Jesus Preached the Kingdom of God (v. 1)
The Word Preached
Scenes like this must be treasured up in our hearts – the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, going about preaching and discipling. Preaching will always be treasured where Jesus’ person and methods are understood clearly. As the Word of God, he came preaching – declaring clearly, with a loud voice as a herald, God’s eternal word. He was not a lecturer or a therapist. He was a prophet, and as a prophet, he was a preacher of God’s word. That he would so humble himself to travel around and preach should elevate the prophetic office in our minds. This does not mean that we worship or blindly follow men, and there has been too much of this. It does and must mean that since our Lord came preaching and chose preaching to be the means to give God’s word to men, then we must never devalue preaching, remake it to suit present tastes, or grow weary of sitting under his preaching. And it is his preaching – he is not a dead prophet but a living Savior. He comes and proclaims the Father’s name in the midst of his church (Heb. 2:12). When the human preacher speaks God’s word, however humble and even contemptible he might be in terms of gifts and abilities, it is Jesus Christ himself preaching to us. The pulpit is the throne of God in the church, as Calvin used to say, because God himself in Christ by the Spirit comes and preaches to us from it. We have lost this faith somewhat, but preaching has by no means lost its vigor. It will surely resurge, for you cannot muzzle Jesus Christ. He will preach again and do mightily through his word. He will preach to us this morning, if we will hear him.
Good News – God Reigns in Christ
And we must hear him, for he has ordained that his word preached is his power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:16). It is through preaching that he exercises his prophetic office to teach us God’s will, illumine our minds with his word, and fix our wills to obey him. The company of preachers he sends out into the world, therefore, must not seek novel doctrines but hold fast to the old paths of God’s word, for those are the only paths Jesus Christ walks. Those paths are also new, for he walks upon them, quickening us by his Spirit so that we receive the truths from his lips. It is still true that we shall find “none ever spake as this man,” but our hearts must be ready to receive his word. His word focuses upon the kingdom of God, which is God’s rule and power over all things, and now exercised savingly through the mediatorial work of his Son. His preaching comes with power to convict men of sin, reveal God’s righteousness, and lead them to look to him for life and salvation.
This is the best news we can ever hear. Jesus’ preaching of God’s kingdom encourages and helps us everywhere, for whatever duties we have or difficulties we face, God rules over us with power and grace. When Jesus preaches, he gives the Spirit of truth and power so that we can grow in grace and begin pleasing God in all things. This renewal and strengthening occurs everywhere we hear and obey Jesus’ preaching – the weary laborer, the stressed businessman, the burdened parent, the unloved spouse. Right where we are this morning, let us hear Jesus preaching, “The kingdom of God has come. I have cast out Satan. Come to me, and I will strengthen you to fight faithfully in your corner of the battlefield. Trust and obey. I will help you.”
Jesus’ Surprising Helpers (vv. 2-3)
Jesus was accompanied on this preaching tours by the twelve, as well as by a group of godly women who supported him materially, perhaps nursing them when sick, ministering to other women Jesus helped, and making sure Jesus and his disciples had adequate food and lodging. Mary Magdalene is named first; Jesus had cast seven devils from her, and she was devoted to taking care of him – named first among his devoted band of female disciples, she was also the first to see him after the resurrection. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza, is also mentioned by name, and Susanna, and many others. It was a large company and required many hands and much planning to make sure they were not a group of vagabonds! Luke has a penchant for these windows upon the daily lives of Jesus and the early church.
He among the Gospel writers especially emphasizes the role of women in caring for Jesus’ physical needs and believing him even when the men did not. There is not a single incident of a woman ever having anything against Jesus! It was a little surprising to current convention that Jesus would have traveled with women, but there was never any charge of impropriety. We see in their service to Jesus a model for female discipleship – these women did not preach or teach. They loved Jesus and took care of him and his disciples. This was enough for them. Their close attendance upon Jesus gave them ample opportunity to hear his teaching and converse with him in quieter times. They did not urge their spiritual equality, as some women do today, as justification for preaching tours and leadership in the church. A true servant of Jesus stands where he or she is called: content with the station that the Lord created him to serve, without leaving that station or feeling insulted if it is not the same place as others fulfill. In fact, quiet service to Jesus by attending to the needs of those he loves should be the most treasured spot of discipleship – washing his feet by washing others’ feet.
Jesus’ First Parable (vv. 4-15)
Many have said that this is likely the first parable that Jesus told. It is certainly the first recorded in Luke. He may have told it near the end of preaching season, for it is illustrative of his broader warning: “Be careful how you hear.” He had preached to thousands. What impact did his preaching have upon those who heard him? Why does his word have such different effects? The Parable of the Sower, as we call it today, tells of four soils or kind of human hearts. This is not to say that there are four kinds of believers, for only the latter is what we would call a believing heart, a Spirit-quickened heart that brings forth lasting fruit. It is often the case that we find points of contact with the other soils in our own lives, for we are not always as ready to hear and obey our Savior’s word as we ought to be. Perhaps this is a secondary point to his disciples – sin is still clinging to you in the way you hear. Deal with that sin, so that you can receive my preaching with meekness and bring forth much fruit.
