The Mystery of the Kingdom

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. Mark 4:26-34 ESV

In this passage, Jesus continues to utilize parables when addressing the large crowd that had gathered to hear him speak. These simple stories were basically extended metaphors that were intended to make complex concepts easier to understand. But as we have already seen, even Jesus’ closest disciples found it difficult to grasp their meaning. So, Jesus took the time to explain each detail of the parable, ensuring that the 12 understood the vital point He had been trying to make.

In these two parables, Jesus focuses His attention on the Kingdom of God. His earlier parable made no mention of the Kingdom but addressed the receptivity of various people to the Word of God. But what aspect of the Word did Jesus have in mind? If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry by proclaiming the very same message that John the Baptist had been declaring in the Judean wilderness: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).

Later, when Jesus sent the 12 disciples on their first missionary journey, He commanded them to “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:7 ESV). And He told them that this message was intended for one audience only: “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6 ESV).

This message of the Kingdom was central to Jesus’ ministry and mission. He was declaring Himself to be the one who would usher in the Kingdom of God. But there was much confusion among the people of Israel as to the exact nature of that Kingdom. Most Jews believed that when God’s Kingdom came to earth it would be in the form of an earthly king who ruled over the restored nation of Israel. They were expecting another king to arise from among the people who would prove to be a descendant of David and would reestablish the Davidic dynasty. This human savior would be a warrior-king who would set them free from their enslavement and subjugation to Rome. He would restore the political, military, and financial fortunes of Israel, making them a force to be reckoned within the region.

But Jesus presents a much different picture of the Kingdom than the one they held. And He describes it through the use of two parables. In both cases, His focus seems to be on the mysterious nature of the Kingdom. It is not going to come quickly or through the use of military power. Once again, Jesus utilizes agrarian imagery to make His point, describing the Kingdom of God as seed being sown. His use of this rather bucolic imagery to describe the Kingdom must have seemed odd to people who were expecting something a bit more aggressive and revolutionary in nature.

While there are some similarities between this parable and the earlier one Jesus told, I believe they are unrelated. While both mention the sowing of seed, the second parable portrays a sower who is a rather passive participant in the process. Jesus states that this farmer scatters the seed, then “Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens” (Mark 4:27 NLT). The sower is clueless when it comes to the germination process necessary to turn a single seed into grain. He simply sows and then waits to see what will happen. Once the farmer sows the seed, the rest of the process is out of his hands. And Jesus describes the unseen process that must take place for fruit to be produced.

The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. – Mark 4:28 NLT

Jesus is clearly emphasizing the process of time. The coming of the Kingdom will not take place overnight. It will not involve a radical and immediate overturning of the status quo. No, it will be methodical and divinely orchestrated, operating in an unseen manner but ultimately producing abundant fruitfulness. And only then does the sower step back into the process.

“…as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.” – Mark 4:29 NLT

This recalls another made by Jesus as He and His 12 disciples made their way through Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 9:35 NLT).  Matthew describes Jesus as seeing the crowds and having compassion on them, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd(Matthew 9:36 NLT). And Jesus turned to His disciples, and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38 NLT).

The sowing of the word concerning the Kingdom was going to produce fruit. It would take time, but it would happen. And when it did, there would be a need for many to harvest the fruit of God’s labor. Don’t miss the point of this parable. The sower simply sowed the seed. It was God who caused the seed (the Word) to take root and produce fruit. The sower had no idea how it happened, but could only testify that it had. He could see the fruit and play a part in harvesting the bounty that God had produced.

Ultimately, salvation is the work of God. As Paul so aptly put it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). And Jesus clearly communicated the vital nature of His role in the process.

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” – John 12:24 NLT

The farmer sows the seed and God does the rest. What happens in-between is a miracle and a mystery. But Jesus assures His disciples that there will be fruit – “a plentiful harvest of new lives.”

With the second parable, Jesus extends His focus on the mystery of the Kingdom. He gives the impression that He is searching for just the right metaphor to use and He lands on the image of the mustard seed. Jesus states a fact that would have been well-known to His audience. He refers to the mustard seed as “the smallest of all seeds” (Mark 4:31 NLT). But He points out that, when planted, this minuscule, seemingly insignificant seed “becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32 NLT).

Everyone in His audience knew what a mustard seed was and they all knew what kind of tree it produced. But they had no idea how the transformation from one to the other took place. It was a mystery. And that seems to be Jesus’ point.

Jesus is using the imagery of the mustard seed to illustrate the nature of God’s Kingdom. And what He has to say stands in direct contrast to the expectations of the Jews. They were not looking for a small, insignificant Kingdom that would ultimately grow into something more impressive and impactful. They wanted immediate results. They had been waiting a long time for God to make things right. It had been hundreds of years since they had been a powerful nation with their very own king. So, the thought of having to wait for the “seed” to take root and grow would not have been something they found attractive.

But again, Jesus had come to establish a different kind of Kingdom. Several years later, as He stood before Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus would declare, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NLT).

Jesus had not come to sit on a throne, but to hang on a cross. He had not come to be exalted to the highest office in the land, but to take “the humble position of a slave” and be “born as a human being” (Philippians 2:7 NLT). Paul goes on to state that Jesus  “humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 NLT). And as a result of His willing humiliation and sacrificial offering of His own life, “God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11 NLT).

And one day, the exalted King is going to return and set up His Kingdom on earth. But in the meantime, the Word concerning the Kingdom must be faithfully sown. And those who sow must faithfully trust that God will do what only He can do: produce a plentiful harvest of new lives. God is in the business of producing citizens for His Son’s future Kingdom. He is raising up children who will live with He and His Son for eternity. How does He do it? It is a mystery. How long will it take? No one knows. How much fruit will He produce? Who can say. But we must faithfully sow and be ready to reap the harvest that He will produce.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson