THE MAGNIFICENT TRUTHS OF THE MYSTERIES OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD COME TO US PACKAGED IN PARABLES OF DIVINE INSIGHT
Last week we looked at the first of 4 parables in Mark chapter 4. It was the longest of the four and the most fundamental – our prerequisite course = Parables 101 – the Parable of the Soils. If you want to understand any of the parables of Jesus, you must first understand that one. Today we will look at all 4 parables in this chapter and how they relate to one another – with our emphasis being on the interpretation of the final 3 – a much more challenging task since Jesus does not give us His point-by-point interpretation of these.
Remember what is happening at this point in the ministry of Jesus in Galilee. He has demonstrated His authority as the Son of God – to teach with authority; to heal all types of physical diseases; to cast out demons and demonstrate His dominion over the kingdom of Satan; soon we are going to see that even the forces of nature – the wind and the sea obey Him. Yet while He is experiencing rapid growth in popularity among the people and multitudes are attracted to Him (some in faith but most in superficial curiosity), opposition is growing among the religious leaders. The unbelieving Jews could not understand how the OT promises regarding a coming King and Kingdom could be fulfilled by this humble son of a carpenter. His preaching regarding the kingdom did not connect with their expectations of an immediate physical kingdom with all of its pomp and impressive glory.
So we saw in 3:23 that Jesus began to teach them in parables – a method that was ideally suited for both revealing divine truth to those with spiritual insight and concealing truth from the blinded multitudes. I view our privilege today as similar to excited children coming downstairs on Christmas morning to open up the surprises contained in the variety of gift packages under the tree. We can pick up the packages and shake them and guess at their contents. But what joy there is as we open them up and have the full revelation of their contents. Sometimes you open a gift and you still can’t identify what it is – that can be a bit disconcerting …
Really 2 sets of 2 parables each:
– First set – dealing with the reception of the kingdom of God – our response to the Gospel message and to God’s gracious revelation
– Second set – dealing with the growth of the kingdom of God
James Edwards: In the first parable the emphasis falls on the process of growth, whereas similar imagery in the second accentuates the contrast between small beginnings and great results. Both parables are stories of surprise. One could never imagine the conclusion from the beginning. Such is the kingdom of God.
I. (:1-20) PARABLE OF THE SOILS – THE RECEPTION OF THE KINGDOM DEPENDS ON YOUR HEART CONDITION –
ONLY FERTILE HEARTS SOVEREIGNLY PREPARED BY GOD PRODUCE FRUIT
– Hardened Hearts vs. Spiritual Life
– Shallow Hearts vs. Spiritual Perseverance
– Distracted (Preoccupied Hearts vs. Spiritual Devotion
II. (:21-25) PARABLE OF THE LAMP – THE RECEPTION OF THE KINGDOM DEPENDS ON YOUR ATTENTIVENESS TO DIVINE REVELATION –
TO THE EXTENT THAT YOU LISTEN WELL YOU WILL BE BLESSED WITH ADDITIONAL SPIRITUAL INSIGHT
This parable seems to tie directly to the parable of the soils just above
Deals with our response to God’s revelation; looking at human responsibility instead of divine sovereignty
One could have gotten the wrong impression from Jesus’ teaching regarding His use of parables that God’s intent was mainly to hide or conceal truth
A. (:21-22) God Ultimately Desires Illumination Rather than Concealment
1. (:21) Basic Function of a Lamp = Illumination
“And He was saying to them, ‘A lamp is not brought to be put under a peck-
measure, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand?’”
Who would think of buying a light and then hiding it so it cannot perform its intended function?
Wessel: The lamp represents Jesus who “comes,” and the definite article “the” serves to identify him. … the present hiddenness of Jesus will not always be . . . God intends that one day Jesus will be manifested in all his glory, at the Parousia. But who Jesus really is, is now hidden.
James Edwards: In the OT, a lamp is not infrequently a metaphor for God (2 Sam 22:29) or the Davidic Messiah (2 Kgs 8:19; Ps 132:17) or the Torah (Ps 119:105). Not only does Mark distinguish the lamp by making it the acting subject, but he refers to it with the definite article, the lamp. Finally, reference to the lamp coming is more suitable of a person than an object, and has indeed been used of Jesus earlier (1:7; 3:20). These particulars signal that this is no ordinary lamp. The image points to Jesus as the implied agent, for whom the lamp is a metaphor. Jesus is the lamp of God who has come to bring light and revelation (John 1:5, 8:12).
Jesus came as the Light of the world –
John 8:12 “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”
We are called to live as children of light – Ephes. 5:8
Application: “this little light of mine; I’m going to let it shine”
2. (:22) Ultimate Goal of God = Revelation and Illumination
“For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed;
nor has anything been secret, but that it should come to light.”
Revealed in due time
Much was hidden in OT times that Jesus came to reveal = the mysteries of the kingdom of God; much still remains hidden that will be revealed when He comes in His full glory to physically reign over the earth from the throne of David in Jerusalem
God is not ultimately in the business of hiding truth – He is interested in making truth known; in bringing everything to the light
B. (:23) Responsibility Falls on the Hearer
“If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.”
