True Faith Bears Fruit
True Faith Bears Fruit (Mark 4:1–20)
Introduction, Outline, & Prayer
If you think storytelling is merely an activity for children or something people did before TV was invented, you are mistaken. People tell stories in many ways—books, songs, plays, art, movies, television, etc. These are all hugely popular forms of storytelling today. But regardless of how stories are told, they have an amazing ability to impact lives and we love to enjoy them. If you think storytelling is merely a form of entertainment or self-expression, you are also mistaken. For better or worse, every culture remembers its past, understands its present, and directs its future through the stories it tells.
The way we live today is the product of the stories we believed yesterday. Christians should know this better than most because Christianity is a storytelling faith. We become Christians by believing the story of Jesus, the gospel. And, as Christians, God calls us to tell the gospel story to others. But Christianity is also a storytelling faith because we have a storytelling Savior. We will see this in Mark 4 as Jesus tells several stories that help us understand who He is, what the kingdom of God is like, and how we can be a part of it.
These stories are called parables. A parable is a special kind of story that uses simple, familiar ideas to help us understand complex, unfamiliar ideas. In other words, they help us learn things we don’t know by showing how they are similar to things we do know. Today, in Mark 4:1–20, we will look at one of Jesus’s most popular parables. It’s my personal favorite because after Jesus tells the parable, He explains it for us. Since Jesus explains His own teaching, we will spend most of our time this morning applying His teaching to our lives. I’ll read the text, pray, give a quick outline, and then jump in.
“Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ’
And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 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. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’” – Mark 4:1–20
Two things happen in this passage and both deserve an entire sermon: Jesus teaches and explains a parable but in between the teaching and explanation He reveals why He teaches in parables. Today we’re going to focus on Jesus’s parable and His explanation of it (4:1–9, 14–20) and next week on why He teaches in parables (4:10–13).
There are 10 different symbols in this parable, 10 different parts of the story that represent other things in reality. Remember: that’s the point of parables, to help us understand difficult ideas by showing how they are similar to simple ideas. Five of the simple ideas represent people and the other five represent how they react to the gospel. We will look a them in 5 pairs: 1) The Sower and the Seed (vv. 1–3, 9–14); 2) The Path and the Birds (vv. 4, 15); 3) The Rocks and the Sun (vv. 5–6, 16–17); 4) The Thorns that Choke (vv. 7, 18–19); 5) The Good Soil that Bears Fruit (vv. 8, 20). We will look at each in order and conclude by examining our hearts to see which one we are.
The Sower and the Seed (vv. 1–3, 14)
The large crowd was once again ready to swarm Jesus. This time, instead of withdrawing completely, Jesus sets out in a boat just a little off shore—far enough away so the crowd won’t crush Him but close enough so He can still teach them. He taught many things in parables and the first one we read is usually called “the parable of the sower.”
“Sowing” is an old fashioned way of saying, “planting.” A “sower” is a farmer, someone who plants (“sows”) seed in the earth. Jesus says here that the “seed” the sower plants represents the word, which leads to two questions: “Who is the sower and what ‘word’ does he sow?” The “sower” is the one sharing or proclaiming the word—definitely Jesus but also the apostles, “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). So, even at this point in His ministry, I don’t think Jesus considered Himself the only sower. Those who followed Him were also to be sowing the word.
But what “word” were they to sow? Right away, we probably think “the Bible,” which isn’t wrong—I just think Jesus meant something more specific. I think “word” here means the same thing as “gospel” elsewhere, the specific word or message Jesus came to preach and entrusted to His disciples. That word is present throughout the Bible as a whole, but again I think Mark already summarized the word that Jesus proclaimed, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (1:14–15).
So, the sowers proclaim the word about how Jesus has fulfilled the time and has brought the kingdom of God near. They also call people to respond rightly by repenting and believing in that word. But in this parable, Jesus focuses on the various responses people have to His word more than the word itself. He wants to expose the hearts of His hearers—showing who has true faith and who has false faith. Remember: that’s what this section in chapters 3–6 is about, identifying true faith vs. unbelief. The point here is that true faith bears fruit. Let’s take a look at the first response.
Response 1: The Path and the Birds (vv. 4, 15)
Every year on Mother’s Day, my dad and I would take my mom to a garden center so she could buy all of the flowers she was going to plant in our yard that year. Garden centers probably wouldn’t make the top ten list of places grade school boys like to go but I loved it. It was a sensory explosion. When you gather thousands of plants in the same green house, everything about them is amplified. The smells were incredible: herbs, flowers, vegetables, and rich, nutrient packed earth. The sights were breathtaking: colors more lush, vibrant, and varied than you thought possible. Textures ranging from prickly cactus thorns to velvety leaves that feel more like a puppy’s fur than a plant. Just amazing.
