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Chapter 24. The Parables
"And He began again to teach by the sea-side: and there was gathered unto Him a great multitude, so that He entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. And He taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in His doctrine, Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow." Mark 4:1-3.
The New Method.
This chapter brings us to another clearly-marked stage in the history of Christ, or at any rate to a new development of His ministry. From this point onward He taught the people "in parables." It is quite clear that He had not hitherto employed this method of teaching, from the surprise expressed by the disciples in Mark 4:10. His preaching up to this time had been perfectly plain, simple and direct, as, for instance, in the great address known to us as the Sermon on the Mount. But from this time onward the "parable" was His favourite method of conveying truth to the multitude, and "without a parable spake He not unto them."
The Origin of the Parable.
Now there must have been a reason for the adoption of the parabolic form of teaching at this particular time, and I want, if possible, to discover what that reason was. But before discussing the reasons why our Lord adopted the "parable" as
In the Correspondence between the Natural and the Spiritual.
His vehicle for conveying truth just at this juncture, we may profitably look at the facts which make the parable so useful. The Greek word literally means "A placing of one thing beside another," with a view to comparison. Now there is a deep correspondence between this natural world of ours and the spiritual world. "The world of nature and the world of spirit," as Archbishop Trench says, "proceed from the same hand and grow out of the same root." The things on earth are copies of the things in Heaven. The earthly tabernacle is made after the fashion seen in the Mount. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth His handiwork." It is the same God who reigns in glory who has also made this earth of ours, and by understanding His laws in this lower realm we may gain glimpses into the laws of the realm of spirit and grace. For the invisible things of God are declared to us by the things that are made, and this earth is a ladder by which we can climb to heaven. "This entire moral and visible world," says Archbishop Trench, "from first to last, with its kings and its subjects, its parents and its children, its sun and its moon, its sowing and its harvest, its light and its darkness, its sleeping and its waking, its birth and its death, is from beginning to end a mighty parable, a great teacher of supersensuous truth, a help at once to win faith and understanding."
This Harmony Perceived.
This harmony and correspondence between the natural and the spiritual has been clearly discerned by the people of pure heart and open mind. Professor Henry Drummond that man of stainless soul that Bayard of the modern Christian Church wrote his famous book Natural Law and the Spiritual World just to illustrate and prove this correspondence. But it had been observed long before Drummond's time. "Creation," Dr. Martineau had said, "is God thinking aloud." "I am thinking," said Kepler, as he traced the movement of the planets, "God's thoughts after Him." "Earth's crammed with heaven," wrote Mrs Barrett Browning, "and very common bush's afire with God." "What if earth," writes Milton, "be but the shadow of heaven and things therein. Each to the other like more than on earth is taught."
And of our Lord.
But no one ever walked earth who had so pure a heart as Jesus. He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, and consequently no one ever walked earth who had so clear an eye. He saw everywhere heavenly analogies, and the natural everywhere to Him shadowed forth the spiritual. You perhaps remember how Sir Edwin Arnold puts it:
"The simplest sights we met
The Sower flinging seed on loam and rock,
The darnel in the wheat; the mustard tree
That hath its seed so little, and its boughs
Wide-spreading; and the wandering sheep; and nets
Shot in the wimpled waters, drawing forth
Great fish and small; these and a hundred such
Seen by us daily, never seen aright,
Were pictures for Him from the page of life
Teaching by parable."
And so He enriched the world for ever with those exquisite parables of the Prodigal Son, and the Lost Sheep, and the Talents, and the Sower in this Chapter, which have given us some of our most precious glimpses into the realm of spiritual truth.
The Purposes of the Parable.
Now "speaking in parables" was by no means a new form of instruction. It was a popular method of teaching in the East. This teaching by story and picture was peculiarly adapted to the Eastern mind, and the Rabbis themselves were fond of beginning their lessons with the question, "What is the thing like?" It was an old enough method; the only thing peculiar about Christ's parables is that by their beauty, their naturalness, their depth, they make all other parables seem paltry and puerile.
Why was it that just at this juncture Jesus betook Himself to the parable? Perhaps we may get some help to our answer if we remember that, as Bacon says, "Parables have a double use to vail and to illustrate, to teach and to conceal."
To make Truth Plain.
