in a sense, he is behind all testings, in the sense of trying to get you to collapse, to turn away from God. But, in this sense, he is directly involved, not indirectly involved. He tempts you to sin; he entices you to sin. He shows you the beauty of sinning. He tries to get you to sin. This we see, for example, in Lk. 4:13 where Satan tempts the Lord Jesus to sin, trying to bring him to fall.
Suffering Is Compared to The Sun - It Can Destroy Or Can Cause Growth
From all this, we see then that suffering is inseparable to the Christian life. We see these three words that the Lord Jesus uses explaining why those sown upon rocky ground collapsed. I would like you to notice the parable again. In the parable, the suffering is compared to the sun. It is very important to understand that. He said that when the sun came up, then those who were in rocky ground withered, because they had no root and were not able to draw the moisture. Think about it. The sun is compared here, in the Lord’s teaching, to suffering. That is very significant. The sun can either destroy or it can cause growth. This is why I said this point is crucial to understanding this parable of the Lord’s teaching.
Without the sun, no plant can grow. The other thing you need to remember is that this sun is what is essential, in the one case, to the plants that brought forth fruit. It is what enabled them to bring forth a lot of fruit. But in the case of those that did not have root, it destroyed them. Tribulation then is like the sun. It is going to either make you deeper spiritually, or it will destroy you, depending on you, not upon the sun. We will look at that also more fully in a moment.
Evade Suffering By Seeking The World Is Fatal To Christian
But first I would like you to look at the second category of those who believed and failed, that is, those sown among thorns. We remember already that the seed was not sown into the thorns; the thorns were not there at that time. The thorns only sprang up later and choked the seed. Here, too, we see three things concerning the thorns, and particularly here we could turn to Mk. 4:18-19. This is what the Lord Jesus says concerning those sown in thorny ground. It says in v18: “And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world” - now, notice three things again - “and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things...”.
Notice the Lord Jesus has used three words for suffering: persecution, stress and temptation in connection to those on rocky ground. Now He uses three expressions in connection with those sown on thorny ground; that is, (1) the cares of the world, (2) the delight in riches, and (3) the desire for other things. All these three things will prove fatal to the Christian who gives ground to these things - the cares of this present world, this present age.
Now ask yourself why these things were to have any effect upon a Christian. A person who does not want suffering is the kind of person who wants to enjoy so-called ‘life’. He wants to evade suffering. So, basically, the same thing applies here. If you do not want suffering, then you go and look for the delight of riches. You look for the pleasures of the world. That is the way to run away. So this second category [of those who believed and failed] is exactly the same as the first category; they run away from pressure. They want to find their escape, their refuge in the world, and they are worried in case they cannot make it, in case they cannot get from the world what they want.
Basically, the same mentality is behind this group, put in a different way. Why does a Christian love money? Because money can take the pressure off his back, right? Money can help him to have a nicer car; money can help him to have a nicer house; money helps him relieve the necessity of stress and suffering. After all, what is suffering? Suffering is to be under financial pressure. You do not want to be under financial pressure, and therefore you go for money.
What is it? You do not want to have persecution; you want people to look up to you. Why should they want to look up to you? Only if you have lots of money! You can ride out in a big car; you can live in style. People look up to you; they will not persecute you. What is more, if you have a lot of money, it is dangerous to persecute you. You can afford a lawyer. The poor Christian cannot take you to court; but the rich guy, you accuse him, he can take you to court. He has lots of lawyers. If you slander him, or say something bad about him, you will be in trouble. Nobody dares to attack the rich, but they dare to attack the poor. The poor are defenseless, but the rich they dare not attack.
Then, of course, you have the desire for many a thing because you have the means to buy it. The poor guy has not the means; he can only dream about a stereo cassette. When you have no money to buy the stereo cassette, you can only look at it in the window. But the rich guy, he knows he wants to get the money, he wants the world, because then he has the power to get whatever he wants. If he wants a holiday in Florida, he goes for a holiday in Florida. Can you afford a holiday in Florida? No! Because you are not rich enough! So you can only look at it in the magazines. You look at the nice pictures of Florida. The sailing boat is there, and you think, “Ah, I wonder what it feels like over there”. You can only look at it at a distance, so you say to yourself, “Oh, I’ve got to get some money. I’ve got to make it good, and then I can go and enjoy myself.”
So this category is trying to run away from suffering as far as it can, seeking refuge in the world. That is why I said at the beginning that the whole difference is the difference between whether you understand the meaning of suffering and whether you are willing to accept it. You may understand it, but you may not be willing to accept it, so that also does not help much. You are willing to accept it, and like Paul, to rejoice in suffering. That is the difference between this group that survived and the group that did not survive.
