April 10, 2016
As I’m sure you know, the Christian faith is under attack. I’m not just talking about ISIS and radical Islam, I’m talking about within our own country. While founded on Christian principles, our country is becoming increasingly ungodly and immoral and therefore hostile to the faith – to our beliefs, to our morals and values, to our way of life. Survey after survey reveals that fewer and fewer people identify with Christianity. Atheism is growing within our youngest generations. Incredibly, inexplicably, Islam is the fastest growing religion in our country. And so, perhaps you’ve had one of the following questions: what’s going on? Will the Christian faith survive? Is it a sinking ship – should I abandon ship? You see, a little more personal, will my faith survive the onslaught, the attacks, the desertions, the ridicule, the shame?
I want you to hear me very clearly and carefully. While it’s no longer popular to name the name of Jesus; while in fact many “professing” followers are deserting; while opposition to the faith is increasing; while ridicule and hostility are on the rise, there will never be a day in human history when Christianity is extinct. Some may leave it, some may attack it, we may suffer, but Christianity will ultimately, not only survive, but will conquer and win.
Think of its inconspicuous beginnings. It didn’t have a very glamorous start. The time was ripe in Israel with Messianic expectations. Oh, those expectations were skewed, but the Jews were ready for the appearance of their Christ. I don’t think you can say Jesus burst on the scene. After a scandalous birth, He certainly grew up in the wrong town – at least not where you would expect – Nazareth of Galilee – can any good thing come out of Nazareth? And so it began. And while His teaching was different – with authority – it confronted the religious establishment of the day. He certainly began garnering attention, but not the right kind, so it seemed.
Sure, He performed incredible miracles. Healing the sick, casting out demons. There could be no denying the miracles – so, that same religious establishment denied the source of His miraculous power. “What you do, you do by the power of Satan.” And then, those He healed, those He exorcised, He bound to secrecy. This does not seem the way to start a worldwide movement. What would come of this fledgling religion? Would it even make it?
Sure, He gathered many hearers – the crowds grew with many even professing to be followers. But He taught them in parables – and they didn’t get it. And then somewhere along the way, His teaching became too difficult, to challenging, to demanding. And slowly the crowds bled away. And there was the way the movement seemingly ended – with the crucifixion of this would-be Messiah. Sure, there were reports He’d raised from the dead – but there were only about 120 followers left. Would it make it? Would it survive, or would this Jesus of Nazareth melt into obscurity like so many so-called Christs before Him?
Sure, it has for awhile – okay, for the last couple of millenniums, but maybe, just maybe, Christianity has seen its day in the sun. Maybe it’s in its waning days of popularity – even existence. Maybe it’s dying a slow, painful death. Hear me clearly and carefully. The Christian faith will not only survive – it will win.
How do I know? Turn with me to Mark chapter 4 in our continuing study of this book. We come to the last two parables that I’ve called the parables of the kingdom. Jesus has made clear why He spoke in parables – to conceal truth from those who refuse to believe, and reveal deeper, encouraging truth to those who do believe. This morning, the deeper, encouraging truth for followers of Jesus is the kingdom will not only make it, it will grow miraculously and magnificently. How? It is, after all, God’s kingdom. Our sovereign God and His glorious kingdom will prevail. Read the text with me – Mark 4:26-34.
The parables of the kingdom. His parables began with the Parable of the Sower and end with two more parables of seeds – there’s a continuity in the kinds of parable, but they communicate not different, contradictory truths, but different, complementary truths. Two parables which clearly communicate the following truths to encourage us to stay with it – we are on the winning side:
- The Parable of the Seeds of the Field – The Kingdom will Sovereignly, Miraculously Grow (26-29)
- The Parable of the Mustard Seed – The Kingdom will Sovereignly, Magnificently Prevail (30-32)
- The Purpose of Parables Reprised (33-34)
The first parable has as its emphasis the mysterious power and secret process of divine growth, without human intervention or even human understanding. The second has at its emphasis the small beginnings of the kingdom, but its certain and magnificent end.
Let’s begin with that first parable of the seeds of the field. By the way, this parable is unique to Mark – it doesn’t appear in the other Gospel narratives. Mark started chapter 4 with the parable of the sower – which Jesus later explained to His disciples privately. Then it seems He gave those same disciples the parables of lamp and measure. Now, perhaps turning His attention back to the crowds, He gives these final two parables. While He doesn’t explain them, their meaning seems clear enough.
