Jesus begins this parable with a rather mundane comparison: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground” (v. 26). With reference to these words, James Edwards writes,
A more banal comparison could not be imagined. The kingdom of God should be likened to something grand and glorious; to shimmering mountain peaks, crimson sunsets, the opulence of potentates, the lusty glory of a gladiator. But Jesus likens it to seeds. The paradox of the gospel—indeed, the scandal of the incarnation—is disguised in such commonplaces. The God whom Jesus introduces will not be kept at celestial arm’s length. Jesus does not tell us how high and lofty God is but how very near and present he is, and how the routines of planting and harvesting are mundane clues to the nature and plan of God.
Indeed. What a superb introduction to this third parable. It also serves as a great encouragement to us, since, for most of us, our lives are lived in the mundane, in the not-so-spectacular. Our lives are, for the most part, routine.
We routinely wake up, hopefully read our Bible, utter a prayer, and then get busy with the routines of running a home, or rushing out the door to work or school.
We do our best to be Spirit-filled, trying not to lose it with the children or in the traffic. We look for opportunity to share a word about God, hoping to share the gospel. If we have children, we try to plant the gospel deep into their hearts and yet at the end of the day, if we are honest, we feel pretty much like a failure.
When it comes to the life of the church, we also have our routines. We arrange our Sundays so that we can attend God’s appointed means of grace. We intend to hear, to take in the word, but all too often, within an hour after the worship service, that worship, along with the spoken word, seems so far away—incomprehensible if not imperceptible.
Sometimes—most times, in fact—those who minister God’s word find their ministry mundane. Many sense that what they are doing is merely repetitive and, to be frank, fruitless. Perhaps Sunday school teachers can relate to this, or those who are trying to disciple someone who, like Jesus’ disciples, just don’t seem to get it.
I think of some missionaries and pastors I have known who have often wondered, “What in the world am I doing?” Month after month, and year after year, they faithfully sow the seed of God’s word and yet there is so little progress. The results are mundane. Is this the way it is supposed to be? According to Jesus, pretty much.
But this parable also offers the great encouragement that, despite the mundane—in fact, in and perhaps even because of the mundane—we can expect the miraculous. As this parable helps us to understand, the mundane is a means towards the miraculous. The mundane can be miraculous.
In this simple parable we learn a profoundly encouraging truth: The kingdom of God is unstoppable. Though at times its progress may be invisible, yet the faithful disciple of Jesus Christ will confidently sow the word of God, patiently waiting for the harvest. This is because the kingdom of God is, well, God’s! Therefore, it is sure and certain.
Though its beginning, and even to some degree its continuance, is inauspicious, its growth is inevitable. God will accomplish his purpose. Both in nature and in grace, God’s purposes will prevail.
We will study this unique parable, which only Mark records, under several headings.
A Mundane Responsibility
Jesus begins the parable this way: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground” (v. 26). He tells the mundane story of a farmer who simply scattered seed. There is no indication that he did so with excitement, or with any design as to where he scattered. He was simply doing what he was required to do if he would have any hope of a harvest. There is nothing in the story that indicates his level of excitement. He just did what he had always done. Then he went to his house and slept. He had done his duty for the day, and because he was a human being, he was tired.
The next day he rose from sleep and, we assume, did what any farmer does: worked his field. This is not mentioned, nor is it the point of the story. In all of this, the farmer was merely going about his business, fulfilling his responsibilities, oblivious to what was happening below his feet, below the surface of the soil. While he slept and rose, going about his daily routines, something amazing was happening underground.
The Mundane Meantime
As we have seen, the mundane can be miraculous. Think about the mundanity of planting seeds. Let me illustrate.
About a year ago, a man, Dave, visited us from the United States. He works for a unique company that supplies the hardware and software for a computerised product, which aids farmers in planting corn.
The product tracks the planting of each seed and informs the sower if a spot has been missed. This facilitates maximum yield for the farmer.
