Donald McGavran, the father of the Church Growth Movement and a major contributor to the development of seek-sensitive services, said of missionaries:
“They do good work. They pour out [their] life. They bear witness to Christ. They teach and heal men, distribute powdered milk, and demonstrate improved agricultural methods. But they do all these things, and much more, while their churches grow, if at all, by baptizing their own children.”
Whilst I agree with his belief that the missionary must immerse himself in the culture of the host nation, speak their language; eat their food, live amongst them, use their songs and music styles and communicate the Gospel in words and ideas that can be easily understood by the host, we see that Jesus takes the opposite tack here. Having totally immersed Himself in first century Palestinian culture and having gathered a significant following, Jesus, by way of judgement, begins to teach only in parables so that his message may be concealed to those who are uninterested and revealed to those who are truly seeking [Matthew 13:34-35, Luke 8:9-10].
In this particular parable, one which seems to be central to our understanding of all parables [Mark 4:13], Jesus begins to tell “the parable of the soils” [the parallels can be found in Matthew 13:1-23 & Mark 4:1-20], a parable which describes four reactions to the Gospel message.
1. By The Wayside – The Ignorant Ones
4 And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to Him from every city, He spoke by a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it… The seed is the word of God. 12 Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. Luke 8:4-5, 11b-12
Farming, in Israel in the first century, was different from farming in the West today. All of the various fields were separated by boulders or boundary markers and people would traverse through the fields which would harden the soil and create natural walkways. When it came to sowing, the farmer would remove the rocks and the weeds and then scatter the seed before ploughing the ground. This meant that he might be able to reclaim the soil that had been used as a public thoroughfare. Sometimes when seed was sown the ground, which had been previously walked upon, was so hard that the seed was unable to penetrate it and therefore was trampled and eaten by the birds of the air. Jesus uses this as an example of those who are the ignorant ones, those who did not understand the message and were not interested in trying to find out the meaning of the Gospel message [Matthew 13:19].
APPLICATION: Take some time to familiarise yourself with the Gospel. What does it mean, what does it do, who is it for and how is it made effectual? You may find it helpful to consult the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 82-93, courses like Alpha and Christianity Explored or even speak to some mature believers within your Church.
2. On the Rocks – The Superficial Ones
6 Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture …13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Luke 8:6,13
Since it was normal practice for the farmer to remove the stones and the weeds and because the parable does not focus on the sower, Jesus, we can wisely suppose that this was the seed that fell on bedrock. Israel itself, even to this day I believe, is renowned for large limestone deposits beneath the surface soil. This seed, then, happened to fall here, and because it couldn’t grow down it went up and looked like it was going to produce a bumper crop but because it had no root it died away. Jesus compares this with the one who starts his journey exceedingly well but is overcome by temptation. Having said this, I do not want the reader to think that the Christian life does not involve temptation [Romans 7:14-25] and, God-forbid, failure [1 John 1:5-8] but this is the one who is not, by the grace of God, removing himself from temptation and seeking to overcome it.
APPLICATION: While the bible encourages us to confess our sins to one another [James 5:16], as Protestants, we are often reluctant to do so. Why not find a mature and trustworthy friend to whom you can confess your major and re-occurring struggles and who can give you good honest advice on how to overcome? They do not need to know all the details so keep it short and to the point.
3. Among the Thorns – The Worldly Ones
7 And some fell, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it…14 Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. Luke 8:7,14
The third seed probably fell in an area that had already been weeded but because the roots of the weeds had not been fully removed and because the weeds were well established they grew up quicker than the seed and choked it out before the fruit could ripen. Jesus likens this third group to those who have believed but are preoccupied with worldly things. Maybe these things are not bad in themselves but the “cares, riches, and pleasures of life” would not let the fruit become productive.
APPLICATION: Chasing and/or living for fashion, family, money, marriage, fame, work, business, hobbies, education and food can all be things that choke out the Gospel seed. Why not get a copy of Watchman Nee’s classic “Love not the World,” which is available free on e-book and have a read? Are you someone who lives for this world or one who longs for the one to come? If you are unsure look at what directs your life, how you spend your free time and how you use your disposal income. It is often a great indicator.
4. On Good Ground – The Genuine Ones
8 But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold. “When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”… 15 The ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience. Luke 8:8,15
In Jesus’ day, a good harvest was considered around ten percent; here then we have a supernatural bumper harvest, which Jesus compares to the seed that fell on the good soil. These are the ones who have “a noble and good heart” [Kingdom character], “keep it” [they persevere] “and bear fruit with patience” [maybe not instantly but eventually they become productive]. It is these who can only truly be considered Christian, something that Jesus brings out in the immediate context [Luke 8:16-21]. This, however, does not mean that we are saved by a transformed lifestyle but it does mean that a changed lifestyle is normative if salvation is genuine [Ephesians 2:8-10] and while there may be exceptions to the rule [1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Jude 1:20-23] unless the seed falls on good ground there can be no lasting productivity and no assurance of salvation.
APPLICATION: When Billy Graham was a young man, a great evangelist called Charles Templeton mentored him and became a close friend. Charles Templeton was a man who was not only miraculously “converted” but was considered a greater evangelist than Billy Graham at the time. He went on, though, to renounce the faith and died as an apostate. While only God knows what happened with the man’s soul, I would challenge you to watch the film, “Billy Graham: The Early Years.” After watching it, I would ask that you consider recommitting your life to Jesus and asking that he might give you the grace for a full assurance of salvation, victory over sin and temptation and that you might be productive in all the areas of your earthly life.
 McGavran, 1970, Understanding Church Growth: Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids p.54 [brackets my own]
 To understand how to interpret parables please see the following link from Dr Bob Utley – http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/special_topics/parable_interpretation.html