And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil.” What’s the deal with Jesus comparing the kingdom to something so mundane as a farmer sowing seed? Wouldn’t it be better to compare the kingdom to something more grand and glorious – like majestic mountains or beautiful sunsets or vast oceans or even powerful empires and rulers? Why a mustard plant rather than the cedars of Lebanon? He’s reminding us of the paradox of the gospel: its hidden, small and insignificant beginning. But its sure and commanding growth.
Now these parables remind us of the parable of the sower – but the focus of this story is not on the soil, but on the seed. In fact, it seems this seed falls only on good soil. And so the seed grows. But how?
I mean, the man casts his seed on the soil – must be good soil. He goes to bed at night and gets up by day – the wording is such that he does this over and over – goes to bed at night, gets up in the morning – goes to bed, gets up. He doesn’t do anything else. You see, he’s broadcast the seed – that’s all he can do. He can’t make the seed grow. In fact, here he doesn’t even know how it grows. But it does. The seed sprouts and grows. The soil produces the crop by itself – that is, without the help of the one who sowed the seed. It grows, first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain within the head. And when the crop permits – that is, when it’s done, the farmer immediately puts it to the sickle – because the harvest has come. Anyone who has ever planted a garden knows how glorious that is. You put the seed in the ground and get up every morning to check on it. Pretty soon, it breaks through. It continues to grow, until it finally produces a crop. It’s incredible.
He who has ears to hear let him hear. Now, one challenge we have is to not take elements from other parables and cross-pollinate – each parable must stand on its own. So what is the meaning of the parable? The sower could be Jesus, but doubtful, since this man, this farmer, doesn’t know how the seed grows – I suspect Jesus knows. The seed is still likely the word or the message of the kingdom – repent and believe the gospel. The soil is again likely those who hear, but in this parable, it seems to be good soil, since the seed grows and produces a crop.
The sower then puts the grain to harvest, bringing in the results of the work of the word of the kingdom – harvesting those who have heard and believed, thus producing a crop – some no doubt thirty, some sixty, some one-hundredfold. But what is the primary teaching of the parable? It’s obviously this idea that the farmer does not know how the seed grows. What does this mean? This is incredibly good news, because it teaches some very important truths.
First, we see that it is our job to broadcast the seed – the word of the kingdom, the good news of the gospel. We broadcast the seed wherever we go – remembering from the earlier parable that the seed will fall on hard, rocky, thorny, and good soil. That’s our job. Spread the good news to everyone. It doesn’t even seem to be our job to determine the quality of the soil. Indeed, rocky and thorny soil may not be readily apparent to us. Doesn’t matter, spread the good news anyway.
The second thing we learn from the parable is that it’s not our job to make the seed grow. In fact, we can’t make the seed grow – we don’t even know how it happens. It’s not our job to cause the seed to spout, to grow, and to produce a crop. We can’t. That’s His job, so we should leave it to Him. We do our job – He does His. Notice – we don’t even know how it grows – kingdom growth is a mystery. It doesn’t make sense – this foolishness of the cross is sweeping across the world. How? It is God’s sovereign work.
And the third very encouraging thing we learn is this: the seed will grow. While we may not know how, it will grow. Because the sovereign God of the universe, whose kingdom it is anyway, will cause the growth. This mysterious, magnificent power is in the seed – in the word of the kingdom. The point is not that we play no part in work of the kingdom’s advancement. You see, we know the farmer might be involved in a number of ways – sowing, watering, weeding, fertilizing, etc – but that’s not the point. In the end, the seed grows by itself, verse 28. The point is God’s sovereign purpose make the kingdom grow. This is God’s providence and His divine work.
Remember how Paul said it in I Corinthians 3. The church at Corinth was divided over their leaders – who’s greater – Paul, Peter, Apollos? Paul says, you don’t get it. Look at what he writes:
5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. [You may have received the seed from this sower or that sower, but it doesn’t matter – you believed as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.]
6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. [we are simply workers – farmers – I planted some seed, Apollos watered the seed, but it was God who caused the seed to grow – that’s His job.]
7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.
8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. [This is good news – you will be rewarded according to how you’ve sowed the seed – great.]
9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
This is incredible news. The seed is broadcast, but it is not the broadcaster who causes the seed to grow. You can take that off your plate. It’s not your responsibility. You can remove the guilt and self-recrimination. It’s God’s job to cause the growth. Therefore, it is not then the broadcaster who gets the credit or the praise – it is not even the soil that received the seed that gets credit – “Look at me, I’m so glad I believed.” No, it is ultimately God who causes the growth and therefore receives all the glory and praise due Him.