Dave was telling me that corn is a rather finnicky seed. If the temperature varies after planting, the yield will be affected. Corn can also be impatient. If it lies in the ground too long before germination, its yield will be affected. Soil, moisture, temperature and time in the ground before germination are major factors when hoping for a good harvest.
The farmer can only do so much. For the most part, all he can do is sow the seed, sleep, and rise day after day, hoping for the best. If bad weather strikes, there is nothing he can do about it. The harvest is up to God. Yes, the farmer who sows the seed is a necessary means towards the miracle of a crop, yet ultimately the harvest is independent of human effort.
Jesus’ hearers would have been familiar with this phenomenon. They probably did not have as much agricultural insight as my friend Dave, but as he told me, even with his specialised knowledge, the harvest is up to God. In fact, the point of his product is mainly to ensure maximum use of the field, maximum sowing. His product is all about the means—a means that recognises the need for a miracle. For what goes on with the seed after it is buried beneath the soil is completely in the hands of God. So it is with the growth of the kingdom of God. That is the point of this parable.
As we saw in the first parable, it is probably correctly called “The Parable of the Sower.” The condition of the sower matters, but, if seed is not sown, then the soil can do nothing to produce a harvest.
Something has to enter the soil if anything will come out of the soil. So with the parable here.
The farmer is important. The sower must fulfil his responsibility to sow the seed. Yes, the sower is limited, to a large degree, when it comes to the yield of the harvest; nevertheless, if he does not scatter the seed, he will have nothing to reap in the end.
I don’t want to belabour the point but let’s note two things.
First, the disciples of Jesus are responsible to sow the seed of the gospel of the kingdom of God. There can be no harvest if there is no sowing. We are to spread the gospel.
Though this is not the main point of the parable, there is an implied responsibility in the story. For there to be a harvest, there must be a sowing. Seed that is not planted won’t produce much of a harvest. It must be scattered.
The words attributed, probably wrongly, to St. Francis of Assisi are exactly wrong: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Using words is essential in preaching the gospel.
Believer, look for opportunities to sow the seed. Hand out tracts. Hold Bible studies. Do what you must to to sow the seeds of the gospel.
Second, the man here should perhaps be captitalised. The Sower was Jesus. We don’t want to push this too far, of course. After all, the text says, “he knows not how.” Jesus is omniscient. But the point remains that Jesus is the one who entered this world with the seeds that would sprout into the kingdom of God.
God’s dominion entered this world through Jesus Christ. The parable is meant to highlight that what Jesus has sown will yield a great harvest, a harvest to be reaped at the end of history. The Sower is also the Reaper.
Jesus came to earth to fulfil his responsibility. He is doing so by sowing the seed of the kingdom of God. That is, he is sowing the gospel of the kingdom. As we will see, the seed works automatically—spontaneously—but it must be sown.
Jesus did this when he began his ministry (1:14–15). He continued to do so as he called his initial disciples (1:16–20). He sowed the seed as he taught in synagogues and by the seashore. He took seriously his responsibility to sow the word of God into the hearts of the rest of the Twelve (3:13–19). And he expected his disciples to continue to do so after his ascension (Mark 16:15). He expects you and I to do the same with our lives.
Jesus fulfilled his responsibility. And, as it were, ever since he ascended, he has been sleeping and rising night and day, awaiting the day of reaping his harvest.
A Temporarily Hidden Miracle
We saw previously the principle, shared by both the first and second parable, that fruitfulness in the life of the hearer depends on faithfulness concerning hearing.
This third parable builds on this principle by highlighting that God is at work, below the surface, producing such hearers. And these hearers will be harvested one day. But this leads us to another observation, to another principle: That which is hidden is eventually revealed.
Again, as we saw previously, that was the main point of the second parable.
The farmer was working above the surface, while something else was happening below the surface. It was hidden, for the moment, yet eventually what was happening there was revealed.
