Most of you know that I come from a medical background. My father was a doctor and my three brothers are doctors. And although I am in the ministry, their influence remains strong in my life.
Actually the two fields–medicine and the ministry–are not as widely separated as they might appear. Both involve healing; doctors heal the body while ministers heal the soul. In fact, the Puritans used to speak of the work of the pastor as “the cure of souls.”
But the connection is even closer than that. We know that two books of the New Testament were written by a physician–the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. We also know that the latest research confirms that genuine healing involves your body and your soul and your spirit.
Therefore, I do not think I am stepping across the line when I say I would like be your spiritual doctor this morning and give you a spiritual checkup. That’s where good health begins. You’ve got to find out what condition you are in before you start to get better.
This morning I want to begin where any good doctor would–by taking your spiritual temperature. I have a method for doing that that is absolutely accurate. By the time we are finished, you will know exactly what your spiritual temperature is.
I’m going to put the thermometer in right now. We’ll take it out in just a few minutes and take a reading. Before the morning is out, you’ll have a good idea if you if you are 100% healthy or if you are running a spiritual fever.
THE SEED AND THE SOWER
Jesus told a story that is especially designed to take your spiritual temperature. We know it’s an important story because it is repeated three times–once in Matthew 13, once in Mark 4 and once in Luke 8.
For our purposes, we will focus on the version of the story found in Matthew 13. The entire chapter is filled with parables–seven to be exact–that describe the world in which we live. These stories were told to a great crowd of people that gathered to hear Jesus on the shores of the sea of Galilee. They are often called the “kingdom parables” because they describe the progress of the kingdom of God during the time between the first coming and the second coming of Christ.
All seven parables are valuable but it is the first one that gives us the spiritual checkup. We know it as the Parable of the Seed and the Sower. Listen to the story as it comes from the lips of Jesus in Matthew 13:3-9.
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop–a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
This is one passage of Scripture that is easy to understand. A farmer goes out to sow his seed. As he scatters the seed, it falls in four different places. Some of the seed fell on the hard pavement where there was no soil. The seed just lay there dormant until the birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on soil that was full of rocks. Here the roots went down and the plant came up quickly but because of the rocks, the roots were shallow and the sun soon caused the plant to wither away. Still other seed fell on soil filled with thorns. When the plants came out of the ground, so did the thorns and choked out the fruit. Finally, some of the seed fell on “good” soil–soil that went deep, soil where the rocks and weeds had been removed, soil that had been plowed up and prepared for planting. That soil produced a good crop. The most important word is in verse 9. If you are spiritually in tune, you will hear God’s message to you from this parable.
Interesting story, isn’t it? Four kinds of soil that produce four different responses to the seed. If you’ve ever tried to grow a garden, you know exactly what Jesus is talking about. Four kinds of soil … and only four kinds.
We are not left in doubt as to what this parable means. Jesus interprets it for us beginning in verse 19. “When anyone hears the message of the kingdom, and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away was sown in his heart.” The seed is “the message of the kingdom,” or we would say, the Word of God. The soil is the heart of the one who hears the Word. As Jesus interprets it, the four kinds of soil represent four kinds of people.
Here is the basic truth of this parable: The way you respond to the Word of God reveals what kind of heart you have. In medical terms, the Word is God’s thermometer of the soul.
That is why this parable is God’s divine checkup on your life. It is a fundamental description of four kinds of people. No one can escape it. You are in one of these four categories this morning. Let’s find out where you are.
I. THE EMPTY-HEARTED
When anyone hears the message of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (13:19)
I call this kind of person the empty-hearted. Jesus said there would be some people who would hear the Word again and again, on radio, on TV, in Sunday School, from the pulpit, they would read it in a book or listen as a friend explains it to them. And they would not understand it, it would make no sense to them. They are like the seed on the road. Their heart is empty, there is no place for the Word to take root. So Satan comes and snatches the Word away before they have a chance to believe. In short, the people in this category are unsaved. They have said NO to the Lord Jesus and to his Word.
