Let's open the word of God together for a scripture reading. We're turning to Mark's gospel chapter 4, and beginning at verse 26. This is the third parable in Mark's gospel that we'll be thinking about later on, and it is 'The Parable Of The Growing Seed'.
The Lord Jesus said: "So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come". Amen.
Now I hope I have reminded you enough what a parable is over these last number of weeks, as we have embarked on dealing with the four parables that are in Mark's gospel - four alone. We spent two weeks on the first parable, because we said it was 'The Parable on Parables', and we looked at exactly what a parable was. Then the following week we looked actually at the facets and details of the parable of the sower, the seed, and the soils. Then last Sunday morning we looked at 'The Parable of the Lamp and its Stand', and then today we're looking at 'The Parable Of The Growing Seed'.
A parable, of course, we have found, is a comparison. It means to put one thing alongside another, to compare them. Some of you have been saying to me on the way out that at school or at Sunday School you learnt that little quip that 'a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning'. Now I didn't say it to you at the door, I hadn't the heart, but I don't really like that particular definition, because in a certain way it sort of tells you that the meaning has something to do with heaven, when in essence most of the meanings in the parables have a lot to do with earth - maybe more about earth and heaven. So there is earthly meaning to these parables, because they really affect our lives and how we live down here on Earth for the Master.
Now you remember that these parables originally were meant to be heard and not read, and therefore we have to think about that in our interpretation of them. The listeners of these parables had to make an instant appraisal of what the Lord Jesus was saying, and so we have said that there is one great idea that leaps out and shines like a flash of lightning in the parable. Now, I grant you that there are other related truths within parables, and we'll see that this morning, and we've seen it already in the last two parables that we looked at - but those truths are related to the one main truth that the Lord Jesus wished to convey in the parable.
So the question begs this morning once more: what is this great truth that the Lord would have us learn from the parable of the growing seed? Now, it is interesting to note right away that this particular parable is not found anywhere else in the Gospels, it is unique to Mark's gospel. If you look at it, let's just peruse the details of it: 'The kingdom of God', the Lord Jesus said, 'is like a man who cast seed into the ground; and he sleeps, and rises night and day, and the seed springs forth, and he doesn't understand why that is happening. The earth brings forth this fruit of itself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn ear. But when the fruit is ripe, when it is brought forth, immediately the farmer puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come'.
Now of course this is all spiritual language the Lord Jesus is using, and we have seen in previous parables that the seed is the word of God. So what we have here is, I believe - and I'll state it to you right away so that we get the gist throughout our message today of what the Lord is getting across - the message is: the inevitability of the independent growth of the seed. Let me repeat that: the inevitability of the independent growth of the seed - it is inevitable that God's seed will grow when it is received, by faith, into the heart of the hearer. That seed grows independently in the heart.
Now let me first of all address what that does not mean: this parable does not teach that there are not contributory factors to the growth of the seed. It grows independently, but that doesn't mean that nothing else affects its growth. Now first of all, as we look at the spiritual truth, we have to say that a sower must sow the seed - is that not so? Excuse the pun. There is a sower, and he is planting this seed, and that has to happen. Though the growth is independent, and the life is in the seed itself, someone needs to go and put it out onto the soil. It's the same with the gospel, people will not get saved if we just sit and rest on our lees and do nothing about it, but as Paul said in Romans: how shall they hear without a preacher? There needs to be a sower. It pleased God, through the foolishness of preaching, Paul told the Corinthians, to save some - so there are contributory factors to the growth of this seed, though it grows independently.
There must be a sower to sow. Then secondly, not only must there be a sower, there must be water. In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul could say: 'I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase'. He's indicating there that though God gave the increase, and the seed's growth was independent of anything else, because the life is in the seed, there was a contributory factor to the growth of that seed, and that was watering - and I believe watering could well be prayer. We need to sow the seed, we need preachers, we need people who gossip the gospel - and it's not enough just to throw the seed out, we need to pray before and after, we need to water the word of God.
A sower must sow, the seed must be watered, and thirdly: the soil must be fertile. Have we not learnt that already in the parable of the sower. If you look back just for a moment at verse 20, you will see that good soil is designated as representing those who hear the word and receive it, and bring forth fruit - some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred fold. But the parable of the sower, as well as teaching the inevitability that though threequarters of the hearers will reject the seed of the word of God in some sense and will not let it go deep down into their heart to bear fruit, there is one quarter of the harvest - there will be a harvest! But it also tells us that we have a responsibility as hearers to cultivate our hearts. If God's seed of the word is going to bear fruit, it's got to rest on fertile soil in responsive hearts.
