Have you ever thought about why you respond to some things and not to others? For example, why is one book or movie uninteresting to you and another is the best thing since sliced bread? Have you ever told someone about a movie that you thought was great, and they yawned?
Human response can be difficult to figure out—many factors are involved. A person’s past experiences, their maturity, their emotional sensitivities, and so forth, will factor in.
For instance, the other day, I told my kids that we were going to watch a movie someone had told me about. The first response was: “Is it a cartoon?” That’s just where some of them are right now…it’s not a good movie or show unless it’s a cartoon. Real actors are boring.
Spiritually, people have all sorts of responses to God’s Word. Some think it’s boring; others get angry at the mention of a Bible; some demand to know what it can give them. Those are a few of the negative responses. People, of course, respond to the Bible positivity, some more than others.
In the first scene in Luke 8, we see the positive response of a number of women:
Luke 8:1 And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him,
Luke 8:2 And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils,
Luke 8:3 And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.
Jesus was a traveling preacher, moving around from city to city, village to village. He preached the Good News to crowd after crowd, as well as healing the sick and demon-possessed.
The “twelve,” as the twelve hand-picked disciples came to be called, traveled with Jesus. But there were also women who also traveled with Jesus and “ministered unto him of their substance.” These women had responded to Jesus’s ministry—they had each been “healed of evil spirits and infirmities.”
We know nothing of “Susanna,” but we are told that “Joanna” was the wife of King Herod’s “steward” (a household manager or business manager). We can probably assume that, more than anyone, she would have had access to money and resources to help Jesus’s ministry.
There was also “Mary called Magdalene,” the most famous of the women listed here. She is sometimes thought to have been a prostitute, but the Bible never gives the slightest indication that she was. She was demon-possessed, and Jesus cast those seven demons out.
The women formed the backbone of Jesus’s support network. Jesus could feed 5,000 with a miracle, but that was not his normal mode of operation. He didn’t wake up, snap his fingers, and cause a breakfast of hash browns and eggs to appear.And since he and the Twelve had left their regular jobs to pursue ministry, they depended on these women who had responded to the Good News.
Like we saw in the last passage with the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, responding to the Gospel is not merely making a decision and going home. It’s a decision that results in a life change. To illustrate this truth, Jesus used a parable:
Luke 8:4 And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable:
Luke 8:5 A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.
In those days, a farmer would sling a bag of seed over his shoulder and walk through his field, tossing the seed by hand over the ground. Sometimes people would take shortcuts across a field, trampling the dirt down until it became a hard path. The seed that fell there would not have a chance to take root because the birds would eat it.
Luke 8:6 And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.
Matthew and Mark refer to this as “stony ground” or “stony places” (Matthew 13:5 ; Mark 4:5). The seed evidently gets planted, and grows, but there isn’t enough dirt for it to take and get moisture—so it dies.
Luke 8:7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.
I had to laugh when one Bible scholar that I read asked, ”Where did the thorns plants come from?” Obviously, the guy was not a farmer or he would have known that weeds are just there.
It’s always sad to look at a lawn that is dry and yellow except for the weeds which are green and thriving! Weeds steal the resources away from the good plants, making it impossible for them to grow up in a healthy manner.
Luke 8:8 And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Some of the seed grows—otherwise farmers would be out of business. Matthew and Mark mention the different levels of growth: 30, 60, and 100. Luke is content just to mention the “hundredfold.”
Jesus told a story about a farmer planting his crops, but what did it mean? Can you just imagine the various interpretations of this parable had Jesus not taken the time to explain it? Thankfully, the disciples were responsive to God’s Word and went to Jesus for an explanation.
Luke 8:9 And his disciples [and this could refer to more than just the Twelve] asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
Luke 8:10 And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.
We wonder sometimes why a person doesn’t respond to the Gospel message, even though it’s preached as clear as a bell. Jesus explains that there are those who have ears to hear, to whom “it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.”
The word “mysteries” (mystērion) in the Bible refers to things that we can only know if and when God chooses to reveal them. They cannot be discerned by human reason. I think that one reason that people don’t respond to God’s Word is that they want to figure things out by themselves. They take pride in their human reasoning.
