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5. The Parable of the Sower

– Chapter 5 –

The Parable of the Sower

Matthew 13:3–9; 18–23 and Luke 8:4–8; 11–15

Montreal, May 28, 1978


Today we begin our study of the parables of the Lord Jesus in Matthew chapter 13. But I will begin not with the first parable in Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower, but with its parallel passage in Luke chapter 8, which is also the Parable of the Sower.

The Lord Jesus taught in parables, and we have over 30 parables in the New Testament. By God’s grace, I will be expound­ing the para­bles systematically week by week until we go through these precious parables of the Lord.

We begin with what we call the “foundation parable,” namely, the Parable of the Sower. This parable is extremely rich, and today I aim to bring out one particular point to establish our understanding of this parable as we go along. The parable is found in Luke 8:4–8, with its explanation given in verses 11–15. This parable is one of the only two parables for which the Lord Jesus gives an explan­ation. He gives this parti­cular parable to teach his disciples how to under­stand parables in general. In my next message, we will consider why he uses parables at all, and whether parables are meant to help us understand something or to conceal something.

Let us read the parable in Luke 8:4–8,

And when a great crowd was gathering 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 trampled underfoot, 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 up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:4–8, ESV)

That is the parable itself. Then in verses 11–15, the Lord explains the meaning of the parable:

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, so 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 testing 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. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11–15, ESV)

We see from Mark 4:13 that this parable is a foundation parable, for Jesus says, “If you don’t understand this parable, how will you understand all the parables?” Therefore 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 does the parable teach? The Lord Jesus says that a sow­er went out to sow some seed. This picture is very familiar to an agricultural country. As you walk around, you will see farmers sowing seed in the fields. The farmer carries a seed bag, a pouch which he hangs around his shoulders in front, and from which he takes a handful of seed and flings it forth. He scatters the seed in an arching motion across the field. He walks back and forth, and scatters the seed as he goes.

As he scatters the seeds, some fall on the path which is like hardened ground, having been compacted by the weight of the people who walk back and forth on it. The seeds that fall on this hardened ground are unable to enter the soil, so they lie on the surface. Wherever the farmer sows, a flock of birds would follow, waiting to pick up the odd seed. The birds eat the seeds which have fallen on the path but have not gone into the soil.

The Lord then speaks of another category of seed that does fall into the soil, but the soil is shallow. After the rain comes and the soil covers the seed, the seed begins to grow quickly. But there is rock below, and as the root grows, it stops at the rock. There is a limit to how far the root can go down when it encounters rock; it cannot go further down to get enough moisture and nutrients, and the seed dies.

There is a third category of seed which is sown into the ground but the soil is not pure because it contains thorn seeds which are not yet visible. After a time, as Luke tells us, the thorn seeds grow together with the wheat seeds. The roots of the thorns become entangled with the roots of the young wheat plant, choking the wheat plant from the nutri­ents it needs. So this new plant dies or becomes unfruitful.

Finally, there are the seeds that fall on 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” (Luke 8:15), “yielding a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:8).

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

There is a simple key to understanding the parable. The Lord Jesus makes it plain that the seed is firstly 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 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, for God’s kingdom is where God’s will is done. The “word of the kingdom” is the message that calls people to submit their lives to God. Nothing is more import­ant in life than submit­ting to the will of God in our relationship with Him.

Preaching the Word of God — the seed — is therefore preach­ing God’s kingdom, and preaching about living under God’s sovereignty. If you don’t live under God’s kingship, you are not a Christian in the true Biblical sense. Any preacher who does not teach that every true Christ­ian is one who lives under God’s will is not preaching the Word of God faithfully. If we preach salvation simply as, “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 the Lord of your life. Imitate him in the way he lived under God’s kingship and the way he did God’s will all through his life.” That is preaching the gospel.

If you live under God’s kingship, you will have inner peace and joy. But there will also be tribulation, persecution and suffering, as we will see in a moment. Any preacher who fails to mention this is unfit to preach the gospel, for he is not preaching the gospel as God meant it to be preached. We are not here to tell people what they want to hear, but to tell them the truth. The truth is not always what you want to hear. This is true in other areas such as medicine. Nobody likes to hear about being sick or dying, but a doctor has to tell you the truth.

The sower: anyone who speaks the Word of God

The Lord Jesus is, in the first instance, the sower who pro­claims the Word; and we too are sowers if we proclaim that Word. Whenever you are witnessing to a friend or speaking the Word of God to others, you are sowing the seed as did the disciples in Matthew 10:7. It is not only the pastor but also the preacher who is a sower.

The soil: the attitude of the heart

If the seed is the Word of God, and the sower is the preacher, what then is the soil that receives the seed? Jesus compares the heart of a person to the soil on which the seed is sown. We see in Matthew 13:19 that the seed, the word of the king­dom, is sown in people’s heart. In describing the different types of soil, the parable is talking about the different attitudes of the heart.

Even then, no Christians or non-Christians are exactly alike. Never assume that their heart attitudes are exactly the same. Every heart is as unique as a face, hence every response to the gospel is unique and personal.

In this parable, there are two main groups of people, and each group in turn has three categories, as shown in the following diagram.



The “Unsaved” group

We now turn our attention to the first group, the “Unsaved” group, which in turn consists of three categories — namely, one category of unbe­lievers and two categories of believers — but all three categories are unsaved. Contrary to what Jesus teaches, many churches say that the “Unsaved” group consists only of non-Christians, not Christians. But I am here to exegete the Word of God, not church doctrine, so we must be open to God’s Word, the basis of all truth. We now examine the three different categories that fall under the “Unsaved” group.

The first category rejects the gospel

The first category of the unsaved consists of those people who are compared to the path on which the seeds fell but could not enter because the soil had been hardened. This category represents those whose hearts are hardened against God. When you preach the gospel to them, it is like going up the Rocky Mountains and trying to plant wheat in the rocks. The people in this category are adamant in their rejection of the gospel; their hearts are hardened against it. They don’t want to listen to the Word of God. Or if they do listen, it is with the intention of mocking it. They trample the gospel underfoot. The gospel is utterly unable to penetrate their hearts. They don’t believe the gospel at all.

The second category is superficial “Christians”

The second category of the unsaved is not like this at all. On the surface, their hearts are very receptive to the gospel. The Lord Jesus compares their hearts to the rich topsoil with rocks under­neath. You can describe such people as super­ficial. And because they respond quickly to the gospel, they are a great problem to the church, though a delight to a cer­tain type of evan­gelist. These people raise their hands quickly at evangelis­tic meetings and without a struggle. You see in Matthew 13:20–21 that the ones with rock underneath are those who, when they hear the Word, receive it immediately with joy, but they have no firm root; “they had no depth” (v.5).

They receive the gospel with joy, saying, “Hallelujah! This is won­derful!” And you think, “What tremendous Chris­tians! Look at them! They receive God’s Word with joy!” When the preacher says, “Raise your hands if you decide to come to God,” their hands shoot up like a rocket. When the preacher says, “Come forward!” they rush to the front. They are the ones who get counted in the statistics for evan­gelistic crusades. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that every­body who raises his hand at an evangelistic meeting is of this type. But the problem is that this kind of person tends to be in the great majority.

Yet there are also many who raise their hands at meetings, who go forward in fear and trembling, and who remain steady in Christ to the end. We must not overlook this type. I have seen many such people come to God with tears and in fear and trembling. This kind is more steady, but I am afraid of the other type who just rushes forward.

The people in the second category have no depth. They receive the Word of God immediately and grow faster than anyone else. Soil specialists tell us the rocks underneath provide extra warmth, which makes the seed germinate faster. The seed shoots up fast, so you say, “What a won­derful Christ­ian he is!” But if you are familiar with God’s Word, don’t get too excited yet. Time will tell whether there is deep root in the plant or not.

What we see in this category is a superficial person. There is a spiritual response, but it is not deep enough. In his heart there is a basic resistance and hardness towards the Word of God. He commits himself to God up to a point, but he is not totally committed. That is why I have constantly warned you that the Biblical faith that saves is an unconditional and total commit­ment, for if it is not total, it means that you have drawn a line somewhere at a point that only you would know. Maybe you don’t even know where that line is. But one of these days, your root will hit that rock below and stop there, and the plant will die.

