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:
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:
- 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!
 See Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, book by Nabeel Qureshi.