Christ’s Fruitless and Fruitful Word

Why do people reject such a gracious Gospel? Why do people claim to be Christians but add works to grace as the basis for salvation? Why do self-proclaimed Christians hear God’s word and explain it away saying, “The Bible doesn’t really mean that”? 

In the previous passage, Jesus told a parable and left the parable dangling. Since Jesus didn’t explain the parable then, neither did we. In today’s passage, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to His disciples. As we move into this passage, we remember that Jesus has transitioned from speaking to the crowds to talking with His disciples. He told His disciples that the crowds did not have ears to hear (generally, not necessarily individually) but they did. For a fuller explanation of Jesus’s ears-to-hear doctrine, please see last week’s lesson. As Jesus explains His parable, He gets at shallow faith, false conversions, apostasy, and what it means to have truly accepted His message.

Matthew 13:16-23

But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

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 the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

What is heard (v. 16-17)

But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

These words are meant for Christ’s disciples. For those who don’t have ears to hear, they sound condemning. For those who do have ears to hear, Christ’s words here are some of the most encouraging words we can hear. Jesus means His following explanation to be a blessing to those He has called to follow Him.

Jesus teaches that many prophets and righteous men desired to see His kingdom finally come and did not see it. They desired to hear the Gospel of the kingdom but did not hear it. Christ’s disciples now get to hear everything Christ’s people in the Old Testament longed to hear. This is a blessing for Christ’s true disciples.

Jesus’s explanation (v. 18-23)

Hear then the parable of the sower.

Jesus is talking to His disciples, not the crowds. Recall that there are two different audiences through this section of parables—the public and Christ’s twelve disciples. While Jesus did not explain His parable to the crowds, He takes the time to explain it to His disciples. Jesus told us why—the crowds do not have ears to hear; They are generally not able to understand Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of Heaven. Christ’s disciples, however, have been given ears to hear. Again, please review the previous lesson for a deeper explanation of Jesus’s ears-to-hear doctrine.

Now sitting with His disciples, Jesus says, “Hear,” or understand, “the parable of the sower.” He is about to explain it explicitly.
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 the one on whom seed was sown beside the road.

Jesus speaks, first, about those who don’t have ears to hear. He speaks about this group in three ways—as those on whom seed was sown beside the road, on the rocky places, and among the thorns. There are different reasons why the seed, the word of the kingdom as Jesus has been preaching throughout Matthew’s Gospel and in this discourse, does not take root in people’s lives.

The first group is exposed to the Gospel in some way and never responds because there is no understanding, not even a minuscule or off understanding. Why? Jesus teaches that the evil one snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is scary, and Jesus doesn’t explain what it means, here. What do you mean the evil one snatches away the Gospel so that some people don’t understand and respond to it? We have to journey to another passage in the New Testament that explains it because we don’t want to extrapolate from this text what isn’t there. In 2 Thessalonians 2:7-12, Paul will write:

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.

Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.

For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.

Paul will write that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, that God restrains and sends Satan’s workers, and that God will send a deluding influence (earlier identified as Satan) so that those who are perishing will believe what is false.

Since we are walking through Matthew’s Gospel, we will not focus on really parsing out 2 Thessalonians. Jesus basically teaches that Satan is given authority to snatch the Gospel from those who are perishing, which will be explained later in the New Testament. According to Jesus, this is why many sincere presentations of the “word of the kingdom” simply fall on deaf ears.

At first glance I’m not sure I particularly like Jesus’s teaching, here. I would like to believe that people can be persuaded to believe upon the person and work of Christ alone. Then again, I’m glad it’s not up to me.

The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.

The second type of person who ultimately rejects the Gospel is someone who hears it and responds at first with great joy! Since there is no depth of understanding, his or her conversion is temporary. In times of hardship, this person falls away. This is one way we can know if we really don’t know Christ—we fall away when things get tough. Falling away, here, doesn’t necessarily mean people stop referring to themselves as Christians. They fall away from the word of the kingdom. They may stop referring to themselves as Christians, but they also may delve into a false form of Christianity. Why? There is no depth to their understanding concerning the kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus taught about this earlier in this discourse, also. Concerning understanding the kingdom of Heaven in verses 11 and 12:

Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.

Those who don’t have ears to hear, even what little they know about the kingdom will be taken. False, shallow conversions are real and lead to apostasy in one form or another.

And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 

The third type of person who ultimately rejects Christ’s Gospel is the person who hears the word, but is more concerned about the worries of this world and wealth. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus taught that one could not serve both God and mammon (a word referring to all material gain; 6:24). Because His people are not to chase material gain, He encouraged them not to be worried about what they would eat, drink, or wear—life is more than food and the body is more than clothing (6:25). Those who are concerned about what they have to gain in this world, the word is choked by these metaphorical thorns and is unfruitful in the life of that person.

Jesus’s teaching, here, applies to those who forsake Christ’s body, the church, because they are not somehow gaining for themselves from the rest of the church. It applies to preachers or teachers who are in the ministry game to gain an audience or material wealth for themselves. The kingdom of Heaven is such that if I look at someone else and think they are not giving me enough time, money, attention, recognition, or whatever, I haven’t received the kingdom. If i am more concerned about being part of this world than giving myself wholly to God, I haven’t received the kingdom. The worry of the world and deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.

