What will the “kingdom of God” be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

I like to think about what heaven will look like. Partially that’s because my kids ask me, and partially it’s because when I’m really tired – like, really tired – I like to imagine what it will be like when there is perfect rest and peace. I’ve written about this before (you can read “Praying for peace when you can’t even finish this sentence” here). This is a very human approach though – I’m tired, what will heaven be like? That is not really the question that Jesus answers though.

Jesus, in this passage, gives four parables that specifically describe the kingdom of God. And they don’t answer the question I have. Jesus however, does provide answers.

The first parable is the Parable of the Lamp: “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” (Mark 4:21-22)

A lamp is to bring light. The kingdom, the gospel, is not meant to be hidden. In addition, there is an ambiguity in the Greek grammar and what has been translated “whatever is concealed” is more correctly “whatever was concealed”. If this is the case, what this parable describes is the kingdom (in Jesus) is now being brought into the open in these parables.

The second is the analogy of the Measure: “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (vv 24-25)

The easy way of saying this is that you reap what you sow. If you listen openly and eagerly, Jesus’ teaching will provide enormous insight. For those who listen with hardened hearts, they will hear but not understand. To this we’ll return.

The third is the parable of the Growing Seed: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (vv 26-29)

Just because every day seems the same, doesn’t mean the kingdom isn’t growing. But if they are complacent, the harvest when it comes will be a surprise. We must know that the kingdom is growing – and that at some point judgement will come. We must be aware and ready and help others be ready too.

The fourth is the parable of the Mustard Seed: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (vv 31-32)

This final of the four images shows us the kingdom growing disproportionately to its small beginnings. In this, we see God’s sovereignty clearly at work.

So when we wonder “what is the kingdom of God like?”, the answer is, from this passage:

  • It is a light, meant to illuminate;
  • It is to be revealed, and so we need to listen expectantly and responsively;
  • Once sown, it keeps growing, slowly but surely – and there will be a last day of harvest/judgement;
  • The kingdom will be enormous and disproportionate to its small beginnings.

On the face of it, this could seem disappointing. I want to know whether the kingdom looks like its in a nice rural setting or by the sea, and if everyone I know will be there. But I don’t need to know that. I need to know what Jesus is telling me. I need to know that the kingdom is the light by which the rest of the world can be seen. I need to know that I need to listen in great measure, because great measure will be given to me. I need to remember that there will be a last day, even though every day seems the same and I need to look to explosive and inexorable growth of this kingdom to remind me of God’s unstoppable power.

But lets talk about having ears to hear. Jesus repeats this in Mark 4:9 and again in 4:23 saying “let them hear”. And yet, he had also said in Mark 4:11-12 (quoting Isaiah 6):

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Why speak in parables? Doesn’t Jesus want people to be able to immediately understand the gospel?

As Mark L. Strauss says in his commentary, the clauses and grammar in the Greek “makes this passage one of the most difficult in the NT, since Jesus appears to be saying that he teaches in parables in order to blind the eyes of the listeners.” (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark, 2014, p184). In exploring the many possible interpretations, Strauss settles on a negative function. In Isaiah chapters 5 and 6, God uses the unbelief of the Israelites to accomplish his judgement. Through an allegory of a vineyard, Isaiah relays God’s warning of pending judgement and describes that the prophesy will fall on deaf ears – because his judgement is set. In this way, says Strauss “He will use their rejection to accomplish his sovereign purpose.” just as he did with Moses’ Pharoah and others throughout scripture. So Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah specifically links what he is saying to a time when God was visiting judgement on his people.

What that means here is that on one hand, parables are easy to remember for those with ears to hear. For others, their hardened hearts are the very thing that God will use against them for their judgement. This is hard teaching. It shows us that Jesus’ arrival, while a sign that the new age has come, is also an instrument of judgement – those who will hear and believe, and those who will reject him. The wheat and the chaff. As Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

BUT we don’t know who is chosen. We don’t know who is predestined. We don’t know what soil people are. We don’t know which road and which gate they will go through. So we can only be faithful and obedient. We follow Jesus. We grow in our discipleship. We remember what Jesus tells us about the kingdom – not what we want to know. Because the kingdom will be enormous, and provide us all with a place to rest and nest in the shade.

I feel comforted just hearing that.

The other stuff? That makes me feel queasy. The whole hardened hearts as an instrument of people’s judgement thing. But I think that sense of unease is a prompt to act. Because if we don’t know people’s destination, but we know it is one of two places, it gives us a sense of urgency in our interactions with others. It compels us, in obedience, and knowing there will be a harvest, to live authentically to our beliefs. This should show in our words and our behaviours as our hearts and minds are shaped by Jesus’ teaching. I find these passages hard. But they give me a boost to avoid being complacent as a Christian.

We cannot be sleepy in our faith.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

7 thoughts on “What will the “kingdom of God” be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

  1. Alison

    Thanks, that answers my question from last week.

    I also have a question from this weeks passage. I was wondering if you think the fowles of the air (I have the KJV bible) in verse 32 would mean the same as the fowles of the air in v4. It’s interesting in v4 the fowles of the air (interpreted by Jesus in v15 as symbolising Satan) come and devour the seed but in v32 the mustard seed has grown into a large tree with big branches and these branches, we are told in v32 are for the fowles of the air to lodge under the shadow of the mustard tree.

    We sing a song sometimes in church about Satan being under our feet, I wonder if this parable means something similar as the fowles of the air are under the shadow of the mustard tree?

    From what I understand the mustard tree represents Gods Kingdom and I wonder also if this parable means that it’s through God’s Word being planted in good soil and growing that Gods Kingdom is established in our heart and on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10) ?

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    1. Hi Alison, there’s real meat here! In verses 4 and 32 the fowles/birds are translated from the same Greek word. However, it would be a mistake to read too much into it. Sometimes the subject can be the same image – it is the context that gives us the different meaning. In the first, it is Satan. In the second, it is the image of a tree so large all the birds can nest in it. In both cases the birds themselves are not the important symbol – they are merely the foil for telling the parable.

      The tree from the mustard seed is more closely linked to Ezekiel 31:2-9. The prophet describes Assyria as a mighty tree so big all the birds can perch in its branches. “No tree in the garden of God could match its beauty. I made it beautiful with abundant branches” he continues. Of course God raised up Assyria and made them the instrument of judgement against Israel. The image is important though – God made it, and made it beautiful and made it enormous. In Mark, the fact that this mighty edifice comes from a mustard seed is a special mark of God’s power. Assyria also fell after they had fulfilled their purpose as Ezekiel goes on to describe. There is no suggestion that the kingdom has an end in this parable. It is left open ended.

      I’d be wary of trying to read too much into the parables. Jesus gives a clear meaning to the parables and there’s been much historical and academic scholarship go into debating and verifying. One thing that comes out of those debates however, was the general agreement that allegorical readings of the Bible were not wise. This was because when we try and read too many meanings into one passage, we lose sight of its real meaning and can accidentally go off track. There are a million possible images and associations – whose are correct? What is a ready image for one person is not for another. It is too personal and subjective so there can be no rule or standard. And there’s no indication that’s how God intended us to read and interpret scripture. So I’d recommend keeping a simplified reading of the parables to what Jesus said and what can be substantiated.

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