Seeds were germinating, and the sprouts were shooting through the surface of the field. As time went by, marked by the continual rising and sleeping of the farmer, the sprouts produced a shaft, which budded with a blade, with an ear, and finally with a full grain. It was now time for harvesting.
Would the farmer enjoy the thirtyfold, sixtyfold, hundredfold fruit? We are not told. What we do know is that, finally, after many months of perhaps intermittent hopeful confidence, followed by cautious uncertainty, a harvest came.
So it is with the kingdom of God.
The point of the parable is that though the activity remains hidden, something powerful and transforming is taking place. One must be patient until the proper time, when the result will be revealed. This is what the kingdom of God is like. And the sooner we understand this, the better.
It was important for the first disciples to understand this principle. After all, if they were expecting great results immediately, they would be in for a disappointment. Jesus had come and therefore the King and the kingdom has come. The seeds of that kingdom had been sown by him, but for now, the future results/fruit were hidden.
The seed lies covered—covered by man’s ignorance, man’s rebellion, man’s impertinence, man’s selfish motives. But, ultimately, it remains covered by God’s providence. The days would come when that germinating seed would push through the surface and the initial shoots of the kingdom would show (Acts 2). Over time, it would grow into an increasing harvest. And, on the last day, the kingdom would come in all of its glory. In the meantime, like the farmer in the parable, we know not how.
When we first moved to South Africa, we were unfamiliar with avocados, which are uncommon and rather expensive where we came from. We quickly grew to love them, and one day, after eating avocado, I decided to plant to seed and grow a tree myself. I planted it, and for a while I thought it was going really well as it started to sprout, until I learned that my eldest daughter was pulling the little plant up every day to see how it was growing! Needless to say, it never took real root and therefore did not grow.
Without getting too far ahead, we should let this parable be an encouragement to the fulfilment of our responsibility. Since the seed produces a harvest, let us faithfully scatter the seed to friends and family, workmates, neighbours, and children. Let us water the soil with persevering prayer, trusting God to produce results in his time.
A Miraculous Regeneration
The parable continues in vv. 27–28: “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.”
Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. He should have studied this parable. Clearly, he did not understand the kingdom of God, for Jesus tells us that the disciples’ routine faithfulness will eventually have remarkable results.
God Causes the Growth
This parable helps us to see that the miraculous work of God in his kingdom motivates us to be a willing means. When we embrace this, it adds meaning to what is otherwise viewed as mundane.
It is essential that we realise that the kingdom of God comes by the power of God, not by the planting of men. Yes, as we have seen, we are responsible. We are a means towards God’s end. But God gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5–9). We are the means of a miracle, not the source of the miracle. But what joy that we can be a part of this!
Solomon understood this truth. He build his own house and the Lord’s house, and yet he wrote, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
Consider a related blessing: the miracle enables us to restfully fulfil our responsibility. At a large conference in America many years ago, I heard a well-known preacher speak from this text on “The Theology of Sleep.” I sat next to another South African pastor, who later commented that the preacher missed the main point of the passage. I agreed. Nevertheless, the practical application was helpful.
He preached that pastors need to faithfully proclaim the word of God and leave the results to God. Preachers should rest in the sovereignty of God. Just like the sower in the parable, the preacher is not responsible for the results. Rather he is responsible to preach the word in season and out of season. The preacher will give account to God for faithfulness while God will get the glory for the fruitfulness (see 2 Timothy 4:1–8). This is to be the restful disposition of every faithful Christian.
Sometimes, we become restless about the extension of the kingdom of God. But we should not. Rather, we should plant and rest. Our King gives his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:2). And he does this because he never sleeps (Psalm 121:4). He is at work below the surface. He is producing what will be his harvest. This should encourage Sunday school teachers, disciplers, parents, friends, elders, and missionaries.
Adoniram Judson was severely opposed as he preached the gospel in Burma. At one point, during severe imprisonment, he was asked how he felt about the advance of the gospel. His reply was faith-filled: “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” After his death, the gospel continued to go forth in Burma.
