Jesus Teaches about the Kingdom of God using Two Parables
We all love a good story and a good storyteller; they tend to be someone who can hold a room. The best stories capture us in how they are told and what they teach us; they help us better understand the world and how we live. The stories of our time seek to convince us of a certain worldview or truth, and the best stories are those which seep into our mind and hearts seeds of truth, seeds that then ruminate over time. Stories are not just about escapism or withdrawing from the difficulties of the world; they help us to understand better the world and times we live in; CS Lewis capture it when he wrote: ““He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” What does he mean? it is that in the telling stories “we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”
If you look at History, the greatest teachers were often the greatest storytellers, as they found ways to share with their followers the essence of their teachings through ways they would understand. By sheer influence on the world, Jesus is quite simply the greatest teacher humanity has ever known and one of our greatest storytellers. In fact, Mark tells us that Jesus never spoke to a crowd ‘without a parable.’ Parables being those stories grounded in the reality of the human experience, yet, that revealed something of the truths of heaven. It is two of those short earthly-heavenly stories we find ourselves thinking about. In fact, the wider chapter in Mark contains some four parables, each teaching a different truth about who God is and what it means to live for Him through faith.
Our two parables in this section of Scripture each teach us a different aspect about the Kingdom of God that Jesus is inaugurating on Earth:
- first, the Kingdom grows by the hand of God alone, not human effort;
- second, that the Kingdom grows and goes in a way unnoticed by the world, like a seed.
Finally, in Marks summary of this section, we are reminded that it is only as His disciples that we can know the full truth of the Kingdom through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Let us consider the two parables of Jesus today.
1. It is God who Does the Growing (Mark 4:26-29)
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once, he puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.”
Many of the parables of Jesus are recorded across all four Gospels. Today’s first one, Mark 4:26-29, is one we find only in Marks Gospel. It is a parable that is as vague as it is powerful, with people interpreting images of Judgement, God at work in the world, planting Gospel seeds in the world, Discipleship or a summary of Jesus ministry in the world. Yet, in terms of the context and wider teaching of Jesus, I think the point of this parable is how it is God who grows his Kingdom in the world.1
Just before our first parable was the challenge of the Lamp: no one lights a lamp to hide it, no we light a lamp so that it may bring light to the room in which need it, that it will remove the darkness and reveal all things to us. Thus, all disciples are challenged to consider how they will use the things God has given them for His cause. Jesus finishes that parable with a challenge and rebuke:
“Pay attention to what you hear. By the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and more will be added to you. 25 For whoever has, more will be given to him, and whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”2
It is a paradox of the Kingdom; whoever welcomes the rule of God will be given more of God’s intended fruit, and the one who depends on their own resources and strength will eventually lose even that. Hence, I think our first parable this morning follows on with what Jesus has been teaching about the reality of the Kingdom and Harvest: That even though it is God who does the work of Growth and tending, the worker is ready, active and waiting to do what is required of them.
The Crop Grows in its Own Time (26-28)
Jesus has presented the worker doing what he is required to do, scattering seed on good soil before he drifts off stage and the focus shifts to the seeds. In verses 26-28, our focus is not on the worker tending the crops or removing weeds but on the growth of the crop. The worker is committed to the cause; he sleeps; he wakes up at night to check the crop and is presented as being amazed by the miracle of growth – how the seed becomes the crop. As he sleeps, the seed sprouts into shoots rising slowly from the soil, even though he knows not how, then from the soil comes, the blade, then the head before the full grain on the head all by itself (28).
The worker has no idea how the ‘how,’ no understanding of the timing of the harvest; he just watches in amazement as nature takes its course over its own time. This is the point, the kingdom of heaven works and grows in the same way as the seed, by the hand of God!
The slowly revealed imagery of the crop’s growth is perhaps another teaching point that goes against the people’s expectations at the time, people who expected the rule of God to come in one moment. The Kingdom of God will grow as per the timing and direction of the Lord. The growth that will appear slow and non-conspicuous to the world, yet, growth that will be steady until the return of Jesus.
