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.

Jesus’ authority as teacher and exorcist. Early ministry in Capernaum. Mark 1:21-28

The literary structure of Mark 1:21-28

Last week we saw how Jesus called out the first leaders for his new community – Simon, Andrew, James and John. The story of Jesus’ early ministry in Capernaum continues today with Jesus teaching and casting out a demon in their synagogue.

Let’s begin with some –

Background

Capernaum was a fishing town. As I said before there was a booming fishing industry around the sea of Galilee as this time. It had a significant North-South trade route running through it and so it had a customs office for taxes. And there was also a small Roman garrison there.

Here’s a map . . .

map of Galilee

This is a picture of the 4th century synagogue, with the floor of the first century synagogue under it, where Jesus was teaching and ministering in our story today.

Capernaum Synagogue

[bibleplaces.com]

Let’s look at our story –

Mark 1:21-28

21And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus and his new disciples come into the city and are attending the weekly worship service at the synagogue. Jesus must have taught enough that the local synagogue leader had heard of him and asked him to teach, as was the custom to do with traveling teachers.

Mark doesn’t tell us what he taught. We know it had something to do with his basic message in chapter 1:15 – “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” And it would probably depend on what the Scripture reading was in the synagogue service that day (Luke 4:17ff).

Mark’s focus isn’t on what he taught, but how he taught – “as one who had authority.” The scribes taught based on citing tradition and various teaching authorities. So and so said this and so and so said that. Their authority came from being a scholar and they simply placed their opinion alongside others in expounding on the Law.

Jesus taught based on his own authority as Messiah and Son of God. Perhaps a part of his teaching here is like what we find in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, where he says several times, “you have heard that it was said to those of old. . ., but I say to you . . .” – and then he clarified and raised the standard of Old Testament teaching.

Jesus spoke clearly and authoritatively about God’s will to the people. As he said in Matthew 7:24, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them . . .” will make it through the final judgment. His words determined one’s eternal destiny.

The result of his teaching was that they were “astonished”; it blew them away.

Well, if Jesus’ authority in comparison to the scribes stood out to his audience, certainly his authority, or as it can also be translated “power” stands out in the next episode in relation to demons.

23And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”

An unclean spirit is another way of saying “demon” (e.g. Mark 5:2; 15) Demons are spirits that are in rebellion against God and under the dominion of Satan (3:22-23). Paul, referencing Deuteronomy 32:17 (also Psalm 106:37) tells us that demons are the spirits behind the idols that pagans worship (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).

It’s unclean in that it’s contaminated by sin and evil and thus it makes the man unclean. Here the spirit has control of the man so that it speaks through him.

Now we want to avoid two extremes in talking about demons. The first is saying that demons don’t exist because in our culture we only believe what we see. The second is  thinking that demons are behind every bush; that they’re the cause of anything that’s bad.

Let me give you an example in relation to the second extreme. Scripture tells us that demons can cause physical problems – being deaf or unable to speak. But not all such physical problems are related to demons. And Jesus heals people in numerous cases, where there’s no exorcism involved. The key is that when a demon is involved, it means there’s a personal, destructive, supernatural force at work. And this force has to be dealt with for the symptoms to be resolved.

The demon asks, “What have you to do with us?” This comes from a Hebrew idiom. (Literally, “What to us and to you.” It is used several times in Scripture). It means ‘what business do we have with each other?’ Or even, ‘get out of my face.’

Notice that this demon speaks for his comrades too. “Have you come to destroy us?” It’s threatened and defensive. And it should be, because it knows who Jesus is. All the demons know who he is (1:34) since they are from the Spirit world. And though they cause people to fear, Jesus causes them to fear.

The title “holy one of God” is likely the same as saying, “the Son of God,” which is what the other demons in Mark call Jesus (3:11; 5:7).

25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.

Jesus’ authority stands out here. Others at times cast out demons (9:38). But not like this. They relied on magic, incantations and spells. Or they prayed to God who acted for them. Jesus casts out the demon with a simple command. Not even a prayer to God. And there’s really no struggle. Jesus speaks and the demon has to obey, even though it tries to resist.

Why silence the demon??? It’s not that what they say is wrong. Mark expects us as readers to take into account what they say, because demons do know who he is (1:34). It’s that Jesus wants to reveal the fullness of who he is in his own time and in his own way.

In terms of the bigger picture and in answer to the demon’s question – Jesus has come to defeat and destroy them. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God has come with his coming – and wherever it comes there is a clash with the kingdom of Satan. And so here we see, right at the beginning of his ministry (and will continue to see) that God’s kingdom will win this war.

27And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

The people recognize that this is really different. And they are amazed. What’s going on? A new teaching backed up by a demonstration of God’s power through Jesus in the casting out of a demon. Here is someone who speak with God’s authority, clearly, about God’s will. And backs it up with actions that show that God is working powerfully through him.

28And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

 Jesus becomes a celebrity. As we will see, crowds begin to swamp him.

As we will also see later, just because people are amazed by Jesus doesn’t mean that they believe in him or accept his message “to repent and believe the good news.” In fact, many of these same people will turn on him and reject him (Matthew 11:23-24).

And isn’t this true today? Many are amazed by Jesus in various ways, but never give their life to him. Jesus is popular; he’s famous, but no one does what he says or trusts in him with their very lives. Being amazed and believing in him and obeying him are quite different things.

Let me end by sharing –

Two truths

 – I want you to take with you and put into practice.

Jesus speaks clearly and authoritatively to us about God’s will for our lives. He teaches us how to live.

And as the crowd said, it’s “a new teaching.” In his teaching Jesus revealed God as God had never been revealed before. He gives us the highest and final revelation of God. It is in accord with what came before, but it goes above and beyond it.

Do you build your life based on his teaching (Matthew 7:24-27)? Or do you pick and choose what you accept? And then add in some of what this person teaches, some of what that person teaches and, of course, what you think is right?

Jesus is our teacher and authority for all of life. Build your life on his teaching. Study it. Understand it. Put it into practice.

The second truth is this – Jesus sets us free from Satan and his demons! We need not be under Satan’s power.

We see today what happens when an unclean, unholy spirit comes up against the Holy One of God – anointed with the Holy Spirit, indeed, the anointed one. Jesus wins. And he wins every time!

We can be free and we can be free of our fears of demons and all the power of evil, for Jesus not only sets us free, he protects us and cares for us. Trust in him; call out to him and he will deliver you.