“And He said: “How can we illustrate the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use to describe it? It’s like a mustard seed that, when sown in the soil, is smaller than all the seeds on the ground. And when sown, it comes up and grows taller than all the vegetables, and produces large branches, so that the birds of the sky can nest in its shade.” He would speak the word to them with many parables like these, as they were able to understand. And He did not speak to them without a parable. Privately, however, He would explain everything to His own disciples.” (Mark 4:30-34 HCSB)
This week, we come to the final parable in this group of parables that Mark presents as examples of Jesus’ teaching. Mark has told us that Jesus speaks in parables and that even His own disciples struggled to understand and even requested an explanation. Sometimes, we just are too hard headed or closed minded to get it. We don’t see because we refuse to open our eyes. We don’t hear because we refuse to listen. We don’t understand because we reject anything that doesn’t align with our narrow minded thoughts and ideas.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in these last 55 years of walking with Jesus it is that God is SO much greater than I imagined, His love is much, much deeper, wider and more expansive than I thought possible and His ways and thoughts are so much higher than mine that there’s no real comparison. As Isaiah said, “Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5 HCSB)
Over the years, I’ve read and pondered many philosophical and theological treaties on humility. However, at its essence, humility is not about seeing ourselves as less than God intended but about seeing ourselves in proper perspective to the most Holy God. There’s a reason that pride is listed among the most deadly sins and why Proverbs tells us that it always precedes a fall (Prov. 16:18). It is at the heart of the serpent’s temptation of Eve and is so deeply rooted in us that it is never fully eradicated in this life. What does the issue of pride and the search for humility have to do with our focal passage and a parable on mustard seed? Stay with me and you’ll see…
This final parable in Mark 4 tells us that Jesus sees a comparison between the kingdom of God and a mustard seed. Well, more accurately, He sees a comparison between the kingdom of God and the growth from the smallest seed to the largest of the garden herbs. Pliny, a Roman naturalist, author and philosopher wrote of the many uses of black mustard from treating snake and scorpion bites to indigestion and even tetanus and leprous sores while the leaves are used in salads and the seed is ground and used as a spice. The size of the mustard seed is not only proverbial but is considered the smallest weight measurement by many ancient societies. Yet, it can grow to become 8-12 feet tall with branches large enough for birds to come and find shade and build nests. So, it seems to have been a common plant in a household garden. Perhaps, as Jesus tells this parable, He motions towards a mustard plant growing in a nearby household garden or growing wild nearby.
While Jesus never references the mustard uses I cited above, He does reference its humble origins and its subsequent growth, size and prominence in the garden as a comparison for the kingdom of God. It is easy to overlook the importance of His statement, so let me take a moment to illustrate. Jesus is a former carpenter, builder, or handyman who is now an unknown teacher from a tiny, out of the way village in northern Israel with a small group of rag-tag followers. In human terms, He’s a nobody from no place, going nowhere. His human origins and humble efforts at preaching the Good News of the kingdom of God and teaching His disciples the ways of God are nothing. Well, nothing more than a small mustard seed being sown in the soil. It may seem small and insignificant, but don’t measure the results by the size of the seed.
Yeah, don’t miss that. This humble carpenter from an out of the way village in an insignificant corner of the world that’s loving unlovely people, healing wounded lives and hearts, feeding hungry bellies and minds all while announcing and demonstrating the arrival of God’s rule and reign in men’s lives is really just a tiny seed being planted by an awesome and limitless God. Now, watch out! God is at work in the life of this nobody from nowhere.
“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.” (John 12:24 HCSB)
Whoa! Let that sink in a moment. A seed is FULL of potential but that potential can never be realized until it is planted and, as Jesus says, it must die in order to produce more. It is easy for us to look at a plant seed and see the potential for the next crop. We see it happen each time we plant, tend, water and, finally, we really experience it as we harvest and enjoy the fruit of our efforts. But it is somehow harder for us to see this same potential in our own lives. Some simply don’t get it and the seed falls on hard ground and quickly gets gobbled up by the birds. Some hear it, quickly respond but wither away when things get too hot or hard. Some are so preoccupied with other things or getting ahead in life that they never produce any real grain. But some get it. They recognize the principle of planting and believe in its power. Remember, one seed planted in the proper soil results in a harvest of more grain, 30/60/100 times more.
But let’s pause for just a moment, because this is where the pride I mentioned earlier begins to get in our way. We know the principle of planting and growth but we mistakenly take credit for the results. I’d remind you of the previous parable where the farmer sows but doesn’t know how the seed does what it does. He knows the principle of planting and growth but he doesn’t know the hidden things of God. He doesn’t understand how it works, he just knows it works. I think Mark, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, grouped these three parables together with purpose and intent. The first considers the potential of the seed in the soil, the second considers the dependence upon God for the principle of planting and growth and the third deals with the comparison of size and prominence with the purpose and power of God.
So, why am I concerned with human pride as we consider the truths of this parable? Jesus has told us that a small seed can be planted and it can grow into something unexpectedly large, productive and beneficial. While Jesus is using this parable to illustrate what God has planned for His own efforts and seed sowing (and perhaps encourage His disciples as to His future plans), we need to hear a few things on this topic. First, God applies these same principles to our seed sowing and the church’s efforts in preaching, teaching, worship, fellowship, ministry and service. Second, when growth occurs and doesn’t occur through our efforts it is essential to understand and remember that God alone is sovereign and responsible for growth. We are responsible for sowing and He alone is able to cause and, thus, responsible for any growth.