These hidden things were “given” to the disciples by God. As for the disciples, they had hearts that were responsive to spiritual truth. They were responsive to what Jesus taught. They were the only ones, in verse 9, that came up to Jesus and asked him what the parable meant. Everyone else apparently thought it was just a nice story about farming.
Jesus goes on to refer to Isaiah 6:9 when he says, “that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” The reason he preached in parables was not to help people understand better but so that they would not see or understand.
Why would Jesus want to hide spiritual truth from unbelievers? As judgment. Because they willfully refused to respond to the message God had given, God gave them over to the hardness of their hearts.
Don’t think that there is only judgment in the world to come, there is also judgment in this world. When someone hears the Word of God week after week and refuses to respond, God gives them a judicial hardness of heart, like what he did with Pharaoh. The more Pharaoh hardened his heart, God also gave him judicial hardness (e.g., Exodus 7:13; 8:15).
Jesus taught in parables to separate out those with responsive hearts from those with unresponsive hearts. Those with unresponsive hearts found themselves more hardened; those with responsive hearts came to Jesus seeking more understanding. And Jesus rewarded their response:
Luke 8:11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.
Some people ask why the farmer is not more careful where he sowed the seed. Why not be careful not to get it on the wayside or the rocks?
One answer is that the farmer doesn’t always know what is good soil. It might look good to the eye, but it’s actually full of thorn seeds. He doesn’t worry about taking a microscope to the dirt, he just plants the seeds and waits for God to do the rest.
For the soil that should look obvious, like the “way side,” or the rocky soil, this soil could be scattered throughout the field, making it difficult to completely avoid. Besides, who knows, maybe a little patch of good soil would be found in the patch of rocky soil. So the farmer would just throw the seed out there and leave the rest to God.
The lesson for us is not to assume that we ought not to share the Good News with someone because it appears obvious that they would never respond. That’s God’s domain—ours is to sow the seed. As we sow the seed of God’s Word, we will encounter four types of responses:
1) There Is The Uninterested Response
Luke 8:12 Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.
As the foot path through the field is too hard for the seed to put roots down, so also there are those with hearts so hard that God’s Word doesn’t penetrate.
To make matters worse, just as the birds come and steal the seed away, so Satan comes swooping in and steals the seed of God’s Word away. The result is that there is no belief at all; there is only an uninterested yawn or even anger.
What makes a person’s heart hard? There is a sense in which everyone’s heart is hard from day one because we are sinners. All of us start out in rebellion against God—as enemies of God (Romans 5:10).
But experiences along the way can cement the hardness even more. The person may have had bitter experiences in life that caused them to question God. Or, they may have come across Christians who are hypocrites, or racist, or immoral, and gotten a bad taste in their mouth.
In the midst of all that is Satan and his demons, working and plotting to maintain and increase an unbeliever’s bitterness toward God and to keep Christians behaving badly and ruining their witness.
So this results in an uninterested response.
2) There Is The Shallow Response
Luke 8:13 They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.
The type of soil that Jesus is referring to is too shallow to grow plants to full maturity. They can get a start, but because there is no room to put down roots, they can’t get the moisture they need to grow. When the sun starts to get hot in the summer, they shrivel up and die.
Likewise, there are those people with shallow spiritual soil who think that they understand something from God’s Word, get excited, appear to believe, but when the harshness of a trial comes, they fall away.
Did they really believe? I don’t think so. The word “believe” (pisteuō) doesn’t necessarily imply a saving belief. For example, James tells us:
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. (James 2:19; cf. John 2:23-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-2)
The belief in this verse seems to be more of an intellectual belief. They know the facts about Jesus, they agree with those facts, but they haven’t really surrendered their life to Jesus. They have a shallow response.
The word “temptation” (peiras) can refer to either a trial or a temptation. Either can cause this shallow responder to abandon the faith.
It might be the young “Christian” kid who leaves home for the first time and gets in with the wrong crowd. They start doing wrong things, like drugs or sleeping with their boyfriend or girlfriend—soon their lack of true faith is revealed. Probably this kid found excitement in his youth group and his friends, but not in a real relationship with Jesus.
