Parables about God’s Kingdom (Mark 4:21-34)

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Today, we will continue with Jesus’ teaching using parables in Mark 4:21-34. Like my previous message, a key theme in this passage is to listen well to God’s Word. Another theme is trusting God to work in people’s lives. Let us pray.

The Lamp (4:21-25)

Jesus’ question in verse 21, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?” has an obvious answer: no.

First, what does this lamp refer to? Earlier in verse 11, after the disciples ask Jesus to explain the meaning of the parable of the sower, Jesus responds, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” Later, in verse 22, Jesus says, “For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.” These two verses strongly imply that this light is Jesus’ revelation to his disciples about the kingdom of God.

When Jesus explains the mysteries of God’s kingdom to the disciples, he does not intend for them to keep it a secret. He would later entrust his disciples to proclaim it after his death, resurrection, and ascension. This was exactly what they did. We who now believe in Jesus and follow him in 2022 are the fruits of the disciples’ effort in sharing with others about the kingdom of God 2000 years ago. The implication of this for us who are Christians is this: are we letting the light of Jesus and his teachings shine through us to those around us or are we keeping this light hidden?

Moving on to verses 23-25, the key theme here is the need to pay attention to Jesus’ words. Twice in verses 23 and 24, Jesus repeats what he has already mentioned earlier in verses 3 and 9: “listen!” It is important to listen because Jesus says that the effort we put in doing so will determine the degree to which we profit from it. God will honor our effort to listen to him by blessing us with fruitfulness in our walk with him. As Jesus says in verse 24 to the beginning of verse 25, “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.” If we make the effort to pay careful attention to Jesus’ words and consider its implications on our lives, God will bless us with an even greater capacity to understand his Word.

On the flipside, if we do not do so, Jesus in the latter part of verse 25 warns, “from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” A commentator writes, “The person who does not use his or her ability to understand and respond to God’s revelation appropriately loses that ability…. This is a call for [believers] to continue growing.”

Parable of the Growing Seed (4:26-29)

This is the second parable on seeds in this passage, and it can only be found in Mark’s gospel. The key here is that the seed grows by itself and its own timing. This is something that the farmer has little control over, even if he waters or fertilize the soil. Once the harvest has come, the farmer readies his sickle to reap. This image refers to the time of God’s final judgment (Joel 4:13; Revelation 14:14-15).

Ultimately, the seed’s growth is God’s work. Or as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” This parable offers those of us who are discouraged by the seeming fruitlessness of our efforts for God’s kingdom. Those with unbelieving spouses or perhaps children who grew up in church but do not profess their parents’ faith may find this parable encouraging. Trust in God’s perfect timing for the seeds to sprout. Do not give up in prayer as you continue to witness to them of God’s love and transformation in your life.

Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:30-32)

For Jesus to compare the coming of the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed must have caused quite a surprise among his Jewish hearers. This is because they were probably expecting him to say that God’s kingdom is like a mighty army or terrible natural disaster coming upon the pagans. Instead, Jesus emphasizes the seed’s smallness probably to illustrate the humble beginnings of his ministry in the backwater part of Galilee. Later, it will become like a huge tree with its branches offering shade to the birds.

Here, Jesus is evoking the image from the Old Testament of an empire that becomes a haven for people of all nations (Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6; Daniel 4:9). This parable gives insight to the future that God’s kingdom through Jesus will bring: a place of belonging that welcomes people from every nation of the world. This is something that cannot be achieved by sheer human will or ability, but through God’s power. Meanwhile, this parable encourages us to wait for the fulfilment of this future promise while persevering patiently and with hope.

The Purpose of the Parables (4:33-34)

Verse 33 records for us, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” Using everyday images, Jesus adapted his message about the kingdom in a way that considered their capability to understand. At the end of verse 33, Mark repeats the familiar refrain throughout this chapter, “hear.” As I shared in my last sermon, this word harkens back to Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel!” For the Jews, this act of listening is not only the effort in paying attention to God’s words and understanding them. It also involves our response and action through obedience.

In verse 34, we wonder, who exactly are these disciples who have the privilege of private explanation from Jesus? Verse 10 says, “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables,” and this strongly implies that the disciples consist more than just the Twelve. They are those who desire to spend time being close to him and to learn from him. Jesus does not want us to stand from afar to hear his message. He wants us to have a personal connection with us by asking him to reveal to us the meaning of his words. When we read the Scriptures today, it may be good to read commentaries written by reliable biblical scholars. However, Jesus also invites us to go directly to him and ask him, “Lord, please explain this scripture passage to me.” When we approach him with humility, I believe he will certainly answer our request.

Personal Story

Before I end, let me share about my recent of hearing God’s voice anew through the Scriptures. Last month, I went to a silent retreat in Karuizawa. The facilitator is a pastor who used to be part of KGK. He led the participants through 6 sessions in which we were to practice meditating on the Scriptures. In one of the sessions, he read from the story of the crucifixion in Luke 23:39-43. To summarize the story, it is about the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus. One of them cursed Jesus, “If you are truly the Christ, save yourself and us!” The other rebuked him saying, “Aren’t you afraid of God? We deserve this punishment, but this man has done nothing to deserve this.” He then turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, when you enter into your kingdom, remember me.” Jesus responds, “Very truly, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Often, as Christians reading this familiar passage, we identify with the criminal who puts his faith in Jesus and thus receives the promise of entering paradise. During that retreat, we were all challenged to ask God to speak to us afresh through this passage. As I asked God to reveal to me the meaning of this passage, suddenly I found myself within this very story. I saw myself as the criminal who cursed Jesus.

This year, my mother passed away. The months after filled me with profound sadness. Many times, I asked God, “God, if you are really out there, why do you allow us to suffer pain?” It was the same exact question that this criminal posed to Jesus, “If you are truly as you claim to be, then do something about my situation!” But what struck me in this passage was that Jesus said nothing to this man. I can totally relate to this man because in the months of grieving, God was silent. God did not answer my questions about my grief and pain.

It so happened that I was meditating on this passage in the chapel. Because it was a Catholic monastery, there was a huge wooden crucifix with the body of Jesus right above the altar. I gazed at the image of Jesus’ face, sad and tormented. “Where was God in my suffering?” I asked. God was right there hanging on the cross. Just like the criminal who cursed Jesus, I did not realize that God was just right next to me, suffering silently. I was so blinded by my own grief that I did not recognize that Jesus was with me the whole time. If there was anyone who could understand what it means to go through pain, it was Jesus. He is not a God who sits in lofty clouds in the sky. He is a God who suffers alongside us and bears our pain. This realization caused me to weep. I felt God was saying to me, “Son, I know what you are going through. Look at me, I am suffering alongside you.”

I share this experience with you because I want to assure you that if truly seek to hear from God and have him speak to us, he will do so. After the end of the service today, I will be passing out copies of the instructions for doing the spiritual exercise I did at the retreat.

I believe this spiritual exercise can be helpful as part of our devotion.


To end, let me read from Psalm 95:7-11:

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”

Let us pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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