Suffering Is Inevitable And Necessary To Christian
Here we come then to summing up concerning the meaning of suffering. The first thing I would like you to notice as we sum up is this: suffering for the Christian is utterly inevitable. It is like the sunshine; the sun shines not only upon the non-Christians but it also shines upon the Christians. It shines upon everyone. It is going to destroy the one, but it is going to bring life to the other. The reason the plant withered under the sun is not because only that plant got sunshine. The sun does not focus one ray only upon one point; the sun shines everywhere. If it shines upon this one that withered in the field, it also shines upon the others in the field that did not wither. So it is no use for the one who failed to say, “I suffered more.” You do not suffer more than anyone else. Let me guarantee you that you never suffered one-tenth of anything that Paul suffered for Christ. But notice the Christian that is weak. He grumbles every time something goes wrong. It is always, “Why is God doing this to me?” He is doing that to you because you need the sunshine. No plant grows without sunshine. You are going to have to endure it. The seed that fell on hard ground also got the sunshine. Of course it did not have to worry about it because it did not last long enough to worry. The sun shines everywhere. Thus in the same way, in this life, there is no way to can escape suffering and persecution. You can escape it to some extent in the world, except that you run into another set of troubles, as everybody knows.
The world is very deceptive. It seems to give you something good; it tangles you more deeply into it; and in the end you will find that you are suffering also, but suffering in a different way. In this life, there is no refuge from suffering, at least not for long. The wise Christian bears that in mind. He knows that the rich are the people who cannot sleep at night wondering whether they are going to get kidnapped and held up for ransom; whether they are going to have their banks blown in; whether their insurance company will collapse; or if not their insurance company, then their stocks and shares will collapse, and they will be broke; and whether this and whether that and the other thing. There is no end of it. They worry about: who is going to get what they have when they die, who is going to inherit it, and whether the family will start fighting each other, and so on and so forth. What is more, many of them, by that time, have already lost their health trying to get rich. As I have shared with you before, some people use up all their health getting wealth, and then after having obtained their wealth, they have to use their wealth to get back their health. And so it goes on in life.
But the second thing we need to understand is this: the reason why you rejoice in suffering, if you are a wise Christian, is because you know that suffering destroys sin in your life. We read that in 1 Pet. 4:1: “he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” I have many times mentioned that verse to you in Bible studies. It is so important to understand: suffering has a way of cutting the roots of sin. Suffering has a way of destroying the weeds in your life, right at the roots, if you let it, if you let those roots get exposed to the sun. Suffering has a way of purifying your life. 1 Pet. 1:6 & 7 tells us that the trial of your faith, like gold tested in fire becomes ever purer. Or in terms of this parable, it means that as the sun grows hotter, the plant drives its roots further down. The quality of its spiritual life increases because it knows it has to go further down to draw the moisture that it needs.
Thirdly, too, suffering is in fact a token of God’s love. Sunshine is so beautiful! That sunshine that causes the plant to grow, why does it destroy the one that has no root? If you have roots, that plant that has roots is just basking in the sunshine. It enjoys it! It is wonderful! It is growing because of the sunshine. It expresses God’s love for us. We find that in Heb. 12:10, for example. It tells us there that through suffering and discipline, we share in God’s holiness. Did you know that? Holiness only is possible through suffering. God brings suffering in order “that we may share his holiness” - Heb. 12:10 tells us - so that we become like him. In the whole passage in Heb. 12:3-11 is a passage concerning the fact that God disciplines us because he loves us. I discipline my child because I love my child. The discipline is the expression of my love and my concern. I do not go and discipline my neighbor’s child, because that neighbor’s child, if he is doing something bad, tearing the neighbor’s house down, is not my responsibility. I do not go and say, “Why are you tearing your house down?” That is his business. If their parents do not stop them, why should I be doing so? But I am concerned about my child. If my child does that, I will discipline my child. It hurts the child; it hurts me, but suffering is the expression of that love.
We Are Called Into The Fellowship Of Jesus’ Sufferings
More than that, we are called into “the fellowship of his sufferings”. [Phil. 3:10] We have been called to it. What did you think? Do you think something strange has happened to me that I am saying this? The Lord Jesus said the same words too: “If any man follow me, let him take up his cross and follow me.” Do you want to follow Jesus? You walk behind him. He carries his cross; you carry your cross. You follow him - “the fellowship of his sufferings”. That is so important to understand. That means, too, several things:
Firstly, it means that when you are suffering, you are seen to be his disciple. You walk in his steps. In 1 Pet. 2:21 it says that he left an example for us that we follow in his steps. Therefore when you are suffering you know that you are a disciple. It is the evidence of it.
Secondly, it shows that we honor Christ in our body. The apostle Paul says that he glories in his suffering. In Phil. 1:20 he says, “Now, it is my desire that Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by life or by death.” Where do we find such Christians today? Where do we find them? They only want life, not death. Paul says, “I am happy to die.” He has no fear of death because “Christ will be glorified in my death.” We saw how he pressed towards Jerusalem when others tried to stop him. He was never afraid to die. He was going to glorify God in his sufferings.
