Mark 4:21-34, Growth Towards the Harvest

[May 9, 2010] The parables in Mark 4:1-34 hang together. In the exemplary parable of verses 3-8 the farmer sows the Word, which here is the mystery of the kingdom and in the Gospel according to Mark is equivalent to the Gospel. The mystery of the kingdom is that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom has drawn near in the Person of the Christ (1:15)—who has come, but in the humility of the Servant of YHWH, faithful to the last in the face of hardship, misunderstanding, resistance, opposition, and rejection. This Word is the seed that is sown.

The emphasis in the first parable is on the seed and the kind of reception it has. Jesus describes different kinds of ground. Only in the good earth, soil in which the rocks have been removed and has been weeded and broken and plowed under, does the seed sprout and grow and bear the fruit of a head of grain.

The farmer sows the seed indiscriminately, on all kinds of soil, but what matters for the farmer is the seed that yields a crop.

The Heads of Grain Yield More Seeds (Mark 4:21-25)

When Jesus says that the seed sown in the good earth bear fruit, one thirtyfold, and one sixtyfold, and one a hundredfold, that to which He is referring is the grain in the head of the sheaf. The thirtyfold, sixtyfold and hundredfold are more seeds.

In other words, we do not receive the Word to place it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15) or under our bed (Luke 8:16) or in the cellar (Luke 11:33). This is a temporary shift in metaphors, but the meaning is clear enough. In 4:14-20 the Word is the seed. Now the Word is the light. Before the seed sprouted and bore fruit. Now your lamp is lit. If your lamp has been lit, you need to put it on a lampstand so that it can shed light on all those who come into the house (Matthew 5:15; Luke 8:16; 11:33).

In Luke 11:33-36 this light is internal (“the lamp of the body is the eye”), and no doubt it is, but here, as in Luke 8:16-18, our lamp is lit that its light may shine on others. In times of disrespect and persecution, it is tempting to hide our light and let others bear the brunt of shining it on others. This was the temptation for the first auditors of the Gospel according to Mark, since to bear the name of Christ could risk death. Nevertheless, Jesus emphasizes that however great the risk is when we proclaim the Word, it is even greater spiritually if we do not (Matthew 10:27-28; Luke 12:3-5).

What are we to make of Mark 4:22? What here is hidden and secret? Perhaps it is the seed sown in the ground. In Matthew 10:26-33 and Luke 12:2-9 these words are in the context of fearing those who kill the body: “Do not fear them … What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, proclaim on the housetops … Everyone who will confess in Me before men I also will confess in him before My Father in the heavens; but whoever will deny Me before men, I also will deny him before My Father who is in the heavens.” The Word sown in our heart germinates in the darkness, unseen by others. Downward it grows roots and upwards it sprouts a blade.

But what germinates in the dark must become manifest. We cannot remain secret disciple if we would remain disciples at all. When the Word germinates in us, it needs to come out into the open and we need to “proclaim it on the housetops” and not be afraid to confess Christ before others. If the seed yields a crop, then it has a head of grain—of seeds—that, if not eaten by others, must be sown in more soil.

Keeping this in mind, and the result of the Word sown in different kinds of soil, let us interpret verses 23-25. In 23 Jesus repeats the words of verse 9 which followed the parable of the sower: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” Not everyone who sees really sees or who hears really hears (see verses 11-12). The ability to “really” hear depends upon the revelation of the Holy Spirit. We can hear a parable but not grasp what it is really referring to. So Jesus says, “Take heed what you hear” (in Luke 8:18 it is, “how you hear”). If we hear what Jesus is saying, if we really have received the Word, we need to proclaim the Word.

“What measure you measure” refers, literally, to how we measure out the grain that we give to others in the marketplace. In Luke 6:38 Jesus refers to being given “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over,” this being given “into your bosom” (“the gathered fold of the wide upper garment, bound together with the girdle, and thus forming a pouch,” according to Vincent). How do we give out our seed, that is, the seed of the Word? “With what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you, and it shall be added to you.”

If we hold back and refuse to proclaim the Gospel or even to confess Christ to others, the Word will also be withheld from us. “He who has, it shall be given to him; and he who does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” Do not be surprised if, when you keep the Word to yourself, the little enlightening that you have received begins to dim and turn to darkness. The more you share the light of the Word with others, the more light you will receive from the Word (and vice versa).

Once you become a Christian, you must be resolute not to remain a secret Christian. Begin to confess that you are a Christian. But do not stop with that. Go on to speak of Christ and what He means to you. When we dare to speak, the Holy Spirit gives us boldness. Then, if we speak with the humility that is born of the light, we may find that others welcome what we have to say and that our fear is unfounded. Sometimes we will arouse their opposition; in that case, let us also bear this with humility, patience and love, and still, not hide the light of our lamp!

Spontaneous Growth (4:26-29)

The next parable is only in the Gospel according to Mark and follows naturally from the parable of the sower. Considering only the seed that was sown in the good soil, the farmer—who is our Lord Jesus—He has sown the seed and in His absence the seed has sprouted and lengthened: first a blade, then an ear, and then the full grain in the ear. His absence refers to His ascension to heaven and His session there. When He returns, it will be to gather His harvest. In Revelation 14:14-16, the Son of Man comes on a white cloud and is told that “the hour to reap has come because harvest of the earth is ripe,” whereupon He thrusts His sickle upon the earth and the earth was reaped. This is the gathering of the elect. In verses 17-20 a different kind of harvest is collected: a harvest of grapes for the winepress of God’s fury. The parable in Mark concerns the first.

