There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. (John 3:1) We have two descriptions here: ‘Pharisee’ and ‘ruler of the Jews.’ ‘Ruler of the Jews’ means that he had risen to the top in his profession. Here is a man who was highly successful...
“A sower went out to sow.” (Matthew 13:3)
We begin today a new series that, God willing, will run for four weeks. The series is called:
Ministry Matters: Sustaining a Lifetime of Service.
This series is for people who love Jesus Christ. God’s grace has been at work in your life. The Holy Spirit has brought you to see your sin and your need of a Savior. You have come to Christ in repentance and you are looking to him in faith.
You see that in Christ you are forgiven, by him you are reconciled to the Father, through him you are adopted into the family of God, and with him you have an eternal inheritance, kept in heaven for you.
Christ has captured your mind. He has won your heart. He has realigned your will. You love him and the great desire of your life is that you will please him and be as useful to him as you possibly can be in whatever remains of your short life in this world. That is what it means to be a Christian
Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). How is that possible? How can you bear fruit that proves you are a disciple? How can you sustain a lifetime of service? How can you be a fruit-bearing Christian believer year after year after year?
The Parable of the Sower
Please open your Bible at Matthew 13. We begin today with the Parable of the Sower. Often this parable is approached and taught from the perspective of the soil. There are four kinds of soil. Which one are you? Some people say, “It ought to be called the Parable of the Soil,” but it’s not. It begins with “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed…” (13:3).
I want to look at this story from the perspective of the sower. I want to speak to sowers, to everyone who wants to plant the Word of God in the lives of young people, friends, family, children, grandchildren, the unchurched, the unreached, the urban poor, the suburban rich, and any other category you may add to the list. If you are a sower, this message is for you.
This story is about what happens when the Word of God is sown. Christ is telling us what to expect when we engage in the ministry of the Word. He is telling us that we must not be surprised or discouraged when people respond in different ways to the Word of God. This issue of expectations is crucial to sustaining a lifetime of service.
Some time ago, I saw a survey of pastors who had left the ministry. The number one reason they gave was, and I quote: “It wasn’t what I had expected.” Here are people who have invested thousands of dollars and years of their lives in training for a vocation, and they entered that vocation with an expectation that did not correspond to reality.
Picture a young pastor, committed to the word of God. He is fired up about preaching and about discipling. He has a plan for ministry. He has a vision for a church that is going to be on fire for the Lord. He has determined to give his life to sowing as much seed as he possibly can. A congregation calls him to serve as their pastor and he gives himself to the work.
He does this for 10 years. What is the result? Various! Some people have flourished. But in others there has hardly been any change at all. Some of the people are simply older versions of what they were before. After a while this gets to him, and the pastor begins to wonder if his work is really worth it.
Let me take this from the world of pastors and bring it closer to the experience many of you will have sowing the Word of God.
You step up to lead a Life group, or you commit to teaching children, or to leading a group of young people.
You have a vision for a group of people who will share openly, hold each other accountable, and thrive through immersion in the Word of God. But six months in, you discover that some are more committed than others. A few are always engaged. One or two seem disconnected. You begin to wonder, What am I doing wrong? It’s not what I expected.
You bring children into the world. Their arrival brings you great joy, and you have great expectations.
Because you are a Christian couple, you determine that you will sow the Word of God in their lives. Early on you establish prayers and a pattern of reading the Bible, and as the family grows you discover that all of your children are equally responsive. Right? Wrong!
They are not equally responsive. While one child drinks it in, another has very little interest.
As a parent you become concerned, My son seems disconnected from the Word of God. He does not relate to it. He has no interest in it. What am I to do?
These are the real issues of life and ministry, and I want you to see today that they are precisely what our Lord speaks about in the parable of the sower. Here is what will happen when you sow the Word: It will have different effects in the lives of different people.
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. (Matt. 13:19)
Some people who hear the Word will be unresponsive. If you are a sower, you know how hard and discouraging this can be. You are trying to teach the Word of God. You break it down to make it as simple as you possibly can, but your son or daughter, or a member of your small group just doesn’t get it. Nothing about the Word really interests them. He hears it with a yawn. She does not see how what you are saying connects with her life.
When this happens, you need to remember that this happened for Jesus too. This is the whole point of the parable. Jesus is telling us not to be surprised or unduly discouraged when people we love and pray for hear the Word but really have no interest in it or understanding of it.
You can’t be a better teacher than Jesus. No one has ever taught more simply, more clearly, or in a way that is more compelling. Look at his masterful teaching in John 10, where he paints the picture of the shepherd and the sheep: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John tells us, “They did not understand what he was saying” (John 10:6).
