Last week the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. Some of you cried, but many of you rejoiced. They proved that they were the best football team in the NFL and their fans and many people across the country celebrated.
Beginning this weekend, all eyes will be on Vancouver. The line I have heard from Canadians involved is that Canada is going to “own the podium.” Of course they will have to prove that they are the best by their performance. If they prove it and do win many medals, our whole country will rejoice. Many across the world will watch the Olympics and celebrate the victory of the medal winners.
Jesus Christ has conquered death and been raised from the dead and established a new kingdom and the whole world shrugs its shoulders. Compared to the Super Bowl or the Olympics what Jesus did is so much greater, and yet fewer people actually get excited about it.
If God has such a great kingdom, why doesn’t everyone accept it? Why don’t we see the victory of God displayed all over the place? Why does it seem like it is a small thing? Why isn’t it celebrated with trumpets and banners around the whole world?
Mark 4:1-34 answers that question. Jesus was on the shore of Galilee and there was such a large crowd that he used a boat from which to speak. The key words we hear in this passage are seed, seeing, hearing and kingdom of God. The themes which Jesus spoke about were the nature of the kingdom of God, the secrecy of the kingdom of God and the need for true hearing. In this context, he answers the question “Why is the kingdom of God not recognized by everyone all over the universe?”
This is the kind of oil lamp which they used in the time of Jesus. They put oil in this part and a wick in the spout and that is where they lit the lamp. In Mark 4:21-23, Jesus uses the picture of a lamp and asks, “when you light a lamp do you put it under a basket or under your bed?” It would not make sense to do that. When we light a lamp, its purpose is to give light. What is the point of this picture?
What Jesus was communicating with this picture is that God’s intention is not to hide the message of the Kingdom of God. It is God’s intention to display that kingdom for all to see. Cole says, “…the ultimate purpose of the parable is thus not to conceal truth but to reveal it.”
But that is not what we see. In the verses which precede this we find that God seems to deliberately hide the message of the kingdom. In fact, in 4:11 Jesus actually speaks about “the secret of the kingdom of God.” Jesus hid the message by speaking in parables. In vs. 2 it says, “he taught them many things by parables.” At the end of the passage we are looking at today it says, “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them.” As we see, however, the parables were not used to help people understand things, but they had the effect of veiling things. After Jesus told the first parable in Mark 4:3-8, the disciples came to him, in verse 10, and “asked him about the parables.” They did not understand why He would use such cryptic language.
It seems that Jesus used parables to deliberately hide the truth about the kingdom of God. In Mark 4:12, Jesus quoted a verse from Isaiah 6:9, 10. We read, "He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”” Similar ideas are found in Jeremiah 5:21which says, "Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear:" They are also found in Ezekiel 12:2 where we read, "“Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people.” These verses help us understand that parables are addressed to those who listen to Jesus with unbelieving hearts. Parables give them the message of the kingdom, but they don’t hear with believing hearts and so the message of the kingdom is veiled to them. Two words for seeing are used in this Mark 4:12, so that what it says is, they see, but don’t see. The Message puts it this way, “These are people—Whose eyes are open but don’t see a thing, Whose ears are open but don’t understand a word, Who avoid making an about-face and getting forgiven.” There is deliberate irony in this verse. God wants them to turn and repent, but their hearts are not in the place to believe so they listen to all the messages, but they don’t get them. They see, but they don’t perceive. They hear, but they don’t understand and so the message of the kingdom remains a secret to them.
Geddert points out that Jesus was doing kingdom stuff by teaching and healing and casting out demons. He says, “…if those around Jesus allow their ears to truly hear and their eyes to truly see, they will discern in Jesus’ words and deeds the arrival of God’s kingdom.” He also says, “Contrary to all expectation, the kingdom comes secretly; its presence is discerned only by those who recognize God at work in the ministry and message of Jesus.”
Thus the explanation for why the victory of Jesus is not celebrated by everyone worldwide is that God intends it to remain hidden from those who do not come to him with hearts prepared to hear. The message of Jesus is that the evidence of the kingdom of God is clear enough, but only to those whose hearts are ready see it.
But the intent of this message is not to criticize, but rather to call people to pay close attention and see with eyes of faith. He begins the parable of the soils with the word “listen!” in Mark 4:3. When he has told the parable, he concludes, in verse 9, with the words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” After the parable in Mark 4:21-23 about hiding the light, Jesus once again says in verse 23, “If anyone has ears let him hear.” So it is clearly evident that Jesus wants people to understand what he is about, but the message of the kingdom of God is revealed only to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and so the appeal is to listen with eyes and ears of faith.
Cole explains, “Other teachers might rejoice when great crowds followed them, but not so the Lord; for He knew only too well the mixed motives of the human heart. Here is a strange Teacher; His parables are designed to test, not the intelligence, but the spiritual responsiveness of His hearers.”