Now, I think we must start from this point that Christ's primary object in teaching by parables was to make truth clearer. He used the parable as we use illustrations to-day to light up His subject and to fasten it upon the minds of the hearers. The parable, as Mr. Lathom says, enshrined an abstract truth in such a portable concrete form that it was made accessible to all men. It puts it into a shape familiar to orientals, a shape to which the Eastern tongue lent itself with ease, and which fitted readily into the minds of men.
Or, to put the matter quite simply the parable has two immense advantages for teaching purposes. (1) It made truth easily intelligible. Truth is never so easily grasped as when embodied in a tale. For instance, the story of the Pharisee and the Publican puts in a nut-shell the distinction between true and false piety and a long discourse could not have done it so well. The story of the Good Samaritan taught the meaning of neighbourhood and the duty of love better than any abstract discussion could possibly have done.
And Easily Remembered.
And (2) the parable made truth easily memorable. These exquisite stories never faded from the minds of those who heard them. They never fade from our minds. The parables are amongst the most familiar and cherished passages of Scripture. We might forget a discourse on the pity of God but who can ever forget the moving story of the Prodigal Son? We might forget a sermon on Stewardship but who can ever forget the Parable of the Pounds? We might forget a Sermon on the duty of the rich to the poor but who can ever forget the story of Dives and Lazarus? The parable was an excellent and indeed almost incomparable method of making truth easily understood and easily remembered. And, seeing that Christ knew that his time for preaching and teaching was short, I have no doubt these great advantages were in His mind when He began to speak unto them in parables.
But also to Veil Truth.
But that is not a complete account of the case. The parable veils as well as illustrates, it conceals as well as teaches. And I think that Christ had this effect of the parable also in His mind when He adopted the parabolic style of teaching. Remember that the parable is just an earthly illustration with a heavenly meaning. There was an outward and an inward to it. There was a husk and a kernel, a body and a soul.
And so the parable, because of its dual nature might, and as a matter of fact did, have a double effect. As Matthew Henry puts it "A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent but keeps it from the slothful." The effect of the parable illustrated that great law that "to him that hath shall be given, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." For those who came with honest hearts and seeking souls and spiritual sympathy found wonderful revelations of truth in these exquisite parables. But the unspiritual, the wordly-minded heard a pretty story, and nothing more.
The Result of Teaching of Parables.
And so this method of teaching by parables became, shall I say, a kind of judgment. It sifted out the tares from the wheat, those who were genuinely spiritually minded from those whose thoughts were of the earth, earthy. For these latter, while they heard the story, missed entirely its heavenly meaning; hearing they heard, but did not understand; seeing they saw, but did not perceive. It was foolishness to them, for these things are spiritually discerned. "Whose fan is in His hand," John had said of Jesus, "and He will thoroughly cleanse His threshing-floor" (Matthew 3:12, R.V.). The parabolic method was part of Christ's fan. It purged the floor. It discovered the unworthy and casually-minded. To some, as to the disciples, who never rested till they got to the inner meaning of the parable, it was the savour of life unto life; but to the unthinking, unreasoning crowd, who went away saying, "What a pretty tale," it was the savour of death unto death.
Chapter 26. The Sower and the Soils
"And He began again to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto Him a great multitude, so that He entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. And He taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in His doctrine, 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 it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up, 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. And He said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And when He was alone, they that were about Him with the twelve asked of Him the parable. And He said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. And He said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And 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. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And 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. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred." Mark 4:1-20.
We have thought of the Sower. Let us now think of the Soils. Jesus Christ, as I said, was the Sower, and the seed which He sowed was the Word of the Kingdom. Roughly, we may say that the whole parable consists in an analogy drawn between the fortunes of a seed and the fortunes of the spoken Word.
The Seed and the Word Compared.
Shall we dwell just for a moment on certain analogies between a seed and a word, which make the one an excellent type of the other?
In Reproductive Power.
In the first place, there is immense reproductive power resident in each. A seed is not a dead thing. It contains vast potencies of life. It is a storehouse of energy. Waving fields of grain lie latent in the seed. And a word is like a seed in this respect. It is not a dead thing; not Luther's words alone, but all our words are living creatures. They are storehouses of energy. Dropped into a human heart, they may germinate and grow, and bring forth a harvest after their kind. And especially is this true of the Word of God. "The Word of God," says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews "is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword... and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12, R.V.).
