PARABLES OF GOD’S COMING KINGDOM
Today is Palm Sunday, the when day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as the promised king. Now begins the events of what we call “Holy Week,” leading up to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on Thursday, his betrayal, arrest, desertion, trials, and crucifixion on Friday, burial, and then his resurrection that we will celebrate together next Sunday.
All of that is coming, and you should take some time this week to prayerfully meditate on the events of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. But today we focus on Jesus as King. We Christians say that King Jesus reigns over everything. The Christ Community Church affirmation of faith says that Jesus is “the Prince of the kings of the earth.” In other words, we are saying that every world leader is subject to Christ. So why does it appear to be so different than that? Why can I not name one world leader who is willingly submitting himself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? When we say that Christ is King, are we living a myth? Has 2000 years of Christianity gotten everything wrong about the reign of Jesus?
It is fitting that on Palm Sunday, when God’s Messiah-King came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, God in his providence has given us a passage of parables about the kingdom of God. Look with me at Mark 4:21-34.
This text contains four parables about the coming of the kingdom of God. It is really a continuation of the previous passage with the parable of the sower and the four soils. Today we have parables about a lamp, a measure, growing seed, and a mustard plant. Each of these parables teaches a truth about the kingdom of God that Jesus by his teaching, the Holy Spirit through Mark’s writing, and the Father in his providence have determined we need to hear, so we will take them one at a time today.
Parable 1 (vv. 21-23): The Secret of the Kingdom Is Meant to Be Proclaimed
21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The main item in this first parable is a lamp. We all know how to use a lamp. You don’t put it under a basket or under your bed. Jesus is talking about an oil lamp, but it’s basically the same with our electric lamps. You put a lamp on a table or in a tall stand and call it a floor lamp. Or you mount a fixture on ceiling or the wall. The illustration is basic: you put a lamp in a very apparent place where it can give light to the room.
Well Jesus is saying that the secret of the kingdom of God is like a lamp. Remember back to verse 11? “And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”” What Jesus is teaching, particularly to his close followers, is the secret of the kingdom of God. We have already seen what this message is all about. 1:14-15 tell us that Jesus came proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” He is saying that the reign of God has come through the Messiah, and Jesus is that Messiah. And we find out that this Messiah came to die for the sins of his people, Jew and Gentile, sacrificing himself, and then went on to rise from the dead and be exalted at the right hand of God. To benefit from the work of the Messiah, you must repent of your sins and believe in him.
But that was not all so clear in the Old Testament. It was hidden, so to speak. There was much expectation of these things, but there were many questions about how and when they would all come about. The way God would bring about his kingdom through Jesus Christ was hidden in times past. Even throughout the ministry of Jesus it is still somewhat mysterious, but as he moves toward the cross he speaks more plainly, especially to his disciples. Jesus came, bringing to light what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God (Eph. 3:7-12).
And Jesus is saying in this parable that these things were only hidden that they might be made manifest. They were only a secret that they might be revealed. We can see this hiddenness in Jesus’ ministry. Look down at verses 33-34: “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.”
Part of the purpose of his parables was to keep the secret of the kingdom of God hidden from the masses, but at the same time Jesus explained it privately to his disciples. Even back in chapter 1 when an unclean spirit is proclaiming who Jesus is, he commands him to be silent. And now he is using parables to conceal the message of the kingdom. We will see this theme of secrecy continue until the cross and resurrection because the kingdom of God, and Jesus’ identity as the King, cannot be separated from his mission of dying on the cross. There is an important shift after the resurrection, and we see Jesus’ followers embark on a ministry of open proclamation. It is no longer hidden. This is why in Mark 9:9, Jesus tells the three disciples who witness his glorious transfiguration to “tell no one what they had seen, until [he] had risen from the dead.”
You see, the kingdom of God is meant to be widely proclaimed. And the way we proclaim the kingdom of God is to proclaim Jesus Christ, a crucified and resurrected Messiah, and that there is forgiveness of sins and salvation in him alone. Jesus kept these things hidden during his ministry from all but his close disciples, but after the resurrection they proclaim it as widely as possible. The distinction then is not in who hears and who doesn’t hear, but who has ears to hear. This is why verse 23 virtually repeats verse 9: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Even as things are being revealed through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ, this revealing is an anticipation of an ultimate revelation. At the final judgment, all will be revealed. 1 Timothy 5:24-25 reads: “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” Many people tend to be very private today, and there is a hiddenness to them. There is a public “face” but an unknown private life. You might think you know a friend or a co-worker who you see every day, but then you catch wind of what they are like outside of the context you know them in and realize that a lot has been hidden. The reality is that one day everything will be revealed, even to the stray word you uttered when you were by yourself. Here we have an admonition to be ready. In the end there are no secrets.
