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01: Preparing the Field

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The John the Baptist Experience: Book 2

The John the Baptist Experience
Book 2: The Extraordinary Message
Chapter 1: Preparing the Field

Copyright © 20231

by
Jim Kerwin

First the Messenger,
Now the Message!

Title tile for 'Coming to Grips with Kingship and Collective AmnesiaThere’s another way to think
about Messiah’s way-preparing herald —
as the field-preparing plowman
for the Seed Planter!
2

In The Exceptional Messenger, the first book in this The John the Baptist Experience series, we focused on the remarkable anticipation God created concerning the role, the mission, and the results of His prophesied Forerunner, John the Baptist. In Exceptional, we came to understand something about how unique, how pivotal John was in God’s prophetic plans and timetable, as in Spirit-filled power he prepared the hearts for Jesus’ earthly ministry.

But now it’s time to turn our attention to what John proclaimed during his mighty, meteoric ministry. It’s John’s subject matter, especially the individual, interdependent, interlocking components of his public preaching that are almost altogether absent in our twenty-first-century presentation of the Gospel. Without these same preparatory Gospel elements, our evangelism fosters thin and feeble harvests.

Hence in this second book of the series, now in your hands — The Extraordinary Message — we’ll continue to explore “the John the Baptist experience” by grappling with the fundamental, non-negotiable truths which God’s Spirit uses to pierce and prepare the hearts of those the Lord seeks to win.

How did John “prepare the way of the Lord”?

Changing the Analogy

When Isaiah’s chapter 40 prophecy introduced us to John and his ministry in book one, we were told that his mission was to prepare the way of the Lord. How did John do that? How did he exalt every valley, bring low the mountains, make the crooked places straight, and the rough road smooth, as his commission in Isaiah 40:3-4 declared, in order to create “a highway for our God”?

Isaiah 40:5 tells us that once the Lord’s way is cleared for Him, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.” John the Baptist must have succeeded, because John the Apostle confirms this glorious fulfillment in John 1:14:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,
and we saw His glory,
glory as of the only begotten from the Father,
full of grace and truth.

Preparing the way for a coming King is how the Old Testament’s foremost prophet describes this Forerunner’s mission. As we prepare to explore John’s message and ministry, it would be helpful to consider John’s preparatory work using a different analogy — changing the picture from that of a herald preparing the King’s way to that of a plowman breaking up fallow ground in advance of the Seed Planter.

But what right do we have to change the analogy? How dare we change the analogy to soil preparation and farming fruitfulness?

That’s simple. We take our cue from John the Baptist himself, who defined the response he expected from his ministry in such agricultural analogies as:

  • Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8);
  • “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9); and,
  • • “[Messiah’s] winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17). Once again, the focus is on fruit, that is, the edible part of the wheat plant.

And these points prove to be perfect introductions to King Jesus’ teaching, much of which He couches in farming illustrations like:

  • Trees — good and bad — judged by their fruit (Matthew 7:17-20; 12:33; 21:19 Luke 6:43-44; 13:7-9);
  • Soil — good and bad — judged by its fruitfulness (Matthew 13:23 ∥ Luke 8:14-15);
  • Vineyards and vine branches — (Matthew 21:33-41 ∥ Mark 12:1-9 ∥ Luke 20:9-16;3 John 15:1-8, 16.

All of these illustrations ultimately represent people and the sort of fruit they bear (Matthew 21:43).

Plowing to Avoid a Sow-Sow Harvest

Although that farming instrument known as the plow is mentioned very infrequently in the New Testament,4 its use as the primary tool for soil preparation is universally understood. And its existence and use are assumed in two famous prophetic words with the same message of repentance which John proclaimed:

1“If you will return, O Israel,” declares the Lord,
“Then you should return to Me.…

3For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem,
“Break up your fallow ground,
And do not sow among thorns.
4Circumcise yourselves to the Lord
And remove the foreskins of your heart…”
—Jeremiah 4:1,3,4—

Sow with a view to righteousness,
Reap in accordance with kindness;
Break up your fallow ground,
For it is time to seek the Lord
Until He comes to rain righteousness on you.
—Hosea 10:12—

What is “fallow ground” and how does one break it up? A fallow field is one that could be agriculturally productive, but it has been left unsown. It could be a parcel of land that has never been tilled, but more often it is one that once bore fruit, but has been left unplowed for a while.

English and Hebrew share an interesting parallel here.

  • • In English the word fallow, depending on the context, can function as an adjective, noun, or verb. Thus we could readily render the above two verses to say, “Fallow your fallow ground,” employing fallow as both a verb and a noun — “Plow your unplowed ground.”
  • Similarly, in the Hebrew of both the Jeremiah and Hosea passages above, the repetition of the word neer (נִיר [nîr]), presents us with both the verb break up, as well as the noun phrase fallow ground (נִיר [nîr, nir]).5

Breaking up a fallow field requires that most basic of farming implements, a plow.

