Tag Archives: suffering

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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What Does a True Follower of Jesus Look Like?

How can you identify a real Christian? What are the marks of a genuine Christian?

Mark Dever is famous for his list of “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” Others, including the Protestant reformers, produced lists of marks of the “true church.” (A church can be unhealthy but still true, so the latter lists are shorter.)

But I am asking primarily about the individual, not the group: How can you identify who truly belongs to Jesus?

There are many good, biblical ways to ask and answer this question. What does Christian mean, anyway? The term was first used in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, and it appears that unbelievers were the ones who coined it. According to commentator Ben Witherington III, the term Christians (Χριστιανοι) in its original historical context meant “those belonging to, identified with, or adherents or followers of Christ.” (Pardon his poor grammar!) So in this post I’ll frame it this way: What does a true follower of Jesus look like?

I was motivated to ask this question because our little church gathering here in West Lake, Atlanta goes by the name of Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta (FJCA). Since we chose to bear that name, I decided I should examine the New Testament more closely to see whom we are supposed to be!

I shared my findings with our church and we discussed them together. Now I’ll share them with you.

First, some clarifications.

What follows is not a summary of the gospel. If it was, I’d need to be clearer on the work of Jesus.

Nor is it a description of the church. If it was, I’d need to discuss things like leadership and decision-making.

Some might fault this list because it focuses strongly on behavior. But this is a natural result of simply reading how the Bible, Jesus in particular, describes followers of Jesus. They are certainly people who believe certain things—and my list begins with belief, even if it doesn’t use the traditional language of faith. But they are also people who act, or at least ought to act, in certain ways. Again, this focus on behavior is because I am aiming to describe not the gospel itself, but a primary fruit of the gospel—people who are changed to follow Jesus.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive. It began with a simple concordance search for “follow.” Immediately several central themes (suffering for Jesus, selfless love, etc.) became clear. Though I expanded my search, there are too many related concepts to have found all the relevant biblical data. I did try to throw a wide net—sometimes perhaps too wide—but I realize now that even some basic concepts like repentance and faith could be strengthened. I expect I’ll update this list from time to time.

Lastly, perhaps this list would be better titled “marks of healthy followers of Jesus,” since no one follower exhibits all these qualities perfectly.

Read my summary paragraphs after each heading. Compare my summary statements with the Scriptures that follow. Perhaps you’ll find Jesus’ call to follow as challenging as I did!


Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Suffering witness: Jesus’s followers bear confident witness to his true identity as fully God and fully man—the Son of God, the promised Messiah-Christ-King, the Lamb of God who saves us from our sin, and the risen, ruling Son of Man. These followers are so devoted to Jesus that they willingly suffer for his sake, leaving all—possessions, family, and honor—for the sake of Jesus and the eternal rewards of his kingdom.

They bear witness of Jesus and his kingdom to each other, to the watching world, and to all of creation. They bear witness by word and action, by their gathered worship and their daily lives, and ultimately by their deaths.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his greatest commandment—to love God with all our being.

Matt. 4:19; 16:15-17; 28:18-20; John 1:35-49; 6:66-69; 10:4-5, 27; 15:26-27;  1 Cor. 11:23-26; Col. 3:16-17; Rev 14:1-5; Matt 4:18-22; 8:19-22; 9:9; 10:37-39; 16:24-26; 19:21-23; Mark 8:34-37; 10:28-30; Luke 5:11, 28; 9:23-24, 57-62; John 12:23-26.

Loving service: Jesus’ followers imitate his way of loving others. They gladly suffer injustices without retaliating. They offer generous forgiveness to all who offend them, without holding grudges. They pray for their enemies and look for ways to creatively bless them, refusing to take up the sword. They are faithful in their marriages and all other relationship commitments.

Their whole lives are characterized by selfless service, for they imitate the One who came not to be served but to serve—who gave up his divine rights, washed his disciples’ feet, and laid down his life for the world.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his second great commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Mark 15:41; John 12:26; Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 6:27-36; 22:25-27;  1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:9-18; 5:1-3; Eph. 4:32; 5:1-2, 25; Col 3:13; John 13:14-16; Phil 2:4-7; Rom 15:1-3, 7.

Christian unity: Jesus’ followers know there is one Flock and one Shepherd. They affirm that all who belong to Christ, the Head, also belong to the Church, his Body. They rejoice that people of every culture, color, and class find oneness in Christ alone. They know Jesus has promised to build his own Church which he purchased with his own blood.

