The power of Parables - Matthew 13:1-23
We had been praying for Tom and Sarah for a long time, in fact so long that we had almost given up hope. They were two ordinary students who were living lives that ordinary students are supposed to lead- eating, drinking, sleeping and occasionally working. However, after a while both of them became interested in Jesus Christ, and then after a long time, to our complete joy both of them appeared to become Christians. It seemed to be a happy ending to a long story. At least that was how it was for the first few weeks. Both came to church, both read the Bible, both met with Christian friends to talk about Jesus more. But after a few weeks, it became clear that all was not well. Tom began to get some very strange ideas about what being a Christian meant. He never really came to terms with the change in lifestyle that claiming to follow Christ entailed. He found church difficult and in the end he just gave up. Sarah, however, seemed to blossom. She didn't find things easy but she did stick at church. She went on a Christian camp in the summer, she found a decent church to go to when she moved cities, she took Jesus seriously in her life. And as far as I know, she is still going strong as a Christian. Two students, one gospel, two responses. Why did that happen? Two people who both appeared to start so well. But only one is still going ten years or so down the road. Why? That's the question we're left asking! Why do people respond in different ways?
Well if we had been with Jesus following him around, seeing the sort of things that happened in the early chapters of Matthew's gospel, then we would be asking the same why question. Matthew has made it clear who Jesus is. He is the Saviour and King promised in the Old Testament, who is here to rescue men and women, boys and girls from their sins and to bring about God's kingly rule in their lives. There can be no better news than that. And yet already Jesus has faced opposition. It's been mounting in chapters 11 and 12, to such an extent that the religious establishment in chapter 12 have decided to kill Jesus. So by the time we get to the end of chapter 12, we are beginning to ask a number of why questions about Jesus. Jesus, if you are the king as you say you are, why do many people reject you? Jesus, if you are such a powerful king, how come there is still evil in the world? Jesus, if you and your kingdom are so great, why does this kingdom of yours seem so small and insignificant? Jesus, if your followers keep getting flack for following you, why should they bother with you? Those are the questions being asked, questions we ourselves may well be tempted to ask. We look around and see our friends rejecting the gospel. We look at our nation ad see the kingdom of God seemingly ignored and despised. We look at our lives as Christians and find hardship and struggle. And we ask the question why? Why is it this way? And it's exactly those questions which Jesus stops to answer in this wonderful chapter, chapter 13 which we are going to be looking at over the next couple of months.
Matthew places this chapter right at the heart of his gospel, and it is, if you like, an intermission, or a breather, which helps to explain some of the key truths about the kingdom of God. And the way Jesus answers these why questions is by teaching seven parables, seven stories in which he teaches us some important spiritual truths about the kingdom of God. One of the key phrases which crops up on this chapter is 'the kingdom of heaven is like such and suchThese parables teach us about God's kingdom.
And the very first parable, which we're looking at this morning, the parable of the sower, or to be more accurate the parable of the soils, answers the question, 'Why do people respond in different ways to the message about Jesus?' It's clear the passage is about the word of God, or the gospel, because Jesus says as much in verse 19, where he says in his interpretation of the parable: 'Whenever anyone hears the message about the kingdom.' So let's turn to Matthew 13 and Jesus teaches us three things about the message of the kingdom of God, or the word of God.
1) God's Word is Divisive (Vv 10-17)
2) God's Word is Rejected (Vv 18-22)
3) God's Word is Fruitful (V 23)
1) God's Word is Divisive (Vv 10-17)
So the first thing we learn about God's word, or the message of the kingdom, is that it is divisive, in verses 10-17. Now it may seem strange for us to begin in the middle of the passage, but actually once we have understood this part of the passage, then we'll be in a better position to understand this parable and the whole of chapter 13. Jesus has told the story to the crowd, but a little later on, the disciples ask Jesus in verse 10: 'Why do you speak to the people in parables?' So this question is asked privately to Jesus by the disciples, and in fact the interpretation of the parable is also given only to the disciples, and that is key to understanding why Jesus speaks in parables. Jesus uses parables as a filter, or a sieve. To the casual observer these parables are just nice stories. Most of the crowd were in this category. They could not see, and did not want to see the spiritual truth contained in this teaching of Jesus. But to those who wanted to know more, and who were keen to follow Jesus, the parables made them ask questions and made them think. And the disciples show they are followers of Jesus by their desire to find out more. So there are two kinds of reactions. Those who want to think about what Jesus has said and know more, and those who are turned off. God's word is, you see, divisive. It divides people.
But Jesus also explains for us why there is this division in humanity, between those who reject the teaching of Jesus, and those who accept it. And there are two complementary answers. The first reason for this division is that God reveals the truth to people. Verse 11: 'The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.' The disciples have had this truth about the kingdom of God revealed to them. God has opened their eyes. You see, we cannot make ourselves understand about Jesus. We are sinful to the core and natural rebels against God. The only way we can have our thinking turned around to worship God instead of hating him is for God to reveal the truth to us and open our blind eyes. And what a relief that is, because it means that our salvation is ultimately in God's hands. God reveals his truth to people. And by definition, says Jesus, that means others do not have the truth revealed to them.
