The Mysteries and Parables of Christ's Kingdom
Sermon Passage: Mark 4:1–34 | Preached to Sovereign Grace | 05/30/2021
By Peder Kling
Christ’s Passion for His Kingdom
Over the last few weeks, Mark’s gospel has been introducing us to Jesus and his ministry. Now sadly, if you ask anyone on the street today what they think best captures Jesus’s ministry, they’ll say “healing and miracles”, or “being a moral teacher”. I really suspect whether “the kingdom” would be the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of Jesus’s life and ministry. But that’s what he was all about. In fact, many of us might be slow to think of “the kingdom” as a central piece to Christianity. Many Christians will say “the gospel” is central, and we often don’t quite known how the gospel relates to the kingdom. But, the kingdom of God was the heartbeat of everything Jesus said and did. It was his gospel message. Chapter 1 verse 14 of Mark’s gospel summarizes his ministry when it says, “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!’”. The arrival of the king and his kingdom is the gospel. Jesus proclaimed it with his words, and he demonstrated the blessings and power of his kingdom with his miracles of healing.
Today, we will learn about one more way Jesus proclaimed the message of his kingdom. It’s one of the more mysterious parts of Jesus’s ministry—and, it has many people baffled. He proclaimed the kingdom through secretive parables. Like today, the parables had everyone scratching their heads—and, it seems that Jesus wanted it that way. He says to his disciples in verse 11, “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside [the kingdom] everything is in parables”. So, it almost seems that Jesus wanted his kingdom to be kept secret, even though it was the central focus of his ministry. Can you imagine. pastor today taking that approach to ministry? “If I tell the gospel through some cryptic puzzle, maybe then people will fall on their face and give their lives to Jesus”. I wouldn’t count on it. So, what’s going on with these parables—and, how do they relate to Jesus’s kingdom? Today, we will consider these things in our passage with three steps.
First—we will answer general questions like “what is a parable?”, “how did Jesus use them?”, and “how should we learn from them?”
Second, will specifically consider the parable of the sower.
Third, we will consider the other three parables in this passage.
1. What is a Parable, and Why Does it Matter?
So, what is a parable, and why does it matter to us? Let me first give you a broad answer to that question, and then we can narrow into the answer that Jesus gives us in verses 10–13.
Broadly speaking, a parable is a fictional story designed to communicate a spiritual truth. These are supposed to convict you and teach you. You could think of them as mirrors—do you see yourself in this story? Are you the good guy, or the bad guy in this story? Are you the good Samaritan, or are you the religious elites who won’t defile yourself by loving an unclean person? And with that question—where, then, do you stand in relation to God and his kingdom?
Jesus’s teaching is not the only place we see the use of parables in the Bible. A number of preachers have used the story of Nathan and David to illustrate this. Perhaps you remember the story. David sinned an awful sin—after lusting over another man’s wife, he killed the husband so he could take the wife for himself. This is the story of David and Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan, as God’s spokesman, had the responsibility to convict King David of his sin, and call him to repentance. So, he told a story that would be near and dear to David—the story of a poor shepherd boy. In a nutshell, a rich shepherd who had several flocks stole the poor shepherd boy’s only lamb. David was sucked in with a righteous indignation. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he has done this thing, and because he has no pity”. Nathan said to David, “you are the man!”. David couldn’t deny the awful truth.
It’s amazing how stories can expose sin like a mirror exposes dirt on your face. They teach values. They fill you with righteous indignation or loud shouts of approval. And when you are sucked into the story like that, the Bible encourages us to take a step back and ask, “who are you in the story? Are you acting like the fool who everyone laughs at, or the discontent snob who gets nothing good at the end of the story? Or, are you the person who fights for joy, faith, and righteousness?”. Parables are supposed to be mirrors to you—convicting and encouraging you. When we look more closely at the parable of the sower, we are supposed to ask that question (and, we will in a moment).
But that’s not the main reason why Jesus taught in parables. There’s a second question you should always ask when you read one of Jesus’s parables. Jesus tells us in verse 11 that his parables are about his kingdom, and that he uses them to communicate the glory of his kingdom in a secretive way.
So the second question you should ask of every parable is “what does this parable teach me about Christ’s kingdom”? When we look ahead at each of the parables in this passage, those are the two questions we want to ask. (1) who am I in this story?, and (2) what does this teach me about Christ’s kingdom?
Why did Jesus Use Mysterious Parables?
Now, let’s cut to the chase and tease out Jesus’s reason for teaching his kingdom in these secretive, mysterious parables. Why doesn’t he just get to the point and speak plainly?