(1) The first and most fundamental lesson of this parable is that the heart is the soil upon which God’s word falls. The impact of that word is inseparable from the condition of the soil. Thus, we cannot blame the sower, whether God or the human preacher, but must look for the fault in ourselves when God’s word does not profit us. Some mighty say, “Well, God determines the condition of the soil by his secret election, and therefore I am not responsible.” God’s sovereignty establishes our responsibility; if God were not sovereign, responsibility would be a meaningless term, for the universe would be nothing but brute factuality, without objective truth or interpretation, with God himself being part of the hopeless glob of meaninglessness. Because God is the master sower and has made us able to receive his truth, we are responsible creatures – for the way we hear, for the way we improve what we hear, for the condition of our hearts.
(2) From the first soil – off the path, hard and dry, incapable of supporting life, dead and trampled by the world’s foot traffic, we learn how much Satan hates God, God’s truth, and God’s noblest creature, man. When any seed happens to hit upon a dead and worldly heart, he does all he can to pluck that word away. He is very jealous for his slaves – to keep them blind and dead, that they might perish in hell forever. Thus, all men (3) must be very careful against worldly, willful, and dead hearts that make us incapable of receiving God’s word and easy prey for Satan – like never thinking about God’s word, never allowing it hold up a mirror to us so that we know ourselves, hating the preacher for confronting us, feeling guilty but unwilling to run to Jesus Christ and close with him, and having contempt for God’s word. This dead heart is incapable of receiving an impression from the word except the most fleeting – that man was zealous; O dear, perhaps I am a bad person. But then, being shallow and worthless soil, those impressions are quickly lost – back to my sins, to the world, to anything but serious thinking about God’s truth. Some of this soil is undoubtedly present this morning, and I pray God might quicken it.
(4) From the second soil, shallow but open to quick impressions and commitments from the word – and remember that all these soils are defined by their response to God’s preached word – we see that God’s word can make an immediate impression and impact, even with apparent fruit springing up quickly. This is like a person who comes under heavy conviction of sin, resolves to turn from it, does so for time, but the impression and reformation are not lasting or lifelong. This confronts with an important truth about confession and fruit – one of the leading marks of a legitimate work of God is that it endures to the end. As the apostle wrote of our connection with Christ: “Whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Heb. 3:6). And a little later, “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end” (v. 14). Thus, endurance and perseverance are what the shallow soil lacks – easy, quick impressions, resolve to do better, perhaps even attempts at reformation and godliness – but the root was in themselves, not in Christ, and so it withered away when scorched by the heat of life and temptations and Christlessness.
(5) The third soil is choked with thorns – the cares and love of the world. This heart may initially receive God’s word, but as our Lord told us, the love of God and the love of the world cannot coexist. “If anyone love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13) – God and money, God and the world, God and the flesh. These are mutually exclusive loves. There may be some fruit in this kind of soil, even as worldly Christians are in abundance, who equate serving God with the good life, look for ways to hold on to their sins while still going to church and doing good works. But this leads to the sixth truth in this parable (6): that is not simply fruit, but fruit that endures unto perfection, completion or maturity. And since Satan and the world attack us all our lives so that we barely have a moment’s rest, true fruitfulness is by the power of Jesus Christ, engrafted into him by the Holy Spirit, otherwise it could never endure to the end. We would give up. The Christian faith is not, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” for we have no laces, not even shoes without holes, unless we put on Jesus Christ and draw from him all that we lack in ourselves. The world-choked heart cannot do this, for like the rich young ruler, it goes away sad. It cannot hold on to its worldly loves and also possess Jesus, with his grace, peace, love, and hope.
We should of course pay careful attention to the good soil, for I assume that most of you are serious enough about your faith that to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” is a way of life for you. But there are higher reasons than personal salvation to understand this good soil and the reason it bears fruit, for the gospel is being turned on its ear right before our eyes. Scripture says, “God is love,” but one of you told me you saw a church billboard that read, “Love is God.” This is another gospel, no gospel, for it equates personal feelings with God’s will, personal loves with God’s pure love, indeed, in good Gnostic fashion, with God himself, for the sovereign individual is an emanation of the divine that pervades everything. There is only one good soil – a heart made “honest and good” by the Spirit of God. Whereas the condition of the soil/heart determines the effect of the word, every heart is dead until quickened by the word. Thus, our Lord is not teaching that some men bring good hearts to hear the word, but that some men are able to receive the word and bear fruit because God has made their hearts good by his sovereign grace. Plead for mercy, sinner; hear, believe, and obey the quickening voice of Jesus.
(7) For the seventh truth in this parable – and there are many more embedded in each one I have picked out – is that there is an inseparable connection between the word and fruit. The word is what brings forth the fruit (v. 15). Notice our Lord’s “keep it:” is this not where we often stumble, where we see some of the bad soil still in our hearts? We must hear in good Bible fashion, which it means to keep, which means to obey. The path of fruitfulness – and therefore the way our Father is glorified (John 15:8) and our light shines before men (Matt. 5:16) – is by keeping the word. All the power unto fruit depends upon the Savior’s living and powerful voice (John 15:7). He is the eternal Word by whom all things were made; he is the living Word in whom all things hold together; he is the abiding Word from whom we draw all strength unto holiness.
