Ground Good for Growing - Matthew 13:1-23

Many years ago, at a different home than the one where my family and I live now, we had these overgrown shrubs that had been there long before we bought the house. We wanted a different look, so we went to a local landscape nursery, picked out some plants we liked, removed the old shrubs, and planted the new ones. The new plants did extremely well. They grew tall and wide. We left that house here in Florence, moved to Charlotte, and then back to Florence, to a different house. Not long after moving in, I noticed that the plants in our front yard weren’t growing well, so we decided to do what we did before.

Ground Good for Growing - Matthew 13:1-23

We went to a local landscape nursery, picked out some plants we liked, brought them home, removed the old plants, and planted the new ones. But this time, the results were different. The plants didn’t grow; they died. I thought maybe I didn’t water them enough, so I bought more, planted those, and those started to die as well. Through some conversations with people with knowledge about gardening, I learned something: the problem was not the plants – it was the soil. The ground is clay, and there are many plants that are not suitable to grow there. It never dawned on me that the ground might not be suitable. I figured, “Plants are plants.” But not all ground is the same. Some ground is not suitable for growing anything. Here in Matthew 13, Jesus explains that the hearts of people like ground, and his gospel is like seed that can and bears fruit, but it needs ground good for growing.

In its natural state, the human heart – in other words, the core of a person in their mind, will, and emotions – is not suitable ground for bearing this fruit. And yet, by grace, Jesus can give us the ability to bear fruit. So, we should want to receive that ability. But how do we do that?We see two things in this Matthew passage today:

I. The ability to bear fruit comes only if God gives it through grace. (v.1-2, 10-17)

II. The ability to bear fruit comes only if we receive it by faith. (v.3-9, 18-23)

Leading up to ch. 13, Jesus has just finished addressing those who questioned and rejected him. Great crowds have gathered to listen to him, so many people that he has to get in a boat and drift out so he can sit and still speak to everyone. And he speaks in parables – fables that illustrated various truths. He was not speaking so straight forward as in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. And this puzzles the disciples. Notice verse [10],they ask “Why do you speak to them in parables?” In other words, why do you cause these people to wonder what you mean? Why do you seem to teach in a way that might hinder their understanding? And Jesus replies, verse [11] “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. Understanding these parables is a gift from God. God sovereignly bestows the gift through grace – unearned favor.

But Jesus goes one step further. Verse [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. Jesus’ intention in using parables is that those given understanding will only get more understanding, but those to whom it has not been given will only grow more confused. Their hearts will only grow harder toward God. Then Jesus says, verse [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. That is OT language. Words like those were used to describe with the Israelites. So, Jesus says, verse [14] Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled. In Isaiah ch. 6, the prophet Isaiah sees a vision of God, and he is overwhelmed by his own sin and guilt. But God shows Isaiah that his sin is atoned for and his guilt is removed. Isaiah is relieved and overjoyed. And God asks “Who will we send to the Israelites?” At that time, the nation was steeped in idolatry and immorality. Most people had turned from God. Isaiah says, “Send me.” God agrees to send him, and Jesus quotes God here. But notice what God tells him to say. Isaiah was to tell the Israelites, verse 14,“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.”

God was sending Isaiah knowing full well that the people would, for the most part, reject his message. Why would they do so? For the same reason these Israelite descendants listening to Jesus were rejecting him. Verse [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.’

They can’t see because God won’t make them see. However, for the disciples, notice verse [16], Jesus says, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Why do they see and hear? Jesus states it in verse 11: it was given to them to do so. T hey did not merit or earn it. Ephesians 2, later in the NT, says, [8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.It is bestowed by divine grace. Jesus then adds that these disciples have the special benefit of living to see the Messiah. Verse[17] 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.

Think about it: the disciples at that time were not able to choose to hear and understand Jesus any more than they were able to choose the period of history in which they were born.

Now, maybe this sounds unfair to you. The apostle Paul anticipated that might. In Romans 9, he addresses God’s sovereign choice to leave some people in their natural, hard-hearted state. He writes, “Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! [15] For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” [16] So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy… he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” All of our hearts naturally resist God. One of the scholars whom I study, R.T. France, puts it this way: “The wonder is not that some do not produce fruit, but that any do.”

No one can unless God sovereignly bestows the gift of understanding. But because God sovereignly chooses who receives this gift, does that mean that humans are not morally responsible for our hearts? No, it does not. It is also true that the ability only comes if we receive it by faith. Let’s look at Jesus’ parable, verses 3-8. He uses an illustration of a farmer sowing seed. The sower is scattering the seed broadly. I picture him pulling big handfuls of seed from a sack and slinging it. The seed falls on various kinds of ground. Some falls on the path. Birds eat that. Some falls on rocky ground. The sun scorches those. Some falls among thorns, and the thorns choke them. But some falls on good soil and makes a crop that will last. Notice verse [9] He who has ears, let him hear.”

That’s an interesting statement. It meant something like, “Understand this, if you will.” It’s a call to think about what it means. If you didn’t have the explanation here, what would you think it meant? Who knows what you might come up with, but you don’t have to figure it out! We have the explanation here. Jesus talking about the hearts of people like you and me.

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. This is what was sown along the path. See, some hearts are hard; sadly, the Word of Jesus – the gospel – will have no effect. Verse[20] As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, [21] 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.

Some hearts respond at first. It seems like good ground, but hard times related to persecution for the faith – maybe how they are treated, or maybe something they read or hear, causes them to doubt and turn away. Verse [22] 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. Again, some hearts respond at first, but wealth and possessions pull them way.

Distraction, worries, or pleasures render their initial faith as useless. But look at this fourth kind of ground. Verse [23] 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.” Jesus assures us that there will be some hearts that will hear, receive, and bear the good fruit of someone who is truly saved. We have this recorded in the Scriptures, according God’s. Why? So, you and I can think about the kind of heart we have.

Is your heart hard with unbelief? Is your faith being choked about by suffering and trials? Is your money or your possession pulling you away from God? Why would God give you the explanation of the parable for us here unless responding to Jesus and following him was your responsibility – your choice?

Sometimes we need reminder that we cannot fully comprehend God and his ways. It’s humbling, but it’s helpful. It helps us find our place again in the universe. We remember that things don’t revolve around us and that puts in a better position to worship. The disciples of Jesus received that kind of reminder. And for those who would receive it, the reminder is here for us today. A deeper knowledge of God is available to us, not one that puts us on God’s level, but one that making us more aware that we are only creatures – and God alone is creator. We realize that for all our knowledge, our minds are finite, limited. Who can wrap their mind around these two realities, that God is absolutely sovereign and humans are morally responsible? Yet the Bible clearly teaches both.

D.A. Carson writes this regarding these compatible truths: He says, “Hundreds of passages could be explored to demonstrate that the Bible assumes both that God is sovereign and that people are responsible for their actions. As hard as it is for many people in the Western world to come to terms with both truths at the same time, it takes a great deal of interpretative ingenuity to argue that the Bible does not support them.” You might wonder, if God is in absolute control of everything, what difference do my decisions make? Isn’t it all planned out? And if so, why would God hold me accountable for anything I do, if he determines what does or does not happen? But on the flip side, if humans are accountable for own actions, how can be God in control? If the ball is in our court, how can God know what will happen?

We have to cry out like king David in Psalm 139, [6] Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Both are true, compatible realities, and, in fact, both are essential for faith in Jesus. Why? How do we know? Look at the cross. We know that the death of Jesus took place at that time and that place according to God’s plan. Acts 4 says, [27] truly in this city (Jerusalem) there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [28] to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.The cross was not plan B. It was plan A.

Carson puts it this way: Suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of afterthought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God’s intention was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could and the result was Jesus his atoning death on the cross?

All of Scripture cries against the suggestion. Then should we conclude, with some modern theologians, that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be - so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God’s power and will had decided beforehandshould happen - then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed? But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear very real moral accountability, real moral debt for a penalty that has been pronounced. If human beings are not responsible for this act, why should they be responsible for any act?

And if they are not responsible, then why should God have sent the Anointed One to die in their place? …God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability….At Calvary, all Christians have to concede the truth is these two statements, or they give up their claim to be Christians. You cannot control what God chooses, but what will you choose today? Will you choose to turn from sin and cry out to Jesus in prayer, asking for forgiveness and trusting in him to redeem you from sins? Turn to him, that he might make your heart good ground to grow the fruit of true repentance, true love, and true faith.

Let’s pray together.