A little more than a year ago a family in our church donated some stained-glass artwork at the top of our entryway (pictured above). What makes the piece unique is that it has a similar story of an invitation whether you are going in or out. The invitation is to come, worship, and serve whether entering or exiting the building. Essentially, the invitation is to “Come. Follow Me.” That is the essence of this year-long series on which we have embarked through the Gospel account recorded by Mark.
Most people who might read this have seen some sort of stained-glass art, whether in a window, home decorations, an online picture (above),etc. Many will have seen various renderings on the windows of some churches. I realize some stained glass is simply stained glass, but oftentimes the glass contains an image, a part of a story, or something similar. Looking at these images from the outside can make it difficult to distinguish a particular image. But from the inside, the image is often quite clear and easy to distinguish. What is the difference? Light. When we are on the outside the light reflects off the glass. We can’t see how it has penetrated the glass to make the inside beautiful. But when we are able to see how the light penetrates through the glass, we see a clear picture of the artist’s intended truth.
Well, if that is true of glass, how much more true is it of humanity? The problem is that we can not see beyond the exterior to know what is truly going on inside someone. Maybe they put on a good front on the outside, but are miserable inside. Or maybe, like the stained glass, they seem overly ordinary on the outside, but are “colorful” and full of life on the inside.
And what is true for humanity, is true for the kingdom of God. From the outside, it cannot be understood. 1 Corinthians 2 makes this clear. But for those who understand what the Kingdom is, and what it will one day be, the difference is magnificent. But I didn’t say we understand how the Kingdom works, or everything about it, just what it is. And what it is, and even how it works, is the key portion of this week’s post.
In the Closer Look post this week, Rick explained what a parable was. He also mentioned that Jesus did not always use parables, but from Mark 4 forward – when speaking to the masses – He did. Why? In part because of John the Baptizer was imprisoned. Jesus still had much to accomplish, and much to teach His newly called disciples. Jesus was now an offense to the establishment (see Mark 3.1-6 and 3.22-30), and they were looking for ways to destroy Him (3.6). So, to carry out His mission, which included proclaiming the Kingdom, He began to speak cryptically. Let me take a brief look at the parables here and then I will reveal the greater purpose of Jesus using parables.
Rick covered this, and verses 14-20 unpack the parable as Jesus told it in verses 3-8. A couple of my own thoughts:
Although the evidence is inconclusive, a good amount of evidence suggests that in Jesus day throughout much of Israel the seed was scattered before the field was plowed. That might not make sense in today’s methods, but it is quite possible then. The farmer only had to hope some of the seed was properly sown. A good harvest was a yield of 7-8. 10 was considered a very good yield. But Jesus said those who scatter kingdom seed will yield 30, 60, or even 100 times what is sown.
The point is that we are to sow. We may feel like we waste a lot in some areas (or on some people), but the overall yield will more than make up for that – many times over. Furthermore, God says that His Word will not return void, so even for those who do not respond to the gift of salvation, something good can come out of it.
Some suggest the lamp refers to Jesus. Others say it is the message of the Kingdom. Personally, I think it is the message of God, which means both apply – God’s written (or spoken Word) and God’s Living Word. Recall Psalm 119.105 – “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” But it only provide light when not hidden. In fact, Jesus says, in verse 22, that what has been hidden, God’s Kingdom, is now coming to light – for those that understand. As Jesus said, “He who has an ear, let Him hear!”
The idea here is what one would use to cook would be returned. You might recall the story of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). She had a handful of flour and just a little oil. She was prepared to fix one more meal for her son and herself and then wait to die. But Elijah said, “First, bake me a cake” with the promise that when she did, she would not run out of flour or oil. (The rest of that story must wait for another day.) Here, the idea is similar, but the implication is toward understanding. Those who seek to understand will understand more. They are already inside, but will be shown even more. Those who think they know it all or don’t want to learn will remain on the outside. We will come back to the idea of inside and outside below.
