Watch sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVw8WOCU1Aw
Questions for Discussion:
1. What was one thing that stood out from the sermon?
2. What things in life did you assume were “certain” before this new crisis? Read through James 4:13-15. What has this taught you?
3. What is the kingdom of God?
4. Why do you think the first parable (Mark 4:26-29) emphasizes the sower’s inactivity?
5. What do you currently feel impatient with God about?
6. In what ways does the gospel bring about the kingdom of God in surprising ways?
Is there anything in life that is certain? Anything in your life? Death and taxes, the only things certain in life, the old quip goes. But, we don’t really believe that. Most of the time, we basically assume that much of life is certain. Tomorrow will be similar to today, next week will likely look like this one. We will get up, go to work, take care of the kids, make dinner, go out with friends, finish our homework, go to church. Each day rolls in after the other with a kind of marching similarity and mechanical exactitude. In fact, life can often seem so certain that it can lead to a dreariness—we get bored. We need some variety, some excitement. But, of course, all it takes is one tragedy to insert itself into our lives to dispel this mirage—we control very little in our life. As James warns us, “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” James 4:13-15.
Of course, we are living in remarkable, unprecedented days. Our entire global population, the human race as a whole, is collectively learning this lesson right now. The regular rhythms of life for men and women, what once seemed so certain, around the globe have been interrupted by a mysterious virus that is currently beyond all of our control. The very fact that you are watching or listening to me via the internet right now is itself a testimony to the turbulent and uncertain nature of our lives. Three weeks ago, at the beginning of March, I doubt you anticipated being advised by your government to not leave your home. James was correct: we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Nevertheless, in these tumultuous times there are some things that are absolutely certain. God is in control. Jesus loves you. The Holy Spirit will never leave you. God’s Word will never fail. And, what we will take time to consider today, the kingdom of God has come and is coming.
The Kingdom of God
What is the kingdom of God? It was what was forfeited at the Garden of Eden. As image bearers of God, Adam and Eve were charged to exercise royal rule over the earth, on behalf of God—this is the kingdom of God. It is where God’s rule and reign are exercised here on earth through His relationship with His people. When Adam and Eve disobeyed, they disregarded God’s authority, His rule. Thus, they were then expelled from God’s Kingdom. But the whole story of the Bible after this is how God is seeking to reestablish His kingdom here on earth through His relationship with His chosen people. The Bible traces this narrative through God’s dealings with the nation of Israel right up till the arrival of Jesus Christ, who then provocatively announces that the kingdom of God has now arrived (Mark 1:14-15). This is what all of history has been waiting for!
But, Jesus brings about this kingdom in strange and surprising ways. Which Jesus’ parables here explain for us. These two parables demonstrate that the coming of the kingdom of God is inevitable, but slow; inevitable, but surprising.
The inevitable kingdom of God
In the first parable we are given an interesting picture of the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God like? “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how,” Mark 4:26-27. What is the kingdom of God like? Like a sower, casting seed on the ground. Sound familiar? Back in 4:1-20 Jesus tells the famous parable of the sower where the “seed” is identified as the Word of the gospel (Mark 4:14). Mark has recorded these parables right next to each other for us to compare and contrast them. In the parable of the sower, the emphasis is on the diversity of responses to the Word—here, the emphasis is on something else: the inevitable result of the Word.
It’s interesting the details we are told in this parable: the parable seems to emphasize the sower’s inactivity. “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:27-29. What is the farmer doing? Of course, a normal farmer does much more than just plant, sleep, and then harvest. But we are only given these details about the farmer to emphasize his inactivity to make a theological point: God’s sovereign hand in bringing about His Kingdom. The farmer has two roles in this parable: planting the seed and harvesting. Everything else is simply out of his control. The actual growth of the seed is something that is taking care of itself. What does this mean? He is just going to sleep, waking up, and the seed grows. He knows not how. He cannot explain exactly how it is the seed is growing, but, lo and behold, it is! Out of the earth the plant pushes upward, apart from anything the farmer is doing. In this parable, you’ll notice that the seed is not identified with the kingdom of God—it most likely is the Word of God. The kingdom of God is also not the growth of the seed, nor is it the sowing of the seed or the reaping by the farmer. All of it, we are told, is like the kingdom of God. What does this mean?
