The Growth of God's Kingdom Part 1
March 8, 2020 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: The Gospel of Mark
Topic: The Kingdom of God Passage: Mark 4:26–29
THE GROWTH OF GOD’S KINGDOM–PART 1
An Exposition of Mark 4:26-29
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: March 8, 2020
Series: Mark: Knowing and Following God’s Son
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Holy Scripture says:
26 And he said “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)
A parable is a comparison or illustration. A parable tells us about one thing (that we are less familiar with) in terms of another thing (that we are more familiar with). Jesus often told parables in order to illustrate what God’s kingdom is like or how it works. These parables are riddles to outsiders, but to His own disciples these parables are a pathway to understanding (Mark 4:10-12).
In verses 3-8, Jesus told us the parable of the four soils – and He explained its meaning in verses 14-20. In verses 21-22, Jesus told us the parable of the lamp. In verses 24-25, Jesus told us the parable of the measure. Taken together, these first three parables tell us that the message of God’s kingdom is met with a variety of responses among human beings: some dismiss it, some engage with it only on a superficial level or in a halfhearted way, and some welcome it wholeheartedly and are transformed by it. But Jesus isn’t just informing us of the fact that different people will respond to the message of God’s kingdom in different ways, He is also impressing upon each one of us the importance of hearing God’s Word with attentiveness and understanding: “Listen!” (Mark 4:3); “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9); “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23); “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Mark 4:24). What kind of listener are you: indifferent outsider or attentive disciple?
Jesus tells another parable – the parable of the seed – in verses 26-29. As we will see, the parable of the seed relates back to the parable of the four soils – remember, Jesus told us in verse 13 that understanding the parable of the four soils is key to understanding the other parables. And yet, the teaching emphasis of the parable of the seed is different from the teaching emphasis of the parable of the four soils.
Let me put the difference in emphasis this way.
Here is a summary of the parable of the four soils: People have a variety of responses to the good news of God’s kingdom, and many of these responses are unfruitful. Application: Make sure that your response to God’s Word is obedient and fruitful.
Now here is a summary of the parable of the seed: The good news of God’s kingdom will grow into a bountiful harvest, and it will do so without your help. Application: Stand back and trust God’s Word to do its thing.
So what you have in the parable of the seed (in v. 26-29) is a re-presentation of verse 8, but this time from the perspective of the farmer. Verse 8 tells us what happens when the seed that the farmer scatters lands on good soil: “And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:8) The point of verse 8 is that the seed grows in good soil because of the quality of the soil. In other words, verse 8 is presenting the reality of growth from the perspective of the soil – that is, from the perspective of the one who hears God’s Word. Jesus explains verse 8 in verse 20: “But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:20)
With verses 8 and 20 in mind, hear again the parable of the seed, and notice that the same reality is being presented to us, but this time from the perspective of the farmer – that is, from the perspective of the preacher.
“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.” (Mark 4:26-29)
In verse 8, the seeds “produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding.” In verses 27-28, “the seed sprouts and grows” and “[the] earth produces… the blade, then the ear, then the full grain.” Do you see the correlation? Jesus is describing the same reality in both parables, but He is driving home a different point of application in the parable of the seed.
THE PARABLE OF THE SEED
Notice three things about the parable of the seed.
First, notice how the parable begins with seedtime and ends with harvest, which describes an agricultural season. In seedtime, the farmer-man “[scatters] seed on the ground” (v. 26). Then at harvesttime, the farmer-man harvests the grain (v. 29).
Second, notice what the farmer-man does between seedtime and harvest. Let’s call the time between seedtime and harvest ‘growing season’. What does the farmer-man do during growing season? During growing season the farmer-man “sleeps and rises night and day” (v. 27). In other words, he lives normal: at nighttime he sleeps, and at a dawn he rises, and the implication is that during the day he does normal, ordinary, unremarkable things like eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner; milk the cows; sweep the barn; and tell stories to his kids. But what is most important to see is what the farmer-man doesn’t do during growing season: he does nothing to contribute to the growth of the seed. During growing season, the farmer-man does nothing to help the growing. The power for growing is not in the farmer, but in the seed and in the nutrient-rich soil.
Third, notice what is doing the work during growing season. We have already seen that the farmer-man isn’t doing the work. So the question is: what is doing the work? Answer: the seed and the soil. Verse 27: “the seed sprouts and grows.” Verse 28: “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” While the farmer-man is sleeping, the seed-in-the-earth is growing. While the farmer-man is enjoying a cup of coffee with fresh cream, toast with fresh butter, and three eggs over-easy, the good ground out in the field is laboring and producing. No thanks to the farmer, the seed grows. No thanks to the farmer, the earth produces. No thanks to the farmer, the seedling ripens to full grain.
That is the picture that the parable presents to us. What we need to understand is how that picture illustrates the reality of God’s kingdom. Because, in verse 26, Jesus told us that God’s kingdom is like that picture. So what is the point?
THE MEANING OF THE PARABLE ABOUT THE SEED
Here’s the point: God’s kingdom grows because of the power of God’s Word at work in receptive hearts, and this happens apart from human intervention. God’s kingdom grows because of the power of God’s Word, not because of the labors of human workers. God’s kingdom grows because of the word that is preached, not because of the preacher.
