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05. The Parable of the Sower


Chapter 5

The Parable of the Sower

Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23 (Luke 8:4-8, 11-15)

Eric H. H. Chang

Montreal, May 28, 1978


Today, we commence our study in the teaching of our Lord Jesus regarding the parables in Matthew Chapter 13 onwards, but instead of reading the first parable in Matthew 13, I will read the parallel passage in Luke 8:4-8, 11-15. The Lord Jesus taught in parables and we have over 30 parables in the New Testament. So by God’s grace, I shall be expound­ing the parables systematically week by week until we go through these precious parables of the Lord Jesus.

We begin with what we can call the foundation parable, the Parable of the Sower. This parable is extremely rich and I shall aim to bring out one particular point to establish our understanding of this parable as we go along. The parable itself is in Luke 8:4-8, and verses11-15 is the explanat­ion of the parable. This is one of the only two parables which the Lord Jesus gives an explanation to teach 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 Luke 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 verses11-15:

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 Mark 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 you will see that the Parable of the Sower comes forth as the first of the parables in all the Synoptic Gospels.

The meaning of the Parable of the Sower

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. When you walk around, you will see farmers sowing seeds in the field. The farmer carries a seed bag, a pouch which he hangs around his shoulders in front, and he takes a handful of the seeds and slings it forth. The seeds are then scattered in the motion of an arch across the field. He walks along back and forth and scatters them as he goes.

As he scatters the seeds, some of them fall upon the path which is hard ground, because people keep walking back and forth and press the ground together. The seeds that fall upon this hardened ground are not able to enter into the soil; they lie on top of the surface of the soil. Wherever the farmer is sowing, you often have a whole flock of birds following behind, waiting to pick up the odd seed. Thus the birds come along and eat these seeds which have fallen on the path and have not gone into the soil.

Then the Lord Jesus says that there is another category of seeds that does fall into the soil, but the soil is not that deep. When the rain comes down and the soil begins to wrap itself around the seed, the seed begins to grow very quickly. It gives forth a great response. But there is rock down below, so after a time as the root begins to grow, it hits the rock and it stops there. There is a limit as to how far the root can go down, and since the root cannot go down to get enough moisture, it dies.

The third category of seeds is sown into the ground that is not pure. This soil contains seeds of thorns which are not visible. After a time, as Luke tells us, they grow up together with the seeds of the wheat. Then the roots of those thorns tangled with the roots of this young wheat plant, and choked it so that the wheat is not able to get the nourishment it needs. In the same way, this new wheat plant dies.

Then there are seeds that fall in the good soil, and they are those “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience” (Lk. 8:15), “yielding a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty” (Mt. 13:8).

The seed: The Word of God, the Word of the kingdom

The key to the parable is quite simple. The Lord Jesus makes it plain that first, the seed is the Word of God. The seed is also described as “the Word of the kingdom” in Matthew 13:19. The word “kingdom” means God’s rule, God’s government, God’s will. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s will is done, as the Lord Jesus says in Matthew 6:10, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, God’s kingdom and God’s will are the same thing, because God’s 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. Nothing is more import­ant in life than submitting to the will of God in our relationship to God.

So here, we find that preaching the Word of God (the seed) is preach­ing God’s kingdom, preaching about living under God’s sovereignty. If you don’t live under God’s kingship, you are not a Christian. Any preacher who 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, and you will have peace and joy,” that is not preaching the Word of God. We must first and foremost preach, “Let Christ be Lord of your life, and imitate him to live under the kingship of God, doing the will of God throughout his life.” That is preaching the gospel. When you live like this, you will have inner peace and joy.

There will also be tribulation, persecution and suffering, as we shall see in a moment. Any preacher who doesn’t mention that, is really not fit to preach the gospel, because he is not preaching the gospel as God meant it to be preached. We are not here 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. Nobody likes to hear that he is sick, or that he is dying, but a doctor has to tell you the truth.

The sower: anyone who speaks the Word of God

In the first place, the Lord Jesus was the sower proclaiming that Word, and now we are sowers proclaiming that Word. Whenever you witness to a friend, whenever you speak the Word of God to others, you are sowing the seed like the disciples in Matthew 10:7. So not only the pastor, the preacher are sowers.