In need of Congenial Surroundings.
There is a second point of resemblance in this, that both the seed and the word need to find congenial surroundings before the life latent in each reveals itself. Before the seed multiplies into harvest, it needs to find suitable soil. Seed kept in the granary reveals no signs of life. It needs "the good ground" to develop the forces and potentialities that are in it. And in just the same way the Word, to reveal its life-giving power, must find the good heart. Even the living Word of God falls useless and profitless unless it is received with meekness into believing and obedient souls. Now, it is upon this latter fact, that the fortunes both of the seed and the word depend on the ground into which they fall, that the whole of this parable is built.
In Dependence on Soil Conditions.
As Jesus sat in the boat teaching, He saw the sower going forth to sow. He saw some of the seed fall on to the trodden path and some on to the ground through which here and there the rock peeped; and some into the corners of the field amongst the thorn bushes; and others into the soft, brown, fertile earth. And Jesus knew that though the seed that fell on the wayside and on the rocky ground and amongst the thorns was in itself every whit as good as the seed that fell into the clear, rich soil, the fanner would get no harvest from it, for the simple reason that it had not found favourable, suitable conditions. And all that reminded Him of His own experience as a preacher. If success depended upon the preacher, and upon the character of the word preached, what success ought to have fallen to Jesus, for His word was truth, and He Himself spake as never yet man spake!
The Word and the Hearer.
But our Lord knew the success of the preaching depended not simply on the word and the preacher, but on the hearer too. And He knew perfectly well that though thousands followed Him, and though He taught them all, that it was only a comparative few who really received His word. In His case, as in the case of that sower before His eyes, some of the precious seed of the Gospel which He was scattering, was falling by the wayside, and some on rocky ground, and some among thorns, and from these He would never see a harvest. Yes, my brethren, the wayside hearer and the rocky-ground hearer, and the thorny-patch hearer, they were all in Christ's congregation, as they have been in every preacher's congregation since our Lord's day.
Now, let us see who the wayside hearer and the rocky-ground hearer and the thorny-ground hearer really are.
The Wayside Hearer.
As the sower went on with his work, some seed fell on the wayside, on a beaten path that seems to have run across the field. Falling on that hard surface, the seed never got into the ground at all; and, lying there exposed to view, the birds soon espied it, and picked it up. Our Lord knew there were in His congregation that day some whose hearts were like that beaten track; they heard the Word of the Gospel, but it never got into them. A hard crust of insensibility kept the Gospel seed outside. That is the wayside hearer the man of whom the Gospel takes no hold, into whose heart it does not penetrate at all.
How he is made Insensible.
Half-a-dozen things may beget this insensibility. A person's training and upbringing may beget it. Some people are so trained or untrained as to be almost incapable of religion. The capacity for religion, as Bushnell would say, is almost extirpated by disuse. The Word of God, therefore, does not touch them. Theirs is a crust of insensibility, through which the seed of the Gospel does not penetrate. Then the incessant trampling through the heart of the world's business and pleasure and care may beget it. And sin may beget it. But, most terrible of all, as Dr. Maclaren points out, the very preaching of the Gospel may beget it. There are many ways in which the human heart may be beaten hard but the most awful hardening takes place when a man becomes Gospel-hardened.
Whatever be the process by which the heart has arrived at that state, the result is still the same the seed of the Gospel never gets a chance, for it never really penetrates at all. The Old Book is full of these men with the crust of insensibility: the Pharisees dismissing John's preaching with the remark, "He hath a devil"; Pilate, who set aside Christ's solemn words, asking that pitiful jest, "What is truth"; the Athenians, who laughed when Paul made mention of the Resurrection; Festus, who cried out, "Paul, thou art mad." The Gospel really never got at these men. It lay outside of them, like the seed on the wayside. And then what happens? "Straightway cometh Satan, and taketh away the Word which hath been sown in them" (Mark 4:15, R.V.). "Straightway" the sermon is no sooner over than it is forgotten. It never really got into the mind or heart, and so the slightest thing is sufficient to sweep it all away. They are absolutely uninfluenced and unimpressed. It is a case of "Lost Seed."
