Mark: Speaking In Riddles

Sermon by Derek Thomas on May 16, 2004

Mark 4:21-34

May 16th,

Mark 4:21-34
Speaking in Riddles

Dr. Derek Thomas

We come again this evening to the gospel of Mark. We are
in chapter four, and tonight we uncover three more parables that Jesus spoke.
Last Lord’s Day evening we were listening to our Savior in the well-known
parable of the sower, or the parable of the soils. Now in quick succession
three more parables follow.

A parable, as you probably
learned somewhere in Sunday School, is an earthly story with a heavenly
meaning. That was J.B. Lightfoot’s definition of a parable. A parable is a
setting forth of a spiritual truth by means of a story that is easy to remember
but not necessarily easy to understand. In speaking in parables, Jesus divided
His congregation. Those who were spiritually eager worked hard to understand
the parables, and those who didn’t, received nothing. Parables propel you along
the way you desire to go. If you can’t be bothered, parables will help you walk
in that direction. These tiny parables contain teaching that we need to recall
at all times.

All of these parables concern
the kingdom of God. We’ll discover in our Scripture reading tonight at verses
26 and again at verse 30 that Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God. Jesus came
preaching the kingdom of God, that the time is fulfilled, that the kingdom of
God is at hand, to repent and believe the gospel. It’s a spiritual kingdom.
It’s not a kingdom of this world. ‘It is a kingdom,’ Jesus says, ‘that is
within you.’ A kingdom is where citizens live under the government of a king.
And Christians live in a sphere under the governance of King Jesus. It’s
wonderful to know in 2004 that there is a kingdom of God. Now the prophets in
the Old Testament spoke of a kingdom, and they spoke of it in terms of a king
and they spoke of it in terms of Jerusalem and so on. They used the language
that was available to them. It was a picture of what was to come. People come
to live under the rule and reign of God.

As we come to read this passage
this evening, there’s one thing I need to point out. In verse 31 Jesus speaks
of a mustard seed, and a mustard seed that is the smallest seed in the earth.
Now if you’re following in the New International Version it will say something
like “the smallest seed that you plant.” And that’s true. It was for the
Palestinians, for the Judeans, the smallest seed that they knew. The NIV is
being a little naughty. It’s trying to save the text from embarrassment because
there are smaller seeds than a mustard seed. But that was the intent of Jesus.
As far as the audience was concerned, this was the smallest seed that they would
ever see. So you can tell Bible critics to chill out. Before we read the
passage together, let’s pray.

Lord, in the beauty of Your holiness and in
the glory of Your majesty and in the inscrutability of Your providence, we bow
in eager anticipation to learn from this Your word as we read it. We pray,
come, Holy Spirit, and enable us to read and learn and mark and inwardly digest
all that it contains. We desire wisdom more than anything else in all of the
world, the wisdom that enables us to fear You. We ask Your blessing in Jesus’
name. Amen.

Now let’s turn to the word of God as we find it in Mark
chapter 4, beginning at verse 21.

21 And He was saying to them, ‘A lamp is not brought to be put under
a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand?
22For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything
been secret, but that it would come to light. 23If anyone has ears
to hear, let him hear.’ 24And He was saying to them, ‘Take care what
you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more
will be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him more shall be
given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from
him.’ 26And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who
casts seed upon the soil; 27and he goes to bed at night and gets up
by day, and the seed sprouts and grows–how, he himself does not know. 28
The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then
the mature grain in the head. 29But when the crop permits, he
immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’ 30And
He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we
present it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the
soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32yet
when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and
forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.’
33With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far
as they were able to hear it; 34and He did not speak to them without
a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.”

Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and
inerrant word.

