The Parable of the Sower and the Seeds

Today, let’s talk about the parable of the sower and the four types of soil, as found in Matthew 13:3-8.

Here, we have a rare parable in which Jesus Himself gives the explanation to the story in verses 18-23. The seed is, of course, the word of God – the good news of the Gospel. Notice how, with each kind of soil, the Sower performs the exact same work with the same level of intentionality and care. But it’s the soil’s reception of the seed that makes the difference. The soil by the wayside, for instance, represents those whose hearts have been hardened and calloused to truth. The seeds do not even become embedded in the soil. Next, a seed that falls in stony ground may quickly spring up because it germinates so close to the surface, but it has no root. These hearers of the word at first accept the Gospel gladly, believing that the walking with God will free them from all burdens and cares. But as soon as trials or persecutions come along, they lose their grip. They had not counted the cost to follow Christ. Next, Jesus says that the thorny soil represents “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires of other things” that choke the word. Isn’t it crazy how thorns can grow in any kind of soil without any planting or cultivation whatsoever? But the seeds of grace, on the other hand, must be carefully nurtured and grown. Finally, the seed that falls on the good ground “is he who hears the word, and understand it.” The Greek word for “understands” (suniemi) doesn’t so much refer to an intellectual acceptance of truth as an open-heartedness and receptiveness to it.

As we step back from this story to gain a wider perspective, I want to share some of my own struggles with this parable. For me, this passage was always a little uncomfortable. It all sounded sort of “pre-deterministic.” Do some of us just naturally have good soil, I thought, and others inherently bad soil? At the same time the parable also made me feel kind of good about myself. I must have been lucky to be born with good soil… But then one day I ran across Jeremiah 4:3 and Hosea 10:12. I read, shocked, as God admonishes His own people: “Break up your fallow ground! And do not sow among thorns… Sow for yourselves righteousness. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts!For now is the time to seek the Lord!(NKJV and NLT). My mind was blown. I realized that MY heart was the heart full of rocky, thorny, trampled down soil! I had always thought of myself as a pretty good person – I had always stayed in church, never rebelled, or anything like that. I was lucky to have the good soil, I thought. But God showed me that, while I knew how to play the game on the outside, my own heart was–and still is–in desperate need of a good plowing. And, guess what, I can’t do it on my own!

In Ezekiel 36:9, God gives us an amazing promise: “For indeed I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown.” In this same chapter, we find God’s mind-blowing promise to give us a new heart: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (vs. 26). Friends, I am going to venture to say that this illustrates the condition of all of our hearts. We all have hearts filled with shallow, rocky, thorny soil. Our only hope is to realize our desperate, pathetic condition. And, guess what, when we invite Christ to come in and break up our fallow ground, He without exception promises us: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:27).

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The Fig Tree: the Secret of the Fruit

He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:6-9)

First things first. Let’s get some context to this parable. When we look at the backdrop for Jesus’ story, we see that it is actually bookended by two warnings which Jesus gives to the Jewish people and their religious leaders. So the fig tree, I believe, represents the Jewish nation of Jesus’ day as a whole. Scripture often uses a tree or vine to represent the Hebrew nation. See, for example: Jeremiah 2:21, Jeremiah 11:16-17, Psalm 80:8-11. In fact, Jesus’ parable very closely resembles the language of Isaiah 5:1-7, which you can hopefully read in conjunction with this lesson.

A fig tree, it turns out, normally takes three years to reach full maturity. If by the third year it hasn’t started to grow fruit, then the tree’s chances at production are fairly certainly over. (It’s interesting to note that, at the time of this parable, Jesus had spent about three years of His public ministry in Judea.) Yet, in this case, the vineyard keeper and owner agree to give their fig tree just one more chance. Now, as we think about the two characters in this parable–the owner and the keeper of the vineyard–let’s not make the mistake of concluding that these two men were working from different motives regarding the fig tree’s fate. A fruitless fig tree does its owner no good whatsoever, and so the vineyard keeper is merely anticipating the desire of the owner when he begs to give the tree yet one more opportunity. This beautiful quote from Christ’s Object Lessons reads, “The owner and the dresser of the vineyard are one in their interest in the fig tree. So the Father and the Son were one in their love for the chosen people… Every means that the love of God could devise would be put in operation that they might become trees of righteousness, bringing forth fruit for the blessing of the world.” Even as the tree refuses to grow fruit, the Gardener doesn’t abandon it or stop caring for it, does He? Instead, He lavishes even more nurture and care on it! An entire extra year is given to this tree, with every possible opportunity provided for its chance of growth.

