PARABLES AND POWERS Mark 4–5
“With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand” (Mark 4:33).We may not completely understand the word pictures Jesus gives in these chapters of His kingdom. But there is no mistaking the power He exercises over every natural and supernatural force!
The word translated “parable” is rooted in the Old Testament concept of a “riddle.” There the riddle or parable may be any word play: a brief saying, a vivid image, a longer story. Each kind of “riddle” is intended both to display and to some extent hide information. In each, the hearer is expected to puzzle out the speaker’s meaning. There are many indications that the Hebrew people took great delight in riddles and parables, and enjoyed both telling and solving them. Yet in this passage Jesus had a deeper purpose in mind than to focus active and attentive listening. Jesus intended His parables to reveal secrets (Gk. musterion, “mysteries”) about the kingdom which those “outside,” who have refused to acknowledge Him as God’s Son, will be unable to understand (4:11). He will not allow hardened individuals who have examined Christ’s claims and come to the considered opinion that He is mad or in league with Satan to understand what God intends (v. 12). What a reminder for us. The very first and essential issue we face when we come to Scripture is, What is our view of Jesus Christ? Our whole understanding of God’s Word, as well as our salvation, hinges on how we answer that question. If we accept Him for who He is, God’s Son and our Saviour, the Word of God will gradually be opened to us, and produce fruit in our lives.
The lengthy Parable of the Sower (4:1–9) was explained by Jesus (vv. 10–20), who went on to give other images of His kingdom (vv. 21–34). The divine power that will cause Jesus’ kingdom to flower on earth was revealed, as Christ calmed a storm (vv. 35–41), cast out demons (5:1–20), healed (vv. 21–34), and even raised a dead child to life (vv. 35–43).
Understanding the Text
“A farmer went out to sow his seed” Mark 4:1–9. The first parable Jesus told is familiar, perhaps because He later interpreted it so that we understand its meaning. What the farmer sowed, scattering in carefully measured casts, was the Word of God. Even though some fell on ground in which it could not grow, the Word was sure to produce a crop. Today over 1,500 radio stations, hundreds of local TV stations, and thousands of churches in the United States scatter God’s Word to our population. Yet I’ve recently been impressed on how ineffective we are as communicators. My wife teaches 11th grade American Literature here in Florida. Many of our early American writers, steeped in the Puritan tradition, made allusions to the Bible in their poetry and stories. What Sue finds is that even in her honors classes, most teens are totally ignorant of the Bible. They read Huck Finn, but have no idea what Twain is referring to when he mentions “Moses and the Bullrushers.” They have never heard of the Flood, and one teen expressed awed wonder as Sue explained the Virgin Birth, saying, “Did that really happen?” The image Jesus used was that of a farmer, walking in his own field, rather than that of a king or emperor sitting in his palace and writing out decrees. What’s the difference? The farmer owned only a small field, but worked it carefully. He himself walked where he scattered his seed. If communication of God’s Word is to be effective, we need to scatter the Good News where we ourselves walk. For all their apparent power, Christian radio and TV fail to place the seed where it must be if it is to grow and produce fruit. “Some people are like seed along the path” Mark 4:10–20. In this parable the “seed” has a dual meaning. It is about both the word sown, and the soil on which the seed fell. The parable suggests that we each have two responsibilities. We are to sow the word as we walk in our own fields. And we are to prepare our own hearts, so that when we hear the Word, it will grow and produce a crop in our lives. “Don’t you put it on its stand?” Mark 4:21–23 One of the most fascinating features of parables is that the same parable may be used to make different points in different contexts. In Mark 4 the riddle of the lamp on a stand has a different intent than in Matthew 5. Here Jesus speaks of “the” lamp, not, as the NIV, “a” lamp. In Mark the reference is to Christ Himself. Though at the moment His true identity was hidden, God would surely disclose it, for His identity is “meant to be brought out into the open.” How was Christ’s true identity, concealed during His life on earth, brought into the open? Paul said in Romans 1:4 that Jesus was “declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead.” There is no question now about who Jesus is. “Consider carefully what you hear” Mark 4:24–25. This is a basic principle of the spiritual life. We must appropriate what we learn, and use it. The more we apply truth the better able we are to understand and apply more. On the other hand, if we fail to apply what we learn, we soon lose it and the capacity to learn more. There’s a saying that sums up this teaching most effectively. Use it. Or lose it. “The seed sprouts and grows” Mark 4:26–29. Christ’s present kingdom has two dimensions: the human, and the divine. The Parable of the Sower emphasized each by speaking both of the ability of the Word to produce a crop and of the hearer as soil. Divine/human cooperation produced an abundant crop. In verses 24–25 Jesus emphasized the importance of considering carefully what we hear. As we respond to His Word, more truth will be given to us. In this saying, it almost seems that spiritual growth is our responsibility alone. But here, in the next verses, Jesus looked at the supernatural element, and drew an analogy. A farmer sows seed, it takes root, and somehow “all by itself,” the seed sprouts and grows. Miraculously, the soil produces a crop. Does the farmer understand the process, or control it? Not at all. He simply plants the seed and observes as the transformation takes place. In the same way, the Word of God taken into our lives “sprouts and grows, though [we do] not know how.” In some mysterious, supernatural way “all by itself the soil produces grain.” We can’t explain how God works in our lives. We can’t even observe the process of transformation, though we will surely