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encouragement theology

Who Will Listen?

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Thoughts from Matthew 13…

 

It is great to hear stories of success, about great men who have gone out to conquer evil rulers, rescue the oppressed, and live happily ever after! It is great to dream stories about these heroes.

It is also great to hear about famous preachers, and what they accomplished. Peter preached two sermons and thousands came to believe in Jesus Christ. Leaders of the reformation, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged kings and rescued entire countries from the grip of the Medieval Church. Even in modern times, I remember watching at a Billy Graham crusade as thousands poured into the aisles, coming down to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.

These are all great memories, but it also catches me short. Why can’t I do that? Why don’t we see this power every day?

Are we missing something important when we don’t have these kinds of results?

It may be surprising to know that Jesus addressed this concern. It is easy to look at popular figures or large crowds, but Jesus showed that His way is not the way of popularity. He taught His people for over a year, yet both the leaders and the people rejected Him.

And so He changed His focus. Jesus would delay His earthly kingdom, focusing instead on His true followers and showing them about His heavenly kingdom, which surpasses everything we can see or hear or touch.

He also changed his teaching. He now started teaching in parables — simple metaphors which taught about the kingdom, but required a private explanation.a

“The word parable means “to cast alongside.” It is a story, or comparison, that is put alongside something else to help make the lesson clear.” – Warren Wiersbe4

And his first parable of this new teaching was a simple story about farming. A farmer went out to sow seed, but it was only on the good soil where the seed could germinate and produce fruit. The other soils — the barren path, the thin rocky soil, and the weed-choked polluted soil — could not sustain growth and were therefore fruitless.

But it was only in private with His disciples that He explained this message. His Word would go out to many different listeners, but many of the responses would be barren and fruitless. Only those who were of the good soil were capable of receiving it and producing fruit.

Matthew 13:1-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

“Hear then the parable of the sower: When 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 what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

The reason for parables

Matthew 13:10-17
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Mark 4:10-12
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Luke 8:9-10
And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 

At this time, Jesus had completed about 18 months in Galilee, teaching, preaching and performing miracles (see here and here). He had come offering His kingdom and they rejected Him: first the leaders then the people.

We see from this passage that the crowds were still following Him. Matthew 13:1-2 shows that the crowds were so great that He needed to teach from a boat offshore! However, Jesus also knew that these were the same crowds who, earlier that day, would rather have believed that He was empowered by the devil than to trust Him as their King.

So now, through the use of parables, He would limit His teaching only to those who were willing to listen. These parables were simple illustrations taken from everyday life, yet they contained a much deeper truth about His kingdom. He would teach the parables to the crowds, yet only give the explanations privately to His own disciples.

By using parables, Jesus was able to direct His teaching only to those who were able to receive it. He would teach more to those who would listen, but for those who would not listen, even the little truth that they had would be taken away.b

“Previously He had proclaimed the nearness of the kingdom, but never again does He do this. Rather, the King in parables instructs His disciples concerning the mysteries of the kingdom.” – Toussaint1

The other reason for parables is shown later, in Matthew 13:34-35. It is a quote from Psalm 78:2, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

“These parables would give light to those with trusting, search­ing hearts. But they would bring darkness to the unconcerned and unrepentant.” – Warren Wiersbe4

This message is also warning you about rejecting Jesus Christ. If you continue to ignore Him, He will eventually stop calling. As you refuse to listen, He will eventually leave you to your own way, and your opportunities to believe will have been gone.11 This is the same issue that occurred with the “unpardonable sin” in the previous chapter, and also in John 12. Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, showing that His messenger will often need to preach to deaf ears.

“The very same sun that softens the wax hardens the clay, so the very same gospel message that breaks down honest hearts and leads to repentance hardens the hearts of the dishonest and confirms them in their path of disobedience.” – H.A. Ironside2

 

The parable of the Sower

Matthew 13:1-9
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Mark 4:1-9
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Luke 8:4-8
And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Jesus started with one of our most well-known parables, the Parable of the Sower. In the parable, the farmer throws seed into the field, yet it can only grow and become fruitful where it lands in the good soil.

