March 13, 2016
I have great news for you this morning, people of Alliance. To you, it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. You see, not everyone understands those mysteries. There are insiders, and outsiders. Insiders who believe, and therefore understand. Outsiders, who oppose, who refuse to believe, and therefore don’t understand. For several months, we’ve been looking at the Gospel of Mark. And we remember, it’s been Mark’s purpose to present Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. And having seen His works and heard His words, we believe. And so, it’s been granted to us to know the mysteries of the kingdom. And others, while hearing, and seeing, refuse to believe. And they therefore, do not understand.
Let me be clear. Jesus came preaching the gospel of God, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” And some believed. Right there on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John. He taught in the synagogue with authority, wowing His listeners – no one ever taught like this. A few more believed. Not only that, His first miracle in this gospel was casting out a demon. More believed. He then healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The news began to spread, the crowds began to gather. More believed. Why wouldn’t everyone? Jesus cast out demons all over the place – and healed people of every imaginable disease. Not only that, He actually forgave a man of his sin. The kingdom was at hand. Why wouldn’t they want that, believe that?
The truth is, not everybody liked what He said, liked what He did. A careful reading of the first three chapters of Mark sees rising popularity, and rising opposition. It started in chapter 1, when He drove out a demon on the Sabbath. Not really His fault – the demon accosted Him. But then, in chapter 2, He had the audacity to forgive a man His sin. That sent the religious leaders over the edge – who can forgive sins but God. Then, Jesus called a tax collector to be follower, and actually went to his house, and partied with sinners. The Pharisees didn’t like that one bit. Rising popularity, rising opposition.
Then there was this fasting thing. The disciples of the Pharisees, the disciples of John fast – why doesn’t Jesus, and His disciples – that’s what spiritual people do. Then, horror of horror, again on the Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples began picking grain, and eating it. They didn’t like that – rising opposition. Then we got to chapter 3 – where Jesus actually healed a man on the Sabbath. He only had a withered hand – that could’ve waited till Sunday – after the Sabbath.
And so, as early as Mark 3, the Pharisees left the synagogue that day and began conspiring as to how they might kill Him. With His rising popularity came rising opposition. How will you respond to the words and works of Jesus? It will affect your understanding of the Kingdom.
You see, some were indifferent to the evidence. Others resented, resisted Him. Some ultimately rejected and opposed Him. They said His words and His works were of the devil, don’t believe Him. To which, we’ve heard Jesus say some rather hard things. You’ve gone too far – you’ve committed an unpardonable sin. There’s no hope for you.
But, I have great news for you. As subjects of the kingdom, those who have not doubted or been indifferent or rejected – those who have believed, Jesus has some things to say to you – and only to you. You see, in the kingdom, there are insiders, and outsiders. Those who believe, and those who don’t. And those who don’t, don’t get it.
But, for those of us who do, He’s going to describe for us the nature of His kingdom. While it is opposed, while many will reject it, the Kingdom will advance, the church will be built. The King of His Kingdom, the head of His church, wants to tell us some things about His rule. We arrive in our study of Mark to a new section. Mark talks a lot about teaching, but only records two significant sections of teaching, chapters 4 and 13. In this chapter, we are going to look at the parables of the Kingdom. And for you believers, insiders, these truths are for you, and only you.
Now, even as we begin, I suppose we need to start by defining the Kingdom itself. Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom, so just what is it? There are basically three views concerning the kingdom today:
- First is the view the kingdom is here in all its fullness, right now. Nothing more to come, Jesus is ruling on earth right now, as much as He is ever going to – at least until the second coming when the earth is destroyed and we all go to heaven. Now, out of this view flows the health, wealth and prosperity theology. God wants you to have everything, right now. Now, there are problems with that view. It teaches God wants you to be healthy and wealthy all the time. Of course, we know Christians still get sick, Christians still die. We still have to deal with demons and the forces of evil, and we don’t live in a perfect world. People who say the kingdom is here in all its fullness say the problem is with our faith – we just don’t believe enough – if we did, we wouldn’t be sick, there would be unbelievable health, wealth and prosperity. To which I respond – okay, fine, the ultimate problem with the curse is death. If the kingdom is here in all its fullness, don’t die. If you have enough faith, you won’t die, so don’t. Of course, we understand Christians die. So there is obviously some sense in which the kingdom is not yet here in all its fullness.