Those of us who have served God long enough have seen too many cases of spiritual collapse, too many for our liking. The majority will collapse. I would like you to examine your own heart. Is the response you made to God unconditional? Or have you drawn the line somewhere in your heart and said, “I’m going to be a good Christian. I’ll go to church and be active. I’ll serve enthusiastically in the young people’s group, but I’ll draw the line there. I won’t let the Word of God do any more than this.”? Oh, such people are very active, but in their hearts, they have drawn the line beyond which they will not go. If you push a rod into the ground, you will hit the rock somewhere, and it will stop. The roots of the wheat plant won’t go far down because the soil is shallow.

What we notice about this second category is that they do believe, and are properly categorized as “Christians”. They are the kind of people who, after having received the Word of God, will get baptized. They really do believe, but Luke 8:13 says that “they believe for a while and in time of tempt­ation fall away.”

They do believe! In the light of the Scriptural evidence, how could anyone teach that once you believe, you are always saved? This teaching completely bewilders me the more I study the Scriptures. We are told in the Lord’s own words that they believe for a while and fall away. They are finished!

Don’t be misled by those who invent doctrines and theories that are contrary to God’s Word. Don’t confidently say to your­self, “I’m okay now, I have believed, I have been bap­tized.” What if you belong to this very category? You believe; you are baptized; you are fervent for a time; but when tribula­tion comes, you fall away. I pray to God that none of you will be in this category. This is the second category: they believe, but for a while.

The third category is double-minded “Christians”

The third category of the unsaved is entirely different from the first two. Their hearts are open to the Word of God. There is no rock in the soil at all. The soil is good and deep. So what is the problem?

When the Word of God is sown, they receive it into their hearts, just like the second category. There is no statement in any of the three synoptic Gospels that the third category re­ceives the Word “with joy.” It is remarkable how precise the Lord’s teaching is. He reserves the words “with joy” only for the second category. The third category is not like this. Their roots go deeper, and they don’t make a super­ficial response.

They receive the Word of God with hesitation, trembling, and may­be a struggle. Maybe they came forward in an evangel­istic meet­ing with weep­ing and trembling. Their heart is open to God, and have no reservation about receiving the Word of God. But there are other things in the heart, such that the heart is not pure in its devotion and commitment to God. They have not removed the seeds of other things from their hearts. So whereas the Word of God does grow in them, and they do make a definite response, these “other things” (Mark 4:19) come along and choke them, and they cannot grow.

That is the great tragedy of this third category. 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 idols. You cannot serve God and the world. Have you made up your mind about this? Do you know where you stand? Is your heart pure with God?

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 the light that is in you will be darkness. And if the light in you is dark­ness, “how great is that darkness” (Mt. 6:22–23). You cannot survive if your eye is not singly fixed on God: you look at God and at the same time look at the world, at idols, at the pleasures of life. To survive, you have to be unconditionally and totally committed to God. There is no other way. Look at your own heart before God.

Notice that the parable doesn’t say that their hearts are full of sins. They receive the gospel. They do love the church. They do love the Word of God. But the problem is that they love God plus this, love God plus that, and love God plus the other thing. And once you don’t love God with all your heart, you won’t survive.

Mark 4:19 tells us that in this third category, the Word of God is choked by these “other things”. This is worrying. I have seen many Christians who started out well, who seem to have great depth, whose res­ponses are not superficial, yet they lack single-mindedness and single-heartedness. You cannot survive like that.

Two of the “Unsaved” categories are Christians

The three categories of the unsaved group are different from one another. Of the three categories, only the first one consists of unbelievers, those who have never accepted the Word of God. The other two categories accept the Word of God, but “they believe for a while and fall away” (Luke 8:13).

In Scripture, the Greek word for “fall away” has a sense of finality. This Greek word aphistēmi is also used in 1 Timothy 4:1: the Holy Spirit says expressly that in the last days, “some will depart from the faith.” The Greek word translated “depart” is the same Greek word which is translated “fall away” in Luke 8:13 and Hebrews 3:12.

Let us read Hebrews 3:12, which is an important verse because it is addressed to Christians:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbe­liev­ing heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.