The soil: the attitude of heart

If the seed is the Word of God, and the sower is the preacher, then what is the soil which received the seed? The Lord Jesus tells us the heart of the person is compared to the soil on which the seed is sown. You see in Matthew 13:19 that the seed, the Word of the kingdom is sown in the person’s heart. That is, when this parable describes the different types of soil, it is actually describing the different kinds of attitude of heart.

The first group is “the unsaved”

First of all, a survey of this parable depicts two groups of people, and each group includes three different categories. Neither all Christians nor all non-Christians are alike. Never assume that their heart attitudes are the same. Every heart is as different as every face, therefore every response to the gospel is completely different. Prepared with this, we can now turn to the first group which contains one category of unbelievers and two categories of believers, but all alike unsaved. Unlike the Lord Jesus, many churches teach that only non-Christians are in the unsaved group. I am here to exegete the Word of God and not church doctrine, so we must be open to God’s Word, the basis of all truth. We will examine these three different categories in the unsaved group.

The first category rejects the gospel

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 soil of the path is hardened. That is to say, this represents the kind of person whose heart is entirely hardened against God. When you preach the gospel to this kind of people, it is like going up to the Rocky Mountains and trying to plant wheat on the rocks. People in this first category are completely adamant; their hearts are hardened against the gospel. They don’t want to listen to the Word of God. Or if they do listen, they just listen in order to sneer at it and reject it. They trample the gospel underfoot. The gospel is utterly unable to penetrate their hearts. They don’t believe at all.

The second category is superficial “Christians”

The second category in this group of those who are not saved are not like this at all. On the surface, their heart 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. You have to describe this kind of person as superficial. They are always a great problem to the church, but are the delight of a certain type of evangelist, because they make quick responses. They raise their hands very quickly at meetings. They don’t seem to struggle very hard. You see in Matthew 13:20-21 that the ones on the rock are those who when they hear the word, receive it immediately with joy, but they have no firm root; “they had no depth”, as verse 5 states clearly.

This kind of person is a problem for every preacher, they receive the gospel with joy, saying, “Hallelujah! Oh, this is wonderful!” And you would say, “What a tremendous Christian! Look at him! He receives God’s Word with joy!” If the preacher says, “Raise your hands if you decide to come to God”, their hands shoot up like a rocket. If the preacher says, “Come forward!” they rush to the front. They are the ones who get their heads counted in all the statistics at evangelistic crusades. Of course, I don’t at all want to say that everybody who raises his hand at an evangelistic meeting is of this type. So don’t get me wrong. But the problem is that this kind of person tends to be in the great majority. There are many of those who raise their hands at meetings, who go forward with fear and trembling, and who remain firm in Christ to the end. We must not overlook this type. I often see people come to God with tears, and with fear and trembling. This kind of person is often much more steady. I am afraid of the type who just rushes forward.

The people in this second category have no depth. They receive the Word of God and immediately, 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. This type shoots up fast, and you’ll say, “What a wonderful Christian this is!” If you are experienced in God’s Word, don’t be too excited about that yet. Time will tell whether there is root in the plant or not.

What we see in this category is the kind of person who is superficial. There is spiritual response, but the response is not deep enough. Why? It is because there is a basic resistance underneath, a hardness to the Word of God. They commit themselves up to a point. They are not totally committed persons. 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, it means that you have drawn a line somewhere you alone know. Maybe you don’t even know yourself where that line is, but one of these days, your root will hit that rock. It will go no further, and then the plant above dies.

Those of us who have served God long enough, have seen 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. Is the response you have made to God unconditional? Have you drawn the line somewhere in your heart and said, “I’m going to be a good Christian and I’m going to go to church and be active. I’ll serve enthusiastically in young people’s groups, but I’m going to draw the line here. I’m not going to let the Word of God do any more than this”? Oh, they are very active, but in their hearts, they have drawn the line beyond which they will not go. If you press the rod down into the ground, you will hit the rock somewhere, and it will stop. The roots of a wheat plant don’t go that far down even at its best. So you will find that the soil is very shallow.

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. They really do believe, but unfortunately, Luke 8:13 says that “they believe for a while and in time of temptation 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 Jesus’ own words that “they believe for a while and… fall away.” They are finished!