I often wondered why the farmer scattered seed so randomly that it would fall in the path, among rocks, among weeds, as well as in the good soil. However, as shown below, this is a common occurrence for a fertile field to have a network of walking paths, rocks below the soil, and poorly prepared soil, filled with weeds.c Some of the larger fields may even be spread from the back of a cow or an ox, increasing the randomness of the final location of the seeds.7

Why is Jesus starting out with this parable? He is still attracting massive crowds, but He realizes that their excitement has no depth. They are fascinated with Him, yet refuse to obey Him as their King. Therefore, this message of the sower is to His disciples, showing them that most of the listeners will not believe. Of the four soils mentioned, only the good soil is capable of growing and bearing fruit.d e

“The seed is the same in each instance. It is the attitude of the hearer that is different.” – H.A. Ironside3

 

The path

Matthew 13:18-19
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When 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 what was sown along the path.

Mark 4:13-15
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.

Luke 8:11-12
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.

The fields in ancient Palestine were interconnected with narrow walking paths, which would both allow the farmers access to their fields as well as allow travellers to cross without disturbing the soil.9  This was the reason why Jesus and His disciples had been walking through the grainfields on an earlier Sabbath (here).

But it is inevitable that during planting, some of the seed would fall on these walking paths. The seeds cannot take root in the hardened soil and are quickly eaten by the birds.

Likewise, there are some listeners who hear God’s word but never understand it. Satan snatches it away before they can ever listen and believe.

2 Corinthians 4:3-4
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

 

The rocky soil

Matthew 13:20-21
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.

Mark 4:16-17
And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

Luke 8:13
And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.

The soil of Palestine is often only a thin layer of topsoil over bedrock.4  It looks good on the surface but it is incapable of growing crops. There is simply not enough depth in the soil for the roots to grow.

Likewise, there are listeners who hear the Word and receive it with excitement. But their belief is only on the surface, and they have no depth. They fall away as soon as trouble comes, and are incapable of producing any fruit.f

“Persecution helps believers grow. But the sunshine will kill a plant with no roots.” – Warren Wiersbe4

Colossians 2:6-8
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

 

The thorny soil

Matthew 13:22
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

Mark 4:18-19
And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

Luke 8:14
And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

It is easy for a farmer to simply clear cut his field and not properly clean out the weeds. But if he does not remove the weeds from within the soil itself, they will quickly grow back and choke out any cultivated crop.g

Likewise, the thorny soil represents those who hear and initially believe the Word, but are too distracted by the things of the world to grow. As a result, they never mature and are unable to produce fruit.

“The Word tests as well as saves. Where the heart is occupied with other things – such as the cares of this world or the deceitfulness of riches – there will be little appreciation of that message which speaks of another scene altogether and of riches that can never pass away.” – H.A. Ironside3

1 John 2:15-17
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

 

The good soil

Matthew 13:23
As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Mark 4:20
But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Luke 8:15
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

The final soil, the “good soil”, is where the seed is able to germinate, send roots, and grow up enough to produce fruit. Some produce a small crop while others are capable of producing a very large harvest.

The good soil represents those who hear the word and truly believe in Him. They have the strength to face the storms and will produce fruit in their lives. See the link here for more detail about the fruit that we can produce.

“Fruit-bearing is the proof of spiritual life. If there be no fruit, profession is a mere sham, as the after-experience will soon make manifest.” – H.A. Ironside3

John 15:5
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

 

Conclusion

It is too easy for us to fixate on results. As we follow God, we can easily fall into the trap of evaluating ourselves based on numbers. How many people notice us? How many people listen to us? How many good things have I done today?

But the numbers can either inflate us or discourage us, and neither of them is right before God. When we inflate ourselves because of something that looks good, we have given in to our pride and are becoming hypocrites. And when we allow ourselves to be discouraged because of low numbers, we are guilty of second-guessing Him.

There are times when we feel like Daniel, capable of serving before kings. And there are times when we feel like Jeremiah, always on the run with no one to believe us!

But Jesus never said to go out and bring in thousands of followers. He said to make disciples, and to follow Him!

And while we don’t focus on the numbers, we should examine ourselves. What kind of soil are we?

Are we like the path, when we don’t even listen to God’s Word when it comes to us?

Are we like the rocky soil, where we only want what makes us happy? We want church services where feel good and get something out of the sermon, but we never have any roots to weather the difficulties of life.

Are we like the thorny soil, where we are too easily distracted? We like God’s word and want to believe, but things in the world are much more important to us.

Or are we like the good soil, where we listen, believe, and obey Him? Where we produce fruit to show that we truly belong to Him!

Galatians 5:22-24
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

 

Previous post: Don’t Refuse Him!