If that was the experience of Jesus, it will certainly be the experience of Sunday school teachers and of parents and of pastors and of church planters and of cross cultural missionaries, however well they are prepared or how simply they teach.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matt. 13:20-21)
Here is a person who hears the Word and receives it. More than that, this person receives the Word with joy! And notice that this person makes an early response. They ‘immediately’ receive it with joy. So they could hardly be more different from the unresponsive person.
But this joyful receiving of the Word does not last. Trouble comes, and the person who once professed faith so brightly falls away. This second response is perhaps the most discouraging of all for the sower of the Word.
Your son made a profession of faith when he was a little boy. But when he reaches high school, things begin to change. You no longer see joyful receiving of the Word in him. He seems to have lost interest. It’s all you can do to get him to come to church.
Klyne Snodgrass, who has written a massive 800 page book on the parables says, “Receiving the kingdom with joy is not enough – a message the modern church desperately needs to hear. Faith that is temporary and unproductive is not true faith. Most pastors would be quite happy if people received the word with joy or made claims about faith, but this parable asserts that people can receive the word with joy and still be guilty of hardness of heart…”
Therefore, he concludes: “The only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship… Churches should not be complicit in allowing people to think an initial response unaccompanied by productive living is saving faith.”  The same is true for parents and counsellors.
- L. Moody was a wonderfully wise evangelist. He realized that invitations to respond at his meetings would often draw people who “immediately receive the word with joy” but who have no root in them.
So this is what he said to his counsellors who met with people when they came forward: “Urge immediate decisions, but never tell a man he is converted. Never tell him he is saved. Let the Holy Spirit reveal that to him. You cannot see when a man receives eternal life. You can’t afford to deceive anyone about this great question.” 
Jesus makes it clear that if you are a sower of the seed, you will know the disappointment of professions of faith that seem very bright, but prove not to be genuine because they do not last. You must not be surprised or unduly discouraged by this. It happened even in the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus did not affirm every profession of faith. When he performed his first miracle in Cana by turning water into wine, many “believed in his name,” but “Jesus… did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people… He himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25).
We cannot see the heart like Jesus did. We cannot finally tell who is genuinely converted from the one and who is merely manifesting a passing enthusiasm. But this teaching of Jesus surely reminds us that as parents and as Christian leaders, we should be very careful before affirming that a person is a Christian in advance of seeing evidence in their life. Telling a person that he or she is a Christian when they do not love, trust, or serve Jesus Christ is one of the most spiritually damaging things a parent or leader could do.
Some joyful receiving of the Word is a passing phase. Some of you know the agony of this. Someone who seemed to show so much promise surprised you by going back. You plead with her. You remind her of the joy she once knew, the profession she once made, but she has moved on. Her heart is in another place and she does not hear you. She has no root in her. She is easily influenced. She has gone out as quickly and as easily as she came in.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Matt. 13:22)
Here is a person who hears and receives the Word. The seed gets into the soil, and it begins to grow.
We know this because our Lord says, ‘the thorns grew up’ (13:7). The thorns were not visible at the time when the seed was sown. The problem was that under the soil there were large root systems from old thorn bushes that had never been dug from the ground. They are just covered over. So when the seed began to grow the thorns outgrew it and choked it.
Jesus does not say that this person ‘falls away.’ The distracted person remains in the church and would say that he (or she) is a Christian. But he is unfruitful. The ground of his life is so crowded that his profession of faith is barren.  It doesn’t produce fruit.
He would say, “Yes, I am a Christian.” But the power of godliness has been eaten out from the inside. It has been crowded out. Archbishop Trench says, “The profession of a spiritual life is retained… but the power of godliness is by degrees eaten out and has departed.”  This person is Christian name only.
Here’s what we experience as sowers of the Word in America: There are people who receive the Word. They profess faith in Christ. But the root system of the American dream has already filled the soil of their lives. Instead of digging out that thorny root system, they merely add faith to what is already there, so that what they mean by ‘faith’ is looking to Jesus as a means of helping them achieve their own dream. The ground of their life is so crammed with the root system of another plant that there is no room for the Word of God to grow.
The rich young ruler is a perfect example in the ministry of Jesus of this third response: “I want everything in this life and I want heaven as well.” And when he goes away, he is sorrowful. Why? Because the root system of his life is made up of thorns.
As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matt. 13:23)
Here are people who hear the Word and understand it. They see that it speaks to them and God lays claim to their lives. The Word of God goes into their lives and it bears fruit in them!
The harvest that the Word brings in these people’s lives is abundant: “In one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” The Word of God will be more fruitful in some true believers than in other true believers.
