Planting and waiting. That, I am learning, is the essence of biblical ministry. It is perhaps the most important lesson I have been learning over the last few years, at least as it concerns my life as a pastor.
Of all the things that I long to see happen in, around, and as a result of my ministry, I have no power whatsoever to make happen. I cannot save a single soul. I cannot make a single Christian more like Christ. I cannot cause a single saint to endure to the end of his life in faithfulness to Christ.
Beyond these things, I cannot heal a single marriage. I can’t make a single husband love his wife as Christ loved the church, nor can I give a wife with a difficult husband the grace to submit to him as the church submits to Christ.
Just as difficult of a pill to swallow is the fact that I cannot heal people of physical maladies and diseases. The woman suffering with chronic pain. The elderly widow with a painful sore that just won’t heal. The faithful deacon with Parkinson’s disease. The thirty-year-old father with brain cancer. I can’t heal anyone, nor can I enable the suffering saint to trust God in his pain.
And I hate to break it to you, dear reader, but neither can you.
The list of things I cannot do, of fruit that I cannot produce, and of results I cannot guarantee, is endless. If my inabilities and limitations filled my resume, I’d be a superstar, and so would you.
It reminds me of one of the many parables Jesus taught throughout his earthly ministry, one that is only found in Mark’s Gospel account. The passage is Mark 4:26-29, which reads:
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29 ESV)
The parable is about “a man,” any old man it seems, who throws seed upon the ground and waits for that seed to grow. More specifically, it is about what the man does from the time that the seed is planted until the time of the harvest. That is the thrust of this parable. Its emphasis is upon the importance of the man’s work, after the seed has been planted into the soil.
The parable paints a very ordinary, unremarkable, and unimpressive picture of a farmer between the times of planting and harvest – so ordinary, unremarkable, and unimpressive that it deserves a closer look.
What does the man do after he plants his seeds into the ground? Jesus says simply “and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows– how, he himself does not know.”
Essentially, the man goes on with his life, waiting for the day of the harvest.
And what we see is that the harvest comes in its own time. Farmers get this. It is not until “the crop permits” (v. 29) that the man is able to put it in the sickle. From the time that the seed is planted into the ground, to the time that the crop is ready for harvest – the man can’t really do anything to bring about the growth of the seed but go to bed, and get up in the morning, and then do that all over again, because the process of growth is ultimately outside of his control.
Now, also not to be missed is where Jesus tells us that the purpose of this parable is to teach us something about the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil…” (4:26). In this case he is telling those in his audience, at least generally speaking, what this parable is about. It has to do with the Kingdom of God; the day when God’s Kingdom breaks fully into human history and God renews the whole creation, rescues his people from all of their enemies, and judges his enemies once and for all through the Messiah.
This parable is about the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on the earth at the end of the age; God’s glorious end for history and the world. Jesus, here in this parable, as He often does, is pointing down the corridor of time to that glorious day.
Even more specifically, in this parable Jesus is showing the relationship between those who proclaim the Gospel and the establishment of that Kingdom on the earth. And what he is saying is that just like the man who sows seed into the ground, all we can do apart from taking the Gospel to people, is trust in the mysterious, sovereign and faithful work of God and wait for the harvest to come according to God’s perfect will. That’s the relationship between our work and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on the earth.
In the parable, our role in bringing about God’s Kingdom amounts very simply to planting seed and waiting for the harvest.
That, I believe is as simple of a description of my job as you could find in the Bible. All Christian ministry could be boiled down to these two basic activities.
Planting: Mark 4:26
The first thing we see Jesus say is that “the Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil” (4:26). Now, if we read this parable in light of the others, the most reasonable understanding for what it means to scatter seed here is to simply proclaim the Gospel – just as it meant in the parable of the soils earlier in Mark 4.
This is a picture of a disciple of Jesus in some of the simplest terms, as one who throws the seed of the Gospel onto the soil of the human heart. Jesus is being intentionally generic here, I believe, when he says, “A man…casts seed upon the soil.” A man. Any man. Any Christian. Kingdom workers are simply those who cast seed upon the soil.
It’s the pastor preaching the Bible faithfully to the saints week after week, Sunday after Sunday. It’s the faithful evangelist sharing the Gospel in season and out of season with the unbelievers in his life, whether at work, in his neighborhood, or at home. It’s the children’s Sunday School teacher seeking to share the Gospel in simple, meaningful ways to seven year olds. It’s the stay-at-home mom introducing a big and gracious God to her pre-schooler, hoping to lay a foundation of truth in the lives of her children, so that they might be spared years of sinful rebellion against the God who created them.