Don’t allow those who do not really want to listen to the Word of God, who invent their own doctrines and theories counter to the Word of God, convince you otherwise. Don’t say to yourself in deep self-confidence, “I’m okay now, I have believed. I have been baptized.” What if you belong to this category? You are baptized. You believe. You got really excited for a time, but when the tribulation comes, you will fall away. I pray to God that none of you will be in this category. This is the second category who does believe, but just for a while.

The third category is double-minded “Christians”

The third category is again, entirely different from the first two. Their heart is open to the Word of God. There is no rock inside 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 it into their hearts like the second category, but there is no expression in all three Gospels that they received the Word “with joy.” It is very remarkable how precise is the teaching of the Lord Jesus. He reserves the words “with joy” only for the second category. The third category is not like this. They are deeper, and people who are deeper don’t make a superficial response.

Obviously, they received it with hesitation, with trembling, maybe with struggles. Maybe they came forward in a meeting with tears; they wept; they trembled. Their heart was open to God. There is no reservat­ion, but there were other things in the heart. Their heart was not pure in its devotion and commitment to God. They had not taken out the seeds of other things inside their heart. So, whereas the Word of God does grow in them and they do make a definite response, those “other things” come along and choke it, and it cannot grow ((Mk. 4:19).

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 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 that, if your eye is not single, you are going to suffer from double vision, and then the light in you will be darkness. Then, if the light in you is darkness, “how great is that darkness” (Mt. 6:22-23). You cannot survive when your eye is not singly fixing on God; when you try to look at God and the world, or idols, or the pleasures of life at the same time! You have to be unconditionally, totally committed to God to survive. There is no other way. Look at your own heart before God!

Notice carefully, it doesn’t say that their hearts were full of sins. No! They received the gospel. They do love the church. They do love the Word of God. But they love God plus this, plus that, plus the other thing. And once you don’t love God with all your heart, you don’t survive.

So we are told what happens with this third category in Mark 4:19, the Word of God is choked by these other things. This category is also very, very worrying. I have often seen Christians who have started out so well, who seemed to have great depth, as their responses are not superficial, but they lack single-mindedness, single-heartedness. You do not survive without that.

The first category is unbelievers, the other two depart from faith

We have noticed that all these three categories who are not saved are entirely different. And of these three, only the first are unbelievers, who never accepted the Word of God. The other two categories have accepted the Word of God, but “they believe for a while and fall away” (Lk. 8:13).

The word “fall away” is very final in the Scriptures. The same Greek word, ἀφίστημι (aphistēmi) is used in 1 Timothy 4:1. The Holy Spirit says expressly that in these last days, “some will depart from the faith.” The word translated as “depart” is the same Greek word as “fall away” in Luke 8:13. We find again, the same Greek word translated as “fall away” in Hebrews 3:12.

Let us read Hebrews 3:12 since it is a very important verse because these words are addressed to Christians: “Take care, 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 going out to commit murder and robbery; no Christian would think of doing that. It is an “unbelieving” heart, that is, not letting God rule in your heart as 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 is to fall away from the living God.

In Luke 13:27, the same Greek word is translated by “depart”, as an expression of utter rejection: “Depart from me, all you evildoers. I do not know you” [NASB]. There it is. Remember, the Lord Jesus is speaking to those who profess to be Christians. But they have rejected God in their hearts by the kind of life they live, not necessarily by their mouths.

Therefore when these two categories of “Christians” in the unsaved group “fall away”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have left the church, although it can mean that too. Some still go to church, because if you have been going to church for years, it becomes a habit. You don’t feel good if you don’t go to church. Or you don’t know what to do with yourself on a Sunday morning or afternoon, if you don’t spend an hour or two in church. But that does not indicate the condition of heart. Their hearts have turned away from God. They have rejected God’s kingdom in their hearts. God’s will is no longer central to them. They rush out after church to play mahjong or other card games, or place their bets on the horses or on the dogs.

We see the three categories in this first group that are not saved “fall away”. 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 believed, as the Lord Jesus says here, “for a while”.

The second group, “the saved” bring forth varying fruit

The second group has three categories again. These are described as those who bring forth fruit: thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold (Mt. 13:23). So, we see the parable is perfectly balanced between three categories who are not saved, and three categories who are saved.

