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Mark 4:26-34 – The Parables of the Patient Planter and the Mustard Seed

In Mark 4:26-32, Jesus used two parables to describe what the kingdom of God is like. At the time, the nation of Israel was not ruled by a Jewish king. They had been conquered by Rome. So, what was this about a kingdom of God? The phrase is mentioned many times in the gospels and there is some difference of opinion about what it means. Depending on who you talk to, the kingdom refers to a spiritual kingdom which includes “those who willingly submit to God’s authority,”1 a physical kingdom which will only be fulfilled in the future millennial reign of Christ2, or it could be either spiritual or physical depending on the context.

In the Gospel of Mark, the phrase “kingdom of God” is mentioned 15 times.3 According to Mark, the kingdom of God was something (1) that was good news (Mark 1:14) (2) that was close at hand (Mark 1:15), (3) that could be entered by repentance and faith (Mark 1:15), (4) that was a mystery (Mark 4:11), (5) that was like planting seeds and the resulting growth (Mark 4:26, 30), (6) that would be seen by some before they died (Mark 9:1) , (7) that could be missed because of sin (Mark 9:47), (8) that must be received with child-like faith (Mark 10:14-15), (9) that is difficult for a rich person to enter (Mark 10:23-25), (10) that requires biblical discernment (Mark 12:34), (11) that Jesus will be part of in the future (Mark 14:25), and (12) to be waited for (Mark 15:43).

Do these mentions in Mark sound like Jesus was referring to a physical or a spiritual kingdom? My personal belief is that the kingdom of God refers to both the spiritual work in a person’s heart and the future physical kingdom. The spiritual side of the kingdom of God is evidenced by the need for faith and repentance, the planting and growth of seeds, the fact that it could be missed because of sin, the need to receive it with child-like faith, and the need for biblical discernment. The physical side of the kingdom of God is evidenced by it being close at hand, needing to be waited for, and being somewhere that Jesus will drink grape juice in the future.

This may be a bit confusing and more than you want to investigate at the moment. But we need to think about this because Jesus’ next two parables are about the kingdom of God. If we are to understand what the parables mean, we must also understand what the kingdom of God refers to. As we consider both parables, we will see the kingdom of God likened to planting seeds and what happens when the seeds grow. As we study, let’s ask God to open our understanding of what was meant by these parables.

  1. Parable of the Patient Planter (Mark 4:26-29)

    What does it say?

    Jesus told his audience that the kingdom of God could be compared to someone who scattered seed on the ground. As you may recall, this was the way seeds were planted at that time. The farmer grabbed a handful of seeds and scattered them across the ground. After doing this, he went through a period of sleeping and waking. But the seed sprouted and grew without him knowing how it did so. The ground yielded a crop by itself. He then described the growth of the seed in four stages: (1) the blade, (2) the head, (3) the full grain, and (4) the harvest. When the grain was ripe, the farmer finally used a sickle to harvest the grain.

    What does it mean?

    If Jesus was talking about the physical kingdom of God (Jesus’ millennial kingdom), would this illustration support that? I don’t see how it does. When Jesus returns to earth to setup His kingdom, will it be something that takes a while to happen?4 No, the Book of Revelation says that Jesus will arrive and instantly defeat His enemies and establish a world-wide kingdom (Rev. 19:11-20:6). It is not a slow growing kingdom, as in the parable, but a sudden and immediate conquering of the whole earth.

    If Jesus was talking about a spiritual kingdom (people who have submitted to His leadership), would this illustration support that? I think it does. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus used the farmer and the seed to depict someone “planting” God’s truth in the hearts of people. The response to God’s truth depended on the quality of their heart. According to Hiebert, it follows naturally that this parable “supplements the parable of the sower in elaborating the law of spiritual growth as seen in the good soil.”6 If we apply that idea to this parable, it makes good sense. The patient planter is the same farmer from the Parable of the Soils and the seed is still God’s truth.

    The spiritual kingdom of God involves telling people God’s truth (the gospel) and then waiting for that truth to take root in their hearts. We don’t know how quickly the seed of God’s truth will sprout or when it will result in their conversion. But at some point, God’s truth accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s work will produce faith in the one who heard it. With this understanding in mind, the parable is teaching that someone who has heard God’s truth with a believing heart will become a member of God’s kingdom at God’s appointed time.

    How does it apply?

    Do you believe that God’s truth can work without your help?

    In the parable, the seed grows by itself. God has designed seeds to grow by themselves in the right environment. The same is true when we speak God’s truth to people. God has designed it to work in people’s hearts even when we are not there to persuade them. Behind the scenes, God’s Holy Spirit is applying the truth which we have spoken to someone and that truth planted in his heart will eventually lead to a response by itself. We need to speak and sometimes may need to speak several times to the same individual. But we must always remember that it is God who causes the seed to grow in someone’s heart. We mustn’t take God’s place in the process.

    Do you understand your part in planting the seed of the gospel?

    As you may recall, the early Christians heard the gospel from people like Peter, Paul, and Apollos. Later, in the New Testament, their work was also likened to planting seeds and helping them to grow.