This reminds me of II Corinthians 4:4, “The god of the world (that’s Satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Some people are blind and they don’t even know it. They may be brilliant, highly talented, good citizens, wealthy people, but Satan has placed blinders over their eyes, so they look straight at the gospel but they just don’t see it. They are the empty-hearted.
Many years ago, during my freshman year in college, I was riding the Trailways bus from Memphis, Tennessee, to Tuscumbia, Alabama. Sitting next to me that night was a young man from a town not far from where I grew up. We struck up a conversation and eventually I shared the gospel with him. Oh, he was interested. It was good news to him. As I told him how Jesus Christ could change his life, he seemed so excited. But as I came to the close and asked him to trust Christ as his Savior, he started to tremble. I said, “Wouldn’t you like to accept Christ right here and right now?” He looked at me and said, “Yes, I would. But I can’t. I just can’t.”
By then the bus was nearing the station so I pressed the matter with him. As we talked, he grabbed the seat in front of him so hard his knuckles turned white. Sweat dripped from his forehead as he repeated, “I want to but I can’t. I want to but I can’t.”
The bus was almost at the station. In a few moments we would part ways forever. “Now is the time. Say ’Yes’ to Jesus.” I’ve never seen a man more serious in all my life. The bus pulled in and slowly came to a stop. “Go ahead, take Jesus now.”
With an agonized look that betrayed the struggle in his soul, he gripped the seat even harder, shook his head and said in a whisper, “I want to but I can’t. I want to but I can’t.”
We parted that night and I never saw him again. But I understand something now that I didn’t understand then. He was empty-hearted. There was nothing there. Satan had blinded his mind so that even though part of him wanted to believe, he literally could not do it.
Unfortunately, there are many people who fit into this first category. They have heard the Word over and over again. They know the gospel. They can quote the verses, sing the hymns. But they have never believed for themselves. They are the empty-hearted.
II. THE HARD-HEARTED
Listen to Jesus’ description of the second group of people:
The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root in himself, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. (13:20-21)
I call this kind of person the hard-hearted. These people are much different from those in the first category. Here we have a person who hears the Word and makes some kind of decision, gets all excited and for a few days or weeks or months, or even perhaps for a few years, seems to be going great. But the moment real trouble comes, he falls away, goes right down the tubes and is never the same again. This person says “Yes” and then later says “No.”
Jesus said the problem with this soil is that it has hidden rocks just under the surface. No one took the time to dig them out so they are lying there covered by an inch or two of soil, unseen and unnoticed until the hard times come.
What are these rocks? They are the boulders of a bad attitude and the sharp stones of a wounded spirit. These are the buried rocks of anger, resentment, frustration, bitterness and an unforgiving heart. They are there, right under the surface of your life, ignored most of the time, but because you do not take the time to dig them out, they keep the Word of God from ever going down deep in your heart. Because your heart is hard, the soil is shallow and the Word never really takes root within.
Notice three facts. First, the problem is in the person. Jesus says he has no root in himself. He never tries to make a good foundation. He never gets deep into the Word and the Word never gets deep into him. Instead of soil, his life is filled with prejudice, cowardice, fear, pride, insecurity and bitterness. The stones within his heart block out the Word and when trouble comes, the hard-hearted man goes right down the tubes.
Second, the sun always shines. In the parable Jesus said the sun came and scorched the plant and it withered away. Now ask yourself a question. Is sunshine good for plants or bad for plants? You don’t have to have a green thumb to know the answer. If the sun never shines, the plants never grow. So the sunshine is absolutely necessary. Yet what helps one plant (because it has a good root system) kills another one (because its roots are shallow). In the same way, what helps one person destroys another. Jesus said the sun represents the troubles of life. Persecution, affliction and hard times are like sunshine from God to make believers grow strong. If you have the right roots, that’s exactly what will happen to you. But if you are hard-hearted and filled with the boulders of a bad attitude, those things which ought to make you stronger will only make you worse.
Third, these plants looked good outwardly. Here’s the tricky part. You can’t always tell by looking at a plant how its root system is doing. You have to wait until the sun really starts shining. Then the truth comes out. Likewise, you may seem spiritually strong right now, but it’s easy to look that way on Sunday morning. The real test is what happens to you when the hard times hit. If you don’t get your roots down deep, you’ll never make it.
