Mark 4. 21-34
I’m a drummer, but I’m a little bit like Animal from the Muppets. I’ve never really understood music composition or theory; I could just feel a beat. Bethany is just starting her Master’s degree in music, so I had her explain a little to me. If you’re unfamiliar with music, you may not know what a chord is. A chord is a combination of different notes that are blended together to make a different, more full sound. It may be three notes on a piano or six notes on a guitar, but each of those individual notes are grouped to make a different, more mature sound. To someone like me who doesn’t have the musical ears to hear, I can enjoy the chord, but I can’t pick out the individual notes. I don’t have the ears to appreciate the beauty of each individual note and why that specific group of notes creates that beautiful sound.
Maybe you’re not into music; consider sports for a moment. If I watch a baseball game, I see the pitcher throw the baseball and then watch the ump to see if it’s a ball or strike. If you watch a baseball game with Zack or Luke, they can tell you what the pitcher is going to throw before he even does it. I don’t have the eyes to see that. It takes a more mature understanding of the nuances of baseball to have eyes that can see what’s going on in the details.
This is not only true about music and baseball, but it is also true about the parables of Jesus. In fact, the Scripture tells us that Jesus spoke in parables in order that many wouldn’t understand. Verse 34 says that Jesus did not speak to the crowds without a parable and he explained them to the disciple later. He consistently urges them to have ears to hear. The implication is that the parables aren’t always easy to understand. JB Lightfoot said that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. They’re easy to remember, but difficult to understand. As we look at these three parables this morning we don’t want to just hear the chord, we want to appreciate each individual note. We want ears to hear.
The first parable is about a lamp. I’m about to do something strange. If you grew up in church, this may be nostalgic for you. If you didn’t, you’ll probably find it odd. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” That children’s song is based on Matthew’s rendition of this text. Jesus says a lamp isn’t supposed to be put under a basket or a bed. “Hide it under a bushel? No!” A lamp is made to be on a stand, shedding light on its surroundings.
Mark says, “For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus’ mission is about the inauguration of the kingdom of God. In Mark 1.14-15 he begins his ministry by preaching, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.” All of his words and deeds thus far have been an announcement that the kingdom of God has come. The king is here!
We’ve also noticed that no one has the eyes to see or the ears to hear. Jesus has been teaching the crowds in parables and explaining the meaning to his disciples. He did it with the parable of the sower and he does it in this pericope as well. But Jesus is letting them know that this isn’t the indefinite plan. What is now hidden will come to light.
I said this parable is about a lamp, but that’s actually a poor translation. Most English translations mistranslate the text here. The Greek doesn’t say “a lamp,’ it actually reads, “the lamp.” ὁ λύχνος, the article is definite in Greek. And the word “brought” is a poor translation as well. The word is ἔρχεται, which is better translated, “comes in.” A more accurate translation of the text would be, does the lamp come in to be put under a basket? A lamp doesn’t come in on it’s own, but this isn’t just a lamp, it’s the lamp! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Jesus is the lamp. He is the light of the world and he didn’t come to be put under a basket or a bed. Jesus came to bring light.
And Jesus will quite literally be hung up like a lamp on a stand. You see, Mark is not telling us a bunch of random stories, he’s telling us the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection – the king’s cross. Like a lamp on a stand, Jesus will be hung on a roman cross for the world to see. On that day darkness will cover the earth and the light of the world will shine. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.
This parable is about the substance of the kingdom of God – gospel and response. Jesus says, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Jesus is saying that the final measurement of our lives is based upon how we respond to this light. If we measure our own goodness based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, if we understand that we’re damned sinners in need of a savior, if we trust Christ as our righteousness, then God will use that same measurement for us.
If we use any other measurement: good works, comparison, etc. then God will use that as our measurement in the last day. If we have Christ, we will only get more of him for eternity. If we don’t, then even the common grace that we experience now will be taken away. I implore you, look to the light of Christ! Measure your life by his faithfulness, righteousness, and good works. Lord, give us ears to hear!
Second, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed on the ground. If the first parable is about the substance of the kingdom, the second parable is about the spread of the kingdom. This parable is similar to the one Pastor Kevin preached last week, but with a different emphasis. The emphasis in this story is divine sovereignty in salvation.