Those in this second group who bring forth fruit 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 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, but why are you different from him? What makes the difference?

Here is one with a hundredfold, and the other has only thirtyfold. He has less than one-third the result 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 read the writings of people like John 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 who are spiritual giants, and also produced spiritual 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 the heart.

What kind of Christian are you? Think, on that Day, do you want to stand before Christ Jesus with mediocrity? If there is no fruit, there is not going to be salvation. The Lord Jesus has made it very plain in John 15:6, that you may be a branch, but any branch that does not bring forth fruit will be cut off and thrown in the fire. but you will still be cut off, and “thrown into the fire.” He makes it exceedingly explicit.

Now consider asking before God, “What kind of soil is my heart to the Word of God? How responsive am I?” Don’t think it is spiritual modesty to say, “Okay, I’ll settle for thirtyfold.” That is not modesty! You are hindering the full power of God’s Word when that seed could produce one hundredfold, but you limit it only to thirtyfold. What excuse do you have? Learn to say, “Lord, here I am in all my weaknesses, in all my failings, but let the power be of You, not of me. May You have full sway in my life! Accomplish Your purpose! Grant only that I may not hinder the full potential of Your Word in any way.”

Key to fruitfulness—Endurance in suffering

Let us examine more deeply the basic point: what makes the distinction between these two groups? This is the one point I would like to establish in your mind, 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 falling away completely.

What is the key to understanding the difference between these two groups? It 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 of the English RSV translation of Luke 8:15 is “patience”. It is not a good translation, because the word actually means endurance. Now that is the key. If you don’t remember the rest of the parable in detail, you will do well to remember this one word—“endurance” (or “patience” as it is misguidedly translated). The Greek word for “endurance” does not mean that you sit patiently waiting for something to happen. It means the ability to stand up under stress.

We are not spending any time with the first category of the unsaved group 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 believers—by the church’s definition—but only believed for a while and collapsed. Why did they collapse? It is because of the inability to stand the stress. Maybe they became Christians because some preacher stood on the platform and said, “Come to God, and you’ll have peace and joy”. They offered them a lollipop. Who doesn’t want to accept a lollipop (that is, assuming that you like sweets)? And so preaching the gospel often looks like a session of dishing out lollipops.

That is not the way the Lord Jesus preached. He said it is no easy thing to be a Christian. You have to be able to stand the pressure. The Gospels are very explicit about this. When the apostle Paul preached the gospel, he never dished out lollipops. You need only look at Acts 14:22 to see that: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Those are the words of the gospel.

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’ll say, “Hey, what happened to me? Why does everything go wrong when I become a Christian?” That is right! When you become a Christian, you will start discovering that everything starts going wrong. That is the way you will know you are a Christian. If you thought everything is going to be sweet for you, then you have not understood yet. The apostle Paul tells us, “through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Thus the Lord Jesus says exactly the same thing here. He says that when that seed is sown, three things happen. The first word is “tribulation”. The second word is “persecution”. Both words are in Matthew 13:21. And the third word is “temptation”, which appears in Luke 8:13. We need to look at all these three words: tribulation, per­secution, and temptation. All three things are going to put tremendous pressure on you, and we are going to look at them in detail.

Three kinds of suffering

1. Tribulation (pressure)

In fact, the Greek word for “tribulation” means pressure. To be in tribulation means to be under pressure. It is true in terms of definition as well as the Christian life. In fact, this is the word which is used in Acts 14:22: “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” You are going to be under pressure all the time. That is what the word “tribulation” means. I am sure that those who are just baptized, are already beginning to discover some pressure, right? If you haven’t discovered the pressure, maybe it will be coming along soon. If it doesn’t come along soon, then I am going to worry for you, whether you know what it is to be a Christian at all.

But what is the attitude of a true Christian? What does the apostle Paul say in Romans 5:3-5? You need to bear those words 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 translated as “tribulation.” It means “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, “What’s going on?” Well, what is going on is that you became a Christian. If a preacher didn’t tell you that you are going to be under pressure the moment you become a Christian, he is not fit to preach the gospel. Evangelists who go out trying to collect votes, to get decisions give me so much trouble. When they have obtained the decisions, they have no more concern for the poor fellow who made a decision. That is where the pastors have to take over and sort out the mess. What happens is that people come to me and say, “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, so God is supposed to give me lollipops!”

