Mark 4:21-34. Schroedinger’s kingdom.

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? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 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. 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.” And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 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.”

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.

Recap:

Through the first three chapters of Mark, we have seen Jesus become more and more famous- a bigger name- until he is attracting people from all over the country- they are coming not just from Galilee in the North, where Jesus has been teaching, but from Judea in the South, and Idumea even further South, and across the Jordan to the East, and Tyre and Sidon in the Gentile North. Everyone is excited to see this man who teaches with authority, and who goes around healing diseases and casting out demons. He is an obvious candidate for the vacant position of Messiah-King-National Hero.

But along with the larger fame has come a larger, more vicious, hatred from some. There are those who find out about him and harden their hearts against him. The religious authorities- both local and now even national- have heard Jesus teaching, and have realised that his idea of God’s kingdom is quite different to theirs, and so they want to squash him. They have a god- for all men do- but the god they serve is not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. And when men who refuse to serve the real God are confronted with men who do, they tend to get a bit agitated. The Pharisees and the Herodians- unlikely bedfellows in any normal circumstances- plot together to kill Jesus. The Jerusalem authorities say that he is in league with the devil.

In Chapter 4, Mark has given us a fuller picture of the sort of teaching Jesus gave to the crowds who gathered around him wherever he went. Mark says that to the crowds, Jesus said nothing except in parables. 4 such parables are here; the sower and soils, the lamp on the stand, the growing seed, and the mustard seed.

Introduction to  parables:

We looked last time at the first parable of the chapter, and at the function of the parables- at why Jesus would teach in parables. We tried to see something of the confusion and incomprehensibility of this form of teaching, and then to see that Jesus was using them precisely to make things obscure, to hide what he meant from those who didn’t have ears to hear and eyes to see and hearts to understand. To a few, the parables would be windows into God’s unfolding purposes. To the rest, they would be a brick wall.

We can say a few more things about that than time permitted before. When his disciples ask him about the parables, Jesus quotes God’s words to Isaiah, telling them that his ministry will be one in which the hearers do not hear, but become more hardened, and riper for judgement. And God speaking to his servant Isaiah, was echoing the words his servant Moses spoke to Israel on the borders of the land. Moses told Israel, in words that sound harsh and unfeeling to some ears, that they would all turn away from God because they were wicked and rebellious (Deuteronomy 29:4).

The parables fulfil the same function as tongues do in the New Testament churches. In Isaiah, we have predictions of tongues…

“For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the LORD will speak to this people, to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear. And the word of the LORD will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little, that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.”

This sounds very similar to the part of Isaiah Jesus quoted to explain the parables- “Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Tongues are a sign of God’s displeasure with Israel. The verse in Isaiah is the verse Paul quotes in Corinthians when he is explaining their function…

“Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.

In Jerusalem, when the apostles first speak in tongues, they do so not to Gentiles- but to Jews. Peter addresses the crowd “Men of Israel…” Jerusalem is heaving with Jews, gathered there for the Passover- and this corrupt and wicked generation of Jews has crucified their Messiah. God is cutting them off and to show this, his people speak to them with foreign tongues. Parables too, are used so that the people may hear and yet not hear.

Three more parables:

1) In Ch 4:1-34, Mark uses a literary technique which some have called a “split-screen”. It is a short chiasm, an “A, B, A” pattern in the narrative. Why does Mark use it? Where else does Mark use it?

2) What is the meaning of the parable of the lamp on the stand? Would the hearers have understood it?

3) What is the meaning of the parable of the growing seed? How does the view of the kingdom taught in these parables tally with the teachings of rabbis? How does it square with the teaching of the OT prophets?

4) What is the meaning of the parable of the mustard seed? Can we take encouragement from these parables? What does it mean for us to be in God’s kingdom?

