Series Theme: Short meditations through Marks Gospel
This Page: CHAPTER 4
Overview of all
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Notes: These meditations are particularly short for easy digestion. To go to a chapter use the table above. To go to a verse use the contents on the left of each page which has been simplified by showing only every third meditation. Please go to nearest number and scroll up or down.
63. Making it easy
Mk 4:1,2 Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables.
We have already noted previously that on occasion (3:9) Jesus had had to use a boat as a pulpit to speak to the wider crowd and to avoid being crushed. It was a simple expedient to facilitate his preaching, to make it easy for the crowd to hear him. As teachers of that day did, he sat while he taught and his voice carried across the water.
But then we note that he taught them in parables. Mark has already made reference to Jesus speaking in parables in the previous chapter ( 3:23 ) and we see by observing what he said ( 3:27 ,28) a parable is simply a life example that has a meaning, sometimes (as we shall shortly see) a short story with meaning.
Now this was a day where teaching was by word of mouth, there were no handouts and no visual aids and no audio-visual helps. Classical teaching deals in words, in principles and in ideas. Jesus' approach used pictures to make it easy for the simple people with not a lot of education to understand what he was saying. Modern preachers realise the value of a powerful picture which says far more than mere words.
Parables are like a bomb waiting to go off. They are simple and they are obvious and the have the potential of bringing great and challenging understanding. The only thing about a parable though, is that you need to have an open heart to receive the import of what is behind it, otherwise you can hear it and end us saying, ‘Nice story'. No it wasn't just a nice story it was meant to make learning easy, but it was seeking to convey an important spiritual truth and truth, as far as God is concerned, to be obeyed.
As we'll see as we move on in this chapter ahead, parables have the potential for being heard but not understood. We'll see this later in detail; for the moment this is pure introduction. Already in Mark, Jesus has used parables to speak about the sick and need for a doctor, rejoicing with a bridegroom, repairing old garments, storing new wine, and plundering the house of a strong but evil man. They are all brief picture glimpses of everyday life, things easily understood, but they each say something profound about the life with Jesus. Why not scan back through Mark and check them out again.
64. Farmer or seed
Mk 4:3,4 Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
We start to consider what is possibly one of the best known of Jesus' parables. We normally refer to it as the “Parable of the Sower” for that is how Jesus referred to it (Mt 13:18 ), and yet most of it is about the seed and the ground. In fact the ground is the focus of Jesus' teaching here, and so it is a wonder that it is not referred to as the “Parable of the ground.”
Who is this sower of seed? Is he a hired workman? No, he is the farmer, the owner of the land. It is important to note this for there is something here that might be so easily missed. The farmer is in the business of growing things. That is why he exists. That is what his whole life is given to. In this mini-story, this parable, we see him performing a necessary part of his work – sowing seeds. Without this there can be no plants and no harvest.
Now this parable is rare in that Jesus later goes on to explain it: “ The farmer sows the word.” (v.14). So this is about one who sows God's word. This farmer is God Himself, or perhaps Jesus himself. The word is surely the Gospel. In a wider sense we might say it is anything God speaks to us. I am convinced, and have often said this when writing meditations, that God speaks to everyone many times in the course of their lives. Whether they hear and how they respond is another matter – and this parable is all about responses.
Now let's note something very obvious about this farmer that we've already hinted at: he sows the seed so that it will grow and produce a harvest. He expects a harvest, it is why he is sowing seed. Everything in him, while he is sowing this seed, envisages the seed growing and the field being full for a great harvest.
Now if this is a picture of God speaking to His world, then the same must be so: God expects what He says to be received and for it to bring change, for it to bring new life, for it to bring spiritual fruitfulness in the hearts and lives of those to whom He speaks. When God speaks to you and me, whether is His word as we read, in our minds as we pray, or in our minds as we listen to a sermon or prophecy, He expects it to bring forth change in us. He speaks with a purpose – to change us for that, in His love for us, is His intent for us.
Mk 4:3,4 Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
These bits of this story would all be things that Jesus' hearers would have no difficulty understanding. They had almost certainly seen farmers with a bag over their shoulder, walking the ploughed field and scattering the seed by hand. Indeed along the side of the field there was quite likely a path of hardened soil where passers by walked. And yes, as the seed lay on the hardened path they would have seen birds come down and pick it up.
