"Heavenly Seed on Good Ground"
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
(Delivered Sunday, September 17, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
So far in our study of Matthew's Gospel, we have seen our Lord Jesus presented to the Jewish people as their long-awaited, promised King. And we have also seen that—as their King—He was rejected by the rulers of the people, and religious leaders of the day. Nevertheless, God's King had come. The kingdom of God had come upon them (Mathew 12:28); and God's kingdom program would progress and be fulfilled.
This morning, we begin to look into a very important section of Matthew's Gospel—that is, the section that gives our Lord's parables concerning this kingdom.
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Think with me for a moment about what a 'parable' is. The Greek word, from which we get the English word 'parable', basically means to 'to cast something down with' something else. It expresses the idea of placing two things together—one a familiar thing, and the other an unfamiliar thing—and explaining the unfamiliar by showing how it is 'like' the familiar. And so, a parable is basically an example or story—taken from everyday, common life—that helps to explain a spiritual truth in an unforgettable way.
Our Savior is a masterful Teacher. He knows how to tell us the kind of stories and give us the kinds of examples that best teach us what we need to learn. Personally, I think that He meant for His parables to work in us like a mental 'time-bomb'. These little stories get a picture into our minds; and that picture sits in us, and works itself into us, until—at last—the truth that it is meant to illustrate to us explodes into meaning. Suddenly, the pieces begin to fit together; and we begin to see spiritual realities in a clearer light.
But I also believe that there are times when parables are meant to be obscure—just obscure enough, in fact, that that same truth Jesus means to pass on to His followers will not be understood by someone whose heart is not right toward God, and who does not truly want to believe or obey Him. I believe that, just as it is a great blessing from God to be enabled to understand our Lord's parables, it is also a judgment from God to be denied an understanding of them. The parables of our Lord not only reveal spiritual truth; more than any other kind of teaching device—they reveal what kind of heart is within the person hearing that truth.
In Chapter thirteen of Matthew, Jesus teaches seven distinct parables—each intended to give His disciples important truths about the kingdom over which He is the King. Repeatedly, He introduces His parables by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” (vv. 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47). And near the end of the chapter, we read something Jesus said that reveals the importance of the parables that are contained in it. After He had presented these seven parables to His disciples—and after He interpreted these parables for them—He then asked them, “Have you understood all these things?”; and they replied, “Yes, Lord” (Matthew 13:51).
Now; we can argue whether or not they really did. Personally, I'm not so sure they understood as much as they thought they understood of the Lord's teachings—not, at least, until after He was raised from the dead, and had sent the Holy Spirit to be their indwelling Teacher. I don't believe I could have understood these things without the Holy Spirit's help either. But whether or not they really understood at this time, they at least 'thought' that they did. And so, Jesus tells them, “Therefore every scribe [that is, every careful student of the Scriptures] instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (v. 52).
The man or woman who is a careful student of the Scriptures—after being instructed by these parables—can know even more! They can be like someone who owns a household full of treasures that they didn't realize they had! Old truths that they thought they already knew will take on a whole new light. New truths will be held up to old, familiar truths in such a way that new connections are made; and an even greater grasp of kingdom truths will be obtained. Such people will find that truths they had only in their heads now begin to sink into their hearts in a saving way.
I believe that's a part of the reason Jesus told them, “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have an abundance . . .” (v. 12). These parables teach us key truths about the nature, spread and ultimate victory of His kingdom. And if we listen carefully to what He teaches us in them—and respond to what He tells us with obedience and submission—we will be greatly blessed in our relationship with the King Himself.
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This morning, we begin with what I suspect might be one of the most famous of our Lord's parables. It's important because it teaches us about how His kingdom is spread and advanced in this world. It teaches us how we must be careful how we receive the gospel of this kingdom in such a way as to be saved by it. This parable is what stands behind of His call in verse 9: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” It is a very important and crucial parable for us to begin with.
In our passage this morning, Jesus first gives the parable; then He explains why He speaks in parables; and then—finally—He explains the parable itself. I'm going to ask that we save the portion in the middle—that is, His explanation for why He spoks in parables—for our next time together. It deserves a careful look all its own. But let's first read the whole passage together from beginning to end.