Unlike the first parable, where the sower is sowing the seed anywhere and everywhere, the emphasis here is on the seed. What makes it grow? Good soil and water? Yes. But more importantly, God! And, of course, the soil and the water are God’s design – as is the seed. Now, our first thought might be that this speaks of us – of the gospel growing in us. And that principle is true for Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3.6, “I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the growth.”
But the point here is the kingdom. Just as the seed is buried and then begins to grow until it is time for the harvest, the kingdom of God had been “planted” and would grow with bits of evidence along the way (the blade, the ear, the full grain), and when the time is ripe, the kingdom will be fully manifest. But just like droughts and storms come to disrupt a farmer’s work, so Satan tries to disrupt God’s work. How much longer must we wait? I don’t know, but I think a part of that answer lies in how bad we yearn for it. I will also come back to this idea below.
The Mustard Seed
Unlike the seed which is sure to grow, this parable is about the contrast in size. The truth is that the mustard seed was not the smallest seed (the orchid seed was smaller). But the culture of the day treated the mustard seed as the smallest, so Jesus used that for His context. The point is that something that begins small and is seemingly insignificant, becomes large enough to provide shelter, shade, and rest. Likewise, the Kingdom will be a place of peace and rest when it is fully established in the future. I should say rest in the sense of no weariness, not in the sense of not working.
So those are the parables in this section of Mark (chapter 4). Now let’s look at the principle of the parables.
To understand the parables, one must hear them. Not listen to them, but hear them. That is, take them in. Our ears hear many things, but must of what we hear is ignored. For instance, sometimes I hear the bells from our church chime, and sometimes I do not. It is not that they failed to chime, nor is it that my ears failed to receive the sound waves generated by the carillon. But even though these sound waves bring audible tones to my ears, sometimes I hear them and other times I do not.
Thus, Jesus begins this section in verse with the word, “Listen!” This word is an imperative; it is a command. Then He tells those who are listening that if anyone “have ears to hear, let him hear.” (4.9, 23). But even listening and hearing does not equate to understanding. Notice verse 13. They don’t understand so Jesus explains it to them. But we need to understand who the “they” or “them” represents. And this distinction is critical to understand the rest of the parables and the rest of Mark’s account. The “they” are those who are insiders (more in the next point, I promise). But let’s review the “they” and “them” in this passage.
Mark 4.1-2: Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them...
Note: In these verses, the “them” refers to the crowd.
Mark 4.10-11a: And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them,...
Note: Here, the “them” refers to the Twelve and other followers.
Mark 4.33-34: With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. Here the “them” refers to the people, and “disciples” to those who His followers.
A quick contextual note: Mark’s writing is more topical, rather than sequential. However, that does not mean that Mark’s account is completely out of order. In fact, because of Luke, whose writing is sequential (see Luke 1.3), we know much of Mark is in order. But Luke doesn’t mention the story from last week, so we can’t be exactly sure where these parables fit into the timeline. Mark’s account does match the sequence from Matthew in this section. While Matthew also takes a thematic approach, we can be reasonably sure that the charge of blasphemy against Jesus came before these parables. In fact, it is very likely that this is the case because the parables are really intended to separate those who do God’s will from those who don’t (Mark 3.35). And, as we will see in a moment, doing God’s will requires an understanding of His purpose.
So, let me provide a cumulative understanding of the four parables in Mark 4:
Jesus came to initiate God’s Kingdom. He spread God’s Word everywhere. Some would hear and grow to understand this message, but others wouldn’t. Perhaps because it was stolen from them (scribes and Pharisees – ironic that they said Jesus was doing Beelzebul’s work). As the Word is received and understood, what has been hidden has been/is being made known. Thus, for those that know, it is time to shine brightly with this message. As we do, and as we desire more of it, God will reveal more to us. We might only see brief glimpses of it, but rest assured, it is growing. The impact may be small now, but one day, one glorious day, we will see God in all of His glory with Jesus reigning from His throne. That is the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pause and reflect on that again for a minute..