That much was easily understood, but what point was Jesus making? Fortunately we can be lazy and not have to think too much about it for he told us: “ Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.” (v.15) Ah! There is one who opposes God's word, who seeks to snatch it away before people have time to absorb it. But remember, this is all about the ground. The people are the different ground conditions. What does this say about people?
It says that some people are vulnerable to Satan and that he is easily able to manipulate them or get them to bend to his will. We never have to do Satan's bidding, but some people are easily led by him because they too are rebellious against God. He only has to whisper encouraging words to go against God or against God's people, and this person is immediately in agreement.
Thus when God's word comes to this person it comes to ground that is hardened against God and which sides with Satan and so the word is dissipated or diluted or snatched away before it has time to germinate and take root and grow.
There is a truth behind this that needs thinking about. The word of God needs time to germinate, take root and grow. To this ungodly and self-centred person, Satan doesn't give it a chance to be thought about. It is dismissed instantly. One of the reasons I take exception to modern day crusading atheists, is because they refuse to stop and seriously think about the truth of God's word and they and their followers utter shallow and facile comments about it which indicate that they have never taken time to sit down and think about what is there. God's word is not even given a moment in them to germinate.
66. Hard Life
Mk 4:5,6 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.
If you keep your eyes open if you travel in the country, you see all sorts of soil types but in ploughed fields in our country, rarely do you see stony or rocky soil for our rock formations aren't the sort that produce those sorts of field most of the time, but in Israel they were not uncommon. The people would instantly know this soil. Yes, the seeds could grow up here, because seeds will try to grow anywhere, but not last long because the soil is shallow and when the sun comes out the soil dries out quickly. Again, a very simple and obvious picture.
Later Jesus explains it: “ Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” (v.16,17) There are three things here of note. The first is that these people are shallow people. They don't let the word take root and go deep into their lives. Oh yes, they receive it joyfully but it wasn't a deep and meaningful experience that hearing the word of God is supposed to be.
That is the second thing to note: receiving God's word is supposed to be an experience that isn't superficial; it is supposed to be an experience where we gladly receive the word and let it reach to all areas of our lives so that it can affect the whole of our lives. And, as we've noted before, the germination and growth of this seed into a full plant takes time, and so receiving God's word is not supposed to be something that happens in a flash and is then gone. Psalm 1 speaks of the man whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psa 1:2) The hungry person is not a shallow person. They hunger for God's word and they delight in it and think on it at length. How many of us do that I wonder?
But there is a third thing here. This person gives up because there is persecution. Jesus is quite realistic about the Christian life. It is quite often a hard life (depending in a large measure where you live on the earth). People will be against you. At the very least they will disagree with you. At the worse they will blatantly persecute you. it is a fact of the Christian life, even if we haven't experienced it yet. When it happens, don't be surprised. Then we will see if you are shallow!
Mk 4:7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain.
It is perhaps legitimate, while slowly working through these verses to wonder why Jesus was bringing this particular parable. We have noted so far him teaching about soil that is hard packed so the seed is snatched away by birds, and we have seen soil that is rocky and shallow, and now we come to soil that is full of weeds (we might say in our gardens) or thorns that choke the seed growth.
If you are a Christian of long standing you have probably heard this parable preached upon more than once, but why is Jesus saying it? Is it purely informative, pointing out the truths about the nature of different people and their heart conditions, or does it go further and act as a warning and a challenge to Christians in their everyday lives.
Originally I took this parable to refer to how the Gospel is stifled when it comes to people the first time and how so many don't receive it fully and go on to produce fruitful lives – and I am sure it does mean that. Yet I wonder should it also come as a warning to Christians, to be applied throughout the rest of their lives?
I ask this because surely one of the most important issues in the life of a Christian is their relationship with their Lord and, surely, relationship implies communication , not only us speaking to God in prayer, but us also hearing from Him, both through His written word, the Bible, and through other means. Development in the Christian life surely comes as we receive from the Lord and obey what He says to us, but how open to receive His word and respond to it are we?
Jesus' interpretation of today's verse says, “ Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (v.18,19) We might suggest that this refers to things that compete with God's word for our attention. Now you probably will accept that these aren't good things – worries about life, concern for provision and wanting more – but there are nevertheless things that compete with God's word for our attention. If these issues are things that predominate in our lives, then they will crush God's word and inhibit faith. If we have not surrendered all to Jesus, then we will still be struggling with self-effort and that will choke the truth from God and we will be poorer.
Mk 4:8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times."
In some ways this parable is very sad. In three different ways the wonderful wisdom from God is prevented from bringing the blessing he desires to bring to the earth. Either the devil snatches it from his sympathetic followers, or a superficial understanding of life brings a shallowness that refuses to think, or wrong priorities in life stifle what He says. In so many way people fail to receive His wonderful wisdom and so live in second best, striving and struggling, falling short and failing and so often battling misery.
This last seed, falling on good ground produces an abundant harvest but the truth is that most of us don't believe that God wants to bless us in this measure. We have so listened to the enemy or the world that we cannot believe that God is this good that he would bless us a hundred times over, that whatever small beginning we have, He will multiply it in that incredible manner. In his interpretation in later verses, Jesus simply says, “ Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop--thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown." (v.20) which really adds very little. The original was sufficient; God's intent for us is to bless us a hundredfold.
A little while back I started meditating on the Law in the Old Testament and I realised afresh that God took Israel and gave them the Law to show the world an alternative way of living in order to receive all the goodness He had planned for mankind. Think on the provision of ‘nature' and the incredible abundance of fruit and vegetables that God has given us to enjoy. Think of the many ways we are capable of knowing enjoyment. These are all signposts to the God of goodness who provides for us in so many ways. Go back to the Law and see the guidelines for good living that are given there. Read the ‘blessings' that follow obeying the Law and you see God's good intention to pour out good things on our lives.
And so, yes, we come back to this last part of this parable with its promise of a hundredfold increase. This comes where the ground is good, where the ground is receptive, has been broken up so it can easily receive the seed, that is free from rocks and other expressions of hardness, and is free from thistles and thorns and other weeds that have been allowed to grow. This is soil that tolerates no competitors to the word of God. This good soil will be blessed a hundredfold!
69. Ears to Hear?
Mk 4:9,10 Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.
I don't know about you, but I suspect I take the little phrase in these verses for granted: “he who has ears to hear, let him.” I mean it sounds so obvious, doesn't it? He says it again in verse 23 with a following admonition, “ Consider carefully what you hear.” (v.24) Matthew similarly records Jesus using this expression a number of times – Mt 11:15, 13:9, 13:43 . In the book of Revelation, Jesus says it to each of the seven churches (Rev 2 & 3).
Of course we all have ears, but do we hear? Husbands and wives know this thing. How often does a wife say, “I told you that just now. Didn't you hear me?” Of course he heard it but he just didn't take it in for his mind was elsewhere!
There it is: we hear but we don't take it in because our mind is elsewhere! This is a terrible warning for us, especially in the light of the parable we have just been considering, all about hearing God's word and responding to it. You see it with children who get so engrossed with what they are doing that sometimes Mum has to say something three times to them before they respond. They are not being willfully naughty in ignoring her, it's just that they were so taken up with something else that, although their ears would have heard speech in the background, their minds were not taking in the implications of those words.
As I have watched congregations on a Sunday morning during the time of the sermon, I have wondered about this. How many of the bodies in front of the speaker were hearing the words but their minds were elsewhere – on the lunch in the oven, on the events of the afternoon, or the problems at work, or of life next week. It does actually take effort to listen.
If you've ever been involved in listening training as a would-be counsellor or carer, you may have done exercises to test whether you are actually hearing what the other person is saying. This phrase that Jesus uses, isn't just a casual phrase dropped in to bulk out his teaching. it has real significance. Are you a person who does actually hear and take in the teaching of God's word whenever you read it or hear it spoken? This is a crucial question about your future wellbeing!