Listening is open to all, hearing happens for those whose hearts are open.
So why don’t people get it? Why are they not able to hear the truth about the kingdom with open hearts? The answer to that question is given in the parable of the soils.
As Jesus stood on the shore of the lake, he could look out on the surrounding hills and perhaps in the distance he saw a sower casting seed. When you sow with machinery, you can determine where every seed lands much more accurately, but if you have a small field and use the broadcast method of sowing, it is inevitable that some of the seed will fall on the path. Here the ground is hard and birds soon come and take it away. Others fall on soil that has rocks underneath the surface. These plants sprout, but they have no depth of soil and don’t last long when the sun gets warm. Still others fall among the thorns and when the weeds grow up they take all the nutrients and moisture and the plant does not do well. But many of the seeds fall on good soil where they sprout and grow and produce a harvest.
When Jesus was together with his disciples, he explained this parable. Although he does not indicate why different people’s hearts are in different places, the reality is that they are.
Some people hear the word but the problem is, as Jesus implies in Mark 4:15, that their hearts are hard. They are totally closed to the message of the kingdom and Satan is there quickly taking away any hope of hearing. Their hard hearts and Satan’s enmity combine to prevent the message from penetrating their hearts.
Some people gladly hear and receive the word, but the truth of the kingdom does not penetrate deeply into their hearts. When things get hard because of persecution, which the Bible tells us is inevitable for the people of God, they do not have roots deep enough to keep them faithful at this time. We have heard of believers in North Africa who are being arrested for their faith and churches which are being broken up. We have been asked to pray that they will remain firm. If they have no depth of soil, they are in danger of falling away. Their shallow faith is revealed when the pressures of the world come and prevent the message of the kingdom from penetrating deeply enough into their hearts to truly grasp it so that they remain true.
Still others are like the seed sown among the weeds. They receive the word, they understand it, but there is so much other stuff in their life that the word of God has little chance of deeply impacting their life. Jesus mentions three “thorns.” First of all he mentions the thorn of worry about this life. If we are filled with fear about all the things that could happen in life, then we will not allow the message of the kingdom to penetrate into our hearts. The second thorn he mentions is the thorn of the deceitfulness of wealth. The Bible has a lot of warnings about the danger of the desire to get wealthy. If this desire is rooted in our life, it prevents us from hearing the message of the kingdom. The third thorn he mentions is the desire, or lust for other things. Anything in our life that is more important than the kingdom of God will not allow us to truly hear the message of Jesus. All of these thorns will choke out God’s word in our life. It is no wonder that so many people don’t understand the message of the kingdom. When I read this, I have to admit that it hits really close to home, particularly the part about the weeds.
Yet there are those who do get it, whose hearts are ready to hear the message. Jesus says three things about these people. They hear the word. They accept the word and they produce a crop.
Jesus asked the disciples a question in Mark 4:13, “How will you understand any parable?” The answer, given in the explanation of this parable is, “By correct hearing.”
This helps us understand why people don’t accept the message of the kingdom. God wants the message known, but he wants it revealed to those whose hearts are in a position to receive it. So the message of the kingdom is a secret revealed only to those who are ready to hear it.
When Jesus completed the parable he said in Mark 4:9, “He who has ear to hear, let him hear.” So once again in this parable we hear an invitation to listen, to desire to understand it and to hear with hearts of faith. Do you hear?
This invitation to hear is also repeated in Mark 4:24 where we read “Consider carefully what you hear…” To this call to hear, Jesus attached a promise. In Mark, these verses are not a strategy for getting wealthy, but about hearing the message of the kingdom. Those whose hearts are open to hearing what God is saying will greatly increase in their understanding. Those who refuse to listen to the message of the kingdom, will have even what they have understood taken away from them.
So the message is a very serious one. It affirms the need for careful listening to the message of the kingdom of God. It warns us that we cannot neglect or ignore the message. Basically it says that the message of the kingdom will increase for those who receive it and decrease for those whose hearts are hard.
Cole says, “…failure to apprehend will lead us further and further into the fog.”
In fact, for those whose hearts are good soil in receiving the message of the kingdom, God promises to produce a harvest which is amazing.
I have asked around a little and have found that normally wheat is sown at the rate of about 1.5-2.25 bu./acre. In today’s farming conditions with the way soil preparation is done, the way fertilizer is used and weed and disease control is possible, it is not unusual to get a crop of about 50-60 bushels per acre. That is a harvest about 20-40 times as much as was sown. Now, we need to remember that this was spoken to a much different farming situation. At that time, they did not have the same kind of weed control or disease control and a harvest of 20-40 times what was sown would have been an amazing crop. If that is the case, what does it mean when Jesus says that the fruitful soil will produce 30 times as much, which in that day might have been possible, but an extremely good crop. What does it mean when He goes on to indicate that the good soil will produce a crop 60 or even 100 times as much.