Discussion:

1) Jesus has told the parable of the sower to the crowd, and then when alone, has explained it to the disciples. Mark now switches back to the crowd scene, and continues with Jesus’ public teaching. This is probably the same occasion, although it doesn’t have to be so. Jesus probably used much of the same material several times in different settings in any case (all good preachers do). I would suspect that this is the same occasion not from the content of the narrative, but from its structure.  Mark uses a sort of split-screen technique several times in his Gospel. He starts on a piece of narrative, then breaks off from it to go to something else, then resumes the original flow again. We see this with the account of the healing of the woman with a blood flow, dropped into the middle of the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead. And again with the cursing of the fig tree, split into halves around the cleansing of the temple. Mark is a far more skilful author than JK Rowling. I’ve read all the Potters, but it’s a bit of a guilty addiction; she can’t write for toffee (or even for huge sums of money). Mark’s Gospel, however, is not awful literature. Mark uses this technique of weaving narratives into each other in order to draw our attention to their interwoven meanings. Linking two stories in terms of narrative structure emphasises the way that the stories link into each other thematically. Structure reflects meaning.

This is either the first or second occasion on which Mark uses the device -depending on whether you reckon Ch. 3 as a deliberate use- and so the relatedness of the meanings is very obvious. We can’t miss it this time, and we’ll be ready to look for it the next time. Technically, it would be called a “chiasm”, from the shape of the Greek letter Chi, where you have 2 lines intersecting. Chiastic structure is found commonly in many types of literature, including Bible books and passages.

In Chapter 3, Mark has used a longer chiasm -A, B, C, C, B, A, – Mark has spoken of the disciples, then of Jesus’ family, then of the Scribes, then of the family again, and finally of the disciples again. The scheme has been:

A1– The 12 called and sharing Jesus’ ministry (hungry when he goes hungry);

B1– Jesus’ family’s assessment of Jesus;

C1– the Scribes’ assessment of Jesus;

C2– Jesus’ assessment of Scribes;

B2– Jesus’ assessment of his family;

A2– Jesus’ saying that the disciples are his family.

This is a common literary structure, and Mark has almost certainly recorded these events deliberately in this pattern- even though they also seem to have naturally fallen neatly into the pattern by chronology.

In Ch. 4, Mark takes an event, which happened later in time (the explanation of the parable of the sower), and inserts it back into the narrative, almost as an editorial comment. Mark breaks away from telling us some of the parables Jesus told, and he breaks away from that to explain how and why Jesus used parables. Then, armed with that understanding of the parables, we are sent back to read some more parables.

2) So the parable of the lamp on the stand. The lamp comes into the room, and if it is placed beneath a basket, or underneath the bed, then the whole point of having a lamp there is ruined. You bring a lamp in to shed light in a dark room. The whole point of having a lamp is so that you can put it on a stand, in a prominent place, high up. For us in 21st century England, the picture would be of an electrician wiring up a house. Does he put the light fitting on the skirting board behind the sofa, or does he put it in the middle of the ceiling? Since the whole point of having a light is to give light to the whole room, the obvious place for the lamp to go is in the ceiling. Unless the electrician was particularly concerned that the spider hiding underneath the sofa should be able to see all the fluff-balls properly, he wouldn’t put it in the skirting board.

What is Jesus talking about? Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God, by its very nature, is something that is not hidden. It is big and bright and obvious. It is like a lamp. It shines out and gives light to the dark world. It is what the Gospel is about- the good news. There is no news, good or bad, unless people are talking to other people, declaring, proclaiming, announcing. If there is good news about the kingdom, then it not something to be put under wraps. And so if it is being hidden, then this is not something normal. Things won’t usually be like that. Usually, the lamp is on the stand, and the kingdom of God is proclaimed openly. Only under special circumstances are things different. The Greek perhaps makes it slightly clearer what Jesus is thinking of- “erchomai” translates as “comes” rather than “is brought”. Jesus himself has come, and he will shine out. His kingdom is not something passively brought- it actively comes as Jesus himself comes. And although it is a secret at the moment, secrecy is not the essence of his kingship- secrecy is something adopted only for the moment by an essentially open kingship.

