Preaching Angle: Preach the Word, Rest in God’s Work: Maybe I tend to focus on the negative, but when I read the parable of the soils, I tend to focus on the soils that struggle (the soil too close to the path, rocky soil, and the thorny soil) and how I feel I might contribute to poor seed sowing. But I don’t tend to meditate on the good and right sowing of the seed, the right cultivating of the soil and young plants. Yet this is, I think, contrary to what Jesus is teaching His disciples. Jesus is preparing His disciples to be ready for the tough times in the fields. There will be times when they don’t want to get out in the fields and work the soils, and there will be times when those poor soils are really, really hard to sow. But, in God’s good providence, He calls us to follow Him into the fields and work the ground.
So, rather than fixating on the three poor soils and their failure to thrive, I think Jesus wants to encourage all His disciples to lift their eyes higher. Rather than fixing our eyes on the soils, Jesus wants us to fix our eyes on the Father, for He is the true source of all growth (1 Cor 3:6). Not only this, but it’s God who successfully brings about true and lasting growth; indeed, it’s the last soil which produces a great harvest of fruit (Matt 13:23). Not only that, but some of the cultivated soil bears fruit 30 fold, some 60 fold, and amazingly even some bearing 100 fold! That’s a botanical work that only God could accomplish.
So when we till, sow, and water the soils of non-Christians, we can rest our anxious souls on our good Father who is faithful to bring about real heart-change in people. We don’t need to worry about which soil might prove to be non-fruit-bearing; again, God brings the growth. We just get the joy of laboring in the fields, following our faithful Gardner, and enjoy the fruits of His and our labor.
Preaching Angle: Preaching with Understanding: In chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, faithful men wrote these words regarding worship on the Lord’s Day:
The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God…” (WCF 21.5).
A few centuries after the Westminster Confession was written, other faithful men offered to provide prooftexts (a word which often, and sometimes wrongly, carries a negative connotation) for the study of the Confession. When the Confession was being crafted, Matthew 13:19 (“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”) influenced the Confession’s writers when they wrote that the reading and preaching of the Word must be done with “conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence.”
I don’t know about you, but when I’m preaching, I don’t like preaching about preaching. When I preach about preaching, it comes across to me as manipulation—as though I were manipulating my congregation into liking or caring about my preaching when my preaching should speak (or preach!) for itself. To be sure, I have no problem listening to my favorite preachers preach about preaching. It’s great; it’s helpful; it’s instructive and good. But when I do it, I feel strange. But when we look to Jesus’ preaching, He preaches about preaching. And Jesus warns preachers about the dangers of preaching in such a way that the congregation doesn’t or can’t understand.
If I were a betting man (and I’m not), I would bet that as you read this you have lots of thoughts about the right practice of preaching the Word of God. These thoughts include best practices for preaching toward the appropriate level of understanding of your congregation—not too far beyond their understandings, but also not far below. You want to educate them and help them along in their journey to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2), but you don’t want to leave them confused.
So as strange as it may feel to preach about preaching, it’s important to do so. Jesus says in v. 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”. His strongest emphasis is on the preparedness of the soil for the sowing of the seed, but just as true and important is the right preaching of the Word. As you preach about preaching, focus less on your own preaching and more on His Word. Focus less on your sense of weakness and more on the truth and the strength of His Word. You can be confident that when you rest on God and His Word, He will speak through you.
Preaching Angle: Hearing but not Hearing: When you see someone experience the love and kindness of God, expresses the joy of the Lord, but then dries up spiritually and turns from the Lord—this spiritual roller coaster can be very discouraging to us. The writers of the Westminster Confessions and Catechisms also felt this pastoral struggle. They wrote “Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, (Matt. 7:22, Matt. 13:20–21, Heb. 6:4–5) yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved” (WCF 10.4). People who walk and wander this path embody what God told Isaiah to say to God’s people, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed’ (Isa 6:9-10).”
It is truly a tragic state of affairs when God’s Word is faithfully preached, heard and received by people, and then rejected due to one’s hardness of heart. Sometimes this rejection comes immediately to the preached Word, as in the case of Isaiah 6. Sometimes this rejection comes after (the appearance) of belief in the Gospel but then the falling away from the truth (as in Matt 13:20-21). Most of us can think of people in our lives who have gone through this spiritual wandering. And it’s only according to God’s sovereign choice in election which uses the preaching of the Word to open the hearts of His elect children and leave closed the hard hearts of those whom He has not elected to become His children.
One reality that we need to keep in mind is that of fruit bearing. Jesus says in the previous chapter in Matthew, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matt 12:34b-35). When looking at Matthew 13:20-21 in light of Jesus’ teaching about fruit bearing, what are we to make of the apparent fruit (joy) that a person bears, but then that person spiritually withers away? This withering away tells us that a person’s fruit tells about that person’s root, but the fruit must be inspected over a longer period of time than we might be inclined to examine.
Dustin grew up in Springfield, MO later graduating from Evangel University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, studying Biblical Hebrew and Greek, Theology, and ancient history. He and his wife, Debbie, married in 2009 and have three children: Abigail, Judah, and Ezra. Dustin still rides BMX bikes, listens to hardcore music, loves research and writing, and enjoys helping his family seek and savor King Jesus.
Leonardo da Vinci
Even the richest soil, if left uncultivated will produce the rankest weeds.
The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.
Image Bearers in the Garden
If we are to be God’s image-bearers with regard to creation, then we will carry on his pattern of work. His world is not hostile, so that it needs to be beaten down like an enemy. Rather, its potential is undeveloped, so it needs to be cultivated like a garden. So we are not to relate to the world as park rangers, whose job is not to change their space, but to preserve things as they are. Nor are we to “pave over the garden” of the created world to make a parking lot. No, we are to be gardeners who take an active stance toward their charge. They do not leave the land as it is. They rearrange it in order to make it most fruitful, to draw the potentialities for growth and development out of the soil. They dig up the ground and rearrange it with a goal in mind: to rearrange the raw material of the garden so that it produces food, flowers, and beauty.
Topsoil and Christ
The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness.
It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.
A Neglected Garden & The Right to Choose your Religion
The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was once engaged in a conversation with a man who believed children should never receive any kind of religious education or instruction, not until they were old enough to decide for themselves what they wanted to believe. This would allow them the freedom to choose whatever religion they wanted to believe in, rather than have one foisted upon them by their families. Instead of disagreeing out loud, Coleridge invited the man to his home to visit his garden. When the man entered, he was shocked to find an overrun, neglected plot of land.
“Do you call this a garden?” the man shouted. “There are nothing but weeds here!” “Well, you see,” Coleridge said, “I did not wish to infringe upon the liberty of the garden in any way. I was just giving the garden a chance to express itself and to choose its own production.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.