On a larger scale, today, even as the gospel is being preached among different peoples around the world, there is still a hiddenness. But the hiddenness is not an issue of withholding information. The hiddenness lies in the fact that people who don’t have ears to hear don’t see the reign of Christ. Having ears that don’t hear is the same as having a hard heart. Our labor as disciples of Jesus is a labor of proclamation. We don’t hide the kingdom of God from people; their own hard hearts do the hiding when they refuse to receive the gospel. So we preach the same message to all. In the same crowd of people sitting under the preaching of the gospel, some will experience revelation and salvation, while for others the kingdom is hidden and the message falls on deaf ears.
The parable of the lamp teaches us that the secret of the kingdom is meant to be proclaimed.
Parable 2 (vv. 24-25): Those with Ears to Hear Will Receive the Kingdom
24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 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.”
This parable illustrates the principle of reciprocity. It is sort of like how we say to a student about studying, “You will only get out what you put into it.” In other words, if you sleep in and play video games and party in college, you aren’t going to learn much; but if you put your time and energy into studying you will learn. The same is true of Jesus’ illustration. In Jesus’ day, weights and measures were used for almost any commercial transaction (such as selling grain), and sizes of measures would vary based on how honest people were. A dishonest person would use smaller measures for some transactions and larger ones for others. Well the principle here is that with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
“The measure you use” in this parable has to do with the disposition of your heart as you hear the word of Christ. Two people listening to this sermon can experience it very differently: One experiences great spiritual growth, while the other gets nothing out of the sermon. What you receive depends upon how you hear. And notice that God’s generosity extends beyond a simple equality: “and still more will be added to you.” If you hear so as to receive it, and let it own you and change you—if you hear with faith, more will be added to you and you will receive the blessing of knowing God. Careful hearing is proportionately rewarded.
And remember that we learned from the parable of the sower that how you hear depends on what sort of soil you are. That is to say, a right response to the word of Christ depends upon a God-given capacity to receive the word. We are again seeing God’s sovereignty behind all things. If you have been given ears to hear, you will bear increasing fruit and will receive more and more. But if depend on yourself and your own abilities and resources instead of receiving the word, even what you have will be taken away. Hear this hard truth, Americans: God does not give the blessings of his kingdom equally to all. There is hearing and then there is hearing. You must hear to receive and embrace and believe and obey. Take care how you hear. Your blood-bought faithfulness will be rewarded with even greater things. The truth of parable 2 is: Those with ears to hear will receive the kingdom.
Parable 3 (vv. 26-29): God Is Mysteriously Sovereign over Gospel Growth
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.”
This parable is about the mysterious way in which the kingdom of God comes. The man scatters seed on the ground. Then Jesus doesn’t mention him doing anything to it until the harvest time arrives. He sleeps and rises day after day, while the seed sprouts and grows: blade, then ear, then grain. The emphasis is on the mystery of this growth. It does it on its own, without human intervention. And the man doesn’t know how. He just knows that it happens. Ecclesiastes 11:5–6 reads: “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” There is a mystery of growth with the gospel of the kingdom.
Jesus and his disciples scattered seed in their proclamation of the gospel. And here we are, centuries later, and many of us are Christians. We can study church history, but that does not explain all of it. Christianity is not inherited from parents to children, as much as we sometimes wish it were. God performs a miracle in the life of each believer, transferring him from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son. So how does someone move from death to life? How does someone move from rebellion against God and hatred of the gospel to loving Jesus so much that he will gladly be put to death for Jesus’ sake? We know theologically that God makes him alive in Christ. But there is a mystery to it as you watch it unfold in a person’s life. It is the word of Christ, which has a life-giving power of its own, mysteriously changing a person.
And this happens on a grand scale with the kingdom of God. The presence of the kingdom will grow inconspicuously, but there is a time of full fruition that will come when Jesus returns. Then will be the great harvest, the final judgment. Listen to the biblical language on this. Joel 3:13 speaks of the great judgment of God in this way: “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” And Revelation 14:15 uses similar wording: “And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.”” For the kingdom of God there is a harvest of judgment coming.
There is also a significant encouragement for Christ Community Church in this parable. Note that there is waiting involved for the kingdom. At first there was little to show for the sowing of the seed. Like the man who slept and rose day after day, we must wait in confidence for God’s work to be accomplished the way he wants to do it. This is true in waiting for the return of Christ when the kingdom will come in all its fullness. But it is also true in sharing the gospel with other people. Keep sowing and wait for God to work. This doesn’t mean that you are passive, but realize that you can’t make the miracle of the new birth happen. Just keep sowing. Take the advice of Ecclesiastes 11:6 that we read earlier: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” We have been here laboring in this city for six months and I am sure that you want to see gospel fruit as much as I do. Don’t give up hope. Wait upon God and pray, but don’t stop sowing, and don’t lose faith. The results don’t ultimately depend upon you. You are not the cause of the kingdom, but a servant.
