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April 08, 2021

When Ministry Doesn’t Meet Your Expectations

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Free Daily Devotionals from Open the Bible

If you are a sower, this is for you.

This is for everyone who wants to plant the Word of God in the lives of young people, friends, family, children, grandchildren, the unchurched, the unreached, the urban poor, the suburban rich, and any other category you may add to the list.

Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn. 15:8).  How is it possible to bear fruit that proves you are a disciple? How can you sustain a lifetime of service?

Four Responses to the Word of God

A sower went out to sow (Matt. 13:3).

The Parable of the Sower is about what happens when the Word of God is sown. Christ is telling us what to expect when we engage in the ministry of the Word. He is telling us that we must not be surprised or discouraged when people respond in different ways to the Word of God. This issue of expectations is crucial to sustaining a lifetime of service. Regardless of where you sow the Word of God, you will discover that not everyone is equally responsive. It will have different effects in the lives of different people.

Unresponsive

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. (Matt. 13:19).

Some people who hear the Word will be unresponsive. If you are a sower, you know how hard and discouraging this can be. You are trying to teach the Word of God. You break it down to make it as simple as you possibly can, but your son or daughter, or a member of your small group just doesn’t get it. Nothing about the Word really interests them.  He hears it with a yawn. She does not see how what you are saying connects with her life.

When this happens, you need to remember that this happened for Jesus, too. This is the whole point of the parable.  Jesus is telling us not to be surprised or unduly discouraged when people we love and pray for hear the Word but really have no interest in it or understanding of it.

You can’t be a better teacher than Jesus. No one has ever taught more simply, more clearly, or in a way that is more compelling.  Look at His masterful teaching in John 10, where He paints the picture of the shepherd and the sheep: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John tells us, “They did not understand what he was saying” (Jn. 10:6).

Enthusiastic

As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away (Matt. 13:20-21).

Here is a person who hears the Word and receives it.  More than that, this person receives the Word with joy!  And notice that this person makes an early response. He “immediately” receives it with joy. But this joyful receiving of the Word does not last. Trouble comes, and the person who once professed faith so brightly falls away. This second response is perhaps the most discouraging of all for the sower of the Word.

Dwight L. Moody was a wonderfully wise evangelist. He realized that invitations to respond at his meetings would often draw people who “immediately receive the word with joy” but who have no root in them. This is what he said to his counsellors who met with people when they came forward: “Urge immediate decisions, but never tell a man he is converted.  Never tell him he is saved.  Let the Holy Spirit reveal that to him.  You cannot see when a man receives eternal life.  You can’t afford to deceive anyone about this great question.” [1]

Jesus did not affirm every profession of faith, either. When He performed his first miracle in Cana by turning water into wine, many “believed in his name,” but “Jesus… did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people… He himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25). We cannot see the heart like Jesus did. We cannot finally tell who is genuinely converted from the one and who is merely manifesting a passing enthusiasm.

Distracted

As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful (Matt. 13:22).

Here is a person who hears and receives the Word. The seed gets into the soil, and it begins to grow. We know this because our Lord says, “the thorns grew up” (13:7). The thorns were not visible at the time when the seed was sown. Under the soil there were large root systems from old thorn bushes that had never been dug from the ground. They are just covered over. So, when the seed began to grow, the thorns outgrew it and choked it.

Jesus does not say that this person “falls away.” Rather, the distracted person remains in the church and would say that he is a Christian. But he is unfruitful. The ground of his life is so crowded that his profession of faith is barren. [2] It doesn’t produce fruit.

The rich young ruler is a perfect example of this in the ministry of Jesus. He says, “I want everything in this life, and I want heaven as well.” And when he goes away, he is sorrowful because the root system of his life is made up of thorns.

Receptive

As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty (Matt. 13:23).

Here are people who hear the Word and understand it. And it bears fruit in them! The harvest that the Word brings in these people’s lives is abundant—”In one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” The Word of God will be more fruitful in some true believers than in other true believers.

The degree of fruitfulness will vary among believers, but the distinguishing mark of every true believer is that the Word of God bears fruit in your life. The Word bears the fruit of repentance, faith, hope, love, service, perseverance, obedience, humility, and a long, long list of things in the New Testament.

Encouragement for Sowers

The living seed of the Word of God will produce an abundant harvest. Give yourself to a ministry of the Word, and you will see fruit—though not to an equal degree in each person’s life. You will not see it immediately. The seed grows over time, and the first results often turn out to be disappointing. There will be frustrations. There will be setbacks. But God’s Word, faithfully sown, will raise a harvest of lives lived under the blessing of the rule of God.

Stick with the proper seed.

The only seed that will bear the fruit of gospel change in people’s lives is the Word of God (Lk. 8:11). Different seed will produce a different harvest. Different seed may keep people together, it may create a helpful group experience, but it will not bring people under the rule of God. Only the seed of the Word of God can do that.

Exercise patience.

God works by sowing seeds not by dropping bombs. Christ is telling us that God’s work gets done, not by earth-shattering explosions, but by the faithful and quiet teaching of the Word of God.

Watch yourself.

As you give yourself to ministry, you will get trodden on. Some difficult experience will happen in the course of ministry, and when it does, watch your heart. Do not become a sower whose heart is getting harder.

As you give yourself to ministry, it will become more costly. Circumstances in your life will arise that will make your ministry more difficult. When that happens, watch your heart! Do not become a sower who loses your joy.

As you give yourself to ministry, your life will become more crowded. As God gives you greater responsibility, it will be harder for you to manage your life. When that happens, watch your heart!  It is so easy to become like Martha, who was concerned about many things. Do not become a sower whose life is so crowded that there no longer room for Jesus himself!

The Plough is Powerful

As you give yourself to ministry, trust the outcomes into the hands of God. He can change the hardest heart. There will be many times when you wonder what has come of all your work in sowing the seed in other people’s lives. You’ve prayed for them. You’ve loved them. But it feels like good seed has fallen on hard ground.

William Lane points out that in the time of Jesus, farmers plowed after they had sown, not before. [3] When the plough comes, the hard path gets broken up, the seed gets tipped into the opened ground, and everything is changed!  We serve a God whose plough can break up the biggest rocks and root out the most stubborn thorn bushes. When God’s plough comes won’t you be so glad that you planted the seed?

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If Jesus offered to tell you “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” for your ministry, would you listen? Join Pastor Colin Smith for the free course Sustaining a Lifetime of Ministry where he unpacks Jesus’ Kingdom Parables of Matthew 13 that help us embrace God’s perspective on gospel ministry.

1. R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody (Forgotten Books, 2012), 421.

2. Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (BiblioBazaar, 2009), 76.

3. William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Eerdmans, 1974), 153.


Colin Smith

Founder & Teaching Pastor

Colin Smith is the Senior Pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He has authored a number of books, including Heaven, How I Got Here and Heaven, So Near - So Far. Colin is the Founder and Teaching Pastor for Open the Bible. Follow him on Twitter.
Colin Smith is the Senior Pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He has authored a number of books, including Heaven, How I Got Here and Heaven, So Near - So Far. Colin is the Founder and Teaching Pastor for Open the Bible. Follow him on Twitter.