Be on guard as you read these words. You may be hard-hearted. Look at your past. Can you point to a time when you were active for the Lord, excited, happy, walking daily with him? Can you remember a time when your greatest desire was to get up on Sunday morning and go to church? Have things changed in your life? Have you lost your fire for the Lord? If so, you may be in this second category of people, the hard-hearted.
III. THE HALF-HEARTED
Then there is a third class of people Jesus talked about.
The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. (13:22)
I call this person the half-hearted. Here is a person who is definitely saved. They have started to put their roots down deep in the Word and they are beginning to grow spiritually. But there’s a problem. Weeds lurk just below the surface. Those of you who have ever planted anything–from petunias to pumpkins–know what happens when you don’t take the time to pull out all the weeds. At first the plants start off strong but as soon as the seeds sprout, up come the weeds. They crowd in on the plant and literally choke it out. If you don’t get tough and pull the weeds out, your garden will never produce fruit like it should.
Jesus said that some people are like that. They are fence-straddlers. They say “Yes but …” when they hear the Word. Maybe they mean business but they never pull the weeds out of their life. Jesus mentioned two particular kinds of weeds. First, the worries of this life. This is not hard to understand. It refers to any consuming concern in your life that catches all your attention. It could be something that in itself is not bad–such as a genuine concern for your job or your health or your personal financial situation. It could be a relationship that takes up all your waking moments.
Teenagers understand this better than adults do. Do you remember what it was like to have a crush on a certain boy or a certain girl? Maybe you sat together in second-period Algebra II and it was all you could do not to stare at him/her for the whole period. Remember how you couldn’t think of anything else and how you waited and hoped and prayed he or she would smile at you when you passed in the hallway? And how at night you would wait by the phone hoping he would call? Or how you sat by the phone trying to get up enough courage to dial her number? Nothing else mattered. Not your friends, not your homework, certainly not your parents. You lived for the thought of going out with that person on Saturday night. You literally could not think about anything else.
That is the worry this world. It happens whenever we get so concerned about our own lives, our own dreams, our own ambitions that we block everything and everybody else out of our lives … including God and his Word. Those things that consume us may not in themselves be bad, but when they become so big that they drive out all else, they have become weeds within our heart. And unless we pull them out, they will choke out the Word and make us unfruitful.
Second, there is the deceitfulness of wealth. We all know what that is. I remember as a very young boy receiving my first allowance from my father. It was 25 cents a week. That was quite a few years ago and back then, 25 cents was a lot of money. I thought I was rich! I could buy two comic books and a Coke for 25 cents. But you know what I discovered? Twenty-five cents won’t buy all you need–even when you are only five years old. So before long, I hit my dad up for a raise. And he came through. Fifty cents a week. Incredible! I could buy ice cream, comic books, two Cokes and still go to the picture show. But you know what happened after a few weeks had passed? I found there were a lot of things that cost more than 50 cents.
So after a year or two or three, my dad raised my allowance to 75 cents. Big money, but it wasn’t quite enough. Later on, I hit the big time, $1 a week. Enough to buy a new car with change left over. I was happy … for awhile. Then I discovered that $1 wasn’t enough money.
By the time I got to high school, Dad would usually come across with $5 and if I had a date, maybe $10. Do you know what I discovered? Ten dollars on a date usually lasted about an hour or a half. During my college years I got a job and made $100 or so each month. And every month I ran out of money. Every single month.
A number of years have passed since then and I make a lot more than 25 cents a week but I still have the same problem. How much money is enough? I don’t know. I’ve never had enough.
The story is told that someone asked John D. Rockefeller, Sr., when he was going to retire. He replied, “When I make enough money.” They asked, “How much is enough money?” He answered, “Just one more dollar.”
That, my friends, is the deceitfulness of riches. It is a weed that can choke out the Word of God. It–along with the worries of the world–can quickly turn you into a half-hearted Christian.