Why does the writer to the Hebrews tell his readers about “an evil, unbelieving heart”? What is an evil heart? Here “evil” does not mean committing murder or robbery. Christians normally would not think of doing that. The heart is “unbelieving” in the sense of not letting God rule in your heart as King in your life. It is evil because not allow­ing God to be King in your life is an act of rebellion and a rejection of God’s sovereignty. The result is a falling away from the living God.

The same Greek word is translated “depart” in Luke 13:27 to express utter rejection: “I do not know you; depart from me, all you evildoers.” There it is. Notice that the Lord Jesus is speaking to those who profess to be Christians. Yet they re­ject God in their hearts by the kind of life they live, even if not necessarily with their mouths.

When these two categories of “Christians” in the unsaved group fall away, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they leave the church, though that could happen too. Some will still go to church, because if you have been going to church for many years, it becomes a habit. You wouldn’t feel right if you don’t go to church. Or you might not know what to do on Sunday morning or afternoon if you don’t spend an hour or two in church. But going to church hides the true condition of the 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 card games, or place their bets on race horses or dogs.

The three categories of the unsaved fall away in one way or another. It is crucial to bear in mind that of the unsaved, only one category never believed at all. The other two categories are those who believed, perhaps “for a while,” as the Lord Jesus says in the parable.

The “Saved” group has varying fruitfulness

The second group of people — those who are saved in contrast to the unsaved — likewise fall into three categories: those bear­ing fruit thirty­fold, those sixtyfold, and those a hundred­fold (Mt. 13:23). We see that the parable is perfectly balanced between the three unsaved categories and the three saved categories.

Those in the second group — the saved — bring forth fruit, but they vary in their fruit­fulness. The main difference lies in the quality. It is the same seed, but the seed produces different results in different soils. The Word of God that you heard is the same Word of God that John Wesley heard. So why are you not a John Wesley? The Word of God that you heard is the same Word that John Sung heard. So why are you not a John Sung? He reads the same Bible as you, and has the same Holy Spirit as you, so why are you different from him? What makes the difference?

One person yields a hundredfold, another only thirtyfold, less than one-third. Where is the differ­ence? The difference lies in the soil, in the quality of your response to God. You need only read the writings of people like John Sung and John Wesley to see the quality of their response. It is of a different quality from the responses of other Christians, so they exper­ience God’s power working through them in greater measure. That ought to be a challenge for us. Always bear in mind that the Word of God that you hear is the same Word of God that produced an apostle Paul, that produced a John Wesley or a George Whitefield — spiritual giants — yet it also produces spiritual dwarfs! One produces a hundredfold, another thirtyfold. It is not the fault of God’s Word, or the fault of the Spirit of God, that you are not a John Wesley. What matters is the different quality of response, the different rich­ness of the heart.

What kind of Christian are you? On that Day, will you stand before the Lord Jesus with nothing to show except mediocrity? If there is no fruit, there will be no salvation. The Lord has made this plain in John 15:6: You may be a branch, but if a branch does not bear fruit, it will be cut off and thrown into the fire. He makes it exceedingly explicit.

Ask before God, “What kind of soil is my heart in relation to God’s Word? How responsive am I?” Don’t think that it is spiritually modest 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 have produced a hundred­fold, but you limited it to thirty. What excuse do you have? Learn to say, “Lord, here I am in all my weak­nesses and all my failings, but let the power be of You, not of me. May You have full sway in my life! Accomplish Your purpose in me! Grant that I may not hinder the full potential of Your Word in any way.”

Key to fruitfulness: endurance in suffering

Let us consider further a basic point: What makes the differ­ence be­tween these two groups, the unsaved and the saved? This is the one point I would like to establish in your mind today, because it is the difference between surviving and not surviving, the difference between becoming spirit­ually mighty and falling away completely.

What is the key to the difference between the two groups? It centers on one thing: whether you grasp the meaning of suffering and are willing to endure it. This will make all the difference. At this moment, you might not fully comprehend what I have just said, but I would like you to think about it for a moment.

In some Bibles (KJV, RSV, ESV), the final word of Luke 8:15 is “patience”.” This is not a good transla­tion because the origin­al word in the Greek text means endurance (as in NET, NRSV).