The Kingdom comes through the Word: Notice that God’s kingdom comes from the sowing of the seed, the Word. The kingdom of God does not arrive through campaigns, programs, or governments. It does not come from medical research, economic policies, education opportunities, free school lunches, the eradication of poverty, or the digging of wells—though all of those things may very well flow from the kingdom of God manifesting itself here on earth. Those, however, are the fruit, not the root. God’s Kingdom does not come through those things. It comes through the casting of the seed, the sowing of the gospel.
So, if we want to see the kingdom of God expand, then we will sow the seed. We will prioritize raising our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4) by teaching them the Bible. We will not just talk in general about God or spirituality with our co-workers and neighbors, but we will open up the Bible with them and share the good news of the gospel. When temptation rears its head, we will cling to the promises and warnings of God’s Word to help us bow the knee to God, not the desires of the flesh. We will demonstrate the kingdom of God here on earth through our good works by caring for others and will, as the Lord permits, couple those good deeds with the words of eternal hope found in the gospel. This means if we want to be Kingdom people we must be Bible people, friends.
The Kingdom comes by the will of God. The emphasis in this parable is on the seed growing despite the ignorance and inactivity of the farmer. The coming of the kingdom of God is not dependent upon our skill, knowledge, or efforts. We do not build God’s kingdom for Him; He does not need us, but builds His kingdom Himself and graciously invites us in to His work—He has given us the task of sowing and reaping. Does that mean God needs us? Of course not. It is up to God to make the growth. This is why we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”
The Kingdom coming cannot be stopped. God has ordained that His kingdom will come—He has promised it, thus it cannot be stopped. The kingdom of God has arrived with Jesus—when Jesus came, through His life, death, and resurrection He established God’s Kingdom. By His death and resurrection He defeated Satan, sin and death—the challengers to His rule—and then ascended to the Father’s right hand where He now sits on His throne, ruling and reigning—all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him (Matt 28:18); the battle has been won. But, you may be thinking, if Jesus established God’s Kingdom, why does the world look so bad? Why are there so many people still resisting His reign? Well, the Kingdom has been inaugurated, but not yet fully consummated (cf. Heb 2:5-9). God’s kingdom is now manifested on earth through the Church—the place where people happily bow the knee to Jesus. But one day, it will not only be some who bow, but all. That will come when Jesus returns. That day will look like Habakkuk’s promise, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” Hab 2:14. So we do not yet see the kingdom in its fullness, but this outcome is inevitable. God has promised it! God is working to make the seeds of the gospel grow.
After D-day (1944), where the Allies punched through the German line of defense on the continent by their harrowing assault of the beaches of Normandy, they decisively broke the wall of resistance of the Third Reich. Though V-day (1945) was over a year away, the outcome of Germany’s demise and the end of WWII was inevitable. The Axis powers could do nothing to stop it. Friends, the Christian now stands between D-day and V-day and nothing can stop the great, heavenly victory day of the arrival of the New Heavens and New Earth and the final destruction of Satan, sin, and death. Jesus has already defeated the biggest enemies that stood in His way: Satan tries to tempt Jesus, but failed; the world tried to silence Him by nailing him to cross, but failed; sin tried to condemn His church, but His blood cleansed us from all our guilt, so it failed; death itself tried to hold Jesus down but even death couldn’t hold him, and it failed. Jesus has slain all of the biggest monsters and dragons, He has punched down all of the heavyweights—there is nothing that can stop Him! So the final installment of His kingdom is coming, there is no one to prevent it from coming.
This, therefore, makes us very confident. Victory is certain; God’s promises will stand. They will come to fruition. As certain as the sun rises day in, day out, so is the certainty of the coming of the kingdom of God. God is the one doing the work, He creates, He brings the growth. What do we do? We simply scatter the seed and trust in our omnipotent God to bring about the results. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it,” Isa 55:10-11.
The unhurried kingdom of God
If the inevitability of the arrival of the kingdom of God should excite us, the timing of the kingdom of God should temper us. One commentator explains the parable of the seed growing as such: “The first parable, then, is a message about rightly interpreting and responding to the period of the apparent inaction of the kingdom of God. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is growing, and the harvest will come. But it will come in God’s time and in God’s way, not by human effort or in accordance with human logic.” Why does God’s kingdom take so long to come? Why does it sometimes seem like God isn’t really doing anything? The two parables tell of the process of a crop and a tree growing. Trees grow slowly. If you walked out to your yard to examine the oak tree growing there, morning after morning, you would be tempted to think: this thing isn’t growing at all! But, of course, you’d be wrong. And, friends, when we look around the world today it may be tempting to think: God, are your promises really true? Are you really in control? Is your kingdom coming really certain? Yes the promises are inevitable, but they do not happen on our own time table. God’s Kingdom moves at God’s pace.