But before we think that is terribly unfair, there is a flip side to this coin which Jesus explains in verse 15. Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was told by God that his message would be rejected by the people, and the reason for this rejection was entirely the responsibility of the people. And so we learn our second reason for the division. People are responsible for their decision about Jesus. So Matthew quotes Isaiah as saying. 'This people's heart has become calloused, or hardened; they hardly hear with their ears and they have closed their eyes.' The people have deliberately closed their ears to the message of Jesus. They have walked away and so they will be judged for their rejection of the Saviour. That's what the second half of verse 15 means. Its not that Jesus does not want to rescue people. It's that people don't want to be rescued by him. So in one sense they do hear the message, they hear the parable, but in another sense they don't hear, and they fail to understand.
I was reminded of an illustration of this recently on holiday. In order to get to our destination we had to take a plane. And when you go on a plane there are the usual safety announcements telling you where the exits are, how to put on your life jacket and so on. But how many people really listened to the announcement? Virtually no-one. Yes in one sense all the people hear. You cannot fail to since they turn up the sound so loudly. And yet in another sense they don't hear, because it goes in one ear and out the other. And when it comes to a crash, they will be found wanting, because they have ignored the safety briefing and won't know what to do. They will have to take responsibility for their fate because they heard the safety message and ignored it.
So Jesus is telling us two things. First that God chooses to reveal his truth to some and we cannot understand the truth without his revelation; and yet at the same time that we are responsible for whether we accept it or not. Now those truths may seem to be contradictory, but throughout the Bible, the same two truths run in parallel. God's sovereignty and our responsibility. Yes God is sovereign, but we are also responsible for our actions. So to come back to the parables. The reason Jesus speaks in parables is to filter out his hearers. Those who follow Jesus and want to know more will seek the truth of what Jesus is saying. Those who have will be given more. But for those who don't want to know, they will hear but not understand. And tragically, the more you hear, the more hardened your heart becomes. Even what you have will be taken from you. If you fail to respond to the light God has given you, then even that light will be taken from you. Your rejection of Jesus becomes your judgement.
So God's word is divisive. We see it every time we preach the gospel here at St. John's. Some reject the message, others accept it. Of course, some will accept it later on, after having initially rejected it, yet still the division stands. Those who accept the message whose hearts are softened to God, and those who reject Jesus, whose hearts are hard. And the parables show up that division clear as day.
Recently, I visited a museum part of which was dedicated to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It was a fascinating exhibition of the various bits of the Titanic picked up in the mid Atlantic by the various rescue ships. It was clear that the ship was a marvellous place to be if you were wealthy. But one thing that was very obvious in that exhibition. Despite the fact that there were three classes of passenger on that ship depending on wealth, yet on that cold night in April 1912, there were only two classes of passenger. At Southampton Docks on the day following the disaster, there was a notice which had two lists, showing the two classes of people: Those known to be saved, and those known to be dead. There was a great divide on that ship no longer based on wealth, but based on whether you were rescued or not.
Jesus teaches us in this passage that there are two types of people in the world, those who are saved and those who are lost. It depends on our response to Jesus. Which category are you in? Have you accepted the word, or rejected it? Either way, God's word is divisive.
2) God's Word is Rejected (Vv 18-22)
So having looked at this central section first, let's now move on to the parable itself, and we'll see Jesus' second point that God's Word is rejected. And Jesus' parable works out some of the applications of how people respond to God's word, or the message of the kingdom as Jesus says in verse 19. It explains what happens whenever the gospel is preached, whenever the farmer sows the seed, whether that's Jesus or us today. So let's briefly remind ourselves of the story. A man sows some seed. It would have been a common sight in ancient Palestine and Jesus uses a homely example to make his point. The seed lands on four different types of ground. The hard trodden path, the shallow stony ground, the thorny ground and the good rich soil. The first three all die after a while. The first is eaten by birds straightaway, the second scorched by the sun, and the third choked by thorns. Only the last survives- it takes root and bears a huge harvest. So that's the story. But then later on, when he is alone with the disciples, Jesus explains the parable. And the common thread with the first three types of soil where the seed of the gospel lands is that the word is rejected. It may look as if there is genuine acceptance and growth, but sooner or later, the seed dies. The problem is not with the seed, not with the message of the gospel, but with the soil where it lands, the person that gospel is given to. And notice too that in each of these three cases, Jesus says the person hears the message. The problem comes in what happens next.