I want you to first notice Jesus’s location as this story moves forward. In verses 1 and 2, we are told that “he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea.” So, here we see the common picture of Jesus getting overwhelmed by the crowds. As I mentioned last week, Jesus had to get in the boat because the crowds wanted to touch Jesus for healing. They wanted to crowd him, get close to him. They weren’t interested in sitting down and listening to Jesus—and, that’s not a good thing. Look back at the last verse in chapter three, just before our passage in chapter 4. There, we see a small crowd willing to sit at Jesus’s feet, to actually listen to Jesus. This is supposed to be a jarring contrast to the crowds who pressed against him for healing—crowds who literally would push Jesus out to sea in a boat.
Now this crowd in chapter 4, again, was not willing to sit and listen. So, Jesus had to get in the boat. What’s the first thing he says (verse 3)? “Listen!”. Listen to me! Hear me! In fact, the word “listen”, or “hear” occurs thirteen times in this chapter. Perhaps, parents, you have felt that way with your kids or your spouse. “Did you not hear me in that conversation? You responded to me!”. The classic, shameful response: “uhh, I don’t remember that conversation. I’m sorry”. Shame on you.
So with his context of a self-serving, seemingly deaf crowd—Jesus uses parables in order to demonstrate a point. Verse 2 says he taught them “many things in parables”. The last verse of our passage actually says he didn’t speak to the crowds at all, except through these cryptic parables. The reason is quite simple—they wouldn’t receive him, even if he spoke plainly! They wouldn’t sit at his feet to listen to him—they literally pushed him out into the sea, because they cared about his power rather than him and his kingdom! So, he first tells the parable of the sower on a boat where no one could touch him.
Ministries of Judgment: Jesus, Isaiah, and Parables
Now, the rest of this story concerning the parable of the sower occurs away from the crowds. Verse 10 says, “when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables”. So again—this isn’t just the twelve. This is the twelve “with those around him”—most likely sitting at his feet just like they were at the end of chapter 4—ready to learn and listen, asking questions. “What’s the deal with these parables? Why won’t you explain your gospel of the kingdom with plain teaching so they can understand?” Jesus answered by quoting Isaiah 6:9–10.
Look at that section of Isaiah which Jesus quoted, in verse 12 of our passage—
For those outside everything is in parables, so that [Isaiah 6:9–10]:
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
Doesn’t that seem a bit cruel? Doesn’t God desire all to be saved, and come to a saving knowledge of him? This verse doesn’t seem to say so, does it? He’s literally speaking with confusing, mysterious parables so that crowds would see him, but not percieve. They would hear him, but not understand. Get this—“lest they should turn [repent], and be forgiven”.
That is the language of God’s judgment, there. In Isaiah’s context, the people of God had a long history of rejecting God and his promises. They didn’t listen to Elijah or Elisha. They didn’t listen to king David or the prophet Nathan. They followed wicked kings so that they were divided into two kingdoms—both worshipped Baal and other gods in the country. So, in comes the prophet Isaiah. The quotation that Jesus uses in our passage comes from a very familiar passage that we all know—Isaiah chapter 6. We sang a part of it this morning. Isaiah is taken up into God’s holy throne room, and he sees a glorious picture of angelic hosts calling out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”. It is in this context where God sends Isaiah to his people with a heart-wrenching ministry of judgment—and, this is the passage Jesus appeals to in order to explain the purpose of his parables. If you want to read it for yourself, you can turn to Isaiah chapter 6, verse 9.
9 [God] said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the LORD removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
That’s what Jesus was doing with the parables. That’s why, when Jesus was telling the parables, he said over and over again, “Listen! Hear, hear!”. Or, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”. Jesus was illustrating that every word which he spoke to the crowds was judgment upon them. He was pointing that as they heard his voice, but his words went in one ear, and out the other.
It is a fearful thing to hear God’s word and reject it—or as many do, simply ignore it. If you ignore his word, it doesn’t result in your judgment as we often think. Instead, it means you’re already judged. It means you’d rather have the world, your desires and your pleasures, rather than God and his blessings. God and his truth mean nothing to you. The Bible says that such a condition is judgment. The word hardens you more and more, and your judgment will be that more serious.
Jesus Brings Salvation Through Judgment
But, there’s hope. In Isaiah’s commission in Isaiah 6, God tells Isaiah just few verses later that the judgment will continue like a tree that burns. Everything will be consumed—but, a stump will remain. God says that stump resembles “the holy seed”—the faithful remnant whom God would use to carry his promises through history from Isaiah’s time to Jesus’s arrival. Most of Israel would not take God’s word to heart, but there would always be the stump. You could think of Ezra and Nehemiah, for example.
