In this series (begins here) we have discussed literal farming in the ancient world, the basic principle of sowing and reaping, and a number of related lessons. Our focus in the series is the passages that use sowing and reaping figuratively to describe people coming to Christ. Today we will explore the seed. In sowing and reaping, literally and figuratively, the seed is vital in both senses of the word vital—essential and life-giving.
When farmers sow, they scatter seed on the ground in hopes of growing a crop. When spiritual farmers sow, they scatter seed in hopes of reaping people into eternal life (cf. John 4:36). What, then, is the spiritual seed?
In the parable of the weeds, Jesus refers to two general kinds of seed, namely “good seed” and “weeds.” A man sowed good wheat seeds in his field but while his men were sleeping his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:25). When the seeds grew, both wheat and weeds became apparent. Jesus later explained that the weeds are “the sons of the evil one” (v. 38). Just as good seed will produce Christ-followers (v. 38), so the bad seed (weeds) that were planted produced followers of the evil one (v. 38). Though the main point of the parable is that the Lord has not yet irradicated all evil from the world, it also shows that in general there are two kinds of seed that produce the two kinds of people in the world.
The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23; Mark 4:1-9 and 13-20; or Luke 8:4-8 and 11-15) identifies the good seed more specifically. Again, the main point of the parable lies elsewhere, and we will consider it in a future post, but for now our interest is in what we can learn about the seed.
Since Jesus explained the meaning this parable and identified its various parts, we don’t have to speculate. The seed is “the word” (Mark 4:14; cf. vv. 15, 16, 18, 20; Matthew 13:20; 21, 22, 23; Luke 8:12, 13, 15). That tells us that, when sowing and reaping are used figuratively to describe people coming to Christ, sowing the seed refers specifically to speaking the word to people. Speaking the word is a vital part of the process and is prerequisite for people being reaped into the kingdom.
Can you imagine a farmer being puzzled or upset by the scarcity of his harvest if he had not planted any seed? That is essentially what we are doing, however, if we lament the lack of growth but have only spoken the word of Christ to non-Christians sparingly or not at all. One of the most basic and important lessons we learn about outreach from the metaphor of sowing and reaping is that we must be speaking the word to people if we want to see people enter into eternal life.
I’m concerned that there does not appear to be as great an emphasis on telling the good news to non-Christians as there used to be. Here are a few possible reasons for and some brief responses to this decline of emphasis.
- Many of the past approaches to speaking the message were deceptive, manipulative, harsh or inappropriate in other ways. Yet even though this is true, the solution is not to stop speaking but to find better ways of speaking.
- The scandals and sins of Christian have cost us our credibility with non-Christians and we no longer have the right to speak. We have indeed lost a lot of credibility, but we must remember that non-Christians are not the ones who grant or withhold the right for Christians to speak. Christ does. The solution to this problem is not to stop speaking but to humble ourselves, repent, and live lives worthy of the gospel.
- Christians in the past told others about Christ but didn’t show enough love or do enough good deeds for them. Again, I think this may well be true, but the solution is not to stop speaking. Rather, it is to add love and good deeds. Outreach includes both “show and tell.”
- Jesus went around doing good. That’s certainly true, and we must do the same. But if we view that as a reason for not speaking to others about Christ, we are not grsping the ministry of Christ properly. Jesus had a balanced ministry of doing good deeds, telling good news, and giving good teaching (Matthew 4:23; 9:35). We should seek the same balance.
- Non-Christians don’t want to hear the message about Christ and don’t necessarily like anyone “telling them what to do.” Indeed, non-Christians have resisted the gospel from the beginning, but again, they don’t get to decide whether Christians speak. Christ does, and he clearly wants us to tell his message. Though non-Christians may perceive we are trying to “tell them what to do,” we must be careful to maintain the form of the message as “good news” (instead of unsolicited advice).
- It is difficult and intimidating to tell others about Christ. This is true for many of us, but again it is not a reason for ignoring God’s instructions to speak.