Again, we should see that the parable would not be understood except by those who already understand. If they don’t get it already, this won’t get them to where they’ve got it. If a speaker at Hyde Park Corner told his hearers that he was doing a bit of DIY this weekend, and asked whether they thought he should wire in a light fitting underneath his bed, or into the bedroom ceiling, they’d think he was barmy, and his meaning would go totally over their heads. Most of the speakers at Hyde Park corner are barmy, and none of them are the Messiah, so this is not a great example- but you get the point.

Only the people who have listened to the earlier parable, and to other parts of Jesus’ teaching, and have understood that Jesus is talking about a secret kingdom of God will be able to grasp his meaning.

Jesus says as he said after the first parable, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he follows that up with, “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. 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.”

He is talking about the kingdom again. To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear- those who have been longing to see the king, those like Simeon and Anna in Luke’s Gospel- to them, more will be given. They will be given not just desire for the kingdom, but the kingdom itself. They who hunger and thirst after righteousness have already been given more understanding than their peers who do not hunger and thirst after righteousness. But more will now be given them. They will now be filled. Those who have understanding, will be given more understanding of these kingdom parables, and will be given the kingdom itself. All their hopes will be fulfilled.

But to those who have nothing, who have closed eyes and hard hearts, even what they have will be taken from them. At the moment, they still enjoy status as God’s people. They still enjoy living where God is worshipped and not idols, where the law of the Lord is upheld and not the arbitrary whim of the most powerful warlord. They enjoy great privileges- God has shown himself to them; the King has come to them to speak to them; salvation is of the Jews. But those privileges will not last long. They despise what little they have, and so even though it is but a little, it will be taken from them. The lower right section of the image heading this blog is a detail from a picture of the sack of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Again, we have this division into two sorts of people. The kingdom comes, and it makes this division clearer than ever before. If you want to couch it in modern evangelical language, it is those who are regenerate, and those who are not. If you want it in Jesus’ own language, it is those who have been born again, and those who haven’t. Those who are born again can see the kingdom of God, and those who aren’t, can’t.

3) The second parable is making a complementary point to the first. The farmer sows seed, and then- in a sense- he forgets about it. He gets on with his job, he goes to bed at night and gets up in the morning, milks his cows, eats his breakfast, and he doesn’t worry about the seed. He doesn’t have to do anything. He isn’t there at the edge of the field, 16 hours a day thinking, “grow, grow… c’mon… grow”. But silently and secretly, the seed does grow. The farmer doesn’t know how. The earth does it all on its own. And the crop sprouts and develops, first being visible above ground but not very impressive, and then becoming more obviously grain-like, and finally looking like a full crop. It grows until it is time for the harvest. And only then, only after it has grown, does the farmer need to take an active interest again. He sows, and then does nothing, and only appears on the scene again when it is time for the harvest. And the kingdom of God is like that.

This teaching would be revolutionary to Jewish ears- if they could grasp it at all. Most of the crowd would not have understood a word, but to those that did, it would have sounded desperately unorthodox. The Jews had a 2-stage view of history. At the start, there was creation, and then fall. And then there was a long period of misery. God spoke to some men, and he called a nation to himself, and the nation’s fortunes rose and fell, but generally, men were disobedient and nothing ever much changed. There was an apparent new start with the great flood; but the new humanity from Noah was no different to the old humanity from Adam, because it was in fact still the old humanity with a bit of a face-lift. Any changes were cosmetic, while what was needed was radical heart-surgery. And so this pattern continued. God chose Israel as his nation and gave them the law; but the first set of tablets was broken in anger because Israel was disobedient from the start. Israel inherited the land; but continued to break God’s law. Judges were raised up to reform the nation and defeat the enemies; but they died and their influence died with them. Kings came and the nation had a golden age; but the gold was only ever a thin plating, and it was soon rubbed off. Prophets came and preached; but the nation slew the prophets and stopped their mouths. Nazirites were given to lead by holy example; but the people made them drink wine (Amos 2:12). And in the end, God took them off into exile. The covenant, based around the giving of the law and the promise of the land, was all but cancelled. The land was gone, and “Israel” had to live under the laws of other nations. There was another apparently new start, when Israel came back from exile, full of hope and joy and expectation. But the restoration wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be. The temple was rebuilt, but only slowly. The work was hard and the people were sluggish. People still found that they were no different from before.