The problem comes when we forget that fact…
When church growth happens we often take credit and when it doesn’t happen we often place blame. This is one of the most difficult lessons I’ve had to learn over four decades of pastoring. It isn’t that we don’t know these truths we just tend to have short memories regarding perceived success and long memories regarding perceived failures. Meaning we tend to quickly forget that it was God who really gave the increase when things are going well and we tend to blame ourselves and never forget it when they didn’t. Simply put, we’re called to humble obedience in sowing and to leave the results of those efforts to God, alone. If growth occurs, praise God. If it doesn’t, still praise God for the opportunity to serve Him, stay obedient and keep sowing. When we take credit for a church’s growth we strip God of the glory He alone deserves.
One final observation on this subject, numerical growth and financial success are NOT signs of God’s presence, power and pleasure with a church. It is possible for such growth to occur solely through human effort and absent God’s Spirit and power and, if such growth occurs, it is likely devoid of the spiritual maturity and holiness that God truly desires. It is better to have a small, spiritually healthy church obediently serving God than it is to have a large, spiritually unhealthy one bringing shame and humiliation to the name of Christ.
“For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29 HCSB)
Next, notice how the “birds of the sky” nest in the shade of the branches. Remember, this is a parable and these images are “like” the kingdom of God. It appears that the birds are a reference to the “nations” who will come to the kingdom of God and rest and nest in the shade of its “branches.” Jesus’ parable seems to draw from the prophecy of Ezekiel 17:22-24: “This is what the Lord God says: I will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and plant it. I will pluck a tender sprig from its topmost shoots, and I will plant it on a high towering mountain. I will plant it on Israel’s high mountain so that it may bear branches, produce fruit, and become a majestic cedar. Birds of every kind will nest under it, taking shelter in the shade of its branches. Then all the trees of the field will know that I am Yahweh. I bring down the tall tree, and make the low tree tall. I cause the green tree to wither and make the withered tree thrive. I, Yahweh, have spoken and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 17:22-24 HCSB)
One of the most heinous lies that Satan has successfully perpetrated among men and has shamefully taken root among some who claim the name of Christ is the lie of white supremacy (and by extension, racism and anti-semitism). Let me state emphatically, this is an especially ugly lie from the deepest depths of hell and is NOT consistent with the Word of God and must NOT be tolerated among those follow Christ. Let me remind you of what John saw and proclaimed in Revelation: “And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed people for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10 HCSB)
Come on, CHURCH! Don’t be silent on this subject. Sing with the saints in glory, “You redeemed people for God by Your blood from EVERY tribe, language, people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth!”
Finally, Mark closes out this group of parables by telling us how Jesus spoke the word to them using parables like these (those we’ve considered over the past few weeks are Mark’s examples), as they were able to understand. Privately though, He would explain everything to His own disciples. Some take these, and some earlier statements He made, to mean that Jesus used parables to “hide” or “conceal” the truths of God’s kingdom and the meaning of His Word from the masses. However, as I’ve pointed out previously, that seems to be at odds with God’s intent and Jesus actions. We use parables and similes to illustrate and explain God’s will and His kingdom, not hide it. I think He did the same.
Mark says Jesus spoke many parables, like these, as they were able to understand. “As they were able to understand…” No matter how intelligent a child might be, you start where they are and slowly take them further, deeper into knowledge and understanding. Before a child can learn to read they must learn the alphabet and sounds associated with each one. Before a child can understand the higher math functions they must know how to count and fully grasp simple addition and subtraction. Before we can understand the deeper things of God we must fully grasp, understand and trust the simpler things of God. Go read John 3 and consider the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus. Nicodemus had spent decades studying the Old Testament and was a “teacher of Israel” but couldn’t comprehend Jesus’ statement about being born physically and being born spiritually.
Do you struggle to understand the things of God? Start simple and grow a little each day, each month, each year. “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13 HCSB) Just remember, it isn’t enough to simply believe that God exists. As James says, even the demons believe that. Start with the two great commandments, love God with everything that’s in you and love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself (see Mark 12:28-31). Jesus said that the entire Law and Prophets are summed up in those two commands. Next, you need to deal with who Jesus is, what He taught and what His death and resurrection mean. He’s the very Son of God and Son of Man, he’s fully divine (God) and fully man (human). He is God in human flesh. See John 1 specifically, but take time to read all four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to hear what He taught. They each give a different perspective of Jesus, His life and teachings.
Finally, what does His death and resurrection mean? The story of the Bible is the story of redemption. God created man to know Him and to walk with Him in obedience to God’s Word and commands but man rebelled in Genesis 3 (the third chapter of the very first book of the Bible). So, the first three chapters are about God creating man and man rebelling (sinning) against God and the rest of the Bible is about God seeking to restore us to knowing Him and walking with Him. Jesus brought all of that to culmination through His life and death. “God made the One who did not know sin to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God through/in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21) Paul says, confess verbally (with your mouth) Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised Him from the dead and you will be saved (Romans 10:9-10).
We all tend to try and earn God’s love and forgiveness by being good enough but that’s a mountain that’s impossible to climb. One step up, two tumbles down the slope. We’ll never get there. But what we could never do Jesus did. He fulfilled God’s law but offered Himself to God as a sacrifice on our behalf. (See Hebrews 10) I hope and pray that today you’ll seek Him, trust Him, believe Him and surrender to Him. Love Him with all your heart, give yourself to Him completely and seek to know Him, serve Him and obey Him and then watch your life transform. It will transform from what you wanted it to be and could never achieve to what He wants it to be and can only become through His power and presence. Come walk with us…
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