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I was sharing with a friend of mine the other day that I was looking forward to preaching this passage; because I was more sure of how to interpret Jesus' parable than most other passages I preach from. I can offer an interpretation on the highest possible authority, because Jesus Himself gives that interpretation to us. He has, you might say, 'left the keys hanging for us in the doorknob'!
Let's begin by looking, first, at . . .
1. OUR LORD’S PARABLE OF THE SOWER (vv. 1-9).
Look at how it begins: “On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea” (v. 1). This points back to the events of chapter 12—and to the opposition our Lord was beginning to receive over His teaching and His ministry. And here, we're told something interesting; that He was receiving that opposition while in a house. I believe that He was in a house when a demon-possessed man was brought to Him for healing. It was in that house that much of the confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees had begun to intensify. And now, we find that He has left this house and has gone out to sit by the sea.
As He went out to the sea, we're told, “And great multitudes were gathered together to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore” (v. 2). Our precious Lord never missed an opportunity to teach truth to those who sought Him; but the multitudes were pressing in on Him in such a way that He couldn't have spoken effectively to them. So, He got into a boat, pushed out a short way into the water, and taught the people as they all stood along the shore listening to Him. What a sight that must have been!
By the way; as an aside, I'd just like to point out how unbiblical we are here in church today! I'm standing in a pulpit to speak, while you all get to relax and sit. But our Lord sat, while His congregation all stood to listen. Clearly, we have things backwards! (I'll have to speak to our leadership to see if we can be a little more careful to follow the Bible's example in the future.)
Anyway; we're told that Jesus “spoke many things to them in parables” (v. 3); and among them was this particular parable. To illustrate an important truth to those who heard Him, He described a sight that they would have been very familiar with in their day—that of a man walking about, sowing seed.
As the man in His story went out to sow, he wasn't careful or particular about where he cast the seed. It didn't always fall where the ground had been cultivated for seed. Some apparently fell on the wayside—right on the pathway where people walked. The seed fell on the surface of the hard grown; exposed to the crushing feet of passersby. Soon, the birds came and devoured the seed that was on the ground.
In the past, when we have had weddings at our church, I have always encouraged that people throw bird-seed rather than rice or glitter at the new couple as they leave. And the reason is because God has provided a resident 'clean-up committee' for bird-seed. It has often surprised me how quickly they do their work, too! The bird-seed is gone almost as quickly as the bride and groom! That's what happens to the seed that falls on the wayside. It doesn't have a chance to get into the ground and take root. It is snatched up and consumed by the birds.
Then, as the man cast more seed, some fell into ground where it did take root. But it was stony ground in shallow earth—not the kind of ground where the roots can go down deep. Immediately, because it was shallow, the seeds sprouted and sprang up. But as soon as the sun came out, the sprouts were scorched in the heat and died. They withered away, because they hadn't been rooted into the ground deeply enough.
And then, as the man cast even more seed, some fell among the bushes and the thickets. It sunk into the ground, and it even took root. But its growth was hindered by the things that surrounded it. It was among other things—weeds and thorns—that sapped up the nourishment it could have gotten. It wasn't able to receive proper sunlight or rain water. It was choked out and couldn't bear fruit.
Do you notice that three-fourths of the seed that was sown failed to produce fruit? The problem wasn't with the seed. The problem was the ground. It wasn't the kind of ground that was conducive to the fruitful growth of the seed. It was either lost by falling on the wayside, or lost through exposure to the weather, or lost through being choked by the weeds.
But we're told that “others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (v. 8). So then, only one quarter of the seed produced fruit; and only one third of the seed that produced fruit produced a hundredfold crop.
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Now, this parable is meant to teach us an important spiritual truth. Jesus tells His disciples, “Therefore hear the parable of the sower . . .” (v. 18). And before we consider the interpretation of the parable itself, I just want to point out that it wasn't to everyone that the Lord gave the interpretation of His own parable. It was only to His disciples—to those who had a relationship with Him, and who came to Him personally for understanding.
Look at verse 36. After the Lord spoke another parable to the multitudes, and the multitudes were sent away; and after the Lord went into a house, we're told, “And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable . . .” This suggests to me that, if we want to understand the deep things that our Lord taught—really understand them—then we need to get alone with Him and ask Him to teach us. We're told in Mark 4:33-34 that “with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.”
