This study and the next are not aimed simply at justifying the existence of this course, although this is part of their purpose, but are studies taking us right into the Bible itself. They will highlight some important principles of biblical study and interpretation, and much of the course will take these up and illustrate them in more detail.
Bible study takes many forms. Some people study Scripture in the context of academic life. They gain degrees in theology or religious studies, and then perhaps they go on to write dissertations to qualify them for doctorates, after this proceeding to a lifetime’s pursuit of biblical research and teaching. At the opposite extreme are those who, as new Christians, have been told that devotional Bible reading is important and are just beginning their encounter with God’s Word.
Which is the more basic? Both groups would probably say theirs was. The academic would certainly regard his or hers as fundamental. This is because much of it involves studying individual words and phrases in an attempt to identify the exact nuance of each in a particular context. Certainly this is basic. Yet so is the other. It is basic in the way simple items of diet, such as bread and vegetables, fish and meat, milk and water, are basic, so basic, in fact, that without some of these life would come to an end.
If there were to be a vote on the matter, however, I would vote for the second. This is because this devotional approach is fundamental to the nature of the Bible itself. This does not mean that the intent of every biblical author was expressly devotional, but that this is the major overall purpose of the whole book as we have it, as seen in the passages we are to be examining in this and the following study.
Moreover, there can be no question of moving up from one level to another and then another, and then another, in such a way that the first level is left behind. A building may have many storeys, but it can never dispense with its foundations. In fact the higher it gets, the more important do good foundations become.
Receiving the Word is basic to becoming a Christian. There is no doubt about this. This is because conversion is a responsive experience. God speaks, with authority but also with the deepest, costliest Calvary love that just melts my resistance, even if this has built up more and more over many years; I answer with trust and with penitence. Christ comes to me, I come to him.
The initiative is always with God, but my response must nevertheless be utterly real. I come to realise that I could not make even this response without his grace working in me, but this does not make that response less necessary on my part. It has been rightly said that in a true conversion we are never less ourselves, for such wholehearted response to God has never characterised our lives before this, and yet paradoxically we are never more ourselves, for in it the Holy Spirit recreates us in Christ and the new self is born.
What is the function of the Word of God in Christian conversion? Let’s find out from Jesus himself. To do so, we will turn to the four Gospels.
Each tells the story of Jesus. Each has its particular emphasis, for, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in selecting material each of the writers bore in mind those he had immediately in view when he was writing, although they probably always also intended reaching a wider readership.
Mark`s Gospel is the simplest. It is written in a straight-forward, vigorous style, and is the one often recommended today to people newly interested in the Christian faith for their first reading of Scripture. With its quick movement and graphic nature it is ideal for this television age. Television “soaps” rarely stay with the same scene for more than a minute or two, except in presenting situations of high drama. Mark does the same until he gets to the supreme drama, the story of the passion and death of Jesus.
As is well-known, Jesus gave much of his teaching in parables, in story-form. In Chapters 2 and 3, Mark records some fairly brief parables told by Jesus, but in Chapter 4 he brings together a larger group. The first of these is the parable of the sower. It is somewhat unusual (although not unique) because Jesus himself gives it a detailed interpretation. This, and the fact that it stands at the head of a major parabolic group, suggests its special importance. As we shall see, we may even regard it as the most important parable of all, an important key to all the others.
I suggest you read it through now, including the interpretation given by Jesus, in Mark 4:1-20.
(Incidentally, when passages of Scripture are quoted or referred to in this course, you would find it profitable to look them up and read them)
It was particularly appropriate for a community like Galilee. This part of the country had a significant number of towns, but, apart from the fishing industry, it had a largely agricultural basis to its economy. The focus of the parable is not so much on the sower, nor even on the seed, but on the soils. The sower and the seed remain constant; it is the soils that differ so radically.
Here Jesus places quite exceptional emphasis on the importance of paying attention. Not only do we find this in the parable and its interpretation but in other features of the passage in which it is found.
