What Jesus Really Said–Of Lamps and Seeds

Young blond man reading the Bible with bright green background


Mark 4:21-29

21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

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.” 1

This summer, we’re spending time examining Jesus’ parables. A “parable” is a brief story of comparison. It sets one thing alongside another (παραβολή). Generally speaking, parables are not allegories. Every character and event in an allegory has a higher meaning. Not so with Jesus’ parables.

Some parables are as short as a sentence; some are rather long stories (about 27 in the four Gospel accounts).2 Last week we re-examined the parable of the Sower, the first and one of the longest parables in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In it, we saw how Jesus distinguished Right-handed Power (direct, take the bull by the horns) and Left-handed Power (indirect, less obvious, like a seed).

Left-handed Power is completely upside down from the way humans think and work.  Jesus’ entire life was an example of Left-handed Power. An allegedly-illegitimate and uneducated day-laborer from a tiny village of a backwater country of the mighty Roman Empire claimed to be both God and THE King of Everyone Everywhere. After three years, he is executed as a criminal after his few remaining followers have deserted him. He rises out of the grave and shows himself to only a few hundred followers, then disappears with a promise to return at some unspecified time. Indirect, unexpected, left-handed power is at work.

The context of Jesus’ parables is his inauguration of God’s kingdom.  Jesus is announcing how all of the Old Testament typology is being fulfilled in the reality of the Christ and his kingdom.  Christ is the Prophet, the Priest, and the King. He is the sacrifice—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In fact, he IS the real Temple, because he personally forgives sins without animal sacrifice; he is the meeting place between man and God; he is the once-for-all sacrificial Lamb!3

We will be examining the parables by grouping them into three broad categories: kingdom parables; grace parables; and, judgment parables.4 As their name suggests, kingdom parables are Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God as a present, earthly reality. In effect, Jesus is saying, “The Kingdom of God is here; deal with it!” Grace parables are Jesus’ teachings on God’s gracious character fully displayed in the gospel message.  Judgement parables, by contrast, are the means by which Jesus warns the teachers of Israel over their misuse of the law and their refusal to trust into him as the Promised Seed/Messiah. “The right-handed power of judgement is coming. Prepare for it!”

The Parable of the Sower we looked at last week, and the two brief parables were looking at this morning, are kingdom parables.  In Mark’s gospel, the Parable of the Lamp and the Parable of the Seed follow directly after Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower.  The Sower parable taught us about the kingdom’s universality, spiritual/mysterious/Left-handed nature, actual presence, and the hostility of the listeners.  Since Mark groups these three kingdom parables together,5 it’s helpful for us to consider the parables of the lamp and the seed with those same teachings of universality, mystery, presence, and hostility.

PARABLE OF THE LAMP (4:21-25)

In the Parable of the Lamp Jesus asks, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?” [ESV] But the Greek text uses a definite article: THE lamp. Matthew and Luke both use the indefinite article, “a lamp,” which is most likely why English translators ignore the “the” in Mark.

But, as one commentator notes, “There is only one proper way to translate what is in the original Greek: ‘Does the lamp come in order to be put under a basket or under a bed?’6 Jesus was not talking about just any lamp. In the bible, God and his holy law are referred to as the lamp (Ps. 119:105; 2 Pt. 1:19).

A better translation of the verse is” “Does the lamp come for the purpose of being placed under the measure or under the couch? Does it not come for the purpose of being placed on the lampstand?” Interestingly, the Lamp “comes;” it is not brought. It arrives of its own power. 7

Jesus is the lamp. His parable promises his disciples that they will “get” the parables because they have THE lamp, because THEY have Jesus while the leaders of Israel have rejected this utterly left-handed Messiah. So John wrote in his gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it [or “overcome it”]” (John 1:5).

“Here in Mark, Jesus said, in essence: ‘It is impossible to quench this light. Nothing that is in secret now will stay in secrecy. Everything that is hidden, everything that is concealed, will be revealed.’”8 But Jesus “cannot be recognized as the Light he is except on the lampstand of a properly paradoxical, left-handed interpretation of his person and work.”9 Put the left-handed lamp on a right-handed of stand direct, take-the-bull-by-the-horns worldly power and you might as well have covered it with a measuring basket or set it underneath the couch.