The flowers held my interest for a while but what really got me excited was the fruit. It starts out as a flower but then you get to eat it. I remember seeing the seed packets and thinking, “If I buy this packet of watermelon seeds for 75 cents and bury it somewhere, I will have an endless supply of watermelon in just a few days.” The reality was my parents bought the seeds for me, I buried them in the backyard, and never thought about them again for the rest of my life. But let’s imagine that I decide this is the year of endless watermelon. What would happen if I spread seeds all over my sidewalk? Within a few minutes it would be filled with birds eating the seeds and leaving nothing behind. That is not the way to secure the year of endless watermelon, just like Jesus says about the path and the birds.
People who are like the path may hear the word but only at the surface level and only for a moment. They don’t receive it or understand it—it doesn’t penetrate their hearts or transform their lives or leave them in awe of God’s glory and grace or lead them to repentance and faith. It’s there and then it’s gone. The spiritual forces of darkness that war against humanity according to Ephesians 6:12 are experts at devouring the word before it can impact the lives of people who don’t believe, which means we either need to plant elsewhere or see that sidewalk transformed into fertile ground.
Response 2: The Rocks and the Sun (vv. 5–6, 16–17)
But what if decided to scatter the seeds on the gravelly area in our backyard? The birds wouldn’t easily see them and if it rained there might be a little quick growth but I wouldn’t get any fruit because there’s not enough soil, nutrients, and water to sustain the plant’s growth and as soon as the blazing hot summer sun hit the rootless sprout, it would be game over. This is Jesus’s point as He talks about the rocks and the sun.
Like the path, the rocky ground hears the word but goes a step further and “immediately [receives] it with joy.” That seems like a win, right? Talking to someone about Jesus and having them respond by joyfully receiving your words—that’s a dream come true for evangelism, isn’t it? It’s something to aim for and rejoice in when it happens. But, according to Jesus, just because someone receives the gospel quickly and joyfully doesn’t mean they have true faith. It might be the beginning of true faith but it also might be the beginning of a short-lived religious fad surrounded by unbelief. We can only tell which one it is based on how they endure the various trials of life and faith. As we saw two weeks ago, true faith needs to persevere. It needs to persevere through the trouble, difficulty, challenges, doubts, and opposition that accompany true faith in the gospel.
Response 3: The Thorns that Choke (vv. 7, 18–19)
So, I shouldn’t scatter the seeds on the sidewalk or rocky areas, but what about in the patch of weeds? I might get a plant or two to spring up but I wouldn’t expect any fruit to come from those plants because all of the water and nutrients and sunlight would be eaten up by the weeds that seem to multiply faster than we can pull them up. This is Jesus’s point as He describes the thorns that choke.
Like the rocky soil, the thorny soil hears and receives the word. It even takes root and grows—it isn’t scorched by tribulation and persecution. So, those who are like the thorny ground hear, receive, and endure but don’t bear fruit because the cares of the world, deceitfulness of riches, and desires for other things consume the life required to grow fruit. As we saw last week, true faith needs to obey by fighting against the cares of the world, deceitfulness of riches, and desires for other things for the sake of bearing fruit.
Response 4: The Good Soil that Bears Fruit (vv. 8, 20)
So, sidewalks, gravel, and weed patches make terrible gardens. The only way I can enjoy the summer of endless watermelon is to find good, healthy soil without birds, rocks, or thorns. If my backyard had such a place, it would be the best and only option for starting my watermelon patch, which is Jesus’s point with the good soil that bears fruit.
Throughout the parable Jesus has narrowed things down to arrive at a clearer understanding of true faith. All four soils hear the word but, as the path shows us, simply hearing is not enough. The rocky, thorny, and good soils all receive the word but, as the rocky soil shows us, hearing and receiving are not enough. The thorny and good soils have the seed take root and endure but, as the thorny soil shows us, hearing, receiving, and enduring are not enough. Bearing fruit is the one necessary hallmark of true faith that only the good soil has.
Application: Testing Our Soil and Our Sowing
This parable is so profound because it applies to our lives in two ways. We identify with both the soil and with the sower. On the one hand, it calls us to examine which soil our heart resembles. On the other hand, it calls us to examine how effectively we are sowing the word in the various kinds of soil around us. Those are the two questions we should ask ourselves: 1) How we are responding to the gospel when we hear it? (soil test) and 2) How are others responding to the gospel when we share it? (sowing test)
Testing the Hardened Path
Maybe those like the hardened path would have left already or not have come at all. Nevertheless, if that’s you this morning, then I plead with God on your behalf that He would work a miracle in your heart to cling to the gospel. To remember it and think about it. Sometimes people call it “the greatest story ever told” and they are absolutely right. It is a past story of Jesus displaying His love for us by dying for our sins and rising from the dead to reconcile us to God. It is also a present story in which we are characters living and ministering in God’s power, presence, and grace day by day. It is also a future story in which we will truly live happily ever after with God in a restored creation. There is one way to be a part of the story. It is not being good enough by your works. It is by being made a new creation by the grace of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
In the parable, the sower knew the path was hard but that didn’t stop him from scattering seed there. The lesson in this example is that we shouldn’t stop or never start sharing the gospel even when we think someone’s heart is as hard as the path. God is able to transform hard, impenetrable paths into good soil—He has done it for all of us who believe in Him. Pray for Him to do it and sow liberally.
