With a growing opposition to His ministry, Mark noted in the first few verses of chapter 4 a strategic shift in the teaching ministry of Jesus.... he tells us, “Then He taught them many things by parables.”
Please keep in mind four important points concerning parables:
1. A parable was a spiritual truth placed alongside an illustration. In many instances Jesus would tell a parable - leave out the spiritual truth altogether - only to later explain what He meant when prompted by His disciples.
2. The main purpose behind a parable was to judge the heart of a person. Whether or not a person wanted Jesus to explain the parable revealed whether or not that person would even be receptive to the truth.
3. Jesus would use a parable to conceal spiritual lessons from those who weren’t true seekers, while later reveal the lesson to those who desired to know the truth. What a person received from a parable (a fun story or a spiritual lesson) completely depended upon the heart of the hearer.
4. “Parables” present a greater picture of how we understand the Word of God. As Jesus illustrated with the “Parable of the Sower,” the condition of our heart (the soil) towards the truth of God’s Word (the seed) is the key to our understanding.
In the next chapter and a half Mark continues this train of thought by providing 3 parables Jesus taught that further elaborated on our interactions with the Word before providing 3 dramatic examples of the power of God’s Word being demonstrated through the life of Christ.
Mark 4:21-25 “Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lamp-stand? For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
Parable #1: The Light of Revelation is Inescapable!
To understand this parable you have to first understand the context....
Jesus has just communicated the harsh and sobering reality that, though the seed of God’s Word will be sown to all man, because of the hardness of some towards Jesus, the truth of God’s Word would remain a mystery.
Don’t miss the underlying point.... a person’s position towards Jesus determines that person’s ability to understand of the truth. Therefore, the concealment of truth begins with a rejection of Jesus.
Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” A person’s position towards Jesus (the truth) determines if and how much truth would be revealed to that person.
With this in mind.... this parable and the lesson we just read served to communicate two important lessons concerning the Word of God.
1. Since the Word’s effectiveness in our lives begins with our position concerning Christ.... You can reject Jesus, but you cannot ignore His revelation.
In John 9:5 Jesus describes Himself as “the light of the world.” In a world cloaked in the darkness of sin, Jesus’ very purpose in coming was - not to be concealed from man - but to be revealed to man. Jesus came to shine forth so all man might be without excuse! He asks, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lamp-stand?”
He continues by making His case that no man can ignore the reality of His revelation by saying, “For nothing is hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.”
I think every Christian parent at some point has used this verse to warn their kids that they should be careful what they do because even the hidden things will be revealed. And while it’s difficult to blame a parent for taking this approach, it’s not exactly what Jesus was communicating.
Jesus is illustrating the reality that no matter how hard some might try to ignore His revelation, it’s as silly an exercise as trying to keep a light hidden in a dark room. You can try to hide a lamp by placing it under a basket or a bed, but light has a natural way of being seen. It has an interesting way of getting out. It can’t stay hidden or be avoided.
The Light of Jesus - the revelation of the Son of God - not only shines so that it may be seen by all man, but it shines in such a way that no man can ignore it.
His first point is clear.... Though the truth of God’s Word will be concealed because mankind rejected Jesus (a truth illustrated in the seed and the soil), no man can claim the rejection of Jesus out of ignorance. He has been revealed to all man (a truth illustrated by this parable).
2. Since the Word’s effectiveness in our lives begins with our position concerning Christ.... How we respond to Jesus determines how Jesus responds to us.
I mentioned a few minutes ago that “a person’s heart towards Jesus determines if and how much truth would be revealed to that person.” With this in mind Jesus’ statement in verse 24 - 25 become even more interesting because they indicate God’s activities are reactive to our energies. He said to them....
“With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you....”
“To you who hear, more will be given....”
“For whoever has, to him more will be given....”
“Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
Jesus is telling us that God will respond to us as we respond to Him and His Word. It’s as though Jesus is saying, “I will give you more revelation because you have received and acted upon what I’ve already given you. But if you don’t act upon what I’ve given you, then I will take away what you already have.” It’s a heavy idea.
To help you understand what Jesus is saying.... There is what commentators describe as the “Principle of Spiritual Momentum” which teaches that a person is either making spiritual progress forward, or that person is digressing backwards.
This principle states that we all reside on a spiritual incline so that no one is or can be spiritually neutral. Basically, no one is without spiritual activity (momentum) moving them forward or pulling them back. If we’re progressing forward, God enables the progression forward. If we’re digressing backwards, God allows the progression backwards.
The person hardened to the things of God, only grows more stubborn.
The person softening to the things of God, only grows more tender.
The person mired in moral compromise, only sinks deeper in their compromise.
The person buried in their sin, only digs a deeper grave for themselves.
The person receiving the Word, will see their desire for Godly things deepen.