Here is the key. Even if you don’t remember the parable in detail, you do well to remember this one word: “endurance” (or “patience,” confusingly translated). The Greek word for “endurance” does not mean that you sit patiently waiting for something to happen. It means the ability to stand under stress.

Today we are not spending a lot of time on the first category of the “unsaved” group because they have never accepted the Word of God in the first place. We are con­cerned with the other two categories who accepted the Word of God, who became “believers” (by the church’s definition of believing), but they believed only for a while and then collapsed. They collapsed because they couldn’t take 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,” and then offered them a lollipop. Who wouldn’t want to accept a lollipop?

That is not the way the Lord Jesus preached. He tells us it is no easy thing to be a Christian. You have to be able to stand the pressure. The Gospels are explicit about this. And when Paul preached the gospel, he never dished out lollipops, as we see in Acts 14:22: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

I thank God for preachers who had been honest with me about this. I have had enough of people who dish out lolli­pops. When everything goes wrong for you, you’ll say, “Hey, what is happening to me? Why did everything go wrong when I became a Christian?” That is right! When you become a Christ­ian, you will find that everything starts going wrong. That is the way you know whether you are a Christian. If you thought that everything will be sweet for you, you have not yet under­stood the Bible. Paul says, “through many tribul­ations, we must enter the kingdom of God.”

The Lord Jesus says the same: When the seed is sown, three things will happen as described by the following three words. The first word is “tribulation,” and the second is “persecution.” Both words appear in Matthew 13:21 and Mark 4:17. The third is “temptation,” which appears in Luke 8:13. We now examine these three things: tribulation, persecu­tion, and temptation. Each will put tremendous pressure on you.

Three kinds of suffering

1. Tribulation (pressure)

In fact the Greek word for “tribulation” (thlipsis) means pressure (cf. CSB). To be in tribulation means to be under pressure. This is true not only in terms of definition, but also in the practical realities of the Christian life. This Greek word is also 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 just got baptized are already beginning to discover some pressure, right? If you haven’t yet felt the pressure, it will probably come soon. But if it doesn’t come soon, I worry for you as to whether you know what it is to be a Christian.

But what is the attitude of a true Christian? What does Paul say in Romans 5:3–5? You need to keep his words in mind if you are going to be a true Christian:

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. (Romans 5:3–5, RSV)

Notice that “we rejoice in our sufferings.” The Greek word thlipsis here trans­lated “sufferings” is the same word trans­lated “tribulation” elsewhere. The phrase means “we rejoice in being under pressure.”

Does that reflect your thinking? Today the church is full of people who become Christians to collect lollipops or have a good life. No wonder this kind of Christian will start grumbling as soon as the pressures come. When the weight begins to crush on them, they will say, “What’s going on?” Well, what’s going on is that you have become a Christian. If a preacher doesn’t tell you that you are going to be under pressure the moment you become a Christian, he shouldn’t be preach­ing the gospel. Evangelists who seek numbers and decis­ions give me much trouble. After getting decisions from the people, they have no more concern for them. That is where pastors have to take over and sort out the mess. What happens is that people come to me and say, “Why is everything around me going wrong? My father got sick, my mother got into financial trouble, and my business is not doing well. I have problems here and there. What’s going on?”

If you knew what it is to be a Christian, you would rejoice with Paul who says, “More than that, we rejoice in our tribulations!” You might wonder what’s happening with Paul? Is he asking for trouble? No, he understands what the Christian life is like: being under pressure all the time. Remember that you are called to suffer! And thank God for that pressure. Learn to say with Paul, “I rejoice!” We rejoice in the suffering and the pressures we have to bear.

2. Persecution

The second word is “persecution” (diōgmos). You wouldn’t be much of a Christian if you have never endured some persecu­tion, the worst of which is persecution from fellow Christians. Don’t be upset when those who persecute you are the religious Christians. I have constantly pointed out that those who persecuted the Lord Jesus the most were the Pharisees, the most religious of the Jews; and the scribes, who are the theologians; and the chief priests, who are the religious leaders.

