Are there times when you are confused by God? Are there times where you struggle with doubt? Are there times when you have questions for God that do not seem to have answers? Jesus has an answer for each of us for our times of confusion and questions as we come to understand God which we are going to look at in this text today.
Jesus is in the midst of telling parables. Jesus is using the parables to see who wants to learn more about the kingdom of God and whose hearts will be hardened and continue to turn away from Jesus. Jesus told an entry level parable: the parable of soils. It is a cornerstone parable because it reveals that those who have good, receptive hearts will be the ones to understand the mysteries of God’s kingdom. You will notice that Jesus was not done but tells three more parables after telling the parable of the soils. It is important that we keep these parables together in their context and message because that is what Mark is doing. Mark groups these four parables together so that we will see a central message about what Jesus is teaching us about the kingdom of God.
The repetition of seed parables needs to be striking to us because it meant something to these hearers. So before we can look at these parables, we need to consider the context by which they would have heard these parables. The prophets used seeds, planting, and harvesting as images of God’s restoration work. Listen to what they were saying.
“And in that day I will answer, declares the LORD, I will answer the heavens, and they shall answer the earth, and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil, and they shall answer Jezreel, and I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’” (Hosea 2:21–23 ESV)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the LORD your God. (Amos 9:13–15 ESV)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:27–28 ESV)
Notice that these prophecies describe God sowing seeds and planting Israel in a way so that its fortunes are restored. They will be God’s people and never be uprooted again when the Lord sows Israel. Keep this background in your mind as we read these three parables. Remember that the first parable Jesus told is the parable about soils. In fact, I believe that not keeping these parables connected has caused a great number of misinterpretations and misapplications from these parables. So let us carefully consider what Jesus tells us as we hear a parable about light and two parables about seeds. The first parable we will read is in Mark 4:21-25.
Lamp Under a Basket Parable (4:21-25)
Jesus begins by asking an obvious, rhetorical question. Do you put a lamp under a basket or under a bed? No, a lamp is put on a stand so that its light can shine. The lamp brings everything into the light. Nothing is concealed and nothing can remain hidden with the light shining. So what is the point?
Jesus is the light who is exposing the hearts of the people. The pious are now shown to be rebels to the Lord. The soils that one would think would be receptive to the seed and listen to Jesus are revealed to be thorny, stony, hard hearts. This is what the word of God does and what Jesus has come to do: reveal the truth of people’s hearts. Jesus is showing who we really are. This is what we must allow God’s word to do to us: reveal everything in our hearts so that nothing is hidden. This is why Jesus says in verse 24 to “pay attention to what you hear.” The more you hear, the more you can understand. This statement is very similar to what Jesus said in Mark 4:12. Either your spiritual blindness will increase or your spiritual understanding will increase. There is no middle ground. God is shining the light in our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6). Pay attention to the light that is shining from God’s word because it is telling us something important. It is revealing the truth about our hearts. It is showing us what soil our heart is. The light is shining in Jesus to show if you belong to the kingdom Jesus is bringing.
Growing Seed Parable (4:26-29)
The next parable follows along the same lines as the prior two parables (soils and lamp parables). The kingdom of God is described as seed scattered by a person who sleeps and rises day and night until suddenly the seed sprouts and grows and he does not know how. This is the effect of Jesus’ words and the effect of the kingdom in the hearts of people. The words of Jesus change people.
But I want us to notice a critical description that Jesus gives about his seed. The work and the power is in the seed and not in the farmer. Do you see that in this parable? The man does not know how the sprouting and growth happened. The man did not do anything but scatter seed and go to sleep. There was nothing else he did. The point is that it is God who is opening and working on hearts. Friends, we cannot force results. We cannot use some technique or some teaching tool to generate results. The power does not reside in us and has never resided in us. We cannot use the “Big Picture of the Bible” in all our churches and change the world. God does the work and there is no sure fire plan except scattering seed. There is nothing we can do to make people obey. I have heard of churches and elders holding preachers accountable, asking how many people he had baptized this year. What an arrogant thought! We do not control that! God does. There is nothing special in us to cause people to obey!
We so desire the process of the gospel to be an event. We want to see immediate results. We want a single sermon to change everyone to obey. We want one invitation, one gospel meeting, one Bible study, or one special act to just be the cause of immediate results. Seed growing to a plant is a painfully slow process. We probably tried planting seed at some point when we were kids, even if it is was in a cup or for a science project at school. We would be so excited to plant seed. We would come back the next day looking for results and there is nothing to see. There is nothing to see for days. So what were we tempted to do? We are tempted to do more to make it grow. We add more water and drown the plant so it can’t grow. God is telling us something so important with this parable. Our place is to plant the seed and God gives the increase.