I. The parable of the lamp
Now there are three
parables here–the first of which is the lamp. And this parable teaches us that
the truth about Jesus is to be made known to the world. The truth about
Jesus is to be made known to the world.
One of my most treasured memories
as a boy, as a young boy, was when my mother had insisted it was time for the
lights to go out and it was time to go to sleep. As soon as she was gone,
underneath the blankets, underneath the sheets, I’d get out a torch
(flashlight) and I would continue reading whatever it was that I was reading.
Jesus is talking here about lamps. ‘And you don’t bring,’ He says, ‘a lamp into
the house in order to put it under the bed. Lamps are for placing in a place
where they will give light to the whole room.’ Now I take the lamp here to be
the acting subject. Jesus is the lamp. Jesus’ kingdom is the lamp. And though
exactly who He is and what He is doing at this moment in time is secret–that’s
why He’s talking in parables – because He doesn’t want His enemies at this point
to take advantage and thwart His purposes and kingdom and mission, ‘But there’s
coming a time,’ Jesus says, ‘that whatever is hidden is going to be disclosed
and whatever is now concealed is going to be brought out into the open.’ This
parable–it’s not specifically called “a parable,” but the context tells us it is
a parable–comes naturally after the previous one, the first one, the parable of
the sower, the parable of the soils; because that parable has raised an
important issue. Jesus had begun to speak in a form that was somewhat
different, that was somewhat strange. He’s alluded to Isaiah 6, and by alluding
to Isaiah 6 He’s told the disciples that one of the reasons He’s speaking in
parables is to hide the truth from a certain section of society: the enemies
that had come up from Jerusalem, for example; the men of Herod, the scribes who
wanted to arrest Him. It was too soon for that, and in order to conceal the
truth from them, He speaks in parables and explains the parables to His
disciples. But you understand what all of that began to do even in the minds of
His disciples. That the thought was beginning to be entertained that the
kingdom of God and the secrets of the kingdom of God belonged only to a special
elite, to those who had special ability and prowess to solve riddles.

My late mother-in-law loved to
do The Daily Telegraph Crossword. She did it every single day. She was
extraordinarily talented at doing it. I for a short time began to try and do
it. It was just far too frustrating that here was my mother-in-law having
finished it, and I had only solved maybe three or four of these riddles, these
puzzles. Well, some of Jesus’ disciples were beginning to think that in
speaking in parables in the way that He had, that Christianity was esoteric,
that it was only for those who could see into the depths and into the insights.

You know, Buddhism is like that.
One of the leading Taoist Buddhist thinkers of the 6th Century B.C.,
Lao-tzu, asks this question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
That’s deep.
No, it’s not deep. It’s just nonsense!

This parable is designed to tell
us the opposite: That there are no truths in Christianity, that there are
no insights into the gospel that are only designed for the few, only
designed for “the platinum Christians,” “the frequent flyer Christians” who can
pass by everybody else because they have that platinum card. No, I don’t have
one. There were mystery religions in the 1st Century AD, and only
the special elite were invited to join. They would climb up or down
staircases. They’d go into vaults. They’d go through scary initiation
ceremonies. They’d become a devotee of this god or that god. They would swear
blood-curdling oaths, keep and maintain secret rights and symbols on penalty of
death. Christianity isn’t like that. Christianity isn’t remotely like that.
Jesus may have wanted to conceal the truth from His enemies for a time but
from His disciples, not from those who loved Jesus.
The truth
is not to be received and kept hidden in secret mantras and codes.

And if you’ll pardon me, the
truth of the gospel is not to be kept in that wonderful History Room. We have a
History Room. It’s a wonderful place of archives. It’s kept meticulously week
after week. I’ve seen the dear folk who keep bits of paper and file them, and
one day that’s going to be a treasure. But the gospel isn’t stored in there!
We don’t take the gospel and the doctrines of the faith that Ligon was telling
us this morning to defend and to uphold…we don’t store them in the great vault,
the safe. Yes, there’s a safe at First Presbyterian Church that half a dozen of
you could go in there and close the door. It’s an enormous place. But we don’t
on a Sunday evening ceremoniously carry the gospel…we don’t carry a big, black
Bible and take it into that safe and lock the door and the code is only known to
Earl Davis.

No, Jesus says the lamp is put
on a place where the whole room will be filled with light. And Jesus is saying
to these disciples, ‘I want you to understand the gospel, and one day…one day
when I am gone, when the time is right, even the whole world will hear this
gospel.’ The lamp is telling us…the parable of the lamp is telling us that the
truth about Jesus is to be made known to the world.

II. The parable of the growing
The second parable
is the parable of the growing seed. And the parable of the growing seed teaches
us that the truth about Jesus is made known by His word which must be sown.
The truth about Jesus is made known by the word which must be sown.

Now this parable continues the
thought of the previous parable. If Jesus is going to be made known to the
world, how is He to be made known once He is gone? And this parable is giving
you the answer to that. It’s telling us in verse 26 that the truth about Jesus
is to be known and His word needs to be sown. God’s word must get into human
lives, and we must sow it. God does His work through His word, and it’s sown by
human instruments. The apostles didn’t say, ‘If He wants to save His elect,
He’ll do it without your help or mine.’ You remember the mission board of
William Carey when he was proposing a mission to India? That’s what his mission
board said to him. “Sit down, young man, if God wants to save the heathen,
He’ll do it without your help or mine.” No, this parable is saying that Jesus
is made known by sowing the word.

