Text: Matthew 13:3-9; 18-23
It is springtime by the Sea of Galilee. Great numbers have come enthusiastically to hear Jesus preach, but what will be their response? The seed was being faithfully sown, but what will the harvest bring? We can picture Jesus sitting in the prow of a boat, pointing, perhaps, to a field where a sower is scattering corn seed onto the ground. Look: some of it is falling onto the pathway, and you can already see the birds coming along behind and pecking it up off the hard ground. No harvest there. Other seed is falling on stony ground, where the soil is just an inch or so thick: it will shoot quickly, but because it cannot not put down proper roots it will shrivel in the burning summer sun. No harvest there, either. Some of the seed falls onto ground which has not been thoroughly weeded. At the same time that the seed grows, so will the weeds, and they will stifle the growth of the seed. Still no crop. But there a fourth kind of ground. This is soil that has been dug over, the stones removed, the weeds uprooted. This ground has been well-prepared. It is receptive to the seed. The seed that falls there will germinate, put down roots, send up shoots. It will grow, thrive, and finally produce a harvest.
The seed, of course, stands for ‘the message about the kingdom’, v19; it is ‘the word’, v20 etc.; or, as Lk 8:11 puts it, ‘the seed is the word of God’.
The different types of soil are the different types of human heart to which the word of God comes. Only some are receptive; responsive. And so the main point of Jesus’ parable is this: the fruitfulness of God’s word depends in large measure on the receptiveness of those to who hear it.
It is this one central point that I would like to explore with you this morning. How can we ensure that we are ‘good ground’ hearers? How should we receive the word of God? Well, firstly, we receive God’s word aright when we
1. Receive it with confidence
Our God is a speaking God; he is a communicating God. In the very first chapter of Genesis, the very first book, no less than ten times we read, ‘And God said’. Then we have throughout the Old Testament similar expressions such as, ‘Hear the word of the Lord’; ‘The word of the Lord came to [such-and-such prophet].’ Someone has taken the trouble to count up the number of times in the OT God is said to speak: 3,808.
When we come to the NT, we find that Christ and the apostles regarded those OT scriptures as completely authoritative. Nowhere is this put more plainly than in Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy (3:16). ‘All Scripture,’ declares Paul, ‘is God-breathed’. And that expression ‘God-breathed’ does not indicate that Scripture is breathed into by God, but rather that it is breathed out by him. Just as for us speaking involves the breathing out of words, so God is pictured as ‘breathing out’ the words of Scripture. The same idea had been picked up by Jesus, when he quoted from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament: ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’.
In fact, Jesus himself demonstrated complete confidence in the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture. “The Scripture,” he said, “cannot be broken.” (Jn 10:35)
Moreover, Jesus pre-authenticated the NT writings by promising that the Holy Spirit would guide his followers into all truth.
Jn 14: 16f “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever—the Spirit of truth.” 16:13 “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.”
This, in outline, is the doctrine of the ‘inspiration’ of the Bible. I want you to have confidence in that doctrine. Speaking for myself, I can say that when I became a Christian at the age of 19, this sense of confidence in Scripture ‘came with the package’. I have never seriously doubted that ‘what Scripture says, God says’. But this doesn’t mean that I haven’t sometimes struggled to understand the Bible.
So let me move on to my second point, which is that we receive God’s word aright when we
2. Receive it with understanding.
I have been emphasising the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture – the conviction that it is ‘God-breathed’. But I want to stress that the Bible is also an intensely human book.
The 66 books of the Bible were written on two different continents using three languages over a period of sixteen centuries by about 40 different people. Among its writers were judges, kings, priests, prophets, patriarchs, prime ministers, herdsmen, scholars, soldiers, physicians and fishermen. Various parts were written in tents, deserts, cities, palaces and prisons; sometimes in situations of grave danger and at other times in circumstances of ecstatic joy. The Bible contains many different types of writing, including poetry, history, prophecy, laws, official records, gospels, epistles and apocalypse. And then there are all those stories – beginning with the tale of a garden and ending with the city of gold.