So, what happens next? Well, did you notice that Jesus does not tell us the fate of the fig tree? That’s because the parable is, in fact, an invitation. It was an invitation to repentance for the Jewish nation of Jesus’ time, and it’s just as much of an invitation for us today. It’s as if Jesus is saying to each of us, “The end of this story is up to you. I’m holding out My arms of mercy wide open to you. Will you please accept Me?”

Now, let’s jump over to Matthew 21:19 for a second, right up to the very the end of Jesus’ ministry. Here, Jesus finds yet another fig tree by the roadside: “And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, ‘Let no fruit grow on you ever again.’ Immediately the fig tree withered away.” Isn’t that interesting? As we come to the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry, it’s as if we see the fate of the parable’s fig tree played out right in front of us! Tragically, the Jewish religious leaders and the Jewish nation as a whole chose to reject their Messiah. Also notice that while Jesus found no fruit on the tree, He did find of lot of leaves. You see, leaves in Scripture represent our works – our attempts to achieve our own righteousness and overcome our own guilt. Adam and Eve, for example, sewed fig leaves together to try to cover up their shame. It makes sense, right? Leaves are superficial and pretentious. They’re nice to look at, but they hide what’s underneath and can disguise the health of the tree. I read this interesting quote: “A tree which bears only leaves exists only for itself. But when fruit develops, it reaches out to a thousand unborn generations” (Leslie Hardinge, With Jesus in His Sanctuary). Jesus distinguishes the leaves from the real fruit which can only come through God’s work in us.

As we conclude our study, we come to what I feel is the “punch line” of our lesson. You see, for people like me it can be kind of intimidating to read parables like this. It makes me worry whether I’m producing enough fruit or not. Maybe I need to try harder? Work on my self-discipline a little more? But then, as I was writing this blog, I ran across Hosea 14:1-8. And it blew my mind. It reads, “O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God…. I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely…. I will be as the dew unto Israel; he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon…. They shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine…. From Me is thy fruit found.” Did you catch that? Isn’t that fantastic news!? God is saying to us, “Don’t you see? You can’t produce any fruit! Only I can produce fruit in you, if you will let Me. So stop trying to do it one your own! Your fruit can only ever come from your relationship and growth in Me. From Me is thy fruit found.” Wow. I am both encouraged and humbled by this powerful reality check. I want so badly to do it all myself sometimes. I want to please God and earn His love, but I keep falling so utterly short. Maybe you can relate, too? Well, maybe it’s time for me to stop trying and start abiding

 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

Good Servants, Bad Servants

Friends, I am excited to tell you about a new series we have started in our Stepping Stones class – the Parables of Jesus! This has been an almost-drastic change of pace from the Gospel of John. Where we were previously covering entire chapters at a time, we are now focusing in on a handful of verses each week. But these mind-blowing teachings of Jesus are so power-packed that we have hardly been able to get through the studies each week! That said, let’s dive right in, shall we?

Our first parable for study comes from Luke 12:35-48. In these passages, Jesus gives two stories about servants. The first parable tells of followers who remain watchful. They are constantly ready and eagerly anticipate the arrival of their master, even if his return seems delayed: “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately” (vs. 35-36). Most importantly, these servants are not just waiting because they feel obligated or because they fear punishment – they are excited, thrilled, about their master’s return! And we should be, too!

