Tag Archives: heart

A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (4 of 4)

This is the final part of the sermon I shared this past Sunday at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta. Here is my outline for the blog version of the sermon:

Part 1: What Is “Fruit”?
Part 2: Two Kinds of Hearers
Part 3: Isaiah 6 and Hardness of Heart
Part 4: Four Kinds of Hearers and One Goal


FOUR KINDS OF HEARERS AND ONE GOAL

With the interpretation of his Parable of the Sower/Soils (Matt. 13:18-23), Jesus expands the picture from two kinds of hearers to four kinds. We do not have time to unpack each kind of soil (hearer) in detail, but will observe several key points.

Only the first soil mentions “heart” (Matt. 13:18). Only first and last soil mention “understanding” (Matt. 13:18, 23). But it is clear that all soils represent hearts in various conditions of understanding or not understanding. The four soils suggest a range of receptivity to the message of the kingdom and a range of levels of understanding.

This is a more nuanced picture than the “insiders” and “outsiders” division of the earlier verses, but the parable interpretation still ends up with only two groups: those who bear fruit and those who don’t. Life prior to the final judgment is messy, so it’s not always clear who is “inside” and who is “outside.” And it takes time even for healthy plants to bear fruit. Yet only when there is good fruit do we have assurance that God has granted true understanding.

This point must be underscored: What counts before God on the day of judgment, according to this parable and the next in this chapter, is that we bear fruit. Merely experiencing some initial joyful growth of the word in our hearts is not enough. Fruitfulness is utterly essential! “You will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father…” (Matt 7:20-21).

How much fruit? Perhaps a hundredfold, perhaps sixty, perhaps thirty. The amount may depend on how much you seek to understand, and it may also depend on what God has entrusted to you. But bear fruit you must, and bear fruit you “indeed” will, if your heart truly understands the word of the kingdom of heaven.

The first soil most closely matches how Jesus has described the unbelieving crowds. They hear the word but don’t understand it. One new idea is added: Here God’s judgment is carried out by him permitting Satan to remove the word from their hearts. Humans and angelic forces each possess agency, yet God is sovereign over all.

The second and third soils invite the most personal reflection, for they fall between the extremes of full unbelief and fruitful understanding. These soils depict things that may prevent those with false or inadequate understanding from achieving fruitfulness. Consider the rocky soil: If we don’t truly understand (grasp on a heart level, fully believe) Jesus’ kingdom teachings about the blessings of suffering for him (Matt. 5:10-12), then our growth will be short-lived and our lives will prove fruitless. And consider the thorny soil: If we don’t understand Jesus’ kingdom teachings about our caring heavenly Father and the superlative value of eternal rewards (Matt. 6:19-34), then we will be choked by the “anxiety of the age” and the “deceitfulness of riches.”

Brothers and sisters: Are there ways that we might be rocky or thorny soil? Are we quickly shaken by tribulation or suffering for Jesus? Are there days when we are consumed by cares and anxiety? Have we bought into the never-ending lie that we will be a little happier, a little more secure, if only we achieve a little more earthly wealth? How might these blindnesses, these false kingdoms, be ruling our lives? What do you think?

But all is not lost if we see in ourselves some of these tendencies! Jesus’ parable invites all who have ears, to hear! Indeed, the other parables in this same chapter can help us understand the needed kingdom truths. The parables about the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) and about the nets (Matt. 13:47-50) fortify us against the dangers of the rocky soil by reminding us that good and evil people need to coexist until the end of time, and that the true tribulation we must fear is the final judgment. The parables about the mustard seed and the leaven (Matt. 13:31-33) similarly encourage patient endurance. The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl (Matt. 13:44-46) remind us of the joy and inestimable value of the kingdom, far greater than any earthly anxieties or riches that could turn us into thorny soil.

Thus, the rest of the parables are designed not only to hide kingdom knowledge from unbelievers, but also to give true disciples increasing understanding, so we can avoid proving to be either rocky or thorny soil. Our response to the parables reveals what kind of soil we are. Will we take up the challenge to have ears and hear?

Brothers and sisters: Our goal must be to be “good soil.” We must pray for deep understanding of kingdom realities—the sort of understanding and faith that grips our hearts, produces profound repentance, opens the door for deep healing, and results in plentiful fruit!

Nabeel Qureshi was a Muslim who became a Christian after years of difficult searching that stretched his mind, will, and emotions. I listened to his story by audio book this week. I was challenged by his example of seeking after God:[1]

  • How his dad heard some of the same apologetic arguments that Nabeel heard, but how he, unlike Nabeel, was unable to see his own deceptive thinking.
  • How Nabeel realized multiple times that he needed to count the cost and decide if he was truly willing to conform to whatever truth God may show him.
  • How Nabeel realized only after the fact that sometimes he was subconsciously not allowing himself to believe some things because of the costs that would come with true belief.
  • How it took diligent searching over many years with several stages of increasing belief and repentance before Qureshi came to a saving knowledge of Jesus.
  • How even after Nabeel acknowledged Jesus’s true identity in prayer to God, more diligent search was required to come to secure healing and fruitfulness for God.

