Kingdom Mysteries

Jesus taught several parables about God’s kingdom, its unexpected ways of expansion, and its status in the world

The gospel of Mark provides only a few examples of the many parables taught by Jesus, his primary method of teaching (“Apart from a parable he did not speak to the crowds”). In them, the dominant theme is the kingdom of God that commenced in Christ’s ministry and has been advancing ever since as the church proclaims the gospel on the earth.

Several of his parables tell the spiritually attuned disciple basic details about the kingdom. What it is, how it is established in the world, and the part his disciples play in the process. And the “kingdom of God” is the very heart of the “good news” announced by the “Son of Man.”

With the advent of the Messiah of Israel, the reign of God began to invade the earth, pushing back the forces of Satan that enslave humanity. And it will continue its relentless advance until its consummation when Jesus “arrives” in all his glory to gather his “elect” to himself.

Wheat Harvest - Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash
[Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash]

But his parables both reveal and mystify, depending on the openness of the hearer and his willingness to undergo whatever is required to become a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ taught the Jewish people in parables, but only as they were “able to hear.” That aspect stresses the responsibility of the listener to hear and heed his words. Those who have “ears to hear” acquire insight into his parables, and in Mark, he gives explicit explanations of his parables “privately, to his disciples.”

THE LAMPSTAND


The first one is a single parable comprised of two stories linked by the repeated clause - “he was saying to them.” Taught together, they highlight aspects of the Parable of the Sower and explain why Jesus teaches in parables - (Mark 4:21-25).

The typical first-century lamp was an oil vessel with a floating wick. Many things could be used as “lampstands” to better illuminate a room, including something as simple as an overturned basket.

The “measure” translates the Greek term modios (Strong’s - #G3426). It is a transliteration of the Latin word modius, the Roman grain measure of approximately eight quarts or one peck.

But the size and shape of the lampstand are irrelevant. Whether one conceals a lamp under a bushel basket or a couch, the point is the same. No one would do such a thing. To hide a lit lamp makes no sense.

Moreover, his question expects a positive answer and provides a clue to the parable’s meaning (“A lamp is not brought to be put under a measure, is it, or under a bed?”). Light is provided so those who enter a house are not left in darkness. Light reveals what is hidden in darkness.

Jesus refers to a “lamp that does not come.” The verb indicates the hypothetical lamp represents him, the light-bearer. The parable is not about judging others but concerns the man with “ears to hear.” He must listen carefully because the standard for judging is the teachings of Jesus.

The “measure” one gives to hear is the measure of what one receives. Individuals receive God’s blessing in accordance with how they receive or respond to the word when they encounter it.

GROWING IN SECRET


The next story addresses the question: How can Jesus proclaim the kingdom yet not work more actively to bring it about? The issue arose because Christ is not implementing the kingdom in the manner expected by so many - (Mark 4:26-29).

The parable is told from the perspective of a first-century farmer who does not understand how seeds germinate and grow. He only knows the harvest results after sowing seeds. After planting, the farmer does little until the time of harvest. In the interim, the seeds germinate and grow of their own accord.

Jesus likens the kingdom to something banal, not anything mighty or grand, namely, seeds. The mundane activities of planting and harvesting portray the paradox of the kingdom. Jesus sows the initial seed, an action that does not produce the spectacular results desired by many, nor results that are easily observed.

He also likens the kingdom to the process of growth. Within itself, the seed contains life-giving power. Once planted, it sets in motion the process that will culminate in a large harvest, and at the appropriate season. The farmer cannot hurry the final harvest, but it does come to those who wait patiently for it.

The inauguration of the kingdom began inauspiciously in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus. The “harvest” will come when the task of gospel proclamation is completed (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the inhabited earth, for a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” - Matthew 24:14).

THE MUSTARD SEED


The “mustard seed” is a proverbial representation of something especially small. It is approximately 1 millimeter in diameter. Later, Jesus also uses it to represent a small amount of faith - (Matthew 17:20 - “Faith as small as a mustard seed”) - (Mark 4:30-32).

The “mustard seed” is small and unimpressive to the human eye. But from it, a shrub grows that measures up to five meters in height. And his question indicates what this parable is about (“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?”).

Many of Christ’s Jewish contemporaries expect the Messiah to usher in the kingdom with powerful signs. But his ministry is small and unimpressive, though, in the end, it will become the full kingdom of God and fill the entire earth.

Mighty Tree - Photo by niko photos on Unsplash
[Photo by niko photos on Unsplash]

The description, the “
birds of the air,” refers to ritually impure birds like ravens and hawks. The kingdom attracts individuals considered “unclean” outsiders by religious insiders.  The reference anticipates the future opening of the gospel to the Gentiles - (Psalm 104:12, Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6, Daniel 4:9-21).

WITH MANY PARABLES


The version of the parable in Matthew adds a quotation from the Psalms (“All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet”). It is through his parables that he reveals the “mysteries of the kingdom” – (Psalm 78:2, Mark 4:33-34).

He teaches in parables but only as they “are able to hear.” This stresses the responsibility of the listener to heed his words. Only those “with ears to hear” are willing to hearken to his teachings despite popular beliefs and expectations.

A key lesson is that the “kingdom of God” does not come in obvious or expected ways. Additionally, it has been progressing in the world ever since the ministry of Jesus began in the backwater region of Galilee.

The kingdom advances in the world, largely unseen, whenever the “seed” is sown. As the gospel is proclaimed, hostile “territory” is conquered and citizens are added to the kingdom. This process will continue until its consummation at the end of the age when God’s sovereign rule is fully established, and He has subjugated all the enemies of His Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.



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