The Kingdom Flourishes in a Good Heart

An airline captain who flies overseas routes also runs a small gas station near his home. Between trips to Europe and the Middle East, he gets a kick out of working on cars and talking to the folks while they fill up with gas.  One Saturday morning, dressed in his greasy overalls, he walked down to the local hardware store to pick up a wrench. "What's new?" the store owner asked as he rang up the purchase. "Ah, I'm thinking of taking the Cairo run this month," the captain said. "I enjoy flying to London and Frankfurt, but I think the change of pace will do me good." He paid for the wrench and left.

Another customer, curious, asked, "Who's the world traveler?" Rolling his eyes, the store owner nodded toward the departing pump jockey. "Some nut who runs the gas station down the street. Thinks he's an airline pilot!" Both men got a good laugh out of that one.

It's easy to be deceived and things in life are not always as they first appear.  This is true in all walks of life but may be especially true when it comes to the life of faith.  Spiritual truth and spiritual reality are often counter intuitive and life within the kingdom of God is sometimes defined by paradox, 2 apparently conflicting truths that are resolved in a higher truth.  Truths like the Trinity, 3 Persons but 1 God, Jesus Christ fully God and yet fully man, greatness is found by humbling ourselves and fulfillment in life is not found in satisfying our every desire but in denying ourselves in order that we might take up the cross of Christ and follow Him.

Jesus was a master story teller and he would often use the objects in His immediate surroundings to teach spiritual truth.  In Luke 8:1-15 Jesus uses the imagery of a farmer sowing seed to teach about the role the Word of God plays within the kingdom of God.  It is sometimes called the parable of the sower but probably should be called the parable of the 4 soils because that is the clear focus when Jesus explains the meaning of the parable.  Before we look at the parable I want to set some context for the parable, for its interpretation and for our understanding of the importance of the kingdom of God.

We must first understand Jesus’ view of the world, that there are only 2 kingdoms, spiritually speaking, the kingdom of God (kingdom of light) and the kingdom of Satan (the kingdom of darkness).  Jesus understood, and taught, that there were only these 2 kingdoms, that these kingdoms were in conflict and that to reject the kingdom of God was to choose the kingdom of darkness.  Throughout the Gospels he said things like the following.

"No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."  (Luke 16:13)

In spite of popular opinion, there is no intermediate state where you can be kind of half in and half out.  Jesus says you are either for me or against, you are either in or you’re out.  You are either serving the kingdom of God or you are serving the kingdom of darkness, and to reject the will of God in to serve ourselves is to align ourselves with the enemy of our souls.

The remainder of my comments are about the parable itself and Jesus’ interpretation of it.  The focus of the parable is on the 4 soils and not the farmer or the seed.  This is easy to see by the fact that Jesus offers no explanation about the effectiveness of either the farmer or the quality of the various seed.  It is assumed that the farmer is doing his job properly and the seed is of good quality with the ability to grow and reproduce wherever it finds proper soil.  Jesus’ hearers would have readily recognized this fact.

In the explanation to the Matthew account we are told that the farmer (sower) is the Son of man and that the seed is the Word of God or maybe more specifically the Good News of the kingdom of God.  Luke tells us in verse 1 that soon after one of His many encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus is addressing a great crowd that has gathered from nearby towns and villages and He tells them the parable of the four soils.  He concludes the parable with the expression, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”  The expression is nothing less than an invitation to enter the kingdom of God, and to remain there by hearing God’s Word, clinging to it and patiently producing a huge harvest, up to 100 times that which was planted.

The Footpath

Jesus tells in verse 11 “that the seeds that fall on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved.”  What we have here is a group of people who have heard the message, probably more than once, but because of the hardness of their hearts the word it fails to penetrate their hearts and the devil comes and steals it away.  As a result they are prevented from believing and being saved.  They remain captives in the kingdom of darkness, lost in their sins and servants of the evil one.

The problem here is two-fold.  First, there is the hardness of heart that does not allow the Word to penetrate and take root.  This is often human pride that refuses to believe in the reality of sin, their own need for a Savior and is often accompanied by a firm refusal to submit to the will and purposes of God.  This person knows what they want out of life and nobody, including God, is going to stand in their way. 

This group of people hears the message of the Good News of the kingdom of God but because of the hardness of their hearts and the work of the devil, they are prevented from believing and being saved.  They remain captives of the kingdom of darkness.

The Rocky Soil

Jesus tells us in verse 13 that, “the rocky soil represents those who hear the message with joy. But like young plants in such soil, their roots don't go very deep. They believe for a while, then they fall away when they face temptation.”

A couple of things that help us understand what is being said here.  First, this is not rocky soil like we think of we think of it where it is a mixture of good soil and rocks.  Rather, it is describing a thin layer of soil that covered a solid layer of rock or stone.  The plants would germinate and grow, looking really good above ground, but because of layer of rock they had no root system to sustain them in times when there was little or no moisture from above.