We should not confuse gaining a heart that understands with simply becoming a Christian. No, the call to understand is not simply about becoming a Christian, but about being one. It takes continued growth in understanding for continued fruitfulness. We need to grow in knowledge, in faith, in having our hearts seized and transformed by the King of the kingdom of heaven. This will lead to ongoing repentance, healing, and fruitfulness.

So let me end as Jesus ended, with a question: “Have you understood all these things?” (Matt. 13:51). That is: Have you followed with your ears and your minds? Did the words I shared ring true in your heart? Are you allowing them to grasp you deep inside and stir up a new vision of reality? Do you believe what you have heard? Have you been moved to repentance? Have you already begun to ask God for deeper healing and more fruitfulness?

If yes, then I give you Jesus’ words: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Treasure the truths you have heard today, both the old ones and anything that may have been new for you. Thank God for the gift of spiritual understanding! Bring out your treasures frequently, admiring them and sharing them with others. If you do, you have God’s promise: You will indeed bear fruit and yield “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


Do you have any feedback on this exposition of Matthew 13:1-23? Your responses are welcome in the comments below!


[1] See Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, book by Nabeel Qureshi.


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Naked and Exposed Before the Living God (Sermon)

The word of God reveals our hearts, leaving us naked and exposed before God. When God’s word comes to us, we are forced to respond, and how we respond reveals what is in our hearts.

First, we respond by our actions, which reveal either faith or unbelief in God’s word. Second, on the Last Day we will be called to give a word of response to God’s word, a word about the condition of our own hearts. On that day—as already now—it will be pointless to make our word deviate from God’s word, for the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are open before God.

Thus God’s word exposes us,  leaving us defenseless. It demands faith, and it demands a word in response—a word that matches God’s word.

These sobering thoughts come from Hebrews 4:12-13:

For 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. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (ESV)

This passage was the central text in a sermon I recently preached on the danger of secret sin. I am generally more of a teacher than a preacher, but this was preaching. It was definitely more of a message of warning than I have ever shared before. I felt God’s grace as I shared. You can download the sermon or listen to it here:

Here is a summary of what I shared:

  • God tested Israel in the wilderness, between Egypt and the Promised Land of rest, revealing what was in their hearts. (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 13-14; Deut. 8:2; 31:20-21; etc.)
  • God spoke to Israel “today” in the Promised Land, testing whether they would believe and enter eternal rest. (Ps. 95)
  • God is also speaking to us “today” in the wilderness, between our initial salvation and our eternal rest, testing our hearts. (Heb. 3:5–4:13; etc.)
  • God’s knows every secret of our hearts. (Many Scriptures, including Lk 8:17.)
  • “Are You in the Dangerous Time In Between?” —Tim Challies.
  • What should you do if you have hidden sin? Confess it, own it, repent of it, forsake it, replace evil desires with good desires, rely on divine help, seek human help. (Plead for the gift of repentance, which will not always be possible: Heb 6:4-8; 12:17. “Six Signs of Genuine Repentance”—Bryce Klabunde.)
  • Faithful response to God’s word is a community effort. We must exhort each other and sometimes even act urgently to “remove the evil from our midst.” (Heb. 3:12-13; 12:15; Deut. 29:18; 13:1-18; 1 Cor. 5; etc.)
  • “The Damning Devastation of a Single Coddled Sin”—Tim Challies.
  • Final warning from Hebrews—from the passage that is set in literary parallel to the sermon’s main text (Heb. 4:11-13):

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31 ESV)

  • Comfort: Your love for God is also “naked and exposed” before him, and he will not overlook it. (Heb. 6:9-12)

Here was the final exhortation we heard, summarizing God’s word to us:

Brothers and sisters! God has rescued you from Egypt! He is leading you to the Promised Land of eternal rest! But you are in danger of missing that rest! Today God is speaking to you! Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts!

God is speaking to you, and his word will reveal the secret thoughts and intentions of your heart! There is no hiding from God! You lie naked and helplessly exposed before him! “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

Confess your sin to God! Own it! Repent of it! Forsake it! Replace your evil desires with good desires! Rely on divine help to live a holy life! Seek the help of your brothers and sisters!

Do not let your brothers and sisters coddle secret sins! Urge them to repentance! Don’t play around with fire that could burn the whole community! Don’t ignore any bitter root that will spring up and defile many! Purge the evil from your midst!

Determine today that you will no longer coddle a single persistent, deliberate, knowing sin! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!

May the God who knows our hearts turn our hearts anew to him in faith and obedience each day.

And may we help each other, for faithfulness is a community effort! What do you have to share that will help the rest of us live with pure hearts before God? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you!


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If You’re Not a Berean, Who Might You Be?

Be a Berean! This is a common encouragement among Bible-loving Christians. But what does this mean? Why is it important to be a Berean? And what is the alternative to being a Berean?