Notice the last thing from this parable – the farmer sows the seed – and is confident of a harvest. It is Jesus who is telling this parable, in the midst of rising opposition from religious leaders, the desertion of professed disciples, and the misunderstanding of true disciples. And yet, He is not disheartened, distraught or desperate. He knows His kingdom will prevail.
And so we wait in faith, confident of the harvest to come. Throughout Scripture, harvest is used to speak of the sure and certain end to come. And so, we can sleep, we can rest without anxiety, in humble confidence that God has invaded this troubled, broken world, and His Kingdom will survive. More than that, it will grow. Here’s what I want you to understand. This is God’s kingdom – all of it. He is the Sovereign King of His kingdom. This is all His doing. We do our part, but ultimately, salvation, growth, the church, the kingdom – it’s all His and His doing. We just get to participate in the sowing, in the harvest. God is in charge of human history, and He will bring His kingdom to its destined consummation, and no human action or opposition will change that.
Which brings us to the second parable – the Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30-32. And He said, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.”
Let’s look at the parable itself before we consider its meaning. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…smaller than all the seeds that are sown upon the soil… Stop right there. Lots of people want to point out Jesus is mistaken – as the supposed Creator, He should know the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds. That’s not what He said. He said it was the smallest of the seeds sown by gardeners and farmers at that time in Palestine. In fact, the mustard seed was proverbial for its smallness. So there’s no reason to get concerned – Jesus is not giving a lesson in botany, but speaking proverbially in a metaphor that first century hearers would understand.
Here’s His point: it is a very small, seemingly insignificant seed – about the size of a grain of sand. But it’s sown in the soil and grows to be a large plant – up to ten feet tall – such that it can be said have branches. It gets so big the birds can come and nest under its shade.
So, what does it mean? Again, we can’t take elements of other parables and necessarily apply them here. Here, the soil is not necessarily the hearer – it’s more likely the world – that’s how we are to see it in the account in Matthew 13. The kingdom of God is like the mustard seed, sown into the world. Now, in what way is it like a mustard seed? In two, very clear ways:
- First, like the mustard plant, the kingdom began as a very small seed with a rather inauspicious, inconspicuous, insignificant beginning. It was just Jesus and the Twelve. Sure, there was lots of popularity at first, but after His death and resurrection, there were only 120 gathered in the upper room. And the Twelve – well, they were nothing to write home to mom about. They were not a Who’s Who of great Christian leaders. We’ve noted this several times already – these were not political or religious leaders. These were not who you expected Jesus would choose to start a worldwide movement. These were a small band of fishermen, tax collectors, and no-name Galileans.
This movement of the Kingdom of God, culminating in the church, began small. Now remember, when Jesus is giving this parable, it was 2000 years ago. It was small. But He spoke prophetically of its growth. It would grow to be larger than all the plants of the garden. I don’t think we should press the parable to make points it’s not intended to make – for example, the other plants of the garden shouldn’t be seen as other religions in God’s garden – Christianity would just grow to be the largest. Rather, Jesus is simply saying, even though it will start small, very small, it will grow to be quite great. From insignificant beginnings to a magnificent end is the point. It is, after all, God’s kingdom.
- Which leads to the second thing I want you to see. Isn’t that what happened? This religious movement called Christianity grew to cover the world. It is a faith two thousand years old. It has grown to be larger than any other movement. It has grown such that the birds of the air have come to find shade and rest in its branches. Some suggest this is reference to the fact that people will come from all over, all nations, even Gentiles, to find rest in God’s kingdom.
That may be. But here’s what I want you to see. The parable doesn’t allow for the end of the Christian faith. There will never be a time in history when Christianity is extinct. While it will be opposed, ridiculed, persecuted; it will grow to its consummate, magnificent glorious end.
Which brings us to our third point and our conclusion. Mark forms what’s called an inclusio with the beginning of the chapter. With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it. This is now the tenth time we see a word related to hearing. As much as they were able to hear it – are you able to hear? Are you hearing me this morning? He didn’t speak to them without a parable – within this section – and largely through His ministry. But to His disciples, to us, He is explaining everything privately.
And this is what He wants you to know, disciples, this morning. The kingdom of God will grow – He has ordained it so. Despite human effort to extinguish it, oppose it, ridicule it, shame it, change it, stamp it out, it will grow. And disciples of Jesus, it will be brought to a most glorious and magnificent end. It will, in fact, it has become the greatest transforming power in the world, for the glory of His name. Will it survive? It’s going to make it just fine. Will you? Yes.