Or it’s the skeptic who had a conversion experience, perhaps walking down the aisle in tears. But after awhile, they are seeking another spiritual high in another religion.
It’s true that these people could just be backslidden Christians, and if they are, they will return to the faith. But after a time, we must come to the conclusion that their response was shallow and false. Their soil was too shallow for belief to take root.
3) There Is The Distracted Response
Luke 8:14 And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.
When we lived in Minnesota, we had a garden with a large pine tree close by one of the corners. That tree sucked all the water from that corner of the garden, so we had to be careful not to put plants that needed a lot of water there. Thorns and weeds steal resources. They take the water and nutrients away from the good plants in a garden or field.
There are those who hear the Gospel, and respond to it, but then other things—the “cares and riches and pleasures of this life”—suck away their resources so that they “bring no fruit to perfection.”
One year we planted cucumbers in the corner of the garden with the tree. We got cucumber plants, but they were very small, and if we got any cucumbers, they were very small.
I think it’s possible that these distracted responders are believers. Jesus doesn’t say they are completely unfruitful, just that they don’t bring the fruit to maturity.
They are so distracted by the world, they don’t spend time in Bible study, prayer, fellowship with other believers, and ministry. As a result, they never really grow. The world sucks away all their resources. In the end, they are saved, “yet so as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). The Lord has to burn away all the thorns.
Are you a believer distracted by the world—by family, work, politics, friends, lust, greed, television, computers, hobbies, and so on? There is nothing wrong with those things, but our priority is supposed to be on Jesus:
33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)
On the other hand, we can also see this response in unbelievers. In fact, it might be the most common response. Unbelievers seem to always have an “too busy” excuse for not thinking about God or going to church.
In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines what a senior demon might write to a junior demon to help him.
At one point, the senior demon advises the other on the use of distractions. He noticed one day that his human that he was watching started thinking about spiritual matters. So the demon whispers that it’s about time for lunch.
God whispers back that spiritual matters are more important than lunch. The demon says that yes, they are important matters, too important to tackle on an empty stomach! And so the man leaves for lunch, and continues to be distracted by “real” life until he dies.
For these unbelievers, it’s a crisis—a diagnosis of cancer or a funeral—that rips them away from their distractions and causes them to be open to God’s Word. Believers should be ready to with comfort at those times, and ready to plant the seed of God’s Word while it can get in.
4) There Is The Fruitful Response
Luke 8:15 But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.
Finally, there is the good soil. This is the person who responds to the Gospel and grows into a fruitful disciple of Christ.
They have “an honest and good heart.” This doesn’t mean that they got saved because they were a good person—no one is; everyone is a sinner (Romans 3:10-12, 23).
Rather, this phrase is referring to their desire to be saved and to be with God. They admit that they are unworthy sinners, and they want desperately for the Lord to forgive them. They are spiritual responders.
Sometimes people come to Jesus because of what they think they might get from him—an easy life, riches, fulfillment of a dream, etc.—and when that does not happen, they fall away, because, as we’ve seen, they are shallow soil.
To put it another way, they did not have a “good and honest heart” toward God. They did not want saved from their sins, they wanted God to be on their payroll.
The people with the right desire—to be saved from their sins— hear “the word” and “keep it.” It’s not that they become a missionary or pastor, but they are active in ministry. They love the Bible, and study it daily. Their prayer life is consistent.
They “bring forth fruit with patience.” Here “patience” (hypomonē) means endurance. These are the plants in your garden that keep producing all season long. A true and fruitful believer will produce evidence of their belief, not just for a few weeks, or a year, or a decade—but their whole life.
This whole parable is really about how people respond to God’s Word over a life time, not just one moment in time. Part of me rejoices when someone prays to receive the Lord as their Savior; part of me waits for the fruit to begin to grow. It’s the fruit that will show us the evidence of true belief.
In what way have you responded to God’s Word? It’s not important that you made a decision twenty years ago. What is important is what fruit has grown in your life since then. Look at your life overall, and ask yourself:
Do you have an uninterested response?
Do you have a shallow response?
Do you have a distracted response?
Do you have a fruitful response?
What kind of soil are you? What fruit is God’s Word producing in your life?