The deeper our love for Christ, the deeper we understand His great love for us.
The deeper our dependance on the HS, the deeper His help in our time of need.
The greater our study of God’s Word, the greater God’s revelation.
The greater our obedience to God’s commands, the greater God’s grace to obey.
The more we share with those around us, the more God reveals Himself to us.
The more we bless others, the more God bestows His blessings upon us.
God’s activities are reactive to our energies.
There are two common idioms that illustrate this perfectly....
(1). Action breeds more action,
(2). Use it or you’ll loose it.
Human beings are creatures of habit, but habits only form when we’re dedicated enough to the activity to keep pushing forward even when we don’t feel like it or when it’s not exactly convenient.
This is why it’s so important to study God’s Word daily and attend Sunday church service consistently. It’s all about momentum. Paul would say in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfect, but I press on....” He understood the “Principle of Spiritual Momentum.”
Mark 4:26-29 “And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Parable #2: The Way the Word Works is Mysterious!
In many ways this second parable picks up where the “Parable of the Sower” left off....
The “seed” (which has already been established to represent the “Word of God” by Jesus’ first parable) has been sown on receptive “soil” (which seems to represent the heart of a life submissive to the work of God.)
Jesus continues the lesson forward by describing the mysterious process by which the seed (the Word) interacts with the soil (our hearts) to yield a crop in the life of a person.
Jesus says that after the farmer sows the seed.... he get’s up each day to watch the slow growth of the plant as the earth yields the crop. The farmer will continue to wait until it’s time for the harvest.
Though we understand the science of germination and photosynthesis that contribute to the transformation of a seed becoming a plant, to the first century mind, the entire transformation process was clocked in mystery. Jesus is using this truth to illustrate to the disciples the mysterious influence of God’s Word and what our role should be in the process.
Please Observe.... The farmer cannot make the seed grow.
As we mentioned last week, the power for growth and transformation ultimately rests with the seed. To contribute to the transformation process all a person can do is (1). Sow the seed.... and (2). Provide the right conditions for growth (fertile soil, abundant sunlight, sufficient water, and adequate air and temperature)!
In much the same way our only involvement in the “transformation of our lives” is to (1). Sow God’s Word onto the soil of our heart.... (2). Insure the conditions for growth are ample.... and (3). Wait, trusting that God will work in a perfect way and in His perfect timing. And WOW aren’t the implications of what Jesus is communicating awesome!
The work of transforming from a “slave of sin” to a “child of Godliness” is completely out of your hands. It’s a complete and total work of the Word of God. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 that the “truth, the Word of God, effectively works in you who believe.” It works. You believe.
Your only role in the process is to (1). Sow the seed of God’s Word into your life.... (2). Make sure the conditions for the Word’s growth are adequate.... (3). Then sit back and watch the transformation take place.
Please keep in mind, how the Word of God transforms the life of an individual really is a mysterious work of God, but our understanding of the process by which this happens is actually not all that complication or confusing.
1. The initial and most obvious manifestation of the working of God’s Word (you might say the initial sprouts that spring up) is an intellectual transformation taking place within the mind of a person.
Once we’ve reached the point of submission and accepted Jesus, the revealing of truth rocks our world. So many of our preconceived ideas fall by the wayside. We study. We reason. We learn. And God reveals. Our minds are literally being renewed by the “washing of the Word!”
2. But please understand.... while this is all happening in the mind, there is a more subtle, mysterious, invisible, spiritual transformation taking place within the heart of a person.
As we grow in our intellectual understanding of God’s Word, something deeper is occurring that defies our reasoning. You might say “as we get into God’s Word, God’s Word gets into us” and it begins to leave a mark. Slowly but surely we begin to see our lives transformed from the inside out.
As I study God’s Word, I experience healing. I experience renewing. I experience a revitalization of character that changes the way I speak, what I allow my eyes see, or my ears to hear.
I experience such a rebirth that I’m no longer satisfied with the things of this world, but I grow in an insatiable desire for the things that please God.
And beyond all this.... as I continue in my intellectual study of God’s Word.... my faith in God grows exponentially. We’re told, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.”
Understand.... these things don’t happen immediately.... lasting growth never springs up overnight. This mysterious work of transformation requires patience. God must work in His perfect timing.
Before we transition to the final parable, I want to make a simple observation.
The way in which God transforms a person really isn’t all that complicated, so don’t over-complicate it! Sometimes Christians over-analyze a concept to death when we should instead simply accept it. We fall prey to a paralysis by analysis.
You don’t need 12 steps to better yourself. You don’t need a theological degree to understand how God changes a life. You don’t have to rack your brain.