John Wesley, a mighty servant of God, was persecuted by his fellow Christians. To be sure, he was also persecuted by non-Christ­ians, but it was the Christians who persecuted him the most. 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 didn’t want to hear any of that. Wesley had to preach on the streets because he was not allowed to preach in any church. But thanks be to God, it was through Wesley that a mighty revival came to England, and left its mark in history in a way that no other revival did. Wesley knew he was going to be persecuted, yet he bore no ill will against those who persecuted him. Today the Church of England regrets what they had done to John Wesley, and are trying to get the Methodist Church back.

Remember this: Those who serve God will face persecut­ion. If you are faithful to the gospel, you will face perse­cution from fellow Christ­ians as well as from non-Christians. You will sometimes wonder to yourself, “How come the whole world is my enemy?”

Paul says to Timothy:

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfast­ness, 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. Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:10–12, RSV)

When you become a Christian, understand that you are going to suffer persecution. If you don’t want to suffer, don’t be a Christian in the first place.

3. Temptation: testing, temptation to sin

The third word is “temptation,” which we see in Luke 8:13. The Greek word peirasmos, which generally means tempta­tion, has two mean­ings. The first is to be under God’s testing or trial (sometimes it may be God who is testing you). The same Greek 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. (NASB)

In verse 14, 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. (RSV)

The Greek word oneidizō here translated “reproached” means, in this context, being tested through the suffering of reproach for the sake of Christ. 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 will be tested.

The second meaning of peirasmos (“temptation”) is to be tempted to sin. It comes directly from Satan’s involvement and activity. He entices you to sin, and shows you the plea­sures of sin. In Luke 4:13, Satan tries to tempt the Lord Jesus to sin and turn away from God, so that he may fall:

And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (ESV)

From the three words that Jesus uses — tribulation, persecut­ion, tempt­ation — we can see why those sown on the rocky ground col­lapsed. It also shows that suffering is inseparable from the Christian life.

In the parable, when the sun came out, those in the rocky ground withered because they had no root and were unable to draw in moisture. The sun is compared to suffering. The sun can either destroy or cause growth. This point is crucial to an under­standing of this parable. On the one hand, the sun is essential for plants to grow and bring forth fruit. On the other hand, the sun destroys those plants which have no roots. Tribulation, persecution and testing are like the sun. They will either deepen you spiritually or destroy you, depending on the kind of Christian you are.

Three problems in evading suffering

Let us now look at the third category of the unsaved: those sown among the thorns, who believe and later fail. In this category, the seed was not sown into the thorns, for the thorns were not there at the time the seed was sown. The thorns only sprang up later — “the thorns grew up with it” (Luke 8:7) — and choked the seed. Mark 4:18–19 says,

And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (ESV)

As we just saw, Jesus mentions three things pertaining to the previous category, the rocky soil: stress, persecu­tion, tempt­ation. But in the present category, the thorny ground, Jesus uses three particular expressions: (1) the cares of the world, (2) the delight in riches, (3) the desire for other things. All these will prove fatal to the Christian who gives ground to the cares of this present age.

Consider how these problems could affect a Christian. A person who wants to evade suffering is the kind who wants to enjoy life. If you don’t want to suffer, you will seek the delights of riches and the pleasures of the world. It is the means of escaping from suffering. This kind of person seeks refuge in the world, and are constantly anxious that they might not get what they want from the world.

So the thorny soil, representing those who believe yet fail, share a common mentality with the rocky soil, in that both are running away from pressure. The same basic mentality is behind both categories, though expressed differently. Why does a Christian love money? Because money can relieve stress and suffering. Indeed, a common form of suffering is financial pressure. If you don’t like being under financial pressure, you would seek money because it will buy you a nice car, a nice house, and other comforts of life.

You don’t want to be persecuted, but to be respected and looked up to. How would that happen unless you have lots of money and live in style? What is more, if you are wealthy, it would be risky for others to persecute or slander you, because you can afford to hire lawyers to take them to court. Nobody dares to attack the rich, but everyone dares to attack the defenseless poor.

You seek many things when you have the means to buy them. The poor guy doesn’t have the means; he can only dream about the nice stereo system he sees at the store window. But the rich man wants the world. He wants more money because it gives him the power to get what he wants. If he wants a holiday in Florida, he goes for one. Can you afford a luxury holiday in Florida? No, because you are not rich. You can only gaze at the photos of the yachts of Florida in a magazine, and say to yourself, “Ah! I wonder what it feels like over there!”