The Rocky-Ground Hearer.
"Other fell on the rocky ground, where it had not much earth; and straightway it sprang up, because it had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away" (Mark 4:5-6, R.V.). "And these," said our Lord in His interpretation of the parable, "... are they that are sown upon the rocky places, who, when they have heard the Word, straightway receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the Word, straightway they stumble" (Mark 4:16-17, R.V.). In the case of the wayside hearer the Word produced no effect; in the case of the rocky-ground hearer, it produces a temporary effect. In the former case the Gospel message took no hold; in this latter it takes only a superficial hold. They endure but for a time.
The rocky-ground hearer is really John Bunyan's Mr. Temporary. You perhaps remember the conversation between Christian and Hopeful with reference to him.
The case of Mr. Temporary.
"Well then," said Christian to his friend, as they walked on, "did you know about ten years ago one Temporary in your parts, who was a forward man in religion then?"
"Know him?" replied Hopeful, "Yes; he dwelt in Graceless, a town about two miles off of Honesty, and he dwelt next door to one Turn Back."
"Right," responded Christian, "he dwelt under the very same roof with him. Well, that man was much awakened once. I believe that he had some sight of his sins, and of the wages that was due thereto."
"I am of your mind," chimed in Hopeful, "for he would ofttimes come to me, and that with many tears. Truly I pitied the man, and was not altogether without hope of him; but one may see it is not every one that cries, Lord, Lord."
"He told me once," said Christian, "that he was resolved to go on Pilgrimage as we do now, but all of a sudden he grew acquainted with one Save-self, and then he became a stranger to me."
This Mr. Temporary, first cousin to Mr. Turn Back, living, indeed, under the same roof with Mr. Turn Back, is just the rocky-ground hearer. And our Lord knew Mr. Temporary right well. For there were people in His congregation who, when the Word was first preached, received it with all joy. They were full of enthusiasm. They wanted to take Him by force and make Him King. But when He talked strange words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood they turned their backs on Him in shoals. They had been charmed, not changed. The Gospel had touched their emotions, but had not penetrated to the heart. Paul knew Mr. Temporary. Listen, "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Timothy 4:10). Listen again. "Ye did run well; who did hinder you?" (Galatians 5:7). Every missioner knows Mr. Temporary, for in the excitement of the meetings numbers go into the enquiry rooms and fall away when faced by the stern realities of the Christian life. And every minister knows Mr. Temporary. For in every Church Year Book you will find a list of "Lapsed or Resigned" the catalogue of men and women who endured for a time.
The Cause of Failure.
Would you know what is amiss with the rocky-ground hearer? "He has," Jesus says, "no root in himself." Fruitage is always a matter of rootage. You plant a tree by the river of water, and it will bring forth its fruit in its season, and its leaf will not wither. But this seed sown on the rocky ground had no root. It was not able to shoot its fibres down into the fat and nourishing soil, so, because it had not root, it withered away. And the rocky-ground hearer is a disappointment, an unfulfilled prophecy, for the very same reason. He has no root in himself. And what are we to understand by not having root in himself? This, I think. Religion had not penetrated deeply into him. It had touched him superficially, that was all. This is the account Hopeful gave of Temporary's defection. "Though the consciences of such men are awakened, yet their minds are not changed; therefore, when the power of guilt weareth away, that which provoketh them to be religious ceaseth." "You are pretty near the business," remarked Christian, "for the bottom of all is for want of a change in their mind and will." That is exactly it. The rocky-ground hearer has not been changed in mind and will. His religion has not gone deep. A religion based on sentiment, a religion that has its seat in the feelings, a religion that has not taken captive both mind and will, can never stand the shock of life's trials and temptations. The only religion that can last is the religion that has sent its roots deep down, that has laid hold of heart and soul, and mind and will. The man who is rooted and grounded and built up in Christ will stand four square to all the winds that blow.
The Thorny-ground Hearer.