As followers of Jesus, then we are called to the work of the harvest, to be the people planting the seed, yet, we must rest on the truth that the Kingdom grows despite us, not because of us.
The Worker is Willing and Ready (29)
The farmer is not presented in a negative way here; he might not understand how the seed grows, but, regardless, he does all that is required of him: He plants the seed, then he is watchful over it is as it grows before being ready to reap the crop that he has been waiting for. He might not understand the ‘how’ of growth but is ready and willing for action when the time comes to reap the produce of the harvest.3 The challenge remains one of readiness for those who belong to the Kingdom. Disciples are called to the Harvest of the Kingdom; following Jesus is to be ready for the work.
“The kingdom is like this sleepy, restful trust. It is not like the frenetic busyness of works righteousness.”4
What this first parable reminds us that while we might help sow the seed, we receive none of the Glory for the work; we watch and marvel as the crop grows, but the Glory of growth belongs to the mystery – to God. Yet, as it grows of its own accord, our waiting is not idle. It is active. The farmer here witnesses the different stages of growth, then when the grain is ready to harvest, He is ready to harvest it.
Today, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to the same state of readiness, tending to the work of the harvest and watching in wonder and awe as God does what only God can do, then being ready to act in correlation to the harvest when God needs us to act. Are we ready where God has placed us?
2. The Way of the Seed is the Reality of the Kingdom (Mark 4:30-32)
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Christians talk a lot about the Kingdom of God; you will hear ministers preaching about bringing in the kingdom or worship songs with vague ‘Kingdom’ images. Yet, we are not really sure what we are talking about if we are honest with ourselves! The Kingdom is hard to understand and even harder to define. The essence of the Kingdom of God is something both tangible yet untenable. We can relate to Jesus when he asks: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?” This is His point, that the Kingdom of God is hard to nail down and hard to define. We are a people of the Kingdom under the King.
Jesus ponders what imagery best describes the ontology of the Kingdom and its way’s? That of the Mustard Seed (the smallest of the garden seeds) declared Jesus!5 It was common and worked for the imagery of contrast, the point Jesus is making is simple, that “small beginnings can yield great outcomes.”6 The way of the seed does not fit the logic of the world, it is small and insignificant; unnoticeable when it enters into the ground. Yet with time, the seed becomes a plant so strong and large that birds can perch in its branches and rest from the weariness of their life.
The parable point is a simple one, the Kingdom of Heaven will have small and insignificant beginnings; it will be unnoticeable to the world, yet, with time, it will grow into something great, good and powerful. Something that will challenge the worlds way of living and change it. The Kingdom of God would grow under the hand and by the timing of God, not dependant on those who belong to it or the works of man, but as the Spirit of God will, so would the kingdom grow.
Living now in the Reality of the Kingdom to Come
We belong to the Kingdom of God, and it looks nothing like the Kingdoms of the world, yet, what we must rest in and find hope in is that God is the one who is doing the work of growing and shaping our Job is to be ready, active and waiting of harvest and to marvel at how the Kingdom is at work.
Today, as we find ourselves living intension of the now and the not yet, knowing that we are in the Kingdom and it is still growing, we must know the hope of certainty. God set into beginning he will see through to the end: the beginnings of the Kingdom of God in its insignificance saying nothing about its end or direction. God is growing his Kingdom and building his church by his means and in his timing! Our job is to trust that God is doing what God needs to do, rest in the truth of his sovereign reign, and join in as individuals and churches with the work of the Spiritual harvest.
3. Parables Reveal the Truth of the Kingdom (Mark 4:33-34)
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
Mark concludes by summarises the why of what Jesus was doing. Teaching publicly with parables but explaining their meaning privately to the disciples. The inference here is that parables were his main teaching method; he sought to teach the word of God in a way the world God had made would understand. Parables were a way of making the things of God know to the people in a way they could hear.
Jesus taught the word of God and the way of God in a way that was contextually relevant to the people he was teaching. The parables were not some mystic zen truth’s that only the enlightened could grasp; they were the plain truths of heaven, yet, there was something hidden to them, something that world people would struggle to grasp or understand until they came to Jesus.