Also, there are a couple of words that we must understand if we are going to make sense of what Jesus is saying here.  The first of those words is what the NLT translates as temptation (peirasmos), it carries with the connotation of the testing or proving of one’s faith.  And the second word or words are fall away (aphistemi) are more literally “to make defection from, to revolt, or to apostatize. (AMG’s Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament).  You put that all together and you have a temptation to sin that results in a testing of one’s faith, which leads to a rejection of faith because the person was not well grounded in the Word of the Kingdom of God.

This is unfortunately the experience of many who hear the Good News of the kingdom, receive it with joy and begin their experience of faith with much zeal and enthusiasm.  But because they never really get grounded in the Word of the kingdom, when times of testing come they abandon their faith.  They never read their Bible, they never bother to study the Scriptures and as a result they never really come to know God as He is or understand how He works in the world and so when trials come, the pain, the hurt and the confusion of their circumstances bring them to reject God.  They find themselves in the same position as those who never believed, excluded from the kingdom of God.

The Thorns

The interpretation of the parable continues in verse 14 when Jesus tells us “the thorny ground represents those who hear and accept the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity.”

Jesus here touches on a familiar theme that is carried throughout Scripture namely that we are not to be preoccupied with the cares, riches and pleasures of this life for they are destined to crowd out, to smother, our experience of the kingdom of God.  There is a medical condition of the brain that affects the eyes that is called strabismus.  It is a turning out of one of the eyes so that the brain is really receiving 2 images, one from the left eye and one from the right.  The result causes many difficulties such as a lack of depth perception, especially on one side, startle reflex and a general lack of balance.

Yet it is not really an issue of the eyes but rather of the brain’s inability to integrate the 2 images into one, as happens for most of us.  To try and live with one eye on the world and one eye on the kingdom of God is a kind of spiritual strabismus that has equally disastrous results.  We must come to understand that we cannot walk with one foot in each kingdom and fulfill the purposes of God.  It creates within us an internal dissonance that leads to a lukewarm commitment to the person of Jesus Christ and life within the kingdom of God.

The Good Soil

Finally, in verse 15 Jesus describes the heart that is capable of receiving the kingdom, “but the good soil represents honest, good-hearted people who hear God's message, cling to it, and steadily produce a huge harvest.  The distinguishing characteristics of the good soil is that they hear the Word of the kingdom, they cling to it like a drowning man clings to a life preserver and then with a patient endurance, a persevering through monotony, hardships and trials and even suffering produce a huge harvest 30, 60 even 100 fold increase over that which was planted.  This in a day where a yield of 7-8 times that which was planted was considered very good.  This is a truly abundant harvest.

Consider the life of Joni Eareckson Tada, founder of Joni and Friends, an international ministry to the disabled and their families.  In 1967, at the age of 17 she was left a quadriplegic because of a diving accident.  After 2 years of rehabilitation she re-entered the community with new skills and a fresh determination to help others in similar situations.  After 42 years in wheel chair and after 3 decades as the leader of an international ministry to the disabled and their families she has:

  • Personally visited 45 countries
  • Authored over 35 books
  • Spent months learning to paint with her teeth
  • Hosts a daily 5 minute radio program that has over 1 million listeners
  • Hosts a weekly television series heard around the world
  • Collected 52,000 wheelchairs that were refurbished by inmates in 20 different correctional institutions and then distributed to those in need in 102 different countries
  • Received 5 honorary doctorates
  • Served as the presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability
  • Brought courage and inspiration to millions by rejecting the temptation to sink into a life of bitterness and despair and choosing rather to be good soil that received the Good News of the kingdom of God.

In Decision, Joni Eareckson Tada writes:

Honesty is always the best policy, but especially when you're surrounded by a crowd of women in a restroom during a break at a Christian women's conference. One woman, putting on lipstick, said, "Oh, Joni, you always look so together, so happy in your wheelchair. I wish that I had your joy!" Several women around her nodded. "How do you do it?" she asked as she capped her lipstick.

"I don't do it," I said. "In fact, may I tell you honestly how I woke up this morning?"

"This is an average day," I breathed deeply. "After my husband, Ken, leaves for work at 6:00 A.M., I'm alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00 A.M. That's when a friend arrives to get me up.

"While I listen to her make coffee, I pray, 'Oh, Lord, my friend will soon give me a bath, get me dressed, sit me up in my chair, brush my hair and teeth, and send me out the door. I don't have the strength to face this routine one more time. I have no resources. I don't have a smile to take into the day. But you do. May I have yours? God, I need you desperately.'"

"So, what happens when your friend comes through the bedroom door?" one of them asked.  "I turn my head toward her and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It's not mine. It's God's. And so," I said, gesturing to my paralyzed legs, "whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning."  I have learned that the weaker we are, the more we need to lean on God; and the more we lean on God, the stronger we discover him to be. 

Joni Eareckson Tada, "Joy Hard Won," Decision (March 2000), p.12, used by permission

The kingdom of God flourishes in a good heart, but the good heart does not happen by accident.  It takes intentionality on our part to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, receiving the Word of God with gladness.  We must learn to trust in God’s character, namely His goodness.  And we need to make right choices, choosing to do the will of God over what might be more pleasant or expedient.  Jesus says to each of us again, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.”