There is a deliberate expression of excess here. Jesus is saying that soil which receives the message of the kingdom of God and produces a crop will produce a crop that is ridiculously good. This is a marvelous promise. It tells us that because of the power of God, the kingdom of God will come in a way that is much greater than expected. The people who receive the message of the kingdom will do stuff that is way beyond the expectation of what is normal. God will multiply the harvest in amazing ways.
So once again we have an encouraging call to hear the message of the kingdom with open hearts and ears and eyes.
Mark 4:1-25 is a series of sayings which explain the secrecy of the kingdom. These verses help us understand why every home doesn’t have a “Super Bowl” Party for Jesus. Although God wants the message of the kingdom revealed, there is a deliberate secrecy about the kingdom of God because the understanding of the kingdom is given only to those whose hearts are ready to receive it. People refuse to receive the message of the kingdom because their hearts are hard or their hearts don’t take the message into any kind of depth or because they are distracted by many weeds. Those who do receive the message will grow in their understanding more and more and by the miracle of God’s grace their understanding will produce a harvest that is way out of proportion to what would normally be expected. The call is to hear the message of the kingdom. As we read on, Jesus gives two more parables which encourage us to seek God’s kingdom because in the end it will be worth it.
In Mark 4:26-29, Jesus tells another parable about seed. He speaks of a farmer who sows the seed, but then what does the farmer do? He goes to Regina for the Farm Progress Show and then he takes his kids to the lake for a few weeks. He goes to bed every night and wakes up every morning. He goes out and looks at his crop, but he does not make the crop grow!!
The phrase “all by itself” in Mark 4:28 comes from the Greek word, “automate.” In other words, “automatically” the crop grows – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” In the end, there will be a great harvest.
The kingdom of God is like that. The message of the kingdom is sown. But we don’t make it grow. In fact, we hardly even see it grow. In spite of inauspicious beginnings, in spite of the fact that we cannot see the kingdom of God mightily displayed in the world at this time, in spite of being hidden among the small pockets of believers scattered all over the world, the kingdom of God is growing. We don’t see it grow; we hardly see it present in our world, yet quietly, secretly, the kingdom of God is growing all by itself and it will continue to grow until when Jesus will returns the final day of harvest will come.
Geddert says, “During the present stage of the kingdom’s presence and growth, there will not be many assurances of the kingdom’s ultimate success. Setbacks may occur (or so it will seem). But the seed has been planted. The promise has been given. The disciples need to trust and be patient.”
So we are encouraged to listen with open hearts to the kingdom message because in the end, God will reap a great harvest that is now hardly visible in this world. Will we be a part of that great harvest?
The final parable, in Mark 4:30-32, is also about the kingdom of God. It compares the kingdom to a mustard seed. A mustard seed is a tiny seed, but when it grows, it spreads out quite a bit and becomes one of the largest garden plants. We are not that familiar with mustard plants and so don’t quite get this parable. But if we think of a canola seed, which is about the same size and shape as a mustard seed, we may understand. If you go into a canola field in July or August, you will see how large and involved the plant is. I am always amazed at plants such as tomatoes, which also have small seeds but grow into large strong vines.
If we can imagine those pictures, perhaps we can get what this parable is all about. In it Jesus promises that even though the kingdom of God has a small beginning, it will become the greatest kingdom on earth. This would have been a powerful and mysterious saying when Jesus spoke it. Today, when we know that the kingdom extends around the world, we perhaps can believe it a little more and yet when we compare it to what is popular in the rest of the world, it still requires faith. Even today the kingdom does not seem that great. We see the spirit of the Olympics around the world. We see the influence of the United States all over the world. We hear about Ban Ki-moon, the secretary General of the United Nations, but how often do we hear the story about God’s victory in the world? When do we hear about what God is doing to establish His kingdom? Yet the promise of God is that this little kingdom will grow to be an amazingly large kingdom which will be greater than “all the other plants in the garden.” The picture of the birds perching in its branches is a message of hope for all who hear.
Once again we are called to hope in the message of the kingdom and to hear it with open hearts, eyes and ears; for the kingdom of God will prevail in the end.
Geddert indicates that Mark 4:1-34 is filled with assurances. “Despite rejection, a great harvest is guaranteed(sower parable). Present hiddenness will surely give way to future visibility(parable of the lamp). Though we may not understand the process, we need not doubt the final results(parable of the growing seed). Small beginnings do not preclude large endings(parable of the mustard seed). The composite picture says, God’s reign is destined to grow and be victorious, however insignificant or incomprehensible it might now seem.”
The light of God’s truth is shining, therefore, open your heart to hear and understand what God is saying and doing. Don’t let a hard heart, persecution or distractions prevent you from hearing. See what God will do in increasing the kingdom and multiplying your understanding and producing fruit as you listen with a heart of faith.
If you don’t get it, listen with faith!
If you doubt, be encouraged!