The Parables of Jesus: Part Two: The Kingdom of God
In the first article in this series, we learned just what parables are and why Jesus used them. We also saw that there are three distinct sets or groupings of parables, each having a different theme. This revealing article examines the first six parables of the first set.
AS JESUS sat in a small fishing craft just offshore on the Sea (or lake) of Galilee, He began to address the large crowd assembled on the shore. He spoke to them in parables about the Kingdom of God. In this first group of parables, Jesus gave to the people six parables without any explanation. Later, He privately explained the meaning of all these to His own disciples. He also gave the disciples four additional parables which were self-explanatory. These last four parables contained a special message within the overall theme pertaining directly to the disciples' future apostolic ministry.
The Parables Contained Doctrine
It is important to realize that the parables were doctrinal in nature: "And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine..." (Mark 4:2). A "doctrine" is a biblical principle, teaching, or truth which is accepted as authoritative. It constitutes part of the dogma of real Christianity. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the importance of seeking understanding of the parables of Jesus! The first parable Jesus gave is of special significance because it is a pacesetter of sorts. It is typical of all such parables, and the method of explanation also follows the same basic pattern. Speaking of the first parable in this group (that of the sower), Jesus said to His disciples: "... Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?" (Mark 4:13.)
The Parable of the Sower
"Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground. where it had not much earth; and immediately if sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was lip, it was scorched: and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased: and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred." Mark 4:3-8
This first parable is a simple story liberally laced with local color. It is found in three of the four Gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each Gospel mentions a point or two not found in the other accounts. We will use Mark's more concise Gospel as our basic reference. Jesus describes a scene very familiar to His audience: A sower went out to sow grain in his field. The seed falls on four different types of ground: 1) the wayside, 2) stony ground, 3) among thorns, and 4) good ground. Each represents a different category of person who hears the Word of God at some point in his life. Each responds differently. We are not told who the sower is, but it is explained that "the sower soweth the word" (verse 14). We must assume that whoever disseminates God's Word (God or one of His human instruments) is the sower. The seed in the parable, then, represents the gospel message and all that it includes. Each person who hears it reacts differently. Not everyone responds with equal enthusiasm. Nor does the Word of God bear the same fruit in each individual it touches.
Those by the Wayside
The people in this first category hear the gospel message, but they are immediately dissuaded from doing anything about it. God's truth is never allowed to take root in their lives. They are easy prey for the devil, who subtly convinces them to disbelieve what they hear. "Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts" (verse 15). There are many ways by which this happens: A snide remark about the message from a "friend" who is supposedly "in the know" about such things. A sudden change of personal circumstances may lead to a "temporary" diversion — which becomes permanent. A minor disagreement about a small point can lead the prospective Christian to "throw out the baby with the bath water." It could be any number of things, but the result is always the same! The person rejects the gospel of the Kingdom of God before it gets a chance to take root.
On Stony Ground
Persons in this particular grouping advance somewhat further than those in the first category. Their initial reaction to the Word of God is enthusiastic. They are happy to hear the truth preached. They welcome it and may even become baptized. "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized..." (Acts 2:41). But unfortunately, their enthusiasm soon wears thin. They "have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended" (Mark 4:17). These "babes in Christ" never allow their spiritual roots to go down quite deeply enough to draw on the pure, nourishing water of God's spiritual power (John 7:38, 39; Acts 1:8). When persecution comes along, they are not strong enough to withstand it. They have no persevering power in the face of the ridicule and derision of those who do not share their beliefs. Such people are only willing to obey God as long as it does not cost them anything in terms of personal prestige and respect. Loss of face means loss of everything to them. They are willing to compromise the Word of God rather than suffer for it. Did not Jesus say in another place: "... If any man will come after me, let him... take up his cross, and follow me"? (Matt. 16:24.)