As you have studied the Bible, and have run across a difficult passage, where do you go for answers? Have you ever read a perplexing passage of Scripture, and found yourself running to the commentaries to understand what it means? I'm certainly not against commentaries. I use many of them. But I don't believe that they are any kind of substitute at all for simply going to the Lord and asking Him to help me understand what His word says.
When you read something in the Bible that leaves you with questions, why not go to the Lord Jesus first for the answers? Why not get alone with Him, and say, “Lord, I want to understand the truths of your word. What does this mean?” I have found that, when I do that, He doesn't always give me an answer right away. Sometimes, it's because He wants me to struggle a bit. Sometimes, it's because I'm not asking the right questions yet. But He eventually does, give me the insight I need.
The apostle John told us that we have a resident Teacher in the person of the Holy Spirit; and He guides us in understanding the truth of the Scriptures. John said, “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (1 John 2:27). So; go ahead and consult the commentaries or ask for insight from others. God can certainly use them. But make very sure that you go directly to Jesus first. It's to those who get alone with Him that He gives true insight into the deep truths of His word.
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So then; the disciples got alone with Him. And it was then that He gave them the insight into the meaning of His words. He told them, “Therefore hear the parable of the sower.”
This leads us, then, to consider . . .
2. OUR LORD’S INTERPRETATION OF THE PARABLE (vv. 18-23).
Jesus speaks of those who hear “the word of the kingdom”. And this is basically the teaching of the King and the news that is spread about Him. In Luke, it is called “the word of God” (Luke 8:11). In Mark, we're told, “The sower sows the word” (Mark 4:14).
This is describing the sowing of the message of the gospel—telling others the good news from God's word of who Jesus is and what He has done. It's the fleshing-out of the message that both John and Jesus Himself preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). And each of the four places that the seed fell—the wayside, the stony places, the thorns, and the good ground—are meant to illustrate a kind of receptivity to the word of the kingdom.
Jesus says first that 'the seed that fell on the wayside' illustrates that the word of the gospel is sown on the 'unheeding hearer', and is quickly snatched away. He says,
Do you notice that it is sown deep enough even to reach the heart? Jesus said that it was sown “in his heart”. God makes sure that it reaches down into the soul to touch the inner man. But the problem isn't with the seed. The problem is with what the man did with what was sown in him. The one who received it would not allow it to take the slightest bit of root in him. And then, the devil—or one of his minions—comes and snatches away what was soon before it can be understood and believed.
The apostle Paul sought diligently to make the gospel clear whenever he preached it. But he also recognized the power of the enemy. He said, “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The god of this age—the devil—seeks to blind people from the message of the gospel. He whispers into their ears about how 'ridiculous' or 'foolish' the gospel seems. He tells them that 'Jesus is just a crutch'; or that 'religion is for losers and weaklings'. He reminds people of how they'd have to give up the sins that they love; or that they might have to take up practices that they wont like. He reminds them of every Christian that ever 'burned' them or offended them in some way; or he reminds them of the church-going relatives and friends they knew who were 'hypocrites'. He immediately follows a presentation of the gospel with a philosopher or critic on television or in a class-room—someone who can 'poo-poo' the whole thing; and make the hearer embarrassed for ever even having considered the message of Christ. He even reminds them of how 'bad' they've been; and convinces them that their sins are so terrible that God could never forgive them—no matter what the gospel says.
The devil will make the 'unheeding hearer' think that the gospel is either so complicated that it takes a degree in theology to understand it, or so simple that only an idiot would ever think it was true. He'll send all the distractions in his power. He doesn't care how it's done; just so long as the word of the gospel is snatched up from the hearer before he or she can understand it, and believe it, and be saved by it. And that person will never even realize that it was the god of this age who was blinding them all along.
I wonder if there is anyone here today who is such a person.