That stump would one day bring forth the shoot of Jesse, the promised Messiah. And, he was alone—the people had been carried away by false teaching of the elite, and it was his job to judge them and set them right. His parables were designed to harden the crowds until they were screaming “crucify him!”. In fact, even his own disciples would betray him at that moment. For that time in history, Jesus was the only faithful remnant as he hung on the cross, to bear God’s wrath against us for our sin. As Isaiah prophesies—
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation [even the disciples], did anyone consider
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people? [answer: no]
He was alone, rejected by everyone in his generation. Yet, he was the holy stump—the seed—upon which God’s kingdom would sprout eternal life and blessing.
So in all this, you could say the parables were Jesus’s way of identifying with Isaiah’s ministry of judgment which would burn God’s people down to a stump, even Jesus himself. Jesus would bring salvation through judgment (perhaps, through his ministry of parables).
What about the Disciples?
Now, this raises a question. We have to reckon this with the fact that Jesus did reveal the meaning of the parables to his disciples and true followers. Verses 10 and 34 makes that quite clear to us. So, here’s the question—was Jesus really the lone, holy stump on the cross who was rejected by everyone in his generation? How do we fit the disciples into this? On the one hand, Jesus clearly called them into his kingdom, and distinguished them from “those outside”. Yet, on another hand, they seemed almost as confused about Jesus’s teaching as the crowds. They didn’t seem to understand Jesus’s parables or Jesus’s private teaching about them.
There’s something really cool going on here, and it teaches us more about Christ and his care for those of us in his kingdom. In verse 10, Jesus refers to “the secret” of the kingdom which he conceals in the parables. This word “secret”, or “mystery”, is a unique word in our Old Testaments. It only occurs in the book of Daniel. Perhaps you remember the story. King Nebuchadnezzar has two mysterious dreams which the magicians and wise men could not understand. So, God raised up Daniel, and gave Daniel the interpretation of the dreams. The dreams all had secrets concerning the kingdoms of this world, and God’s kingdom.
So, you could say that God’s message was revealed to Daniel in two stages. First, the kingdoms of man and of God were represented in a mysterious parable—a picture, or a story. Then, God needed to interpret the mystery, in order to make his revelation clear. You see—God is demonstrating that his revelation and his kingdom can only be received if he chooses to make it known. You can’t reason or divine your way into his kingdom.
The same thing was happening with Jesus. He gave a mysterious message to the masses, and he had to interpret it to his people. But, here’s where things get interesting. Even after Daniel received God’s interpretation of the dream, he says in chapter 12 verse 8, “I heard [these things], but I did not understand.” Then God says to Daniel, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.”
In other words, God’s people—even the disciples—would never fully understand the secrets of God’s kingdom until the end of the Old Testament age. The disciples had the great privilege of being called to Jesus, so that their souls were entirely in his hands. He would reveal himself and his kingdom to them in his own timing, for his own glory and for their best interest. As we continue moving through Mark’s gospel, we will see that they slowly grow in their understanding of Jesus’s identity and glory, but they will also be filled with frustration and confusion toward Jesus. Peter repeatedly rebuked Jesus. They were left hopeless and scared after Jesus died, even after he promised a resurrection. Why? Remember Daniel 12—the mysterious was shut up and sealed until the time of the end. The end of the Old Testament era was yet to come—the Holy Spirit was yet to shower the New Testament church with his revelation of Christ and his kingdom.
When he did, the church would become an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. God’s people would be made aware of Christ and all his blessings. They would be made aware that his kingdom is built upon his righteousness, not their own. His citizens, by faith, are united with him in his death so that their sins would be atoned for, and their guilt before God removed. Yet, just as Jesus rose from the dead into the Father’s eternal joy, the Spirit assures everyone in Christ’s kingdom that they are likewise united to Christ in his glory. There is no condemnation, no suffering, no death, no pain or sickness in this world that can separate us from the love of the Father, and our hope in eternity. This is the conviction and revelation of Christ’s kingdom which has carried the church forward to today, 2000 years later. And, it’s all a gift of revelation and grace from God.
Jesus’s Parables: Bringing it All Together
So, let’s bring this all together. What is the purpose of the parables in Jesus's ministry? We covered a lot, here. In a broad sense, the parables give us stories to identify with. They force us to ask the question, “who am I in this story”. But Jesus used his parables to accomplish something much greater. He used the parables to illustrate the people’s hard and judged hearts, and their need for the Holy Spirit’s revelation. But now that we have the Holy Spirit, we can see exactly what Jesus was teaching us about his kingdom in his parables. We can now ask with confidence in the Spirit’s revelation, “what does this parable teach me about Christ’s kingdom?”.
