The Gospel and the Heart
The prayer is simple, that you would ‘hear’. By hear, I am not speaking of the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations through your ears. I am talking about spiritual hearing. On the surface, this prayer ‘to hear’ seems simple. This is not as easy as it sounds. In a culture over-saturated with messages it seems that the art of hearing has been lost. We have forgotten how to hear. See, when we want to truly hear, when we want to understand a story, we cannot just passively observe it. We have to enter deeply into it, wrestle with it. This is the only way in to really understand. Ernest Hemingway once advised, “when people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” In this passage Jesus is talking. I ask you to hear his words here in the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus talks, you need to hear, you need to understand. If you are not really hearing it is very easy to miss the obvious.
The introductory words “on that day” tells us that we are to connect this parable with that which has preceded it, namely Jesus’ encounter with the religious leaders. In the gospel of Matthew it was the religious that had the hardest hearts, and in turn will not hear nor understand Jesus. This brings the question; Why is it that people, not only religious people, but many people reject – don’t ‘hear’ Jesus? I think this parable provides an explanation as to why so many do not respond to his gospel. As we step into this encounter, this scene, we note that;
- Specifically, this parable is addressed to all people: This is the only one of the five major sermons in Matthew’s gospel that we find Jesus addressing, not to the disciples (in the broad sense), but to the crowds. Here, Jesus is broadcasting the truth to all. But,
- Generally, we see that parables are not meant to be understood by all people: Parables are proverbs, they are allegory used by a teacher to deliver deep truths. Now, obviously parables do not carry their meaning on the surface. Parables require that the hearer dive deep into an interactive process of understanding. When it comes to a parable, you can’t just passively listen, you need to hear and understand.
You do not need to be a farmer to understand the illustration used in this parable. Obviously this parable, the parable of the sower, is not advice on how to plant seed. There is always a deeper meaning in the parables. For those who hear, parables are explosive – they have the power to make people angry, and yet give others incredible hope. In order to really hear what Jesus is saying, we must allow the parable to question us. We must examine our own hearts and wrestle with the central question that is veiled within this parable. The question that challenges us as hearers to ask ourselves: What kind of soil are you?
The 3 Unfruitful Soils
Hard Heart (4, 19)
4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.
19 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.
In ancient times when people traveled mostly by foot, paths ran around and through unfenced fields. Over time the foot trodden paths would become too hard to receive seed. And this seed that sat on the surface of the path became easy food for scavengers. In verse 19, Jesus explains that the imagery of a bird snatching the seed is an allegory for the work of the evil one. But let’s make sure we are clear. The activity of the enemy here works together with, but does not excuse, those who have rejected the message.
In other words, the evil one is able to snatch away the seed because it has been rejected by the hearer. What Jesus is saying is that some people hear the gospel, but like hardened paths, they do not let the gospel penetrate their hearts, and as they ignore it, the devil comes and snatches it away. It’s almost like the “hearer knows that there is some spiritual truth here intended for his profit, but does not find out what it means, does not act on it, and soon finds that what he heard is lost.
In the parable it is clear that the seed cannot germinate unless it goes deep, unless it lodges underneath the surface. My fear is that there are many people in American Christianity that have contact with God’s word on a regular basis – you come to church, maybe you have read some Christian books – but the gospel has never made a personal penetration into your heart.
Let me ask a question – have you ever come under the power of the gospel deep in your heart? Has there ever been a time in your life when the word of God began to dawn on you and you began to see things as you have never seen them before? Has there ever been a time when hearing God’s word, you felt that you finally woke up from a deep sleep? Has there ever been a time when you suddenly realized that the gospel shows you your deepest needs and at the same time meets them. Perhaps, you are not allowing the gospel to move beyond the surface. It is one thing to mentally grasp the gospel, but it is quite another thing to experience the gospel in such a way that it fundamentally changes us and becomes our source of identity and security. We need to let the gospel master us by opening ourselves up to its changing power through a relationship with the risen Christ. When the gospel spreads its roots in our hearts we are truly transformed. Perhaps you have a hard heart.
Shallow Heart (5-6, 20-21)
5 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, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.
20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 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.
