Parables of the Kingdom 2

Seed Growing Secretly.
“All by itself the soil produces grain” (Mark 4:28)

The parable of the Growing Seed or the Seed Growing Secretly has an important lesson to teach us. Mark alone records this wonderful story (Mark 4:26-29). In it, Jesus specifically says what seems to be true of all the parables, namely, “This is what the kingdom of God is like.” God’s reign over us isn’t like we might assume, but there are things around us that are comparable and help us understand. Agricultural comparisons are especially common.

This parable may have a number of points of correspondence to the kingdom of God. Like the parable of the sower, it indicates the nature of the kingdom is to grow, and in order for it to grow, seed must be scattered. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that “seed” in this parable is a collective noun and refers to many seeds being scattered, not just one. Although it is not stated, I see no reason for thinking the seed here is anything different from what it was twelve verses earlier in the parable of the sower where “the farmer sows the word” (Mark 4:14). Here, the growth comes in stages, first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel. After a period of growth the harvest arrives and the man puts the sickle to it. In Scripture harvest sometimes refers to judgment, and the language of “puts the sickle to it” seems to be taken from another passage about judgment (see Joel 3:13, especially in more literal versions). But harvest can also refer to people being “reaped” into the kingdom of God (Matthew 9:35-38; John 4:35-38; Romans 1:13).

In spite of these several points of correspondence, however, it is not certain that Jesus intended them all. As mentioned previously, scholars often say the parables are intended to make one primary point. Though some of them, like the Sower, seem clearly intended to contain multiple points of similarity, others are indeed focused on only one. In the Parable of the Growing Seed, the identity of the “man” illustrates the uncertainty involved with finding multiple points of correspondence in it. The man who scatters seed could be either Jesus or human workers. But when he puts in the sickle, it seems more likely that the man would be Jesus, whether the harvest refers to judgment or entering the kingdom (although it could possibly refer to a human assisting someone else entering the kingdom). Yet if the man is in fact Jesus, there is a problem with the statement that “he knows not how” the seed grows (v. 27). Wouldn’t Jesus know? So, although I believe it is possible that there are multiple points of correspondence between this parable and the kingdom, these difficulties make me lean toward thinking Jesus intended just one point. Even if there are multiple points, I still think one stands out beyond the others.

The main way the kingdom of God is like the everyday phenomenon described in this parable is that its growth ultimately depends on God. Yes, seed must be planted, but overall God’s role is primary. As one writer put it, our job is to plant the seed and go to sleep! It will grow whether we sleep or rise (v. 27).

What’s more, the parable states directly that the man does not know how the seed grows (v. 27). Do you believe this? I hear talk regularly that sounds like people believe they do know how God’s kingdom grows. While God has certainly revealed some things about the growth of the kingdom to us, we must be careful not to think we can discover all its secrets through mere observation or scientific analysis. Instead, we need to accept what the parable says, that we do not understand how the kingdom grows.

In this vein, it is worth meditating on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6. Verse 5 is especially humbling:

“As you do not know the path of the wind,
    or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
    the Maker of all things.”

Again, God has given us certain gifts and allowed us to understand certain things, but still, he delights to work through us when we have the humility to recognize that his ways are higher our ways and his thoughts higher our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9; cf. Romans 11:33). The humility that is necessary for entering the kingdom (Matthew 18:1-5) is also appropriate for serving in the kingdom. The kingdom will certainly grow, but how, we do not know.

God’s work in growing the kingdom is also emphasized by the statement in the parable that the earth produces grain “by itself” (v.28). The word is automatos, which is the source of our word “automatic.” The sense here is not “like clockwork,” but rather “spontaneous, of its own accord.” The only other time the word appears in the New Testament is when Peter is released from prison in response to prayer and, as he makes his way out, the iron gate to the city opens “of its own accord” (Acts 12:10). Clearly Peter did not open the gate, and clearly we do not make seed grow in the soil. The soil produces grain automatos. Paul makes the same point when he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). He also adds the important practical reminder that, “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (v. 7).

The sleeping and getting up, the not knowing how the seed grows, and the soil producing growth automatically all point to an emphasis in this parable on God’s work in growing his kingdom. This matches the statement in one of the powerful prophecies of the coming of God’s kingdom, concluding as it does with a statement that, “The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7). This should not surprise us since it is the “kingdom of God.” It is God’s kingdom, and he is the One who makes it grow.

If we believe this, we will humble ourselves and pray earnestly for the growth of the kingdom. In addition to the general prayer for it to “come” (more fully) and grow, we will also pray for specific aspects of its growth—opportunities to speak, ability to speak clearly, open hearts, that the word would spread rapidly and be glorified, for the health and faithfulness of new believers.

We will also stay in our lane. It is not for us to understand what we cannot understand nor to make grow something that only God can make grow. We dare not try to usurp God’s sovereign leadership of the kingdom. Instead, we focus on sowing the seed of the kingdom.

These realizations, however, should not cause us to slack off in our work. God has given us a role in his harvest field, and the somewhat parallel passage in John 4 shows that serving in a spiritual harvest field is indeed “hard work” (v. 38), just as literal work in a field is hard. The principle here is the same as Paul’s statement that he is what he is only by the grace of God and this causes him to worker harder than anyone, not less (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). Though we may have some difficulty reconciling the extreme importance of God’s working with the need for us, too, to work hard, these two seemingly different things are found together in Scripture. It is fitting, then, that we serve “with the strength God provides” (1 Peter 4:11) and “contend strenuously with all the energy Christ so powerfully works” in us (Colossians 1:29).

As we humbly trust God, pray, and work hard in the lane God has assigned us, he may well see fit to use us as his co-workers for the growth of his kingdom. Still, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.

Published by Marvin Bryant

After serving as a minister for churches for forty years, Marvin founded the Empowering Subjects to equip subjects of the King to change the world like Jesus did.

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