I am fully convinced that this is the minimum of the point that Jesus was trying to paint. If we miss this, it may be that we have grown so accustomed to looking at the stained glass windows from the outside far too long. And this hope, which is assured because of the resurrection, is why I say church is not the destination, the kingdom is. The church is God’s tool to build the Kingdom, but when the church ceases to exist on this side of eternity, the Kingdom will be fully realized for the rest of eternity.
Finally, the purpose of the message. This will sound harsh, but it is the simple truth. Jesus spoke in parables in order to separate those who understand from those who don’t. Said another way, to separate those on the “inside” from those on the “outside.” Jesus says as much in Mark 4.11.
He then quotes from Isaiah 6.9. In Isaiah 6, God made His glory manifest and then asked for a messenger. Isaiah agreed to be that messenger. God then said that people would hear, but not understand. They would see, but not perceive. In Mark 4, Jesus says the same will be true of His generation. It is important to note that Jesus is speaking to those who have asked Him. Because they ask, He answers. He challenges them for their lack of understanding (v. 13), but then does proceed to spell it out for them item by item. Thus, they are gaining understanding. But the masses that heard the parable have left. They have gone their own way. They were tired, or bored, or hungry, or whatever, and so they missed the opportunity to understand. Therefore, they missed an opportunity to know Jesus. Therefore, they may have missed the Kingdom of God.
It may sound harsh that Jesus didn’t speak plainly to allow all to hear. And the end of verse 12 seems especially harsh. It sounds as if Jesus doesn’t want the people to be forgiven. But the truth is that He had been speaking plainly to this point and some believed and some did not. Those that didn’t said He was of the devil (3.22) and wanted to destroy Him (3.6). Given Jesus’ response to the disciples around Him, if these others came and asked, He would have offered the same to them. But just like the rich young man in Luke 10, following Jesus requires paying a price that some are unwilling to pay. Because ultimately understanding what Jesus said and what Jesus did requires us to do God’s will (Mk 3.35). When we do, we become the sower who reaps 30, 60, or even 100 times what we have sown. How? I don’t know. But God does. We may not even realize our impact in this life. But in the life we live after we die, we will know very well.
What About You?
Hearing, but not understanding. Seeing, but not perceiving. That was true in Isaiah’s day. It was true in Jesus’ day. What about ours? What aboutyou? Do you allow the truth of God’s Word to just bounce off and never allow it to penetrate your being? Do you take the time to truly hear? None of us are perfect, but if we don’t let God’s Word penetrate our exterior, we are like the stained-glass windows from the outside that merely reflect the light and hide the truth of what is meant to be seen. But, for those that do hear, and allow God’s Word to penetrate, the image that God has made in us and through us, becomes visible and begins to look more and more like the image of Christ.
That is why our JOURNEY letter for today is: O – Observe.
We listen to hear. We hear to understand. And we understand in order to know what the Master wants us to do. And once we know, it is our responsibility to do it. Thus, we must observe our call to serve, and teach others to do so as well. When we don’t understand, we must be like the original followers and ask. He will never turn us away for asking, but we must be ready to respond to His answer when it comes. And that brings us to our next steps.
Opportunity: People need to hear the gospel, and we are called to sow it. As we live our lives in and around others we must take the time to scatter the Seed, and let God sow where, and as, He wills.
(NOTE: Our church celebrated by taking of the Lord’s Supper on Sunday as a part of the conclusion of this message. Each Step was a part of the Lord’s Prayer with time of reflection especially during the step of Love, which is when we took of the elements – the bread and the cup. I believe the Steps make sense on their own so I am leaving them without additional commentary which largely reflected on how this message related to the moment. I apologize for anything that might not be clear.)
Jesus message was the Kingdom of God (Mark 1.15). He procured the Kingdom with His death. And He secured it with His resurrection. And we remember this today by considering Jesus answer to another question His disciples asked, when they asked Him how to pray.
Learn how great God is.
Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name.
Live for the Kingdom.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Love his provision.
(food and forgiveness)
Give us each day our daily bread. (BREAD)
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (CUP)
Lead others as God leads you.
And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from the evil.
For YOURS is the KINGDOM and the power and the glory. Forever. Amen.