They don’t divide over human leaders, but they do honor the teaching and imitate the example of Jesus’ apostles, whom he appointed as a foundation for his true Church. They welcome all whom Christ has welcomed while disciplining those who falsely claim to belong to him.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his final recorded prayer for them—that we may all be one in him.

Matt. 12:30; 16:18-19; 18:15-20; Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50; John 10:16; 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47; 20:28;  1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:3-9; 11:1; 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6; Rom. 15:5-7;  2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-17; Rev. 7:9-10, 17.

Spirit-powered obedience: Jesus’ followers honor his words by doing them. They do this by the Holy Spirit, their Helper sent by Jesus. They know they—like Jesus during his earthly life—will bear good fruit only by the power of the Spirit within them.

They expect the Spirit will bear witness to Jesus by miraculous signs and special graces given as he wishes. They also expect the Spirit will empower them to live clearly counter-cultural lives of moral purity, relational integrity, and neighbor- and enemy-love—lives of humility, contentment, and trust in their heavenly Father.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor the great commission he gave them—to make disciples who are taught to do all that he commanded.

Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 6:46-49; John 14:15, 21-24;  1 John 2:4-6; Matt. 5-7; 22:37-40; Acts 10:38; Luke 3:21-22; 4:1-2, 14-15, 18; Luke 3:16; 11:13; 12:11-12; 24:49; John 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 32-33, 38-39; Gal. 5:16-25.


Here is a PDF version of the same list:

Download Here

Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Where are North American Christians most falling short of these marks? How would you summarize the biblical picture of a true Christian? Share your insights in the comments below.


Endnote: As I did my research, I ended up with about seven main points. I wanted to be more concise, in case we end up using some version of this list as a church values statement someday. So I combined points until I had only four somewhat memorable headings. Many other combinations could have been equally possible, however. For example, combining “suffering” with “love” rather than with “witness” would also have expressed something that is clearly biblical: “Suffering love.” “Spirit-powered unity” also sounds good! The richness of Scripture cannot be summarized in any four, seven, or nine marks.


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“All Things Work Together for…” What?

In Romans 8:28 Paul famously assures us that “all things work together for good.” This is a much-quoted and much-misunderstood verse. Here it is in full:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

One way this verse is misunderstood is to turn it into an indefinite assurance that “everything that happens has a purpose”; things will work out well for everyone, eventually. But this promise is given only to “those who love God.” Those who do not love God have no such assurance.

But this still leaves a question: What is the “good” that will come to those who love God? Expanding on what I shared in my sermon opening today, I’d like to share three answers.

All Things Work Together for What?

First, there is the “prosperity gospel good.” Many professing Christians—perhaps even most in places as diverse as America and Africa—believe that if a Christian has enough faith God will eventually shower them with material blessings. For example, consider this:

God takes pleasure in blessing you, and it’s His will for you to be prosperous… It’s His plan for your life to have enough to take care of all your needs and be a blessing to others, too! To be able to take your family out for a nice meal, to live in a good home, to drive a great car, to go on a nice vacation, and to be able to bless others as you have been blessed… Believe God for a little extra to give, and a little extra to enjoy, and speak His promises of abundance over your life. As time passes, your faith will increase as well as your ability to receive abundance in your finances… Declare that He supplies all of your needs according to his riches in glory, expect His prosperity in your life, and thank Him before you see any change because you know it’s coming!

There is a lot of truth in those words, but also enough serious error that my employer, which sells Christian books, does not plan to order any more of this title for our shelves. I won’t unpack here all the problems with prosperity gospel thinking. Anyone who reads the New Testament carefully should see that for many of Jesus’ most faithful servants, faith in God meant “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11), not nice vacations!

Seeing the errors of the prosperity “gospel,” many Christians look closer at the context of Romans 8 to see what “good” Paul had in mind. They note verse 29, which comes next:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

This leads to a second option: the “character-development good.” What good does God want us to enjoy? He wants us to “be conformed to the image of his Son.” What does that look like? Quite naturally, many readers think of moral qualities. What is Jesus like (WIJL)? What would Jesus do (WWJD)?

In this reading, God uses every circumstance of our lives to deepen our character. Suffering is his special way of filling us with more of his Spirit-fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Suffering teaches “those who belong to Christ Jesus” to “crucif[y] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22-24). The end result is that, as we go through all the joys and especially all the sorrows of life, we look more and more like Jesus.