The truth of the third parable is: God is mysteriously sovereign over gospel growth.
Parable 4 (vv. 30-32): An Unimpressive Beginning Leads to a Glorious Result
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.”
Jesus is likely using for his parable here what we today call the black mustard plant, which is an annual. It is planted, grows, and dies in one year. The mustard seed was the smallest agricultural seed in Palestine, measuring only 1 mm in diameter. If you were to go to buy a gram (1/28 of an ounce) of these mustard seeds, you would have 725-760 mustard seeds. Yet in one growing season one tiny seed produces a plant measuring 8-10 feet tall. What Jesus is communicating about the kingdom is the contrast of small beginnings with the large result.
The fact that Jesus compared the kingdom of God with the mustard seed would have been shocking to his Jewish hearers, because they expected the kingdom of God to arrive with a bang, bringing God’s immediate judgment upon all evil. This is what so many people got hung up about with Jesus. Even his own disciples after his resurrection, when he was about to ascend to heaven asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Yet like King David of the Old Testament, Jesus the Messiah arrived and had humble beginnings. He was born in a cattle stall, raised in Nazareth, the nowhere of his day. He traveled around with a rag-tag group of fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot.
But Jesus proclaimed that with his arrival began the Messianic reign of God. The difficulty was that this happened in such a small, seemingly insignificant way. And so here are two misconceptions about the kingdom of God that need to be addressed. In Jesus’ day, the misconception was that Rome will be overthrown now. They thought the arrival of the Messiah meant the immediate overthrow of the foreign empire that ruled over the Jewish nation. But they were wrong. Jesus did not raise up an army; there was no revolt. He was crucified for claiming to be a king, but Pilate saw him as no threat. The immediate overthrow of Rome was a misconception of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ day.
Today we suffer from the opposite misconception about the kingdom of God: namely, that Rome will never be overthrown. Today we are tempted to write off the kingdom of God entirely. We say, “Yeah, I believe in Jesus,” but there are no implications into the world. It’s just our personal faith. Don’t be mistaken, brothers and sisters, though Jesus did not overthrow Rome, he overthrew a much greater power. Jesus overthrew Satan. John 12:31–33 reads: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” When Jesus was lifted up in death on the cross he was defeating the devil and death itself and sin’s reign over his people. It is through the cross and resurrection that Jesus is exalted as Lord. He is the ruler of all the kings of the earth, and when he returns they will be hiding themselves in caves for fear of his wrath! Yes, Rome will be overthrown. America will be overthrown. China, Germany, Brazil, Russia, India will be overthrown.
Daniel prophesied about the coming of the kingdom of God through interpreting a dream given to Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan ruler of the Babylonian empire. His dream was of a statue of kingdoms that would be destroyed by a stone. Hear the interpretation of the dream in Daniel 2:44:
“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.”
Later in the book, the prophet Daniel received his own dreams. Daniel 7:13–14 reads:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
It is easy to look at a tiny mustard seed, and dismiss it, but look at the large plant that grows out of it! Don’t despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10). The kingdom of God cannot be dismissed. But with the destruction of the kingdoms of this world, there is good news in this parable, and it is found in the birds. Remember that Jesus said birds will come nesting in the shade of the mustard plant? This is Old Testament language from places like Ezekiel 17:23; 31:6; Daniel 4:10-12. These texts all use the same concept to describe empires that grow so great that other nations find rest under their powerful reach. And Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God will grow so great that all nations will find a place of rest there. As people from every tribe and tongue hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and repent of their sins and trust in him, they find their rest. The kingdom of God has grown beyond its Jewish roots to encompass the nations.
We have seen four truths about the kingdom of God in these parables:
- The secret of the kingdom is meant to be proclaimed.
- Those with ears to hear will receive the kingdom.
- God is mysteriously sovereign over gospel growth.
- An unimpressive beginning leads to a glorious result.
Believer, these truths apply to you in at least five ways:
- Proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone
- Hope in God when you are discouraged over not seeing much fruit for your gospel labors
- Give joyful thanksgiving to God for making you receptive to his word
- Pray to God for the miracle of the new birth in others, and expect him to do it
- Long for Jesus to return and bring the kingdom to its full revelation
If you are an unbeliever, I have one application for you, and it comes from Acts 5:34-39. There, the apostles were brought before the Jewish council for their preaching of the gospel of this kingdom. After they refused to stop preaching about Jesus, it says:
34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
The application for you is this: Don’t be found to be opposing God and his kingdom. Your rejection of Christ and of the gospel, and your holding on to your sin puts you on the losing side of the war. Turn to Christ and trust in him today. You will receive the blessings of a kingdom that cannot fail.