Do you understand? Jesus’ kingdom parables. Mark 4:10-13; 21-25

The literary structure of Mark 4:1-34

Have you ever heard a riddle that you just couldn’t understand? Here’s an example from the book, The Hobbit, which I would never get on my own: “Voiceless it cries, wingless flutters, toothless bites, mouthless mutters.” What is this? The wind.

Well today we are looking at how Jesus’ teaching is often hard to understand, especially his parables, which he used as riddles, and he teaches us that only those who listen carefully to him and work hard at it will discover his meaning. The two passages that we’re looking at today are 4:10-13 and 4:21-25.

By way of –

Background

– remember that in our story so far Jesus has suffered a great deal of rejection:

  • When he healed and forgave the paralyzed man he was accused of blasphemy – 2:7
  • Because of his unique Sabbath practices we learn that the Pharisees sought “to destroy him” – 3:6
  • Then he was accused of being possessed by a demon and that his ministry was empowered by Satan – 3:22-30
  • Even his family rejected him, thinking he was “out of his mind” – 3:21

Two weeks ago we saw how all this rejection raised the question, ‘Why have so many not believed?’ And we heard Jesus’ answer in the parable of the seed and the soils. Many people have a spiritual condition of hardheartedness that won’t receive the good news of the kingdom.

But this rejection also brings about a change in Jesus’ approach. Now there are believers and unbelievers; insiders and outsiders. And in our verses today Jesus turns away from the outsiders – the Jewish leaders, the crowds, even his own family, to focus on the insiders; his disciples.

This is what we find in –

Mark 4:10-13

 – our first passage.

10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.

By “alone” it means that the crowds are gone. Jesus is now just with the 12 apostles and it says “those around him” or the broader group of disciples. These are the insiders (literally in 3:31-34).

So they ask Jesus “about the parables” that is, how to understand what he has just taught the crowd.

11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God . . .”

So God has given them something (“has been given” is a divine passive). What is it? “The secret of the kingdom of God.” This refers to Jesus’ teaching, which speaks of who he is – the king, what the kingdom is like and how it comes into this world. It’s the insiders who receive this; those who gather around Jesus.

But then Jesus says something quite radical –

“. . . but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”

Parables are often seen as illustrations that Jesus gives to make his teaching clearer, like sermon illustrations. Here Jesus tells us that the exact opposite is true. He uses parables , which are, as I said, like riddles or puzzles – to hide his meaning from the unbelieving; from outsiders. We can rightly ask, “What’s this all about?”

Well, he’s quoting a version of Isaiah 6:9-10 (It’s most similar to the Isaiah Targum). And just as in the context of Isaiah it’s a way of saying that God is judging those who have rejected him, here Jesus is saying that his parables are a judgment on those who reject him.

  • Parables further advance those who believe and gather around him because he gives them further insight and understanding into what they mean.
  • But parables keep at a distance those who reject Jesus, for no explanation is given.

He has shared the gospel with them and they have rejected it. So now they are held at a distance. And this is a judgment from God.

What he’s saying is that his teaching is concealed to outsiders, but is revealed to insiders. Turn to Mark 4:34. This verse says, “He did not speak to them (the crowd) without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

Now don’t misunderstand. Any of these outsiders can leave behind their rejection of Jesus and become an insider if they want. But as long as they stay there they will get nothing further from Jesus. That this is true is seen in that Jesus’ family in chapter 3 rejects him, they are outsiders, but later they come to believe.

Then we come back to the insiders –

13And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

 Jesus challenges them to see if they understand the parable of the seed and the soils. If they can’t understand this one, which he seems to be saying is pretty easy, how will they understand any of them? And so he helps them by telling them what it means in vs. 14-20, which we have already looked at.

This brings us to our second passage –

Mark 4:21-25

All these sayings, which are parables in themselves – and might seem like they aren’t connected, teach a simple truth: It takes work to understand the teaching of Jesus.

Even though he speaks in parables, and in general his teaching can be hard to understand, Jesus really does want his teaching to be understood. He compares it to a lamp in v. 21 (also Matthew 5:15; Luke 8:16).

21And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?”

Just as a lamp is meant to shine out, so his teaching is meant to give light to all.

Jesus’ intention is expressed in v. 22 –

22For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.” (also Matthew 10:26; Luke 8:17; 12:22)

Everything Jesus hides, he wants to come to light. Everything he veils, he wants to be made known. But, we have to do some work. Jesus hides his teaching so that only  those who really seek after it will find it.

The two exhortations that come next tell us what we need to do –

23If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear.”

We need to listen. Today we would say, “pay attention to what you read,” since Jesus’ teaching is now written out in the Scriptures. Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to understand, you need to listen carefully. You need to put some effort into understanding what he’s saying.

And then comes an important principle –

24With the measure you use, it will be measured to you . . .”

Jesus uses this principle in other places (Matthew 7:2/Luke 6:38), but here the focus is on understanding his teaching. What he’s saying, is that there’s a relationship between the effort we put in – and the understanding we receive from God.

  • To say it another way, the amount of careful listening you put in – seeking, puzzling, discerning, studying – equals the amount of understanding you will get.
  • And likewise, the less of these things you do, the less understanding you receive.

But then, there’s the generosity of God for those who put in effort. The end of v. 24 says –

“. . . and still more will be added to you.”

So, if you pay attention and receive from God in proportion to your effort, God will give even more understanding on top of this; a surplus; an added bonus.

In the first part of v. 25 Jesus says –

“For to the one who has, more will be given . . ..”

 The disciples are an example here. They have received the message of the kingdom and have gathered around Jesus and are asking questions. They have some understanding of his teaching and what he’s up to. So more is given. Jesus tells them what the parables mean.

But even for us today Jesus is promising that if we study carefully, the Spirit of God will help us to understand. An example of this is Peter when he confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus tells him that God revealed this to him (Matthew 16:17).

And then we have a warning. The last part of v. 25 says –

“. . . and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (For this whole saying see also Matthew 13:12/Luke 8:18; Matthew 25:29/Luke 19:26).

This is the other side of the coin, as it were, of God’s generosity. Those who don’t listen to Jesus, who put in no effort, will lose even what they have.

The examples here are the outsiders – those who have rejected Jesus. They have heard the good news of the kingdom but have not received it. So for these they get puzzles and riddles without explanation. They don’t receive anything else from Jesus. And like the seed on the hardened soil of the path the birds come and take it away. ‘Even what they have is taken away.

Let me end by asking us, we who are insiders –

Do you understand?

In contrast to outsiders, we have received the gift of Jesus’ teaching. Not just the parables but all that he taught as recorded in the gospels. We also have the Old Testament as background to understand it. And we have the rest of the New Testament that reflects back on it that helps us. And we are given the gift of the Spirit to lead and guide us as we interpret and apply his teaching to our lives.

What an amazing gift and treasure! Jesus says of his teaching in Mark 13:31, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This is the gift we have.

But, are you putting in the work? Do you even read the Scriptures?

Are you content with what you already know? For there is much, much more than any of us will ever discover in one lifetime.

Are you hungry for more? Do you wrestle with it and struggle with it until you understand it?

Are you like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who didn’t just take someone else’s word for it, but it says, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

The measure of effort you give is the measure of understanding you will get – plus more.

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