70. Secrets Shared
Mk 4:11,12 He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, "`they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'
The kingdom of God is all about the reign of Jesus bringing the will of God to earth – “ your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10) – “I have come to do your will, O God.” (Heb 10:7) How that will was to be brought about was a mystery. Paul used that word about the Gospel a number of times. It was not obvious. It had to come by revelation from heaven. It was a secret. The ways of the kingdom are not obvious to the natural man, they are secrets, and part of Jesus' role on earth was to share those secrets with those who would follow.
Ah, there is the key – to followers. Jesus said to his disciples it “has been given to you .” and then he distinguished them from the rest of the people - “but to those on the outside.” Who are those people? They were everyone who came along just as a spectator, who hadn't given their heart to Jesus and to his Father. There are those who come along Sunday by Sunday but most of what they hear remains a mystery to them, for they have never given their hearts to Jesus, they have never surrendered to his Lordship.
There is a spiritual principle here that is vital to understand. Jesus said of these ‘outsiders', these ones who are merely spectators, merely onlookers, those who have not surrendered to him, who do not follow him that they will see but not see, they will hear but not understand. They will see what Jesus does, but it doesn't seem relevant to them. They will hear the words week by week, but are unmoved by them. This is a truth of the kingdom, that you enter it and THEN start to understand. You need no understanding when you surrender to Jesus beyond the terrible fact that you are a sinner and are lost without him. That is all you need to understand – your terrible need. And so you surrender and start to walk with Jesus and as you do so he shares with you and suddenly you start to see it as you had never been able to before.
And what about the “otherwise they might turn and be forgiven ”? Is forgiveness the all important issue? No, it is just the way into a relationship with Jesus; THAT is the crucial issue. Jesus doesn't want any superficial, “I am sorry”. He wants surrender. He wants to rule.
71. Revealing Secrets
Mk 4:21,22 He said to them, "Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don't you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
Context is sometimes very important. These verses flow on from a passage all about receiving and understanding the word of God. All the previous verses in this chapter are about that. Some commentators talk about the light here as Jesus, for indeed he is the light of the world but, I would suggest, Jesus is speaking more generally about the truth, about the will of God, about the word of God.. Note what he says.
He is using a simple analogy. Nothing complex about the picture he uses. If you bring a lamp indoors you don't hide it away somewhere. The purpose of a lamp is to give light so you put it where it can shed its light – on a stand. In those days a single light like he is talking about was the sole means of lighting that they had. It was vital to continuing life once the dark came. So, first point, a lamp is meant to be used.
But then he speaks of what it does. In the gloom of a building with small windows, it was easy for things in the corner to remain hidden in the shadows, but as soon as the light is brought in and lit, everything is revealed. This is the point of the lamp, it is to reveal things.
Now, what did we say was the context? The context was about the truth or word or spoken will of God. So, says Jesus, first of all realise that God's word when it is spoken is for a purpose. God doesn't just speak words for the sake of it. When God speaks He wants His words to have effect. In Creation God spoke words and things happened. That is how it is supposed to be, but when it comes to human beings He has given us the ability to choose, to reason and rationalise. We can choose how we respond to what He says. That is a frightening responsibility.
But there is more. When God speaks His words are meant to bring revelation and so mysteries, things hidden, become revealed. That is what revelation is all about; it is something hidden that is brought out and made obvious. That is what God's word is supposed to do; it is supposed to teach us, to show us things we didn't previously know. It is supposed to tell us things about life that we previously didn't know. But, I wonder, how many Christians view God's word like this? How many of us are hungry for revelation, hungry for the truth.
72. Use it!
Mk 4:24,25 "Consider carefully what you hear," he continued. "With the measure you use, it will be measured to you--and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."
Remember, Jesus has been talking about responding to God when He speaks, and the importance of revelation. Revelation – the truth – what this is all about, about how we hear and what we hear. Hence Jesus considers, “Consider carefully what you hear.” He is still focusing them on what they hear from God. What follows is still all about what we do with what we hear. Previously it had been the different responses to hearing; now it is to those who apparently do hear and it challenges them as to what they do with it.
You must hold on to this: it is the truth or revelation from God that Jesus is talking about here. When he says “With the measure you use it” he is saying that if you receive it and respond to us and allow it to have its work in you and change you and maybe you even pass it on, THEN you will receive even more. The crucial question or vital issue here is how much we DO with the truth. If we just hear it on a Sunday morning, or we casually read it in the Bible, and we remain untouched and unmoved and unchanged, then we will become stagnant water and receive no more.