One of our church members was a missionary in an Asian country until the door closed for him. He planted a church in a particular city and laboured there for years. Recently, he had opportunity to visit that church again and learned that the church had recently planted another church in another part of the country. He was encouraged that God continues the work on the seed that has been planted.
When Jesus was crucified and laid in the darkness of the tomb, God was at work! The Seed was sprouting.
We need to believe this. I was recently talking to someone at a wedding, who marvelled that I had left America to come to South Africa, when so many South Africans are heading in the opposite direction. She asked whether I had ever thought of returning to America, and I replied that, while the thought had occurred to me, I am persuaded that the Lord’s work is not over in South Africa. He is building his kingdom, and I want to be a part of that.
This parable emphasises the power of the seed to cause growth. The word “itself” has sometimes been taken to mean “automatically.” That does capture the thought well. And that thought should encourage us concerning the growth of the kingdom.
The parable emphasises three stages in the advancement of the kingdom of God: sowing, growing, and reaping or harvesting. We can sow. In fact, we must sow the word of God. Yet, as we have seen, the growth is supernatural. It has nothing to do with us. We know not how the seed grows, but it continues to grow!
The work of God in the hearts of his people is a mystery. And this should excite us to keep sowing. We have no idea what will result from the sown gospel. God is at work and he is able to do the most amazing things.
We need the reminder—constantly—that the harvest is not up to us. It is up to God. We can be confident that the kingdom of God “will come in God’s time and in God’s way, not by human effort or in accordance with human logic”(France). How we need this reminder!
Too often, we can panic about not seeing results. This parable is intended to remove such anxiety. God is at work, his word is powerful, and his plan will succeed, in spite of evidence to the contrary.
Consider for example the vision given to Daniel. In chapter 2 of his prophecy the Lord reveals a snapshot of human history in which the kingdoms of the world will come and go to be invade and eventually to be fully replaced with God’s kingdom (vv. 36–45). Though evidence was temporally to the contrary (after all, who could have imagined the downfall of Babylon?), Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that “the dream is certain and its interpretation sure” (v. 45). So it is with the promise of this parable. Jesus was assuring his disciples that a harvest would come. Therefore, they must patiently scatter and sleep until that time.
We need to scatter the seed as God has provided it. We need not mess with it. Hybrid gospels will not bring God’s intended harvest.
We need to scatter the seed as God prescribes it. Preach the word (not drama or entertainment). Do so in season and out of season—when it is “acceptable” and when it is not; when things are going well in the church and when things are not going as well; when it seems successful and when it does not. Send the seed by sending sowers with this seed. “Contemporary ministry values doing big things famously and fast. Pastoral ministry is mostly doing overlooked things quietly and over a long period of time” (Eswine).
We need to recapture our confidence in the power of the Seed and recover our conviction in the power of the gospel of God, in the power of the word of God (Romans 1:16; Hebrews 4:12). Such confident conviction will empower us to carry out the mundane with hope for a miracle. That is, it will empower us to be patient for a harvest—like William Wilberforce, who laboured his entire life to abolish slavery, and only saw the fruits of his harvest toward the end of his life.
The Seed is Relevant
The gospel is powerful on its own. And that is a great encouragement to us. This fact should encourage us be good stewards of the gospel. In other words, our task is not to make the gospel relevant. It is relevant. Our assignment in a sense is merely to faithfully handle the seed and then to get out of the way. We must scatter it and then wait and see.
This leads us to the observation about our conviction, or lack thereof, about the power of God’s Word. James makes it clear (1:17–21) that the word of God is the agent that God uses to save souls. The word of God itself has regenerative power. God created the world by his word and he is busy re-creating his world through his word. So, scatter—and then sleep.
But, this regenerative power is not only operative in the new birth; it continues to work might power in transforming lives and even transforming society.
I recently read a report that claims that when 10% of a population embraces a belief system, eventually that belief system overtakes the society/culture. If this is true, then this further fuels our hope for the extension of God’s rule in this world. This is good news, not fake news.
