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[Jesus] 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 (Mark 4:26-34).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We know not how, and we know not when, but God works according to His perfect will and His perfect timing.
Jesus’ teaching about the reign of God often forces us to reexamine our expectations. This is especially true of His parables. Whether He is talking about a generous vineyard owner or a forgiving father, an ungodly judge or a fanatical shepherd, Jesus uses parables to challenge our conception of the world and offers a glimpse into another reality, which is the one, true reality. Sometimes His parables do this with a twist, or a surprise, or an unexpected discovery. Other times, He uses parables to make a relatively straightforward comparison. This week’s text includes two brief parables of the latter variety. They describe the nature of God’s reign by comparing it to seeds and the plants which grow from them.
This is not the first time Jesus spoke of the reign of God with images of seeds and planting. He uses a similar metaphor in the longer parable at the beginning of chapter four in Mark’s Gospel. There Jesus describes a sower who gratuitously spreads his seed. As He explains to the disciples, the seed is the Word, and the types of soil are the various ways in which the Word is received. The focus in that parable is on the differing fate of seeds depending on the soil in which they are cast. The parables in today’s text, in contrast, concern the nature of the growth for the seeds which land in good soil and bring forth fruit.
The first parable invites reflection on the timing of the growth. It begins with a man who scatters the seed. He does not know how the growth works. That is not necessary. He simply does his work, goes to bed, and rises each day. Once it is planted the seed does its thing. But the growth does not happen immediately. It comes in stages—first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain shall appear. Finally, when the grain is ripe, the man returns to bring home the harvest.
Here, Jesus speaks of the power and reliability of the Gospel message. All that need be done, in fact, all that can be done, is to sow the seed, to proclaim the Word. A farmer who plants the seed does not understand how it grows. The power is in the seed. So, it is with the Gospel. It is sown; it sprouts; it matures; it is harvested. Christ’s words echo Isaiah 55:11: “So shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and it shall succeed in the thing for which I purpose.”
The harvest includes the final harvest at the end of the world, when all mankind will see the marvelous fruit the Lord produced through His Word in this world of sin. But the harvest is also reaped here and now in the life of every child of God in whose heart the Word has taken root and grown and whose faith God uses time and again to bring that same Word to others.
The harvest isn’t the believer’s doing, but God’s. Thus, this parable was of special comfort to the apostles as they carried out Jesus’ assignment. Paul later put it this way in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Though at times we may not see the results, there will be a harvest because the seed has God’s power in it.
One other thing must still be noted. When the ESV translates “by itself” it might seem as though the earth (the human heart) receives some credit. Not at all, for the Greek really means “spontaneously” or “automatically.” The person’s heart is only the locale where it takes place. God’s power inherent in the Word is the cause. If it were not so, you and I would be without hope; for by nature, we are corrupt and sinful, and we reject the grace of God. It is God alone who overcomes this opposition on our part and brings us to faith. We preach and teach the Word; God’s Word does the rest.
This first parable seems to encourage patience. We want to see instant results. We want to share the Word of God and see it bear immediate fruit. Plants grow slowly and without the sower’s full understanding. So, it is the same with the reign of God. We must sow the seed and wait for God to give it growth.
The second parable (Mark 4:30-32) has to do with the extent of the growth. It focuses on the size of the seed that is sown. The mustard seed is very small—much smaller than the other garden seeds. But do not be deceived. After it is sown and grows to maturity, this little seed surpasses all the other garden plants. Fully grown, it provides a home that is safe and secure for all the birds of the air.
Jesus’ second parable is also about the preaching of the Gospel. He acknowledges that when the kingdom of God is looked at from a worldly point of view, it seems like no big deal. It is a kingdom without a realm, without armies, certainly without an imposing king. When Christ proclaims the Word, the leading men of His nation—the priests, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, the rich Sadducees—do not follow Him. They ridicule Him, and undoubtedly that often troubles His listeners. Even the apostles have many misconceptions. They need to take another look at this and similar parables.
The kingdom of God is not one of outward form and shape. Its New Testament beginnings are so small as to be almost invisible. But Christ keeps telling His disciples, “Don’t be disturbed; the eternal fruits will be large indeed.” That’s the parallel parable of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds usually planted, which becomes the largest of all garden plants, sometimes reaching a height of eight to ten feet, large enough for birds to perch in its shade. We cannot judge the final size of the kingdom by the initial size of the seed. The Gospel has extraordinary power and vitality.
Although the farmer plays an important role in the cultivation of his field—after all, he sows the seed—its growth occurs apart from his efforts, even as he sleeps. The kingdom of God comes without our watching and grows without our urging. This doesn’t separate believers from the kingdom but reminds us that God’s work is not dependent on our constant effort.
This second parable seems to encourage trust. The plant that comes from this seed will grow larger than you might imagine. Again, so it is with the reign of God. What may look insignificant to our eyes at times is God working glorious growth unto eternity wherever the Word of Christ is preached.
I already mentioned the connection to the Parable of the Sower at the beginning of chapter four. If we look back a little further, we are reminded how Jesus has only recently called His disciples to follow Him (Mark 3:13-19). They have already witnessed incredible works, but they are still on the front end of their life with Jesus. Mark does not give us many clues about what they are expecting Jesus to be or do. But you get the impression that, through these brief parables, Jesus is teaching them His reign will not grow as they might expect.
God’s kingdom grows mysteriously of itself, at its own pace, and through the power of the Word. This reality often causes frustration among those who eagerly long for a rapid expansion of the Kingdom, and all the more as we only have a short-term view of things. But God’s kingdom grows according to His plan and timetable. And it is a great blessing that things ultimately depend on Him and not us, for only He is able to bring home a great harvest for life eternal.
We stand on the other side of Jesus’ life and ministry. We have read about His teachings and heard about His healings. We have mourned His death and rejoiced in His resurrection. We have observed His giving of the Spirit and have been grafted into the Church. This all took place through the Word.
But there are so many who have not believed. They may have heard the Word, but they show no signs of faith or life in Christ. Indeed, the number of people in America who identify as Christian is drastically falling—and these numbers were pre-pandemic. That is not to mention the personal connections you have. Most of you have loved ones who have heard of Christ but show little or no signs of believing.
In such a context it would be easy for you to become discouraged and grow weary. It would be natural to question whether God, who desires all to be saved, is really in charge. It would be tempting to give up and throw in the towel of Christian witness.
Into this uncertainty and weariness, these two brief parables offer a word of promise. The promise is simple: God works as we proclaim the Word of Christ. Like plants which begin as nothing but seeds, the life of faith grows from nothing but the commands and promises of Jesus spoken by God’s people. We know not how, and we know not when, but God works according to His perfect will and His perfect timing. As His reign spreads, many people find a home that is safe and secure in Christ. By God’s grace, you believe His promises for yourself. That is why you are here. You also believe God promises the same for others. But not everyone believes these promises. That’s where you come in. You can share the love of God in Christ Jesus wherever He places you.
Go in the peace of the Lord and share the Good News! For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit. Amen Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.