The degree of fruitfulness will vary among believers, but the distinguishing mark of every true believer is that the Word of God bears fruit in your life. What is the fruit? The Word bears the fruit of repentance, faith, hope, love, service, perseverance, obedience, humility, and a long, long list of things in the New Testament.
Here is the great encouragement for sowers: The living seed of the Word of God will produce an abundant harvest. Give yourself to a ministry of the Word and you will see fruit. You will not see it in an equal degree in each person’s life. You will not see it immediately. The seed grows over time, and the most immediate results often turn out to be disappointing.
Understand, as you give yourself to a lifetime of service, that there will be frustrations. There will be setbacks. But God’s Word, faithfully sown, will raise a harvest of lives lived under the blessing of the rule of God.
Practical Wisdom for Sustaining
a Faithful and Fruitful Ministry
Stick with the proper seed (The fruit-bearing seed is the Word of God)
The seed is the Word of God. (Luke 8:11)
This is the only seed that will bear the fruit of godward change in people’s lives.
One of the greatest responsibilities of any ministry leader is to make sure that the Word of God is at the heart of your ministry. Would a person need to bring a bible to your Life group in order to follow along? Does your friend need a bible at the mentoring sessions you have with her? Is your ministry a ministry of the Word, or are you using some other kind of seed?
Here’s how a church loses a faithful and fruitful ministry: Some well-meaning Christians observe what Jesus teaches here, that the seed of the Word does not produce an abundant harvest in every life. So they say, “There are some people in whom this seed is not producing a harvest, so let’s consider them and try some other seed.” In other words, “They are not responding to this, so let’s give them something else.”
But here’s the problem: Different seed will produce a different harvest. Different seed may keep people together, it may create a helpful group experience, but it will not bring people under the rule of God. Only the seed of the Word of God can do that.
The goal of Jesus was never to keep the crowd. It was to draw out of the crowd, people who would live under the blessing of God’s rule. That harvest can only be raised through the Word of God.
Exercise patience (The seed grows over time)
Remember, Jesus told the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Bomber. Jesus does not say, “A bomber went out to bomb, and as he bombed, he changed the whole landscape overnight.”
Maybe there are times when you wish that God would drop a few bombs. The structures of evil seem at times to be so strong in the world. We would love to see abortion unneeded and unwanted now. We would love to see the culture transformed by godliness now.
But God works by sowing seeds not by dropping bombs. Christ is telling us that God’s work gets done, not by earth-shattering explosions, but by the faithful and quiet teaching of the Word of God.
Watch yourself (Your work as a sower can affect the soil of your heart)
Here’s what happens: You love the Lord and you give yourself to ministry. You take responsibility and you become a sower of the Word in the lives of other people. As you do this, three things will happen:
1.) You will get trodden on
Some difficult experience happens in the course of ministry, and when that happens, watch your heart. Do not become a sower whose heart is getting harder: A father who is so concerned about the unresponsiveness of his son, and what happens is that he doesn’t notice that his own heart is becoming unresponsive to the same seed.
2.) As you give yourself to ministry, it will become more costly
Circumstances in your life will arise that will make your ministry more difficult. When that happens, watch your heart! Do not become a sower who loses your joy.
3.) As you give yourself to ministry, your life will become more crowded
As God gives you greater responsibility, it will be harder for you to manage your life. When that happens, watch your heart! It is so easy to become like Martha, who was concerned about many things. Don’t let your life not become so crowded with what you are doing for Jesus that there no longer is room for Jesus himself!
4.) Trust the outcome of your ministry into the hands of God
God can change the hardest heart. There will be many times when you wonder what has come of all your work in sowing the seed in a particular person’s life. You’ve prayed for them. You’ve loved them. You may share the Word of God, and as far as you are concerned, it felt like good seed on hard ground.
William Lane points out that in the time of Jesus, farmers plowed after they had sown, not before.  When the plough comes, the hard path gets broken up, the seed gets tipped into the opened ground, and everything is changed! We serve a God whose plough can break up the biggest rocks and root out the most stubborn thorn bushes. When God’s plough comes won’t you be so glad that you planted the seed?
© Colin S. Smith
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 Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p. 176, Eerdmans, 2008.
Snodgrass adds, “Does initially receptive hearing that eventually fails raise the question of eternal security? People are overly vexed with the question of eternal security because of inadequate understandings of faith.”
 Cited in Iain Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage, p. 195, from W. R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L Moody, p. 421, Forgotten Books, 2012.
 Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, p. 76, BiblioBazaar, 2009.
 Ibid., p. 76
 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 153, Eerdmans, 1974