So, the Gospel does not take root in everyones life—even many people who hear it and seem to respond. This singular truth composes three-quarters of Jesus’s parable as Jesus explains it. At the least, it should stop us and cause us to think about the work of God’s word in our lives. Three tendencies reveal we have not received the kingdom of Heaven: (1) we are not able to understand the basic Gospel, (2) we are shallow converts with no depth of understanding, or (3) we are more concerned about our lives in this world and material gain than about knowing Christ more deeply.

And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

Finally, there are people who understand the word about the kingdom of Heaven and who actually bear its fruit. What sort of fruit is Christ referring to, here? To know the fruit, we consider what Matthew has previously written. The fruit of Christ’s word is fruit consistent with repentance (3:8). We know whether people, particularly teachers, are sheep or wolves by their fruit (7:16, 20). Only good trees produce good fruit (7:17-19). In this discourse, Jesus defined good fruit as sound understanding and teaching (12:34-37). It is tempting to go further than Jesus does in His teaching here by teaching that the fruit Jesus refers to is the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians or converts to Christianity. I have taught and have heard others teach both things, neither of which Jesus is actually teaching in this text. Galatians is a different book, and we must add to the text to see the fruit Jesus refers to on this occasion as converts. The fruit Jesus refers to is sound understanding and teaching—consistent with repentance rather than legalism. It is consistent with Jesus’s ears-to-hear doctrine: Those who have ears to hear will be given more understanding, and those who do not will have even what slight understanding they possess taken from them. Jesus’s explanation follows naturally what preceded it in the discourse.

Everyone who has ears to hear will deepen his or her understanding concerning the kingdom of Heaven. Not every disciple, every true Christian, does so equally. In some, understanding is produced a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. Not every true Christian grows in his or her understanding at the same rate, but we are growing in the same understanding concerning Christ’s kingdom. For this precise reason, God gives us pastor-teachers—to build up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). The fruit that is multiplied in the Christian after sincere repentance is understanding. Before anything else, understanding concerning the kingdom of Heaven—the person and work of Christ. If we do not bear this fruit, we are not known by Christ. That’s not to say every person must have a proper understanding of the Gospel before coming to Christ. When Christ brings a person to Himself, He grants understanding because He gives His people ears to hear. Do you see how this teaching is a blessing for those who truly know Christ?

Soil cannot choose to be good or bad soil. There are so many people who assume Christ knows them and they have eternal life because they did something or teach that we must do something to be saved or maintain our salvation. Jesus never grants that people reject the Gospel because they understood it, thought about it, and then chose not to accept it. Neither does He grant that our good deeds cause or prove our salvation. Either Satan keeps people from understanding, they accept Christ’s word but there are no firm roots, or the word is choked out by the worries and riches of the world. These people, initially, want to accept what they have heard but they don’t have the ears to understand. So, Jesus’s message sounds condemning to them even though it is a message of salvation by grace. If, however, the soil has been prepared by the sower to produce understanding, if people have been given ears to hear, they will produce understanding. Jesus’s teaching, here, is consistent with what He taught about the kingdom of Heaven earlier in this discourse. He praised the Father for hiding and revealing the kingdom of Heaven according to His own will (11:25-27). So, nothing is required of us to be saved—only that Christ tends His own garden.

This parable allegorizes the proclamation of God’s word to the world. People are the soil. The seed is Christ’s teaching about the kingdom of Heaven. Who is the sower? In this discourse, Jesus is the one teaching about the kingdom of Heaven (Chapters 11-12). Before this discourse, Jesus instructed His disciples to proclaim the same message He proclaimed (Chapter 10). Jesus is the sower. When His disciples (the good soil) proclaim, they proclaim the sower’s word—what we refer to as expository preaching and teaching.

Jesus’s Explicit Teaching About The Kingdom of Heaven Prior To His Kingdom of Heaven Parables (Chs. 11-12):

Kingdom of HeavenKingdom of This World
Kingdom of priestsKingdom of consumers
Kingdom of prestige even for the leastKingdom of comparison and contrast
Kingdom of judgment even for the greatest
Exists throughout time—even before Christ’s incarnation
A people not a physical locationDefined by visible structures and conquests
Kingdom of suffering in the midst of this worldKingdom of force
Able to hear and understand Christ’s teachingUnable to hear and understand Christ’s teaching
Kingdom of wisdomKingdom of faultfinding
Kingdom of repentanceKingdom of pride
Chosen and built by God’s will aloneRejected by God’s will alone
Kingdom of restKingdom of merit
Kingdom of libertyKingdom of restriction
Kingdom of willing purityKingdom of unwilling rule-keeping
Kingdom of healingKingdom of using people
Kingdom whereby all human life is absolutely sacredKingdom whereby rules, programs, and organizations are elevated above  human worth
Kingdom of sincerity in learningKingdom of dogma
Kingdom of satisfaction and enjoymentKingdom of bondage and decay
A people forgiven of every imaginable sinA people not forgiven because they are not regenerate
A people seeking to know God through His wordA people seeking signs, wonders, and outward performance
Coheirs with Christ in the Father’s gloryNot coheirs with Christ

Questions:

  1. Why does some Christianity seem to be so shallow?
  2. What fruit follows repentance?
  3. What does Jesus mean when He teaches that His disciples will bear fruit in this passage?
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