In the rocky ground of Palestine, limestone bedrock rested close to the surface, right under the soil, and prevented plants from digging their roots deep enough to reach the water sources. The results could be deceiving because such soil would warm rapidly with the rock, and the seed would sprout quickly. But, because the plant had no deep root system to pull in moisture, the unrelenting heat would cause the plant to dry and wilt away. In rocky soil the plants wither before they can grow. When Jesus explains the parable in verses 20 and 21 it is interesting to note the hearer immediately responds with joy, and then immediately falls away when things get tough. So, the initial response is not deep or lasting. The external pressures, troubles, and persecution are like the harsh conditions beating on a rootless plant.
Maybe there are times when you receive the word with joy! Your spiritual and emotional vigor springs up. But soon fades away. Perhaps you get this feeling from attending a conference, a concert, or a retreat. It’s what we might call the “church camp experience.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with these experiences – but the problem is that the experience itself is never the source of true spiritual life, the gospel is. We meet God as we encounter the beauty of what Christ has done for us, in becoming the forsaken man of sorrows so that we could have a joy unmitigated by our circumstances. Some really struggle with this. You move from experience to experience. You have been on top of the mountain, and when you come down to the valley the emotion fades away. As in the parable, the roots are not deep enough to stand the circumstances of life. You can’t take the heat. As soon as trouble comes in your life, as soon as you experience suffering, as soon as the emotional high fades away, as soon as you begin to loose important things – your faithfulness withers. In other words, you want the gifts and not the giver. You want immediate help not a savior. Functionally, “Christ is a service provider”, and as soon as he no longer provides what you want, or you think you need, he is no longer important. You truly never worship Christ, only the things he provided. How do you know this is you? Let me ask you a question, as soon as you lose the things you love, the real things you worship, does your faith wither?
Does your faith wither when you get outside of your Christian bubble? Would your faith wither if your high paying job is taken away? Would your trust in God wither if your house burnt down? Does your trust in God wither when you and your spouse and you are going through a rough patch? Perhaps you have a shallow heart.
Occupied Heart (7, 22)
7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
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.
This soil right here is the hardest to recognize. There is nothing wrong with the soil here. You could even argue that there is nothing wrong with the plant, “the problem is that [the soil] is already occupied and there is no room for a new” growth. This is why Jesus uses the word “choke” in his explanation of the parable. The picture is of plants crowding together. In occupied soil “seeds find intense competition for nourishment. The thorny plants are much stronger than the tender seedling. They choked out and prevent them from getting the nourishment they need.
Jesus explains that both anxiety and wealth, “the cares of this world” are the thorns that choke out genuine gospel faith. Ultimately, this person never permits the message of the gospel to dig in deep and conform their lives: life has too many other commitments that slowly choke it out. Now I want you to notice something particularly dangerous concerning this soil. In this third soil it is hard to tell what is really going on. In this soil the plants have roots, right? They stick around. Notice that Jesus uses the word “deceit” in verse 22. This seems to imply an added warning that these “thorns” are so subtle that one may not be aware of the choking that is going on.
When you examine your life do you see much fruit? If you were honest with your church family, would you would say that Christ shares control with other things in your life. Friends, this is where I feel that many of us can be. Some of you feel choked by other desires. You have a divided heart. Other things are choking the work of the gospel out of your heart. You don’t see yourself progressing in your faith. You don’t see yourself growing in unusual ways. You don’t see others being changed through you. Perhaps, you have an occupied heart.
Consider the First Three Soils
“The first seed never started, the second seed started well but did not survive, and the third seed may have survived but produced nothing. The main point is this; none of them are of any use to the farmer.” The parable of the soils is a warning – to all who hear. There are many people ‘in church’ who think they understand, who think they ‘hear’, but don’t. This is very disconcerting. Make sure you hear. The point of the parable of the soil is to deliver the truth that while the gospel is broadcast to all, different people will respond in different ways; “not all seed that is sown is productive.” Essentially, the fate of the seed, is dependent on the type of soil it lands on. This is why in different people, “the same seed produces no crop, some crop, or much crop according to the soils character.” Before we get to the last soil, I want to ponder why you might be one of the first three soils.
What is the Problem with the First Three Soils?
In verse 9 Jesus proclaims to the crowds, “he who has ears let him hear.” You know, it is easy to nod at Jesus words. Acknowledge what he has said. But he is calling for something much greater. He is calling for incredible perception. In the parable, Jesus has essentially shown us two hearers.