This is the key verse and lies at the heart of this parable
It repeats the same phrase from 4:9 – obviously must be very significant in this context
Those appendages on the side of your head – How are you using them??
Jesus is not just talking about understanding the words He says … but obeying all of His commands
James 1:22 Prove to be doers of the word and not hearers only …
We need to hear with hearts and minds and wills inclined towards obedience
This is our responsibility – nobody else can do this for us; not putting the blame on God if we don’t respond with fertile hearts … if we have hearts of stone or rocky hearts or thorny hearts … puts the blame squarely on us – we should be attentive to God’s Word
C. (:24-25) Degree of Attentiveness Determines Degree of Spiritual Insight
1. (:24) Opportunity to Be Blessed With Greater Spiritual Insight
And He was saying to them, ‘Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides.’”
MacArthur: listen carefully to the Word of God. Get it…that’s the idea. Be seeing what you are hearing, that’s the literal Greek, be seeing what you are hearing, perceive the Word of God thoughtfully, carefully.
2. (:25) Degree of Spiritual Insight Compounds Both in Positive and Negative Sense
“For whoever has, to him shall more be given;
and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”
Principle of compounding interest
Van Parunak: Like the “measure” saying, this is probably a commonplace saying or proverb, originating in an economic context. Our modern-day equivalent is “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer,” or, “It takes money to make money.”
III. (:26-29) PARABLE OF THE GROWING SEED – THE MYSTERIOUS GROWTH OF THE KINGDOM CAN ONLY BE ATTRIBUTED TO THE SOVEREIGN WORK OF GOD –
PRODUCING IMPRESSIVE RESULTS ACCORDING TO HIS TIMETABLE
A. (:26) The Introduction of the Kingdom of God (Sowing the Seed) Does Not Look Very Impressive
“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil;’”
Does not matter so much who is sowing the seed here – whether Jesus or His disciples; this is not the emphasis of the parable – it is not about the sowing process
When you look at what is sown, then you look at the end result … you cannot by natural means fully understand the process of growth; you certainly cannot control or manipulate that growth by human means
B. (:27-28) The Growth of the Kingdom of God is Mysterious but Progressive and Impressive = Solely the Work of God
“and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows– how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.”
Look at how this passage balances the teaching on God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility – here the emphasis switches back to the sovereign work of God
This is the life of a farmer – he does not stay up all night fretting over the growth of the seed; one season is condensed here into a series of repetitive acts of going to bed each night and getting up each day until you see growth
Importance of Faithfulness in daily tasks
When you see growth … it happens gradually and progressively; requires great patience
Cf. Jesus explaining the new birth to Nicodemus in John 3 – like the wind – you see the effects but you can’t fully understand or explain the process – how he himself does not know
Observable growth; you can see the plant maturing – but you can’t speed along the process
Stedman: As Jesus draws the picture, this farmer goes out to sow. It is hard work as he sows the field, but this is what he can do. But then he goes home and goes to bed. He does not sit up all night biting his fingernails, wondering if the seed fell in the right places, or whether it will take root. Nor does he rise the next morning and go out and dig it up to see whether or not it has sprouted yet. He rests secure in the fact that God is at work, that he has a part in this process, and he must do it; no one can do it for him. But he will faithfully perform it. So the farmer rests secure, knowing that as the seed grows there are stages which are observable: “… first the blade, then the ear then the full grain in the ear.” It is only as the grain is ripe that he is called into action again. When the harvest is ready, then he is to act once more. [1 Cor. 3:6 “we are laborers together with God.”]
Grassmick: The soil does this all by itself (automate; cf. the English “automatic”) This key Greek word (emphatic by position) could be translated “without visible cause” implying “without human agency,” and thus refers to work done by God . . .
Some interpreters view this parable as a picture of evangelism. Some take it as depicting spiritual growth in a believer. Others see it as a picture of the coming of God’s kingdom by the mysterious, sovereign work of God. Its emphasis is on growth under God’s initiative in the interim phase between the proclamation by Jesus (the lowly Sower) and His disciples and the ultimate manifestation of the kingdom by Jesus (the mighty Harvester). The third view is preferred in light of Mark 4:26a and the overall context of the kingdom parables. [my preference]
C. (:29) The Culmination of the Kingdom (Reaping the Harvest) Achieves God’s Objectives According to God’s Timetable
“But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle,
because the harvest has come.”
John 4:35-38 – Jesus instructs His disciples “lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this case the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.”
So there is an immediate harvest that is available to be reaped right now … but this picture points toward the eschatological harvest when the kingdom of God will be fully developed – like the picture of the church as a building that takes shaped slowly over time but in God’s timing comes to full completion
C. E. Graham Swift: Human instrumentality is limited to two things, first sowing and finally reaping. Between these initial and final activities it is a matter of confidence in the vitality of the seed and in the fruitfulness of the interaction between seed and soil.