And this keeping must be with patience, which is the reason our Lord frequently used the sowing-reaping paradigm. The bad soils manifested more immediate evidence that something had happened – an emotional response, some quick reformation, but nothing lasting, for when the old sins tempted, the fresh convictions evaporated before the onslaught. The good soil endures throughout life, with all its ups and downs, falling many times, needing God’s forgiveness again and again, but because the word is his seed, it will remain and bear fruit (1 John 3:9). This should encourage us to persevere, deny ourselves, and hope in God’s faithfulness. He will in time honor his word believed and kept with much fruit! It should also encourage us to be patient with one another, for we must draw from our common Savior through all our lives and wait upon him to give the fruit he promises. Since the best of us barely crawls toward heaven, how longsuffering we must endeavor to be, not expecting a perfection from others that we have not yet brought forth, praying with them in their struggles, and having a deep empathy with one another since together we face a ferocious enemy.
(8) And, although Luke does not mention it, this fruit widely varies. Luke mentions only the hundredfold (v. 8), but Matthew and Mark add that our Lord also mentioned thirty and sixtyfold (Matt. 13:8; Mark 4:20). It is important that we have sowing-reaping expectations – not all the crop matures at the same pace and time; disease can strike some parts but not others. And of course, God distributes his gifts and graces according to his wise governance of his house. As much as this age is committed to the idea that “everyone is a hero,” we know that we have different callings and experiences of God’s love and mercy in Christ. Every true planting united to Christ will bear fruit, but he revealed more to Peter, James, and John than to the other disciples, who should not have envied their brothers but aspired to know the Lord as well as they did. But here is the thing – God’s word in a heart that receives and keeps his word will always bear some fruit. We should aspire to bear much fruit, for our Lord’s heart is not stingy – if you want to know him, if you call upon him, if you keep his word, expect an abundant crop, for his glory and the glory of the Father.
Surprising Concealment (vv. 9-10)
When Jesus spoke this parable, he did not give its explanation. When they went into the house, his disciples asked him the meaning of the parable. Before giving it, he told them the reason he spoke in parables – so that those with hard hearts and deaf ears would be judged by his word rather than saved. He references Isaiah 29:14 and 44:18, which are words of judgment. The people had closed their ears and hardened their hearts against the Lord; he would yet do a marvelous work, but they would not be able to understand it. The closing and hardening were their own fault. And when the promised Seed of Abraham came unto his own, his preaching contained a veiled, judging element. To his people, he was the glory of God who unveiled the truth; to those who rejected him, his glory was hidden from their sin-hardened hearts and blinded eyes so that they would not believe. If this seems too hard to accept, let us remember that the apostle will later make the same point when he wrote that the gospel is an “aroma of death and of life” (2 Cor. 2:16). Jesus Christ wields a two-edged sword from his mouth, giving life and salvation to those who believe upon his name and death to those who reject his grace. God’s word never comes to man without effect. It works life or death. From this, we also learn that parabolic teaching is not a model for us, for one of its purposes was to hide the truth from that generation so as to confirm God’s intent to judge it for its centuries of rebellion against him.
Be Careful How You Hear
And this brings us to the main point of the parable and what follows. Jesus warns his disciples to be careful how they hear. Now, nothing seems less likely to sinners but that they shall not get away with their sins and crimes. “God does not see or hear” is their deceived mantra. Even those who readily enough hear preaching sometimes spend more time critiquing the preacher than digesting the preaching. This is one of the ways God tests his people. We might say, “Well, I think I know more than that man, and he insults my intelligence.” Or, “I could do a much better job at this.” If we know more than the preacher, then we ought to know this: the Lord will hold us accountable for the way we hear, the way we improve what we hear, and for our willingness to put ourselves under his humbling yoke. This was the Jews’ great problem with Jesus – he did not look like what they thought the Messiah should look. He did not talk about revolutions and seditions and great movements to reestablish preferred political regimes. For all we know, he said nothing about things at all. His kingdom was so much bigger and more important than the soap opera of the Herodian family, the intrigues of the Jews’ priestly family, and the power of the Roman Empire that he spoke his eternal word and told us to “let the dead bury their dead.”
So yes, listening to preaching with attentive hearts – the good soil – is a difficult business. It was then, and it is now. But it is God’s eternal word, assuming that Jesus Christ is being preached to us, and the Lord will one day ask us why we were unwilling to listen more carefully. Why would you not keep my word more so that you would be more fruitful and bring more glory to my name? Well, Lord, I pray we never have to say, “I did not like the preacher. He was too long, too short, too detailed, too general, too skinny, too fat, too not what I had in mind.” The Jews rejected Jesus’ preaching for these and other reasons, and looked what happened to them. If we do not hear the voice of Jesus Christ, we remain dead in our sins and as fruitless as a desert. If we humble ourselves to hear him, if we hold fast to what we hear, he is well pleased with our love for him and will over time and eternity make us very fruitful. He is God’s beloved Son: “HEAR HIM!” This is our Father’s word to us.