We should be using what we have received and then receiving more from God. The Old illustration of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is a good illustration. Water flows into and out of the Sea of Galilee and the sea is fresh and alive. Water flows into the Dead Sea but not out of it and so it is dead. This IS the truth and it is a challenge! How many Christians are neutral about the word of God? Yes, it is the word of God and it is important and I do read it and I do hear it on a Sunday morning – but nothing more.
It is supposed to change us and transform us; it is supposed to be passed on to others, to seekers and to new younger Christians. The word is not to be listened to; it is to be responded to, it is to change us and change others. But there is a terrible negative in what Jesus says. If you don't do all we have been saying about God's word, what has been given to you will be taken away. Yes, you will start to lose the significance of what you have heard and the truth will start to cease being important to you and it will soon stop being a deterrent against sin in your life. It is a downward slope. Beware!
73. Kingdom Growth (1)
Mk 4:26,27 He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.
Most of Jesus' parables are in one way or another about the kingdom of God , for Jesus has come to do the will of God and everything about him and us is about how we relate to God and allow God to rule and thus bring us back into a place of blessing with Him. It is clear that the rule of God is equated with blessing.
So here he uses a very simple picture. We've recently considered the parable of the Sower and this is yet another picture using the analogy of a Sower with seed, but this time it is a shorter, more simple picture. We can see various things from it but for the moment we focus on just one.
Jesus makes a very simple and we might say, obvious point. The Sower sows the seed and leaves it in the ground and all on its own, the seed starts to grow. The Sower doesn't know how the seed grows or even when; he just leaves the seed and trust that it will grow, like it does every year when he sows it.
Now bear in mind that we have said that all of this chapter so far has been about the word of God and how we receive it and what it does. He has just been speaking about using the word of God but now Jesus speaks more generally about how the word of God works to bring about the kingdom or rule of God.
The fact is that when the word of God is received in good ground, or even in apparently not so good soil, it starts growing and having effect. In the bigger picture we might say the Holy Spirit takes it an quietly applies it in the heart of the receiver. Now in some ways there is nothing mysterious about this. For example you may read or hear the word that applies to a particular area of difficulty you have in your life. The word arrives and seems to lay there in your heart. Then the Spirit nudges it into your consciousness again, you remember it. You find yourself thinking about it, and you start to feel convicted by it. It now requires you to act upon it to put your ‘conscience' at ease. You make changes in your attitude or words or behaviour and your life comes more into conformity with God's design for you. Very simply you are coming under the rule or reign or kingdom of God and it all takes place as the Spirit is able to take the word and grow it in you.
74. Kingdom Growth (2)
Mk 4:28,29 All by itself the soil produces grain--first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come."
Sometimes the teaching of Jesus was so obvious that we almost miss the point. Previously we noted the quiet growth of the seed – the word of God but now in these words Jesus says something so very simple but so very important: growth is gradual and it comes in slow and steady stages.
Now we live in an age of looking for the easy way. Many of us have dishwashers to save us the trouble of getting our hands wet. We have many other appliances that we take for granted to make life easy for us. We always want the easy way. But not only do we want the easy way, we want the instant way. We want whatever it is now. We don't want something that takes a long time. We now have books that break down teaching into one minute bites, or then five minute bites or then ten minute bites, because we don't want the discipline of reading large amounts, we don't want to spend long times learning.
But watch this seed. They say, to use another analogy, that a watched kettle never boils. The same is true of a seed. A child who is given a little patch to grow things in the garden, comes out each day to see if there is any apparent growth. There isn't any and so they lose interest, but the adult gardener knows that you have to give the seeds or the bulbs time in the ground to germinate and, even more, for the stalk to grow and push its way up through the soil until it first appears as a tiny shoot. But then you have to wait even longer for that shoot to grow into a stalk, and then to form leaves and then flowers perhaps and then seed pods. (If it is crops in the field they will miss the flower stage). But all these things take time and there is an order. You can't have a stalk until there is the shoot. You can't have flowers until there is the full grown stalk and leaves and you don't get seeds until the final stage.
