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The Number One Killer
Jesus analyzes the heart
Cancer is a word that ignites ugly fears. No disease has captured the attention of Americans the way cancer has. That is strange, because health statistics prove that heart disease kills far more Americans than cancer does. Yet when opinion surveys are taken in America, most people will predictably rank cancer as a greater killer than heart disease.
From these facts, it appears that we are easily distracted by things that have a strong emotional component. Cancer seizes our attention and summons strong feelings. Other things that are dull and simple, even though vitally important, may easily be forced from our conscious minds.
In this media-driven age, we watch television programs with multi-million dollar budgets on our HD-TVs and become increasingly attuned to flash. One communications expert has said that our society has become so used to over-stimulated communication that it takes sensory overkill to get people’s attention.
The Leading Spiritual Killer
Happily, only a fraction of us will ever have to face cancer or heart disease. But I invite your attention to an insidious killer that threatens every one of us to one extent or another. First, be warned that this killer comes disguised in dullness and simplicity, so you are already conditioned to ignore it. Some of you will feel little urgency when I tell you what it is, and that’s too bad.
This silent assassin is spiritual heart disease, a problem Jesus treated with utmost seriousness. In fact, he spoke about it in his very first parable. Jesus warned people from the outset that, if they wanted to understand anything else that he was going to say, then they had to deal with this problem.
In the early part of his ministry Christ had gained wide acceptance and popularity. Because of his great miracles, people thronged from the entire region to see him. Once again the spectacular had captured men’s minds.
But Jesus had drawn some unfavorable attention as well, and agents from Jerusalem began to track him around. Pharisees and Sadducees could always be found near him, opposing what he said. They couldn’t deny that Jesus had great power to work miracles, so they had come up with an explanation.
They acknowledged Jesus’ miraculous powers, but said that he drew them from Satan rather than from God. In response, Jesus rightly accused them of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. As such opposition hardened against him, Jesus spoke increasingly in parables. One such parable focused on spiritual heart disease.
The Field and the Farmer
4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Jesus had been traveling from town to town in Galilee in the manner of an itinerant rabbi. He was spreading the word about the kingdom of God and how men might enter it. Some who heard trusted in Christ; others flatly rejected him; and still others had every response in between. The parable speaks of various ways that people respond to the Word of God.
Jesus said that some of the seed fell along the path (Luke 8:5), which seems like a strange place to be sowing seeds. But the farmers of Israel had clever ways of reducing the labor involved in planting a crop. They would take the family donkey and strap a sack of seed on his back. After cutting a small hole in the sack, the donkey would be released to wander at will around the property dropping seed. Some seed dribbled out onto the path. After the donkey had done his work, the farmer would simply go out and sow seed in the spots that the animal had missed.
The seed that fell on the path suffered a predictable fate — “it was trampled on” (Luke 8:5). The Greek verb can mean that something is physically stepped on, but it also has the figurative meaning of treating something with disdain. We have the same idiom in English. Most of us have seen pictures of foreign nationals trampling on an American flag to show their contempt. Trampling on God’s Word is worse!
The seed on the path didn’t stay for long; it had only a brief opportunity to take root. Soon it was taken away altogether.
The next portion of seed fell on rock (Luke 8:6). Many parts of Israel have thin layers of soil on top of rock shelves. You can’t tell the rock layer is there by looking at the soil, or even by looking at the plants. But as the plants grow larger it soon becomes evident that their root systems have no access to moisture. After a promising start, such plants soon wither under the burning sun.
The seed that falls among the thorn bushes (Luke 8:7) also struggles to live. The thorn bushes compete with the new plants for both moisture and sunlight, making survival difficult.
Only the fourth type of soil, the “good soil” (Luke 8:8), had any production, but what amazing production! As we will see, this yield was God-given.
After telling this simple parable, Jesus did something quite extraordinary: he shouted in a loud voice to the crowd, saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Luke 8:8). Jesus gave his words terrific emphasis in two ways: first, by the intensity of his shout, and second, by a grammatical construction that communicated an added impact to his listeners. The NET Bible says, “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” That is outstanding translation!
In the discussion above, I have introduced a small amount of interpretive material, but for a moment put yourself in the place of the original listeners. What would you have known, based upon the simple facts of the parable?
Without interpretation being provided, I doubt if anyone would have known very much. In fact, some who came out to hear the great teacher and miracle worker probably turned to one another and said, “Is that all there is? Is that all he’s going to say? I didn’t need to come out here to hear that!” Some of Christ’s listeners likely turned away and went home in disappointment. Was he testing them?