The parable informs our ignorance. Therefore, we can be patient.
Dads and moms can sow the gospel seed into the hearts of their children and patiently wait for the time when sprouts of faith will be detected. In the meantime, these parents can sleep and rise again over and over, trusting the Lord to build their household of faith (Psalm 127).
Christians can sow the gospel seed into the lives of friends and co-workers, patiently trusting God to do his work as the ultimate Evangelist—the one who sows and saves and seals.
Christian ministers can leave their homeland and their family and their comforts and sow the seed, patiently waiting on the Lord for his harvest, in his time.
Church members can read the news and patiently wait on the Lord to extend his kingdom in the midst of a kingdom that seems to be crumbling.
Church members can continue to faithfully, patiently, perseveringly and sacrificially invest in the furtherance of the kingdom even though the current crop seems nonexistent.
In other words, this parable assures us that God’s work of regeneration will be revealed, in his good timing. In the meanwhile, we honour God by faithfulness.
This has always been the way we please the Lord (Hebrews 11:6). Consider Joseph’s faith. Consider Daniel’s three friends. Consider Paul at the end of his life as well as during his numerous imprisonments (2 Timothy 4; Philippians 4:1–13; etc.).
Brothers and sisters, let us trust the power of the seed! Let us trust the power of the sovereign Sower!
The Confident Saviour
William Lane is exactly right when he says, “The stress in the parable…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.” In other words, Jesus is the Sower who scatters the seed and “like the patient farmer, Jesus is supremely confident in the coming kingdom” (Edwards).
Jesus was supremely confident because of who he is: Jesus. He knew he would save his people from their sins. He knew his kingdom would be established and extended because he was faithful. He fulfilled the covenantal terms of the kingdom of God. He lived the perfect life for his subjects, died in their place, and raised them with him in his resurrection. And he intercedes for them today. Are you one of them?
We can take heart that, when it comes to the expansion of God’s kingdom, this is a given. God’s kingdomhas come, it continues to come, and it will fully and finally come.
A Meaningful Reward
The meaningful reward is detailed in v. 29: “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
In connection with the previous parable, those who have ears to hear understand that more is going on than meets the eye. Those to whom the mystery of the kingdom has been revealed understand that God is at work through his word and that a day of harvest is coming. And as we align our lives with this harvest, our lives take on a meaningful pursuit, which will receive a meaningful reward.
We need to remember that the harvest is God’s, not ours. And he will get his harvest. We see this in this last statement. This phrase is often viewed negatively, as though the Grim Reaper is doing is work. But I think that interpretation misses the point. Rather this is an encouraging statement.
Jesus was saying that a full harvest, like that in v. 20, will one day come. In other words, the kingdom of God will one day—in space-time history—reach its fullness. There is coming a day when the last soul will be saved. When that happens, Jesus Christ will return to earth. He will then offer up the kingdom to his Father, and the universe will be glorified to the glory of God (see 1 Corinthians 15:22–28). The scattered seed will bring forth glorious fruit, just as God always designed it to do.
Jesus came and faithfully and therefore confidently planted the seed of the kingdom of God. He knows that the harvest will come. He is confident of this. And, therefore, we should be confident. Like Jesus, we should faithfully and confidently proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God. By doing so, we attest to our confidence in the power of that seed, in the power of the God of that seed—his power to bring forth the fruit he desires and which he has determined. Therefore, as Lane notes, “The proclamation of the gospel is the pledge of the ultimate manifestation of the Kingdom; it mysteriously, but irresistibly, brings it near.”
So, keep praying, keep planting, and keep persevering. Patience will be rewarded with a harvest.
Back to the beginning. Yes, life and even church life, can seem so mundane. But below the surface of the mundane, God is at work. Below the seemingly mundane some miraculous things are taking place. So, let us continue to do what God has prescribed, confidently and patiently, waiting for the harvest. We will not be disappointed!