The Mystery of the Growing Seed

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He also said, “the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation.” You can’t point to it and say, “here it is” or “there it is.” In the gospel of Mark, Jesus explained what the kingdom of God is like by comparing it to a growing seed.

The Parable of the Growing Seed.

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. 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.

Mark 4:26-29

The parable of the growing seed is found only in the gospel of Mark. It follows the parable of the soils, the one in which a farmer sows seed by scattering it on the ground. As in the parable of the soils, the seed represents the word of God.

Who sows the seed? Those who teach, preach, and otherwise share the word of God with others. The apostle Paul said that those who believe are assigned a task by God. Some plant the seed, some water it. Neither the one who sows the seed nor the one who waters it has a role in making the seed grow. The one who sows does not even know whether the seed will take root.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

1 Corinthians 3:5-7

The parable of the sower hints at the mysterious ways God works in the hearts of those who hear his word. The sower does not cause the seed to grow. The one who waters does not make the seed grow. Only God can make the seed grow. Only God can change hearts.

The word of God contains everything a person needs for eternal life. But sometimes the word falls on deaf ears. Oftentimes the distractions and temptations of the world keep the seed from taking root. As a sower of the seed, I don’t know what words will get through to a person who has hardened his or her heart to God. Fortunately, God does.

God does not waste his words. His word will not return to Him empty. His word will achieve the purpose for which he sent it.

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11

This parable gives me hope for unsaved loved ones. It gives me hope for a world that is hungry for the Good News. The kingdom of God is near. God is actively working to build his kingdom. No matter what we do, the seed sprouts and grows. We can trust that God will accomplish what he desires at the right time.

In the parable, I see myself as a sower of the seed, trusting that God will make his word grow. But I also see myself in the parable as one who heard the word and believed. Like a sunflower that turns its face towards the sun, I am drawn to God, the giver of life. The kingdom of God is within me.

You, God, are my God,
    earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1

Praise the Lord, O my soul, all my inmost being praise his holy name!

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

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The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

Since reading a book that contrasted the kingdoms of the world with the kingdom of God, I have been reflecting on what Jesus said about God’s kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? I believe that it is a real kingdom that will be established when Jesus returns and that those of us who follow him are to prepare for it now by following his example. What is the kingdom like? Jesus used parables to answer this question, including the Parable of the Mustard Seed. I heard this parable when I was child and I remember being shown how tiny a mustard seed is. The message seemed very simple – great things start out very small. But is that all Jesus was saying?

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.

Mark 4:11

Jesus told seven parables about the kingdom of God. A parable is a story or statement that conveys a message indirectly by comparing something to something else. Jesus used parables because he knew that many people were too hardhearted to understand his message. The parable comparing the kingdom of God to the mustard seed is found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13. Below is the NIV version from Luke.

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?  It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

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When I read the parable of the mustard seed today, especially considering the parable of the yeast that follows it, Jesus seems to be saying that God’s rule in human hearts will start very small and grow or expand exponentially. This seems like a very positive message.

When I searched for commentary on the parable, I found a couple of people who see a deeper meaning and a hidden warning. In explaining what he calls the parable of the growth of the mustard seed, David Legge made a few points about the parable that I had not noticed. One, he said it is important to consider the context of the parable, the timing of Christ’s message. At that time, the teachers of the law were indignant because Jesus healed on the Sabbath; they accused him of being possessed. The Pharisees were plotting with the Herodians on how they might kill Jesus. Even his own family thought Jesus was out of his mind.

In an environment that was hostile to his message, Jesus told the parable of the sower (Mark 4). As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 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. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.

The theme of the parable of the soils is that God’s word will be ignored and rejected. And just as birds came and ate seeds from the path, Satan will come and take away the word from many who hear it. Very few people will hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop.

Keeping this context in mind, Legge made a second point. Mustard seeds grow into bushes not into a tree as in the parable. Some mustard plants could grow into a 12 to 15 foot tree but that would be unnatural, abnormal, unhealthy growth.

Legge then made a third point about something in the parable that never seemed significant to me. He said we have to account for the birds in the branches. In an earlier sermon on parables, Legge said that a parable is not an allegory and that every symbol does not necessarily have to stand for something. But in the parable of the mustard seed, he sees the birds as symbolic because birds were also mentioned in the parable of the sower. Legge suggests that the mustard tree represents “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.”