a) The Path- First of all, there is the seed that lands on the path. Verse 19: 'When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path.' So this person hears the message about Jesus, and yet instantly the message is snatched away by the devil. Their heart is so hard that there is no chance for the word to take root in their lives. It's the person who perhaps comes to a service or to Men at the Top or After Eight, hears the message, but simply walks away with no thought whatsoever to accepting the message. And the chilling thing that Jesus tells us is that the devil is at work to take away the seed. The Bible makes it clear that if we are without Christ then we are going the devil's way. So any attempt to share the gospel with others is by nature a spiritual battle. We must pray that God would release people from bondage and that their hearts would be fertile soil.
b) The Rocky Ground- The next type of soil where the seed lands is the rocky soil. Verse 20: 'The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.' Notice that this person again hears the word, and even receives it with joy, and yet down the track they are shown up for their shallow profession. This person seems at first to be going well. They are full of joy, and come to everything going. But as time goes on it becomes clear that they never put down any real roots. Their faith is so shallow that when trouble strikes, they dry up and wither away. All fizz, but no substance. They have no spiritual back bone to get them through the tough times of life. And there is a serious danger of many professing Christians to be like this. Enthusiastic at first, and yet they are so busy doing church things that there is no time to read the Bible and develop their relationship with God. And when trouble strikes, like persecution for your faith, or other suffering like unemployment, or bereavement or financial stress or illness, there is no anchor to hold them. And their faith is shown for what it is- rootless and hopeless. They are spiritual fireworks. Loud and exciting for a few brief moments then nothing.
c) The Thorny Soil- And lastly there is the thorny soil. Verse 22: 'The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.' And I think this is the most challenging to 21st century Christians like you and me. How many Christian lives are slowly choked to death by worry and materialism. Of course, you may not be able to detect it on any given day. But over the months, over the years, slowly this professing Christian is dying. Yes they keep coming to church, they come to Homegroup, but Jesus has little impact on their lives. This little shoot is lowly being drained of its spiritual life by all sorts of weeds which grasp at its throat, until at last it is just a lifeless twig. Wealth is perhaps the biggest killer. Not that money in itself is wrong, but the love of it has ship wrecked many a faith.
The true story is told of a rich London banker who died and who at his funeral wanted the hymn 'Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah'. The third verse was supposed to go: 'When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell's destruction, land me safe on Canaan's side.' But there was a misprint on the order of service, and instead of saying 'land me safe on Canaan's side,' it read 'land my safe on Canaan's side.' The only trouble was that it summed up his life. A professing Christian who loved money more than God. But we don't have to be a rich banker to love money more than God. We always want that little bit more, and the way we spend our time and money reveals our priorities. And then there is worry, another weed to sap our spiritual life. Jesus said: 'Come unto me all who are weary and I will give you rest.' Do you believe that? Well if so, do it, and don't let the thorns get their spiky hands on your spiritual throat.
So three ways in which the seed is rejected. It's not the seed that's the problem, it's the soil, the heart of the individual. The seed may be rejected immediately, or it may take longer. But whichever it is, it is finally rejected.
3) God's Word is Fruitful (V 23)
But then lastly and briefly we see that God's word is fruitful. The fourth soil where the seed is thrown is fruitful. Verse 23: 'But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.' Now like all the others, this person hears the word, but unlike all the rest he or she understands it. The word takes root in their life and they produce a wonderful crop. And the key is not so much the greatness of the crop, but that you are bearing fruit. Fruit in the Christian life is seen in all sorts of ways, but perhaps we could sum it up by saying that the person who truly accepts the gospel loves and obeys Jesus Christ. They long to pray, to grow in holiness, to be more like Jesus, to use their time and money and energy for the kingdom of God, to share their faith with others. That's the truly fruitful person, the one in whom God's word has taken root and is growing. Is that you? Are you this last soil, bearing fruit in your Christian life. Sometimes the progress will be slow, other times more steady, but over the months and years, there will be growth. For where God's word takes root it will bring back a wonderful harvest in the life of the believer.
So Jesus asks each of a very important question. He asks us which soil are you? Are the person who has rejected the gospel straight off. Then please be aware of what you are doing. You are rejecting the only one who can save you. And you are sealing your own fate. Or are you stony soil? Is your faith so shallow that when the tough times come, and they will inevitably, you won't have enough spiritual roots to survive? Or are you thorny ground? Is your faith slowly being drained away by all sorts of other concerns and the deceitfulness of wealth? Or are you growing and bearing fruit for your Saviour? Be honest: Which is it? For unless you are growing, however slowly, then you're in danger of being found out as one who started well but who in the end fell away. Don't rest on your spiritual laurels or think that you've made it. If that's you, then the thorns of complacency are already around your spiritual throat. Keep growing and keep bearing fruit.
So when we ask Jesus the question 'why do people respond in different ways?' he does answer the question. He tells us that God's word is divisive. He tells us that God's word is rejected. But he also tells us that God's word is fruitful. But then he turns to us and asks us a question: What are you doing with the word of God?
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