The same is true in the spiritual world. It takes time and it takes stages for growth to develop to maturity. Maturity does not happen in a day. Maturity takes time, it takes learning and teaching, it takes gradual understanding and that is a slow process that cannot be hurried and maturity dies not happen without time and experience. To learn perseverance takes time, to learn steadfastness and faithfulness takes time. Maturity takes discipline. You can't avoid it.
75. Explaining the Kingdom
Mk 4:30 Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?
Possibly because it is familiar for many of us and perhaps we take it for granted, but we can miss the focus of Jesus' teaching. Again and again we find he uses parables to illustrate something about the kingdom of God . Yes, we have noted something of this before, but because it comes up so often we need to refocus on it again and again, otherwise we are just seeing words and miss what they are saying.
Basic fact: God reigns over everything in existence because He made it. He is above it and distinct from it and His power can do what He likes with it. The fact that he has given mankind free will does not detract from that. He is sufficiently great, sufficiently wise and sufficiently all-knowing, that could outclass us and sort us as a Grand Master chess champion outclasses a mere beginner. We are just not in the same league whatever we think of ourselves. The fact that He does not destroy us the first time we sinned in childhood, is merely His mercy. The fact that he gives us chance after chance to repent and to turn to Him is all mercy and grace.
He has designed and brought this world into being and He knows how it (and that includes human beings) ‘work best'. Because of sin we have decided that we know how we work best and that is so often contrary to God's design and so we bring destruction upon ourselves. But that doesn't stop God loving us, because He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16) and because He continually loves He continually wants the best for us – but He knows that we can only experience the best when we come back to His original design, and that involves living in relationship to Him.
Talk about the kingdom of God first means coming back under the rule of God so that He can restore us to experience something of that original design. Yes, this side of heaven we will still be tainted with sin and can never be perfect, but we can, because of the wonder of what Christ has done on the Cross, live in relationship with Him.
Now the kingdom refers to something more. It refers to the very existence within the presence of God. Wherever God is there is peace and there is goodness and there is love, because all these things are expressions of the One who is Lord of all things, and as we live in relationship with Him we experience something of this experience. The kingdom is also an environment, and existence with Him. Enjoy it!
76. Small Beginnings
Mk 4:31,32 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade."
Now in this very simple picture we need to see first what it means and then what we might learn from it. Remember Jesus is speaking about the kingdom of God – the reign, rule or expression of God on the earth so whatever this picture says, it says it about this rule of God on earth.
This is like a mustard seed, he says, which is one of the smallest seeds. It is a tiny seed, yet when you plant it in the ground it does what all other seeds does and it grows but this particular seed grows into one of the biggest plants in the garden, and it is so big that even the birds can shelter in its branches. This is an unusual seed and it is the nature of its beginning and its end which is what Jesus is pointing out. It starts out as the smallest of seeds and ends up as the largest of the garden plants.
So that, says Jesus, is what God's new reign on earth is like. It starts very small but will end up the largest of the ‘plants' in the spiritual world. This ‘plant' is going to start from one man. He owns no property, he walks everywhere, he never leaves this area of the Middle East , and he is not the head of some existing large and powerful group. But he is expressing the reign or rule of God on the earth in a unique way. He has come to do God's will and is doing it as he is led by his Father in heaven.
As a result of that, other people's lives are being changed, and a small group of them will be so changed that they will go on to change the whole world. Who would have thought back then that what was happening in Israel would spread and spread and spread until it impacted the whole world. Not every person is a follower of Jesus – and indeed there are many who are not – but most countries in the world have followers of Jesus. That which had small beginnings has had a large outworking.
Now there is something to be learned from watching how this ‘seed' grew to the biggest of the plants. It didn't do it by human striving but by the energising of God Himself in weak, fallible, frail human beings. This kingdom is not about human strength but about the power of God working in weak humans. Ponder that.