Plowing Through the Parable of the Sower

Even though a plow is never mentioned in Jesus’ parable of the sower, let’s consider His words from Matthew 13:3-9 in light of the plowman’s work:

3And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. 8And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. 9He who has ears, let him hear.”

Keep that “plow thought” handy as we explore Matthew 13:18-23, where Jesus gives a point-by-point explanation of the parable.

Unplowed = Unready

18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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 the one on whom seed was sown beside the road.”

Whether one translates the Greek word hodós (ὁδός)6 as road or way or path, this is ground that has been packed down by endless foot traffic. The message of “the word of the kingdom” can’t penetrate, can’t get past the surface. The plow hasn’t reached this soil at all. The way of the Lord — the furrow for the seed of His Kingdom — hasn’t yet been prepared. This is fallow ground, needing the blade of the plow.

Lazy Plowing = A “Rocky” Start

20“The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.”

In telling the parable, Jesus said of these, “They had no depth of soil” (v. 5). Since other parts of the same field are fruitful, this doesn’t seem to be a description of a thin soil layer on a rocky substrate. Rather, this seems to be more like rocks of varying size lying below the surface of the dirt. Where I grew up as a boy in rural upstate New York, the boundary lines of most fields were marked by small “walls” of rocks, sometimes several feet high. As a boy I once asked a local farmer about where all the rocks had come from. He explained that these rocks came from the fields themselves.

The early settlers, first the Dutch and later the English, cleared the land of trees and brush. With that labor-intensive work done, plowing commenced. Every time the settler’s plow connected with a rock hidden just beneath the surface, he had a decision to make. He could make the easy choice and lift the plow over the obstacle, then keep going; or he could stop his plowing, grab a shovel, and dig out the rock. The latter choice was time consuming; but the rock, once extracted and set along the side of the field, would never challenge the plow again. More importantly in the long run, that rock would never be a barrier to crop roots, either.

In telling this “rocky soil” portion of the parable, Jesus is describing those parts of the field where the plowman lifted his plow over the rock. The furrows still looked straight and the field appeared ready for planting. But what happened to the seeds planted over those hidden rocks? The results look really promising at first! The seed planted there springs up “immediately” (v. 5). This scenario represents someone who “receives the word with joy” (v. 20), but soon withers; or, to put it in Jesus’ plainer terms, this rocky-soil person “falls away” from the faith (v. 21). Why? The plowman who preceded the sower didn’t bother to deal with the sub-surface rocks of sin in the soul.7

Praise God that John the Baptist was not a lazy plowman, as we will see in the chapters which follow!

A Thorny Issue = Love of the World

22“And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”

To this thorny, choking, deadly duo of “worry of this world” and “deceitfulness of wealth,” a third item is included in Mark’s and Luke’s account of this passage, namely, “the pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14).8 We find these items covered thoroughly in New Testament teaching (e.g., “love not the world”; “you cannot serve God and mammon”).9

But what can a plow do about weeds and thorns? Aren’t they problems we deal with after the plowing and planting processes? Wait a moment. Did you read the parable and the explanation carefully? Jesus said that in this case the seeds “fell among the thorns” (v. 7) — the thorns were already there. What help can there be from a plow?

None. At least after planting. But old Noah Webster gave some insight about the relationship between the plow and the weeds before planting, in his 1828 dictionary definition of the verb fallow:

**FALLOW, verb transitive: To plow, harrow and break land without seeding it, for the purpose of destroying weeds and insects, and rendering it [that is, the land] mellow.10 It is found for the interest of the farmer to fallow cold, strong, clayey land.

“To plow… for the purpose of destroying weeds.” Who but a plowman would know this? This is in keeping with the alternative meaning of the Hebrew word neer (נִיר / nîr) — break up or fallow ground — which we considered earlier in this chapter. From the same root, neer is rendered as lamp / candle / light (נִיר,נֵר / nēr / “nayr,” nîr). One scholar theorizes that this is because moist, upturned soil glistens.11 always before Me in Jerusalem” (1 Kings 11:36, with the idea carrying over to 1 Kings 15:4;  2 Kings 8:19;  2 Chronicles 21:7). The word is also found in Proverbs 21:4.]

Whether or not the “glistening soil” theory is correct, it’s clear that plowed, upturned soil — properly plowed or fallowed ground — is exposed to light that it would not normally have seen. Such plow-preaching of repentance serves the purpose of “destroying weeds and insects” which lurk unrecognized in the untilled soil of the heart.