- Which leads to the second and opposite view of the kingdom – it is not here at all. That is Jesus, when He came to this earth, offered the Kingdom to the Jews, they rejected it, and so He said, thank you very much, I’ll take that right back to heaven with me, and the kingdom is not here at all today. It is a totally future thing. This leaves us here, today, in extreme forms of dispensationalism, with no gifts, no power, no kingdom life. Some of you are sitting there saying, “See, I told you he’s not a dispensationalist.” You’re right, I have trouble with the whole Left Behind But, I do believe there is some value in dispensationalism, I just don’t buy it all. Extreme forms of the system teach we are completely in a parenthetical age – the church age – but it is not to be confused with the kingdom of God. The Kingdom is not here at all – which means, frankly, we’re wasting our time in the gospels; we’re wasting our time in the book of Mark. You see, some would say since the Jews rejected Jesus, there is no kingdom, the gospels, the gospel of the kingdom, is not for us.
- The third view is one I’ve shared with you before – there is an already-not yet presence of the kingdom. What do I mean? The kingdom is here right now. Jesus rules in the hearts of His people through the church. This is the church age. So, there is a sense in which the kingdom is already here, but it is not yet here in all its fullness. That will be in the future, when Jesus returns, however that looks, and sets up the kingdom in all its fullness – no evil, no sickness, no death – only grace and life and truth. But until then, we still have to deal with the effects of sin and what sin drug in with it – demons, disease, death. But in His grace, we see Him giving us foretastes of fullness. Every time someone is healed, and God does heal today, it is a reminder, in the fullness of the future kingdom, there will be no sickness. Every time a demon is driven out, and that happens – it is a reminder in the future kingdom, there will be no demons. And every time someone is born again – their sins forgiven – brought into the kingdom of God – it is a reminder there will be no sin in the fullness of the future kingdom. There is an already-not yet aspect to the kingdom of God.
Which means forgiveness is for today, the gifts are for today, healing is for today, kingdom power is for today. The kingdom is here, right now. So, these parables of the kingdom are for us as insiders – for us and for our understanding – what the King is doing in the world. Let’s begin by reading Mark 4:1-2, then were going to drop down and read verses 10-12. This is another one of Mark’s sandwich methods – he starts the story of the Parable of the Sower with the setting in verses 1-2, tells the parable in verses 3-9, then interrupts it tell us the purpose of parables in verses 10-12, then tells us the meaning of the parable in verses 13-20. So today, we’ll take the setting and the middle of the sandwich. Let’s read. (Read verses 1-2)
After finishing with the scribes and His family, outsiders, Jesus left the house, went down by the Sea of Galilee. I’ve been saying this over and over – those we expect to be insiders, the religious establishment and His family – they weren’t. And those we expect to be outsiders – tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, Gentiles – they aren’t.
The crowds were so large and pushing in around Him that He went out in a boat, sat down, and began to speak to them. Lots of discussion as to why He sat down to teach, because everyone knows you’re supposed to stand when you preach – let me just clear that up for you – He was in a boat – He didn’t want to rock the boat, He didn’t want to tip the boat over, baby. From there, He gives His first parable about a sower and some seed and some different kinds of soil that received the seed – we’re going to save that for next week – but the parable of the sower has everything to do with why some are outsiders and some are insiders. Drop down to verses 10-12 – read.
I only want to do two things today:
- First, I want to Define Parables
- Second, I want to discuss the Purpose of Parables. And this one may come as a bit of a surprise – the truth is, parables are only for insiders, they’re not for outsiders. And who are outsiders? Those who refuse to believe.
Let’s begins with that first one, what are parables? We’ve all heard the definition, “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” As simple as that sounds, I discovered in my study, it’s not that easy. In fact, there is not an easy answer to the question. The word appears 48 times in the Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, but never in John, and only twice more in the rest of the New Testament, both in the book of Hebrews. The word parable comes from the Greek word, parabole, and literally means, to throw or lay alongside. In a parable, we lay something alongside something else in order to compare them for greater understanding. A full definition of a parable could be this, “a brief story, narrative or statement drawn from human life or nature, not relating to an actual event, but true to life and concerning something very familiar to the listeners, given for the purpose of teaching spiritual truth.” Parables can come in the form of riddles, profound or obscure sayings, maxims, proverbs, analogies, comparisons, and illustrative stories. Almost all of them are similes or metaphors.
And so through our time in chapter 4, Jesus is going to lay the kingdom alongside sowers and seed and wheat and weeds and baskets and lamps and mustard seeds, all so we can understand it. Word pictures to help us understand the deep truths of the kingdom of God. That is, for insiders. But for those who refuse to believe – they will only seem as stories to them, or further harden them in their rejection.