So, we’ve explained what parables are, how Jesus used them to advance his kingdom, and why they matter to us today. Let’s take the rest of our time to consider the four parables in this passage—they all relate to one another. I’ll briefly explain them, and give some application so that we might find encouragement in them.
2. What Does the Parable of the Sower Teach us?
Think about the parable of the sower with me for a moment. We’ve already talked about it in passing, but let’s get more specific. In a nutshell, Jesus explains four different responses to his gospel. You can think of the gospel as a seed that his thrown onto the ground, and the ground represents the condition of a person’s heart. There are four different soils of the ground, so there are four different responses to the gospel.
The first soil is a path—back then, they were made of pavers and stones. If you throw seed on a path, Jesus reasons that the birds will eat the seeds. They won’t even have a chance to take root and sprout. Jesus says that situation is demonic. Like a bird, Satan snatches the word away before they could even think about it.
The Rocky Ground
The second soil is a rocky ground. If you throw seed on rocky soil, there will be just enough nutrients for it to sprout up for a moment. But, it won’t be able to bear fruit. Jesus says in verse 17, “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, [these people] immediately fall away.” Their rocky soil wouldn’t allow them to root deeply into the gospel. They were tossed by trials. If you tend to put Christ on a side burner when life gets hard, or persecution comes—this is a warning to you. He promises to be the strength and hope which gets you through trials.
The Thorny Ground
The third soil Jesus speaks of is a soil infested with thorn bushes. Seeds may be able to sprout, but they get choked out by the thorn bushes and weeds. You can’t have a beautiful, fruitful garden with weeds. I grew up spending hours every summer, pulling weeds out of my mom’s shade garden—it’s part of gardening! Jesus says the thorns and weeds are like “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things”. It is a dangerous thing to be in love with this world. The more you trust in this world, the less you will go to God’s word for life and joy. You can’t serve two masters. If you notice you aren’t being moved to prayer or reading God’s word, take it as a sign that your heart is getting distracted with the pleasures or concerns of this world. Jesus’s words, here, are a warning to you.
The Good Soil
The final soil Jesus mentions is the good soil. Jesus tells us in verse 20 that the good soil represents “those who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold”. Don’t you love the abundance of fruit described, here? It reminds me of Psalm 1—“Blessed is the man …[who] delights in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” God’s word—especially through the gospel which Jesus plants in our hearts—is a source of abundant life. “Its leaf does not wither”—so, we’re talking about fruit that never rots or thirsts during a season of drought. “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 3:14). Jesus is talking about his word and Spirit which together implants a living hope into the soul which invigorates fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control. This fruit of faith is good for your soul, and it is precious to God. It has been washed of all impurities by Christ’s blood, and it is offered to God out of gratitude and gladness. It bears fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold and hundredfold.
So, there’s the four soils. Now, let’s consider the two questions I raised concerning parables earlier—"who am I in this story?” and “how does this reveal the secret of the Christ’s kingdom?”
Holding up the Mirror: Which Soil are You?
So first, ask yourself that personal question. Hold up this parable like a mirror and ask yourself: “Am I the good soil that receives God’s word for abundant fruit?”. Or, do you identify more with the other three types of soils? Is it hard not to be distracted by this world? Perhaps you need to do some weeding. Or, perhaps you need Christ to give you boldness—you tremble at trials and persecutions. You need him to till your soil, and make you that much more willing to receive him and bear fruit. That starts with prayer and his word.
The Glory of Christ’s Kingdom: Can These Soils Be Tilled?
Now, this leads into the second question—"how does this parable reveal the secret of Christ’s kingdom?” I want you to think about this for a moment. Considering what we know about Christ and his kingdom—are any of these people out of Christ’s reach? Take the person who might be characterized by the path where Satan snatches up the word like a bird. Can Jesus immobilize the devil, and till that soil? Well, we’ve already seen him cast out demons, and call the individual to faith in him. Or, perhaps Jesus had the pharisees and scribes in mind—he literally charges them with running “synagogues of Satan”. He says their father is the devil, not Abraham. Are these religious elites out of Jesus’s reach? There’s Nicodemus. Or, you could think of Saul (who became the apostle Paul). Christ powerfully tilled both their hearts to receive him and his gospel.