Numbers 3 & 4 reflect the strong emphasis on serving and doing good deeds today. Both Christians and non-Christians respect and appreciate our doing so. We must be careful, though, lest this good emphasis on serving becomes a hindrance to telling. Sometimes we get so busy and focused on doing good deeds for others that we have little time or energy left to tell people about Christ. Other times we may feel that we must put an exclusive focus focus on good deeds for an indefinite period before we even think about speaking. This is sometimes justified by describing it as “plowing” the soil. Other times there is a feeling that the deeds speak for themselves and so no particular effort is needed to tell people about Jesus. In this regard we sometimes hear the quote (wrongly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words.”
Instead of examining each of those perspectives, I simply want to say that none of them is convincing enough for us to conclude we can ignore or defer the clear will of God for us to tell others about Christ. Please don’t misunderstand. Good deeds, service, and love are vital to our mission. Thank God churches are emphasizing them more in our day than in some previous times. Personally, I wouldn’t be upset if someone referred to these Christ-like activities as plowing in a casual sort of way, as long as they understood that plowing and sowing are different and we must also actually sow seed (speak the word). I am not saying we have to speak the word the first time we meet someone or every time we see them. I’m simply saying that one of the main points Scripture makes about sowing and reaping is that we must speak the word to people if we hope to see them come to eternal life. Doing good deeds does not replace this.
If you would like to read more about the need for us to actually speak to others about Christ, check out some of these posts from previous blogs:
In addition to the primary lesson that the seed is the word and it must be spoken if we hope to reap a harvest, there are a couple other lessons we can learn from clarifying the identity of the seed. Luke’s account describes the seed not merely as the word but more specifically as “the word of God” (Luke 8:11). The references to “the word” elsewhere in the parable of the sower do not contradict this. Luke simply makes the reference more explicit. This reminds us we must always make sure that we do not simply pass along human words—whether ours or other people’s. Instead, we must tell people the message of God. Though we sometimes rely on other messages and influences to try to convince people to embrace Christ, God’s power for doing so is his gospel (Romans 1:16).
Matthew’s account identifies the word even more specifically than Luke. Matthew says the seed is “the word of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:19). This matches the essence and emphasis of Jesus’ proclamation. He spoke the good news that God was about to establish his kingdom (Mark 1:14-15; cf. Matthew 4:17; 9:35; Luke 4:43; 8:1; 16:16). He equipped and expected others to speak the message of the kingdom as well (Matthew 10:7; Luke 9:60; 10:9).
We sometimes think the kingdom was the message during Jesus’ ministry but now it has been replaced with a message about Jesus himself. It is true that there are many more references to the kingdom in the Gospels than in Acts and the Letters. But the kingdom is still important and mentioned in Acts and the Letters too. Even after his death and resurrection, Jesus continued to equip his followers with an understanding of the kingdom (Acts 1:3). You may be surprised to learn there are five statements in Acts that say specifically the early spokesmen told the good news of the kingdom (8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Three of these mention Jesus along with the kingdom, and this points to a resolution to any tension we may feel between focusing on the kingdom or focusing on Christ. Since “Christ” means “Anointed One” and has special reference to kings (1 Samuel 10:1; 15:17; 16:13; 24:6), to preach that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 2:36; 5:42; 17:3; 18:28) is to tell the good news of the kingdom (see post).
Making sure we emphasize Christ as King when we speak God’s word to non-Christians helps address a practical problem as well. When our message only emphasizes grace, forgiveness, and salvation, we may unwittingly enable the already pronounced tendency for people in our society to take on the role of consumers. A spiritual foundation that only includes grace and forgiveness may orient them to keep looking for good deals (low cost, high reward) the rest of their Christian life. But if we lay a foundation of the Kingship of Christ, including the fact that the King is merciful, we present a more complete and balanced message that stands to create healthier Christians. This is the same concern that thoughtful believers formerly addressed with the statement that “you can’t have Jesus as Savior if you won’t have him as Lord.” Or as Paul put it, For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11). Be sure to notice the word “Christ” here. The seed that produces authentic Christ-ians is the good news of the kingdom.
The basic principle of sowing and reaping is that the former is necessary for the later. Considering the identity of the seed that must be sowed shows us that it is God’s word that must be spoken and the kingship of Christ must especially be emphasized. Without this, we should not expect to reap a harvest.
For more on how the ministry of Empowering Subjects is equipping people to be workers in the Lord’s Harvest field, see here.