Before we unpack this big idea, remember that the seed represents God’s Word (Mark 4:3, 14). God’s Word reveals the truth about God’s kingdom of grace, and God’s kingdom of grace is centered on God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messianic King who brings His Father’s kingdom into our broken and sinful world. The farmer-man who scatters the seed represents the preacher who “sows the word” (Mark 4:14). Even so, the emphasis of the parable of the seed is not on what the preacher does, but what the preacher doesn’t do. So while the preacher scatters seed in seedtime and harvests the fruit at harvesttime, the emphasis of the parable is that the growing that takes place during the long growing season happens apart from the preacher. So the word is scattered and sown in verse 26, and as we look at verses 27-28, we see that the preacher is asleep half the time, but the word is working all the time! This is the big idea: God’s kingdom grows because of God’s power, not man’s effort.
Now let’s unpack this big idea in four parts.
The Word Produces Life
First, the Word produces life. The Word generates growth. This is the first thing to observe in verse 27. “[The] seed sprouts and grows” (v. 27) means God’s Word sprouts and grows – and the assumption here is that this Word has been planted in receptive hearts (v. 20), which is metaphorically described as “good soil” (v. 8). Even so, it is important to understand that the focus of this parable is not on how human hearts become receptive (this was addressed two sermons ago when we looked at verses 10-12). And the focus of this parable is not that human beings have a responsibility to be receptive (this was addressed in the previous sermon when we looked at verses 21-25). The parable of the seed in verses 26-29 simply assumes that “the ground” (v. 26) is good ground (the “good soil” of v. 8). Instead, what verse 27 focuses on is the power of God’s Word to generate life.
Everyone understands that the best soil in the world doesn’t produce a bumper crop of barley out of nothing or out of itself. Instead, it is barley seed that – in good soil – generates a beautiful golden-and-green field of barley grain. The power of life is in the seed! And that’s how it is with God’s Word: the power of spiritual life is in the Word. God’s Word generates life in the lifeless ground of human hearts. As the apostle Peter wrote to his fellow Christians in his first letter:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:22-25)
God’s Word is imperishable seed that generates spiritual life in those who believe. The good news of the gospel is “the living and abiding word of God” that sprouts and grows and bears fruit in those who receive it. But don’t miss the emphasis: the emphasis of verse 27 is not on the believing and receiving of the human recipient, but on what the Word is doing. The Word goes into the ground, so to speak, and once there it goes to work. The farmer-man cannot see the seed starting to grow in the heart of the earth, and the preacher-man cannot see the Word starting to grow in the heart of the people. But even though the imperishable seed of the Word is hidden from human sight, it is working.
The Word Works in a Way that Transcends Human Understanding
Second, the way that the Word works is beyond human understanding. This lesson is drawn from the last part of verse 27: the farmer-man “sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (italics added). Ponder those words: “he knows not how.” The farmer-man doesn’t know how the seed grows in the ground, but he knows that it does. The preacher-man doesn’t know how the Word grows in the heart, but he knows that it does. But the inner-workings of the Word in the human heart are mysterious to him.
The Word goes into a young man like George Müller, whose story I briefly recounted two weeks ago, and a deceptive schemer becomes a devoted servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Word goes into a sixteen-year-old Henry Varley, whose story I touched on last week, and in due course he grows into an evangelist who preaches the gospel throughout the English-speaking world. The Word goes into a young and desperate Ravi Zacharias, recovering after a failed suicide attempt, and he becomes a beloved evangelist who takes the gospel all over the world. The Word goes into a tenured feminist professor like Rosaria Butterfield, and she falls in love with Jesus and becomes a pastor’s wife, homeschooling mom, and foster parent. The Word goes into Mary Magdalene, afflicted by seven demons, and she becomes a gracious disciple who uses her resources to support the work of the gospel (Luke 8:1-3). The Word so works in a creative young artist like Lilias Trotter, that she is compelled to walk away from the promise of a successful career as an artist and instead becomes a Christian missionary to Algeria. And what about you? Perhaps you were eighteen or twenty-eight or fifty-eight years old and you were wasting your life, but then the Word went into your heart and it changed everything.
How does the Word do that? How does the Word accomplish these things? The point, of course, is that the work that the Word does is nothing less than the miraculous and supernatural work of God. The work of God’s Word is hand-and-glove with the work of God’s Spirit. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) According to John 3, God’s Spirit creates spiritual life. According to 1 Peter 1, God’s Word creates spiritual life. God’s Spirit and God’s Word, God’s breath and God’s speech, always travel together – the two wings of God’s power. And this spiritual and supernatural work of God’s Word in the depths of the human heart is beyond human understanding. The Word “sprouts and grows,” but we “[know] not how.”
The Word Produces Spiritual Growth without Human Assistance
Third, the Word-planted-in-good-soil produces spiritual growth without human assistance. This is the point of verse 28: “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” The key phrase is “by itself.” The Greek word that is translated “by itself” is automat
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