Sowing and Reaping—5

“first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head” (Mark 4:28)

So far in this series of posts we have considered agriculture in the ancient world, noted the basic truth that sowing leads to reaping, identified the seed as the word of the kingdom, and explored the different types or soils or hearts that receive the word. Our consideration of the soils led us to modify the basic principle of the sowing and reaping metaphor to say that sowing leads to reaping when the seed indeed falls into good soil.

Between the time of sowing and reaping, however, lies the important and somewhat mysterious process of growth. The seed that is planted must grow before the fruit ripens and is ready to be reaped. We can learn more about growth from the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29):

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29 (ESV)

In this parable we can see some of the elements we have already considered, including the seed, the need to scatter seed, and the harvest of ripe grain (fruit). The parable also gives us some unique insights into growth. Several truths are apparent.

First, the earth produces the crop “by itself” (v. 28). The word here is automatos. Sound familiar? It is the source of our word “automatic.” The Greek word means “spontaneous, acting spontaneously, of his own accord.” The only other appearance of the word in the New Testament is when the angel rescues Peter from prison, and they escape through an iron gate that opened for them “of its own accord” (Acts 12:10).

The term in these two passages is describing the work of God. The unseen hand of God causes the growth that emerges. He has instilled the power to produce growth into both literal seeds and spiritual seeds. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). Or as Paul put it tersely elsewhere, “God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

Second, the growth takes places apart from the work of the farmer. It produces the crop “by itself.” The seed sprouts and grows, day in and day out, while (“whether” NIV) the farmer sleeps and rises. Someone quipped that our job is to plant the seed and take a nap!

Here is a place where we may again be tempted to extend the metaphor of sowing and reaping further than we ought. Since weeding and watering are a part of agricultural growth, we may want to add these to the metaphor of sowing and reaping. We may even identify these activities with specific things we could do to help a non-Christian come to faith. For example we may think of weeding as removing barriers and watering as giving love and encouragement. There is some reason for thinking this might be a valid extension of the metaphor. After all, the Bible does mention watering. To more fully quote the passage cited above, Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

On the other hand, Paul doesn’t tell us what he means by watering in that verse. His main concern appears to be simply to contrast the importance of the work of the humans to God’s work. If Paul is referring to something specific when he refers to planting and watering, we would have to infer it from what we know about the relationship he and Apollos had with the Corinthians. Acts 18 suggests the planting would be Paul initially speaking the gospel at Corinth (Acts 18:1-16, especially vv. 4-5, 8-9) and the watering would be Apollos’ subsequent work there. Apollos’ “watering” focused on helping the believers (something takes place after “reaping”), and refuting the Jews and showing that the Christ was Jesus (something that is similar to Paul’s “planting”; Acts 18:24-28). Neither of these are the kinds of things we usually have in mind when we extend the metaphor to including watering.

Perhaps, then, Paul is using “planting and watering” differently in 1 Corinthians 3 than the way the metaphor of sowing and reaping is usually used. He may merely mean that he worked among the Corinthians first, followed by Apollos.

I’m not saying we should be content to merely “sow the seed and take a nap.” There are some things we can and should be doing that might aptly be describing as weeding or watering. For example, we may well need to continue to speak the good news to people after they first hear it, as Paul presumably did when he returned to the same synagogue multiple weeks. Or we may need to answer questions, remove barriers, or teach other related themes. I’m simply saying we should exercise caution and restraint anytime we extend a metaphor beyond the way Scripture uses it. Only some parts of any given metaphor are parallel to the spiritual reality, and the writers often tell us the parallel they are making. Regardless of what all we may do after the seed of the kingdom is planted, and regardless of what we may call those activities, by all means we need to remember the lessons we’ve seen so far in the parable of the growing seed: God causes the growth, not the farmers.

A third lesson from the parable of the growing seed is that growth is a process. The parable describes the growth process as “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” Or, as the NIV puts it, “first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” Although one might identify some distinct stages of growth along these lines in a literal plant, it does not appear to me that Jesus is describing specific stages in spiritual growth. If we were to associate his words with particular stages of the growth of the word in a person’s heart, it would be arbitrary. Instead, I think these words are simply saying that growth is a process. The ripened grain does not magically appear all at once.

That leads to a fourth truth, namely, growth normally takes time. There is some variation in the time of growth of literal seed and even more so with spiritual seed. We noticed this in our discussion of John 4 (see post, fourth point there also).

Sometimes we may tell a person the good news, and they seem to respond very quickly. The growth time between sowing and reaping appears to be quite short. This may in fact be the case sometimes. More likely, though, a closer examination would reveal that others have sowed seed previously, sometimes stretching back for years. Regardless, we don’t need to debate how long it took the seed to grow. We can be content to realize that normally growth takes time. This will help us be patient while God does his work in a person’s heart, through his word and Spirit. This realization may also encourage us if we think a person isn’t responding to God’s message fast enough.

Fifth, we don’t know how growth takes place. The parable clearly says, “the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (v. 27). We might compare Solomon’s words:

As you do not know the path of the wind,
    or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
    the Maker of all things.

Ecclesiastes 11:5

The realization that we don’t understand how growth occurs fits well with the other lessons above. Since God causes the growth, not us, and since we don’t know how it takes place, we need to focus especially on sowing the seeds of the gospel—even if the growth takes some time. We need to remember it is a process and stay in our lane.

This parable also mentions that when the harvest comes, the farmer will reap the ripened grain.

We’ve already noted that reaping is a part of the metaphor, and so reapers are needed. The metaphor does not tell us, however, exactly what is involved in reaping. It is related to helping people “believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12), so we can surmise that it entails assisting them in responding to the good news as they ought. So we wait patiently until God sees fit, in his good time, to grant the growth and ripening of the seed of the gospel. And when the fruit is ripe we stand ready as God’s servants to assist in the reaping of people into his kingdom. 

Published by Marvin Bryant

After serving as a minister for churches for forty years, Marvin founded the Empowering Subjects to equip subjects of the King to change the world like Jesus did.

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