How is this light to be shown?
How was Jesus to be made known once He had been crucified and raised and
ascended into heaven? It is through the witnesses of men and women, through the
witness of the apostles–and not just the apostles, but men and women who went
everywhere proclaiming the word. There’s a wonderful example of that in Acts 8
when persecution, you remember, comes to Jerusalem. And the Christians of
Jerusalem…and the text is very clear that the apostles stayed in Jerusalem but
the Christians left the city and they went everywhere preaching…actually the
word is “gospelling,” telling the good news. They went everywhere telling the
good news. They went sowing the seed of the kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus
says in the previous parable, ‘Be careful what you hear. Because if you try to
hide it, if you don’t respond to it, it will be hidden and taken from you. And
if you respond to it, it’ll become more precious to you.’ Jesus gives us the
keys of the kingdom of heaven. It’s in our pockets. It’s in our hands. It’s
the Bible, the Scriptures, these sixty-six books. ‘All Scripture [is] given by
inspiration, by the out-breathing of God and [is] profitable for doctrine and
reproof and instruction, correction in the way of righteousness that the man of
God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.’

What will grow in that field
where the word is sown? Something will grow. Something always grows. With all
this rain we’ve had…look out at your yard. Something’s growing out there. And
if it isn’t the word, and if it isn’t the kingdom of God, and if it isn’t Jesus’
principles that are growing in the hearts of men and women, it’ll be something
else. It’ll be love of self. It’ll be impure works. It’ll be false ideas
about God. It will be adultery and fornication and a good bit beside. It’ll be
covetousness and greed. It’ll be something and unless the word is sown…the
divine seed, unless that word is sown and takes root, weeds will grow.

People will not see God without
being taught the Scriptures. No one will repent and believe in Jesus Christ
unless Christ is proclaimed and placarded before them. Young men, you want to
use your talents and your flair, then use it! Use it in the propagation of the
gospel! Sow the seed! Sow the seed of the gospel. Parents, sow that seed of
the gospel in the hearts of your children. Interns, youth workers, sow that
seed in the hearts of our young people. At Insight tonight, this very evening,
sow that seed. When students gather together at RUF meetings on the various
campuses of this city and this state, sow the seed. The word is what will
change lives.

Now how God’s word works is
beyond our understanding. It’s beyond our control. That’s what Jesus is saying
in this parable. The farmer goes to sleep at night and when he gets up in the
morning, it’s brought forth a crop. He can’t explain it. And in one sense,
having sown the seed, it’s up to God. It’s up to the divine Spirit to bring
forth that crop. He’s not responsible anymore. He’s responsible to pray. He’s
responsible to water that seed with his prayers. But how that seed brings
forth life is a mystery.
It is the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in
regeneration, in quickening, in planting the divine seed and the divine truth in
the hearts and lives of men and women.

And spiritual life shows itself
gradually. In verse 28 it talks about the way this seed begins to germinate and
grow. And there’s a stalk and then there’s a head and then there’s fruit in the
head…and it takes its own time. You can’t do anything. Once that
process has begun you can’t speed that process up. It’s a work of God. It’s a
work of the divine Spirit.

And when the grain is ripe the
Lord will come and harvest it. You see what the parable is saying? It’s saying
that the truth about Jesus, the truth about the kingdom, the truth about the
gospel of Jesus Christ–comes through sowing the seed, the seed of the word of
God. Men and women, sow that seed! Sow that seed liberally. Sow that seed in
your home. Sow that seed in your school. Sow that seed on the campus where you
are, student. Sow that seed in the place where you work and watch God work.
Watch God bring that seed to life and growth and germination and fruitfulness
and harvest.

III. The parable of the
mustard seed
And then comes a third
parable. What can we really expect if we do as Jesus suggests? Jesus is in a
boat on the Sea of Galilee. He’s talking to a crowd of people. Some of the
crowd don’t even understand what it is He’s talking about. There are a few
people there who are beginning to understand. The light is beginning to dawn as
to what Jesus is saying. It’s a small, tiny band of people. And they’re asking
the question, “Well, what can I expect if I sow that seed? If I sow that seed,
what exactly can I expect?” And Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed.