So this parable is not teaching that there are no contributory factors to the growth of the seed, it doesn't teach some kind of determinism - what I mean by that is that God will save, even if we don't preach, and don't pray, and don't prepare our hearts, and don't seek to prepare the hearts of others. Someone reminded me last week at the door on the way out of how in 1786 William Carey had laid on his heart the burden of world mission, and he laid it before a ministerial meeting in Northampton in England. The eminent Dr. Ryland stood to his feet and said to him: 'Young man, sit down: when God is pleased to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine'. Not so, there is an inevitable and independent growth of the seed, but there are other contributory factors that God has ordained: the sower must sow, water must be poured on the seed, and the soil must be fertile. So the Lord's not teaching such a falsified view of God's sovereignty that nullifies men's responsibility. If He were, He would be contradicting His own teaching, particularly in the parable He has just taught about the lamp and the stand. What did He say? The lamp isn't to be put under a bushel or under a bed, it has to be set on a stand - and who was the stand? It's you, it's me, it's the church. The converse of that truth is that there can be a cover-up of the truth and the light of the gospel.
Now, though that's not what the Lord is teaching, and I feel urged to give that caveat, God - though He has ordained human instrumentality in the process of the sowing of the seed - this parable is teaching that we, as mere human beings, even sowers and waterers of the seed and tenders of the soil, we cannot create the phenomenon of growth. What this parable teaches is that the secret of the growth of the seed, the secret of its life is in itself - now that is the central lesson of this parable: the inevitable and independent growth of a seed sown into a welcoming and believing heart. The Lord's point is that blessing is inevitable, because the life of the seed is in itself.
Now, what can we learn from this central truth of the parable today? Well, we can learn several lessons. The first is this: we learn something of the unique power of the word of God. We learn something of the unique power of the word of God, the seed is the word - and if you look at verse 27: 'and the seed should sprout and grow, and the farmer himself does not know how'. Now the order in the Greek language there is: 'how, he does not know'. The emphasis is on 'how'. He has sown the seed, he sleeps night and day, leaves it, waits, and it grows! He is dumbfounded at the process, he doesn't understand how. Robertson, the Greek scholar, makes a valuable note on this, and says: 'The mystery of the growth still puzzles farmers and scientists of today, with all our modern knowledge; but nature's secret processes do not fail to operate because we are ignorant'. This secret and mysterious growth of the kingdom in the heart and life is the point of this beautiful parable by Mark. It is mysterious, it is imperceptible, it is going on all around us, though we do not see it - but though we are ignorant of how it happens...we know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin, etc. We know that the seed is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.
So we learn something of the unique power of the word of God: just as the natural seed has life in itself, so the word of God is infused with life and power. Now I'm far from a horticulturalist, I can't even cut the grass! But I love reading about seeds in nature, some fascinating facts. On one occasion a seed was taken from a 600-year-old rattle necklace that was found in South America, and this seed was planted. In 1968 it germinated, and it grew to a six foot tall plant, and then eventually flowered and bore fruit! 600 years being in a necklace! Professor Thomas Henry Huxley, who was a famous English biologist, said that deeply buried in English soil are tropical seeds of almost limitless variety, brought here by migrating birds, and then dropped into our soil by birds from all sorts of different regions. Those seeds lie dormant in the soil, and they're waiting for tropical weather, for a climate to bring forth their lovely blossom and fruit - maybe global warming will do it, and you'll have a pineapple tree in your back yard! It's amazing, isn't it? But the life is in the seed, you see - and though there are contributory factors of climate and surroundings and so on, that life lies there dormant. Life is in the seed, it remains in it even after 600 years, and life is in God's word - this is a living book!
This parable teaches us something about the unique power of the word of God. I can't remember his name, but I heard the story of - maybe some of you know who he is - a street preacher down at the Custom House steps years ago. He used to take his hat off and throw it on the ground, and he would shout 'It's alive! It's alive! It's alive!'. The crowd would gather around, who he was about to preach at, and then he would lift the hat and underneath was a Bible. It's alive, this is God's living and abiding word, and there is a strange force in every utterance of God's word. Genesis 1:11 - we are looking at the parable of the growth of a seed - and there: 'And God said, 'Let the earth bring forth grass, and herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit, according to its kind, whose seed is in itself on the earth'. And it was so'. He was creating seeds and plants and fruit, but He did it through His word.
The Son of God came to this earth and gave life with a word. Lazarus' body had been in the grave until it stunk, and Jesus said: 'Lazarus, come forth', and he came forth! Yet with the word of Christ, He could curse the fig tree and took life away from it. With a word He cast out devils, He healed diseases, He calmed tempests. He even caused, in John chapter 18, His enemies to fall back onto the ground with His word. There is a unique power in the word of God. And let me tell you: that is why you are born again. First Peter 1:23-25 reads thus: 'Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you'.
You know, this parable that we're looking at today ought to reaffirm our faith in the Bible. Why substitute the Bible for gimmicks, when this is the living and abiding word of God? 'Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word shall never pass away'. I love music, but music is no substitute for this book. This lives! Martin Luther, discovering ultimately the great unique power in God's word, coming out of the darkness of Romanism he wished to make essentially two contributions to Christendom at large. First of all he wanted to give them a Bible they could understand, and secondly a hymnal from which they could sing. This is what he said: 'Let them loose, and like fire they will spread on their own'. He wasn't taking out the contributory factors of human instrumentality, he was the man that spent all those late nights translating the Bible from Latin into German, but he knew there was power in the seed of the word. It is in itself, it is unique - let them loose, and the flame will spread on its own.
Whatever opposition there is to the word of God, isn't it wonderful to be able to believe today that, as Isaiah said, 'As the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it'. Do you believe in the unique power of the word of God? That's what this parable teaches us.
Then secondly it teaches us: the unusual productivity of the word of God. The unusual productivity is spoken of in verse 28: 'For the earth yields crops by herself', itself. The Lord is describing the mysterious, imperceptible growth of the seed: 'of herself'. Now that phrase 'of herself' is a translation of the Greek word 'automate', it's the one we get our English word derived from 'automatic'. Kenneth Wuest, in his Greek commentary, says: 'This word means 'self moved', 'spontaneously', without external aid and also beyond external control, with a way and will, so to speak, of its own that must be respected and waited for' - automatic! Automatically, the seed sprouts, because the life is in itself. The only other example of this word used in the New Testament is in Acts 12:10 where Peter, you remember, was in prison, and miraculously the gates opened - and the Bible says there that the gates opened of their own accord. That's that word, 'of its own accord', 'automatically'. This is how the seed works: automatically it sprouts and brings forth fruit. The nature of the soil, the weather, and the cultivation of the plant all enter in, but the secret of the growth is in the seed itself. The life is not in the water, the life is not in the sower, the life is not in the soil, the life is in the seed!
This is the law of nature, but it is also the law of the kingdom of God. Listen to Ecclesiastes 11:5: ' As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child: so you do not know the works of God who makes everything'. There is an unusual productivity in the word of God. One writer put it like this: 'This single fact creates the confidence shown by Jesus in the ultimate establishment of His kingdom, in spite of the obstacles which obstruct its progress'. That's profound - why didn't the Lord Jesus, on a human level, throw the towel in? Because everything was going against Him, the whole way to the cross, the whole nation rejected Him as their Messiah, and then His own disciples all forsook Him, and then He's put to death - we know why and all the rest, but with the naked eye you look at the story, but He knew, He believed that the word of the kingdom that He was sowing would reap a harvest, because the life was in the word that He was sowing among men.
I hear sometimes foolish talk of people who say: 'How do you know that there was going to be a harvest returned for the work, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ? How do you know if it's just up to people believing in the Lord Jesus?'. This is how I know: because the life is in the seed! That's how the Lord Jesus knew, because the seed that He was sowing was the life - now that should create confidence in you who sow the seed, that should create courage in you who sow the seed, and that should create some comfort in you who sow the seed among boys and girls, particularly your own boys and girls. We have to be careful here, because the soil that this seed sprouts in is the good soil of the parable of the sower, and that is believing soil that bears fruit. But isn't it wonderful to know that when you sow this seed, you are sowing life into young lives - and who knows, like those tropical seeds that are buried everywhere around Great Britain, who knows when the moment will be that the climate is right, and the water comes down from heaven, and they sprout forth to the glory of God? Who knoweth? That should be a comfort to some of you.
Now ultimately, as we have seen in these previous parables, Christ is the one sowing the seed of the kingdom. We know that for definite because, if you look down you will see that the one who sows is also the one who reaps, verse 29. So the Lord Jesus is sowing the seed of the kingdom in His earthly ministry, and now He is absent, as the farmer is here. He leaves it alone, and there's a day coming when He's going to come back, and the Lord Jesus will reap that harvest, and He will separate the wheat from the tare. But of course He is also, as we have seen in these previous parables, instructing His disciples as they went into the world to sow the same seed of the word of God. Now we have this obvious for us in the New Testament, we are sowers of the seed - 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, 'And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God'. In 1 Corinthians 3:9, Paul says: 'We are God's fellow workers', so this truth applies to the work of God - what truth? The unusual productivity of the word of God. This applies to the work of God that you are involved in, sowing the seed among children and young people or adults.
Now how does it apply? Well, here are three practical ways. It applies in that it teaches us that there is a need for perspective in the work of God, a need for perspective. To put it bluntly: this work isn't about you, it's not about me, it's about Him and it's about His word. It's about the seed. Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: 'I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase', verse 7, 'So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase'. We need perspective, it's not about us - we have something to do, but it's not about what we do, it's about what God does. It's from His hand that comes the increase, and Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 3 to the Corinthians was that since the planter and water do not have any power in themselves to bring forth life, why are you Corinthians envying each other, and why is there great rivalry in the work of God? You should just go and do the work God has allotted to you, and rejoice when God shows His hand of blessing on it - 'It's not about you Corinthians, it's not about me as an apostle, it's all about Him and His word!'. You need perspective, sometimes we lose perspective. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul again addresses this problem: 'Do we begin again to commend ourselves?', verse 5 says, 'Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God'. It's not about us.
This parable gives us perspective, when we consider the unusual productivity of the word of God. It happens in spite of us, we have an involvement but the life springing forth has got nothing to do with us. The second practical thing that we can learn about the word of God: there's need not only for perspective, but patience in the work of God. Look at verses 27 and 28: the farmer slept, he rose night and day, the seed sprung up. Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 says: 'To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven', and verse 2 at the end says, 'a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is plant'. That's really saying that there are seasons, there are seasons in life, there are seasons in nature, and there are seasons in sowing the seed, and often that season is a season of waiting. Sowing, waiting, reaping - and what goes on during that waiting time, that time that we should be patient, is often imperceptible. The farmer doesn't know what's going on under the ground, you don't know what's going on behind the veil of the spirit, but something is going on because the life is in the seed. The farmer sleeps and rises, sleeps and rises, and then one day the seed grows and he doesn't know how.
Hudson Taylor, that great pioneer missionary to China, said that there are three qualifications for missionaries: patience, patience, and patience. That's a qualification for anyone in the work of the Lord. It takes good faith to be a farmer like this man, it takes good patience to be a farmer like this man, and it takes the same faith and patience to be a sower of God's seed. Someone has said that the secret of patience is doing something else in the meantime. This man was sleeping, getting up, at night going to bed, doing his day's work - the thing we can be doing while we're waiting and patiently looking for the harvest is to keep sowing, to keep watering, that's our job! Some go a lifetime without seeing much fruit, but God's word promises that a harvest will come.
Archbishop Trench, I think in his commentary on the parables, tells how in 1690 a certain plant was brought over and planted in the gardens of Hampton Court Palace by Queen Mary. The last 10 years of the 17th century passed, and the plant gave no sign of flowering. The whole of the 18th-century passed, and not a bud did the plant put forth. Eighty-eight years of the 19th century passed, and still no sign of a flower - but in 1889 the plant burst into a blossom, because the life was in the seed. Queen Mary didn't see it - neither did King Billy either, her husband! The next monarch didn't see it, but in 1889 the harvest came.
Some years ago there was a vase that was sealed airtight found in a mummy-pit in Egypt by the English traveller Wilkinson. He sent it to the British Museum, and the librarian there had butterfingers, and he unfortunately broke it and discovered a few grains of wheat, and one or two peas. They were old and wrinkled, and hard as stone. He planted those peas carefully under glass on the 4th of June 1844, and at the end of 30 days those old seeds were seen to spring up into new life. Those peas were buried several thousand years before they sprouted - perhaps in the time of Moses - and they slept, apparently dead to all intents and purposes, yet they were still living in the dust of that tomb because the life is in the seed!
It's interesting when Luke talks about the parable of the sower in Luke 8:15, speaking of the good ground he says: 'But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience' - that's what Luke says. You need perspective in the work of God, you need patience in the work of God, but thirdly: you need perseverance in the work of God. Galatians 6:9: 'Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not'. This parable teaches that we don't have to raise the dead, that's not our job. We, if we faithfully sow the seed, if we water it in prayer, we can believe God for a harvest though we never see it, we can believe for He has said it! Now that, I don't know what it does for you, but that liberates me! It's not about me!
William Carey spent over 40 years in Burma and India, and when he was asked to explain his astonishing accomplishments, he simply answered one word: perseverance. He said to his wife, Eustace: 'If after my removal', his death, 'anyone should think it worthwhile to write my life, I will give you a criterion. If he gives me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much: I can plod'. Perseverance, Ecclesiastes 11:4: 'He who observes the wind will not sow; and he who regards the clouds will not reap'.
The unusual productivity of the word of God teaches us that we need perspective in God's work, we need patience and perseverance in God's work, but thirdly and finally - something else we learn along with the unique power of the word of God, and the unusual productivity of the word of God: we are presented with the ultimate purpose of the word of God. Verse 29, the seed was sown to bring forth harvest, that's the reason why the word of God is sown. Kenneth Wuest translates verses 28 and 29 like this, listen carefully, it bears out all that we have said: 'The earth bears fruit spontaneously; first herbage, then a covering for the grain', the ear, 'then the fully developed grain in its covering. Whenever the fruit permits, immediately he sends forth the sickle, because the harvest stands ready. Though the growth is imperceptible, it is yet constant, and it yields an increase in the end - when the grain ripens, the harvest will eventually on that day be taken to the heavenly garner'.
This parable presents God's kingdom from the first sowing, hidden in the hearts of men when the Lord Jesus was on the earth, then the patient waiting in this age of grace, until the final reaping for all to see at the end of the age, that great harvest. The ultimate purpose for the word of God is that there should be a harvest to God's glory.
Now let me finish with two very brief challenges to you. The parable of the growing seed surely issues to us the challenge of preparedness for that day of harvest. Ecclesiastes 11:6 reads: 'In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand: for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, whether both alike will be good'. The predicament the church, and this church, finds itself in in these days is epitomised in the song that we sang years ago:
'O where are the reapers that garner in
The sheaves of the good from the fields of sin?
With sickles of truth must the work be done,
And no one may rest till the 'harvest home'.
Where are the reapers? O who will come
And share in the glory of the 'harvest home'?
O who will help us to garner in
The sheaves of good from the fields of sin?'
What a challenge: we need to be sowing, we need to be watering, we need to be waiting. But there is also not only a challenge, but a cause for hope: do not despair. The life is in the seed! The parable of the sower perhaps concentrated more on the force of resistance to the seed and the soils, but this parable of the growth of the seed concentrates on the force of the life that is in the seed, that causes the seed to grow. There is a unique power in the word of God, there is an unusual productivity in the word of God, and there is an ultimate purpose in the word of God that will be fulfilled. James 5: 'Therefore be patient brethren, see how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient, establish your heart, for the coming of the Lord draws near'. 'The wicked', Proverbs 11 says, 'works a deceitful work: but to him that sows righteousness shall be a sure reward'. 'They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him' - a cause for hope! Sower, do not despair: God's word has unique power, unusual productivity, and an ultimate purpose - and we shall see it soon.
'God is working his purpose out,
As year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out,
And the time is drawing near:
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled
With the glory of God,
As the waters cover the sea'.
Father, we ask particularly for those who have become weary in well doing - and how easy that is - the feeble knees are weak, and our hands hang down because we so often view things by the naked eye, we operate by sight and not faith. Yet Lord, there is so much dynamite in this parable to persuade us that when we walk by faith, to realise that the life of the seed is in itself, and there is a unique power in Your word, there is an unusual productivity. You are working a work in our day, and if we knew it we wouldn't believe it though we were told it. We thank You that You are working Your purpose out. So help us, by faith, to have perspective, to have patience, and to be persevering as we serve our Master in this world. May the seed go deep this morning and bear fruit from every heart. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the twenty-fourth recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "The Parable Of The Growing Seed" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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