And the big expectation for the Jews then was that God would one day break in and change everything. The prophets spoke of Messiah. They spoke of God removing the heats of stone from Israel and giving them hearts of flesh- of people no longer needing to teach their neighbour saying, “know the Lord”, because all of God’s people would know him from the least of them to the greatest. They spoke of a great final battle, when God would appear for his people, defeat the nations, and there would be an everlasting kingdom of righteousness and peace and justice and prosperity, founded by David’s son, the Messiah. And the prophets and people both seemed to think of this as an all-at-once-thing. There were differences and different emphases- some prophets spoke of judgement on God’s own house, some of judgement on the nations, some of blessing for Israel, some even of blessing for the nations, and not all the prophetic pictures seemed to be reconcilable, but the broad brushstrokes were there. God would appear, and raise up a great Messiah, and all the wrongs would be set to rights. Everything that Israelite men sat together moaning about outside the synagogue would be sorted out for good. The world would be just as God wanted it. While many had a very limited expectation of this, it would still be an all-at-once thing. God’s kingdom; not there one moment, and then you blink, and when you open your eyes, there it is. Certainly not more than a few years in this changeover period. There might be few hefty battles with the nations, but how long can that take? Creation and fall- and then all human history- and then the coming of Messiah and the start of God’s kingdom, world without end, Amen. That was the Rabbinic scheme.

Jesus seems to be giving a different scheme. He’s talking in terms of slow invisible growth and then slow visible growth. In the earlier parable of the lamp, Jesus has left room for the idea of the kingdom of light coming into a dark room, but the room remaining dark for a time while the lamp is hidden. There could be a delay before the lamp, which is already now there as it wasn’t before, is set on the stand. In the parable of the growing seed, this delay is made explicit. This teaching would contradict the position of the Rabbis. Even today, some Jews hold to the sudden change take on the kingdom. I’ve heard Sir Jonathan Sacks, the chief Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, speaking on Radio 4. He was asked why he didn’t think that Jesus was the Messiah, and he replied that Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah, because things haven’t changed. There is still evil, there are still those not in God’s kingdom- and when the Messiah comes, according to Sacks, nobody will be able to mistake it. There will be nobody saying, “He isn’t the Messiah”, because it will be such an earth shatteringly obvious event. Sacks has a big view of Messiah and what he will do, which is a good thing. But he’s wrong that nothing changed when Jesus came, and he’s wrong that the change will be all-at-once. He needs to understand Jesus’ own teaching about his kingdom.  You can read his take on the kingdom and his attempt to make sense of the disaster for Judaism in AD 70, which he of course calls CE 70 at the link below. As an aside, I don’t really mind using “CE” and “BCE” instead of “AD” and “BC”. But when I use them, they mean “Christ’s Empire” and “Before Christ’s Empire”. Sacks tries to explain the fundamental shift in Judaism from a religion of sacrifice and temple, to one of law and synagogue. In my view, he shows a tragic misunderstanding of his own prophets. http://www.ou.org/shabbat/5766/rsacks/achareiked66.htm

The OT prophets also- some of their prophecies seem to be confused to our ears. They appear to have expected an all-at-once kingdom. And perhaps they did. From the perspective of the OT, the future kingdom was something indistinct in many ways. It was like a distant mountain range. The prophets were given a sight of the mountains from afar off, but they could only see from afar. When you look at hills on the horizon, you can distinguish one peak from another as they are defined against the sky, but it is very difficult to get an accurate perception of depth. The prophets could pick out peaks in the distance, and say “Israel will be judged”, and “Israel will be blessed”, and “The Gentiles will worship the LORD”. But they didn’t have those things laid out in a consistent scheme. From a distance, you can’t tell how far apart the hills are from one another. As you walk towards them, and what was once the horizon is now beneath your feet, you realise that the range that looked to be all-at-once is actually spaced out. You climb one peak, and then you see the deep valley between that peak and the next- the valley that was invisible to you as you stood afar off. The prophets described the mountain range from a distance. Jesus stands on the first great peak.