Now, we do have a bit of a problem. For the first 19 centuries of the church, parables were seen as allegories. What’s an allegory? An allegory is a story with a hidden message behind the story, and every detail of the story has some corresponding truth attached to it. Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is often cited as the best example of an allegory. But with the coming of the 20th Century, conservative scholars began to question the validity of seeing parables as allegories. They listed all kinds of problems:
First, when reading a parable, if there are a bunch of hidden meanings, who gets to decide what the hidden meanings are? Through the centuries, when interpreting the parables, no two people, even biblical scholars seemed to agree. There were all kinds of interpretations, very elaborate, and very arbitrary.
Not only that, a second problem was the parables were interpreted anachronistically – big word – what it means is this: later teachings of the church were read back into the parables. Things really started to get carried away. Let me give you some examples. Perhaps the best known example is that of St. Augustine, who lived in the 5th Century, and his interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This is what he said:
The wounded man stood for Adam; Jerusalem was the heavenly city from which he had fallen; Jericho was the moon which stands for man’s mortality; the robbers were the devil and his angels who strip the man of his immortality and beat him by persuading him to sin; the priest and the Levite were the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament; the Good Samaritan was Christ; the binding of the mans wounds were the restraint of sin; the oil and wine were the comfort of hope and the encouragement to work; the donkey was the incarnation; the inn was the church; the two denarii were the two commandments of love; and are you ready; the innkeeper was the Apostle Paul. Don’t you see all that when you read the parable?
Another example is provided by Origen, a church father who lived in 4th Century. This is how he saw the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25 – I don’t have this on the screen for you. The virgins, Origen said, are all the people who have received the Word of God. The wise believe and live a righteous life. The foolish believe but fail to act. The five lamps of the wise represent the five natural senses, which are all trimmed by proper use. The five lamps of the foolish fail to give light and move out into the night of the world. The oil is the teaching of the Word, and the sellers of oil are the teachers. The price they pay for the oil is perseverance. Midnight is the time of reckless neglect. The great cry that is heard come from angels who awaken the people. And the bridegroom is Christ, who comes to meet His bride, the Church. All that from parable. You see it, don’t you?
Of course, you can see the problems that arose from such interpretations – did Jesus actually have all that in mind, and who gets to decide? And this allegorizing of parables soon began to stretch to the rest of Scripture. It was commonly held each passage of Scripture held four meanings: a literal meaning; an allegorical meaning; an ethical meaning; and a heavenly meaning. So, for example, Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian, took Genesis 1:3 to have the following meanings:
Literally, it referred to creation.
Allegorically, it meant, “Let Christ be born in the Church.”
Ethically, it meant, “May we be illumined in mind and inflamed in heart through Christ.”
And the heavenly meaning, “May we be conducted to glory through Christ.”
And I thought normal Bible study was challenging! I think I shared this with you before, but one of my favorites of assigning hidden meanings to every point of Scripture is found in John 21. You remember the story: It was after the resurrection, and several of Jesus’ disciples spent the night fishing. But, we’re told they caught nothing. The next morning, Jesus was standing on the shore, but they couldn’t tell it was He. He told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and when they did, they pulled up this enormous catch of fish. In fact, John, the former fisherman, tells us, there were 153 large fish. Well, now, what does the number 153 mean?
- Cyril of Alexandria said: 100 = Gentiles
50 = Jews
3 = Trinity
153 Total! Incredible!
Do you get the significance? Neither do I.
- Augustine said: 10 = Law (i.e., Ten Commandments)
7 = Grace (Perfection)
It you add 17+16+15+14…3+2+1=153! Unbelievable! Where would we be without Augustine?
- Jerome – 153 species of fish known in the Sea of Galilee at that time. Speaks of universality of the Gospel message. Can you believe it, there was one of every species of fish in that net.
- A fairly recent author said, “The number of the fish caught is given, 153. The number of the nations of the world known at that time was exactly 153. How significant this is! Thus all the nations of the world will be gathered into his kingdom.” Wow, that is inconceivable.
I’ll tell you what I think the 153 means. Means it was a lot of fish! (Doug – Friday) Fisherman of that day (and remember, the author of the book was a fisherman) would immediately recognize this was some catch – 153 fish and all large. Wow – this borders on the miraculous. Exactly.