Thirdly, we find that it is only in suffering that we will know Jesus at the deepest level. There is one kind of Christian that you fellowship with, who is so rare today. You fellowship with at the deepest level. Do you know why? It is because they know Jesus. How did they know Jesus? Do you know where? In the school of suffering! A Christian who has suffered has a depth that no other kind of Christian has. They have depth. They know Jesus - not just saying, “I believe him”. They know Jesus at the deepest level. This kind of Christian is rare today. If one day you have the privilege of meeting some of the brothers and sisters in China, you will know what I mean. The kind of person who comes out of the hard labor camp (if you meet one) is a Christian of a different quality. It is not your Sunday-outing Christian. It is not the kind of Christian that goes to picnics. It is the kind of Christian who has come through hard labor camps, sufferings, beatings and interrogations. There is a different quality about this kind of person. They know Jesus in a special kind of way.
This is what Paul longed for. He said, “Do you want to know Jesus? I’ll tell you where you’ll know Jesus. It is in the place of suffering.” If you do not want suffering, you will not know Jesus. You will not know Jesus by going to a seminary and studying there. That is not the place to get to know Jesus; that is the place to get academic knowledge. That is the place to get academic qualifications, but that is not the place you will know Jesus. Nobody coming out of a seminary knows Jesus in the way that Paul knows Jesus, in the way that we are talking about. No one from a seminary will ever know Jesus like a Chinese brother and sister who has never even seen the inside of a senior middle school, but who has sat in a prison camp for the Lord Jesus. I tell you, you talk to these two people and you will talk [to two people] who are worlds apart. They are two entirely different types. I have talked to both types; I know exactly the difference. The one knows Jesus; the other one only has knowledge in the head. Oh, that is a vast difference.
What do you want to know? If you want to know more theology, there are Christian bookshops there. Just grab hold of a book and read it. You want to read through a book of systematic theology, you go and read it. You will not know Jesus any better, though, as a result of that. Knowing Jesus is in the school of suffering, in the fellowship of his sufferings. That is why in Phil. 3:10, the apostle Paul says, “that I may know him... and the fellowship of his sufferings”. He puts that all together in one sentence. Why? It is because they are inseparable. Do you want to know him? You will know him in the fellowship of his sufferings. That is where he comes closest to you; that is where you will need him most; and that is when he will talk most clearly to you.
I speak of this from experience. Those three years in China, when I faced hunger and a small measure of persecution, that was the time when I walked in the sweetest, closest fellowship with the Lord Jesus. It was under that pressure, in “the fellowship of... sufferings” that I most came to know him - much more valuable than seminary, than the faculty of divinity and all this kind of stuff. “The fellowship of... sufferings”! I hope that all this helps you to understand the meaning of suffering, the value and preciousness of suffering. You will never find Jesus more close to you than when you are in suffering.
But that is if you put your root down. Suffering can drive you away from the Lord, as it happens with these two other categories, or it draws you closer to the Lord, depending on you, on the condition of your heart. If you have suffering, praise God for it, and say, “Now is my opportunity to know him.” Draw very close to him. (So I say again, particularly to those returning to Hong Kong, you will have a hard time in both of these ways: the world is going to be most attractive to you, and tempt you by saying, “Put away the hardship of being a Christian. Come over to our side!” Or if you refuse, you will be put under heavy pressure.) Stand firm in the Lord, and then you will discover that shoulder to shoulder with you, the Lord Jesus is standing there - fellowshipping with you. Then you will know the sweetness of fellowship. You will never know how close Jesus is to you until that moment. You will say, “Lord, I never knew that you were right beside me. You were right there with me all the time.” In all your sufferings, you will find that he suffers with you.
The Privilege Of Suffering Great Things Reserved For The Mighty Ones
Finally, there is one category of suffering that I dare not even mention, because this category of suffering is reserved only for the mighty ones of God, the chosen vessels of God. It is the privilege of suffering reserved only for those whom God has chosen out. For most of us, we are not even qualified. You know when God chose the apostle Paul, this is what he said in Acts 9:15-16: “he is a chosen instrument of mine” and “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Do you want to be a chosen instrument? That is it! I hear many people say, “It’s not fair. God chose Paul.” Do you know what he chose Paul for? That “he may suffer great things”. Do you want to suffer great things? You might be the next Paul. You might be. Until then, do not be so sure of it. The other thing is, if he chooses you, then you are going to have the weight of a very heavy cross upon you. Paul was the kind of person who gloried in tribulation. God chose him and said, “I will show him what great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
I remember Wang Ming Dao before he went into prison. He said, “I am not worthy to suffer for Christ.” He constantly spoke about not being worthy to suffer for Christ. Maybe he had this very point in mind: to be called to suffer is a supreme privilege, not granted to everybody. The Chinese Christians know that. Well, Wang Ming Dao was given finally that privilege. Whether he is still alive, we do not know. But he, at least, understood that it was a privilege not given to everybody.
Do you see it as a privilege? Is your eye open to understand the meaning of suffering? If it is, then you are going to be among those who not only bring forth fruit, but bring forth maybe thirtyfold, maybe sixtyfold, and perhaps even a hundredfold.
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church