The third type of person in this parable progresses somewhat further. He too begins to bear fruit and live a life of obedience to Christ. His life, changes as he yields to the Word of God. But he too has a "hang-up." At some point in his Christian life, "the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful" (Mark 4:19). In order to become unfruitful, he must have at one time been fruitful. Here is someone who has actually begun to bear substantial fruit as a result of God's Word. He has made spiritual progress. He may have been in the Church for some time. Others may even consider him well established in the body of Christ. But sooner or later, plain old materialism or sensuality creeps in and smothers his spirituality. Perhaps it is a craving for material success in the world of business or industry. A desire to be at the top of the financial heap can divert a person's focus of attention from spiritual to material things. For this reason, the Apostle Paul warned the Colossians about drifting into materialism: "Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth" (Col. 3:2). He also said that "to be carnally [physically] minded is death..." (Rom. 8:6). There are many pitfalls which can tear a person away from the abundant life to which God has called him. It could be money, the desire for financial success, another woman or man, a job, or an inordinate desire of any kind. It could be a craving for liquor or food (not that eating and drinking are wrong, but drunkenness and gluttony are) or possibly even narcotic drugs. Whatever it is, it diverts one from his life in Christ — choking out the influence of God's Holy Spirit and stifling any further bearing of good fruit.
On Good Ground
This category describes people who are converted and who make continual growth and progress in the faith. They bear the good fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). But not all bear the same amount of fruit. Some are much more productive than others. Many do not realize their maximum potential as Christians — they merely get by with a modicum of effort. Yet it is Christ's will that we bear much fruit. Those who are closest to Jesus Christ bear the most fruit. Jesus said: "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without. me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5). Which category are you in?
Summation of First Parable
In briefest summary, this first parable is a simple, earthy story drawn from daily life in Galilee. While the audience did not understand its meaning at the time it was given, Jesus later privately explained it to His disciples. It can now be understood by anyone to whom God wishes to reveal its meaning. The story is timeless in its application. It applies to four types of people who hear the Word of God. All respond differently. The fourth group bears fruit until the day they enter into the Kingdom of God at Christ's return. A simple, yet profound, message concerning the Kingdom!
The Wheat and the Tares
"Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But be, said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn." Matthew 13:24-30
The second parable is also taken from a description of typical rural life in the province of Galilee. Any farmer of the day would have known about tares (darnel). They were weeds which grew with the wheat and looked very much like it as long as the wheat remained in the blade stage. When they grew to maturity, however, they were readily distinguishable. This is a simple illustration pointing out the fact that both the converted and unconverted have to coexist in the same society until the time of the great harvest of lives at Christ's return. During that time Jesus Christ will make a separation between those who are His and those who are not. The best account of this parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30. (The explanation is given in verses 36-43.) Each element of the parable has vital meaning. Notice Matthew's explanation: "The field is the world; the good seed [true Christians] are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one [Satan — compare John 8:44, I John 3:8]; the enemy that sowed them is the devil [the god of this society, II Cor. 4:4]; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world [Greek: aionos, meaning "age"]." This parable graphically shows the fate of those who insist on following the devil when they know better! Those who are incorrigibly wicked will be thrown into a lake of fire — and be burned into ashes (Mal. 4:3). John spoke of this in the book of Revelation: "And death [the dead] and hell [the grave — hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:14-15). In order to die twice, one must first live twice (James Bond notwithstanding). This means a resurrection must occur. This is not immortal life as a "soul" in an ever-burning hellfire — it is complete extinction and oblivion forever! And this is doctrine! (If you have never proved that the concepts of an immortal soul and an ever-burning hellfire constitute false doctrines, then please write for our two free booklets entitled Do You Have an Immortal Soul? and Is There A Real Hell Fire?)
The Lamp Under a Bushel
"And he said unto them, Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a candlestick? For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested: neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. " Mark 4:21-23
This parable had an especially significant meaning for the disciples. Jesus had told them earlier: "Fear them [the people] not therefore: for there is nothing covered; that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops" (Matt. 10:26-27). The gospel message is the light that shines in a dark place. Christ was the Light of the world (John 1:9). Christians are to light the world with their example and with their message (Matt. 5:14-16). It is the work and the duty of God's Church to proclaim the mysteries of the Kingdom of God to all the world. Christ illustrated this important point by showing that if a person bought a candle it would be ridiculous to hide it (or snuff out its light) beneath a bushel basket! So it is with the message of the Kingdom. It is not something for a Christian to clutch to his breast as a personal talisman; it is not his alone to have and to keep. It is a message that must be proclaimed. As Paul said, "... Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel"! (I Cor. 9:16.) God has revealed to His Church truths that were kept secret from the beginning of time. Even the mighty prophets of old were not granted the same insight into the plan of salvation that lay members of God's Church may have today. Even angels desire to look into some of the things we may readily know (I Pet. 1:10-12). "But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God" (I Cor. 2:9, 10). Can we hide such truth and light under a "bushel"? God forbid!
