Tag Archives: understanding

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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A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (3 of 4)

This is the third part of the sermon I shared on 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


ISAIAH 6 AND HARDNESS OF HEART

This brings us to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10:

14 “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.’
15 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.”'”

Jesus quotes something God foretold to the prophet Isaiah about Israel in about 700 BC and says it has been fulfilled in the Jewish nation of his own day. We should probably not think of this passage as being prophecy in the same way as the Micah passage about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Rather, it is typology—the hardness of Israel toward Isaiah and his message is a picture that was repeated in even fuller measure by the hardness of Israel toward Jesus and his message. If God’s words were true about Israel in Isaiah’s day, how much more true were they about the evil generation who rejected Jesus!

God spoke these words to Isaiah when he first called him to be a prophet. God told Isaiah to tell his people, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” This was a warning to Isaiah’s hearers about how his message would affect them. God told Isaiah, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” “This [was] not God’s planning in advance to make Israel sin; instead, it [was] his confirming them in their repeated, freely chosen decisions to reject him.”[1]

As Israel heard Isaiah’s message and rejected it, their hearts would only become more “dull” or hard, until they had no spiritual hearing or sight left and were fit only for destruction and exile. Only a “stump” or “holy seed” would remain. As commentator Oswalt summarizes, “Isaiah is to speak a message that will harden the people’s hearts and prevent them from being healed.”[2] But that is not the full picture. Oswalt continues:

Isaiah is called upon to preach a message that, given the already-hardened hearts of his generation and several of the following, will only push them farther away from God. But some will turn, among them faithful followers of Isaiah, who will preserve his words until the day when the cauterizing fires of the Exile fall and there will finally be a generation willing to listen. Then real healing will result, and the stage will be set for the promised Messiah to come… The only hope of healing for these people is in near total destruction… Their religion is already half-pagan, and if they are allowed to continue, they will ultimately be completely pagan and all of the revelation will have been for nothing. But God is not going to allow that to happen, either to his revelation or to his people. So the cleansing must be frighteningly thorough. But afterward, when the forest has been felled and even the remaining stumps have been burned, one of those stumps will still have life in it.[3]

Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus quotes Isaiah here in Matthew, he is not merely making a dry observation that the crowds around him have poor hearing or are intellectually dull. Rather, he is warning that the Jewish nation as a whole is beyond recovery, that God has turned his back and is withdrawing the opportunity of national repentance. The nation is headed for inevitable judgment!

We are talking about having a heart that understands and bears fruit. Our words understand and heart appear twice in this Isaiah quote. First, Jesus warns that the crowds will “never understand” (v. 14). Why? Because their “heart” is dull—it has been hardened by repeatedly hearing and rejecting the word of the kingdom. This hardening is part of God’s judgment, which he has given “lest they should… understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (v. 15b).

Notice the sequence in the last two lines of the prophecy: understanding with the heart leads to turning (repentance). Then comes healing, so that we can “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). In sum the following sequence depicts what God longs for his people: understanding –> repentance –> healing –> fruit (doing God’s will).

But here God is preventing that sequence from even starting! He is making repentance, healing, and fruit-bearing impossible, by making understanding impossible. Osborne again:

“In essence [God is saying], “I want them to remain this way lest….” Their guilt has produced a sovereign judgment, and Jesus’ use of parables is part of that judgment. The parables as riddles will stymie any possibility of “turning” back to God. They have committed in effect an “unpardonable sin”…, and God has turned his back on them! The parables will shut their eyes and close their ears.”[4]

This Isaiah passage is quoted other times in the NT, and not only in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke:

  • Jesus quotes the same passage in John 12:40, in a passage summarizing the unbelief of the Jews who rejected him. This passage, significantly, uses the word “believe” as a synonym for “understand.” In other words, the sort of understanding that Jesus requires for us to be fruitful goes far beyond mere mental assent. To really “understand” is to have something grip your heart so powerfully that you are utterly convinced it is true and worth revolutionizing your entire life for.
  • Paul quotes this Isaiah passage at the very end of Acts (Acts 28:25-27), as evidence that God is sending his salvation to the Gentiles, since most Jews would not “believe” the gospel.
  • Paul quotes similar language from Isaiah and Deuteronomy in Romans 11 (cf.  Is. 29:10 and Deut. 29:4 with Rom. 11:8), as part of an extended discussion (Rom. 9–11; esp. Rom. 10:16-11:10) explaining God’s election and Israel’s stubborn ignorance. (See also the Is. 53:1 quote at Rom. 10:16, an Isaiah passage also quoted in the John 12 passage referenced above.)