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Jesus is teaching the disciples about the spread of the kingdom after his death and resurrection. It’s like a man who sows seed and the earth seemingly grows the grain on its own. The word in Greek is αὐτομάτη, where we get the word automatically. The man sleeps and rises, aka he does nothing. At least until the grain is ripe, and then he merely enjoys it because the harvest has come.
This is what the kingdom of God looks like for the church. We spread the seed of the gospel. We do it through preaching and the sacraments. We do it through gospel conversations and training our children. We announce the good news of the death and resurrection of Christ to save sinners. At that point there’s nothing more we can do. When the seeds start to sprout and grow we don’t know how, unless of course we have the eyes to see. The Bible tells us that the only way sinners can believe is if the Father elects them and the Spirit regenerates them. Salvation is the work of God. And then when we see that the fruit of the Spirit is ripe, we simply rejoice because the harvest has come!
But Jesus is also invoking some eschatological imagery as well. Jesus is alluding to Joel 3.13. Joel uses the imagery of the sickle and the harvest to warn about YWHW’s judgment on the day of the LORD. In Jesus the day of the LORD has come. The judgment of God has been rendered on Christ on the cross. And it will be finally rendered when Christ returns in judgment. Lord, give us ears to hear!
The third parable is about a mustard seed. If the first parable was about the substance of the kingdom – faith in the gospel, and the second parable was about the spread of the kingdom – evangelism and sovereignty, then this parable is about the size of the kingdom. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed on earth. But when it’s planted and grows, it becomes the largest of the garden plants. When Mark describes the small beginning of the mustard seed he uses the Greek adjective μικρότερον, where we get the word micro. When he depicts the massive size of the plant, he uses the adjective μέγας, where we get the English, mega.
At this point it’s important to address an apologetic concern. Some have used this parable to argue against the inerrancy of scripture. They say, “See! I told you the Bible has errors because a mustard seed is not the smallest seed on planet earth.” This is a hermeneutical issue. It’s important to note that the Bible doesn’t ever claim to be a pure science or history book to be read literalistically. Different pericopes in Scripture are to be interpreted in specific ways. It’s imperative that we always ask what the author is doing with the way they’re writing.
This is a parable, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. It’s not meant to be interpreted literally or historically. It’s also not a strict allegory. It’s a story about familiar circumstances to make a spiritual point. Second, Jesus is emphasizing the small, seemingly insignificant nature of the seed compared to the large plant it will become. Is Jesus not allowed to use hyperbole in his teaching? Rabbis commonly used the mustard seed to emphasize smallness. Not to mention that for a first century Jew, a mustard seed was the smallest seed they would’ve known at the time. This parable is not proof of the fallibility of Scripture, but of poor hermeneutics on the part of those who argue that case.
But what is the point Jesus is making? Jesus is teaching us that the kingdom may have humble beginnings, but it will be mega. It begins with Jesus of Nazareth and this rag tag group of twelve, but just like YHWH promised Abraham that he would become like the stars in the sky, so now Jesus’ kingdom will be like the mustard seed that becomes the largest of the garden plants. Jesus specifically says that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. This is another eschatological statement. Jesus is echoing language in Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Psalms to speak about the kingdom.
This is Eden language that points us to the new heavens and the new earth. The new creation that God’s people have yearned for since the garden; the new earth that Isaiah prophesied is being inaugurated in Jesus Christ. When Jesus resurrected on that first Easter Sunday, we was the firstborn of the new creation. He is literally new creation. Everything that Jesus is, the rest of creation will be when he returns to raise the dead, judge the world, and make all things new.
But Mark closes the passage by reminding us that the time had not come yet. With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. These interpretations were not for the crowd, but just for the disciples. Even this morning, some of you in the room are only hearing parables. You do not understand the explanation. You’re a part of the crowd, but you’re not a disciple. Oh how I pray that you’ll have ears to hear.
Some of you have the ears to discern different notes in a chord, but do you have the ears to hear about the kingdom of God? Some of you have the eyes to see the intricacies of baseball, but do you have the eyes to see the kingdom of God? Jesus Christ is the substance of the kingdom of God. He is the light of the world and he was lifted high for the world to see when he died on the cross for sinners. The kingdom of God is spread through the sovereignty of God and the evangelism of his saints. The kingdom of God started with a seemingly insignificant size, but has a mega future. In the end it will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea – a new heaven and a new earth. Do you have eyes to see? Do you have ears to hear?