As he is about to tell the story, he demands attention, saying, “Listen! See!” which is the literal translation of the opening words of verse 3. This suggests that the ear is to be supplemented by the eye. Perhaps there was an actual farmer at work within the sight-range of the hearers. On the other hand, he may have been appealing to the eye of the imagination. In any case, what it conveys is the message, “Open your whole being to what I am saying! Listen as if your very life depended on it!”
As if this were not enough, Jesus reinforces this by saying, “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear” (v. 9), which is repeated in verse 23, and underlined with emphasis in verse 24. He also refers to those who are “ever seeing but never perceiving, ever hearing but never understanding” (v. 12), suggesting people on whom the Word has had minimal impact. The whole passage, therefore, stresses to an unusually marked degree the importance of maximum receptivity and this before we even look at the parable itself.
The four pictures in the parable are so telling. The first is about seed falling on stony ground. This refers to superficial hearers, who never take in the message. We know that great crowds followed Jesus when he was teaching. This is clear to us from all four Gospels. Probably many of them were just there for a good story and were not interested in any spiritual meaning.
This can happen in church today. It is worth asking yourself some hard questions if, after listening to a sermon, you recall the illustrations but not what they illustrate. Many a preacher visiting a church for a second time, has been told by a member of the congregation that he or she remembers the children’s talk given last time, but not the message for the adults.
The second picture in the parable shows some response, but it is only at the level of the emotions. The seed does not take root, for the soil is so shallow. There were undoubtedly many like that in the crowds surrounding Jesus, for we are told that the people heard him with delight (Mark 12:37) and yet his committed disciples were few. When disappointment or persecution or even puzzlement came, most people in the crowds no longer stayed with Jesus, while the true disciples did, as we see in John 6:66-69:
“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God'” (italics mine).
This too can and does happen today. Some people may hear the gospel and perhaps grasp that it promises a heavenly destiny for those who respond. But the response is superficial; it is purely emotional and remains so. There is enjoyment of the gospel songs and the friendship of the Lord’s people, but it goes little deeper. Fundamentally, true commitment to the Christ of the gospel is lacking.
Then perhaps something happens; A situation arises at home or at work in which it is important to take a stand for Christ, his gospel and his values, but the person who has been touched purely emotionally fails to take such a stand. This may have involved opposition of an extremely modest kind and perhaps the forfeiting of some friendships, but the superficial “convert” shows no loyalty to Christ or the gospel. The person’s will has never been affected. The soil is too shallow.
The third picture perhaps suggests a bit more depth, but problems come largely in the shape of worries or enticements from the environment. The way of Jesus is not easy, and such people have not lost their craving for worldly goods and success. Even worries are often, although not always, related to concerns over material things. Whatever change has taken place it has not affected their desires. The gospel has given satisfaction at some level, perhaps emotional, perhaps aesthetic, perhaps intellectual, but their desires are unchanged. The worldly values remain and increasingly begin to dominate their lives again.
Before we consider the fourth picture, we should notice carefully what the second and third teach us. They tell us that there are two important tests of the reality of a spiritual change. The first is the test of loyalty. It is persecution, sometimes even so mild as hardly to merit that description, that tests it. The second is the test of our desires – have they changed? Do I now want to do the will of God? Is this my deepest desire?” Elsewhere Jesus declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Matt7:21).” To profess conversion and to go on completely unchanged is a denial of the lips by the life.
What is it that really makes a man or a woman? Not their appearance, nor their occupation, nor their bank balance; it is their desires. the things they want, the values they have, what it is that really drives them in life, not the trivial wants but the deep ones.
Judas Iscariot was numbered among the apostles, but he passed neither of these tests. His treachery against Jesus is proverbial, and his avarice is referred to in John 12:6 and what it led to in Acts 1:18, 19.
In the fourth picture there is steady growth and the end result is fruitfulness. In this case, and only in this, the seed has been able to fulfil its proper function and there is fruit to be harvested.