IV. (:30-32) PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED – THE SURPRISING RAPID GROWTH OF THE KINGDOM WILL BRING BLESSING TO ALL NATIONS –
ESPECIALLY WHEN VIEWED FROM SUCH INSIGNIFICANT BEGINNINGS
A. (:30) Continuation of Teaching in Parables About the Kingdom of God
“And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God,
or by what parable shall we present it?’”
Van Parunak: The previous illusration describes the MEANS of the kingdom’s spread: by God’s power, not man’s efforts. This illustration emphasizes the MAGNITUDE of its expansion.
B. (:31) Insignificant Beginnings of the Kingdom of God
“It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil,
though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil,”
C. (:32) Impressive Growth of the Kingdom of God
1. Impressive in Size
“yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants”
2. Impressive in the Inclusion of Gentile Nations
“and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.”
Started out addressing the issue of surprising lack of reception to the gospel message … now we finish with surprising growth from such small beginnings
Do birds represent:
– Just a general reference to the great size of the plant
– Evil forces; false professors of faith and false teachers under the cloak of Christianity
– Gentiles who are included in the kingdom [my preference]
* * * * *
MacArthur: Now mustard seed was the smallest seed that they used in their farming. It wasn’t the actual smallest seed on the planet but it was proverbial for something small to them because it was the one they were familiar with. . .
Notice the reference to the birds nesting in its shade. This is taken out of Ezekiel chapter 17 and in Ezekiel 17 you have a messianic prophecy that says, “Under the rule of Messiah, nations will come to salvation,” and the nations are pictured as birds coming to lodge in the tree of blessing. So that’s borrowed right out of that imagery. And so the birds are representative of the nations. In other words, this is going to expand and not only Israel will be a part of this coming Kingdom, but the nations of the world will be a part of it as well. You have a very similar use of birds in Daniel 4 verses 10 and 21, Nebuchadnezzar views his kingdom and the birds that are in his tree, as it were, represent peoples and nations under his rule.
* * * * * *
The mustard tree is not a tree at all but is classified as an evergreen shrub. The tree grows to about 20 feet high [more normally 12-15 feet] and has an irregular shape. It is nearly as wide as it is tall. The branches start to grow very low to the ground.
The mustard tree grows very quickly, reaching its full size in only a few years. In the same way, Jesus indicated that the Kingdom of God would grow quickly, and indeed it did. By the time Paul was preaching the gospel in Asia, he said the entire region had heard the gospel.
The birds of the air settle in its branches. This is intended to be a warning toward doctrinal purity. The phrase “birds of the air” often is used to symbolize demonic forces in Scripture. In this instance, Jesus is warning His disciples to beware of the enemy’s attempts to encroach into the Kingdom of God (see also the wheat and the tares parable later in the chapter) and dilute the church’s doctrinal purity.
(:33-34) POSTSCRIPT – METHODOLOGY OF TEACHING IN PARABLES
“And with many such parables He was speaking the word to them as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.”
Hiebert: “Expounded all things” – a statement unique to Mark. The verb means to loosen, to untie, to solve, and was used of solving or interpreting knotty problems, riddles, or dreams. The disciples needed such help in order to understand the parabolic message. Theirs was a high privilege, but believers today are equally privileged to receive the teaching ministry of the indwelling Spirit, who takes the things of Christ and reveals them to receptive hearts (cf. Jn 16:14).
C. E. Graham Swift: A statement by the evangelist finally summarizes the purpose and principle of parabolic teaching. The kingdom of God was so different from prevalent notions about it, and the parables were well fitted to dislodge these popular ideas where direct statement would not have been received. The nature of the kingdom was declared to the people by comparison rather than by definition. But to His private disciples privately Jesus gave fuller instruction.
Van Parunak: Three characteristics of the Lord’s teaching:
1. Parabolic: 33 “many parables” reflects v.2 “many things by parables.” Cf. John 3:12, earthly things presumed to be easier to understand than heavenly things, and yet the effect of sin is so
great that even these are not readily understood without explanation.
2. Proportionate: “as they were able to hear.” He does not cast his pearls before swine. cf. v.25.
3. Progressive: “he expounded all things to his disciples.” Where there is understanding, he gives more. This and the previous point show that he remains in control of the word as it goes forth.
Hopefully these Christmas packages this morning were amazing nuggets of God’s truth that encouraged you with respect to the kingdom of God.
– We should be thankful for God’s work of sovereign preparation to till up the ground of our hearts and make our hearts fertile soil for the Word of God
– But we must take our responsibility to use our ears to listen well and thus be blessed with additional spiritual insight
– The kingdom might not look impressive in the sowing stage … but God is the one who produces the growth in ways that are mysterious to us
– The end result will be quite impressive as the full harvest is brought in according to God’s timetable – meanwhile we labor in the harvest fields in patient dependence upon the sovereign work of God