This morning we are returning to the teaching of Jesus’ famous parable of the sower. Last time, we undertook something of an overview of the parable. We noticed, you will remember, that the seed that is sown is the Word of God. That is where our confidence for a harvest must rest – in the ministry of the Word. The sower is the Lord Jesus Christ, so that even when we are sowing the seed – telling our friends about Jesus – it is still the risen Christ, by the Holy Spirit, who is speaking in the Scriptures. And we saw in the third place that the seed is sown indiscriminately, without regard to the type of person who hears the Word or the possibility of their response. All people are to hear the Word, without distinction, without restriction, at the invitation of God to come and receive His mercy freely offered to them in Jesus Christ goes to all. And then finally, we saw last time the seed is sown in the heart. The heart is where our response to the Word is made, and so we must each take care how we hear the Word and we must do all we can to plow up the stony ground and respond to the Word that is preached to us in faith and new obedience. So that was last time.
And now beginning this morning we are going to go back and take time to look at each one of the four possible responses to the Word of which the human heart is capable, starting today with the seed that is sown along the path. Here, we might say, is a picture of an unreceptive heart, an unreceptive heart. As we think about Jesus’ teaching at this point, I want you to notice three things in particular. First, Jesus offers us a diagnosis that we must face. A diagnosis we must face. Then, a danger we must avoid. A danger we must avoid. And finally, a duty we must fulfill. A diagnosis we must face, a danger we must avoid, and a duty we must fulfill.
Before we look at those three themes, let’s pray once again and then we’ll read the Scriptures together. Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, the great Sower, sow Your seed, the seed of Your Word, in the soil of our hearts, even now this morning, and grant that none of the seed may fall on the roadside, upon unreceptive hearts, but that it all may fall in good soil and produce a rich harvest. For we ask this in Your holy name, amen.
Matthew 13, beginning at verse 1. This is the Word of God:
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.’”
And then continuing at verse 18:
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.
A Diagnosis to Avoid
Well, the fields that I grew up with in the United Kingdom were generally, at least by American standards, fairly small, often surrounded by ancient dry stone walls, sometimes by private hedges or at the very least by wire fences. They’re not usually the massive expanses of open, cultivated land that you often see in farming areas here, but the fields that Jesus was speaking about in this parable were unlike either of those two. They were often narrow strips of land, uneven and irregular in shape, and they would be crisscrossed by narrow pathways of hard-packed dirt defining the boundary of each allotment of arable land. The paths were formed not by any planned scheme, you understand, but simply by the regular traffic of many feet, by cartwheels, by animals’ hooves. And so the description of seed falling along the paths in Jesus’ parable is not in any way intended to be a criticism of the carelessness of the farmer sowing his seed – “He just couldn’t quite keep the seed in bounds.” That’s not what Jesus is saying. Rather, He’s saying this is what ordinarily would happen in every field given their irregular shape, the narrowness of the land, how they’re crisscrossed like this by pathways. In every field where the seed is broadcast, some of it always fell along the pathways. And those pathways were impenetrable, as hard as pavement, and when the seed fell on them, there it sat without ever sinking in.
And you’ll notice the way Jesus uses that image of this particular response of the human heart to the Word of God, first of all, in order to give us a diagnosis we must face. A diagnosis we must face. Look how He puts it in verse 19. “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.” Now what exactly is the problem here? Why doesn’t this heart produce any fruit from the seed of the Word that is sown in it? Well notice what the problem isn’t, first of all. It is not that this person has not heard the Word. “When anyone hears the word,” Jesus says. So this is a hearer of the Word of God. The Gospel seed has been sown. They cannot object on the Day of Judgment to the dreadful sentence of condemnation that waits for them by saying, “I never heard the good news. No one ever told me about Jesus.” That’s not true for this class of hearer. These are people who have heard the Word. The issue is that the Word of the Gospel has never really reached them, penetrated their hearts. Their hearts are hard-packed and unreceptive and so the Word sits, as it were, on the surface, never sinking in.
Jesus is exposing, actually, a very common pattern for many people who come to church or who tune in online or who watch at home on television. Why they do it, I’m not quite sure. After all, what benefit can they hope to receive if the Word never penetrates their hearts? Maybe they attend on Sunday mornings out of long established habit. This is how they were raised, don’t you know. This is where their community gathers. These are their friends. And so they simply can’t imagine doing anything else on a Sunday morning. It’s part of their routine now. They come to church out of sheer force of habit. Muscle memory compels them to attend. It’s part of who they are. And maybe they do get some therapeutic help from coming to church. Maybe it offers a sort of emotional catharsis. They feel better about themselves by the end of the service, baptizing their week-long worldliness with a hefty dose of religion on Sunday, perhaps allows them to grant themselves some sort of psychological absolution as they face the week ahead.