IV. THE WHOLE-HEARTED
There is one last person Jesus talked about. He is described in verse 23:
But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
I call this person the whole-hearted. Here is the final category. This person simply hears the word and says “Yes.” No hesitation, no vacillation, no excuses. Simple hearing, understanding and doing. In Luke 8:15, Jesus says that these people have a “noble and good” heart, meaning that their motives are not mixed with the rocks of a bad attitude or the thorns of worry or greed.
What do you see when you look at a whole-hearted Christian? You see fruit. Fruit is what plants are supposed to produce. Fruit makes plants profitable to their owners. Fruit makes plants attractive to others. The mark of a mature Christian life is that it produces an abundance of spiritual fruit.
Here are some kind of fruit you ought to see in a mature Christian: The fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, kindness and self-control. The fruit of obedience to the Word. The fruit of a life becoming like the Lord Jesus. The fruit of a well-rounded, mature, stable, growing, attractive spiritual life.
To get fruit like this the rocks of a bad attitude must be dug up and thrown away. The thorns of worry and greed must be likewise pulled up by the roots. It means that the soil of your heart is plowed up, open and ready to hear and do the Word of God. That’s the whole-hearted Christian. That’s the goal of all Christian living. That’s why we have churches. That all of us might see ourselves as we really are and become whole-hearted for Jesus Christ.
There’s a consistency here. The fruit just keeps on coming. Not a little bit, but 30 times, 60 times, 100 times what was sown. Day in and day out, rain or snow, in good times and bad times, Christians who bear fruit for Jesus Christ right here in Oak Park, on Lake Street, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
IF WE OPENED YOUR HEART …
The story is told that one of Napoleon’s officers was badly shot in the chest. As they operated without anesthesia just above his heart, the soldier said, “One inch lower you will find the Emperor.” If we opened your heart this morning, would we find Jesus Christ there? Or would your heart be empty, or full of stones, or clogged with thorns?
My little spiritual checkup is complete. Let’s take the thermometer out and take a reading. Jesus said that there would be four basic responses to his Word. Everybody fits into one of these categories. You are either Empty-Hearted, Hard-Hearted, Half-Hearted, or Whole-Hearted. Which are you?
Suppose I were to walk up the aisle and start at the 14th row and ask each of you to stand and tell this audience very honestly what kind of heart you have today. What would you say? Empty … Hard … Half … Whole?
YOU DON’T HAVE TO STAY THE WAY YOU ARE
Here’s a piece of good news. No matter what your spiritual checkup reveals, you don’t have to stay the way you are. No one need remain Empty-Hearted, Hard-Hearted or Half-Hearted. After all, what does a farmer do with unproductive soil? He plows it up, throws out the rocks, pulls up the weeds, waters the ground and plants it again.
God farms the human heart like that. He is calling you this morning to clear away all the junk so that he can bring his fruit in your life. Jeremiah 4:3 says, “Break up your fallow ground and do not sow among thorns.” Your part is to take the first step to clean out your heart so the Holy Spirit can do his work within.
A MODERN-DAY PRODIGAL COMES HOME
Just a few days ago we received a wonderful letter that began “I am a recent visitor to Calvary Memorial who lives in your area.” One of our shepherding couples had gotten his name, written him a letter and now he was writing back. These are his words:
First of all, I need your prayers. I am a thirty-four year old single man who became a Christian and was born again at the age of eighteen. I have since fallen back into the ways of the world and the flesh, and am now suffering greatly as a consequence of my faithlessness and folly. Like the Prodigal Son in the parable of our Lord, I have squandered the inheritance I received from my Father, and am now turning back to him empty and destitute. Pray that the Father in His mercy may “Restore to me the joy of (His) salvation” and “Renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
The truth is, many of us could write a letter like that. And perhaps many of us ought to. This man is coming back to God after years of wandering in the Far Country. He has taken the first step, the hardest step, by admitting his genuine need.
How about your heart? Is it filled with rocks, clogged with thorns or is it simply empty? Are you willing for Christ to plow up the unproductive soil so that he might produce a bumper crop in your life?
If the answer is yes, then tell him so right now. “Lord Jesus, I want my heart to become good soil for you. Do whatever it takes to plow up the rocks and pull out the thorns that I might bear fruit for your glory. Amen.”