A Desire to Hear
9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’”
The Greek grammar of Luke 8:9 makes it clear that Jesus’ disciples asked him repeatedly what the parable meant. That should lead us to question why they had to demonstrate such persistence.
The simplest answer is that Jesus did not reply to them the first time they asked. He didn’t divulge the meaning of the parable to them immediately. He designed his response to act as a filter, screening out those who were resisting the teachings of the Word of God.
But that approach also met the needs of those who had spiritual hunger, the receptivity of the human heart to spiritual things. So, the ones who didn’t want to know gave up and went away, while those heeding his command to “hear indeed” were granted deep understanding.
The Lord’s method reminds me of what he said in the Sermon on the Mount, when he instructed the disciples to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking so that the door might be opened to them (Matt. 7:7–8). Jesus acknowledged his method by quoting the prophet Isaiah, who described a people who would see, and yet not see, who would hear and yet not hear.
The Parable Interpreted
11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
In interpreting the parable, Jesus never revealed the identity of the farmer, but it seems obvious that he is the farmer. Most commentators agree on this.
Jesus interpreted the soils by describing four kinds of responses by the human heart to the Word of God.
- Resistant (Luke 8:12), on the path;
- Opportunistic (Luke 8:13), on rocky ground;
- Distracted (Luke 8:14), among thorns;
- Receptive (Luke 8:15), on good soil.
Let’s study each type of heart in detail.
The Resistant Heart
The first soil, the soil on the path, represents the resistant heart. I find that Christians who study Luke 8:12 often miss part of the meaning by jumping to the concluding part of the verse. Notice first that these people do hear. Even so, the things Jesus said do not find a reception in their hearts. Like the hard-packed ground of the path, the soil of their hearts doesn’t take in the seed.
As a result, the seed has no opportunity to penetrate. After a brief period, the devil removes any further opportunity “from their hearts.” Here Jesus plainly identified the soil with the condition of the heart. He was talking about spiritual heart trouble and making a diagnosis. Such people have had ample opportunity, but, by hardening their hearts, they have failed to make any use of their moment.
The Opportunistic Heart
The second soil represents the opportunistic heart. By “opportunistic” I mean someone who has — as Charles Dickens said of one of his characters — “a keen eye for the main chance.” The opportunist asks, “What’s in it for me right now?”
Jesus intentionally used the Greek middle voice for the words translated “receive” and “fall away.” The middle voice frequently implies self-benefit. Such people either embrace the Word or reject it, depending upon whether it seems to benefit their purpose at the moment.
Christ made it quite clear that the beginning of hardship leads such a person to see no further benefit in hearing the Word. That’s when they fall away. It may be that some of the people Jesus was speaking about had been influenced by the Pharisees’ charges that he worked his miracles through the power of Satan. Such criticism could have easily deflected the opportunistic heart from the Word of God.
After all, such a person could expect expulsion from their synagogue for following Jesus. What immediate benefit would that bring?
The Distracted Heart
The seed that fell among the thorns represents the distracted heart. In my own spiritual heart, this danger threatens most. At times I allow the worries and concerns of this world to crowd out concern for what God is doing. Riding in the car listening to an all-news radio station constantly injects worries about economic troubles, terrorism, pandemics, street crime, and many other things.
I’m not suggesting total isolation from those things, but I find that my heart is too often distracted by them. In most cases I can do absolutely nothing about the problem, and yet it occupies my conscious attention. The common availability of a 24/7 news cycle means that lots of people are getting paid to ask questions and raise fears.
Jesus warned that distraction comes not only in a negative form, but in a positive one, too. The riches and pleasures of this world can also occupy the central focus of our lives.
In many parts of the Western world we have an unprecedented chance to enjoy the pleasures and challenges of life. We need not regard such opportunities as inherently wrong, because they aren’t. But the pursuit of pleasures can achieve such dominance in our lives that it crowds out more important things, such as drawing closer to God.
The dull and simple challenge of nurturing our own spiritual lives pales by comparison to the flash and glitter of our iPad or Internet feed. How tragic it is if we can only be reached by the sensory overkill of our culture and not by the spiritual challenge of life with Christ! At this writing, Facebook absorbs enormous amounts of time from Christians who ought to know better.
I’m not alone in this problem, because we are a distracted culture. It concerns me that so many people in church hear God’s Word, walk out the door and soon sit down to watch two back-to-back professional football games. (I often watch, too.) No one will keep this balance for us. Our spiritual heart condition is our personal responsibility.
Jesus says that the distracted person never matures. The stunted plant cannot produce mature fruit. Failure to mature always has a high price.