see its results. What we can and do know, however, is that God is at work in us as we welcome His transforming Word. “It is like a mustard seed” Mark 4:30–32. The mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds, but was the smallest seed then planted in the Middle East (v. 31). The Jewish people, eager for the Messiah to come and save them from Roman domination, expected Him to appear in great power and immediate glory. Instead the Christ came as a simple Man of Galilee and, rather than assemble armies, taught and healed the sick. This was insignificant in many an eye. But while the origin of Jesus’ kingdom might seem small, the kingdom is destined to dominate, even as this “largest of all garden plants” ultimately dominates the garden in which it is planted. One day Christ will come, and His kingdom will fill the whole earth. “Many similar parables” Mark 4:33–34. There is a pattern in these parables. In speaking of His kingdom Jesus focused first on the present work of God within the believer, and concluded by speaking of a future, obvious work of God in the world. For now, the kingdom’s Word is sown, and produces fruit—very personal, subjective fruit. Yet kingdom power was openly displayed in Jesus’ resurrection (vv. 1–23). For now, the kingdom’s Word is heeded only by believers. Yet the kingdom is destined to dominate all when Christ returns (vv. 24–34). The greatest present evidence of Christ’s royal authority is found in the lives of men and women who have heard and who respond to God’s Word. What a privilege today, to be living proof that Jesus lives; living testimony to the fact that soon He will return. “A furious squall came up” Mark 4:35–41. We now come to a series of reports of miracles that Jesus performed. Why does Mark place these here, rather than somewhere else? Because Jesus had been speaking about God’s hidden kingdom work in the lives of His people. While a transformed life is certainly evidence of God’s work among us, it is not objective evidence. It is not the kind of clear, visible proof that so many seemed to require. So, in a series of miracle stories, Mark demonstrated to each reader the ultimate power that Jesus possesses. How wise we are to trust an all-powerful Jesus, even if His present work is experienced subjectively in human lives. And what of this first miracle? It shows Jesus’ authority over nature. Christ can stop the winds and still the waves with a word. Even natural laws, to which we humans must adjust, are subject to Jesus’ will. “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Mark 5:6–20 There are many helpful thoughts to develop from this passage. We might focus on the plight of the possessed man (vv. 1–5, see DEVOTIONAL). We might note the reaction of the people, who valued their pigs more than the tormented man’s sanity (vv. 11–17). We might notice the witness of a man who had personal experience of Christ’s power to change lives (vv. 19–20). Yet the main point of the story here is to affirm Jesus’ power over all supernatural forces that are ranged against humankind. As we commit ourselves to live as citizens of His kingdom, we can be confident of His protection. “Power had gone out from Him” Mark 5:21–34. As Jesus was on the way to the home of a dying girl, He was touched by a woman with chronic bleeding. The search for a cure had cost her all she had, and drained her of hope. But when she heard about Jesus, she became convinced that if she could only touch His clothing she would be healed. And she was. Again Mark selected a particular miracle to drive home his point. Christ, Ruler of the secret kingdom of God, has power over nature, over demonic powers, and over every illness. Knowing Jesus has such power gives us confidence to live by His Word, even if He should not choose to heal every believers’ disease now. “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” Mark 5:35–43 The final miracle demonstrated Christ’s power over death itself. In a quiet display of His ultimate authority in the privacy of an inside room, Christ raised a dead girl to life again. Even man’s greatest enemy must bow to the power of Jesus Christ. In reporting these miracles, Mark did not intend us to expect repeats today. The present kingdom of God has a “secret,” inner expression. One day, when Jesus comes again, all these powers will be openly displayed. Then, suffering and death will be no more. Until then, we live by faith in a King who can but who has chosen not to display His power openly. And yet faith has its rewards even now. In the fruit God’s Word produces in us, the kingdom of Jesus flourishes today.
It Goes with the Territory (Mark 5:1–20)
When Richard Rameirez, the Satan-worshiping “Night Stalker,” and killer of at least 13 persons, was led away after hearing the jury’s “guilty” verdict, he remarked, “Big deal. It goes with the territory.” That’s what we note in the first five verses of Mark 5. Here is a demon-possessed man, living among the tombs and wandering the hills, night and day crying out and cutting himself with stones. Here is a tormented man, without friends and without hope. And Mark wants us to understand that this too “goes with the territory.” Anyone in Satan’s grip is sure not only to hurt others, but to suffer himself! But then Jesus appeared, and released the demon-possessed man from his supernatural tormentors. And suddenly we find him, well again, clothed, and in his right mind (v. 15). What a contrast! And what a change, as the man returned to his home, joyously telling everyone how much the Lord had done for him. Perhaps this is our key to understanding the real power of Jesus’ present kingdom. God is doing something more important than marshalling armies, rebuilding a temple, and establishing His authority openly on this earth. He is working in the hearts and lives of those wandering in darkness, and releasing them from every torment that “goes with the territory” Satan controls. For you and me, citizens of Jesus’ kingdom who have sworn allegiance to Him, there is the experience of the grace of God that frees us to love others, and to serve a Lord who is committed to do us good.
Look for evidence of God’s kingdom within your life and the lives of others.
“And if thou be not in the kingdom of Christ, it is certain that thou belongest to the kingdom of Satan, which is this evil world.”—Martin Luther