77. Insider Trading
Mk 4:33,34 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
In these two verses we see something remarkable. First of all we see Jesus' teaching style spoken of yet again: he constantly used parables, short stories with a point to them. But we've already seen that parables were a mixed blessing, for on one side they were simple stories that anyone could associate with because they used everyday topics that could be understood by all, but on the other side they produced a danger in that a listener could hear the story and leave it at that without getting the deeper meaning that Jesus was conveying. Indeed we have also previously noted that he used this style of teaching so that only seekers after God would really benefit from them. A seeking heart was the key to understanding Jesus' teaching because it would drive the person to seek after God even more and follow Jesus to get answers.
And that is what brings us to what I have called insider trading. That is a term used usually to describe the activities of people who are in on the know, who know things about businesses that outsiders don't know and they can therefore benefit from this insider knowledge. Now that is exactly the position of the disciples, the close followers of Jesus because, being with him all the time, they benefited from explanations that Jesus gave them when they were alone.
This is the position of a close follower of Jesus – we can ask Jesus things in privacy and when we have learned to listen to him in our spirit, we can receive inside understanding from him. Do you remember James speaking about wisdom: “ If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (Jas 1:5) all you've got to do is ask, but it tends to be only those who are seekers after god who do this. It is so easy to do yet most people are content to keep their own counsel and don't bother to ask God.
The problem about asking is that you then have to listen for the answer and few can be bothered to take time to be quiet before God and listen to what He has to say – but this is exactly what a disciple of Jesus does. This is one of the things that marks out a follower of Jesus from those who don't follow him.
78. Leaving Safety
Mk 4:35,36 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side." Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.
There were times in the lives of the apostles travelling with Jesus when just very ordinary things happened. When you look at the bigger picture there were also some quite spectacular times, things that really stood out, things that the disciples remembered and found their way into the Gospels. We're about to come to one of those, but before we do, we find very ordinary things happening, and what strikes me about this, is that there is no warning of what is about to happen, and yet Jesus, with the knowledge he had, would surely have been aware of what was coming – and said nothing about it!
So here they are in this very ordinary situation, well ordinary as far as they would be concerned for I suspect that it is easy to take healings and deliverances and great teaching for granted when it occurs every day. Then Jesus changes things; he suggests they go across the Sea of Galilee . He gives no reason but the disciples are used to this. It is just another change in the daily circumstances and they are at ease with that, because it happened so often.
They are at ease (I am assuming) because the recent circumstances have been familiar and Jesus has clearly been in control. These are all important things to note in the light of what follows. They have been in a place of safety and security. Jesus has handled the crowds and even the opposition and the disciples have nothing to be worried about. Life goes on, day after day, and they feel secure. Now it is time for their security to be tested – but they don't know that because Jesus hasn't told them.
Here is an important point, a very simple one but important. If they knew what was about to happen and they knew how Jesus would react they would not be concerned – and it wouldn't be a test. The test is to see how much they are going to trust Jesus, how much they believe about him and his love for them.
When tests come along in the kingdom of God , unlike school they don't come with pre-warnings. We aren't told, “Tomorrow I'm going to test you to see how much you trust me.” No, it is a test because we haven't been prepared.
79. Into a Storm
Mk 4:37,38 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"
I am told that on the Sea of Galilee it is not uncommon for squalls to appear almost out of the blue. So here are the disciples in their boat with Jesus, crossing the lake in the early night, when suddenly the weather takes a serious turn for the worse. It is described as a ‘furious squall' and so rough was it that ‘waves broke over the boat'. A third indicator of how bad it was, was that the disciples believed they were going to sink.
Now there are two interesting things to note about Jesus in these verses. First he was sleeping. Now that suggests one of two things: either he was so tired from ministry (and that is likely) that he could sleep through anything, or he was utterly secure in the confidence that his Father in heaven would look after him and so had no worries about whatever might happen (and I am sure that is true as well).
The second interesting thing about Jesus, is what the disciples thought about him. Now the trouble with Scripture is that it only gives us the basics and doesn't stop to explain things in detail, so here we have the disciples waking Jesus to berate him, but what is it that they are saying? Again there are two possibilities. First, it is likely that they are simply alerting him to their predicament and want him to share in their concern – why should he be the only one not worried! We do that with God in prayer, I have noticed, when things are going badly. It's almost as if we say, “Don't you see what is going on down here?” and of course He does. The second possibility is that they are implying he ought to be awake and doing something about their plight, an expression of faith if you like, but I suspect that that is unlikely in the light of Jesus rebuke of them later on.