I looked at the birds in the parable as God’s creatures who find shelter in a great tree. But Legge points out that birds are natural enemies of the sower. In the context of the parables of the sower and the mustard seed, birds could represent false teachers who keep the message of the kingdom of God from taking root. Legge concludes that from small beginnings, the kingdom of God would succeed, in worldly terms, by growing unhealthily and abnormally “to an empire in which its enemies could even shelter and nest.”

This interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed is certainly intriguing. Richard T. Ritenbaugh makes a similar argument in his sermon on the parables of Matthew 13. He notes that a seed is the means by which a plant grows and that “it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that the Kingdom of God grows by means of the Kingdom of God.” In other words, the mustard seed represents an agent of the kingdom of God and not the kingdom itself. The mustard seed represents the church, the few people who are chosen to spread the Good News.

Ritenbaugh continues by repeating Legge’s point about the unnatural growth of the mustard seed in the parable. Something happens to make the mustard plant grow beyond its natural limit. Then the birds of the air, which symbolize demons, find a home in the tree. Ritenbaugh suggests reading Daniel 4:19-27. It tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about an enormous tree. Wild animals found shelter under it and birds lived in it branches. He also saw a messenger from heaven who said, “Cut down the tree and trim off its branches…” Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that he was that tree. God humbled Nebuchadnezzar to force him to acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

This not only shows the rise of the great false church, but it shows the tendency of the church, at all times, to become large, great, and worldly.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh

I am on the fence about whether to believe these interpretations of the parable of the mustard seed. I still see the parable as an encouraging word from Jesus. First and foremost, the purpose of the parable was to explain what the kingdom of God is like, not the church. The parable of the yeast that immediately follows in both Matthew and Luke has no hidden meaning. The kingdom of God will grow exponentially from small beginnings. Finally, I think that Jesus was quite explicit when he warned people about false prophets. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you ahead of time.

Regardless of whether Legge and Ritenbaugh are correct about the meaning of the parable of the mustard seed, I give them credit for making an important point about the unhealthy growth of the church. When churches promote false teachings like the prosperity gospel, when they are more concerned about entertaining people and making money than about souls, when they become too worldly, Satan has made a home in the branches.

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Keys to the Kingdom

Reading The Myth of a Christian Nation (Gregory Boyd) affirmed my belief that Christians should not put their hope in politics because politics tends to corrupt religion. What I really loved about Boyd’s book though is that he reminded me that the hope of the world lies in a kingdom that is not of this world. So I am taking a deeper dive into scripture to remind myself of all the things Jesus said about the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim the good news of this kingdom and he promised to give us the keys!

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 16:19

The kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven were mentioned frequently in the New Testament, 68 times and 32 times, respectively. Mark and Luke used the phrase “kingdom of God,” while Matthew wrote exclusively of the “kingdom of heaven.” Some people think that the terms have different meanings. Got Questions Ministries notes that Jesus used the phrases interchangeably and both phrases were used in parallel accounts of the same parables.

I searched the gospels and made a list of seven keys to the kingdom.

  1. You must be born again.
  2. Repent and believe the good news.
  3. Receive the kingdom of God like a little child.
  4. Understand your spiritual poverty.
  5. Do not pretend to be righteous.
  6. Practice what you preach.
  7. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

1. You must be born again.

When Jesus said you must be born again, Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was saying. Nicodemus was thinking in anatomical terms and Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms. Flesh gives birth to flesh and the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3 and 5)

2. Repent and believe the good news.

The dictionary defines repent as “to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” True repentance is more than just remorse. It means completely turning away from your sin and surrendering your life to God.

Although being born again means believing in Jesus and surrendering your life to him, believers must continue to confess their sins and repent because even those who are born again struggle with sin. We may even struggle with unbelief.

The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15)

3. Receive the kingdom of God like a little child.

Little children are innocent. They have not yet been conformed to “the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). The world places too much value on money, possessions, power and social status. Children have none of these things. They have not yet become jaded and cynical. Because children are powerless, they are more trusting. They are more humble because they have not yet convinced themselves that they have all the answers.

Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15)

4. Understand your spiritual poverty.

The first of the ten Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount is blessed are the poor in spirit. Billy Graham said that if you want to understand what this means, substitute the word humble for the word poor. When we approach God with a humble spirit, we understand our true spiritual poverty. We see how much we need God.

Jesus also warned that wealth makes it nearly impossible to enter the kingdom of God. It is not that there is anything inherently sinful about financial success or wealth. The rich are more likely to become overly proud and self-satisfied. Solomon said, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” Wealth can easily become an idol. You cannot serve both God and money.

Of course, those who are actually poor may be tempted to envy those who are rich. No matter how much material wealth you have, it is important to store your treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (James 2:5)

5. Do not merely pretend to be righteous.

Jesus called out hypocrites for the impostors they are (Matthew 23). God sees our hearts and is not impressed with outward displays of piety. On the inside, hypocrites are unclean. On the inside they are full of greed, self-indulgence, wickedness. “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, pay attention to your heart. Pay attention to the words of your mouth. Focus on your own sin and stop worrying about everyone else’s. Clean the inside of the cup and dish.

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31)

6. Practice what you preach.

When asked to name the greatest commandment of the Law, Jesus said, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second greatest command, he said, is “love your neighbor as yourself.” Nevertheless, Jesus said that we should not set aside any one of the least of the commandments because if we do, we will be least in the kingdom of heaven. We should take sin seriously and do whatever we can to not stumble or to cause anyone else to sin.

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. (Mark 9:47)

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:22)

7. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness

I thought about putting this one at the beginning of my list because Jesus said “seek first his kingdom” and how can you find the kingdom of God unless you seek it? Like repentance, seeking God and his righteousness does not stop when you become a Christian. I seek God because I understand my spiritual poverty. I know that I do not always practice what I preach.

Many people are too busy worrying about day-to-day life to seek God’s kingdom. Jesus said we should not worry about the things we need for life, like food and clothing. Life is about more than food; we are not just physical beings. Make seeking God and his righteousness your first priority and he will take care of everything else.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

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I find it hard to even define the kingdom of God. Got Questions says “broadly speaking, the kingdom of God is the rule of an eternal, sovereign God over all the universe…More narrowly, the kingdom of God is a spiritual rule over the hearts and lives of those who willingly submit to God’s authority.”

Gregory Boyd says that “in seeing the kingdom, people see what God is like.” Simply stated, the kingdom of God looks like Jesus. So if we want to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, look to the example of Jesus.

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Photo by Jason D on Unsplash

A Mess of Contradictions

My small group finally watched lesson 10 of The Truth Project, The American Experiment: Stepping Stones. In this lesson, Del Tackett claimed that Christians used biblical principles as the foundation for America’s republic and that believers today must carry on that experiment if America is to survive and succeed. I knew before watching the video that I disagree with Del Tackett’s claim that God has a divine design for government. I believe that in trying to “take America back for God” through political means, Christians have done great harm to Christianity and evangelism. Nevertheless, watching the lesson motivated me to dig deeper into God’s truths.

Religion and Morality

The video for Lesson 10 began with Dr. Tackett speaking outside the normal classroom setting. He said there were going to be three ground rules for the lesson: he would not seek to deify America, he would not try to deify the Founding Fathers, and he would not cast blame on non-Christians.

Tackett began by discussing the role that religion once played in childhood education and in well-respected higher educational institutions like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton. He quoted Gouverneur Morris, a contributing author of the Constitution, who said that “religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man toward God.” He quoted Noah Webster: “In my view, the Christian Religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed…no truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian Religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privilege of a free people.”

Before he spoke at length about the founding fathers, Tackett described how his own understanding of the nation’s religious and moral foundations evolved when he went to Washington, D.C. to work in the George H. W. Bush administration. He observed that there were many religious murals in the Capital rotunda. He found himself reflecting on Revelation 2:5. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

He said that he watched a reenactment of George Washington’s Farewell Address and it was then that he understood that as a child, he had been lied to about the nation’s religious history.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

George Washington

Tackett then presented quotes about religion and morality from several founding fathers or influential thinkers including John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Samuel Adams, Charles Carroll, and Patrick Henry. Several expressed the view that religion and morality are the foundation for an enduring republic and that liberty is not possible without morality.

the only foundation for…a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.

Benjamin Rush

In his blog about The American Experiment, Elliot Ritzema notes that “Christianity was not the only influence in the founding of the United States, but one of many…” While Tackett demonstrated that many of the founding fathers believed that religion and morality were important for preserving liberty, he did not prove that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical principles.

In an ideal world, government would be based on a sound moral principles and all government officials would be virtuous. In reality, even our greatest heroes had feet of clay. I admire John Adams, but he was proud, hot-tempered, and envious of his peers. I admire Thomas Jefferson’s views on liberty and equality and yet he owned slaves and was very self-indulgent.

If we are to learn anything from history, it is imperative that Christians be truthful about our messy and contradictory history.

Idolatry

Can patriotism become idolatry? Patriotism is not a bad thing. We should be grateful for the blessings of liberty. But when patriotism combines with political ideology, it often supplants the gospel.

When this happens, debates begin to rage about caring for the poor, the sick and the immigrant, debates which would be incomprehensible in any other era of the Church. When patriotism becomes an idol, the poor can become our enemies, the alien among us can become someone to be feared and the outcast can become someone we actively seek to marginalize. When patriotism becomes an idol, the “other” whom we despise is the least of these.

Zach Hunt, Relevant Magazine

Tackett pointedly said he would not deify America or the founding fathers. When he exalted America’s founding fathers for being religious and moral based on a few selected people and a few selective quotes, he engaged in the same sort of historical revisionism that he often complains about. He presented a glorified, false image.

Without providing any examples, Tackett said that there is a deep hatred of America in liberal educational institutions and that it is now in vogue to hate America. In his blog post, Elliot Ritzema quoted Tackett as he explained why he thinks there is a rise in hatred for America:

Darkness doesn’t overtake light; light overtakes darkness. Why this rise of hatred for America? Why is this historic revisionism going on? If the enemy can destroy the Christian’s passion for America, then he has won the major battle for the soul of this nation. If you do not have a heart for her, if you don’t have a passion for her, you can learn all you want about Christian worldview… but you won’t do diddly doo for her… If Jesus removes the lampstand, we will become a dark nation like many who have fallen before us.

Del Tackett

Think about these words. If the enemy can destroy the Christian’s passion for America, then he has won the major battle for the soul of this nation. I would argue that if Satan can deceive people, especially Christians, about the true purpose and meaning of Christianity, he has won a major battle for our souls. If he can convince Christians to use the power of the sword instead of the power of the cross, he has won a major battle for our souls. If he can take Christ out of Christianity, he has won a major battle for our souls.

In equating America to the Church in Revelations 2:5, Tackett idolizes America. While America has done many good things to help other nations, in comparing her to a light on the hill (Matthew 5:14-16), he exalts a nation that is far from righteous. Pew Research reports that only 39% of Americans are highly religious, and a small fraction of those attend church regularly or read the Bible.

Tackett also broke his own rule about casting blame on non-believers, blaming liberal educational institutions for somehow spreading hatred of America and blaming both Charles Darwin and Christopher Langdell, a Dean of Harvard Law School, for the evolution of law school teaching to a case study approach. In suggesting that anyone who criticizes America hates her, Tackett implied that America is above all criticism. This too is idolatrous.

Grief and Hope

According to Tackett, the founding fathers implemented an experimental form of government based on religion, specifically Christianity. Tackett grieves for America. “America has largely forgotten God and denied the validity of her biblically based Christian roots.” Tackett asked believers to consider how far we have fallen as a nation and to take deliberate steps to salvage it. Yes, do consider how far we have fallen. American Christians who believe that government’s role is to enforce morality overwhelmingly chose a godless, amoral man to lead this nation.

I also grieve for America but not in the same way as Tackett. I grieve not for the soul of the nation but for the souls of Americans and for Christians who have been led astray by false teachings. I grieve for those who come here thinking this country is a beacon of light only to have the door slammed shut in their faces. I grieve for Americans who will never hear the Good News because Christians have made Christianity so unappealing. I grieve because this nation is a mess of contradictions.

What did I get out of this lesson? The desire to seek a different kind of kingdom, where the King of kings and Lord of lords has the power to change people from the inside out. He will proclaim justice to the nations. In his name, the nations will put their hope. In his name, I put my hope.

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
  In his name the nations will put their hope.

Matthew 12:18-21