Peter warns us of scoffers in the last days, “They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation,” 2 Pet 3:4. Things don’t look like they are changing—is Jesus really coming back? Peter encourages us, “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed,” 2 Pet 3:8-10. Notice the juxtaposition of slowness and then suddenness. “A thousand years is as a day,” “patience” and then suddenly, “like a thief” Jesus will return, to the roaring destruction of the heavens. Just because God’s kingdom is moving at His own pace does not mean He is hindered or sleepy, like a grandparent having a hard time waking up from a nap. No, God is patient and moves at His own pace for His own good reasons. Perhaps we need to hear the Lord’s admonition to Habakkuk as he impatiently demanded a response from God: “For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay,” Hab 2:3. Luke Short was a farmer in the 1700’s who lived to the remarkable age of 100. Luke Short, also remarkable for his time, was not a Christian but had remained skeptical. “One day as he sat in his fields reflecting upon his long life, he recalled a sermon he had heard in Dartmouth as a boy before he sailed to America. The horror of dying under the curse of God was impressed upon him as he meditated on the words he had heard so long ago and he was converted to Christ– eighty-five years after hearing John Flavel preach.” Imagine if you were to judge the effectiveness of John Flavel’s preaching or the power of God by looking only at those 84 years and 364 days leading up to that day in the field. You would certainly think: Flavel must have been an ineffective evangelist or God clearly is not at work. Let’s be slow to judge whether or not God is working by the speed of God’s response, friends. Do not confuse patience with inaction or absence.
The surprising kingdom of God
In the next parable Jesus compares the kingdom of God with a mustard seed which is “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth, 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,” Mark 4:31-32. This parable illustrates the surprising nature of the kingdom of God in two ways. First, the second half of the parable is echoing an Old Testament picture from the book of Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest,” Ezekiel 17:22-23. This is a prophecy of the coming Messiah, the righteous branch and offshoot of Jesse (Isa 11:1-2), the sprig that is planted on the mountain height of Israel that grows into a noble cedar. Jesus is the son of David, the righteous branch, the noble cedar; thus, Jesus is the mustard tree described in the parable—it is through Him that the kingdom of God comes. But, in Ezekiel (and elsewhere in the OT) birds “of every sort” is a prophetic image of Gentiles, non-Jews (Ez 31:6). Thus, for Ezekiel and Jesus to say that this great tree that grows up and gathers together birds under its shade would have been a way to say that God’s Kingdom will be a kingdom that includes both Jews and Gentiles, all nations. This would have been surprising for most contemporary Jews of Jesus’ day to understand. They hated Gentiles and Gentiles hated them. But, in God’s Kingdom, ethnic and religious enemies are made into brothers—Jesus welcomes the outsider in.
Secondly, we see the surprising nature of the kingdom by the description of the tiny seed. It is from the smallest of seeds that the massive mustard tree grows. When holding the small granular seed in your hand it is difficult to see how it will somehow transform into a whole tree, but so it will. And this is precisely what the kingdom of God is like. It comes in a humble, unassuming manner. A baby born in a manger. A carpenter with no formal training. A teacher opposed by the elites. A Messiah nailed to a cross. A group of twelve doubting disciples. This is how the kingdom of God comes into the world. If you were inventing a religion, you would likely try to stack the deck a little more in your favor from the get go. But God’s Kingdom doesn’t come the way our kingdoms do. And friends, the simple truth is that this humble mustard seed that was planted 2,000 years ago has now grown into a massive, hulking, noble cedar. Christianity has spread its roots and branches into every continent on the planet, and to nearly every country. The Bible has been translated into nearly 700 languages and missionaries have gone into thousands upon thousands of people groups.
Morning and evening, sow the seed,
God’s grace the effort shall succeed.
France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 215). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.
Michael Boland, “Introduction” in John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence(Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1678/2002), 11.