A picture is worth a thousand words. Therefore, teachers look hard for ways to help their listeners “connect” with what they are teaching. Jesus was one of the best illustrators of all time. He used analogies (where you compare two things that are similar but different “Christ is a Rock”); similes, (such as “the kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed”); and metaphors (“the teaching of God is a fountain of life”). But His most popular tool was the parable. It is a practical story designed to illustrate a spiritual truth.
As we move into Matthew 13 we will read several parables. These stories make you think, and think deeply about what Jesus was communicating. The disciples asked Jesus why He told so many of these stories. Why didn’t He just come out and say what He wanted to say. Jesus’ explanation has led to some head-scratching of its own,
10 His disciples came and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?”
11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. 12 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. 13 That is why I use these parables,
For they look, but they don’t really see.
They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand.
14 This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says,
‘When you hear what I say,
you will not understand.
When you see what I do,
you will not comprehend.
15 For the hearts of these people are hardened,
and their ears cannot hear,
and they have closed their eyes—
so their eyes cannot see,
and their ears cannot hear,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and let me heal them.’
16 “But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. 17 I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but they didn’t see it. And they longed to hear what you hear, but they didn’t hear it.
It sounds like Jesus is saying He is trying to confuse some people and keep them from hearing. But that is not the case at all. Those who have resisted Christ will not . . . and eventually cannot understand because they aren’t listening! They have shut out the Holy Spirit and it is the Spirit who gives understanding. Those who understand are blessed in being able to do so.
The best lessons are learned first-hand. Sometimes it is called discovery learning. The idea is that anything you can help people discover on their own is going to be learned and remembered more fully. Jesus spoke in parables so people would dig deeper and discover the truths of the Kingdom.
For us to understand the parables we need to understand a couple of basic principles. First, a parable was spoken to a specific group of people. For example, suppose I gave an illustration that involved the Cubs and the Cardinals baseball teams. The illustration would speak clearly to this audience (even the non-baseball fans). However, if people were trying to understand these words a thousand years from now, they might be scratching their heads wondering what baby bears and red birds had to do with anything. The point is: we must listen to parables from the listener’s perspective.
Second, parables generally are meant to convey one truth. You don’t have to find a meaning for every detail. However, the parable we look at today is allegorical which means the various parts of the story all stand for something. We know this because Jesus interprets the parable for us.
The parable of the seeds is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It teaches important lessons about how people respond to the gospel and what the difference is between true and false believers. Listen to the parable with these things in mind.
Later that same day Jesus left the house and sat beside the lake. 2 A large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat there and taught as the people stood on the shore. 3 He told many stories in the form of parables, such as this one:
“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. 4 As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. 5 Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. 8 Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! 9 Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
The seed represents the proclamation (or scattering) of God’s Word (or the Gospel). The different kinds of ground represent the human heart and the different responses to the gospel people will have.
18 “Now listen to the explanation of the parable about the farmer planting seeds: 19 The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts.
The first soil represents a hard heart. This is a person who rejects the gospel before they even consider it. They have already concluded the Christian message is wrong for whatever reason. They refuse to hear.
How does a person’s heart become so hard? The overarching answer is sin! The more we resist the Lord, fight Him, refuse to submit to Him, and blame Him for the difficult circumstances of life, the more calloused our heart becomes. A calloused heart gets progressively harder. It starts with ignoring little things but continues to grow until we are so calloused we can no longer understand spiritual truth. These people shrug off the message of the gospel.
The second soil represents those who respond superficially to the gospel. They initially are drawn to the message but it doesn’t last long.
20 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 21 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word.
Two people can respond to a call to come to Christ in an evangelistic meeting. One may wake up the next day a new person. The other goes back to the way life has always been. Why? It is because there are no roots to their faith!
It is a relatively easy thing to get “decisions”. This is not just decisions for the gospel. People who write infomercials know this is true. If you have the right presentation, the right music, a good testimony, and the right energy, you can sell almost anything! The same can happen with the gospel. It is important to take time with someone to make sure they understand the nature of the gospel before you push them for a commitment.
Several years back we had an evangelistic meeting with a group of athletes who performed feats of strength. At the end of the presentation the crowd was invited to come forward and become a follower of Jesus Christ. Scores of people went forward. Many of those people were swept up in the moment or in the personalities. And many of those people forgot about Jesus before the week was up.
The same thing happens in war. In a time of crisis a soldier calls out to God for help. They make promises. When the crisis passes, so does their recollection of the promise. We call them foxhole Christians. But this doesn’t just happen on the battlefield. People in a time of crisis may become devout. When the crisis passes, they lose interest. Jesus point is this: These people may look like Christians (and even think of themselves as Christians) for a while, but they are not true believers.
