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Study Notes:

Matthew 13:1-23

What is God Saying?

Many people want to ‘hear from God’ especially when they are facing a major decision or a tragedy in their lives.  At those times, we want to know what God has to say and what He wants us to do. 

But the strange thing is, even when people hear from God, they don’t always do what He directs them to do.

This morning we are going to take a look at how different people respond to God as we hear one of Jesus’ most famous parables, which is also one of His most difficult.  It’s the parable of the sower which shows us four possible responses for people who have heard from God.

There’s going to be some good stuff for you to pay attention to this morning, because as we will see, what you do with what you hear is enormously important.

Matthew 13:1 On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. 2 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.

3 Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. 6 But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. 7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. 8 But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”

11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:

‘​Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,

​​And seeing you will see and not perceive;

15 ​​For the hearts of this people have grown dull.

​​Their ears are hard of hearing,

​​And their eyes they have closed,

​​Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,

​​Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,

​​So that I should heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

This is the hard part, the part we read over and over again and ask, OK, but what does that really mean?  Is Jesus really trying to hide things from people?

Well, yes, and no.  The answer relates to how you define a parable, what is it?  A parable is a story that contains details from everyday life that helps you make a point.  It is used to help people understand something new by illustrating the concept with something familiar.  In that sense, it is also like a joke – jokes contain familiar things, people, or settings and then introduce a twist at the punch line that is humorous because it was unexpected.

You have to pay attention to parables to understand them, but their meaning isn’t necessarily ‘hidden.’  In fact, on other occasions Jesus told parables and expected that people would understand them.  For example, the famous parable of the Good Samaritan was told to a young lawyer who had first asked Jesus what is the greatest commandment, and then when Jesus replied “to love God and love your neighbor” the lawyer asked the question – “Who is my neighbor?”  That’s when Jesus told the parable about the Good Samaritan.  He expected the young lawyer to understand what was being said and be convicted by it

Another time, which we will come to in Matthew 21, Jesus was speaking to a group of Pharisees and priests and told the parable about the wicked tenants – they had leased a vineyard from a man and yet when that man sent people to collect the rent, the tenants beat them and sent them away, finally the landlord sent his son to collect and the tenants recognized him as the heir and killed him.  The Pharisees and priests got upset because they understood Jesus was talking about them, they were the wicked tenants who wanted to kill God’s son.

So parables are meant to be understood – they are tools used to convey truth.  Jesus wasn’t running a secret organization that you had to be read into and sign a non-disclosure agreement for.  In fact, He was committing His message to His disciples and would then send them out to teach it to others.

Well then, what does this reference to Isaiah and closed ears and hearts mean?  Why was Jesus speaking in parables? 

He was speaking in parables so that they would hear, but not understand.  In order to ‘get’ a parable, you have to be open to receiving the message it conveys.  If you aren’t open to receiving instruction about the kingdom of God because you don’t believe Jesus or the things He is saying, then you won’t understand the parables, because they are designed to help people understand what He is teaching.  You will be hearing, but not understanding.  You will be seeing the miracles He performs, but you won’t be able to figure how He does it because you can’t legitimately accept that He could really be God.  You aren’t willing to be taught.

But if you are open to hearing Him, if you’re willing to accept that God is right and you are wrong about life and how to live it, then you will hear what Jesus says and you will ‘get it’ when He talks in parables.  And if you don’t ‘get it’ you will come to Him and ask for an explanation like the disciples did.

In other words, the condition of your heart when you encounter Jesus determines the outcome of that meeting.  Are you willing to accept what He has to say or not?  This is the point of the parable, as Jesus explains:

Matthew 13:18 “Therefore hear the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. 20 But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. 22 Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. 23 But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Notice that the point of this parable is the condition of the soil on which the seed lands.  It ranges from hardened and impenetrable to soft and fertile, but the seed touches each type.

Some people are hard, firm, packed soil – they “are those who HAVE heard” the good news Jesus is proclaiming, like the Pharisees who heard Jesus speak the same words that melted others, but refused to respond themselves.  They came to Jesus with a pre-existing conviction that He was not the Messiah.  So the seed, or His words, landed on their soil, but the soil just would not receive it.