It’s the mature Christian man getting together regularly with a young husband and father at a local coffee shop to help him grow in Christ. It’s the Christian woman sitting down with one of her spiritual sisters to carefully point out sin in her life in an effort to help her repent and be restored to fellowship with Christ and his church. It’s the teenager looking for opportunities to talk about what God is doing in her life, and to tell her friends that Jesus is a real and living Savior.
Kingdom work is a Christian casting the seed of the Gospel revealed in the Bible, upon the soil of the human heart…actively, carefully, and liberally.
This doesn’t mean that all of Jesus’ followers will be proclaiming the Gospel in the same ways and in the same places; it simply means that in the various arenas of life in which God has placed them, Christ’s followers will be seeking to scatter the seed of the Gospel.
This is really important for us to remember, since there are many voices these days who so heavily emphasize the importance of deed-focused ministries that Word-focused ministry is relegated to a category of secondary importance, as if what people need is not ultimately the seed of the Gospel, but the water of human kindness.
Yet, without the seed of the Gospel, water isn’t really good for much. John Piper has put it well: “There are a thousand needs in the world, and none of them compares to the global need for the gospel.” So true. There is no act more loving and more Kingdom-minded than to seek to effectively plant the seed of the God’s Word into the soil of a human heart.
Beyond this ministry of planting, however, all we can really do is wait; wait for God’s eternal purposes to be fulfilled, in God’s own time and God’s own way.
Look at what the man does after he has sown the seed. Jesus says that “he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows– how, he himself does not know.
Some interpreters take the man who sows seed here to be Jesus. I can’t see how this could possibly be Jesus, because the way that this man is described here, makes it seem like his activity after planting the seeds is fairly irrelevant, at least as it concerns the final growth of the crop. So, Jesus just goes to bed and gets up? That’s all he does? Jesus has no idea how the seed grows? Jesus is dependent upon the crop to finally come forth? Jesus doesn’t play a role in the establishment of the Kingdom? Surely, this is not a description of Jesus.
But it is a perfect description of Jesus’ disciples. All we can do is plant seed. But we have no ability to ensure that when the seed is planted that it will produce a harvest.
In the same way, we don’t bring in the Kingdom. And if we read our Bibles carefully, we’ll learn that we don’t build the Kingdom either. We don’t advance the Kingdom. We don’t usher in the Kingdom. We don’t establish the Kingdom.
So many of the terms so commonly used to describe the relationship between our work and the coming of God’s Kingdom are found nowhere in the Bible. And this is because the Kingdom of God is not our Kingdom! It’s God’s Kingdom. He builds it. He advances it. He ushers it in. He establishes it. Not us.
Our ability to affect the coming of the Kingdom of God begins and ends with the proclamation of the truth. Apart from that, we can do nothing but wait.
Now, what does this mean? It means that the Kingdom is going to come in God’s timing and in God’s way. It will not come about as a result of our ingenuity or our initiative. It won’t come as a result of our work, or our engagement in society, or our involvement in the world. Every ounce of Kingdom fruit that we will ever see or taste for ourselves will come as the result of the sovereign power and authority and wisdom of God. The Kingdom will not come as a result of our effort, it won’t come in our timing, and it won’t be established by our sweat. The Kingdom will come whenever God has determined.
As the Apostle Paul put so memorably: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7 ESV).
Only God can take the seed of the Gospel and cause it to germinate in the heart of a sinner. Only God can take a sinner and give him a new nature and make him a new creation in Christ. Only God can forgive sins. Only God can reconcile man to himself. Only God can justify and sanctify sinners. Only God can promise and give eternal life. Only God can rescue his saints. Only God can defeat the devil. Only God can judge the wicked. Only God can establish his Kingdom on the earth. Only God can make a New Heaven and a New Earth….
Are you getting the picture? Everything we long for, only God can do. Everything we hope for, only God can fulfill. Every promise made, only God can keep.
And so, what are we to do? We plant the seed of the Gospel, scattering it whenever and wherever we can. Then, we go to bed, sleep on the soft pillow of God’s sovereignty, get up in the morning, and do it all over again.
That’s ministry in a nutshell. A very ordinary, unremarkable, and unimpressive sort of thing. And yet, God promises to use it to bring about a glorious harvest. Until then, we keep planting the seed and seeking to grow more patient and more prayerful, trusting our good God until the time of the harvest.