Be careful how you listen (1)

Called to sow the seed

Scripture readings

  • Isaiah 6:1-13
  • Mark 4:1-20


  • This is the day that the Lord has made
  • All my days (Beautiful Saviour)
  • My heart is filled with thankfulness
  • Give thanks with a grateful heart


My dear brother and sister in the Lord,

It is true what King Solomon says in Proverbs, “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.” (Proverbs 16:12, ESV)  We see it played out in our day here in Australia.  Never have we had more godless leaders and never have we seen sin abounded in this country as today.  Leaders do set the tone of the morals of a nation.

Uzziah was on the throne of Judah.  He started out well, but like his father, he is remembered as a man who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but not wholeheartedly.” (2Chronicles 25:2).  He was king for 50 years. The beginning of his reign was marked by his obedience to the Lord, and the Lord was with him. But the Bible records a turn in his life:  “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.” (2 Chronicles 26:16, NIV)  The Lord struck him with leprosy and he was not able to set foot in the temple till the day he died.  His son, Jotham, took over, but the Bible states something significant, “… the people continued their corrupt practices.”  They forsook the Lord and treated the Lord with contempt (Is 1:4).  Outwardly things looked as if nothing has happened, but inwardly they rebelled against God to the point that He stated He hated their Full Moons, Sabbaths and assemblies (1:13-14).  Jerusalem has become a harlot and a city filled with injustice (1:21).

A prophet for his time

It was when Uzziah died while the nation blindingly and hardheartedly continued in their sinfulness before God, that Isaiah found himself in the temple.  We don’t know what got him there that day, other than to know that God wanted him there.  Maybe Isaiah was dismayed by the political and spiritual developments of his people, but God used his circumstances to reveal himself in his glorious holiness to the prophet.
What he saw filled him with awe for the living God who is tree times “holy”.  The royal throne of God, the splendour of his royal robes, and way in which the angels worshiped Him, covering their faces from his holiness, with the thundering sound of the doorpost of the temple trembling at the sight and presence of God, made Isaiah fall on his face, confessing his sin before God. “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Two kings: Uzziah – but his is dead; and the Lord – the holy Lord of all the universe, and He reigns into all eternity.  To be in His presence calls for cleansing of sin. The angel took tongs from the altar and picked up a burning coal and touched the prophets mouth, and declared, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  Only now was Isaiah of any use in the kingdom of God.

God knew the sinful state of his people, being in need of a true prophet, sanctified and commissioned by Himself.  When Isaiah then heard that God wanted to speak to his people, he, with a trembling voice and shaking hand answered, “Here am I, send me.”

The message to be rejected

What happened next, and what God told the prophet would certainly be disheartening to any prophet.  The message of the Lord was for Isaiah to go and preach the Word of God to the people, but to expect that the majority would reject it.

So stooped in their sin, so darkened of mind, so hardened of heart were the people that the message of God through his prophet would only contribute to harden their hearts even more.  Listen:

“He said, “Go and tell this people: “ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9–10, NIV)

A paraphrase of these verses sounds like this:

“You will listen and listen, but never understand. You will look and look, but never see.” The Lord also said, “Make these people stubborn! Make them stop up their ears, cover their eyes, and fail to understand. Don’t let them turn to me and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9–10, CEV)

Don Carson comments:

Isaiah fulfilled this commission to blind and deafen by proclaiming (not withholding) the truth. Sinful Israel has come to the point where one more rejection of the truth will finally confirm them for inevitable judgment. The dilemma of the prophet is that there is no way of saving the sinner but by the very truth whose rejection will condemn him utterly.

God sends the prophet to tell them that they won’t listen. His message would save later generations, but not his own, because God would use Isaiah’s preaching to harden those amongst whom he lives. Someone writes:

Every time you hear the Word of God preached, you come away from that exposure to his truth either a little closer to God or a little further way from God, either more softened toward God or more hardened toward God. But you are never just the same. (R. Ortlund)

Two reactions to the Gospel

We hear Paul preach to the people of Athens.  He explained to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of how God created the universe and everything in it, and how He would judge all creatures one day.  He also explained to them God’s remedy for sin, Jesus Christ, and he called them to repentance.  New life would not be possible for everyone if Jesus did not raise from the dead, but as soon as they heard this something happens:  some sneered, and others became followers of Christ.  Same message, two reactions.

Paul writes in 2Corinthians 2:

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16, NIV)

Peter writes:

“Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.” (1 Peter 2:7–8, NIV)

Irrespective of a perceived response, like Isaiah we need to sow the seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is not for us to choose to do it or not; it is our duty, irrespective of their repsonse.  Some will listen and repent.  There are others, although knowing the truth, who will keep on sinning in their own stubborn way.

Hardness of heart

Most people know the right and wrong about marriage: when so-called de facto relationships became popular the Bible message was declared old fashioned.  They today laugh at us if we dare say that it is sinful to live together and have children out of wedlock.That was the beginning.