4) The third parable here is also very similar in some ways. A different picture is used to make a similar point. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. You take this tiny seed, and it looks like nothing. There are other more impressive seeds, which look much more interesting and bigger and far more likely to produce a great and mighty plant. But the unremarkable-looking mustard seed silently and secretly grows underneath the surface, hidden form human eyes, until it sprouts out into the visible world, above the surface, and grows into one of the largest plants in the garden, dominating the scene, and birds of the air come and nest in it.

There are parallels here with OT passages- Ezekiel speaks of an offshoot planted and tended by God, which becomes a mighty tree, and birds of the air rest in its branches (17:2-23). He speaks also of Assyria and Egypt as mighty trees, in which all the birds of the air nested (31:2-6). Daniel compares Nebuchadnezzar to a tree, in which all the birds of the air nest and under which animals find shade (4:10-13; 20-22). The idea here is of great empires- Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian-, which benefit and sustain other communities. Great empires bring wealth, culture, civilisation, and protection to many others, just as birds draw protection from the great tree. Think of the Roman Empire. What did the Romans ever do for us? Try speaking English with all the Latin taken out, and you’ll find out. We can see that although the Romans came to us as the conquering enemy, life under Roman rule was far better than ever before. The Romans brought peace- the “pax Romana”. Wars between the tribes ceased. They brought culture, engineering know-how, responsible government, a stable currency, the benefits of trade with nations situated many months journey away. The birds of the conquered nations made nests in the branches of the great Empire.

And so it is with God’s kingdom. It might not look very obvious, it might be small, but it will become greater and greater, until the birds of the air nest in its branches. We can see that this has come true in our day. Countries which have been influenced by Christianity are generally the peaceful prosperous pleasant ones. The countries of Europe, America, Australia, Canada- these countries have benefited enormously from having the Bible preached within their borders. In some of the less salubrious corners of the globe, a good general rule is to head for the place that was under the British Empire the longest.

The disciples needed to hear this, and so do we. To the disciples, who had ears to hear, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but who wondered why the end-of-all-things didn’t seem to be just around the corner, and why all Israel was not following the Messiah; Jesus tells them that this is all part of God’s plan. Jesus words would have been difficult, but encouraging. And we can take encouragement from this again. We have a mighty God, a God who has always been in control of all history, working his purposes out. It has all been done at his decree. Everything that has happened, has happened because he willed it so. Nothing can overturn his kingdom. It might not come as men have expected it, but it will certainly come as God has planned it. We live in the overlap age. The kingdom of God is here already. but it is also not here yet.

In one sense, the lamp is on the stand, and has been for 2000 years. Jesus Christ is proclaimed as king, openly. He has been raised from the dead, and reigns now in heaven at the right hand of the Father. All his enemies are being put under his feet. The secrecy has gone.

And yet in another sense, the room is still dark. Things have changed, but the change is only slowly penetrating the dark world. Everything still is below the surface. The final harvest has not been reached. God’s people have new hearts, the blessings have been extended to all nations- but we still struggle with indwelling sin. The war against the world, the flesh and the devil has been won, but there are still battles to fight.

It would be easy for us to be discouraged. We talked last week about Christianity in the media- and sometimes it can seem pointless to even engage the media, because the whole institution is biased against God’s kingdom and God’s truth. Why bother saying anything when what you say will only be twisted against you, or held up to ridicule? But we are reminded that the human institutions, which seem so powerful and invulnerable to us, are nothing to God. He laughs at them. His kingdom is unstoppable, and those who set themselves up against Jesus Christ are setting themselves up for crushing defeat.

The disciples needed to hear that in their day, with the powerful religious establishment against them, with the crowds interested mostly in the miracles, with the hard graft of preaching and wandering from town to town- and with little evidence of the nation changing and coming to God. They were in a far harder place than we are. They were there with the embryo kingdom- we have inherited a 2000 year old kingdom. We have seen the empires of men rise and fall, but the kingdom of God stand firm through it all. And God’s kingdom is not only unstoppable- it is also good. It brings peace and protection and countless blessings to those who live in obedience to the king.

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