[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church called 'Different Responses to the Same Jesus'. Click on the title to get the audio of this message.]
The parable of the soils in Mark 4:1-20 exposes an important truth for all of us who are concerned to spread the gospel. Specifically, Jesus teaches that there will be different responses to the same gospel. Far from discouraging gospel ministry, it should encourage it. In this parable, the reason that 3 out of 4 soils do not produce the desired grain is because of the soil in which the grain lands. Likewise, the reason that fruitfulness in evangelism wavers is because of the hearts of the hearers of the gospel. In this parable, the sower of the word is constant, and the word is constant. The difference lies in the hearts of the hearers.
One implication of this truth is that while sowers of the word should avoid discouragement if the work is hard and the fruit seems sparse, the sowers of the word should also not grow proud when the harvest is great. Why? Because it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). The question that lies before us today is this: what is the danger in not understanding and embracing this truth? I think looking at this first letter to the Corinthians can help answer that question.
Apparently, those in the Corinthian church had been converted under the ministry of either Paul, Apollos, or Peter (i.e.- Cephas). As is natural, each Christian had an affinity for the man who taught them the gospel and whom God had used to bring them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, this affinity had apparently gone too far...it turned into loyalty...divisive loyalty. Thus, some were claiming to "follow Paul," "follow Apollos," or "follow Cephas." In other words, the congregation was divided. Paul doesn't want this to be the case, but it's been reported that it's happening all the same (1 Cor. 1:10-11).
Paul comes back to this division in chapter 3, and he wants to make something very clear. The division of loyalties to various leaders is based on bad theology. Wait a second! What? Where do you find that? How did theology get into this concern over a divided church? These are great questions. Here's what 1 Cor. 3:5-7 says: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth."
Now, do you see the bad theology? These various factions in the Corinthian church were giving glory where it was not deserved. They were exalting Paul and Apollos and Cephas to a god-like status because, in their minds, it was their individual ministries that brought conversions. Paul sets the record straight with two phrases: "the Lord assigned to each" and "God gave the growth" (2x). In other words, there was evangelistic fruit in Paul's ministry because the Lord assigned fruit to his ministry. There was evangelistic fruit in Apollos' ministry because the Lord assigned fruit to his ministry. The reason there was evangelistic fruit at all is because God gave the growth.
So, Mark 4:1-20 reminds us that there will be varying responses to the same gospel because the hearts of those hearing will vary. The danger of missing this point is that it can bring division because of an unhealthy means of evaluating the faithfulness of a servant of God (e.g.- "he doesn't measure up to another man"). Let me finish with an example from my own life. Then, having considered the teaching of Mark 4 and 1 Corinthians 3, think about the questions with which I will close.
I once served on a church staff in Florida. Each week before staff meetings, we had to fill out a contact sheet. This contact sheet recorded the number of hospital visits, home visits, phone calls, and evangelistic opportunities we had in the previous week. If someone professed faith in Christ as a result of that evangelistic opportunity, then those contacts were highlighted. At the end of a random month, our senior pastor took all the sheets from the month and evaluated them. He had gone out the night before and purchased a $50 gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse, and after looking at all the sheets, he gave the certificate to the man who had the most evangelistic fruit in that given month...it wasn't me.
For the purpose of this exercise, we'll assume that all the professions of faith were genuine. Now, think about these questions:
1. Was I more faithful or less faithful than the one who had more visible, immediate results? If you think I was more faithful, how did you come to that conclusion? If you believe I was less faithful, how did you come to that conclusion?
2. Is there a better way to measure faithfulness in evangelistic ministry? If so, what would it be?
3. Does giving a gift certificate for evangelistic fruit contribute to clarity or confusion about who's responsible for the conversion of a soul? How?
4. In this story, who gets the glory?
I hope you will take time to solemnly consider these issues. Then, my prayer is that you and I will take seriously the call to be sowers of the word...and take seriously our dependence on God to give the growth.