And the parable of the
mustard seed teaches that what results from this sowing is a kingdom that is
far bigger
than you can ever imagine it to be.
He speaks of the
extension now of the kingdom of God. If you were here on Wednesday night past,
Ligon was preaching on that glorious 67th Psalm, the missionary
psalm, the psalm from which John Piper writes that wonderful book Let the
Nations Be Glad, Let the Nations Be Glad.
That, here is the vision–the
vision of the Old Testament, let alone the vision of the New Testament–the
vision of the kingdom of God spreading, spreading from little, old Jerusalem and
little, old Judea that you could put in a couple of counties in Mississippi…and
it’s going to spread to the nations of the world.

One rabbi talks about planting a
mustard seed…and you’ve got to think about something altogether different from a
little mustard thing that you might have eaten at one time. This is something
entirely different now. This is a big tree. And a rabbi speaks of planting a
mustard seed and watching this tree grow, and it grows to such a size that he
could sit in it and watch the birds singing from its branches. From a tiny,
tiny, little seed…

What was the kingdom of God when
Jesus was sitting in this boat? What was the extent of the kingdom of God at
the time Jesus was speaking? There was a handful of disciples who didn’t
understand much of what He was saying. It wasn’t even His family…who thought
that He was bonkers. There were some in the crowd who had begun to put their
faith in Jesus Christ. There weren’t many in Jerusalem. It’s a tiny, tiny,
little fragment. It all looks so small. It begins on the pages of the New
Testament with the birth of a child, a child in a nowhere place called
Bethlehem. Who…no sooner is He born than He must needs go to Egypt and then to
live in an obscure town in Nazareth. And at thirty-years-of-age He’s beginning
to preach and to teach. And He calls fisherman, and He calls an
ex-tax-collector, and He calls an ex-terrorist. And His last act, the crowning
achievement of His life is to be crucified, dead and buried. And how many
followers did He have at the time of His death? Five hundred?…
probably no more than that. And it all looked so contemptible. And it
looked so pathetic, and it looked so powerless and weak. And Jesus is sitting
in this boat and He’s saying, ‘This kingdom that I’m planting, this kingdom that
I’m initiating, this kingdom which has come but is within you–is going to be the
biggest thing that you’ve ever conceived and then some.’

His listeners were living in the
days of the Roman Empire. I have begun to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire
about six times. I have never finished it. Where
is Rome today? The glorious empire of Rome–where is it today? It is gone.
They’re just ruins. They’re just architectural cites, landmarks that you can go
and visit when you’re on vacation in Europe. It’s gone. It’s history. And
here is Jesus saying, ‘My kingdom, My kingdom will stretch from shore to
shore, from shore to shore.’

When I went to school the maps
on the walls of the school building were covered in red of the glorious British
Empire. And the sun never sets on this empire, I was taught. It was a great
empire…though your Senior Minister said some derogatory things about it last
Friday (laughter). Where is the British Empire today? It is gone. It is
history. It is no more. Here is Jesus and He’s saying, ‘I’m planting a tiny,
little seed and it’s going to grow.’ And it’s going to grow and spread from
Judea to Antioch to Cyprus to Galatia to what we would call Greece and
Turkey and Rome and spread to Europe. It’s going to be the making of Europe.
And it’s going to spread through a boat called The Mayflower to the
United States, to the Thirteen Colonies and then The United States of America.
And a Welshman, a Welshman by the name of Davis will come and plant the
Presbyterian Church in the South. And from that tiny, tiny, little seed will
come the First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s incredible, I
tell you. It is incredible, I tell you.

I was reading yesterday the
history again of one of the greatest men the world has ever seen, William
Tyndale. He was an astonishing man, the Luther of England, who amongst many
other things translated the Scriptures into English, made a kind of prophecy
that the plow…the little boy who holds the plow on the fields of England would
know more Scripture than his accusers. And he was taken and he was strangled to
death and burnt at the stake. And you can visit a statue of him in Oxford
today…all because he had the effrontery to translate the Scriptures into
English. “So what?” you say. That tiny seed that he planted…and think of it
tonight, my friends. Think of where the Bible is tonight in the
English-speaking language, let alone the languages of the nations. His kingdom
will come. His kingdom will come in all of its eschatological fullness, so that
on that last day the whole Church will gather. Ligon’s favorite hymn “For All
the Saints,” by William Walsham How: “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s
farthest coast / through gates of pearl, stream in the countless hosts / and
sing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! / Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” May God bless
His word to us. Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we thank You for
these parables, these little stories that contain a universe within themselves.
We thank You for the gospel. We thank You for Jesus Christ. We thank You for
the kingdom of God. We thank You that we belong tonight to something more
significant than anything in this world, than anything that Hollywood or the
media can ever offer. We bless You for the certainty that Your kingdom will
come in all of its glory and beauty and majesty. And may You have all the
praise, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction. Grace,
mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Guide to the Evening Service

