The Lamp, a measure, a sower and a seed.
The parable of the sower is one significant parable that helps us understand the other parables. However, the next section of Scripture gives us three or four parables, depending on how you count them. These strings of parables seem to be more proverbial than a logical thought progression. It appears to be a seminarian’s first sermon with disconnected thoughts and no central point. Previously Jesus had said he speaks in parables to conceal, but now he is saying nothing is hidden except what is made manifest. What does a shining light, a measurement you use, a sleeping sower, and the location of a bird’s nest have to do with the Kingdom of God? We do not get the explanation from Jesus’ mouth as we did with the parable of the sower. But we will see four important kingdom lessons from these earthly stories.
I. Light becomes visible (21-23)
Jesus begins the parable with a rhetorical question, where do you put a light? Do you hide it under the bed? Or under a basket? The answer is no. We attach lights to our ceilings so that they can light up the entire room. Jesus explains that a light is meant to shine in order to be seen. The translation of this is interesting. Most translations describe ‘a lamp’ and ‘a lampstand.’ However, the Greek is ‘the lamp’ and ‘the lampstand.’ The second aspect of the translation that makes it difficult is the word ‘brought’; this is the only time out of 631 times in the bible it is translated ‘brought.’ Most other times it is translated ‘comes, coming, came, went, going.’ Literally, the passage would read, “Has the lamp come to be placed under a basket or under the bed? Is it not to be placed on the lampstand?” Noticing this difference in translation helps us in one way. However, it can raise more questions, what or who is ‘the lamp?’ The lamp is used of God (2 Sam 22:29), or his law (Ps 119:105), or his Kingdom (2 Kings 8:19). The lampstand is used in Revelation speaking of the seven golden lampstands, referring to the church (Rev 1:12, 20; cf Zech 4:2, 11). It is also used in Exodus 25 to speak of the lampstand (Heb, menorah) in the Holy Place in the tabernacle (Ex 25:30-34). Even in Matthew, this parable is taught, explaining you are the light of the world (Matt 5:14-16). In Luke, it is used twice, once following the parable of the sower (Luke 8: 16-18), and secondly, Luke explains that Jesus taught this parable, explaining ‘your lamp is the lamp of your body” (Luke 11:33-36). [Note: Jesus used the same parables to make different points.]
You can see how parables can become challenging to understand, especially when you get caught up in finding the details. The interpretation of ‘the lamp’ does not give a drastically different interpretation to verse 22. I believe the key to understanding this passage is found in the word ‘come,’ the lamp is Christ. The lamp has come into the world not to be silenced or put into a mental institution, as the pharisees and Jesus’ family would like to do. The lamp has come to shine and be placed on the lampstand. In the prologue to the John’s Gospel, he explains, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:9–10). The understanding of ‘the lamp’ does not change the interpretation of the passage drastically because whether the Lamp is Christ, His Kingdom, His word, His gospel, or His church they are closely related. Mark explains in verse 22 that the lamp is not to be hidden but made manifest, not to be secret but come to light (same Greek word as manifest).
There are two things you try and hide. The first is something you hide or cover up so that it never sees the light of day again, a scandal or a corpse, or the impossible task of finding that missing sock that has escaped in the dryer somewhere. The second is hidden for a reason, that it would be brought out to be used, such as an investment fund. Hide your money for a rainy day. Or you hide easter eggs for children to find them. The purpose of the parables is that some people might not understand, but the secret of the Kingdom can be given to those who are on the ‘inside.’ Hence why Jesus repeats the phrase, “If anyone who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Seek, and you will find. The parables’ hiddenness can be found, hidden in plain sight.
“Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
II. The measure becomes the measurement
Jesus then turns to another parable, explaining, “the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still, more will be added to you” (Mark 4:24). This is used in the other gospels to explain the measure of judgment you use on other people (Matt 7:2, Luke 6:38). Again, Jesus can use the same parable or illustration to have a different point. The basic principle is that the standard of measurement you use will be used, as the standard of measurement, for you. For example, we have standardized units of measurements. A cup is eight fluid ounces or 250 ml. We purchase a plastic cup that has been produced to reflect the standardized unit of measurement. However, if you sold things in a market, you could easily alter your measurement utensil to reflect a smaller number, e.g., seven fluid ounces equals a cup. This would increase your profit margin by 12.5%.
Another way to explain it might be, you get what you put into it. Jesus explains, “pay attention to what you hear…” Or, to put it another way with the hide/seek metaphor, the more you desire, the more you will find. The more you hear, the more you will understand. One commentator explains, “The degree to which one hears the parables, the extent to which one allows the kingdom to break upon oneself, will determine the measure of one’s understanding.” The first is the measure you use, but the second is measured and added to you, which is where we get the word ‘given’ in verse 25, which is the same word used in verse 11 speaking of the secret of the Kingdom, which God gives. If you truly seek the Kingdom, you will find the Kingdom. If you genuinely seek Christ, he will be found by you. However, we need to be cautious thinking we hear ‘harder.’ It comes not through human ability, but a divine gift given to the believer. We should pray that God would give us ears to hear, eyes to see so that we would understand and perceive.