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Second, our Lord says that 'the seed that fell on the stony place' illustrates that the word of the gospel is sown on the 'superficial hearer', and is quickly abandoned. He says,
I have noticed that, whenever someone first places their trust in Christ—even when they receive it with joy—it isn't long before their new faith is challenged in some way. It might be that a family-member or old friends begin to resent their new faith. It might be that workmates begin to mock them. They begin to be called names—like “Jesus-freak”, or “religious fanatic”. Peter says, “In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you” (1 Peter 4:4). I certainly felt such pressure when I first came to the Lord. It is a difficult time of testing; and people may think, “Well; I've got enough troubles in my life as it is! I certainly don't need to add to them by getting all the flack I'm getting because of Jesus!”
Or it might be that, no sooner than someone places their faith in Christ that a difficult trial strikes them. They suffer some difficult loss, or undergo a difficult challenge; and they become disillusioned. It may even be that temptation strikes them, and they fall back into some habitual sin. They may have thought that, when they trusted Jesus, all their trials would be over; and that there would never be any more pain or loss or struggle. They may have thought—or may even have been told—that coming to Jesus would solve all their problems and take away all their troubles. And when problems and troubles strike, they become disappointed with Jesus and think, “Coming to Jesus didn't 'work' for me.”
The Bible lets us know in advance that the trials and troubles are designed by God to build up our faith. “My brethren,” James writes; “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). But not everyone is willing to let patience have its perfect work! Some have 'no root in themselves'; and do not allow faith to be worked into them through the hard times of life. They consider the gospel to be the cause of their problems; and so, they “stumble”.
And again, I wonder if that doesn't describe someone here today.
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Thirdly, the Lord says that 'the seed that fell among the thorns' illustrates that the word of the gospel is sown on the 'distracted hearer', and is soon neglected. He says,
I have to say that, in my experience, this is where most “church-going” people fall off the beam. I have seen it happen to people who had walked with the Lord for many years, and who had been very active in ministry. Somewhere down the line—almost without their realizing it—the things of the kingdom of Jesus Christ began to take second place to the cares of this world. It might be that they're trying to advance themselves in their career. It might be that making money became more important to them than it should. It might be that they prioritized a new home, or a business, or a worldly pursuit of some kind—and it began to consume all their energies, and to draw them away from Christ.
And it's all very deceitful; because those things—in and of themselves—may not be wrong. We all have to live in a house. We all have to drive cars. We all have to work, and make a living, and care for our families. But soon, these things—important in their place— began to occupy the place in their lives that only the Lord should have. Paul even lost a trusted co-worker in this way. He told Timothy, “Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world . . .” (2 Timothy 4:9-10). He warned “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptations and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). Jesus asked, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
I wonder if this doesn't descibe someone here this morning?
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The seed of the message of the gospel had reached three kinds of ground—the wayside, the stony places, and among the thorns; but it was unfruitful because it was either snatched away by the evil one, or thrust away because of persecution and trials, or choked out because of the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of riches. I see in this the three main foes to our faith—the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But this leads Jesus to say, finally, that 'the seed that fell on good ground' illustrates that the word of the gospel is sown on the 'responsive hearer', and is fruitful. He says,
Now don't you want the truth of the gospel to bear fruit in you? In fact, don't you want to be one who bears “much fruit” for the Lord and His kingdom? The difference is not in the seed. The difference is in the sort of ground that receives it. Our Lord's parable teaches us that the fruitfulness of the “word of the kingdom” in someone's life depends on the kind of heart with which it is received.
Such fruitfulness comes, first of all, by being sure that have a personal relationship with the One that the gospel points us to. We must respond to the gospel call by turning ourselves over to Jesus Christ and becoming vitally connected to Him. He said, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Second, I would suggest that the fruitfulness of the gospel in our lives comes from the hard work of repentance from sin. That is one of the key themes of “the word of the kingdom”: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” If we will not turn from the sin that Jesus came to save us from, and if we will not change our ways and begin to obey His commands, then we cannot expect the gospel to bear fruit in us.
And finally, I would urge that we must make it our aim to rise up and follow Jesus obediently—acting in love toward those He has set before us. Later in the gospel of Matthew, He speaks these words—and they are not in the form of a parable, but in the form of a clear statement of fact:
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So; when that day comes, which kind of ground will you prove to have been? Nothing will be more important on that great Day than the answer to that question!
While we have the opportunity, may we be so respond to the word of God that we will be found among those who inherit the kingdom! May we prove to be the kind of good ground that receives the word of the kingdom rightly—and that bears much fruit!
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