What about the rocky ground, where the fear of persecution and trials lead a person to shy away from the faith—is there hope for cowards? Absolutely. Last week, we met Jesus’s family who seemed afraid and embarrassed of Jesus’s teaching. They said “he’s out of his mind” when they heard the things he was doing, and the people he was associating with. Mary was excited about Jesus at one point—you know, when the angels were saying she was giving birth to a king. But then he started hanging out with the outcasts in society, and he taught strange and dangerous teachings. Just as Jesus’s parable explains—her joy didn’t last, her fear and shame overcame her. But, Jesus tilled the soil. In Acts chapter 1 verse 14, Mary and Jesus’s brothers are mentioned praying with the apostles, associating with men who would one day face martyrdom for their faith.
What about the weedy ground? Is there hope for those who get choked by the cares and pleasures of this world? I can’t help but think of the crowds, here—the crowds who pressed hard against Jesus to get physical healing, rather than sit at his feet to receive him as their king. The crowds followed their passions—they would say “heal me!” when it suited them, and then “crucify him!” when it suited them. Was there hope for them? Perhaps you remember Jesus’s prayer for them on the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”. Their passions are driving them, not Spirit-wrought faith and understanding. I have no doubt that the Lord saved thousands of them through Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, or Paul’s preaching on his missionary journeys.
Jesus tilled each of these hard soils, and he made them into the kind of soil which would produce fruit for his kingdom. The way he did it was quite simple—he died for their sins, rose for their hope and life, and sent his Spirit so they might be given new hearts to receive and trust upon him forever. That’s what this parable forces us to understand concerning Christ’s kingdom. No one on this earth is outside Christ’s grasp. No heart is too hard for him. So, pray that his Spirit would soften hearts with an undeniable revelation of his glory and grace.
So, we have learned what parables are, and how Jesus used them in a unique way. We’ve also learned how to apply the parable of the sower to ourselves, and how it teaches us about Christ’s kingdom. The next three parables are much shorter, and simply flesh this all out with more imagery.
3. What Do the other Three Parables Teach us?
In verses 21–25, Jesus tells the parable of a lamp under a basket. This is not to be confused with the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 5:14, where he compares a lamp under a basket to a city on a hill. There, Jesus is saying that Christians are to let their light shine. They are to be the salt of the earth.
In this parable, Jesus is saying that he won’t let his light remain hidden. At this point in Mark’s gospel, he is speaking in mysterious parables. He is keeping his secrets close to his chest until the time is right. He is keeping the light of his kingdom concealed in secrets. Verse 22 gets to the point—“nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light”. The word “secret”, there, is the same word to describe the “secrets of the kingdom” in verse 11. One day, Jesus will let the glory of his kingdom shine for all to see. And the measure you use to receive that kingdom, it will be given to you “and still more”. There, you see a reference to the abundant riches that will come with the kingdom when it is revealed. If you receive the kingdom—with whatever measure you receive it—you will get that and more. That’s grace. That’s a kingdom to belong to. I’ve known many people who were outright surprised by an unexpected and peculiar joy when they became a Christian. Nobody can expect the joy—the relief, strength, and contentment—that Christ has to offer through his kingdom. C. S. Lewis literally titled his biography, “surprised by joy”. The kingdom of God is full of surprises.
But one of the most astonishing surprises the kingdom offers is the way it grows. That’s the focus of the next two parables. These are awesome parables for church planters. In verses 26–29, Jesus compares the kingdom of God like a farmer’s field of crops. He sows the seed—and, guess what? The craziest thing happens. It mysteriously grows overnight. You have to picture a farmer’s surprise when he wakes up one day, and his little corn seeds are 6 feet tall, full of fruit. How did it happen? God made it happen. As Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). When Jesus is on the move, his kingdom grows with glorious the fruit of faith, righteousness, and joy.
The last parable helps us grasp the contrast of Christ’s kingdom as it would grow from infancy to maturity. Just as a tiny seed can grow into a massive tree that hosts birds in its branches, Christ’s kingdom will grow from a small room in Jerusalem before pentecost, to one day inhabiting the new heavens and the new earth in glory.
The kingdom of God is lavish in blessings, immense in size, and breathed into existence by the king of glory.
So, we have seen what parables are, and how Christ used them to judge the hard-hearted. Yet for those who are in the kingdom—the parables give us lessons to consider as we discover the glory of Christ’s kingdom, and our standing in it. May the Lord of the harvest continue to till the soil, soften our hearts, surprise us with joy, and reveal to us the glory of his kingdom so that we might bear fruit hundredfold.