"And other" said our Lord, "fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit" (Mark 4:7, R.V.). "And others," He said in His explanation, "are they that are sown among the thorns; these are they that have heard the Word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the Word, and it becometh unfruitful" (Mark 4:18-19, R.V.). Now, if the wayside hearer stands for the man upon whom the Gospel takes no hold, and the rocky-ground hearer, stands for the man of whom it only takes a superficial hold, the thorny-ground hearer stands for the man of whom the Gospel takes a disputed hold, whose heart is not wholly and entirely surrendered to the love of God. For by the thorny-ground of which our Lord here speaks we are not to understand those bushes into which some of the seed fell by accident The thorns were not visible to the eye they were buried underground. That is obvious from what our Lord says, "the thorns grew up." To all outward appearance this ground was clean and good. But beneath the surface of the soil thorn roots and seeds lay hidden.
In other words, the fault of this soil was that it was impure. There were other things in possession. There were other seeds in it besides those which the sower scattered upon it, and the result was two crops struggling for the mastery; and there was not nutriment enough for both. The bearing capacities of the soil are limited. It is equal to bearing one crop, but it is not equal to bearing two, or, at any rate, if two crops are sown in it, the growths from them are bound to be feeble and disappointing.
A Heart Weakness.
Now in this respect the human heart is like the soil. The resources of the heart are limited, and a man is unequal to the task of serving Christ as He asks to be served, and serving somebody or something else at the same time. Listen to this; "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24). The heart may serve God, or it may serve gold, but no heart in the world is equal to the task of serving both. Listen again to this: "The friendship of the world is enmity with God." (James 4:4), or as John puts it, "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). Here are two things that cannot possibly co-exist in the same soil. The growth of the one means inevitably the death of the other. It takes the whole heart to be a Christian. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength" (Mark 12:30). "All!" No man can be a Christian with a divided heart. Now, the rocky-ground hearer is just a man who tries to do that impossible thing. He tries to be a Christian with a divided heart. He tries to serve God and the world at the same time. He cherishes other loves in his soul beside the love of Christ, and so his religion becomes a poor, sickly, stunted growth. These other things take all the sap and strength out of it, and "it becometh unfruitful."
Things that Produce it.
Our Lord mentions specifically some of those thorn roots, which, if they are left in the heart, tend to choke the Word, and take all the strength out of a man's religion. Here they are "The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in." "The cares of the world" they can blight and destroy the spiritual life. "Be not anxious.... what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink" (Matthew 6:25 R.V.), said our Lord. He knew how easy it is for men to become engrossed in these mundane things, to the forgetting of the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, which is the one thing needful. Beware of this thorn. Forethought is right enough in its place, but absorption in the "cares of this world" may mean the starvation of the soul.
"The deceitfulness of riches!" The deceitfulness of riches, notice, i.e., the tendency of wealth to beget the passion for wealth; and also the tendency of wealth to beget the sense of sufficiency, so that a man no longer feels the need of treasure in heaven.
You must have seen the disastrous results of this thorn. I have known men who have grown poorer in soul as they have grown richer in purse. Their increase in wealth has been accompanied by a decrease in piety. Our Lord knew how deadly a thorn this was. "How hardly," He said, "shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of God" (Mark 10:23).
And "the lusts of other things entering in!" What are the lusts? According to Luke's account, they are "the pleasures of this life," and these pleasures, according to our Lord's statement, choke the Word. A man may smother his spiritual life by a passion for amusement. Indeed, we see this thing taking place. We see the strength and life being taken out of the religion of scores, and hundreds of young people by their devotion to pleasure. They promised well once upon a time. The seed gave good promise of a harvest; but this thorn was in the heart and it grew up and choked the Word, so that it became unfruitful.
The Fruitful Seed.
"Some on good ground." And as I said before, this is the saving clause. The seed the farmer scattered was not all wasted. Some fell on the good ground, and there it yielded fruit, and brought forth thirty-fold, and sixty-fold, and a hundredfold. And the harvest from the good ground compensated him for all his toil and labour. And so, too, some of the precious seed of the Gospel falls on hearts that are like the good ground; hearers who not only hear the Word but also accept it. They take it in. They "receive with meekness the implanted Word" (James 1:21 R.V.) as the apostle says, and that implanted Word, received, is able to save their souls. They accept it. They take to themselves its promises; they receive its revelations and obey its precepts. And the Word thus received and accepted brings forth fruit in their lives.
The Necessary Conditions of True Holiness.
