This sermon is part of the sermon series "Adventures in Missing the Point". See series.
When you get a love letter or Valentine's card, what do you do with it? (Besides hide it from the kids.) Usually you read it over and over again. What do you feel when you read a love letter? Hopefully, you feel loved. You feel accepted. You feel gratitude that God brought your spouse into your life. Though the ability to read comes from the brain, you really read a love letter with your heart. Above all, you cherish it is something intensely personal.
I've never read a love letter written by my wife and thought, I wish the elders would read this; they really need to hear it. I've never read a love letter and worried, How can I possibly earn her love? I've never analyzed the handwriting to determine who the real author was. I've never parsed the verbs or consulted a commentary to determine what was really being said. I read a love letter as if it were a letter of love to me from someone who loves me. Sounds awfully obvious, doesn't it?
So help me work this one through. The Bible is the greatest love story ever told. Yes, it contains instruction on how to live, models for us to follow, and examples of those who both rejected God's love and received it. Sure, some of it is hard to understand. But at its core, it is a love letter. From cover to cover, it is the ongoing story of an unconditional, patient, and gentle Lover seeking to win the hearts of reluctant, wandering, unfaithful people like you and me. Yet we seldom read it as if it were the words of a faithful Lover calling us to intimacy.
The Pharisees seldom read it that way, either. They read their Bible (the Law of Moses, which was the first five books of our Old Testament) simply as a set of orders to be obeyed. To their credit, they took every command literally and did their best to apply the Law to their behavior. But they engaged in endless debate about the Law and used their strict interpretation of the Law to determine who was in and who was out. Does that sound like today? From the law, they created a system of rules and loopholes that, while difficult to learn and obey, was attainable, which is why Paul could write, "as for legalistic righteousness, I was faultless!" (Phil 3:6) Again I ask, does that happen today in the evangelical church? Sure!
They engaged the Law deeply through the mind and the will, seeking to understand it intellectually and obey it unconditionally, as do we. Unfortunately, they failed to connect with the Law emotionally. Or, most importantly, they absolutely failed to connect with the writer of the Law relationally. That same blind spot is at the heart of the church's impotence today. We have read the Book but failed to connect with the writer of the Book.
The pros and cons of sound doctrine
Now, I don't want to imply that faith is all about the emotions. It isn't. But neither is it all about the mind or the will. We need right doctrine because it gives us a foundation for faith. Paul explained the purpose of the Bible in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness." I like Warren Wiersbe's explanation of this verse. He says, "The Bible teaches us what is right, what is not right, how to get right, and how to stay right!"
However, right doctrine can also become a grid from which we filter truth. The Pharisees and their messianic grid refused to believe in Jesus because he didn't fit their picture. Slave owners in the 18th century read the Scriptures in such a way as to enforce their belief that God endorsed slavery.
Doctrine can also lead to spiritual smugness (1 Timothy 1:7). There is something about being cocksure about possessing the truth that breeds cockiness. "Good theology" can breed deep pride and conceit—the two greatest cancers of spiritual health.
Finally, right doctrine can also breed a false sense of security. We are not saved by believing the Bible, but by trusting the Christ who is revealed in the Bible. Jesus said in John 5:39-40: "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." One can profess faith without possessing faith. Our kids can spout the right answer for baptism without having a heart commitment.
Pharisees, both past and present, mistakenly believe that if we have right doctrine and are obedient, that's all the Law requires. In other words, if we just know the Bible well enough and obey it, we must be spiritually mature. To correct that kind of thinking, we're going to look at Matthew 13:1-23 as our focal passage this morning.
The parable of the seed and the soil
This chapter is a pivotal day in the life of Jesus. He's trying to explain to his disciples how his mission will continue—how his kingdom will be advanced after he is taken into custody and executed. He does it with a series of seven stories, or parables, of which we are looking just at the first. The word parable means "to cast alongside." It's a means of teaching using parallel stories. Its purpose is to compare and contrast to something else. In this case, each parable begins, "The kingdom of God is like …."
Jesus tells the story of the seed and the soil, but the disciples are too distracted by a question to get it. "Why are you teaching in parables?" they ask. He says it is because of the spiritual sluggishness of the people and the fact that it was prophesied.
Then he explains the story, because they weren't listening. The soil represents the human heart. The seed represents the Word of God. In churches like ours, we often use the phrase "the Word" as a nickname for the Bible. But when you see that phrase in the Scriptures, it does not always mean just the Bible. In John 1, Jesus is revealed as the Living Word. So I usually assume it means both the written word (The Bible) and the Living Word (Jesus).
Why compare God's Word to seed? Because the Word is "living and powerful" (Hebrews 4:12). Unlike the words of people, the Words of God have life in them. And that life can be imparted to those who will believe. The truth of God must take root in the heart and be cultivated in order to bear fruit.
