Have you ever worried about how Christianity is doing these days? I do. I think about the moral compromise of so many churches, the divisions over often silly things, the biblical illiteracy among us and how we are so unlike the early church that Jesus began. Is God really going to be able to use us to bring about his purposes?
Today we’re finishing up Jesus’ parable discourse in Mark 4, looking at vs. 26-34. Here Jesus gives his disciples words of encouragement because as we have seen the response to Jesus’ ministry thus far has been mostly one of rejection; it has been disappointing to say the least. And he gives his disciples encouragement by way of two seed parables, which I think can encourage us as well, as we think about how things are going in our day.
The first one is –
The parable of the growing seed: Mark 4:26-29
And here Jesus is once again speaking to the crowds.
26And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.”
Here the seed and the kingdom of God are being compared.
27He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
There’s a contrast here between the farmer and the seed in the ground. After he sows the seed the farmer basically does nothing. Notice all that could be said, that isn’t – the farmer’s tilling, fertilizing, weeding and dealing with pests and so on. This is done intentionally to highlight what Jesus wants to focus on – the growing seed.
It “sprouts and grows.” The farmer doesn’t even understand how this happens. It says, “he knows not how” the seed sprouts and grows. It’s beyond him. But the seed not only grows, it goes through several stages of growth – the blade, the ear and the full grain in the ear. And all this, we are told, happens “by itself.” The seed has within it the ability to bring forth life and growth. So Jesus is saying – that once the farmer plants the seed – the life and growth of the seed, or the kingdom, comes from itself.
29But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Now that the growing part is over the farmer comes back into the picture, but only to receive the result of the seed’s growth.
This image of harvest is a common one in the Bible for the resurrection. (The phrase “at once he puts in the cycle” echoes Joel 3:13) So the ripe grain speaks of the final day.
What’s the lesson we learn from this? Even though there is rejection and a disappointing response, and the kingdom which has been planted seems insignificant now, the kingdom will grow step by step by its own power until the final day and the harvest is ready.
Like the farmer we can’t make this happen or even understand how it happens – other than sharing the gospel. But the kingdom will produce life, growth and in the end, the harvest of the final day. This is a real word of encouragement to the disciples given what they are experiencing at this time following Jesus and the meager results so far.
The second parable is –
The parable of the mustard seed: Mark 4:30-32
30And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth . . .”
Once again, a seed – here a mustard seed – and the kingdom of God are being compared. The mustard seed, we are told is the smallest of all seeds. And it is like a grain of sand. Now, it’s not technically the smallest seed. Some seeds are microscopic. But proverbially in Jewish thought – it was used of the smallest of all things.
“. . . 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches . . .”
This is the key contrast of the parable and points us to the meaning. Something that starts off so small and seemingly insignificant, in the end becomes something quite large – the biggest of all garden plants. And the black mustard plant can grow to a height of 6-10 feet.
And then v. 32 ends –
“. . . so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Along with the language of “large branches,” this phrase emphasizes the largeness of the plant; birds can make nests in its shade.
But it also alludes to some Old Testament references where trees represent kingdoms and birds building nests in their shade represent nations under their control (Ezekiel 17:22-23; 30:6; Daniel 4:12; 21).So this is a way of saying that in the end the kingdom will have worldwide dominion. It will be the greatest of all kingdoms and empires ever.
So the lesson here is that even though there is rejection and a disappointing response, and the kingdom seems small and insignificant – in the end the kingdom will be the biggest kingdom with worldwide dominion
The smallness of its present form is not a true indicator of what it will become; it will cover the whole earth. This also is a real word of encouragement to the disciples given what they are experiencing at this time following Jesus, rejection and a meager response.
And then we come to the conclusion of this parable discourse –
Conclusion: Mark 4:33-34
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
So these are just some of Jesus’ kingdom parables. There are others, for instance in Matthew 13 there is also the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the parable of the leaven, the parable of the hidden treasure, the parable of the pearl of great price and the parable of the dragnet.
When it says, “as they were able to hear it” it means that the content of his parables was pretty basic stuff. For instance, he’s not ready to talk to them yet about his death and resurrection and the role this plays in the coming of the kingdom. But the form of the teaching was still in parables, which were like riddles and had to be explained. And so he told his disciples what they meant.
Alright, what can we take from all this? Notice that Jesus was drawing great crowds still. Chapter 4:1 begins by saying – “a very large crowd gathered about him.” Even as he’s turning away from the crowds and all those who reject him to focus on his disciples, he draws great crowds. But Jesus isn’t interested in great crowds. It seems to be all that American Christians care about, but not Jesus. Jesus is interested in disciples. People who are sincerely and earnestly learning to follow him and to walk in his way. And although there are few of these at this point, he turns his focus to them.
These parables also teach us a bit about how the kingdom comes into this world. The kingdom is already here, but not fully here yet. That awaits the final day. This is what some call the “already, not yet” of the kingdom of God. Many thought that the kingdom would come full blown all at once. But Jesus indicates that there’s a process involved. It begins with his first coming and there is growth and then the fullness comes with his second coming. The kingdom is already here, but not yet all the way here.
And then finally, I want to say that we too should be encouraged by these parables. We’re not in the disciples’ situation. Today Christianity is worldwide. But, as I said at the beginning, we can truly wonder at what passes for Christianity today.
These parables should also encourage us in our situation. The kingdom, that is, true Christianity, will grow step by step by its own power until the final day and the harvest is ready. And the kingdom, again, true Christianity, in the end will have worldwide dominion over all the earth. Like the disciples we can have confidence that our work will bear fruit in the end. God’s purposes will be accomplished.