In His Presence We Understand
Mark’s comment (34) that Jesus explained everything to the disciples in private reminds us that while Jesus taught plainly God’s truths, the world may hear them, but until we come to Him as Lord and teacher, we will never truly understand. Understanding is a gift of God made known through the dwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is only as his Disciples that we can truly know him, his teachings, and his way as the Holy Spirit works in us to make us more like him. It is only as his Disciples that we can see the Kingdom as he teaches it and rest in the work of God.
Thus, the final challenge: are we his disciples? Have we come to know the saving rule of Christ and the wonder of Grace received through faith? Or, are we those who still ponder the mystery of parables without the power of the Holy Spirt, those who would rather trust in the ways of the world that rest in the wonder, rule and work of God and those seeking to save ourselves.
As We Go
True teachings change; they bring about something new in a person as they challenge the old to become whatever the subject is taught. To teach something is to want someone to learn it and apply it to their lives. The teachings of Jesus were not ethereal or mystical. They were about a new world and a new way – The Kingdom of God. Jesus was teaching us about the Kingdom not so that we could know more about it, not because it was a new concept but because, as its citizens, we needed to know about it to live in it. Russell Moore wrote:
“The Kingdom concept is a mystery older than the creation itself—a mystery that points to God’s cosmic purpose to sum up the entire cosmos under the rule of one human King, Jesus of Nazareth (Eph. 1:10).”7
This Kingdom is nothing new, but it requires something new of those who will choose to enter into it, to no longer live for ourselves but to chose to live like Jesus under King Jesus.
Belonging to the Kingdom
To belong to a Kingdom is to have citizenship there, a passport if you will; it is to accept the rule of the king and the rules of belonging. Our citizenship dictates how we live! Thus, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we accept the rule of Christ over our lives and the ethics by which he calls us to live: It is in our belonging we find out purpose. To belong to the Kingdom of God is to live out its ethic wherever God has placed us in the power of the Spirit. That ethic confronts the kingdoms of this world, as the Grace of God works in the disciples of Christ and outworks his Kingdom rule in the world. We live like the King calls us to live wherever God has placed us because the Kingdom is in its citizens and made know through them by the working of the Holy Spirit as we await its consummation.
While we live in the Kingdom and live out the counter-cultural call of the Kingdom via the power of the Holy Spirit. We are those who remember that just as our salvation is a gift of Grace and a work of God, so too is the success of the Kingdom. It’s God who does it all! Ours is the privilege to enter into citizenship and join in the work all while resting on the wonder of Grace and that it is grow who directs, sustains and ordains all things in his Kingdom for his purpose.
Additionally, true Kingdom belonging comes via first recognising the King. To enter into the kingdom and know the wonders of its life and call; is to see Jesus as Lord and Saviour. It is to recognise his rule and sovereign reign. It is only as a disciple we understand the things of the Kingdom. It is only as Disciples of Jesus that we can truly understand, know and apply his teachings to our lives as the Holy Spirit works in us to make us more like him.
Ready for the Work of the Harvest
While in the first parable, the focus is on the seed, there is a lesson for all disciples in the worker. He does what is required of him to plant the seeds; he is active in keeping watch over them as they grow and marvel at what he witnesses as the crop grows. Then being ready to reap the harvest when the crop is ripe.
As Disciples of Jesus, we too must model this active waiting as we live in the world and respond to the Grace of God. We must be a people who are ready and willing to join in the work of God when God calls us to respond, marvelling at what God is doing but not idle in matters of the Kingdom.
As Grace works in us, it frees us from working to earn from God. Still, we respond by choosing to live for God, living out the ethic and mandate of the Kingdom by joining in the work of God wherever God has placed us, using whatever gifts God has given us empowered by the Holy Spirit as individuals and a Church to advance the rule and reign of God.