Two further matters deserve attention befofe we leave this story. Both the rootless and the fruitful are said to receive the word (vv. 16 and 20), but the Greek word used for reception by the fruitful, is the stronger of the two. Some writers employ word variation for stylistic reasons, but this is not characteristic of Mark. There must be a distinction in his mind here. One group received the word of the gospel at a superficial level, the other at a deep. The word used in verse 20 is somewhat picturesque and really means “make its home in”. It is from the same Greek root as another somewhat vivid word translated “dwell in” (literally “put his house down”) in application to Christ’s rich presence within us in Ephesians 3:17. It suggests that the reception is deep.
Notice too the reference by Jesus to perception and understanding (v. 20), which shows us that true reception of the Word must involve grasping its meaning. This does not mean we need to understand all the implications of the gospel (has any one of us understood all its implications yet?) but it does mean there needs to be enough understanding for true faith, and it is God who gives this.
We may illustrate this truth from other parts of the New Testament . In the story of Lydia’s conversion in Acts 16:14, Luke tells us, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Here the seed had fallen on good ground, ground prepared by the Spirit of God, whose gracious activity is so evident throughout the Acts of the Apostles. This is why preaching always needs to be accompanied by prayer for God’s blessing through the Holy Spirit.
What was the word Paul preached and Lydia heard? It was the word that was constantly preached wherever the apostles went, the gospel of Jesus Christ. In opening her heart to receive the message, God opened her heart to receive Jesus himself, the Theme of the gospel message. We cannot now listen to the preaching of the apostles, but we now have this message in written form. Like its oral counterpart, this has Christ the Living Word as it’s great Subject and it is vitally important that in receiving the Word we should accept the Christ of the Word.
On one occasion, Jesus spoke very sternly to the Jewish leaders. He said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John5:39-40). This is a salutary warning. Eternal life comes through the medium of the Scriptures, but only as we engage by faith with the Christ who meets us there.
What then are we to do? We are to accept Christ with all our hearts, not superficially, not just emotionally, not just mentally, but in the opening of our whole being to him. We are to welcome him, and to do so because we want to, because we ought to, because only if we do can we be forgiven and enter into a living relationship with Christ, and because there is no other appropriate response to such a gracious Person.
The Bible often uses two or more analogies to teach the same truth. Three New Testament epistles, written by three different authors, use the illustration of the seed or its later development in the plant, in connection with the Word of God. These same epistles link it also with the new birth, what theologians call regeneration. We will look at these passages.
James 1:18 says, “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” Here then language from genetics and from agriculture is combined, although the latter is used of the grown plant, rather than of its beginnings, in this case.
Of course the word “seed” can itself be used in a genetic as well as an agricultural context. What binds the two uses together is the fact of germinal life, whether in the plant or in the human being, whether in the ground or in the womb. So then, Peter tells his readers that they have been “born again, not by perishable seed but by imperishable, by the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 2:3) and John says that “no-one that is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him, so that he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). The NIV translation, “go on sinning” (otherwise rendered “practice sin”), reflects the fact that the tense used is the present continuous. It is evident from the rest of the epistle that this does not mean total sinlessness (e.g. 1 John 1:8-2:2) but nevertheless there is a radical change of character and conduct. The motive that governs the person’s will has been radically changed as a result of the new birth; it now becomes the desire to serve Christ and to do the will of God.
Does this mean we have either to read the Bible or hear it read to become Christians? No, for although Bible reading and listening to good biblical preaching are very important, the word of the gospel may come to us translated into many different forms – in a printed sermon, a book, a play, a film, through personal witness, through a Christian song, etc. What matters is that the actual saving message of Scripture should come through to us, no matter what the medium through which it comes.
Before we leave the theme of this study, there are two challenges we should face.
First of all, what kind of soil are we, or, let me put it more pointedly, are you? Have you received the word of the gospel and taken Christ to your heart? Nothing less than your eternal destiny is at stake in this. as Jesus himself often made clear, for instance when he said,
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God`s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
Then comes a second challenge, for Paul says,
“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
If the Word of God is indispensable for faith and therefore for salvation, and, if by the grace of God, you have received the Word and the Christ of the Word, this makes it important for you to make him known to others. How seriously are you taking this responsibility?