The Receptive Heart
The good soil represents the receptive heart that eventually produces tremendous, God-given bounty. Just as in the case of the other three kinds of people, the receptive person hears the Word of God. The difference is that they cling to it. Actually, the Greek word gives the idea of holding onto something for all you’re worth!
Once I was standing on the deck of a Navy submarine in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A helicopter was hovering over me with a long cable and sling hanging down beneath it. They were going to use this rig to lift me from the submarine into the helicopter. Almost the instant I sat down in the sling, the young sailor told me, “Hold onto the cable.” And up I went!
You better believe I held onto that cable! There wasn’t another thing on my mind! That’s the kind of grip that a person with a good and noble heart gives to the truth of God.
But notice that Jesus said that retaining the Word is not enough; the fruitful person must also persevere before producing a crop (Luke 8:15). At this point some of us encounter another cultural stumbling block. Americans don’t persevere very often. Yet a person can’t plant the seeds and reap the crop the next day; nor the next week; nor the next month. It requires persevering care over an extended period of time before the harvest comes. Our cultural emphasis on the instant and the immediate undermines the concept of perseverance.
Many people find it difficult to make commitments and then stick to them. It’s not simply because of difficulties that come along. Distraction often rears its ugly head and draws a person off toward some better offer. That concerns me, because the body of Christ requires commitment at every level. That’s what it’s all about — commitment to Christ and to one another.
16 “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. 17 For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. 18 Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.”
It’s obvious that most of the parable deals with the issue of salvation rather than Christian living. Jesus began by talking to an audience largely composed of unbelievers (Luke 8:1, 4). Their hope lay in allowing the Word of God to find a place in their own hearts so that they might trust in Jesus and have eternal life.
Yet pertinent principles for Christian living can be drawn from each of the soils, or heart types. Certainly by the time Jesus spoke about persevering to produce a crop, he had gone beyond salvation.
The sober warning that begins in verse 16 was addressed to Jesus’ disciples, who pressed him earnestly so that they might “hear indeed.” They had to take these matters seriously, because God always gives his blessings for a purpose. He has given the Word of God to instruct us, the Spirit of God to dwell within us, and the body of Christ to encourage us so that we can yield an abundant harvest. That’s the meaning of Luke 8:16.
God has lighted the lamp so that it will cast light and accomplish his purpose (Luke 8:16–18). In this indirect way, Jesus challenged his disciples not to waste what God had implanted in their hearts.
Jesus also told them that in the course of time their response would become known. Because there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed in time. By application to us, that means that what we do with the Word of God will ultimately show up in our lives.
In his final challenge to his disciples to hear carefully Jesus said, “Whoever has will be given more” (Luke 8:18). That’s the outcome I want in my life and in the lives of other believers.
Testing and Healing Our Hearts
Use the following concepts to evaluate your own heart condition and your behavior.
1. In light of our Lord’s parable, how would you evaluate your general heart condition — your response to Christ and his Word?
The American mindset in the 1970s became so self-interested that it was labeled the “me generation.” Self-interest can eat up everything else! Unfortunately, in 2011 things are not much different.
Or perhaps you are distracted. Facebook, sports on cable television, ferrying children to activities and other things already make that possible.
2. One way to determine whether we are receptive to God’s Word is to evaluate our behavior.
Do you think that God’s principles are increasingly being integrated into your behavior as time goes on?
What kind of feedback do you get from others about your commitment to Christ and growth in him?
I hope that they tell you that you are becoming more mature in Christ and that they see growth in your life. You probably won’t get any feedback unless you overtly ask for it. Certainly I see value in each of us monitoring their own spiritual condition, but we tend to believe what we want to believe. Others may give a more realistic evaluation.
A Final Word
In every phase of life we must pay attention to priorities. I don’t think I was ever struck so much by that fact as when I went to my first Dallas Cowboys football game. My father had bought end zone seats, and we were watching the game through binoculars.
Pittsburgh had the ball, and their linemen came up to take position at the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh’s quarterback was looking hard at the Dallas defense as he walked slowly toward the line to take the snap. The Dallas defense was jumping all around trying to confuse him.
Distracted by the movements of the defense, the quarterback put his hand under the right guard to take the snap. Then he called the snap signal and the center — one person to his left — snapped the football straight up into the air. There was a wild struggle to catch the loose football when it came down.
The quarterback may grasp the defense perfectly, but if he doesn’t get the snap from center, he’s in big trouble! The distracted quarterback had forgotten about priorities.
Our top priority is to deal with our own spiritual heart condition. Only in that way can we yield a crop “a hundred times more than was sown.”
Coming next . . .
In Chapter 7, we see Jesus in the midst of his ministry. The challenge was that everyone had an agenda for Jesus to follow. How did he manage those pressures?