But whatever the motivation for tuning in at home or attending church on a Sunday in person, for this type of person all their diligence and listening to the sermons at home or coming here in person, all their effort notwithstanding, the fact remains, the Word has never yet penetrated the hard-packed ground of their souls. And an hour or two after the sermon is done they can scarcely tell you anything that was said, much less give an account of its meaning or its importance. It has not occurred to them that they are being addressed, that God has anything for them, that the Word preached was the voice of Christ Himself calling to them to repent and to believe. If the video recording of their lives were to be replayed and we watched them week in and week out coming to hear the Word, we would see that they have never really made a single meaningful adjustment to their lives or to their thinking or to their convictions in the wake of the preaching that they have heard. Their hearts, we would have to conclude, are Teflon coated, you know – non-stick. The seed simply bounces off. What a terrible spiritual condition to be in.
All the more terrible, of course, because people like this generally never realize their spiritual danger. They are oblivious. And so this surely is a diagnosis to avoid at all costs. Isn’t it? Do not be a roadside hearer, Jesus is saying. Do not let the seed of the Word sit on the surface of your heart where it can do no good. Is yours a Teflon heart, a non-stick heart, where the Word of Christ just bounces off? Is your heart a hard-packed pathway where the Gospel never penetrates? If it is, you are in a very dangerous spiritual place; a very dangerous place. There is a diagnosis here we must avoid. I wonder if it’s a diagnosis that fits your case?
A Danger We Must Face
Secondly, there is a danger here we have to face up to. A danger we must face. Why is it so perilous to be a wayside, a roadside hearer, to have an unreceptive heart like this? Well look what happens. Because the seed lay exposed on the surface of the path – guess what? The birds of the air come and devour the seed. Interestingly, in Luke’s account of this parable the birds are not the only threat faced by the seed. Luke 8:5 says, “A sower went out to sow his seed and as he sowed some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot and the birds of the air devoured it.” If the birds don’t get the seed, apparently the foot traffic will. Imagine on my way home this afternoon, as I’m driving down I-55 and I roll down the car window and throw out a handful of grain – corn or wheat or barley or something like that. And now this seed, the grain, covers the highway. What chance does it have in the middle of I-55 of sprouting or bearing a crop? The pavement is impenetrable. And if the birds don’t eat it, well the grain will be pulverized, won’t it, by the next 18-wheeler that comes along. So that’s Jesus’ image. When the seed sits on the hard-packed surface, the busy traffic on the road will crush the seed of the Word. If the Gospel never gets in, never penetrates our hearts, if it stays on the surface of our lives and makes no impact upon us, the constant traffic of our busy lives is all it will take to trample the Word and render it fruitless.
And then what’s left, Jesus says, the birds will snatch away. The metaphor, He explains, refers to the work of the devil himself. He wants us to understand the threat that we face. The devil hates you and is active in pursuing your destruction. And so he is deeply invested, especially in your failure to take the Scriptures seriously. That’s what he wants. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, has the senior devil, Screwtape, describe the experience of one of his subjects to his demonic protege, Wormwood. The man was reading a book one day when its contents begin to stir in him questions and spiritual longings. He begins to ask questions about eternal realities and so Screwtape intervenes by making the man terribly hungry for lunch. “Once he was in the street the battle was won,” Screwtape told Wormwood. “I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper and a number 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had gotten into him an unalterable conviction that whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he is shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of real life was enough to show him that that sort of thing just could not be true.”
Here’s the danger we all must face. Can you see it? I hope so, because I think Jesus really intends for this to serve as a warning to shake us from our spiritual complacency. Satan and demonic forces are watching to see what opportunity our carelessness affords them to wreak havoc in our souls. He is always vigilant for the possibility of hard hearts where the seed of the Word never sinks in. And so even now, right now he casts his eye over the congregation, weighing your response and mine, testing our sincerity, looking for spiritual indifference, looking for hard, cold hearts. And when he finds them it’s a relatively simple matter for him to snatch away the Word that you hear but have not welcomed or received with a well-placed distraction, a few delicious temptations, a carefully crafted deception or two. He is predatory and opportunistic. Beware the devil’s schemes. That’s what Jesus is saying to us. Do not think to yourself, “I have plenty of time to get serious about Jesus later. I can leave the Word of God sitting on the surface of my heart without any worries after all. I’ll have many more opportunities to hear it and to respond to it in the weeks ahead. Today, just let me relax, you know, and enjoy life on my terms.”