This hardening of Israel against Jesus is one of the great mysteries of the New Testament. Why would God prevent his people from understanding the gospel of the kingdom? Commentators do their best to explain:

“God’s judicial hardening is… a holy condemnation of a guilty people who are condemned to do and be what they themselves have chosen.”[5] (D.A. Carson)

“‘Hardening’… represents divine surrender of human beings to their rebellion.”[6] (Mark A. Seifrid)

After such heavy thoughts, Jesus pivots to a blessing:

16 ‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 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.’”

Did the disciples really see? Did they really hear with understanding? In the next chapters there are multiple times where we read that the disciples did not understand what Jesus said (Matt. 15:15-20; 16:5-12; 17:9-13). But we also read that they sought and received explanations from Jesus until they did understand, and that God the Father revealed to Peter the understanding that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:17).

This refines our image of our two kinds of hearers: (1) There are those who refuse to believe and are denied understanding; and (2) there are those who are willing to believe and are gradually granted increasing understanding.

But here Jesus is saying the disciples are not just more blessed than the unbelieving crowds. They are even more blessed than the faithful saints of old!

This gives us another glimpse into how God grants or withholds understanding: God sovereignly withholds understanding at times not only in response to the hardness of people’s hearts, but also because of his divine timetables of salvation history. Even good hearts are sometimes not given as full an understanding as they desire. But the disciples are incredibly blessed, possessing the double gift of soft hearts and of being alive at the time of the revelation of the Messiah!

(And we, too, are similarly blessed!)


Your responses are welcome in the comments below!


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 46-47, comment on OT context of Matthew 13:14-15.

[2] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2562-2563). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2612-2622). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[4] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9523-9526). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[5] D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Pillar NT Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 448-49, comment on John 12:39-41.

[6] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 670, comment on Romans 11:8.


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A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (2 of 4)

This is the second part of the sermon I shared yesterday 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


TWO KINDS OF HEARERS

Now let’s read our entire text. (Read Matthew 13:1-23.)

I found only two commands in this entire passage. Both are commands to “hear”:

“He who has ears, let him hear… Hear then the parable of the sower.” (Matt. 13:9, 18) —Jesus to the crowds; Jesus to his disciples

The first command (v. 9) is presented in third person: “He who has ears, let him hear,” not “You have ears, so listen up!” The effect of this third person construction is to add emphasis, requiring each listener to ask, “Is he talking to me? Am I ‘he who has ears’? Am I hearing what Jesus wants me to hear?”[1]

This construction also implies that some listeners might not “have ears.” Jesus, therefore, is dividing his audience into two groups: Those who prove they have ears by using them, and those who might as well not have ears, because they aren’t hearing what he is saying.

The second command (v. 18) is in second person: “[You] hear then the parable…” Here there is only one audience: Jesus’ close disciples.

The verses between these two commands are about the same topic: The two kinds of hearers in Jesus’ audience. Let’s examine verses 10-17 more closely.

10 “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’

This chapter is the first time the word “parable” appears in Matthew. Jesus had already used short word pictures that could be classed as parables. This chapter, however, is full of parables, some of them extended. Something new is happening in Jesus’ teaching. The disciples are curious. So they come to him, perhaps over “lunch break” or at some other pause in his teaching, for a private explanation.

11 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.

Here are the two kinds of hearers: “You” and “them”—the disciples and the crowds. In Mark Jesus says “you” and “those outside” (Mark 4:11)—insiders and outsiders.

The first difference Jesus notes between the two groups is that one group has been given something that the other has not. “It has been given” is what Bible scholars call a “divine passive”; it is a statement written in the passive voice rather than the active voice (“it has been given” rather than “[so-and-so] gave it”). The implication is that God is the “someone” who did the giving. This statement, then, emphasizes God’s sovereignty.