The third soil is that of the divided heart.
22 The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.
These are shallow and superficial responders. They are drawn to the message of the gospel but they never truly commit. They tell you that someday they are going to “get around” to growing in grace and truth but . . . someday never comes.
These people look good for a while. They may serve on boards and committees and lead youth groups. But over the course of time, their enthusiasm wanes and they are on to other things.
There are many in the church who are committed to a church, a Pastor, a church family, programs, prestige, the practice of religion, or even trying to be good. They look like vibrant believers but they have never truly made a commitment to Christ as their Savior and Lord. And for most of these people, when they become disenchanted with the group, their Pastor leaves, or they simply get bored with the church, they fall away.
Some people say these folks “lost their salvation”. The truth is that they never made a commitment to Christ in the first place.
Several years ago, there was a debate among Biblical Christians. The question was: can a person be saved without following Christ as Lord? In other words, can you believe and not show it in your life? The one group said being saved and growing in Christ are two separate things. You can be saved without living differently. Such people are called carnal Christians.
I don’t believe there is Biblical warrant for this idea! You cannot separate Christ as Savior and Christ as Lord! He is BOTH Savior and Lord and if you do not come to both you are not coming to Him! If Jesus is not Lord of your life, He is also not the Savior of our life! That doesn’t mean you will be perfect. It doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes waver in faith. But it does mean you will begin moving toward Christlikeness.
The last soil is the one that represents a true believer.
23 The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”
The true Christian hears the gospel message, runs to Christ, and then submits to Him desiring He transform their lives. They start to change. They produce a harvest. They make an impact and you can see changes in their character and behavior.
In Galatians 5 we were told that the fruit or the result of having the Holy Spirit in your life (and every believer has the Holy Spirit) is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. A true believer will slowly but surely begin to look and act more and more like Jesus!
Notice that the harvest is not the same for everyone. Why is that? We are made right with God through the work of Christ alone. Our growth comes as we work together with the Holy Spirit in our lives. So, our growth depends on how much we are willing to work with God. R.C. Sproul writes,
One of the key factors in our degree of fruitfulness is our use of the means of grace. Every time we willfully miss worship on Sunday mornings, we miss out on the grace that God extends to His worshipers, and it costs us in terms of productivity. Every time we squander an opportunity to be nurtured by the grace of God through prayer, through Bible study, through fellowship, or through the sacraments, there are eternal consequences. There will be that much less fruit in our lives.
It should be our desire and delight as believers to be as fruitful as possible. We come together for fellowship, for worship, for instruction in truth and righteousness, to the end that we might be productive and fruitful, pleasing and glorifying our God.
There are practical implications from this parable. First, we must evaluate the nature of our own hearts. Are you following Jesus or are you just enjoying the people of the church? Are you drawn to the church, its program, or its Pastor, or are you drawn to Jesus? Do you hunger for a reputation or do you hunger for holiness? Do you see any fruit in your life? Is there anything to be harvested from your life? There is no more important question: Have you come to Jesus as your Savior and are you willing to follow Him as your Lord or . . . aren’t you?
Second, we should be bold and unceasing in our witness. Just because people do not respond to the message doesn’t mean you should stop sharing that message. Jesus taught better than anyone ever has or will again. Yet, not everyone responded positively to Him! We must not feel defeated when people do not respond positively to the gospel. Three of the four responses in Jesus’ story are negative. We shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged when some people do not embrace the message.
Third, we need to be cautious celebrating conversions to the faith. The only test of true faith is time.
George Whitfield, the passionate and powerful preacher of the First Great Awakening, preached to massive crowds numbering in the thousands, and people were greatly affected by his evangelistic message. When Whitfield was asked how many people were saved, he would say, “We’ll see in a few years.” The point is not that people needed to earn their salvation, but rather that it would take time for true salvation to be demonstrated. (Platt 3344)
Just because someone says a sinner’s prayer does not necessarily make them a believer. What makes a person a follower of Christ is putting your ENTIRE hope of salvation on Him and then following Him with every ounce of strength that we have. In truth, being a follower of Christ is not about what you have done . . . it is about what He is doing in YOU!
Ultimately, only God can tell the difference between true and false believers. I am afraid that many people will stand at the seat of Judgment and be denied entrance into the Celestial City because even though they “like” Jesus (like you would on Facebook) they have never surrendered to Him and put all their hope and confidence in Him.
Don’t be one of those people! Make sure your eyes, your loyalty, and your focus is with the Lord Jesus Christ! Make the soil of your heart as ready as possible by spending time in God’s Word, with God’s people, and with God in prayer. Let God begin to do His work in you. The harvest will come. You see, He is very good at what He does.