You are terribly vulnerable to the birds of the air devouring the seed Jesus is saying. The devil will do everything he can to keep you from ever getting around to dealing honestly with the claims of Jesus Christ for yourself. He’ll tell you anything. He’ll make any bargain with you today. “Of course you can take all the time that you need to engage with the Gospel for yourself! Just not today. Tomorrow you can pray and ask your questions and face your sin and seek the Lord Jesus. Tomorrow would be better. You’re too busy today. You’ve had such a stressful time lately, remember, so today, don’t you really need to blow off some steam? You deserve it, after all. This Gospel stuff, it’s too heavy, too intense for today. Tomorrow is ideal.” And when tomorrow comes, there will be more excuses and objections and deceptions and lies and more after that and still more after that. Of course there will. And if you’re not careful, before you know it you’re standing before the Lord Jesus on the Day of Judgment, your life having run its course, and your unreceptive heart will never yet have responded to His holy Word. That’s the devil’s strategy. Be warned! Don’t let the seed of the Word stay on the surface of your heart.
So there’s a diagnosis to avoid. What a terrible state to be in to discover that yours is an unreceptive heart. A danger to be faced if the seed of the Word never penetrates. The busy traffic of our lives will crush the Word and the schemes of the devil will snatch it away. And then finally there is a duty to fulfill. A duty to fulfill.
A Duty We Must Fulfill
What is the big issue for this first type of hearer? Why is his or her heart so hard? Well what does the text say? Look at it again. “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart.” So do you see the fundamental issue with the roadside hearer? He does not understand the Word. Understanding is key. Understanding is not all that is required of us, to be sure. We must trust ourselves to the Gospel and repent of our sin in light of the Gospel, but without understanding the Gospel we can’t do any of the rest. The seed of the Word takes root in our heart through our understanding. The key to fruitful hearing is understanding.
Second Timothy chapter 2, the apostle Paul calls Christians to diligence in the pursuit of godliness. He uses three metaphors. He talks about soldiers who refrain from being entangled in civilian affairs, he talks about athletes who compete according to the rules, and interestingly he talks about farmers who work hard to produce a crop. And in verse 7 he tells them, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.” Notice carefully the two sides of that command. Our duty is clear, isn’t it? We are to think over the instruction given, to study it, to apply ourselves to its message, to interrogate it that we might grasp its main ideas. “Think over what you are being told,” Paul says. That is our task. There is also a divine promise. “The Lord will give you understanding.” A saving, fruitful understanding of the Word of God is the gift of God, freely given to all His people. But we must not neglect our duty to think, to engage our brains under the excuse that we are waiting for God to give us understanding first. “Ah, well,” we might say, “He hasn’t granted me understanding. What can you do?” That’s not right. He gives understanding only to those who engage their brains in pursuit of understanding. “Think over what I say and the Lord will give you understanding.” Think on it. Work at it. That is the duty the Lord Jesus is pressing upon us. If ever the Word is to bear fruit on our lives, we must strive to understand, to come to terms with its message. We must engage our brains and not simply let it wash over us.
Becoming a Fruitful Hearer: Take Seriously the Urgency of Understanding the Gospel
Well how do we do that? How do we become understanding, fruitful hearers? Let me offer four practical steps to help and then we’re done. Okay? Number one, really to reiterate what I’ve said – Do not forget, remember, today, today is the best day to get serious about knowing God in the Gospel. Not tomorrow, not this afternoon – today, right now in fact. “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart,” the Scriptures say. The first step in becoming a fruitful hearer, not an unreceptive roadside hearer, is to take seriously the urgency of understanding the Word of God. It’s urgent. It’s pressing. Satan is predatory and opportunistic. He will not let the seed of the Word sit for long on the surface of your heart. He’ll snatch it away. Today, right now is the moment. Get serious about understanding the Gospel.