During the time when Jesus is “away”—sleeping as it were—it seems as though the good earth bears fruit by itself. Of course, Jesus is not sleeping for He is reigning at the right hand of the Father. Nor is Jesus is really away, for He is present as the Holy Spirit. His rule and His presence, however, are hidden. The church—for that is what we are talking about—seems to grow spontaneously.

We often act as though the church needs to be organized to grow, that we must strive to seek out the best marketing plans and strategies. This, however, is a mistake. For in doing so, we act like Abraham did with Hagar. We grow impatient waiting for God to fulfill His promise through Sarah. Instead of allowing the grace of God to act, we take things into our own hands. This cost Abraham a number of years and it created an enemy for the child of promise—for the descendants of Ishmael persecuted (and still persecute) the descendants of Isaac. The sign of circumcision given to Abraham signifies the need to deny this drive to act independently of God.

The church grows by grace. While the church cannot grow if we do not spread the Word, the way the Word is spread is natural. “Nothing is hidden except that it may be manifested.” It takes place publicly, by preachers and evangelists, yes, but most often in the hospitality of our homes (this is the normal way the Gospel spreads) and as we share our lives and business with others. In the first millennium of the church, the Gospel spread along all the trade routes and the normal paths of people’s migrations.

So this parable about the natural growth of the church is a corollary of the parable of the lamp the light of which must not be hidden from others.

We will not know when the harvest is ready, nor is it our concern. We are not the Farmer and we cannot see what our Farmer sees. Our concern, as ears of grain, is to grow and ripen.

Unnatural Growth (4:30-32)

But if the parable of the harvest corresponds to the birth of Isaac by grace, the parable of the mustard tree corresponds to the birth of Ishmael by soulish work. In Matthew 13 there are several parables that are about the illegitimate inflation of the kingdom—the parable of the tares added to the wheat, the parable of the leaven added to the bread, and the parable of the mustard seed that became a tree.

We know that the tiny mustard seed speaks of our faith. But the mustard seed does not normally grow into a great tree (Matthew 13:32) that is “greater than all the herbs and produces great branches, so that the birds of heaven can roost under its shade.” While the previous parable is about natural growth, this one is about unnatural growth. The mustard seed in the parable has a disproportionate growth and as a garden shrub outdoes itself.

The image of a great tree extending its branches and roosting the birds of heaven comes from the Old Testament and illustrates great kingdoms that gave shelter to the nations, such as Assyria (see Ezekiel 31:3-6) and Babylon (see Daniel 4:20-22). Christendom under the Roman emperors after Constantine became a great kingdom like the kingdoms of the world. It consolidated great political power, and in the Reformation it allied itself with the new nation states. Even today the church continues to be greedy for power by aligning itself with those in power or with revolutionaries who vie for power. This is not the “little flock” that bears the cross and represents Jesus in the world. Indeed, Paul rebuked the Corinthians for “reigning without us” (1 Corinthians 4:8).

In Revelation 18:2 Great Babylon becomes “a hold of every unclean and hateful bird,” and in Jesus’ parables the birds take away the seed that was sown on the pathway. In Mark the birds represent Satan and in Revelation they represent demons and unclean spirits. When Christendom seeks to be successful by conforming to the culture and accepting its values, it begins to harbor the worst of the demons. Christendom is guilty of spreading its power by terrible acts of violence and injustice. This horrible spectacle of Christian arrogance is the fuel of militant atheism.

Ezekiel 17 does indeed speak of the Messianic kingdom, but this refers to the kingdom of Christ in the coming age. The present age is the time of Christ’s patience. In the present, the church is unknown to the world (1 John 3:1), strangers and sojourners in it (1 Peter 2:11) and not of it (John 17:14). We are followers of the One whom the world crucified, and we are crucified to the world (Galatians 6:14). Paul tells the Corinthians, “I would have it indeed that you did reign, that we also might reign with you” (1 Corinthians 4:8), but this must wait. The time now is for us to go the way of the cross in the footsteps of Christ.

Historically, this parable was also a warning to Israel. Jesus was telling the nation throughout His ministry that they were still under the judgment described by the prophets. Their exile was not over, in spite of the return of the captives from Babylon. Their exile in fact would continue until His coming again. In the meanwhile, Israel was to humble itself before God and be faithful. The seed is the Gospel and the good soil represents those in Israel who receive it. The temptation for Israel, however, was to ignore the Gospel of Christ’s coming and to try, by their own zeal, to establish themselves as a kingdom on earth. This misguided effort, that rejected the way of God’s grace, was to bring about the judgment of Jerusalem in 70 AD and again in 135. Israel repented of this until the modern Zionist movement.

The church too exists in the world under the shadow of God’s judgment and must not try to establish itself as a power in the world. We exist in exile. Our position in the world in relation to God’s judgment is no different than the position of Israel. We are called to bear the cross of rejection in faithfulness to Christ.

More Parables (4:33-34)

Jesus continued to speak to the people in parables for unless God revealed the truth to people, that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near” in the personal Presence of the Messiah, namely Himself, they would not understand what He was saying to them. However, for those who responded to His call, whose eyes were opened to see Him for who He simply is (the coming of God), “He explained all things.” Let us pray that we do not misunderstand who Jesus is so that we too can understand the Word, for He is the Word that He proclaims.

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