(Written by Pastor Tim Redfield)
Mark 4:26-34 – He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
One of the familiar themes that Jesus gives us in his parables is the fact that the kingdom of God experiences growth in this world. There are a number of parables which talk about the Word of God being spread out into the world like seed being spread over a field. The Word then leads to growth. The plants sprout up just like the Word causes faith to grow in the hearts of believers. The believers grow in this world until the harvest. When God decides to call us home then our time of growth in this world is over. All people will face judgment before God. The believers will enter everlasting life and the unbelievers will be condemned to hell.
At the beginning of Mark chapter 4, Jesus gives us the parable of the sower and the seed. That parable talks about the reason for the growth of the plants. In the parable of the sower of the seed, some of the seed never gets the chance to grow because the birds eat it. Other plants spring up quickly but have poor soil and die off. Other plants are choked out by weeds. Then some of the seed grows into healthy plants. In the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus explains this by telling the disciples that all the seed which failed to grow into healthy plants represent people who lost the Word because of the attacks of Satan and because of their own sinfulness. The healthy plants are the believers who the Holy Spirit preserved in faith.
In this text, it doesn’t talk much about the seed that doesn’t become healthy plants. It says that the one who plants the seed doesn’t completely understand why the plants grow. Look at verses 26 and 27, “A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” Think about how true this is. Sure we know a lot of the scientific reasons why plants grow. We know about the need for sunlight and water. We know about ideal growing conditions. And yet, we still can’t fully explain why one seed sprouts into a plant and another seed doesn’t make it. Why does one field grow exceptionally well and another field doesn’t produce the same kind of crop?
Even as we proclaim the Word, we can’t explain why it grows in the hearts of some but not in the hearts of others. We can guess but ultimately we don’t know. The main point is that the Word produces faith in the hearts of many. The kingdom of God grows large even if we don’t understand why. Verses 31 and 32 stress this kingdom growth. They say, “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” The kingdom starts small with a few believers taking the Word of God and spreading it to others. It grows large and we won’t see how large the kingdom is until we reach heaven.
There are times that our sinful nature wants to get in the way when it comes to the growth of the Kingdom of God. We can see this in the example of Jonah. Jonah let his sinful nature get in the way of the proclamation of God’s Word. As a prophet, Jonah was like the man who scatters seed in the first part of our text. However, when God told him to take a message to the Assyrians, Jonah let his sinful hatred for the Assyrians get in the way of the mission that God had put before him. Jonah tried to run away from God.
After God directed events so that Jonah would be thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant fish, Jonah consented to the mission that God put before him. An interesting point about that mission is this; God gave Jonah a message of judgment for the Assyrians. There was no gospel love in that original message. Jonah told the Assyrians, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:5). Even though Jonah was sinfully hoping that God really would destroy them, his message gives us good insight into our responsibility as Christians. There are times when it is appropriate to only speak law and judgment toward sinners. The Holy Spirit needs us to see our sins and the condemnation that we deserve.
Naturally, people might wonder how a message of law and judgment will produce growth for the kingdom of God. Wouldn’t it be more loving if we accepted people without judging their actions? Couldn’t we have more people become members if we didn’t make them feel bad about their sins? We probably could get more members if we didn’t talk about sin. However, that would not make us loving. We would be failing to carry out the ministry that God has called us to perform. Calling out sin is certainly not something that makes us popular in our society. But at the same time, it is necessary to confront sin. People need to know that they have sinned against the holy and just God who demands perfection.
As we proclaim God’s law, we may get discouraged when our membership remains small or perhaps starts to shrink. We might even blame ourselves or be tempted to change our message. We might be tempted to let sins slide just a little bit so that we can keep people in our church. What a horrible thought! We should never sacrifice any of God’s truth in order to keep people in the pews. Think about what Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Many people will go down the path to destruction because of their own sinful rejection of the Word. Few will enter heaven. But those few will be part of God’s large kingdom.
We should not sinfully blame ourselves for those who reject the Word of God. We should not sacrifice the truth for the sake of growth. We don’t always understand the growth that occurs, we simply trust that God will bring his people home to heaven.
Listen to the way the growth of God’s people is described in verses 28 and 29, “All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” The original Greek of this portion of Scripture expresses a fuller thought. When it says that the soil produces grain “all by itself” the idea is that there really isn’t a reason that can be understood for the grain sprouting. It just happens. When we take into account the rest of Scripture, we know that the cause for this growth is actually the Holy Spirit working in our hearts through the power of the gospel.
The Holy Spirit calls us to faith and then causes us to continue to grow in our faith until that time of harvest. God plants the seed of his Word into the hearts of his believers. He nourishes that seed and makes it grow. He keeps us strong in our faith. He gets all the credit for the faith that he has placed in us. This gives us great comfort as we live in this world because we know that the emphasis of our salvation does not depend on us. It is not because of our perfect life. It is rather because of Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death. God works in us and he will bring us into our heavenly kingdom.
Think again about Jonah taking God’s message of judgment to the Assyrians. Through that law message, God worked repentance in the hearts of those wicked people in the city of Nineveh. They felt sorrow over their sins. They showed repentance for those sins. God showed them grace by sparing them from the judgment that he had threatened. Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” That verse doesn’t tell us if the people eventually believed in a coming Messiah but it does show us that God worked repentance in their hearts.
God’s Word produces the effect that God wants it to produce. In Paul’s letters we see him giving thanks for the fact that the Holy Spirit has brought many to faith. In his letter to the Colossians he says this, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth” (Colossians 1:6). This is still true today. Throughout the world God’s Word is creating many new believers. As a Synod we are working throughout the World to proclaim that wonderful gospel message.
We continue to proclaim all of God’s truth because we know that it is through that message that God creates faith in the hearts of his people. It is only through God’s grace that we ourselves are preserved in that truth. There are all kinds of temptations to abandon that truth and yet God continues to graciously lead us back to his Word again and again. We might even ask ourselves: why has God given us a faith which clings to the cross of Christ while so many others abandon this gospel message? Again, it is simply God’s gracious love that preserves us. There is nothing special about us, it is all about God.
His special love for us is what motivates us to live for him. Our life of faith is what identifies us as his believers. If someone claims to be Christian but over and over again by their lifestyle shows a lack of Christian morality, we have to wonder if they truly believe. God himself says that the fruits a person bears will identify them as a Christian. Listen to what Paul said about our life in 2 Corinthians, “We make it our goal to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9). We live to please God. We want to hold to all of his truth. We want to love him because he first loved us through Christ.