III. Sower becomes harvester
The following parable is a familiar parable about the sower. However, this is not about the seed and where it falls but the work of the sower. In this parable, we see two clear points. The first is the sower does not know how the seed grows, and the second it the seed grows to be harvested. Jesus’ point is the germination of the seed dumbfounds the sower. The sower is not a simpleton, but the sower has no control over which seeds sprout and which ones do not. The sower plants the seed, and he sleeps and wakes up. The seed self germinates and begins to push its way through the soil. The sower does not cut the seed open and calls the seed out of the kernel which encapsulates it. Verse 28 explains that the seed automatically produces by itself. This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” There is no formula to have the word take root in one person’s heart, but it is a work of God. A sower is to sow, and disciples are to proclaim the word of God. We realize that the church does not need germinators but sowers. Therefore, how someone responds to the gospel message should never be our concern in proclaiming the message because we are called to plant seeds, not germinate them. Are you sleeping for the Kingdom? Planting and sleeping, waking, and sleeping, trusting, and praying that the seeds that are scattered are bursting from the ground, and bearing fruit.
The second aspect of the parable is that the sower becomes a harvester. He sows the seed and waits, and eventually, when the time is right, he gets his sickle out and begins harvesting the grain. A parable does not then perfectly layout the process of discipleship. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 that some plant, some water, Jesus’ parable does not mention any watering. However, the parable shows the cause of the growth is God, not the sower. We are to work the field yet sleep knowing God is the one that brings forth the harvest. The Disciples are sent out as harvesters (Matt 9:37-38; Luke 10:1-3). Jesus is also the great harvester in the book of Revelation (Rev 14:14-20). The life of discipleship is sow, sleep, harvest. Maybe over-simplistic. However, whether you are sowing, sleeping, or harvesting, do it for the glory of God.
IV. A small seed becomes a large tree
The last parable is one of comparison that compares the Kingdom of God to that of a mustard seed. The mustard seed is a tiny seed which planted has one of the most significant increases. A small seed grows into a large garden tree. A mustard seed of the black mustard plant is about 1 mm in size (just under 0.04 inches). This small seed will increase over 2400 times its original size, growing up to about 8 feet tall. The purpose of the parable is to show how the rapid rate the Kingdom of God will grow. Also, that God’s Kingdom will include all nations, not just Israel. Ezekiel uses this language in Ezekiel 17:23, “On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches, birds of every sort will nest.” Ezekiel 17:22-24 speaks of the Davidic Messiah coming to establish His Kingdom (Cf. Ezek 31:6, Dan 4:12). In His kingdom will include many nations, not just Israel. The one aspect of the parable of the mustard seed is not so much in the growth of the seed or what it becomes but the process of growth, mainly the contrast. That from small beginnings it grows exponentially bigger than the tiny seed would imagine. The same truth is found in the Kingdom of God. Small beginnings God brings forth great fruit.
Jesus has been comparing the Kingdom of God to small and meager things, seeds, lamps, and measures. One commentator rightly explains that when we come to compare the Kingdom of God, we would expect “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 Kingdom of God might appear complex to us. However, ultimately it is simplicity. Sow the seed, the Word of God. Sow the seed in excessive amounts. Use the most considerable measure you have. Sow the tiniest seed and watch it grow as you sleep and wake up.
The Christian walk can have complex questions and scholarly debates about the definite article in Mark 4:21. Yet, the Christian walk does not need to difficult. It is pretty simple. Christ came to be known, to be made manifest. Therefore, listen to Christ and his word, pay careful attention to it because as Peter says, “where would we go for you have the words of life?” (John 6:68). Christ is the one who said that he would build his Church (Matt 16:18). We sow and sleep, sleep and sow. Eventually, we will harvest, and in the end, there will be a great harvest. Finally, do not underestimate the tiny ordinary seed of the sown word. A seed is impressive; you plant a small mustard seed half an inch in the ground, 12 times the size of the seed itself. That would be placing us eight feet down in the ground (Depending on how ‘thick’ we are). We would not survive, yet this small seed will bring forth life, the sprout will begin to emerge from the hard casing, it will start to push through the darkness towards the top of the soil, it will begin to sprout above the earth and thrive and grow, what was once 1 mm in size will continue to grow and become eight feet tall. Eventually, the small seed will produce fruit, more phenomenal testimonies of God’s grace bursting forth in people’s lives.
Jesus spoke in parables that some people might not turn and repent and be forgiven, yet he told parables that some might. Those who have ears to hear have regenerated hearts that want to find him. We see the ordinary means by which God accomplishes his Kingdom through hearing. Yet the extraordinary results in which come from his sown word; That sinners become saints. That what is once in darkness sees the glorious light. That the wicked become righteous. That the lost become found. That the blind can see. The hard heart produces fruit. How does this happen? Through God’s word. Through hearing with ears. That faith, the astonishing gift of God, comes not through merit, checking boxes, chance, giving money but through hearing. So we pray we would be a hearing people, a harvesting people, proclaiming people, and praying for people. But also sleeping people, as we trust in God’s promise that he is the one that will grow the seeds that are sown, that his word would not return void—knowing that the secret of the Kingdom is God-given, not humanly earned.
Consider this hymn, ‘Blessed Jesus, At Your Word:’
Blessed Jesus, at your word
we are gathered all to hear you.
Let our hearts and souls be stirred
now to seek and love and fear you.
By your gospel pure and holy,
teach us, Lord, to love you solely.
All our knowledge, sense, and sight
lie in deepest darkness shrouded,
till your Spirit breaks our night
with your beams of truth unclouded.
You alone to God can win us;
you must work all good within us.