The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
Be Thou My Vision
This ancient Celtic hymn text expresses the desire of a Christian to live a
God-centered existence: for the Lord to be what we see, our constant mental
preoccupation, our ever-present companion, our wisdom, our true Father, our
protector, our delight, our only inheritance, first in our heart.

Praise Waits for Thee in Zion [Psalm 65]
My People, Give Ear, Attend to My Word [Psalm 78]
Jerome (who died in 420) said that he learned the psalms when he was a child
and sang them daily in his old age. He wrote, “The Psalms were continually to be
heard in the fields and vineyards of Palestine. The plowman, as he held his
plow, chanted the Hallelujah, and the reaper, the vinedresser, and the shepherd
sang something from the Psalms of David. Where the meadows were colored with
flowers, and the singing birds made their plaints, the Psalms sounded even more
sweetly. These Psalms are our love-songs, these the instruments of our

Another writer (Louis F.
Benson) writes of the impact of the Genevan Psalter upon the French exiles in
Geneva in the middle of the sixteenth century: “The sight of the great
congregation gathered in St. Peters, with their little Psalm books in their own
hands, the great volume of voices praising God in the familiar French, the grave
melodies carrying holy words, the favor of the singing and the spiritual uplift
the singers,–all of these moved deeply the emotions of the French exiles now
first in contact with them.”

Fairest Lord Jesus
One of the songs many Christians learned as children in Sunday Schools and
Bible Schools. We sing the first stanza only tonight, before the young children
come down front for the devotional.

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
This is one of Horatius Bonar’s hymns and perhaps one of his most familiar.
Based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30, it is a reminder of the passionate
desire of our Saviour for the lost and perishing to come and embrace Him and
know the joy of forgiveness of sins and peace with God. Bonar once wrote:

“With a weak faith and a
fearful heart, many a sinner stands before the Lord. It is not the strength of
our faith, but the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice that saves! No feebleness
of faith, nor dimness of eye, no trembling of hand can change the efficacy of
Christ’s blood. The strength of our faith can add nothing to it, nor can the
weakness of our faith take anything from Him. Faith (weak or strong) still
reads the promise, “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all
If at times my eye is so dim that I cannot read these words, through
blinding tears or bewildering trials, faith rests itself on the certain
knowledge of the fact that THE PROMISE IS THERE, and the blood of Christ remains
in all its power and suitableness upon the altar, unchanged and unaffected. God
says that the believer is justified. What God hath joined together, let not man
put asunder.”

Tonight’s sermon encounters a section Mark in which Jesus tells several
parables. Last week we read the parable of the Sower (sometimes called, ‘The
Parable of Soils’). Tonight’s passage see three more: the Parables of the Lamp,
Growing Seed and Mustard Seed. T what exactly are parables? And why did Jesus
use them? Everyone is familiar with Lightfoot’s definition: ‘an earthly story
with a heavenly meaning.’ Perhaps a better one is that of Vincent: ‘A metaphor
or story connected with the affairs of daily life is used as an illustration of
moral and spiritual truths, on the assumption that what applies in one sphere is
relevant also in the others.’

Parables have Old Testament roots. The Hebrew word (mashal) has a wide
range of meaning. It can refer to a story or illustration (such as the farmer
and the soils), or to a word picture, or even a wise saying (similar to a
proverb). Essentially the parables served to do several things all at once:
First of all they were convenient vehicles for veiling the truth from those who
had no business knowing it. Jesus’ enemies were foiled in their attempt to
catch him out because they couldn’t understand what he was saying! Parables
served as covenant curses on the wicked. Second, they served as useful snapshots
(for those ‘with ears to hear’) of what Jesus had come to do–to establish his
kingdom, his rule. They powerfully depicted that King Jesus had arrived and was
engaged in a work of spiritual restoration. They spoke of urgency and the need
for a response. They divided hearers into those who were in Christ’s kingdom and
those who were not.

Tonight, nothing has changed. Jesus will come in his word and ask you, ‘Do you
have ears to hear?’ And “What are doing about it?’

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