God never promised you any lollipops. 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 will say, “What’s the matter with Paul? Is he just looking for trouble? No, but he understands what the Christian life is about; it is to be under pressure all the time. Remember that you are called to suffer! Thank God for that pressure. Learn to say with the apostle Paul, “I rejoice!” We rejoice in the sufferings, in the pressures that we have to bear.

2. Persecution

The second word here is “persecution”. You will not be much of a Christian if you have not endured some persecution, and worst of all, it is to get it from fellow Christians. Don’t be so upset when those who persecute you most turn out to be fellow Christians. I have constantly reminded you that those who persecuted the Lord Jesus most were the Pharisees, the most religious 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!

Did you know that John Wesley, a mighty servant of God, was persecuted by fellow Christians? He was persecuted by non-Christians, but it was the Christians who persecuted him so much. First of all, he was thrown out of the Church of England, of which he was a member. He was not allowed to preach in any Church of England because he preached holiness, and the Church of England did not want to hear 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 ill will against those who persecuted him. And today, the Church of England regrets most deeply for what they did to Wesley. Now, they are trying to get the Methodist Church back.

Remember this very point: those who serve God 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?”

Athanasius, that great servant of God in the 4th Century Early Church, was exiled seven times. Who threw him into exile? Fellow Christians! Only his church remained faithful to him. The whole Early Church turned against him. But the tables turned, and today, Athanasius is greatly known for saving the church from terrible heresy. But at that time, he was charged with heresy!

The apostle Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:10-12,

10 Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted

When you become a Christian, understand that you are going to suffer persecution. If you don’t want to suffer, you are not going to be a Christian at all.

3. Temptation: testing, temptation to sin

The third word, which we see in Luke 8:13, is the word “temptation”. In Greek, the word πeιρασμός (peirasmos), which means temptation, has two different types of meaning. The first means to be under God’s testing or trial. That is, it may be that God is testing you. This same word is used in 1 Peter 4:12 in this sense of testing:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you;

And in verse 14, 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 translated as “reproached” means suffering reproach for the sake of Christ, being under testing in this way. The word “testing”, being under pressure, being tried in fire by God as it were, is very much a part of the Christian life. You are bound to be tested.

The second meaning of “temptation” is to be tempted to sin. In this sense, Satan is directly involved, not indirectly. He entices you to sin. He shows you the beauty of sinning. We see this in Luke 4:13 where Satan tempts the Lord Jesus to sin, trying to make him turn away from God and fall.

“And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

From these three words that the Lord Jesus uses—tribulation, persecu­tion, temptation, we see why those sown upon rocky ground collapsed. We also see that suffering is inseparable from the Christian life.

I would like you to notice that in the parable, when the sun came up, those who were in rocky ground withered, because they had no root, and were not able to draw the moisture. The sun is compared to suffering. The sun can either destroy, or it can cause growth. This point is crucial to understanding this parable of the Lord Jesus. On the one hand, the sun is essential to enable plants to grow and bring forth a lot of fruit. On the other hand, the sun destroys plants that don’t have root. Tribulation then, is like the sun. It is going to either make you deeper spiritually, or it will destroy you depending on what kind of Christian you are.

Three problems in evading suffering

Let us look at the other category of those who believed and failed, that is, those sown among thorns. Remember that the seed was not sown into the thorns; the thorns were not there at the time when the seed was sown. The thorns only sprang up later and choked the seed. Let us turn to Mark 4:18-19:

“And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things…”

Notice the Lord Jesus used three words for suffering: stress, persecution and temptation in connection to those on rocky ground. Now he uses three expressions concerning 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 problems will prove fatal to the Christian who gives ground to the cares of this present age.

Now ask yourself why these problems have any effect upon a Christian. A person who wants to evade suffering is the kind of person who wants to enjoy life. So basically, the same thing applies here. If you don’t want suffering, then you look for the delight of riches and the pleasures of the world. That is the way to escape. They want to find their refuge in the world, and they are worried in case they cannot get what they want from the world.