- Those who have truly heard, and understood: This is the person who has welcomed the gospel message and has responded – is being transformed and is continually producing fruit. There is also,
- Those who have not truly heard, nor understood: some people respond to the gospel with rejection, some respond with superficial interest, and some respond with mixed motivations.
So Jesus recognizes that there are different kinds of hearts as there are different types of soil. And the gospel is sown though not everyone will believe. Perhaps this helps us understand the motive behind the disciples question in verse 10. They come to Jesus and ask, “Why do you speak to them [the crowds] in parables?” Jesus, you missed your chance! Jesus simply responds that understanding “has been given” to you. In other words, God is the acting subject in granting, giving the hearers understanding. Remember, right before we reach this parable in Matthew 11:25 and following, Jesus declares that God has:
“Hidden…things from the wise and revealed them to little children…All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
But this does not release the responsibility of the hearers. As Jesus assumes with the crowd, we must acknowledge that all hear with different levels of interest and commitment. In order to hear, we need to hear in faith – trusting in Jesus as a child would trust the words of his earthly father. My guess is that you are like me. At different times and in different situations you find that you have a different level of interest, commitment, and receptivity to the gospel. The allusion Jesus makes to Isaiah 6:9-10 furthers the point.
“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.”
The people will not hear, they will not perceive, unless they turn and repent. In this Isaiah passage the people have willingly rejected God’s word over and over. As judgment God gave them over to their own hard hearts – therefore, they could no longer understand or perceive. The root problem in Israel, and in many of us, is an unwillingness to receive and apply the gospel message to the heart. The result is that every time we reject God’s word, we in a sense harden ourselves to its goodness. “When anyone uses the spiritual truth he has, that truth grows. By contrast, if he does not use it, he finds that it vanishes away little by little.” As in verse 15, ignoring god’s word results in one becoming dull or sluggish.
The good news it that this is a message for all people – the crowd, the Christian and non-Christian. It’s a message we need to hear over and over. And like a persistent sower, God will continually broadcast the gospel. So, what type of soil are you? See, there will never come a time when our hearts will be completely conformed to loving and worshiping God – at least on this side of heaven. Even though we as believers have been given a new heart, and our thoughts and desires have changed, we will still struggle with the remnants of our old nature, just as Paul confessed in Romans 7. For now we see in a mirror dimly. There is a deep battle going on in every one of us – “the battle for the motives of the heart.” In biblical language the heart is the real or essential you. Your heart is the core of everything you are.
- Your understanding and beliefs
- Your longings and desires
- Your determination to take action
So the heart is the root of every human being. Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire. The bible tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things. So, our greatest problem is not our circumstances or others, but our own hearts. In other words, we should never think that we have “spiritually arrived”. Rather, God calls us to a life of constant working the soil, constant growth, and constant confession and repentance – tilling the soil of the heart. Keeping your heart receptive to the gospel is a lot like gardening. How do we do this?
- Allow God’s Word to Diagnose Your Hard Heart. God has given us a tool to use as we seek to understand our hearts, namely, his word. Remember Hebrews 4:12-13; The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. As we read, pray, meditate on, study, and hear preaching of the word we will continue to get glimpses of our true selves.
- Pull the Weeds of Sin Immediately from Your Heart. We need to make a conscious effort to weed the sin out in our lives. Removing sin is hard work – and the work is never done. Every day of neglect makes the task harder. I am not talking about simply changing behavior. Jesus often uses the imagery of “tree’s and their fruit.” The point is that the type of fruit that emerges tells you the type of tree. You discover that a desire is sinful when it produces bad fruit in your life.
Now, let me change focus here for a second. It is possible that some of you might be thinking, “if I could just direct my thinking toward God, learn to desire him, and then choose him, I’d be okay…right? Well, yes and no.” Certainly, you and I can take pragmatic steps like the ones I have just talked about. But there is a deeper truth that is revealed in this parable. We cannot accomplish heart change on our own. Consider again the imagery of the parable.