 

References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 13:1-23, pages 168-180

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 13, The Mysteries of the Kingdom

[3] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 26, The Sower and the Seed, Luke 8:1-15

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 13:1-23, pages 37-38

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 4:1-20, page 100

[6] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 8:4-15, pages 161-162

[7] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXIII: NEW TEACHING ‘IN PARABLES’, THE PARABLES TO THE PEOPLE BY THE LAKE OF GALILEE, AND THOSE TO THE DISCIPLES IN CAPERNAUM (St. Matthew 13:1-52; St. Mark 4:1-34; St. Luke 8:4-18.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxiii.html

[8] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 8. https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/15-the-unpardonable-sin-and-a-shift-to-parables.html

[9] Stephen Davey, The Sower, the Soil and the Seed, Mark 4:1-20, 11/29/1987

[10] John MacArthur, Kingdom Parables, Part 1, Matthew 13:1-2, Mar 14, 1982

[11] John MacArthur, Kingdom Parables, Part 2, Matthew 13:3a, 10-17, 34-35. Mar 21, 1982

[12] John MacArthur, The Responses to the Gospel, Matthew 13:3b-9, 18-23, Mar 28, 1982


Notes

[a] It is interesting to note that the rejection of Matthew 12 and the parables of Matthew 13 all happened on the same day (Matthew 13:1).

[b] “The purpose of these parables is to reveal an element of the Kingdom program of God which could not be known up until this time, and which, if publicly revealed at this point, would only exacerbate the hatred and murderous intent of Jesus’ enemies.” – Doug Bookman8

[c] “Each of the three fruitless hearts is influenced by a dif­ferent enemy: the hard heart—the devil himself snatches the seed; the shallow heart—the flesh counterfeits religious feelings; the crowded heart—the things of the world smother the growth and prevent a harvest. These are the three great enemies of the Christian: the world, the flesh, and the devil (Eph. 2:1-3).” – Warren Wiersbe4

[d] There have been other interpretations to this parable that are important to mention:

  • Some see this message as four possible ways that we, as believers, may react when confronted with His word. While this makes for a great personal application, the main problem with this interpretation is that it goes against Jesus’ own explanation. He clearly describes each soil as a different person, and then shows how their response affects their life.
  • Some see this as a blueprint for how Christians should share the gospel. According to this interpretation, Jesus gave this parable to teach us how to spread His Word (i.e. scatter it like seeds), and let it grow where it lands. There is a lot of truth that we should all continue to preach His Word regardless of personal responses, but this explanation neglects the fact that Jesus taught this parable to specific disciples at a specific time. The context of the parables in Matthew 13 is the mass rejection by the people in Matthew 12. The charge to preach His word is better served from other scripture (i.e. 2 Timothy 4:1-2).
  • Some see this parable as directions for how we should best prepare the soil before sowing the seed. In this interpretation, He is directing us to four different activities in order to prepare the listeners before teaching His word to them. However, we are stretching any parable when we attempt to identify truth in the illustration beyond what He has directly taught. His point for this parable was not about soil preparation, but rather it was to illustrate the existing state of people’s hearts when exposed to His Word.

“To look at a parable apart from the setting in which it is presented is to set one’s boat adrift in the shifting tides of speculation.” – Toussaint1

[e] This parable describes the path, the rocky soil, thorny soil, and the good soil. We know that the Word never takes root in the path, and the good soil both grows and is fruitful. But what about the rocky soil and the thorny soil? Were these listeners ever true disciples? Put in today’s terminology — do those two types of soil describe believers? This question is heavily debated, but Jesus repeatedly taught that a tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-19, Matthew 12:33). Therefore, it is clear that a fruitless tree was never one of His disciples. See also the study of John 15 here. Although the word began to grow in the rocky and the thorny soil, it was never fruitful. Therefore, these two soils cannot describe believers.

“The proof of salvation is fruit and not merely hearing the Word or making a profession of faith in Christ.” – Wiersbe6

[f] Some commentators criticize the initial excitement of the rocky soil listeners, attributing them as being too emotional. But Jesus is not teaching that the excitement is wrong, rather that the excitement and joy itself is not sufficient for producing a true believer. They need to grow roots and produce depth.

[g] “If the Galilean farmer wanted to do a lazy, quick job, he would simply burn off his field. It would then look clean. Perhaps he wanted to sell it and was deceitful. The problem, of course, was that the roots of the weeds were still under the ground surface. When seed was sown on that soil and went into the soil, it was not able to grow because the roots of the weeds would strangle it.” – Stephen Davey9

 

2 replies on “Who Will Listen?”

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