So the thorny soil who believe and fail is the same as the rocky soil who run away from pressure. Basically, the same mentality is behind both groups, but expressed in a different way. Why does a Christian love money? It is because money can relieve the necessity of stress and suffering. After all, what is suffering? Suffering is to be under financial pressure. When you don’t want to be under financial pressure, you go for money which buys you a nicer car, a nicer house and other comforts of life.

You don’t want to have persecution; you want people to look up to you. But why should they want to look up to you? Only if you have lots of money and live in style! What is more, if you have a lot of money, it is dangerous to persecute or slander you. You can afford lawyers and take your persecutors to court. Nobody dares to attack the rich, but everyone dares to attack the defenseless poor.

Then, of course, you have the desire for many a thing because you have the means to buy it. The poor guy doesn’t have the means; he can only dream about a stereo set, and look at it in the shop window. But the rich guy wants the world. He knows he wants to make that money, because 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 look at the nice pictures of Florida, the sail boats in the magazines, 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 make money, and then I can enjoy myself.”

So this category is trying to run away from suffering as far as possible, seeking refuge in the world. You may understand the meaning of suffering, but you may not be willing to accept it, so that doesn’t help much. Being willing to accept it, and even to rejoice in suffering like Paul, makes the difference between the group that survived and the group that did not survive.

The value of suffering

1. Suffering is inevitable and necessary to the Christian

As we sum up concerning the meaning of suffering, the first thing I would like you to notice is this: suffering for the Christian is utterly inevitable. It is like the sun that 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 only because that plant got sunshine. The sun doesn’t focus 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 don’t suffer more than anyone else. Let me guarantee you that you never suffered one-tenth of anything that Paul suffered for Christ.

Notice the Christian that is weak. He grumbles every time something goes wrong. He is always saying, “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. In the same way, there is no way you can escape suffering and persecu­tion in this world. You can escape it to some extent only to run into another set of troubles, as everybody knows. The world is very deceptive. It seems to give you something good, then it tangles you more deeply into it, and in the end, you will find that you are also suffering, but 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 their banks will be blown up or go bankrupt; whether their insurance company will collapse; or if not their insurance company, then their stocks and shares will collapse, and they will be broke. They worry about who is going to inherit their riches when they die, whether the family will start fighting each other, and whether this and whether that and the other thing. There is no end of it. What is more, many of them have already lost their health by that time. 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.

2. Suffering destroys sin in your life

But if you are a wise Christian, you’ll understand the second reason why you rejoice in suffering; you know that suffering destroys sin in your life. We read that in 1 Peter 4:1,

“he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

This verse is so important to understand. Suffering has a way of destroying the weeds in your life, right at the roots, if you let those roots get exposed to the sun. Suffering has a way of purifying your life. 1 Peter 1:6-7 tell 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.

3. Suffering is a token of God’s love

Thirdly, suffering is in fact a token of God’s love. Sunshine is so beautiful! Why does that sunshine that causes the plant to grow destroy the one that has no root? That plant that has roots is just basking in the sunshine. It enjoys it! It is growing wonderfully because of the sunshine. Sunshine expresses God’s love for us. We find in Hebrews 12:10, for example, that God brings suffering through His discipline in order “that we may share His holiness,” that we become like him. Did you know that? Holiness is possible only through suffering. Hebrews 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 don’t discipline my neighbor’s child, because if that neighbor’s child is doing something bad, or tearing the neighbor’s house down, it’s not my responsibility. I don’t go to him and say, “Why are you tearing your house down?” If their parents don’t 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, and 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 to “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). 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.” Do you want to follow Jesus? He carries his cross; you carry your cross. You follow him in “the fellowship of his sufferings”. That is so important to understand, and it means several things:

1. Suffering is evidence that you are Jesus’ disciple

Firstly, when you are suffering, you are seen to be his disciple. You walk in his steps. In 1 Peter 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 is the evidence that you are a disciple.

2. We glorify God and Christ in suffering

Secondly, it shows that we honor Christ in our body. The apostle Paul says that he glories in his suffering. In Philippians 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? Most “Christians” only want life not death, but Paul says, “I am happy to die.” Paul pressed towards Jerusalem when others tried to stop him. He has no fear of death because “Christ will be glorified in my death.” Paul knows that like Christ, he was going to glorify God in his sufferings (Jo. 12:27-28).

3. Understand God and Christ at the deepest level

Thirdly, we find that it is only in suffering that we will know God, and understand Christ at the deepest level. There is one kind of Christian with whom you can fellowship at the deepest level. Do you know why? It is because like Jesus, they learn to obey God, and experience God in the school of suffering (Heb. 5:8). A Christian who has suffered has depth that no other kind of Christian has. They don’t just say, “I believe.” They know God and Christ at the deepest level. This kind of Christian is rare today.

If you have the privilege of meeting some of the faithful brothers and sisters in China one day, you will know what I mean. There is a different quality about the Christian who has come through hard labor camps, sufferings, beatings and interrogations. It is not the kind of “Christian” that goes to church for the sake of activities. They know God in a special kind of way.

This is what Paul longed for. He said, “Do you want to know God? I’ll tell you where you’ll know Him. It is following Jesus in the place of suffering.” If you don’t want suffering, you won’t know God.

You will not know God by studying in a seminary. That is the place to get academic qualifications, but that is not the place you will know God. No one from a seminary will ever know God like a Chinese brother and sister, who has never even seen the inside of a secondary school, but who has sat in a prison camp for following the Lord Jesus. When you talk to a person from a seminary, and to a Chinese brother or sister who has suffered, you will talk to two people who are worlds apart. They are two entirely different types. I have talked to both, and I know the exact difference. The one knows God; 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. Read through a book of systematic theology, but you won’t know God any better. Knowing God is going through suffering as Jesus did. That is why in Philippians 3:10, the apostle Paul says, “That I may know him…and the fellowship of his sufferings.” Why does he put that all together in one sentence? It is because they are inseparable. Do you want to know God? Then you will have to know Christ, and you will know him when you follow him to suffer. That is where God comes closest to you; that is where you will need Him most; and that is when He will talk most clearly to you. It is like for example, God came closest to Christ during his temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross at Calvary.

I speak from experience. Those three years in China, when I faced hunger and a small measure of persecution, was the time when I walked in the sweetest, closest fellowship with the Lord God. It was under that pressure, in “the fellowship of his sufferings”—following Jesus’ footsteps to suffer—that I came to know God most. That was much more valuable than Bible school, than the Faculty of Divinity.

I hope that all this helps you to understand the meaning, the value and the preciousness of suffering. You will never find God closer 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 categories of believers in the unsaved group. Or it draws you closer to Christ and to God, depending on the condition of your heart. If you have suffering, praise God for it and say, “Now is my opportunity to draw very close to Him and to Christ.”

So I say again, particularly to the newly baptized and those who are considering baptism, you will have a hard time both 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 by God’s empowering, as you follow the Lord Jesus to suffer, and then you will discover that God and Christ are standing shoulder to shoulder with you. Then you will know the sweetness of their fellowship, that they are right there with you all the time. In all your sufferings, you will find that God suffers with you just as He suffered with Christ.

The privilege of suffering is reserved for those God chooses

Finally, there is one category of suffering that I dare not even mention, because this privilege of suffering is reserved only for the mighty ones whom God has chosen. Most of us are not even qualified. Christ Jesus said the apostle Paul “is a chosen instrument of mine. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16). Do you want to be a chosen instrument?

I hear many people say, “It’s not fair that Christ chose Paul.” Do you know why he chose Paul? He chose him and said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Do you want to suffer a great many things? You might be the next Paul. If he chooses you, you are going to have the weight of a very heavy cross upon you. Paul was the kind of person who gloried in tribulation.

Before Wang Ming Dao went into prison, he constantly spoke about not being worthy to suffer for Christ, as Christ suffered for God. Maybe he had this very point in mind that, not everyone is granted the supreme privilege to be called to suffer. The Chinese Christians know that. Wang Ming Dao was finally given that privilege. He understood that suffering was a privilege not given to everybody.

Do you see suffering for Christ’s sake and God’s sake as a privilege? Is your heart 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 also perhaps bring forth thirtyfold, perhaps sixtyfold, and perhaps even a hundredfold.


(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church