Testing the Rocky Soil
There is potential for counterfeit growth even among those who appear to receive it quickly and joyfully. So, if you are a newer Christian experiencing joy, I want to encourage you to take a longer view of the gospel. View it as a past, present, and future blessing that claims your entire life. And if you feel the heat of tribulation or persecution right now, I encourage you to seek help and press on. Enduring those things is never easy. Experiencing them what makes your faith false, falling away because of them does.
Be slow to name the plant until you see it’s fruit. Just because someone receives the gospel quickly and joyfully doesn’t mean they are shallow, false believers who will soon fall away.
Don’t aim for a decision only but for discipleship as well. We went to the Cru vision dinner on Friday night and heard about the amazing number of students who have made a decision to follow Jesus through the ministry of Cru. We should wholeheartedly rejoice in that. Skepticism should not be our default. Don’t scoff at decisions because everyone who proves to be good soil started there. Take them at their word and disciple them. That’s where I want ekklesia and other local churches to be in partnership with ministries like Cru—we should desire to support their efforts and come alongside them to help ensure those who decide to follow Jesus graduate with roots, endurance, and fruit.
Testing the Thorny Soil
I think of all three undesirable soils, this one scares me the most for two reasons. First, it takes time, wisdom, and deep, honest discernment to tell if our hearts are like thorny soil. Second, it scares me because the American dream has the potential to strangle us in all three ways Jesus mentions in the parable, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things.” It just sounds to me like He is describing America. These things aren’t just present in our culture, they are held up as virtues in our culture.
We are the wealthiest nation in history, living in one of the most fearful times in history, in a culture that has absolutely mastered the art of creating and advertising things for us to desire besides the Word. We are not a Christian nation; we are a nation of thorns.
Are you distracted by the cares of the world? I scanned a few news websites and came up with this abbreviated list of items they wanted us to care about: various social movements, non-profit organizations, and political parties; organic, fair trade, non-GMO and farm-to-table food; gender, racial, and sexual equality; freedom of religion, speech, and privacy; reforming healthcare, immigration, and taxes; helping countries affected by drought, famine, war, and disease; the ongoing threat of terrorism across the globe; natural challenges like climate change, deforestation, wildlife extinction, renewable energy, and sustainable products; moral and legal issues like abortion, physician assisted suicide, and legalizing drugs; and a variety of other things like sports, weather, space exploration, clothing, popularity, friends, success, vacations. The list is endless. Are we distracted by these things in an anxious, fearful way or in an overly interested and preoccupied way?
Are you deceived by riches? Do you trust in and depend on your own resources more than or instead of God’s? Do you view wealth as something that belongs to you and not to God? Are you living life with discontent if you are not wealthy? It is not only wealthy people who are deceived by riches. Riches are deceitful and can act like a mirage in the desert. People who have no water think they see it on the horizon and lured by its false promises eventually to die of thirst in the desert. Riches can do the same thing; luring the poor with false promises of wealth until they eventually die without any money.
Do you desire other things more than or in place of gospel fruitfulness? Self-denial can be a great test to determine whether or not you are addicted to desiring other things. Know your weaknesses and be on guard. For me, video games and cable TV pose a big threat. Jesus’ masterful teaching comes out in how vague He leaves this particular statement. “Other things” means virtually anything.
Does this mean we have to either be reading our Bible or preaching to someone while only occasionally breaking for naps, tasteless food, and water? Should we give up all of our hobbies and quit our jobs? What about all of the good things we do that don’t seem to be fruitful or worshipful? “Sorry, Judah, I can’t change your diaper because I think it’s one of those ‘other things’ Jesus was talking about.” No.
A Christian man who lived about 1600 years ago named Augustine was helpful on this when he said, “For too little doth he love Thee, who loves any thing with Thee, which he loveth not for Thee.” Since that doesn’t make any sense, let me translate it into English. The way to love God in a world full of things that are not God, is to love those things for His sake. In other words, the world is like a music store full of instruments we can use to praise Him. Don’t confuse your happiness with God’s praise. His word is the boundary.
Calling for testing by the Holy Spirit, never taking our faith for granted or merely assuming we are genuine.
Testing the Good Soil
What is fruit bearing? The easiest way to answer this question in the context of the passage is to see fruit bearing as the opposite of how the other soils failed. Bearing fruit means resisting Satan and holding on to the word. It means enduring tribulation and persecution, staying the course instead of falling away. It means not being ruled by the cares of the world, not being deceived by riches, and not desiring other things more than the word.
It means growing in the grace and knowledge of God and declaring that grace and knowledge to others. Fruit contains seed, it means having the word in you, nourishing and protecting it so that its effects can be reproduced in the lives of others.
- Augustine. Confessions, trans. E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos, 1996). ↑