On December 6, 1829 two men, George Wilson and James Porter, robbed a United States mail carrier in Pennsylvania. Both men were later captured and put on trial. On May 1, 1830 both men were found guilty of six indictments including robbery of the mail “and putting the life of the driver in jeopardy.” Three weeks later both men received their sentences: Execution by hanging. The sentences were to be carried out on (today July 2, 2018) July 2nd, 1830.

Porter’s sentence was carried out swiftly, but Wilson had influential friends here in DC who pleaded his case with President Andrew Jackson.  Jackson eventually issued a pardon to Wilson, saving him from execution, but requiring that he serve out twenty years for the remainder of the crimes.

Strangely, Wilson declined the pardon.  No one knew what to do, so the case went to the Supreme Court, which decided that a pardon is a piece of personal property and does not have to be accepted.

Chief Justice Marshall delivered the opinion of the court in United States v. Wilson, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 150 (1833):  “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him. It may be supposed that no being condemned to death would reject a pardon, but the rule must be the same in capital cases and in misdemeanors.” 

Wilson would not accept the pardon that was offered him, and no one could force it on him; as a result, he was subsequently executed.

Those who have hardened hearts when they come to Jesus HEAR the words of eternal life, but they are not willing to receive them, so the words lay there, doing nothing until the birds come along and eat them.

If your soil is hard and you find yourself unwilling to receive the seed, pray, and ask God to soften you if He is real, and then watch for His hand to move in your life.  If you know someone whose heart is hard, pray for them, ask God to plow their soil and prepare them to receive the Word when it comes.

But also understand that Satan is very real and that he is the enemy of our souls.  He would like nothing more than to keep people from ever hearing about Jesus, but if you must hear, he will do all sorts of things to cast doubts on Him.  So Satan stirs up cults, heretics, and misconceptions about Jesus that keep people from receiving His words.  No one is spiritually unaffiliated – everyone either belongs to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Satan – which kingdom you are in depends on what you do with what you hear, which brings us to the next type of soil.

Some people have ready soil, but are shallow – these people may show tremendous signs of conversion and growth early in their walk.  Seeds that are planted in shallow soil get warmed up first by the sun since they aren’t buried so deep.  But because they are planted in a thin layer of soil on top of rocks, their roots don’t go too deep and they wind up getting scorched by the sun.  Without deep roots they don’t thrive and it doesn’t take much to make them wilt and fall over.

These people love Jesus at first when everything seems to be going well, but when trials and testing come, they don’t have a strong root network to keep themselves nourished and upright.  But the answer is not to shield them from the trials and testing, Jesus promised that those things would come.  The answer is to get into some better soil, remove those obstacles to faith and send down some serious roots.  If you want to grow big healthy plants, you have to have good, deep soil. 

So make a note of this, because it is important: the problem isn’t with the seed, it isn’t even with the plant, as with the previous example, the problem is with the soil and the soil He is describing is shallow and unable to endure times of difficulty.

The foundational symbol of our faith is a cross, an instrument of execution, because they put our Lord to death – and He was a good guy, WAY better than you and me.  But not everyone liked Him.  If that’s how they treated Him, we should not be surprised when they mock or mistreat us.  But, you also need to know there is a final judgment coming when all wrongs will be put right, forever.

Some people are starving soil – these people receive the Word of the coming kingdom, but it’s not the only plant growing in their lives, so the seed gets choked out by weeds which Jesus says are “the cares and riches and pleasures of life.”  So take special note of this: prosperity destroys God’s Word in our heart just as much as persecution does.

The word pleasure here is hedone the root for our English word hedonist – a person who pursues their own personal pleasure and happiness as the greatest goal in life.  These people don’t produce fruit because the weeds growing in their hearts are competing for resources with the news of the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming.  These people can’t decide whether to live for themselves or to live for God.

Now, you have to know, weeds don’t choke out good plants suddenly, they grow quickly, often quicker than good plants, but not overnight.  Weeds creep in and consume more and more of your resources over time.

You only get one Sunday a week, you only have 24 hours in a day, and you only have so much money in your paycheck, – how are you going to spend those things?  Are you going to use your life to glorify and serve God, or to try and entertain yourself or accomplish your own self-determined goals?

Back in Matthew 6, Jesus said you can’t serve two masters; you are going to wind up loving one and hating the other.  So which is it going to be?  Jesus or the world?  Is Jesus really sufficient for all your needs or do you think there is just a little more out there that you need to find somewhere?