The plow of the preaching of John the Baptist dealt pre-emptively with these heart-invading thorns and thistles, as we shall see. Of the disciples and adherents of John whom Jesus eventually received, very few had issues with such “weeds.”12 John’s plow had overturned and exposed the roots of these unwelcome spiritual invaders, killing them in advance of the word of the Kingdom being sown in the heart. By both his lifestyle and as a part of his Isaiah 40 commission, part of John’s purpose was to remind his listeners of the temporary, probationary nature of earthly life.13

Thorough, Diligent Plowing = Fruitfulness

23“And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands14 it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

About ten years ago, I was privileged, along with two other brothers, to teach at a Bible school in Romania. One of the topics of our session was this Parable of the Sower (as Jesus called it in Matthew 13:18). One of my brethren called this “the parable of the four seeds.” Normally it’s unwise to correct a fellow teacher or preacher publicly, but given the intimate venue (there were only about 10 students in this particular class, along with their their esteemed advisor) and the loving trust I had with this particular brother, for the sake of the students I had to set the record straight, saying,

“No, the ‘seed’ is the same in every case; it is ‘the word of the Kingdom’ (v. 19), God’s own message, the Good News, the Gospel. What is different is the soil into which the seed falls. To help remember this, it might be better to call Jesus’ illustration ‘The Parable of the Four Soils’.”

On further reflection (and every time we read through the Bible cover to cover there should be “further reflection” on what we’ve learned and what we think we know!), I have come to realize the unspoken importance of the unmentioned plow in this parable. And as I’ve been studying John’s life and ministry and impact over the last twenty years, I’ve become amazed at his plowing skills.

How does “fallow ground” become “good soil” and produce fruit? Plowing! Why did Jesus’ ministry ultimately produce thirty-, sixty-, and hundred-fold fruit? The fallow fields, the rock-strewn fields, the weedy, thorny fields had been well and thoroughly harrowed and painstakingly furrowed by Jesus’ fore-running plowman. “The one who sows the good seed,” Jesus tells us, “is the Son of Man” (Matthew 13:37). Everywhere that “Sower went forth to sow” (v. 3), the results were different and lasting when the soil had received John’s plowing.

How did John the Baptist accomplish his task? What were the elements of his heart-preparing declarations and demands? If we would properly prepare the soil to see 30-, 60-, or (Lord, let it be so!) 100-fold fruit in our own hearts, and in the lives of those to whom we minister, we would do well to turn to John’s unique message for guidance and insight. Let’s set our hands to the plow, so to speak, and root out what John preached, paying special attention to the effect that it had on those who responded.


Endnotes:


  1. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The John the Baptist Experience: Book 2: The Extraordinary Messenger; copyright © 2023 by Jim Kerwin. All rights reserved.

    Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible (nasb) Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA. All rights reserved. Used by Permission. www.lockman.org

  2. The title tile image is a copyrighted photo by Rex Wholster and used under license from iStockphotos.com.
  3. Jesus’ parable is a clear and unsubtle allusion to Isaiah 5:1-10.
  4. The noun and verb for plow are only mentioned four times in the New Testament: Luke 9:62; 17:7; and twice in 1 Corinthians 9:10.
  5. We will make one further connection to neer (נִיר / nîr) presently.
  6. Every time you drive your car, you should be reminded of the word hodós (ὁδος). Just below the speedometer (the gauge which tries to remind you that you’re exceeding the speed limit) is the gauge that measures how many miles (or kilometers) your vehicle has traveled since it left the factory. That gauge is called the odometer, after this Greek word for road or way.
  7. Here’s another thought to consider when it comes to these “field parables” of Matthew 13. Have you ever wondered how the “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44) was discovered? Jesus doesn’t tell us, but most likely it came to light because somebody’s plow thumped it! If it had been thumped by a farmer who normally “skipped over” rocks, probably it would have been ignored, and thus unrevealed. But if it had impeded a diligent, rock-removing plowman, it would have been discovered when he dug it out. There’s a sermon or two here — for anyone willing to dig it out!
  8. In Mark 4:19, the third item is given as “the desires for other things.”
  9. And we should remember what the Lord says through Jeremiah: Do not sow among thorns (4:3).

    Indeed, one of the thorniest, most terrifying warnings of the New Testament is this:

      • 7For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
      • Hebrews 6:4-8

  10. The definition of mellow, from that same dictionary, is “soft, well pulverized.”
  11. This second use of nîr is found four times as an explanation of God keeping His promise to David — “that My servant David may have a lamp [נִיר / nîr
  12. Notable among the very few exceptions may have been Judas Iscariot (about whom the Apostle John says in John 12:6 that “he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it”) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).
  13. This sub-theme in John’s commission as Messiah’s herald is found in Isaiah 40:6-8 —

    6A voice says, “Call out.”
    Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
    All flesh is grass,
    and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
    7The grass withers, the flower fades,
    When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    Surely the people are grass.
    8The grass withers, the flower fades,
    But the word of our God stands forever.

    We pursue this subject further in this book’s Deeper Dive #1: All Flesh Is As Grass.

  14. This verb understands is a key to this passage. Note that the person represented by the packed-down soil does not understand (v. 19). I think we’ll be able to show in the coming chapters that the “rocky” and “weedy” hearers don’t fully understand. All I’ll say for the moment is that the idea behind understanding goes far deeper than a mental grasp of all the facts.
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