The productivity of the seed is the primary concern of the farmer. The fruit produced is for the farmer. It’s the farmer’s fruit to use as he sees fit. Famers sow seed only in order for it to bear fruit; without this result there is no use for the plant. Before sowing the seed, the preparation of the soil is considered the major determining factor in the success of the harvest.” When it comes to soil, the sowers till it, water it, fertilize it, and do all in their power to increase its potential for productivity. This, friends, is the good news of the gospel.
- If you heart is hard and you feel that you have no hope. God is the good farmer who can till the soil and soften the hardness of your heart.
- If your heart is shallow and you wonder why you don’t care. God is the farmer who can break through the bedrock of your heart so that the roots of the gospel can begin to grow deep.
- If your heart is occupied, crowded by the things of this world, God is the good farmer who can come and find the weeds that are choking out the gospel – and pull them out.
Only God can grant you to hear and perceive. Only God can open your heart to receive the word of the gospel. Only God can work in and through you for fruitful soil.
The Fruitful Soil
Receptive Heart (8, 23)
8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
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.
What is beautiful about the Greek language here is that we are told that the seed keeps producing because it is in good soil. It’s said that most crops in Palestine average about a tenfold yield. In other words, a thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold crop is extraordinary. When we get to Jesus explanation of this soil, we see that the word “understanding” is decisive, it implies receptivity, response, transformation. This person not only hears the gospel, but understands it. See, good soil is the heart that receives the seed of the gospel, cultivates it in the heart, which in turn produces fruit in life.
When the seemingly gentle seed lands in fertile soil it spreads and eventually the entire field of the heart has been transformed. In other words, when the gospel is planted in a fertile heart – everything changes. This is the good news of the gospel! As we see in the parable of the sower, there is still hope. This gospel is being broadcast over the fields of the earth, and when the harvest is ripe (just as the very next parable tells us), Christ will come and consummate his kingdom – separating the wheat and the tares. “He who has ears, let him hear.”
Allow me to ask one more question. When a seedling sprouts, the soil being good soil, the roots starting to deepen into the earth, where does that seedling first turn when breaking the surface of the soil? It turns toward the sun. It gathers nourishment from the sun. Even when other plants grow and cast a shadow over the growing seedling, it will turn and seek out the sun, never settling for the darkness. This is the way we respond in faith.
- If your heart is hard towards the gospel and you have never really had a time of breakthrough, I warn and encourage you turn towards the Son.
- If your heart is shallow and you find yourself unable to endure when things get tough, I warn and encourage you turn towards the Son.
- If your heart is occupied by the cares of this world and you see no fruit in your life, I warn and encourage you, turn towards the Son.
-  Douglas R. A, Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, 147.
-  Matthew 5:1-2.
-  See discussion in D.A. Carson (Matthew, EBC) on pages 301-304.
-  Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, BTCB, 128.
-  Albert Mohler, Matthew 13, Powerline Bible Study.
-  Stephen I. Wright, Parables, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 561.
-  This is the question that D.A. Carson argues is central to understanding the parable. (Matthew, EBC, 310)
-  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, PNTC, 336.
-  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, PNTC, 346.
-  David L. Turner, The Gospel of Matthew, CBC, 180.
-  D.A. Carson, Matthew, EBC, 305.
-  Tim Keller, The Sower; On Hearing, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 1992.
-  R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, 505.
-  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 337.
-  Matthew 6:19-34, cf. 19:23-24.
-  R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, 505.
-  Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC, 367.
-  D.A. Carson, Matthew, EBC, 305.
-  See William Foxwell Albright and C.S. Mann, Matthew, Anchor Yale Bible, 166.
-  See R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, 511.
-  See Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 46-48.
-  For an excellent treatment of this theme see G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship.
-  Jeremiah 5:21-23.
-  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, PNTC, 340.
-  1 Corinthians 13:12.
-  Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change, 14.
-  See Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Idols of the Heart, 90-106.
-  Luke 6:43-45.
-  Elyse Fitzpatrick, Idols of the Heart, 98.
-  Craig L, Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 226.
-  Brad H. Young, The Parables, 251.
-  It seems that sower is best understood as Jesus since later in the chapter in 13:37 the sower of the good seed is the Son of man. Notice that the participle “sower” [σπείρων] often conveys the thought of the person doing the action continually.
-  Darrell L. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 200.
-  John 15:8, 16: Galatians 5:22.