What God gave to one group and not the other was the opportunity or ability “to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” Here we see our theme of “understanding” (hearts that understand and bear fruit). Jesus is saying that God gave his disciples the ability to understand his teachings about the kingdom, but God had not given the crowds that same ability. Why would he do this?

12 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 verse explains why God gave something to the disciples but not to the crowds.[2] The disciples have something that the crowds don’t have. Because the disciples already have this something, they will be given more by God. Because the crowds don’t have this something, they will lose even what they do have. What was this “something”?

If we scan chapters 8 through 12 (between the Sermon on the Mount and our text), we see that one thing the disciples had was simply a willingness to be Jesus’ disciples, giving up home and braving opposition to follow him. In Matthew 11:25 Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father… that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.” The disciples, at this point, had only very basic understanding of the kingdom of heaven. But they understood that Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom were worth hearing. They were willing to be Jesus’ “little children” and learn from him.

The crowds, in contrast, and especially their leaders, were refusing to receive Jesus and thus were refusing God himself (Matt. 10:40). They said John the Baptist had a demon and that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard (Matt. 11:18-19). Their refusal to repent led Jesus to compare them to Tyre and Sidon, to Sodom, and to Nineveh (Matt. 11:20-24; 12:39-41). Their leaders were already conspiring to kill Jesus (Matt. 12:14) and were accusing him of being in league with Satan (Matt. 12:24). And, in passages that form bookends to chapter 13, we see that even Jesus’ own family was failing to do the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven (Matt. 12:46-50; cf. Mark 3:21, where they say Jesus is “out of his mind”) and even his hometown of Nazareth took offense at him rather than believing him (Matt. 13:53-58).

What the disciples already have, then, seems to be the willingness to receive Jesus for whoever he may prove to be, unlike the majority of the crowds who have rejected him. Because the disciples already have welcoming hearts toward Jesus and his kingdom message, God will grant them deeper knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. “The Jewish people,” in contrast, “have rejected knowledge of Jesus, so ‘even what they have,’” including their identity as “being God’s kingdom people, will be ‘taken away’ by God” (Matt. 21:43).[3]

13 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.

Now Jesus answers the disciples’ question, and now he places responsibility fully upon the crowds who have rejected him. Commentator Grant Osborne explains:

“The obduracy [hardness, stubborn resistance] that the people of Israel have shown in chs. 11-12 is the reason Jesus is speaking to the crowds in parables… Jesus responds to Israel’s rejection by using parables to confirm and anchor that rejection… The parables are ‘stones of stumbling deliberately placed in Israel’s path, much like what Isaiah was instructed to do in Isaiah 6.’”[4]

The Jewish crowds have persistently shown that they are not willing to listen to Jesus, so God will not give them the understanding that would lead to repentance and good fruit. The parables, then, are specially designed to convey truth to those who are receptive and hide it from those who are not. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father,” Jesus had already declared, “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” (Matt. 11:27). Jesus refuses to “give dogs what is holy” or “throw [his] pearls before pigs” (Matt. 7:6). Instead, he decides to hide his teaching in metaphorical language that forces his listeners to puzzle over what he meant (and, incidentally, makes it harder for his opponents to incriminate him for what he said).[5]

This brings us to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6, which we will examine in the next post.


Your responses are welcome in the comments below!


[1] Schuyler Signor, “The Third Person Imperative in the Greek New Testament,” M.A. Thesis presented to the faculty of Abilene Christian University, April 1999. http://kingstonnychurchofchrist.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/THE_THIRD_PERSON_IMPERATIVE_IN_THE_GREEK_NEW_TESTAMENT.31201317.pdf  Accessed June 28, 2018. (pp. 2, 22, 23)

[2] “The “for” () that introduces the verse makes it the reason for God’s grace-gift (divine passive “will be given” []) only to the insiders.” Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9457-9458). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9467-9468). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[4] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9473-9474, 9484-9485, 9490-9491). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. Osborne quotes Witherington (Matthew, 264) in the final line.

[5] Sometimes even Jesus’ enemies understood the basic thrust of his parables, however: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them” (Matt. 21:45).


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