But both these things act as a challenge to us when things aren't going well in our lives. Does Jesus know what is happening to us? Yes, of course he does. Can he do something about it? Yes, of course he can. Then why doesn't he? It is probable that he is waiting for us to reveal our level of faith and maturity. Perhaps we may summarise it by suggesting an alternative for the disciples: “Lord, please wake up, we need your help. This is beyond us but we know you can sort it. Please Lord, will you deal with this problem.” Then watch and listen.
80. Jesus is Lord
Mk 4:39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
This is an embarrassing verse for unbelievers and draws them right out into the open – this couldn't have happened, or it was just a coincidence! Coincidences are difficult to argue over, one way or the other. Was it coincidence that a wind held back the Red sea when Moses prayed so Israel could pass through? Was it a coincidence that the walls of Jericho fell down when Israel marched round it seven times? Was it coincidence that fire fell on Elijah's wet sacrifice? Or were they logical things that coincided with the actions of a man? If there were logical causes, it just transfers the wonder to the knowledge and timing of the man, but that doesn't mean it wasn't God moving. No you can't argue for or against coincidences, so put that aside.
It didn't happen? So why should the disciples make up this story which showed them in such a poor light? We normally tend to keep quiet about things that show us up badly. No, these accounts were passed on because, at the very least, these disciples were utterly convinced by what they saw, heard and experienced. If this had been a gradual abating of the storm, that would not have created fear in them. Oh no, this was an instant response. One moment there was a life-threatening storm and the next moment as Jesus spoke, it instantly went calm. Nothing else would scare the life out of these men, a number of whom were fishermen and had spent all their lives on this lake. No, this was something that was clearly and obviously way beyond them.
Which leaves us with the conclusion the unbeliever refuses to countenance, that this happened exactly as they reported it, and it was a supernatural event that went right off the belief scale. This said to them that the one in the boat with them was someone far greater than they had previously thought. This Jesus has power to instantly control out-of-control circumstances that they know all about. That is what is so dramatic about this: the fishermen in the boat knew that such things don't happen, even on this ‘their' lake.
I wonder how this story leaves you. if you are someone with an irrational hard-heart and a closed mind that refuses whatever is presented to it, you will stubbornly deny this story and will continue to bluster and scratch around for possibilities – but that IS because you have a hard heart and a closed mind, and if that was me, I'd be embarrassed by that conclusion!
Mk 4:40,41 He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!
There are two sets of responses in these verses, that of Jesus and that of the disciples, and we'll take then in the reverse order. So, first the disciples. As we pointed out in the previous meditation (but it bears repeating) some of these men are hardened fishermen who know this lake and they know what to expect and what not to expect. For the storm to drop immediately someone speaks to it is NOT what they expect. In fact they know unquestionably that such things don't happen, which makes what has just happened that much scarier.
Now think about this some more. The have been with Jesus some time and they have witnessed what we might call the most successful healing crusade in history. In fact one might even suggest that they have become so familiar with what they have witnessed every day, that they take is as normal almost. Jesus just has power to heal people. Now there have always been healers in history and admittedly Jesus is clearly top of the pile, but he's just a healer. Yes, He's also a pretty good teacher, but at this point in his ministry as far as they are concerned he's no more than that. There had been that occasion when he called Peter and provided a whole shoal of fish to be caught, but that has almost been forgotten in the incredible wave of healings they have been witnessing (we can't over-emphasise this!)
And then is happens and it is clearly something in a completely different league. It's all very well to be a healer, but to be someone who controls the very elements, that is something else! We have to emphasise this for in no other way can we understand the fact that they were “terrified”.
Then we come to Jesus' response. Now I might have been easy going on these men – probably because I might have responded the same way – but Jesus doesn't give them that leeway. He chides them for their fear and for their lack of faith. the two things are opposite sides of the same coin. Assurance and faith are to be the currency of the kingdom and it is lacking here. It is almost as if Jesus is saying, haven't you been with me long enough and seen enough of what I do to believe that I am the one who can deal with anything? Even more, don't you believe that I care about you and will protect you? How about you and me? Do we believe these things?