Let me talk about this as a church and as a family. First, let us talk about what this looks like as a church. We cannot be results centered. We cannot try to do something flashy so that we can attract people. We are not the power and we are not the one to make changes in the lives of people. Our place is the plant the seed. Please consider that this is purposeful by God so that we could not boast in ourselves. Any growth that we have here is only the work of God. We must be faithful to scatter seed. We must faithfully give the word. God opens hearts and changes lives. This is why our teaching and preaching must always be book, chapter, and verse. Our teaching must always be, “This is what the Lord says.” It can never be our ideas. It can never simply be entertaining. This is not about food, coffee, carnivals, or other externals. I am so sad to see how many churches try to pull people by advertising that they are going to feed you if you come. This is an external draw that God does not accept, according to John 6:26. We must plant seed. God does the work. We must let the seed plant in our own hearts as well. The writer of Hebrews says that the word of God is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12). God is doing his work in our hearts through his word.
Second, I want to speak to our families. The truth is the same. Parents cannot produce belief in their children. We cannot produce belief in our families or in our friends through arguments or tactics. All we can do is plant seed. Now we have failed as parents and are condemned if we did not plant seeds with our children. We need to scatter seed on their hearts every day. But we cannot produce faith in them. We must know our place. Plant the seed. The seed does not grow by human intervention. Put the seed of God’s word on their hearts. Shine the light of God in their world every day.
Mustard Seed Parable (4:30-34)
Mark records one more parable and you will notice that it is also about seed and planting. While the prior parable is only recorded in Mark’s gospel, the parable of the mustard seed is recorded in Matthew and Luke also. Therefore, you probably have heard this parable before and may already be forming an explanation of this parable in your mind. We immediate see that the mustard seed is a small seed and it is contrasted to the large tree that comes out of that small seed. No doubt Jesus is declaring that the kingdom is going to have a small beginning and end up growing to a great size.
But it is the language of verse 32 that is striking. This is a description of great world kingdoms. You will find this description used of Assyria in Ezekiel 31:3-6 and of Babylon in Daniel 4:10-12. But it is also prophetically used of God’s kingdom in Ezekiel 17:22-24.
Thus says the Lord GOD: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 17:22–24 ESV)
We noted at the beginning of the lesson that these seed and planting images are used by God in the prophets to describe God restoring Israel. God is going to sow seed and plant the nation so that its fortunes are restored. Ezekiel 17:22-24 declares a time when God himself will plant Israel on the mountain height. Notice who is going to enjoy the tree that comes from this planting: every kind of bird and every sort of bird will nest. Look back to Mark 4:32 and you will see that Jesus says the same thing about what he is doing. What Jesus is doing is bringing this restored kingdom through his words. Those who belong to this kingdom and will enjoy the rest that this kingdom has to offer are those who have hearts that desire to listen and learn. They are those who allow the light to shine in their hearts and expose what is in it. They are those who are producing fruit because the seed has been scattered and your heart has allowed that seed to sprout and grow. Jesus is establishing his large, promised, glorious kingdom through his words.
Jesus is revealing the kingdom of God the world. He is using these images to show what he is planting through his teachings. Many people are rejecting. Many people are saying Jesus is out of his mind. Many people are trying to destroy Jesus. But this does not change what Jesus has come to do. Through his words the kingdom is established. It is important to underscore this truth: only through Jesus’ words is the kingdom of God established and grown. The growth will not happen any other way. Jesus is teaching his people how to listen to his teachings.
Now notice how this section ends in verses 33-34.
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. (Mark 4:33–34 ESV)
Jesus is deliberately teaching in this way to see who will seek him and desire to know him. The offer of the kingdom is to every bird in all creation. Everyone can come to Jesus’ kingdom and enjoy shade and shelter. But Jesus did not just give the kingdom to people. Jesus spoke words which is likened to him scattering seed on hearts and shining lights into hearts to reveal the kinds of people we are. I asked at the beginning of the lesson if you had doubts or confusion about God. If you are confused by God’s word or you have questions about Jesus, understand that there is nothing wrong with your mental capabilities. Rather, God is wanting to know if you will try to answer the questions you have about God. Will you try to come to understand God? Or will you allow your questions and your confusion to lead you away from Jesus?
I know of a person who I have talked to many times. He grew up in the pews and his parents brought him to worship as a child. But he left the faith and I have asked him why, desiring to talk about it with him. He said to me that he has questions that no one is able to answer. Because he has questions, he has walked away from the Lord. What I want each of us to see is God put these questions in us with intention so that we will each be put at a crossroads: will you seek the answers or walk away because you have questions? Jesus is teaching in a way so that hearts are either opened or grow harder. Jesus is teaching in a way so that the nature of your heart will be exposed. Jesus is teaching in a way so that fruit will grow in your life if you let the seed work on your heart. This is the kingdom that God promised will give you life, refreshing, shade, and rest. You are invited to join and nest in its branches. You are invited to find the answers from the Lord. This is how the kingdom works. Will you draw closer to Jesus and enjoy this kingdom?