Becoming a Fruitful Hearer: Pray to God to Help You Understand
Number two – you can’t hope to understand the Gospel, spiritual things, without the help of the Spirit of Christ. First Corinthians 2:14 – “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” That is to say, they are discerned by the work of the Holy Spirit. If you want to understand the Gospel and the Word of Christ to you, cry out to God for the help of the Holy Spirit.
When I was a boy, as my grandfather’s eyesight got worse and worse, he had an enormous magnifying glass that he used to read with. I loved it because he would hold it up to his eye, you know, and it would make his eye really big! Prayer, believing prayer, pleading with God for the help of the Holy Spirit is the magnifying glass that helps our dim spiritual sight to see the truth. Cry to God to help you understand.
Becoming a Fruitful Hearer: Develop the Skill of Christian Meditation
Number three – search the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so. When the Bible is read, especially when the Bible is preached, have the Word open in front of you. Follow what is being said. Become a Berean. You remember the Bereans in Acts chapter 17? As Paul preached to them Luke says, “They received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” And so when the preacher says, “Look at verse 10,” look at verse 10! Check out his arguments in light of the plain teaching of the text of Scripture. Follow the cross references. Compare Scripture with Scripture. And with your own Bible reading, do more than simply read a passage in order to tick a box on your to-do list. “Read the Bible today” – check! Develop the skill of Christian meditation.
Do you engage in Christian meditation? It’s just another name, really, for imitating the best preacher that you know and pressing the truth of the Word of God home to your heart and your conscience. Take a text of Scripture, not too long, maybe just a few verses, and ask good questions of it. “Who wrote it? Why was it written? What is its function in the context of the wider passage? What is the big idea being communicated? Why is it important to the overall argument of this chapter or this Bible book? What difference should it make to me, to my family, to my work life, to my witness to others? How does this text help me to pray? What does it tell me about God, about Jesus, about the Spirit, about my sin, about my calling in the world? How can I pray its message on behalf of others around me? How can I turn its language into the vocabulary of my daily petitions before God?” Private meditation is like coming along behind the farmer who’s broadcasting the seed and with your finger pressing the seed home into good soil one seed at a time so that it takes root and bears fruit. So the seed is being broadcast this morning in the preaching of the Word. Go back all week long and press it home into good soil that it might bear fruit.
Becoming a Fruitful Hearer: Come to Jesus Christ
And number four, finally – be sure in every sermon, in every text you read, whenever the Bible is opened before you, to look for the main thing, which is always Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, remember, in John chapter 5, for making this fundamental mistake. “You search the Scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life. And this is they that bear witness about Me,” He said, “and yet you would not come to Me that you may have life.” Their problem was not unfamiliarity with the Bible. They were diligent students of the Scriptures. It’s not that they were wrong even – that eternal life is offered to them in the Word of God. They were looking for it in the right place. But really they were looking for the wrong thing. “These are they that speak of Me.” They weren’t looking for Him in the Word and so they refused to come to Him that they might have life.
You can give yourself – listen to this, please, will you? You can give yourself to the study of the Word of God and think that by your diligence you can have life, that God is somehow impressed or He will reward you. But the message of the Word points on every page really to the Lord Jesus Christ. The seed of the Word will always remain on the surface of your heart if you fail to understand that at the heart of the message of the Word stands the cross of Jesus Christ. He has done everything needful to give you eternal life and the Word of God preaches that message of mercy and grace to you and if you miss that, you miss everything. You can do 100 things, all of them commanded somewhere in the Bible, and die eternally if you will not come to the One of whom the Scriptures speak, who alone can give you life. Do not miss the Christ who calls to you on every page. Come to Him.
So there’s a diagnosis we must avoid. Can you see it in the passage? An unreceptive hard heart. What a terrible thing to have a heart impervious to the Word of God. There is a danger that we must face. Beware the opportunistic, predatory attacks of the devil who will not allow the seed of the Word to sit for long on the surface of your heart. Be warned and take action. So there is, therefore, a duty that we must fulfill. We must understand. We must understand the Word. Nothing is more important, more urgent. We must understand the Word. Take the magnifying glass of believing prayer. Call out for the help of the Holy Spirit. Learn the art of Christian meditation. Search the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so. And get yourself to Jesus Christ. The message of the Word, remember, is the message of the cross, and only by faith in Jesus can the Word ever bear any lasting fruit. May the Word bear much fruit in your heart this Lord’s Day. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we praise You for Your living and active Word. Thank You that it is a seed when sown in receptive soil changes everything, brings a glorious harvest. May that be so for every heart here, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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