The Way of the Seed
There is something about the seed that just captures how God works in the world. Think about it, if you never knew what a seed was, you would never expect what comes to form it! Imagine finding a seed, never knowing how plants grew and planting it in the ground, then coming back a few years later and finding a Mustard Shrub spreading over the land, tall and strong. From nothing came something; out of insignificance came something glorious. The way of the Seed is the way of Gods working in the world, thus, the way of the Kingdom.
Form nothing God will work something: from nothing he made the world, from the death of one he brought about eternal life for all who respond in faith and defeated the curse of sin, and from every evil in the world he will bring about his ultimate Glorification. The way of the seed is how God works, so today, let us trust God with the logic of the seed, knowing that whatever we are facing, God is working it towards a greater purpose – his Glory and the good of the Kingdom. God is working to fulfil and culminate his rule and reign in the world.
Communicating Truth to Context
Stories are how we understand the world and seek to share our own experiences of it. We give our children stories so that they are gently introduced into the world we know and fear. Parables are earthly stories with heavenly that formed the corpus of Jesus public teaching ministry. This is the challenge I want us to think on as we go back out into the world; parables, where literally the truths Jesus sought to teach the truths of God in a way specific to the context and culture he was ministering in. Now, the truths of God and his word are timeless, yet, I think there is a challenge to the church in every age to consider how we might teach, speak, and live our the truth in such a way that our cultures hear and is challenged by it.
The question we must ask ourselves is how are we communicating the truth of who Jesus is and what he did to the place where God has called us to bring about his Kingdom. It is not that water down the truth to make it more palatable, but that we understand the culture and the moment to make that truth known in a way that it can be heard. Think about the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23
Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. 21 To those who are without the law, like one without the law—though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ—to win those without the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. 23 Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings. 8
When Paul says that he “became all things to all people”, it was not that whatever way the culture winds blew, or whatever ethical viewpoint was trendy that Paul endorsed it and agreed with it. Then afters attempted to smudge Jesus into the narrative. No, for Paul, in whatever context, culture, or movement God had placed him, he sought to understand the language and way of those places to better communicate the truth of Christ and the wonder of the Gospel in a way that those people would understand. Why? So that by every possible means, some may be saved!
Do we understand our culture, or context, or moment in a way that allows us to speak the word of God so that it might be heard, yet it might also confront. Or perhaps we are still communicating these truths in a relevant way twenty years ago or another place. Let us consider the way of the parable for the Glory of God and seek to understand the context and culture of our towns, streets and communities so that in the power of the Holy Spirit, we might better communicate the hope of the Gospel in a way that is heard and confronts in both word and deed so that by any means some might be saved and above all so that God will be glorified.
- Depending on which commentary you ready relating to the parable, the interpretation/application can range from the parable being one representing God at work in the world, planting the seeds of the Gospel, his sleeping representing those times when it seems like God is absent from the world; with the harvest being the consummation of Gods work in the world. Others have read the farming figure to be the person of Jesus, with the parable representing the stages of his ministry in the world and the whole narrative acting as a warning for the disciples about what is ahead: the sleeping farming representing the time Jesus was absent from them; then the harvest representing in some way the age of the church, when the disciples will carry on the work they have been called to. We can see some of these interpretations in the parable, yet, I think it rests too much in the vagueness and not enough in the wider context of chapter four. ↩
- Christian Standard Bible. (2020). (Mk 4:24–25). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers. ↩
- Some present the imagery in verse 29 as one of Judgment at the end of all things, when the Kingdom reaches its culmination and Jesus move to reap the harvest of his labour, while this is a possible reading of it. ↩
- Farley, W. (2009). Theological Perspective on Mark 4:26‒34. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 3, p. 142). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. ↩
- Not that it was literally the smallest seed known to the disciples and the context at that times, and Jesus uses it many times to make the point about faith and the Kingdom. ↩
- Wray, J. H. (2009). Exegetical Perspective on Mark 4:26‒34. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 3, p. 145). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. ↩
- Moore, Russell. The Kingdom of Christ (p. 11). Crossway. Kindle Edition. ↩
- 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 CSB ↩