Since leaving pastoral ministry a little over a year ago and moving to the opposite side of the pulpit, I have listened to many more Sunday morning sermons in a congregational setting than in the past. These sermons have been delivered to large and small congregations, in English and Spanish, on the West and East Coasts and in different denominational settings. All the messages were Bible-centered. Except for perhaps one, each struck a positive chord within my understanding of the gospel and I was able to take something of God’s will for my life into the coming week.
And, every speaker was diligent in preparing himself to teach. I imagine that many hours of heart preparation and study went into each Sunday teaching event. This prompts some questions. Do we listeners—including myself—prepare our hearts with similar diligence? How well do we really listen? Are our minds elsewhere? Do we really seek to understand the message? Is there any meaningful reflection afterward? Are we serious about putting into practice these messages?
Jesus may have had these same questions when he taught the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-23, Luke 8:4-15). He had just appointed 12 disciples for more extensive learning and ministry (Luke 6:12-13). And immediately after, he taught the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:17-49, Matt. 5-7), a summary of his most important and distinctive teachings, like the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.
Perhaps with a view to ensure the Sermon on the Mount and all his succeeding teachings would take root in his followers’ hearts and be lived out, Jesus felt they needed to be taught the importance of hearing, understanding and applying his teachings (Matt. 13:23). They could not live purposely without these three disciplines. And neither can we.
A needed corrective
More than ever before in recent American evangelical history is the call to hear, understand and apply God’s Word to our lives so needed. With our culture becoming increasingly more entertainment and pleasure-based, we are also becoming more consumer-minded. Such a mindset has not left the church unscathed. The challenge to listen actively to the Word, reflect on the Word for greater understanding and ultimately obey the Word is becoming ever more difficult.
Hearing, understanding and practicing the Word are to be continuous activities in the disciple’s life, given these verbs are in the present tense.
The Parable of the Sower provides a needed corrective for us today.
Perhaps you are saying, “But isn’t the parable of the sower for unbelievers? Wasn’t Jesus talking about different types of unbelievers and their respective responses to the gospel message?” Until recent years I have interpreted this parable primarily this way.
While I would not disregard this traditional interpretation completely, I believe Jesus had in mind the 12 disciples as well as the greater assembly of followers and we disciples today when delivering this and the following parables. “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted,” he says in Matthew 13:11. His words were not kind to those that had remained worldly-minded and had refused to learn from him. This is a word of caution for us today to remain vigilant and on course.
What do we mean by hearing, understanding and applying the Word of God?
Hearing the Word refers to perceiving it audibly, a challenge in itself given the countless voices vying for our attention by way of a screen and/or an earpiece. It also means to consider and pay attention to what is said. The mind is engaged as one listens attentively. Taking notes and filling in the outline during the message is one way to heighten our listening and comprehension skills.
Understanding the Word is about mentally comprehending what has been heard. Meditation and reflection, two spiritual disciplines requiring silence and solitude, help the message take root. The message begins to become a part of us. It is here where the seed of the Word begins to germinate.
We reflect on the spoken word for two reasons. First, to corroborate the truthfulness of what was taught. The Bereans did this with Paul’s sermon (Acts 17:10-12). Meeting in small groups afterward to discuss the sermon gives opportunity for greater clarification and comprehension.
A second reason for reflection has to do with application. “How and when will I apply what I have heard and understood?” is a needed question for consideration in order to flesh out the Word.
And lastly, we are to apply the Word. Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount by teaching the importance of putting into practice what he had just taught (Matt. 7:21-27). Satan will do everything possible to discourage responsible hearing and understanding of the Word, but I believe he works double-time to ensure we don’t apply the Word. When God’s children dutifully hear and understand the Word, Satan is sad, But Satan finds new joy when we do nothing more.
Hearing, understanding and practicing the Word are to be continuous activities in the disciple’s life, given these verbs are in the present tense. Jesus states that the good soil characterizes those believers that are continually seeking to hear and comprehend the Word, at the same time continually producing and bringing forth fruit in life (Matt. 13:23). The latter happens when they continually put the Word into practice.
It’s all about our hearts
The key to effective hearing, understanding and applying the Word is a heart for God. Three times in our text Jesus refers to the heart. For us to hear, understand and apply his Word continuously and properly, our hearts need the right focus.
Christian clinical psychologist Larry Crabb says the heart symbolizes “the basic direction a person chooses for himself…. From a biblical perspective, there really are only two possible directions which one may choose: live for self or live for God.” Oftentimes the line between the two gets fuzzy. Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Solomon tells us in Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If we believers are not diligent in keeping our hearts centered on our Master in all areas of our lives, spiritual sluggishness can easily set in. This happened to the once believing Israelites to whom Isaiah refers: “For the heart of this people has become dull” (Matt. 13:14-15). And with dullness of heart slowly comes dullness in hearing, understanding and applying the Word.
In conclusion, this parable provides three signs of spiritual dullness and reminds us that we need a heart change.
The hard soil (v. 19) refers to those who audibly hear God’s voice but don’t actively listen to God’s voice. Truth enters one ear and goes out the other. Neither do they have a mindset to do the hard work of understanding the Word and applying it later.
The rocky soil (vv. 20-21) speaks of the person guided more by their emotions than their minds. They have difficulty spending quality time with God in stillness and seclusion, a space where growth in understanding best happens. They typically are the first ones to fold when under serious spiritual attack.
The thorny soil (v. 22) refers to the believer that has a divided heart. Like the other two, he hears God’s voice, but the message is muffled due to competing voices. “The weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it” (The Message).
But for those believers convicted of their spiritual folly, there is hope. Our Abba is so merciful! “Heart surgery” that allows God back onto the throne of their life is necessary. And when this happens, God graciously proclaims, “And I shall heal them” (Matt. 13:15). A healing that is physical, mental and emotional in scope. A healing he provides for his obedient children today.
This article focuses on hearing, understanding and applying the truths taught in a Sunday morning sermon, but God has other divine delivery systems. The Spirit of God also reveals truth through Bible reading, conversational prayer, another person (in my case, most often through my spouse!), dreams, visions, etc.
Regardless of how our Master chooses to reveal truth and guidance, if what he teaches is properly understood and applied, believers are promised to “have an abundance” (Matt. 13:12)—an abundance of peace, joy, inner fulfillment and purpose in their God-journey. And life can’t get any better than that—just like God planned it!