Well, with such abusive allegorizing of Scripture, near the end of the 19th century and through most of the 20th Century, biblical scholars swung with the pendulum. We went to the other extreme that perhaps many of you have heard, and it goes like this: There is one and only one central meaning to each parable, (how many of you have heard that?) and to try to assign specific meanings to the elements of the parable is allegorizing and should be rejected immediately.
Of course, there is one major problem with that understanding: Jesus only interpreted two of His parables – He did it here in Mark 4 with the Parable of the Sower, and in Matthew 13 with the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, and guess what? He allegorized it. That is, He did assign specific meanings to most – not all, but most of the elements of the parables. Critics say one of two things – this was added by Mark and Matthew, Jesus didn’t really say it, or, the way Jesus interpreted His own parables is the exception to the rule, we shouldn’t try to interpret them that way.
All that to say this. We are going to try our best to understand the meanings of these parables. We’re going to have to do some work, but it’s going to be worth it. Because I believe these parables are for us to understand the kingdom of God. And I believe we will understand them because of the purpose of parables, which brings us to our second point.
- Why did Jesus speak in parables – what is the purpose of parables? We’re not left in the dark – Jesus answered that question very clearly for us in verses 10-12.
Very simply, parables have two purposes: to conceal, and to reveal. Matthew says it this way in chapter 13:10, “Jesus answered them, ‘To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them is has not been granted.’” The word mystery only appears here in the Synoptic parallels in the Gospel narratives. However, it was favorite word of the Apostle Paul – he uses the term 21 times. You may remember from our study in Paul’s letters, the word mystery doesn’t speak of some riddle or something strange or mysterious – it speaks rather of things hidden in the past, but now made known to us. This is an important part of understanding Jesus’ use of parables. He is revealing previously hidden, but now made known to us truth.
Jesus tells us right here the parables, at least those He’s about to give us, have to do with the mysteries of the kingdom. Those things formerly unknown, but now made known. Here, we see these mysteries have to do with the kingdom of God – namely, the power and presence of the kingdom brought near through the person of Jesus, the Christ.
Now, the kingdom includes the church, but should not be confused with the church. Most prophecies in the Old Testament about the Messiah point to His second coming and the establishment of His earthly kingdom and subsequent eternal kingdom. Only hints are given about this present earthly kingdom, that began with His rejection and crucifixion and will continue until He returns. We are in the church age – but the kingdom does exist, in our hearts, in His church. This is the already part of the kingdom that exists spiritually in the hearts of His people. The king is present with His people, but He is not visible or always evident to the world. The mystery, Paul defines for us further, the mystery is the church – Christ in you, the hope of glory. And because He is in us, by His Spirit, it has been granted to know the mysteries of that kingdom. I’m excited about that.
And from there, Jesus makes it clear that some will know the mysteries of the kingdom, some will not – which is why He spoke in parables. That sounds mean, but we have to remember the context. Jesus spoke in parables, first to conceal. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10. There, the Jews were in the midst of sweeping judgment. Prophet after prophet had been sent, but they refused to listen. They are on the verge of captivity in Babylon. There are still prophets, namely, Isaiah, who are decrying their condition and announcing their fate. But it is too late. They have been sealed in the hardness of their hearts. While they will hear, they will not understand, while seeing, they will not perceive.
That exactly is what Jesus is saying with these parables. Remember the context – the scribes had reached their final conclusion about Jesus – He’s a demon. Jesus said, you’ve just gone too far. And with that, He embarks on that scathing denunciation we looked at. Now, He begins to speak in parables. Why? They sealed their fate. They had come to a settled conviction of rejection. So, hearing, they will not understand, seeing they will not perceive. As hard as that sounds – remember, they had gone too far. Jesus is calling people, the crowds, to make a decision about Him. Those who believe will receive even more, but those who reject, even what they have will be taken from them.
So in closing, let’s look at the parallel account in Matthew 13. In verses 16 and 17, to those of us who believe, we read, “blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.” The parables have been given to conceal from those who don’t believe, but to reveal and bless those who do believe. That’s us. We are a blessed people here this morning. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to study the parables of the kingdom – you will hear, you will see, and you will understand, because you are blessed. “For truly I say to you,” Jesus says, “that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” You are a blessed people today. You have received much. And from the time of your conversion till you die, you will continue to receive more and more. It will be given in abundance. So I want to encourage you to pray over the next few weeks that God will open the eyes of our hearts to understand what He has for us in the parables of the kingdom.