We certainly need to take all this very human diversity into account when seeking to understand the Bible. In this regard, I have very much valued the advice of Miles Coverdale, one of the earliest translators of the Bible into English:
‘It shall greatly help ye to understand Scripture, if thou mark, not only what is spoke or wrytten, but of whom, and to whom, with what words, and what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstance, considering what goeth before, and what followest.’
But the best key of all for understanding God’s word is the key that we just used to unlock our confidence in it. That key, you remember, is Jesus Christ.
Two days after the crucifixion of Jesus two of his followers were trudging home. They were feeling desperately upset because they had pinned all their hopes on Jesus, and now he was dead. As they walked along the road, they were caught up by a stranger. His unforgettable words to them are recorded in Luke 24:25ff:
‘“How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’
The ‘stranger’ was, of course, the risen Lord. Perhaps he started at Genesis 3:15, the first promise of the Redeemer, and traced that promise through the Scriptures. He may have lingered at Genesis 22, which tells of Abraham placing his only beloved son on the altar. Probably he touched on Passover, the levitical sacrifices, the tabernacle ceremonies, the Day of Atonement, the serpent in the wilderness, the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, and the prophetic messages of various psalms. The key to understanding the Bible is to see Jesus Christ on every page.
Yes, the great theme of Scripture is Jesus. The story which Scripture unfolds is the story of Jesus: the promise of his coming, and the fulfilment of that promise. ‘When you are reading a book in a dark room, and find it difficult, you take it to a window to get more light. So take your Bible to Christ.’ (McCheyne)
So: let’s receive God’s word with confidence. Let’s receive it with understanding. What’s missing? Ah yes, we need to
3. Receive it with obedience.
Confidence in the Bible is good. Understanding the Bible is good. But they are both worse than useless without obedience.
James, in his very practical epistle, points out that knowing without doing is self-deceptive. 1:22 ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’
In fact, knowing without doing is devilish. James goes on to say that it’s no great thing merely to believe in God’s existence. Even the demons do that, but it does them no good. It just makes them shudder (2:19).
Jesus (Mt 7:24-27) described the person ‘who hears these words of mine but does not put them into practice.’ This, he says, is to build your life on sand. The wise person is the one ‘who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.’ To do that is to build on a rock.
And, just as Jesus is the key to our confidence in Scripture and to our understanding of Scripture, so he is the key to our obedience of Scripture. For to obey Scripture is to love and follow him.
Jn 5:39f “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
And obedience born of a living, loving relationship with Christ becomes, not merely a duty and a responsibility, but a privilege and a joy.
1 Jn 5:3 – ‘This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.’
Once again, then, let’s have confidence in God’s word, just as Jesus had confidence in it. Let’s seek to understand God’s word, recognising Jesus as it’s central and over-arching theme. And let’s resolve to obey God’s word, by living in Jesus and living for Jesus.
I’m not going to tell you when and how often you ought to read your Bible. But let me encourage you by saying that if you were to set aside 12 minutes a day, you could read Matthew’s Gospel in about a week, the New Testament in 3 months, and the entire Bible in about a year.
I’m not going to tell you which resources you ought to read and which web sites you ought to frequent in order to help you with your understanding of the Bible. But I will just remind you that we have an excellent selection of material on our church bookstall whether you new to the Bible or a seasoned reader. Plus, if you go to Holy Trinity’s web site, you will be pointed to other resources, including how to receive Bible passages every day by email, and even how to read the Bible in a year, by email.
But make up your mind, if you haven’t already done so, be a ‘good ground’ hearer of God’s word. Receive it with confidence; receive it with understanding; receive it with obedience. And you will become a fruitful Christian. There will be a harvest. And you will find it to be a joyful, thrilling adventure. You will discover, with countless others, that God’s words are “more to be desired than gold”, “rejoicing the heart”, as you meet, in the word of God, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent.