We're turning in our Bibles to Mark's gospel again, chapter 4, to what is the fourth and final parable recorded by Mark in his gospel record of the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus. I trust that these parables on Sunday mornings have been a blessing and encouragement, a challenge, a help to you - they certainly have been to me. I think this last one will be no exception as we expound it today. We're beginning to read at verse 30, and we will read down to verse 34 - although we'll not really be dealing in detail with verses 33 and 34, because we covered that ground as it relates to certain truths already in the passage, we covered it in previous weeks.
We begin to read at verse 30: "He", the Lord Jesus, "said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples".
Verses 30, 31 and 32 give us what I have called 'The Parable Of The Growth Of The Mustard Seed'. Now we learned in previous weeks that parables in general are essentially comparisons, they are throwing one thing alongside another thing in order to help us understand it a bit more. But perhaps what I haven't laboured as much in these previous studies is that these parables are somewhat different to other parables that we read in the Gospels, because these parables come under the classification as being 'parables of the kingdom'. Now if you want a more detailed record of the parables of the kingdom, they are found in Matthew chapter 13 - we're not going to take time to look at those - but some of them are here in Mark chapter 4, although he doesn't record as many as Matthew. They are addressed, as we see, both to the multitudes, the great crowds, and also to the disciples.
What would happen is, the Lord would deliver the parable to everyone, and then in private He would explain the meaning to His own disciples. So therefore, there were those who did not understand, would not understand what was being said because their hearts were so hard; and then there were others who would understand because they had hearts ready to receive, their hearts were good soil to receive the seed of the word. Now there's also something else important that we haven't highlighted regarding these parables of the kingdom, not only in Matthew 13 but here in Mark 4, and that is the timing with which they were delivered. That is crucial, because as we look at the context regarding the timing, these four parables were given immediately after the religious leaders in Judaism had vowed to destroy the Lord Jesus Christ as an impostor. They had rejected Him as Messiah - indeed if you look at chapter 3 of Mark's gospel, and just scan down from verse 22 to 29, you will see there that they committed the unpardonable sin. We saw that in a general sense that was to harden your heart against the ministry of the Spirit, but to the nation of Israel, people of God, they hardened their heart against Messiah - and that was, in this context, the unpardonable sin. So the timing of these parables of the kingdom is important to note that, as Matthew 13:1 says, on that same day, the very same day that this blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was committed, the Lord Jesus spoke the parables of the kingdom.
Now, what is the significance of that? Well, they had rejected the King, and so they would not have the kingdom - at least at that moment. So what happens when we are given the parables of the kingdom is that the kingdom takes what some have called 'a mysterious form', or it is internalised in the hearts of men and women until, that is, Christ returns and sets up His kingdom in a manifested form. This certainly is one aspect to the mystery of the kingdom of God. Now a mystery in the Bible simply is a truth that up until now has not been revealed, it's a new revelation. Matthew 13, in the other record of the kingdom parables, Jesus says that in verse 35: 'That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world'. Colossians 1:26 concurs with this, Paul says: 'Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints'.
So the parables concerning the mystery of the kingdom, which is what we have here in Mark 4 and in Matthew 13, must impart some kind of new information that was never revealed before, that's important as we understand it. When we think of that, we need to then ask - as we revise where we have already been - what was new in the previous parables we looked at? Well, think of the parable of the sower, the seed and the soil, the new revelation was that the word of the kingdom would be sown during this interim period when the Lord Jesus is absent, and it would be sown with varying degrees of success. We'll not go into that, but you will remember how we expounded that. Then the parable of the lamp and the stand, the new revelation is that Christ's light must be shed abroad and set on a lamp stand - and we saw that we are that lamp stand, the church and specific Christians also in their individual capacity. Then last week we looked at the growth of the seed, what is the new truth there? Well, simply that the Lord would be absent, but during His absence, after His first advent, in anticipation of His second advent, the seed would grow. Though it would be imperceptible, it still would grow, God would give the increase and one day there would be a harvest. That was never known before, these are new truths.
Now here's the question: what is new here in this parable of the growth of the mustard seed? It's harder to find, and many Bible commentaries and expositors have floundered on this, simply because they haven't been able to find what the new truth is, and they just simply say: 'Well, the truth is that Christ's kingdom will spread across the globe'. Now, that is true, and that is something that seems to be indicated by this parable, but that truth in and of itself was something that was known from way back in the Old Testament. So it doesn't comply with what the mystery is that has to be in the mystery of these kingdom parables. For instance, Daniel 2 and verses 34-35 says: 'a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image', the stone figurative of the Lord Jesus coming again, 'became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth'. That would have been known to have corresponded to Messiah's kingdom, and so Daniel and other of the prophets have prophesied, many years before Jesus giving these parables, that Christ's kingdom one day would spread across the globe.
So what then is new in this parable of the growth of the mustard seed, that was previously unknown? Let's look at the parable's teaching first of all, and it's left up to us to interpret it, because the Lord doesn't interpret this parable for us. Now there are two interpretations that generally have been given, the first is that this great tree that grows forth from this mustard seed pictures the extension of Christianity which - although starting from small beginnings in the Lord and His apostles - finally spreads over the whole world. Now, that is true to an extent, but in my opinion and the opinions of godlier men, that interpretation does not fit either the content of the parable or the context of the parable. Now let me deal with both of those. First of all, the context of the parable, where we find it in this portion of Scripture. As I've already said, it was after the Jewish rejection of the King, and therefore by default the kingdom - and we see in chapter 4 verse 1 that there was a change of approach of the Lord Jesus now in His ministry, after the Jews had rejected Him. He went to the seaside, He left the synagogue teaching, now He broadens His ministry, and from that moment on He teaches these parables regarding the kingdom of God in the interim period when He would leave His disciples.
He gives in total seven parables of the kingdom, and all seven are found in Matthew 13 - but when you look at Matthew 13, you find out something about them. They are all connected, and they are connected as a complete whole. In other words, there is a theme running through them, and when you look at the previous two parables in Matthew 13 before the one we're looking at today in Mark 4, you find that both of them have to do with the rejection of God's word - not the success of the sowing of the seed of the kingdom, but the fact that God's word would be rejected. We can even see that here in Mark 4 in the parable of the sower, the seed and the soils.
Then, not only is there the context, that it seems all to do with rejecting God's word, but the content of this parable wouldn't seem to indicate to us that it's talking about the success of the church spreading across the world. Mustard seeds were the smallest of seeds, Jesus says, to be sown on the earth. Now many sceptics have said that that proves that Jesus wasn't the Son of God, because a mustard seed isn't the smallest seed that you can get - what the Lord was speaking of was in Palestine, concerning the usage of seeds in His day, it was the smallest seed generally that could be bought and sown. But mustard seeds didn't grow into great trees that we read of in this parable, they grew into bushes - now admittedly some could grow to about 12 or 15 feet, but for that to happen it was unnatural, abnormal growth. This was a herb seed that should grow to a herb plant, not a great tree. You remember in Genesis 1 in creation, God said: 'The earth will bring forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind, and God saw that it was good'. Now if this mustard seed grew to a great tree with branches in which birds could nest, it was not after its kind - do you understand? This mustard seed was meant to grow to be just a bush, so if it was growing to be a tree, this was unhealthy growth.
Not only is there that aspect to the content of the parable, but we've got to account for the birds that are in the branches here. In verse 15 where we have the parable of the sower, you see that the Lord is interpreting the birds there snatching away the seed, He tells us that these birds are Satan and his emissaries who snatch the seed of the word of God from people's hearts. Now remember that both of these parables were taught on the same day, and it would seem unlikely that the birds here mean something different than the birds in the parable of the seed, the sower, and the soils. Now we are left to interpret it, as I've said, ourselves, and it's difficult - but we have to remember this principle of Bible interpretation, and it will help us not only here but in many instances of difficult portions of the word of God: Scripture is its own interpreter.
Do any other Scriptures help us to understand what this parable means? Well, yes. When we turn to Daniel 4, we find there - you can turn to it, or just listen as I read it - Daniel speaks of a vision, and this vision was seen of the great 'tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great', verse 10 of chapter 4, 'The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth: The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all: the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the heaven dwelt in the boughs thereof, and all flesh was fed of it'. Then verse 22 of the same chapter: 'It is thou, O king', Daniel said to the emperor, 'that art grown and become strong: for thy greatness is grown, and reacheth unto heaven, and thy dominion to the end of the earth'. Now that tree there, Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dream and told him: 'You are the tree, God has given you your kingdom, and it has spread across the whole world' - the kingdom of Babylon.
Now when we go to Ezekiel 31, we find the same figure used by God, this time the Cedar tree representing the Assyrian empire. Ezekiel 31:3: 'Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs', verse 6, 'All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations'.
Now if this figure is similar, and it certainly is, this mustard tree seems to, in a sense, be an imitation of a great world power. It aspires to greatness beyond its means, it's reaching to heaven but it is firmly rooted in the earth, and it is harbouring these birds which already in the context refer to demonic forces. Now I believe the birds here in this parable are the key to the interpretation. We have to say, if we're going to be consistent, that if these birds represent evil activities of Satan in the first parable, they must do so here - and also to be consistent with the Lord's clue to understanding parables. Remember He gave us a clue as to how we could understand the rest of the parables, in verse 13 I think it is of chapter 4, look at it: 'And he said unto them', after giving the parable of the seed and the soils and the sower, 'Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?'. There is a key to understanding this parable of the sower that will help us in the others, particularly the mystery parables of the kingdom.
The birds are the natural enemies of the sower, they were in the first parable and we have to conclude they are in this fourth one. That fits in with the rest of the Bible, doesn't it? Ephesians 2 verse 2 tells us that Satan is the Prince of the power of the air; Ephesians 6 and verse 12 tells us there are principalities and powers, rulers in heavenly places who are dictating to rulers in earthly places, and influencing our whole society in many strata. But when we go to the very last bit of the Bible, we see that these figures are intact also. When we turn to Revelation 18 and verse 2, we find the final phase of Christendom - now when I speak of Christendom, I'm talking about the outward profession of Christianity as opposed to true Christianity, where they are genuine born-again believers. Revelation 18 tells us that Babylon the Great will be an eclectic religious movement that will incorporate established Christendom. These birds in verse 2 are seen in cages in that system which they sought to develop, look at it: 'He cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird'. It would seem that birds, in these contexts, depict the way of false teachers, false professors, often mentioned by Paul and by Peter and John in their epistles, and the other apostles.
So what is the lesson in the teaching of this parable, well, it's simple: it's to do with the growth of the kingdom. Though the kingdom of God was a little insignificant, it would seem, small mustard-like seed sown by Christ and the apostles, it would grow to such an extent in the outward capacity that it would succeed, in worldly terms, to such an extent that it would unhealthily, unnaturally, and abnormally grow to an empire in which its enemies could even shelter and nest. Now maybe that seems an extreme interpretation to you, but it's not when you look at Matthew 13 and the other parables of the mystery of the kingdom, particularly Matthew 13:47-50 where there is the parable of the dragnet - that the bigger the net becomes, the greater the chance of catching both good and bad fish. The external nature of professed Christendom, the external nature of the kingdom of God.
That is the parable's teaching, now what is the prophetic message - because we have to assume that because these parables are speaking of the interim period when the Lord Jesus has left, having been crucified, risen and ascended, until when He comes again, this in-between period - these all have a prophetic message for us. We've heard them already, about the sowing of the seed, how God works. The prophetic message here is: yes, certainly there was, I admit, great growth in early apostolic days, Pentecost and the days after it - read the Acts of the Apostles - it wasn't long after those days of early revival blessing until Satan's ministers boldly invaded the church, the early church of Jesus Christ. Now we have proof of that, because 1 and 2 Corinthians were written because of, as Paul puts it, ministers of light who were really angels of darkness, messengers of Satan who invaded the church, false apostles, prophets etc. So even in apostolic days, just after the little seed had been sown and was only starting to sprout, the professing churches then were already departing from apostolic truth.
A case in point of that is where Paul said in 2 Timothy 1 verse 15: 'All who are in Asia have departed from me', they have forsaken me! This is the great apostle that signed his name to about 13 letters in the New Testament, and they didn't want anything to do with him! Two writers have said something interesting on this. F. W. Grant says: 'Men that quote to us the Christianity of a hundred or two hundred years from that moment', that is when Asia turned away from Paul, 'they have need to pause and ask themselves what type of it they are following - whether that of degenerative Asia, or 'honourable' worldly Corinth, or what else'. Robert Gavette (sp?) says: 'How preposterous, then, to take the actual conditions of the church at any time after the apostles deceased as a model of what it ought to be!' - because even in Paul's day it was starting to depart.
That's why we need to get back to the Bible, not the church fathers, or patristic scholars, but the Bible, the apostles' doctrine is our creed. But this sowing of the seed began with a persecuted minority of Jesus, the Lord, and His apostles, and they were called by the Lord the 'little flock'. Now then something happened, they became more popular, and Christianity began to be embraced by governments, and even became the state religion of the Roman Empire. So this little mustard seed was sown and began to grow, and then its growth accelerated externally to an abnormal, unnatural, unusual extent - professing Christendom that would become a resting place for all kinds of false teachers and false professors. This parable is about the outward form of the kingdom of God that existed not long after our Lord departed, existed right throughout church history, and exists today and is with us now.
Now there are at least two mysteries that we can locate, or that we'll have time to do today, that are found in this parable. I think you'll have to agree with me that the first is that from the teachings and precepts of the Lord Jesus, a great kingdom, externally, could grow into an empire that possesses governments - think of the Vatican City - armies that have butchered people through the Crusades, and Treasuries that are an indictment to our Christian charity. What a mystery, that from this poor Galilean Carpenter there should grow such a great tree across this world.
The second mystery is that the visible church that ought to make war against Christ's enemies, are actually, through their success, becoming a roosting place and haven for them - it's astounding, isn't it? Who would ever have dreamt that this could happen, from that little mustard seed that Christ sowed of the kingdom - who dreamt? Christ prophesied it, He said it would happen. It did happen in the early church, and in His letters to the seven churches He spoke of it happening, critiqued it, and now it is with us - we need to be aware of it.
You might say, 'Well, that's all very interesting. Now I understand the parable, and I have assessed the prophetic message that is behind it, but so what?'. Well, here's the 'So what?', the principle for today, and I want to give this to you in a twofold manner. First of all, the principle in this parable for the church; and secondly the principle for the Christian. Our Lord is teaching in this parable that there cannot, I repeat, cannot be worldly greatness in this age without giving occasion to the devil. Let me repeat that: there cannot be worldly greatness in this age without giving occasion to the devil. There will, indeed, come a time - in the future, that is - of greatness and glory in the kingdom of God to the saints. Daniel prophesies: 'And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him' - but now that is not our charge. That's why he said to the Corinthians: 'Now you're rich, now you're increased in knowledge, but it ought not to be so now' - that's coming in a day, but not now. Our orders are in 1 Peter 5:6: 'Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time' - but the time is not now. That is profound, let me repeat it once more: there cannot be worldly greatness in this age without giving occasion to the devil.
Now here's the lesson for the church, and I'm only giving you this for your consideration, you can reject it of course - but I think, regarding churches, smaller is probably better than greater. The world's success syndrome which measures everything by numbers has thoroughly engulfed the church, whereas God's word says the opposite. This parable, but you can look elsewhere - Gideon's army was reduced from 32,000 to 300 so that the victory would be attributed to divine power alone; Jesus chose 12 disciples, did you ever think about that? Not 12,000 - He could have chosen 12,000, but He chose 12 because the emphasis in Scripture is quality, not quantity; depth, not breadth! Let me add a caveat to that: that does not mean that there is a virtue in smallness, when the smallness is a result of apathy, or lack of spirituality, or prayer, or sowing the seed of the kingdom and seeking to reap it - that's not what we're talking about. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that largeness is something good, and something even spiritual in the kingdom of God - it may be on very rare occasions, but generally the rule is: small is better. Largeness, of course, if we had time to go into it, in churches can create practical problems for leadership, pastoral care - but what the Lord's point here, I believe, is: there is grave spiritual danger when, externally, the kingdom of God grows large.
I'm going to be quoting in, in our closing moments, Vance Havner an awful lot, who has a great deal to say on this matter. This is what he says: 'The church has moved from the catacombs to the Colosseum in its emphasis on size. We stage mass demonstrations and gigantic congregations. We put celebrities on the platform, and borrow from Caesar to enhance the banner of Christ. We have gone crazy over bigness, actually we need a thinning instead of a thickening. I learned long ago that growing corn or cotton must be thin, we reduce the quantity to improve the quality. Gideon had to thin his troops, and a similar procedure might help God's army today. Jesus thinned His crowd, as is recorded in the sixth chapter of John, and doubtless there was many another occasion. Today the persecuted minority has become the popular majority'.
When one of the largest Protestant denominations was having a drive for its members, it adopted a slogan in 1984: 'A million more in 84'. One minister leaned over to another when the catchy title was announced, and whispered: 'If we get a million more like the ones we have, we're sunk'. It's not about numbers. We all fall into this trap: real success, the Lord is telling us, of a church and of His kingdom is not found in the number of members, but in their holiness - no matter how few they may be! John Wesley had it right: 'Do not give me the big ecclesiastical battalions, give me a hundred men who fear nothing but sin and love nothing but God, and I will shake the gates of hell'. Vance Havner again: 'As long as the church wore scars, they made headway. When they began to wear medals the cause languished. It was a greater day for the church when Christians were fed to the lions, than when they bought season tickets and sat in the grandstand. It is wrong to win banners and raise quotas rather than to know God. Better to have small, growing spiritual assemblies than large, unwieldy, unprincipled ones'.
That's the message of this parable for the church: small is probably better than big. But there's a message in this, and a principle for the Christians. I found this quote, I can't allocate it to anyone, but it really sums up this parable to all of us, if we'll take it to heart today - it goes like this: 'The beginning of greatness is to be little', the little mustard seed, 'the increase of greatness is to be less, and the perfection of greatness is to be nothing'. The beginning of greatness is to be little. The increase of greatness is to be less, and the perfection of greatness is to be nothing. 'Pride is the great Christian evangelical sin. It was the sin that made the devil the devil, therefore being the parent sin, he aspired pride to be like God in heaven. Then he, in his fall, tempted Adam and Eve, and overcame them, and pride entered into their hearts and into the human gene'. As William MacDonald puts it, the sad result is that every one of us has enough to sink a fleet. I know that pride gets in my heart, whereas our Lord Jesus, who sowed the mustard seed, was humble in His birth, humble in His life, in His death - and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
'He humbled Himself to the manger,
And even to Calvary's tree.
But I am so proud and unwilling,
His humble disciple to be'.
'Wast thou, Saviour, meek and lowly?
And shall such a worm as I
Weak and sinful, and unholy
Dare to lift my head on high?'.
Vance Havner has so much worth to say, he says: 'Why did the Son of God spend all those years in a woodworker's shop? Why did He not visit Rome, and Athens, and Alexandria, and lecture in the great world centres? Why did He spend, by far, the greater portion of His earthly life as a carpenter? It does not add up on our little computers in this publicity mad era of the mass media, when people will do anything under the sun to land on the front page and show up on television. We would have had our Lord come to the earth full-grown, a world traveller, a university lecturer. Think what the news media could have done for Him! Instead, when He performed a miracle, He said, 'Don't tell it'. His brothers urged Him to get out of the backwoods, and up onto the boulevards, and that He needed a good presage'. Listen to this: 'He did miracles and never advertised them, today we advertise them but cannot do them'.
Jeremiah put it like this: do you speak great things for yourself? Do not seek them. Christ didn't, that's the point! Who do we follow? Christian church, Christian history? We follow Christ!
'Wouldst thou be great, then lowly serve;
Wouldst thou go up, go down;
But go as low as e'er you will,
The Highest, has gone lower still'.
C. H. McIntosh says: 'There is always the utmost danger when a man or his work becomes remarkable. He may be sure Satan is gaining his objective when attention is drawn to aught or anyone but the Lord Jesus Himself. A work may be commenced in the greatest possible simplicity, but through lack of holy watchfulness, and spirituality on the part of the workman, he himself or the results of his work may attract general attention, and he may fall into the snare of the devil. Satan's grand, ceaseless object is to dishonour the Lord Jesus; and if he can do this by what seems to be Christian service, he has achieved all the greater victory for that time'.
What is the lesson for the Christian, for the church in this parable of the growth of the mustard seed? Human greatness exposes us to Satan's attacks - that is the lesson. As someone said to me very early in my Christian life: when you see a ladder, don't climb up it, climb down it. That's hard to do. F. B. Meyer said of that great evangelist, D. L. Moody - and you know how God used him - 'Moody is a man who never seems to have heard of himself. No wonder God used him so wonderfully'. A Keswick speaker put it like this on one occasion: 'There's nothing God cannot do if we keep our hands off the glory'. The parable of the growth of the mustard seed, the early church, our Lord and His disciples sowing it, it growing at Pentecost and in subsequent years, and then not long after the first century - even before it turned - the rot started. The external tree started to grow to such greatness that all the Lord's enemies could nest in it. Do we learn the lesson today? Can you say, Christian, can I say:
'Give me to serve in humble sphere,
I ask no more beside;
Content to fill a little place
If God be glorified'.
Wesley, the hymn writer, said:
'Never let the world break in;
Fix a mighty gulf between:
Keep me little and unknown,
Prized and loved by God alone'.
You know the Moravians, I hope you do, I've told you about them. Really in the modern era, they were the ones who revived missionary endeavour. They affected John Wesley greatly, so that he ended up going across the whole world really as his parish, preaching the gospel. The early Moravians had a prayer slogan, and it was this - it sums up our Lord's parable of the growth of the mustard seed, it sums up the message that the Lord has to my heart and yours today, it goes like this: 'From the unhappy desire of becoming great, good Lord deliver us'. Amen.
Lord, we have been redeemed, born again, not just that we might go to heaven, but that we might be Christ's disciples here on the earth. Lord, let us not keep our lives and lose them, but let us lose our lives and find them, and seek first the kingdom of God. Lord, this is so piercing to my heart, and it should be to all our hearts. Give us the help and the grace, having heard Your word, to obey the truth - to the glory of our Lord Jesus we pray, 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-fifth recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "The Parable Of The Growth Of The Mustard Seed" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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