Jesus insists that his kingdom WILL be made known. The kingdom, like the Word sown (in the Parable of the Sower) is in the works and will settle for nothing less than being seen in all its power and glory. We are not awaiting the power of the kingdom; the power is already here and will inevitably have its perfect and utterly triumphant work.10

The problem is NOT that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t powerful enough. The problem is that we don’t understand the power. It is a power displayed in persecution, martyrdom, poverty, weakness and all other kinds of un-powerful-looking, un-American-looking circumstances. The most powerful event the universe has ever seen looked to all the world like the execution of just one more run-of-the-mill criminal on a garbage heap outside Jerusalem.

The power of the kingdom of Jesus, the Word, is utterly upside down from the power of a successful business model. It’s not “get them before they get you” power. It’s not “get my money’s worth” power. It’s not “how to succeed in business” power. The theology of the cross is not remotely feasible in any realm of politics. It’s not “boycott this company” power. It’s not “write your congressman” power.

When we begin to understand and accept the left-handed Lamp on the left-handed lampstand, we receive more of Jesus. When we reject that upside-down power, we lose. So, Jesus says here in vv. 24-25, “24 …Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure [basket] you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.11

“There’s a play on words here. The basket Jesus spoke about was a basket that was used for measurement. So it is as if Jesus was saying that the same size basket we put over the lamp will be put over us.”12 If we cover Jesus with right-handed expectations, as his own disciples did before the cross, we will miss his glorious Light.

To the extent we miss the left-handed Lamp on its left-handed lampstand, we are angry and dissatisfied and bitter over all the world’s injustices and all the real or perceived offenses against us. We are more and more law-driven, with less and less gospel sanity.

Jesus’ parable about the Lamp here in Mark wraps up his parable of the Sower and forms a prologue to the first of his explicit parables of the kingdom – the parable of the Growing Seed.

THE GROWNING SEED (4:26-29)

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.13 This is Jesus’ first explicit mention of his kingdom in parabolic form. Though it uses the same imagery of seed and sower, it has some remarkable differences from the parable of the Sower we saw last week.

First, the kingdom is presented as the thing sown. It’s not the result of planting something different, so that it comes about by another means or another power. The kingdom is present in all its power right from the moment the sower (the Triune God) begins to sow it. Further, the kingdom is not simply an otherworldly entity; it is sown on the ground, in THIS world, “squarely in the midst of every human and even earthly condition.”14

Maybe because Matthew frequently uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” we tend to think of Jesus as describing a kingdom that isn’t really earthly. But remember that Genesis begins with the story of heaven and earth’s separation when the Adams’s are evicted from God’s garden presence; Revelation shows us the glorious consummation of heaven and earth fully re-joined. So, the kingdom is sown on this messy, worldly ground among messy, right-hand-oriented people.

One of the distinctions of the Old Testament is that God, unlike the pagan demon gods, is present in all his power among his people – on earth. He promises his people a divine presence and a divine intimacy. “28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ez. 36:28; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ex. 6:7).

The New Testament highlights the earthly presence of God among his people, something Luke goes to great pains to show in Acts as the Holy Spirit comes to testify to the Christ. Jesus proclaims his kingdom is at hand; it’s planted here on the ground at work on this earth. Paul wrote, “19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven… (Col. 1:19-20).15  At the end, he will make ALL things new. Even the New Jerusalem on the new earth is a statement that God’s eternal kingdom will be an earthly one.

In the NT, even the words “heaven” or “heavenly” are nothing like our worldly concepts of some unearthly, unhuman place where people dress in bedsheets, fly around with their “angel” wings, and pluck on harps. The New Jerusalem is built with earthly metals and stones. Inside people are seated at a great wedding feast eating the choicest of foods. “In short, [it is] earth wedded, not earth jilted. It is the world as the irremovable apple of God’s eye.”16

This on the ground kingdom is sown in absolute sovereignty. The kingdom is in total control of itself. As Jesus tells the story, once the planter has sown the ground he does nothing more. He minds his own business.  The farmer goes to bed at night; he gets up in the morning, eats breakfast, does some shopping, plays some checkers with his buddies, comes back home, has dinner, watches some television, and goes to sleep again.17