So this category tries to run away from suffering as far as possible, and take refuge in the world. Even if you under­stood the meaning of suffering, you might not be willing to accept suffering. The willing­ness to accept suffering, even to rejoice in it like Paul, makes all the difference between the group that survived and the group that did not.

The value of suffering

1. Suffering is inevitable and necessary for the Christian

As we sum up the meaning of suffering, the first thing I would like you to notice is this: Suffering is inevitable for the Christian. The sun shines not only on the non-Christian but also the Christian. It shines on everyone. It will destroy a plant, but bring life to another. The plant that withered under the sun is not alone in getting the sun­shine. The sun focuses not just on one point but shines every­where. If it shines on the one that withered, it will also shine on the one that survived. It is point­less for those who failed to say, “I suffered more.” You didn’t suffer any more than anyone else. I guarantee that you have not suffered one-tenth of anything Paul had suffered for Christ.

The weak Christian grumbles every time something goes wrong: “Why is God doing this to me?” God is doing it to you because you need sunshine. No plant grows without sunshine. You must learn to endure. The seed that falls on the hard ground also gets sunshine, though it won’t have to worry about it because it won’t last for long.

The sun shines everywhere. In this world, there is no way for you to escape suffering and persecution. You can escape to some extent only to run into another set of troubles. The world is deceiving. It seems to give you something good, then it entangles you even more. In the end, you will also suffer, but in a different way.

In this life, there is no refuge from suffering, at least not for long. The wise Christian bears this in mind. He knows that the rich are not immune from suffering. The rich cannot sleep at night because they are anxious about being robbed or kidnapped for ransom. They worry about whether their banks and insurance companies will fail, or whether their stocks and shares will collapse. They worry about who will inherit their riches when they die, and whether the family will fight over the inheritance. There is no end to it. What is more, many have lost their health by the time they got rich. Some people sacrifice their health to gain wealth, and then after gaining wealth, they use it to get back their health.

2. Suffering destroys sin in your life

If you are a wise Christian, you would see the second reason to rejoice in suffering: suffering destroys sin in your life. We see this in 1 Peter 4:1: “he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

This verse is important to understand. Suffering has a way of des­troying the weeds in your life, right at the roots, if you allow the roots to be exposed to the sun. Suffering has a way of purifying your life. 1 Peter 1:6–7 says that the trial of your faith, like gold tested in fire, will make your faith ever purer.

In the parable, as the sun gets hotter, the more the plant will drive down its roots. Its spiritual life increases as it goes further down to draw the moisture and the nutrients it needs.

3. Suffering is a token of God’s love

Thirdly, suffering is a token of God’s love. Sunshine is so beautiful! How can the sunshine that causes a plant to grow also destroy the plant that has no roots? But the plant with deep roots basks in the sunshine, and enjoys it. It grows wonderfully because of the sunshine. Sunshine expresses God’s love for us. We see in Hebrews 12:10, for example, that God brings about suffering by disciplining us, in order “that we may share His holiness,” and become like Him. Holiness is possible only through suffering. Hebrews 12:3–11 brings out the fact that God disciplines us because He loves us.

I discipline my child because I love my child. It expresses my love and my concern. I won’t discipline my neigh­bor’s child because that is not my responsibility, not even if the child does something bad like tearing down the family house. I don’t say to this child, “Why are you tear­ing your house down?” If his parents don’t stop him, why should I? But I am concerned about my own child. If my child does some­thing like that, I will discipline my child. It will hurt him or her, and hurt me, but the suffering is the evidence of my love.

We are called into the fellowship of Jesus’ sufferings

More than that, we are called to participate in “the fellowship of his suffer­ings” (Phil. 3:10). You may think that something must have happened to me for me to say what I just said, but the Lord brings out the same principle: “If any man follows me, let him take up his cross daily.” 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 the evidence you are Jesus’ disciple

First, when you suffer, you are seen to be Jesus’ disciple who follows in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21 says that Christ left an exam­ple for us that we should follow in his steps. Therefore, when you suffer, that is the evidence you are a disciple of Jesus.