The so-called civil register of same sex couples was the interlude to where we are today: try to defend marriage from the Scripture and people laugh at you.  Try to talk about the sin of homosexual and lesbian activity, and see what happens.  It breaks your heart when you see good Christian parents refuse to apply the principles of the Bible as they teach their children in this regard.  It is no simple issue for any parent, and it calls for a lot of wisdom and much prayer – and I suppose a much tears and many, many prayers – but never can we allow the world to set the agenda in these things.

I had a telephone call of a young lady, completely unknown to me.  Straight away she made a statement about God.  “He does not exist”, she said. She told me that she engaged in a sexual relationship with another girl.  It clearly bothered her, otherwise she would not have called.  But in her mind if she cleared God off the stage and out of her mind, it would give her complete justification for her actions.  The more I tried to convince her otherwise, the more she hardened her heart and in the end she just plonked the telephone down in my ears. My heart bled for her.

This was the task of Isaiah: teach, preach, admonish, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness – keep on doing it till there was about no righteous person left.  The end of chapter 6 talks about the land being laid waste, with only a stump left.  This stump would be the holy seed in the land.  From it God would once again build his church.  From this stump would be born the Messiah, the Christ, who would by his death and resurrection build his church – and the gates of hell will not prevail against it: it would become the seed in the good soil!

The context of the parable of the seed

Now we go to the parable of the sower, the seed and the soil. Before we get to chapter 4 of Mark we need to establish the context.

  • Mark 1 draws the link between the prophesies of the Old Testament and Jesus by pointing to John the Baptist as the one preparing the way for the Messiah.  This line is picked up in later with the declaration of Jesus that “the Kingdom of God is near.”  He called people to repent and to believe the good news. The rest of the chapter continues to tell about how and who obeyed this call to repentance:  they were not from the religious elite, just fishermen who obeyed his call to follow Him. The chapter also tells about even the evil spirits obeyed Him.
  • In chapter 2 Jesus confronted the religious elite, those who were supposed to know the Scriptures.  When He declared the sins of the paralytic forgiven, they clashed with Jesus, referring to this act as blaspheming (2:7).  They rejected Jesus as the Son of God who had authority to forgive sins.  Later, when he called a “sinner” to follow Him and ate with tax collectors, the Pharisees complained: it is not fitting to mix with the lost!  Still clinging to the letter of the Law, without living out the spirit of the Law, the Pharisees complained about the disciples of Jesus not fasting.  They rejected the notion that He was the One who fulfilled the Law: they were trying to put new wine in old wineskins.  This was the same problem they had with Jesus healing the man on the Sabbath.
  • Chapter 3:13 takes us to the narrower context.  Jesus once again called people to Himself.  This time He appointed the Twelve Apostles.  The verse says they were “those He wanted”.  This is important in the understanding of the rest of the Gospel.  The expression “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” is now in the process of unfolding.
  • In contrast to the apostles’ obedience, the Pharisees accused Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, another name for Satan.  Jesus then declared to them:

“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”” (Mark 3:28–29, NIV)

  • To sin against the Holy Spirit is to have reached the ultimate hardness of heart and calling Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Satan.  This is terrible: it is to, in the face of knowing the truth, be so hard of heart to say Jesus is under Satan, and to utterly reject Him as worthless.
  • On the contrary, those gathered around Jesus to hear more about his teachings and will, are called his brothers and sisters and family.

This is the framework for the parable of the seed, the sower and the soils.

It was a parable, an illustration to teach something deeper.  Those who have ears will hear; to others who harden their hearts, it is a riddle: they can’t get it.  We’ll look into this next time.

““Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.” (Mark 4:3–4, NIV)

When Jesus declared the parable he said:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.” (Mark 4:15, NIV)

Only now we understand the words of God to Isaiah and why Jesus added them here between the actual parable and the explanation of it:

But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “ they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:11–12, NIV)

What does it teach us?

First, there comes a point in the preaching and the hearing of the Gospel of grace in some peoples lives that their hardness of heart allows to hear it, but they don’t listen – and then later they have no capacity to listen.  It remains a parable, or a riddle. I think it is something like it was in the time before the Lord called Samuel.  Eli and his sons were brutally ungodly and the result was, “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” (1 Samuel 3:1, NIV)  Paul writes about the time “when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3, NIV)  They are like Jannes and Jambres who opposed Moses, they oppose the truth because they “are of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, rejected.” (2Timothy 3:8)  Such were the people in the time of Isaiah who saw but did not see, who heard but did not hear.

I plead that you will not be one of them.  Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart! Be careful how you listen!

Secondly, the Gospel which is now an offer of free grace to receive life in Christ, may in the end remain a riddle; it may be a good story about a farmer who went out to sow, but more than that it will never be.  The writer of Ecclesiastes warn with these words:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”—” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, NIV)

He concludes with this warning:

“For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:14, NIV)

Thirdly, the parable of the sower tells us that we have to sow the seed; but it tells us also that we should not expect the wold to be at our feet in submission when we do so.  Not everyone has ears to hear.  On the other hand, those whom the Lord wants to, will come.

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