Day after day after day, the farmer does nothing. And the kingdom Seed does what it does; it does it in a way the farmer knows nothing about. It sprouts all on its own. It grows all on its own. It bears fruit all on its own.  Jesus says, “28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.18 The earth – all of it: good, bad, or indifferent – produces.19

Just put Christ’s kingdom into the world – not a world of spiritual giants, mind you; not a world of moral people; but a world of God-hating sinners – and Christ’s kingdom springs up as a perfect kingdom all by itself. It takes its own time, working according to its own schedule and nobody else’s. In this parable, there is no discussion of soil types. There is only the kingdom working entirely in its own mysterious power according to its own good time.20

As one commentator writes, “The stress in the parable thus falls upon the sowing of the seed as a messianic work which unleashes mysterious forces which operate of themselves in the achievement of the sovereign purposes of God.”21 “These expressions exhibit aspects of the mysterious manifestation of the Kingdom of God in history. It comes mysteriously, by God’s initiative and appointment, without human intervention.”22

There are certainly places in Jesus’ parables and in the rest of scripture that refer to the judgment of God as the harvest. But not here. Here there is no hint of wheat being separated from tares, or sheep from goats. Jesus doesn’t give you and I the resolution to the story we might want; he doesn’t tell us the bad guys get it in the end. We want the right-handed justice – and the bible surely promises it’s coming.23 But Jesus doesn’t give it here because this is parable entirely about the sufficiency of the sovereign initiative of God.24

Jesus’ subject in this parable of the Seed is the most fundamental one: HOW the kingdom grows; the means by which the City of God is built. That is much more important for us to grasp than how the divine policeman will ultimately round up the bad guys.

Christ’s kingdom grows because it has been sown by the great Triune God. It grows all on its own power and all in its own good time. Satan cannot destroy it. Gender-neutral bathrooms do not one smidge of damage to it. Democrats and Republicans cannot uproot it. Radical Islam cannot erase it.  It requires none of our moral or political defending. Yes, God makes moral and ethical demands on his people, but the kingdom does not depend upon your obedience; it does not depend upon YOU at all! It grows and produces of its own power.

As Robert Farrar Capon writes, the kingdom “grows we know not how. Any bright ideas about the subject will always and everywhere be the wrong ideas. Indeed, their wrongness will be proved simply by our having them; because if the kingdom could be proved simply by our having them; because if the kingdom could have been made to grow by bright ideas, it would have sprouted up all over the place six times a day ever since Adam. But it never did and it never will, except in a mystery that remains resolutely beyond our moralizing, score-evening comprehension.”25

I have read several applications of this Seed parable emphasizing our duty to go out and grow the kingdom by spreading the gospel (sowing seeds like the farmer). Sharing the gospel is a good thing. We pray often here for opportunities to do that. But I don’t think that Jesus intends for us to reach that application from this parable.

No, the emphasis here is on man having absolutely no clue how the seed sprouts and the plants grow: the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.26 Because he has no clue, he has no power and no say in the matter.

 The preacher of Ecclesiastes says, “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Eccl. 11:5-6). 27

Jesus’ Seed parable tells his disciples what will prosper, what is good. The kingdom WILL prosper. Your nation may not prosper. Your health may not prosper. Your family may not prosper. But if you are trusting into the perfect, law-keeping life and blood-shedding sacrificial death of Jesus, then you are part of an unshakable, ever-prospering, eternal kingdom!

The Promised Seed, Jesus, IS building his unshakable kingdom. Jesus promises, “…I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).28

 

1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 4:21–29.

2 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 230.

3 Horton, Michael. The Parables of Jesus, Part 1. White Horse Inn Discussion Questions. Oct. 10, 2010.

4 Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. Eerdmans, 2002. Pp. v-ix.

5 Id., 76.

6 R. C. Sproul, Mark, First Edition., St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), 82.

7 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 165.

8 Id., 84.

9 Capon, 76.

10 Id., 77.

11 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 4:24–25.

12 Sproul, op. cit.

13 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 4:26.

14 Capon, 77.

15 The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Col 1:19–20.

16 Capon, 79.

17 Id., 80

18 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 4:28.

19 Capon, 80.

20 Id.

21 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 169.

22 Id., 170.

23 Capon, 81.

24 Lane, 170.

25 Capon, 82. Emphasis original.

26 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 4:27.

27 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Eccl. 11:5–6.

28 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 16:18.