    1 Cor. 3:5-7 – “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”

    Paul must have been familiar with Jesus’ parable because he states a similar truth. He and Apollos were preachers who led different people to Christ. God used their efforts at preaching the truth to bring people into God’s kingdom. But I would like you to stop and understand something. Although it is God who causes the seed of the gospel to grow, he still uses each of us to speak biblical truth to others. When we stop planting the seed by not speaking the truth to others, we are not taking our responsibility seriously. God has commanded us to tell others about what Jesus has done. We are not to just wait for a harvest without planting seeds. We must do our part and then leave the rest to God.

  2. Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32)

    What does it say?

    In this parable, Jesus began with a question: How can we illustrate the kingdom of God? He said that the kingdom is like a mustard seed which is planted in the ground. Despite it being a very small garden seed, it grows into a plant that is bigger than all garden herbs. It even grows branches large enough to give shade to nesting birds.

    What does it mean?

    If Jesus was talking about a physical kingdom, this parable would mean that God’s kingdom starts small and eventually becomes large. Grassmer says that this parable “contrasts the insignificant, even enigmatic beginning of God’s kingdom, embodied in the presence of Jesus, with the greatness of the end result to be established at His Second Advent when it will surpass all the earth’s kingdoms in power and glory.”5 Is that what we see in the future, millennial rule of Christ? No, we looked at that in the first parable. The Book of Revelation tells us that Jesus defeats his enemies quickly and establishes his world-wide reign immediately. So, I do not think this parable is describing the future, physical kingdom of God.

    If Jesus was talking about a spiritual kingdom, then this parable makes more sense. It would then mean that God’s gathering of people for His future kingdom is a slow but growing work in the hearts of men. When the seed of God’s truth is planted in the hearts of people, it seems like an insignificant thing. But the truth works in individual hearts and eventually takes root and grows in them. What seemed insignificant at first does a great work in the person’s heart and makes him into a strong, productive part of God’s work.

    How does it apply?

    Consider what God had done in your life.

    Think of your own self. When God convicted you of your sin and brought you to faith in Jesus, did the people around you think you would amount to much? Did you think you would amount to much? The answer is probably no to both questions. You were new to believing in Jesus and still had a number of rough edges. But look what God has done in your life since you first believed. Slowly and surely, God has worked in your life and caused you to become an entirely different person than you were at the beginning. God’s truth certainly does set people free!

    Consider what God had done in the Church.

    If you look at the spiritual work God has done since the beginning of the Church, it is much the same. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He left behind just eleven disciples and a few others. But what started with those few people has grown into a world-wide phenomenon. These followers turned the world upside down. That small group of believers became thousands and later millions of believers world-wide. Look at what God has done. And always remember that it all began when one person planted the seed of the gospel and from that many others were changed.

Conclusion

After sharing these two parables, Mark makes an important comment (Mark 4:33-34). He reminds us that Jesus spoke only in parables to the people who came to hear him. They were never told what the parables meant. How they must have scratched their heads after hearing Jesus speak. But when Jesus was alone with His disciples, He explained the meaning of the parables just to them.

Today, we have looked at the Parables of the Patient Planter and the Mustard Seed. You will notice that the meaning of these parables was not given by Mark. In fact, Mark is the only one who even mentions these parables of the four gospel writers. While it would have been nice to have heard Jesus’ explanation, this was not His plan. Instead, we were given the opportunity to read them, think about them, and to ask God to help us understand them.

Both parables are about God’s kingdom. The Parable of the Patient Planter teaches us that in God’s kingdom, we have the responsibility to plant the seed of God’s truth, but that God is ultimately in charge of that seed’s growth in the person’s heart. The Parable of the Mustard Seed teaches us not to underestimate the power of God’s truth in bringing people into His kingdom. As it is proclaimed, it will have an enormous impact in the lives of those who believe it.

We must be faithful in preaching the gospel to others. But we must always remember that it is God who will cause His truth to germinate in the heart of those who hear it. And when it does, it will make a big impact on their lives. And these are the types of people who will be part of God’s kingdom.

Footnotes

1 “What is the kingdom of God?”
2 Chafer 224.
3 If you would like to do your own study, click here to view a list of times the phrase “kingdom of God” is mentioned in the NKJV New Testament.
4 Grassmer seems to think that “it presents a comprehensive picture of the coming of God’s kingdom” (p. 120). With this idea, the parable would be talking about the chronology of the coming kingdom beginning with Jesus and culminating with the millennial kingdom. “Others see it as a picture of the coming of God’s kingdom by the mysterious, sovereign work of God. Its emphasis is on growth under God’s initiative in the interim phase between the proclamation by Jesus (the lowly Sower) and His disciples and the ultimate manifestation of the kingdom by Jesus (the mighty Harvester)” (p. 121). But this would make Jesus the oblivious farmer who didn’t know how the seed grew. That doesn’t make sense to me.
5 Grassmer 121.
6 Hiebert 117.

Bibliography

Grassmick, John D., “Mark” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983.

Hendriksen, William, Mark, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975.

Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Gospel of Mark, Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1994.

“Kingdom” as described by Lewis Sperry Chafer in Systematic Theology, Vol. VII, Doctrinal Summarization, Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew through Romans, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.

“What is the kingdom of God?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=1654 on 9/30/2023.