The Grain of Mustard Seed
"Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs. and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof." Matthew 13:31,32
Again, we use Matthew's account. This parable shows that the preparation for the Kingdom of God has the smallest of beginnings. Yet that ruling Kingdom will ultimately fill all the earth. Daniel wrote: "And there was given him [Christ] dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed" (Dan. 7:14). The saints will inherit this Kingdom with Christ. "But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever" (verse 18). What a magnificent destiny! What incredible glory! This is the mind-boggling future of all true Christians — to inherit all things as a part of the universe-filling Kingdom of God. But look how small it all began! In all of Old Testament times, only a comparative handful of people were called to inherit the Kingdom of God. Men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, Daniel and David. Women like Esther, Rahab, Sarah and others. (Those who have never been called will have their first chance for salvation later — by a resurrection from the dead. For a full explanation read our free booklet After Death... then What?) It was not until shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ that substantial numbers of people were called to the Kingdom of God. On the day of Pentecost, A.D. 31, three thousand people were added to the Church; and from then on it grew or contracted in varying degrees throughout the centuries (Acts 2:41-47). At this present time, God is adding to the Church those who are called to eternal life. By the return of Jesus Christ, thousands upon thousands shall have been added to that ever-growing body of Christ. It will then constitute the ruling family Kingdom of God. Eventually, all Israel and every human being who has ever lived will have had an opportunity for salvation. God is not willing that any should perish (II Pet. 3:9). Think of all the billions of people who have ever lived and realize that most of them will ultimately be added to the Kingdom of God. When it's all said and done, that Kingdom will finally fill the earth! How appropriate is the parable of the tiny mustard seed which grows into a large shrub or bush in which the birds of heaven find shelter. That tiny seed produces a plant many thousands of times its own size — and so it will be with the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom Like Leaven
"Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened." Matthew 13:33
The fifth parable illustrates essentially the same point as the previous one, but by a different analogy. The entire parable is contained in Matthew 13:33. Leaven is the substance used to make bread dough rise by expansion. Most homemakers will be familiar with its qualities. Even those who have not used yeast, have at least made cakes, biscuits, pancakes, or a similar product with baking powder, which is also a type of leaven. A little leaven is all that is necessary to leaven the whole lump of dough (Gal. 5:9). So it is with the Kingdom of God. What God has started with a comparative few at this time will ultimately result in the entire earth being blanketed with the knowledge of God. "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain [nation]: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9).
The Seed Growing of Itself
"And he said. So is the kingdom of God. as if a man should cast seed into the ground: and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up. he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come." Mark 4:26-29
We do not understand the precise mechanism by which the Word of God produces fruit in human lives. But we certainly can plainly see that it does I God's human ministers are very much like those who plant seed and then care for it while it comes to fruition. Paul made such an analogy when he referred to himself and Apollos: "] have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase" (I Cor. 3:6-7). God causes each member of the Church to grow in grace, in knowledge and in character. This growth is brought about by God's Holy Spirit working in each individual life — not by the minister (husbandman). It is also God who adds to the Church as a whole (compare John 6:44 and Acts 2:47). He increases it quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Those who are called in this age are the "firstfruits" of that great harvest of lives (James 1:18). And it is God who will reap His own harvest in the end of this age of growth.
This completes the first six parables which were given to the people without explanation. Later they were all explained to the disciples: "... And when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples" (Mark 4:34). The predominant theme of these particular parables is plainly the Kingdom of God. By these parables Jesus showed that most people who are called pass through several stages. Those who endure to the end — continuing to bear the good fruit of God's Spirit — will ultimately achieve salvation and glory for all eternity. The rest will be cast into a lake of fire, which represents their second — and final — death. But the righteous and the sinner will have to live side by side in this society like the grain and the weeds — that is, until the final harvest of souls at the end of the world. Then Christ's angelic servants will make a separation. Also, it is God who gives the growth in His Church — both numerically and spiritually. And the example of the lamp under the bushel teaches us that the Church of God must preach the gospel of the Kingdom as a beacon of light shining in a world of darkness. In addition, we have learned that what God is starting so small in us now will eventually fill the entire earth! The Kingdom will grow and flourish to become millions of times its starting size. And you and I have been given a vital part in all of this, What profound truths these simple parables contain! What glory is revealed in them! In the next installment we will analyze and examine the remaining four parables in this first Galilean grouping — those given only to the disciples.