The term “Berean” comes, of course, from Acts 17:11-12, which records what happened when Paul and his band arrived in Berea on his second missionary journey:

11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (ESV)

The most common way that I recall hearing these verses used goes something like this: “Be a Berean! Test what you hear by the Scriptures. Don’t believe everything you hear from every radio preacher. Don’t base your theology on what you read online. Don’t let commentaries determine what you believe. In fact, even when your own pastor teaches you something, don’t believe it without testing it first. Don’t be gullible! Test everything by the Scriptures!

While I heartily agree with this exhortation, I don’t think it’s the most direct implication of what Luke (the author of Acts) records in our passage. Let’s reconsider these verse by examining their literary context.

According to Luke, whom were the Bereans more noble than? The Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians. More precisely, the Jews in Berea were more noble than the Jews in Thessalonica.

So, in this situation, what was the alternative to being a Berean? What was the problem with the Jews in Thessalonica? We find the answer in the preceeding passage. The problem with the majority of the Thessalonican Jews is that they refused to believe Paul’s proclamation about Christ. Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (17:2-3). He did this over “three Sabbath days” (17:2). What was the response of the Jews? “Some of them were persuaded” (17:4). But the majority of them “were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob” (17:5). They dragged Paul’s converts before the city authorities and shouted denunciations against Paul and his coworkers: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (17:6).

In short, the problem with the Thessalonian Jews was not gullibility, but unbelief. Despite Paul’s careful exposition of Scripture–reasoning, explaining and proving everything he claimed based on the Jew’s own Scriptures, the Jews still refused to believe.

Why didn’t these Thessalonian Jews believe? I think we find an answer in verse 5: “the Jews were jealous.” They didn’t like how Paul was turning their world upside down. They refused to believe for the same reason the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem refused to believe Jesus (see 1 Thess. 2:14-16)–because believing would have meant loss of prestige and power.

So, what about us? What implications might this passage have for us today? Here are several I’d like to suggest–two exhortations and three theological truths.

Two exhortations:

  1. Don’t be a Thessalonian. Don’t reject gospel truth without giving Scripture a fair hearing. Don’t let a desire to preserve prestige and power keep you from believing the Good News. Don’t prevent the gospel from turning your world upside down! What about the truth that good works are the fruit and not the root of our salvation; have we let this good news shake our world? What about the truth that God the Holy Spirit dwells in his people, empowering victorious living and manifesting himself in a multitude of “natural” and “supernatural” gifts; have we examined the Scriptures and let our hearts believe? (What gospel truths do you think we might be in danger of rejecting?)
  2. Do be a Berean. When you hear someone proclaim good news, take time to examine it by Scripture. Don’t be surprised or alarmed if the gospel sounds like good news. Examine the Scriptures “daily.” If what you hear passes the Scripture test–that is, it is “necessary” according to Scripture (and certainly not everything does pass this test), then accept it “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). Believe it and let it turn your world upside down, even if it means rejection and “suffer[ing]… things from your own countrymen” (1 Thess. 2:14).

Three theological truths:

  1. Faith and reason are friends. Christian faith is rooted in reasoned, Scriptural evidence. True faith is not opposed to reason. It is not opposed to explanation and proof. It is not opposed to diligent Scriptural study. Notice the cause-and-effect link in our passage: The Bereans examined the Scriptures daily, and “therefore” many of them believed (17:12). Rational investigation is encouraged in Scripture and can lead to a strengthened faith. (In this case the rational investigation was of Scripture; in other places investigation of historical evidence is also encouraged.)
  2. Trust in Scripture is a friend to trust in Jesus. If the Bereans had not taken time to examine Scripture, they would not have accepted the gospel message Paul was proclaiming. But when they saw that Paul’s message was “necessary” (17:3) according to Scriptural evidence (that is, what Paul said had happened to Jesus was the perfect and necessary unfolding of the prophecies and typologies found in Scripture), they believed. It was the Berean’s prior trust in Scripture that prepared them to trust in Jesus. Those today who erode trust in Scripture are, by intention or not, also eroding trust in Jesus–even if the results of such erosion are not always evident for a generation or two.
  3. Heart condition determines our response to gospel truth. This observation opens difficult questions related to the order of salvation. (Which comes first? Our faith in Christ, or God’s work of regenerating our hearts?) But laying aside such discussions for the moment, notice the evidence in our passage. Both the Thessalonians and the Bereans possessed the Scriptures. They both heard the Scriptures explained by Paul. But one group was “jealous” (17:5) while the other “received the word with all eagerness” (17:11). And so, in the first group “some of them were persuaded” (17:4), while in the second group “many of them… believed” (17:12). Some versus many. Only hearts delivered from jealousy and self-preservation are prepared to believe the fullness of the Good News.

So, let’s be Bereans! Let’s be “gullible” enough to let Scriptural evidence convince us that all the riches of the gospel are true. Then let’s go out and imitate those who have willingly suffered for the sake of the word of God.


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