Listen to this observation from a Scottish pastor who wrote: “It is characteristic of modern life that it becomes increasingly crowded and increasingly fast. … It is not that a man deliberately banishes prayer and the Bible and the Church from his life; it can be that he thinks often of them and intends to make time for them, but somehow, in his crowded life never gets round to it.”

Friends that description of the struggles of “modern man” was not written last week, it wasn’t even written this year, or this century.  That was published in the 1950s.  Being busy is nothing new, and it’s not something you just have to work through for a season.  We all need to figure out our priorities and values, we need to figure out what we’re truly living for.  You’re never going to have enough time or money to do it all, so what are you going to do?  What is truly important?

If you are struggling to grow and produce fruit in your life, you need to get back to Jesus.  Don’t let your schedule get so overcrowded with the things of this world that you don’t have time for the Word, or prayer, or devotions, or fellowship, or coming to church. 

And be prepared for that to make your life look and feel different from others.  You can’t try to keep up with people who aren’t making a priority out of God

In his famous book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis makes the point about the Christian’s personal finances.  He says, “If our expenditures on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.  If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.  There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

That is true of our finances, but it’s also true of our time – there should be things that we would like to do, but we just cannot do because we have other Biblical priorities.  If you put living for Christ first in your life, if you are trying to be the man or woman, the husband or wife, the employee, the student that God wants you to be, you just AREN’T going to have time to do some of the other things you would like to do because you are either going to use the resources of your time, talents, and treasures to feed the seed of God or to feed the weeds in your life. 

You only have so much of yourself to give – and if you feed the weeds, you won’t bear fruit.  Only the fertile soil does that.

Some people are receptive and fruitful – and note: the good soil is really good soil – it produces up to a hundred fold – proof that for those who will receive the seed and allow it to grow as God intended, the harvest will be overwhelming.

But it will take time, you bear fruit “with patience” – don’t expect fruit overnight – it takes time to grow.  Keep getting up to do your devotions, keep at your prayer list, keep trying to talk about spiritual things with your kids, your spouse, your roommates, keep trying to memorize Scripture, don’t give up, be patient!

Jesus is offering you the seed, it’s a good seed, it will produce a good plant, and it will produce good fruit – if you accept it.   

So, the obvious question for us to deal with this morning is: “What kind of soil am I and what kind of soil do I want to be? What am I doing with His words?” 

Everyone in this room has been just had the seed touch their hearts – but what is the soil like in there?  Are you totally hard and closed off, unwilling to accept a pardon like George Wilson, or has the seed sunk in a little bit?

And if it has sunken in a little bit – what kind of soil did it fall into?  Are you struggling to stay alive because you aren’t sending down deep roots, or are all of your attempts to live with Christ being strangled out by your simultaneous concern about, or pursuit of, other things?

Ask God to do a little soil test on you right now as we prepare to receive communion.  Think about what He is offering you and how you are responding – what are you giving your greatest resources to, and what is your life producing?  And as you think about those things, let me remind you – He is the gardener.  He’s the one sowing the seed, He’s the one who can till the soil, He’s the one that can tell the difference between a good plant and weed and knows which ones to pull, He’s the one with the pruning shears in His hand and knows which branches to prune in order to produce more fruit.

The point of the sermon this morning is not to call you to shape up and try harder.  I’m calling you to recognize what’s happening in your life, and then come to God, with understanding, and ask Him to fix anything that needs to be fixed.  You’re being called to see, understand, agree, and surrender.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father,

search us and know us, help us to know ourselves. 

Break up the soil of our hearts, fertilize it and make it productive for you. 

Help us to see what is competing for our resources and what to do about that.

Thank you that the most valuable things we do come out of the gift you have given us – that we just produce the fruit of the seed we have been given – it’s all for you and it all comes from you.

Think of what it is like to leave your house in the morning and realize you didn’t charge your phone all the way – you look down on your way out the door and realize you’re at 10% battery life.  What’s your reaction?  And why?  Because your phone is a very useful device, but only if it is charged.  Only if it has power.  Well, what if you look down on your phone and see an icon that showed your spiritual charge?

Are you content to walk out the door with 10% spiritual energy for the day?  I hope not

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