Jesus’ second parable contrasts a wise, faithful head servant with a foolish, wicked one. “But if that servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk” (vs. 45). We shouldn’t be too quick to to think that this parable is about a different group of people in a different culture and time – this applies to us right here today! Jesus is talking about His servants in His church! Servants who have the responsibility to care for and guide those under their charge. But the servant in this parable neglects his responsibility  towards those under him. (Part of that responsibility included providing each servant with their daily portion of bread.) He then abuses his fellow servants. I read an insightful commentary that stated, “Instead of acting as a servant, the head servant is acting as the master and taking upon himself a master’s prerogatives to discipline.” (jesuswalk.com) Is this hitting close to home yet? Can we at times be in danger of neglecting our responsibility to our brothers and sisters around us? What about taking “the master’s prerogatives to discipline” or judge or condemn? Jesus has nothing nice to say about the lot of those who abuse their positions in the church. In fact, he has one of the most sobering warnings ever given in Scripture…

But perhaps the most important takeaway for our ministry as servants is to remember to take our example from the Servant of Servants. Jesus did not intend for these parables to communicate that our Father is somehow lording over us, gloating about His mastery and dominion over his pathetic slaves. Instead, Jesus’ entire life screams out that “Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). In fact, Jesus even flips the entire paradigm upside down in Luke 12:37: “Blessed are those servants whom the Master, when He comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that He [the Master!] will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them.” We must remember that, before we can ever accept the wonderfully high calling of being a servant for the kingdom, we must first allow the King of the universe to come and serve us.

Gospel of John – Conclusion

Clay concluded our study of the Gospel of John this week. I can hardly believe we’re finally finished with John. What an awesome series! This will be a brief message, but I would just like to take a few moments to recap on what we have learned in John as a whole.

John, as we have noticed, is markedly different from the rest of the Gospels. John doesn’t have the large chunks of teachings in it like the other Gospel accounts. There are relatively few miracles, and many are surprised to learn that there are no parables. But, what John does do, however, is walk us through a series of personal encounters between Jesus and individuals. We watch Jesus talk with Nicodemus, revealing the Father’s unfathomable love for this lost world. We hear Him proclaim to the woman at the well, “the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” We see Him gently massage mud in the blind man’s eyes as He proclaims, “I AM the light of the world.” We are with Him as He embraces with mercy and love the woman caught in adultery. John shows us who Jesus is. It sort of all goes back to, John 1:29, doesn’t it? “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” In other words, watch Him — see how He interacted with people, how He loved the unlovable, how He fellowshipped with the Father, and how He willingly gave Himself up in death for you and me. This is the message of John. I think we could spend the rest of eternity trying to fully grasp the depth and breadth of the matchless Love that this Gospel reveals.

In closing, as we reflect on the life of Jesus, I hope you are blessed with these words taken from one of my favorite books, Steps to Christ:

Jesus did not suppress one word of truth, but He uttered it always in love. He exercised the greatest tact and thoughtful, kind attention in His intercourse with the people. He was never rude, never needlessly spoke a severe word, never gave needless pain to a sensitive soul. He did not censure human weakness. He spoke the truth, but always in love. He denounced hypocrisy, unbelief, and iniquity; but tears were in His voice as He uttered His scathing rebukes… His life was one of self-denial and thoughtful care for others. Every soul was precious in His eyes. While He ever bore Himself with divine dignity, He bowed with the tenderest regard to every member of the family of God. In all men He saw fallen souls whom it was His mission to save.

Please keep checking up on us as we begin a brand new study on Jesus’ parables! God bless!

John 19 – The Cross

Hi there — this is Cece from Dallas First Church. I am so excited to share some highlights from our Stepping Stones class. This week’s study of John 19 brings us to the foot of Calvary. As I prepared for the study this week, I was overwhelmed with the unfathomable depth of the chapter before us. And we had such a short amount of time to discuss it all! That said, let’s jump right in!

Chapter 19 ushers in the astounding conclusion to John’s narrative of Jesus’ life. So many of the beautiful symbols we have discussed in John’s Gospel all meet their fulfillment in Christ’s self-sacrificing death. We see Jesus as the “the Lamb of God” who acts as our Passover Lamb and “who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). We see Jesus as the Father’s gift of love to fallen humanity (Jn. 3:16).  We see Jesus as the Living Bread which was torn and broken for “the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51). And we see Jesus lifted up “as the serpent in the wilderness” to take into Himself the curse of our sin-sick world. Paul tells us in  2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In all of these things, Christ was our Substitute for the death we deserved. He took upon Himself the unutterable horror of the world’s guilt and bore the excruciating separation from the Father. Can you even imagine? Christ who had lived in such close communion and fellowship with the Father would now feel the agony of complete separation from his beloved Dad. That’s what killed Him. It broke His heart:

But it was not the spear thrust, it was not the pain of the cross, that caused the death of Jesus. That cry, uttered “with a loud voice” (Matthew 27:50; Luke 23:46), at the moment of death, the stream of blood and water that flowed from His side, declared that He died of a broken heart. His heart was broken by mental anguish. He was slain by the sin of the world. (The Desire of Ages)

As Jesus died in triumph over sin, however, he cried out, “It is finished!” Notice the intriguing correlation with Genesis 2:1-3: “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” Look at the unmistakable link between God’s work of creation and His work of salvation! And, intriguingly enough, both of these concepts are intimately connected with the beautiful Sabbath promise which God has given us! While we completely respect the position of others who may disagree, we believe that the Sabbath is a reminder that we rest in the work that God has performed! “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10, NIV). It is our reminder that we have absolutely nothing to bring to the table; we can only accept what He has done for us – we accept His sacrifice for us! And that’s exactly what John would want us to see.

Friends, as we close, I just want to say how convicted I have been lately that there is absolutely no way that we can get too much of Christ and His sacrifice for us! There’s no way that we can talk too much about it, sing too much about it, think too much about it! I’m telling you, that’s where it’s at! Having said all this, please take some time to prayerfully read the paragraph below:

The spotless Son of God hung upon the cross, His flesh lacerated with stripes; those hands so often reached out in blessing, nailed to the wooden bars; those feet so tireless on ministries of love, spiked to the tree; that royal head pierced by the crown of thorns; those quivering lips shaped to the cry of woe. And all that He endured—the blood drops that flowed from His head, His hands, His feet, the agony that racked His frame, and the unutterable anguish that filled His soul at the hiding of His Father’s face—speaks to each child of humanity, declaring, It is for thee that the Son of God consents to bear this burden of guilt; for thee He spoils the domain of death, and opens the gates of Paradise. He who stilled the angry waves and walked the foam-capped billows, who made devils tremble and disease flee, who opened blind eyes and called forth the dead to life,—offers Himself upon the cross as a sacrifice, and this from love to thee. He, the Sin Bearer, endures the wrath of divine justice, and for thy sake becomes sin itself. (The Desire of Ages, p. 755)

John 17 – Jesus’ Last Prayer

There are several “keywords” in Jesus’ prayer found in John 17. Specifically, we notice the words “glorified” and “sanctified” repeated. As Jesus prays for strength to continue on to Calvary, the focus of His prayer is for His sacrifice to glorify His Father. Even in the face of the immense suffering He will endure, Christ still chooses to put His Father’s will and glory first. To really understand this idea of glory, we are reminded of Great Controversy theme in Job, where Satan accuses God of bribing his creation to love Him (Job 1). The Adversary calls God’s character into question, purporting that God selfishly desires the service and obedience of mankind. But then there is Calvary — a sacrifice performed through pure, selfless love. Through this self-giving sacrifice, God’s holy name is vindicated! We can think of glory, then, as an affirmation that the Lord IS true, just, and Love. Jesus prayed for glory to do justice to God’s name and character.

Jesus’ prayer for the disciples repeated the word “sanctify” several times. We can see this as “spiritual protectiveness” or “spiritual armor.” As the disciples continued to journey through the world, they would be persecuted, tested, and ridiculed. Jesus asked for the Comforter to strengthen their spirit. How could these words be any less relevant and important for us today? We may not be physically persecuted as the early church was, but we are in far greater spiritual danger of being distracted by the wiles and deceptions of the modern world!

Jesus’ last prayer is for the believers in His own time and for those who would come in future generations: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21). Jesus’ last prayer is for all of us – it is timeless and all-inclusive.  As such, prayer is timeless. We are also reminded of Jesus’ mission as the eternal Word: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 14:17). How does the Book of John begin again? The Word. The Word created everything in the beginning. The Word protects. The Word heals. The Word loves. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And now we see the Word pleading with His heavenly Father for future generations to be “with Him” (keeping His promise in John 14).

In conclusion: Jesus, in his last hours, thinks not of himself, but of others. Prayer, when in line with the Spirit, in essence is our understanding aligning itself to the will of God through humility and submission. Prayer is not selfish, but thinks of others. It intercedes and holds on to faith that the Lord will deliver.

(Thank you to Edrey S. for submitting this blog post.)