Jesus wasn't describing a great harvest—he's saying that, in reality, most people will reject his word. That's why he was never impressed by the crowds that followed him, because he knew that most of them would not receive his Word and bear fruit. In three out of four cases, the seed fails to grow to the point of fruitfulness—not because of the seed, but because of the condition of the heart.
The hard-packed road represents those who won't listen. The rocky places remind us of those whose response is superficial. The thorns are those people who grow preoccupied with other things.
Theologian Donald Carson writes: "The fault is in the hearers, not in the message. When the seed falls in good soil, it will be productive. In this way, Jesus assured his disciples that, despite the areas of hostility and inadequate response, there would be a harvest. Even in the good soil, however, there is room for some variation in the degree of productivity—100, 60, or 30 times. In other words, disciples do not come in only one size or type, and there is room in the kingdom of God for the ordinary as well as for the spectacular."
This parable exposes the fact that you and I are heirs to a deeply held but fundamentally flawed belief—that biblical knowledge equals spiritual maturity. In other words, if we can just understand more of the Bible, if we can just gain more knowledge about the original languages in which the Bible was written, if we can just understand the author's intent, if we can just decipher the figures of speech and the historical context, then we are spiritually mature. We can rightfully wear the big red S on our chests.
Again, don't think I'm trying to say those things aren't important, because they are. What I'm trying to say is that the key to fruitfulness lies in the condition of the soil, not the power of the seed. So I need to ask the uncomfortable question: How's your heart? How fruitful are you? The phrase is used several times in the New Testament.
It includes holiness in Romans 6:22. "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life."
It means a change in character in Galatians 5:22-23. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law."
It refers to the things we do that demonstrate his nature, as in Colossians 1:10. "And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God." It means winning others to Christ in Romans 1:13. "I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles."
It means sharing what we have. In Romans 15:25-28, Paul talks about collecting an offering for the poor and uses the word "fruit" to describe it. It means offering praise and worship to God. Hebrews 13:15 says, "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name."
Course correction for Pharisees like us
External conformity is worthless without inward devotion and awareness of our heart's motive. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." Then he goes into a series of compare and contrast statements. "You've heard it said …" "But I tell you …"
In each of the case studies that follow, Jesus demonstrates how the Law is to be "fulfilled"—that is, truly and accurately explained. In each one, Jesus shifted the focus of attention from the behavior that the Law dealt with, to the underlying intents and motives. That is where God works—in changing the values and the motives from which behavior results.
What about murder? In verses 21-26, Jesus goes to the root of murder—anger and hatred. Rather than nurse anger, which may lead to murder, the kingdom citizen must value peacemaking. We are to take the initiative to be reconciled to one another.
Adultery? According to verses 27-30, in its true meaning, the Law does not just speak against the act, for God is concerned with lust itself. Divorce Moses permitted it, but Jesus called for lifetime commitment (v.31-32). Promises? Do you make your word binding if there's a contract—and feel free to break a promise sealed with a handshake (v. 33-37)? No, be the kind of person whose yes always means yes, and whose no means no.
What about revenge and repaying those who harm you? Look at verses 38-48. The Law says you can insist on your rights and on repayment. But in the kingdom, God's blessing rests on the merciful. In relationships with others, the kingdom citizen is called on to be like the Father in heaven and to love even enemies. Does this deny justice? Not at all! It recognizes the fact that in the kingdom, God is the Judge.
God gave us the Bible that we might be transformed, not informed. This includes transformed thinking, transformed feeling, and a transformed understanding of the relationship we can have with God. There is much more to be gained than intellectual understanding!
So how can we study the Bible in such a way as to not succumb to Pharisaism? First, am I using my biblical knowledge to point out the sins of others? Too often we become spiritual Barney Fifes! James 1:22-25 says: "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does."
Second, is there evidence that my biblical knowledge has left me "puffed up?" First Corinthians 8:1 says, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Pride is always on the list of the things that God hates.
Third, am I aware of the underlying motive of my sin? Can I discern non-negotiables from negotiables? Augustine said, "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity." But for the Pharisee, everything is a big deal.
Fourth, do I have a teachable spirit? Is there room for God to correct the inevitable heresy in my life? All of us are missing the point at some point!
Above all, is my relationship with Jesus still more important to me than the pursuit of biblical knowledge? Biblical knowledge will have no transforming effect on you apart from that ongoing, vital relationship. Eighteenth century Theologian Jonathan Edwards once wrote, "There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness … just as there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace."
I've been transformed by the love of my wife. Her notes and cards and words to me over the last 19 years have not transformed me, they have merely informed me and reminded me of the depth of her love. It has been in knowing her, and living with her, and being deeply loved by her that I have been changed. I am not the same man she married, and that's a good thing!
Have you read the love in this Love Letter lately? Once you have experienced that love, you'll know what to do. Until then, nothing you do—no matter how righteous—really matters.
Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).