The work is mysterious, but the process is simple. Dig into God’s Word - insure the conditions for growth are present in your life - then get out of the way and allow God to do His thing. Sow the seed of God’s Word then trust God to bring a harvest. It’s not that complicated!
Mark 4:30-32 “Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”
Parable #3 brings a warning: The Word can Yield Unnatural Growth!
Jesus begins His lesson by posing a question.... let me paraphrase.... “What picture can I use to compare to the kingdom of God?” He then continues by answering His own question, “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a mighty tree so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.” Let’s unpack this....
You should begin by understanding the only thing most scholars agree on concerning this parable is that, in referring to the “kingdom of God,” Jesus was making an allusion to the coming “church” that would represent His spiritual kingdom on earth.
With this in mind there are then two things that make this parable complicated:
1. A mustard seed doesn’t naturally grow in the way Jesus describes.... Leaving you with one of two conclusions:
A. Jesus made a mistake - which is unlikely.
B. Jesus is intentionally speaking of an unnatural growth.
2. What are the “birds of the air that nest in this tree” a reference too?
There are two possible answers:
A. Some believe there is no significant meaning behind the mention of birds.
B. Other believe that in remaining consistent with Jesus’ first parable of the sower in Mark 4:13, the “birds of the air” are a reference to Satan.
The thing I believe aids our understanding of this parable is the reality of 2000 years of “less than stellar” church history.
In mentioning this monstrous mustard plant, I believe Jesus is issuing a warning against an unnatural, unintended kind of growth by the church.... a kind of growth whereby Satan (“the birds of the air”) can find ample places to hide within its branches.
Sadly, if you take an honest look at the history of the church you’ll find a perfect picture of the very thing Jesus cautioned against.
God never intended the church to be a governmental entity with its own military. Jesus never commissioned the church to rule the earth, tax the people, sentence detractors to death, embark on crusades, engage in an inquisition, etc.
It a sad, but true admission that the church by and large has failed to represent the wishes of Jesus or represent a natural manifestation of the work of God’s Word.
Though there were times when the church was effective, a look at history shows that the growth of the church took an unnatural shift during the reign of Constantine when it merged with the state. It grew in the centuries that followed in such a twisted and unnatural way that it became easy for Satan to corrupt it from the inside and use it for evil purposes.
Observation for the Church: Not all growth is good or natural.
Sometimes I think the “church” has made an error when we think Jesus is mainly interested in “quantitative growth” when I believe He’s more concerned with “qualitative growth.”
Sadly, church leaders today judge the success of their ministry using a numerical metric (how large their church has become - how many people attend - or how many people their ministry reaches) when they should instead use a qualitative metric (how many lives are being transformed by the Gospel).
I recently read a book on church growth called “Simple Church.” The main premise of the book is that the most effective churches in America are the ones that have simplified their mission, and then establish a ministry approach that aims at accomplishing their intended mission.
Christianity Today even touted this as a “useful, brush-clearing book that could help churches of any size move beyond mission statements to real mission.”
Don’t get me wrong.... though I agree with the theory behind the book and will use many of the principles for Calvary316, I do believe this book by in large exemplifies the very error in how we evaluate what makes a ministry effective.
As their prototype of an “effective church ministry” they present a local, Atlanta based, mega-church called Northpoint Community Church.
Sure Andy Stanley’s ministry has huge attendance across all their many satellite campuses (Athens Church included).... Sure they move thousands of people through their simple ministry program.... but I have to ask to what end? Sure they have a mission - and we consider them effective because of the tremendous reach of their mission.... but do we ever stop to consider the mission itself?
Though Northpoint has an incredible ministry presentation, it’s simply a truth they don’t teach God’s Word! From what I can see, because of their seeker-friendly, lukewarm message they might reach a multitude, but lives are not being transformed by the Gospel because no moral lines of demarcation are being communicated. The idea of sin and eternal judgment are avoided making their message nothing more than a weird form of religious self-help.
We must ask.... is a successful Christian mission simply to reach a multitude of people, or is it to see a multitude of people transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The authors of “Simple Church” overlook this point.
In this parable Jesus is clearly saying how large something becomes isn’t the basis for His evaluation! He pictures a plant that grew large.... it had huge branches with a large reach, but in the end it was used by Satan for evil.
I believe Jesus evaluates a church more on the “quality of its mission” that the “quantity of the people being reached by its mission.” I believe Jesus is more interested in the quality of the lives being reached, than the number of people being reached. Unlike many of todays churches, Jesus uses a qualitative evaluation metric rather than an quantitative evaluation method.
Now don’t get me wrong.... at Calvary316 we’d love to see God reach a large number of people through the teaching of His Word. Having a large reach or a big crowd isn’t in an of itself a bad thing, but I never want to see our church water down the truth to simply draw larger crowds.
Mark 4:33-34 “And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.”