2. We glorify God and Christ in suffering

Second, it shows that we honor Christ in our bodies. The apostle Paul glories in his suffering. In Philippians 1:20 he says, “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 so-called Christians want life, not death, but Paul says, “I am happy to die.” Paul pressed on towards Jerusalem when others tried to stop him. He had no fear of death because “Christ will be glorified in my death.” Paul knew that in his sufferings, he, as also Christ, will glorify God (John 12:27–28).

3. Understand God and Christ at the deepest level

Third, it is only in suffering that we know God — and Christ — at the deepest level. There is one kind of Christian with whom you can fellowship at the deepest level. Such Christians, because they follow the Lord Jesus, learn to obey God, and experience God in the school of suffering (Heb. 5:8). Christians who have suffered have a depth that no other Christians have. They don’t just say, “I believe”; they know Christ at the deepest level. This kind of Christian is rare today.

If one day you ever have the privilege of meeting some of the faithful brothers and sisters in China, you will know what I mean. There is a special quality about the Christians who have gone through hard labor camps, sufferings, beatings and inter­rogations. They are unlike the Christians who go to church just for activities, for they know God in a special way.

This is what Paul longed for. He said, “Do you want to know God? Let me tell you how you can know Him: follow Jesus in the place of suffering.”

You won’t know God simply by studying at a seminary. Seminary is just a place to get academic qualifications, not a place to know God. No one from a seminary will ever know God like a Chinese brother or sister who has never 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 — versus talking to a brother or sister who has suffered for Christ — you will find two persons worlds apart. I have talked with both types, and I know the differ­ence: one knows God, the other only has head knowledge. Oh, that is a vast difference!

In any case, what kind of knowledge do you want to pick up? If it is theology, go to a Christian bookshop. Read a book on systematic theology, but that won’t make you know God any better. Knowing God is acquired by suffer­ing in the footsteps of Jesus. That is why Paul says, “That I may know him … and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). He puts these elements in one sentence because they are inseparable. You will know Christ when you follow him in suffering. That is when God his Father draws closest to you; that is when you need Him most; that is when God talks most clearly to you, just as God came closest to Jesus at his testing in the Garden of Gethsemane, and at his dying on the cross at Calvary.

I speak from experience. The three years in China when I faced hunger and a small measure of persecution, was when I walked in the sweetest, closest fellowship with God. It was through experiencing pressures in “the fellowship of his sufferings” — following in Jesus’ footsteps of suffering — that I came to know God most intimately. It was much more valua­ble than my time at Bible school or the Faculty of Divinity.

I hope all this will help you understand the meaning, the value, and the preciousness of suffering. You will never find God closer to you than when you are suffering, assuming that you have indeed put your roots deep down. Suffering can drive you away from God as has hap­pened with the two categories of believers in the “unsaved” group. Or it can draw you closer to God, depending on the condition of your heart. If you are suffering, praise God for it, and say, “Now is my opportunity to draw very close to Him.”

So I say again, particularly to the newly baptized and those who are considering baptism, you will face a hard time either way. Either the world will tempt you with its attractions and say, “Leave behind the hardship of being a Christian, and come over to our side!” — or, if you resist the temptation, you will face heavy pressure.

Stand firm by God’s empowering as you follow the Lord Jesus in suffering. You will then discover that God and Christ are standing shoulder to shoulder with you. You will know the sweetness of their fellowship, for they are right there with you in your suffering.

The highest suffering for the Lord’s sake is not given to everyone

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

I have heard many say, “It’s not fair that Jesus chose Paul.” Do you know why he chose Paul? The reason is found in the words, “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 the Lord chooses you, you are going to have the weight of a heavy cross upon you. Paul was the kind of person who gloried in tribulation.

Before Wang Ming-Dao went to prison, he constantly spoke about not being worthy to suffer for Christ. Maybe he had this very point in mind, that not everyone is granted the supreme privilege of being called to suffer in this way. The Christians in China were aware of this privilege, and Wang Ming-Dao was finally given that privilege. He knew that suffering of this type is a privilege not given to everybody.

Do you see suffering for Christ’s sake as a privil­ege? Is your heart open to the meaning of suffering? If it is, then you are going to be among those who will not only bring forth fruit, but bring forth fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold. 


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