What earnest Christian would not rejoice at this news? This is indeed good! And, unlike the prosperity “gospel” interpretation above, it is also true, as many Bible passages prove.

But is this the “good” that Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 8:28?

I don’t think so. A closer look at context suggests a third option, something we might call the “glorification good.” And I think it’s important to hear what Paul is saying.

Notice the final clause in verse 29. Why does God want to conform us to the image of his son? “In order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Elsewhere in the New Testament when “firstborn” language is used about Jesus, it consistently refers his exalted position–over angels, over creation, and especially over death (Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5 and Luke 2:7 uses it to refer to Jesus’ natural birth order). That speaks of glory.

Similarly, in the one place where the same term is used to refer to Christians, we read of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). That, too, suggests glory.

Back to Romans 8. Does our linguistic clue fit with Paul’s flow of thought? Consider verse 29, which comes next:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

This verse brings Paul’s thoughts to a climax. In many modern translations it is the end of a paragraph, with the next paragraph transitioning to wide-angle reflection on all that has been said before (“What then shall we say to these things?”).  The “punch-line,” then, of Paul’s thought in this entire pericope (“puh-RICK-uh-pea,” fancy biblical studies language for “literary unit” or “section”) is the word “glorified.”

The ESV translation provides the heading “Future Glory” for verses 18 through 30. This is fitting, for the word “glory” is important in the entire pericope. Working backwards, this is what we find:

The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8:21)

Notice here that the glory spoken of belongs to “the children of God.” Talk of “children” foreshadows the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.

The first sentence of this pericope also mentions our glory:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18)

And, in the verses that lead into this entire pericope, we find this:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17)

Notice here the focus on our position—like Jesus—as “children of God.” Again, this closely matches the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.

In fact, the whole pericope from verses 18 through 30 function as an elaboration and proof of the claims in verses 16 and 17, and glory is at the heart of it all:

  • Verses 16 and 17: Paul claims that we who have the Spirit are Jesus’ brothers and will someday inherit the glory that he has inherited, provided we are willing to first suffer with Jesus.
  • Verses 18 to 30: Paul moves from “groaning” to “glory,” detailing the suffering we experience, assuring us of the Spirit’s help, and promising that our glorification is as good as done (“glorified”—past tense).

In this context, there can be little doubt: When Paul told his amanuensis to write “all things work together for good,” the “good” he had in mind was the future glorification of God’s children.

Why does this matter?

First, if you believe the “prosperity gospel good” interpretation of Romans 8:28, you will be sadly disappointed. Your faith is likely to be crushed beneath the persistent sufferings of this life. “When tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word,” you may “fall away” (Matt. 13:21). Or, equally bad, if you actually do enjoy prosperity here and now and pin your hopes on it, you will lose your life when you inevitably die. Make no mistake; the prosperity “gospel” is deadly.

But second, if you believe the “character-development good” interpretation of this passage, you are also in danger. As “all things” that bring suffering into your life “work together” and unrelentingly bear down upon your soul, you may grow weary of God’s refining fire. Being good may pale in comparison to being comfortable. I know it does for me sometimes.

Paul claimed that “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Taking up your cross and denying yourself is no fun. That’s why Paul said what he did. I don’t care how much you end up sharing Christ’s character, cross-bearing is a really, really bad deal for you unless you believe the incentive of eternal reward. In fact, it is such a bad deal that you probably won’t be able to psych yourself into keeping it for long.

Not even Jesus could bear his cross without focusing on “the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2).  Thus Peter urges you, too, to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).

In short, you need to set your hope on being “glorified,” not merely on being “good.” 

When you read Romans 8, never stop at verse 28. But never stop at verse 29, either. It sounds super spiritual to focus on suffering to become like Jesus. And you will indeed need to suffer if you are going to become like Jesus. But don’t try to be more spiritual than Jesus. Just aim to be with him and like him—good, yes, but also glorified!

For, one day, the two will be perfectly one, with suffering no more.

I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready for some glory. And yes, in another “moment” or two (2 Cor. 4:17), it will come. There is indeed “Such a Thing as Glory”!

May you catch a glimpse of glory to come as you walk through the “all things” of this week. And share your thoughts, glorious or otherwise, in the comments below. Thanks for reading.


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