The Word is a Word of life, but it profits us nothing unless we accept it. "The Word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard" (Hebrews 4:2). It was not accepted; it did not profit. But whenever it is accepted it brings forth fruit. It has its result in the life. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" (1 John 4:11). If we have honestly received that Word, we shall live the kindly and helpful life. "If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24 R.V.). If we have honestly received that Word, our lives will be marked by sacrifice. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). If we have honestly received that Word, eternal things will be the first object of our seeking and our care.
Does the fruit show, in our case, that we have received the Word? Four classes of soils are spoken of in this parable, but really they reduce themselves to two the soil that bears fruit, and the soil that does not. In the long run men are divided, not into four classes, but into just two those who receive the Word, and those who do not. Those who shew the results in life and character, and those who do not. In which class do we stand? "Take heed how ye hear."
Chapter 25. 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 it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up, 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. And He said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And when He was alone, they that were about Him with the twelve asked of Him the parable. And He said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. And He said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And 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, And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word. And 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. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred." Mark 4:3-20.
Turning to the first of the parables, we find it commonly spoken of as The Parable of the Sower. When we look closely at the parable, we shall probably think it might more properly have been called the Parable of the Soils; but the Sower shall claim all my attention now, the Soils being left over for the present.
Christ as the Sower.
The Sower who went forth to sow His Seed is none other than our blessed Lord Himself. Yes, no doubt he stands also for every Christian minister, and every Christian teacher, and every Christian missionary, and, indeed, every one who in any way seeks to scatter the blessed seed of the Gospel. We are all of us, you may say, this Sower. But primarily and originally the Sower who went forth to sow was none other than Jesus Christ Himself.
Our Lord Describes His own Ministry.
Thus our Lord in this parable is describing the results of His own ministry. He was just at this time the object of much enthusiasm. The people were seriously inclined to believe that He was the Son of David. More than once they were tempted to take Him by force and make Him King. But all this excitement and enthusiasm did not deceive our Lord. He never for one moment imagined that all the people in the crowds that hung upon His lips were His real and sincere followers. He knew theirs was but a surface enthusiasm. He looked forward, and He could see that in the near future these very people would go back, and follow no more after Him. He looked forward a little further, and He saw Himself a lonely and friendless prisoner, with the people these people clamouring, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" No, our Lord was not deceived. He knew that out of the thousands that listened to Him there was only a tiny handful whose hearts were really touched. And the sight of a sower scattering his seed in the full sight of Him as He sat in the boat, dropping some of the seed on the wayside, and some on to the rocky ground, and some among the thorns, and some on the good ground, suggests to Him this parable. "Behold," He said, "A Sower went forth to sow."
A Work of Faith.
The work of the Sower is to plant, to sow the seed, to be in at the beginning of things. You and I, my brethren, can see some of the rich and glorious results of our Lord's sowing. It is partial harvest-time with us. He laboured, and we have entered into His labours. But it was the day of beginnings with Him; it was a work of faith with Him. He was the sower who went forth to sow; we have reaped where He sowed.
A Lonely Work.
A Sower! As a rule the Sower works alone. The field at harvest-time is a very different place from the field at seed-time. At harvest-time there is company and gaiety. But there is neither company nor gaiety in seed-time. The sower goes on his way alone. And Christ knew Himself to be such a lonely Sower. I have referred already more than once to the loneliness of Christ. It was almost His sorest burden. It is true that He had the Twelve to be with Him; but even they did not understand Him, their aims were so very different from His. And thus it was that our Lord was solitary in His work. "I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the peoples there was no man with Me" (Isaiah 63:3, R.V.).
A Cheerless Work.
A Sower! Nature is almost at its dreariest when the sower is at his work. It is very different in harvest-time! Skies are blue then; suns are warm then; and all Nature seems to laugh and sing in the enjoyment of the brightness and the warmth. But Nature is sombre, stern, cheerless at seed-time. There is no foliage on the trees, there is no verdure in the field. Skies are grey and cloudy; and if the sun appears at all, it is only in fitful and watery gleams. There is nothing to make the heart cheerful at seed-time. And was it not like that with Jesus Christ? There was very little to cheer Him in His work. He lived His life beneath stormy skies. Even, His kinsfolk, as we have seen, when they heard of His work, went out to lay hold on Him, for they said, "He is beside Himself." There were no encouraging conditions even in His own home. And the Scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth He out the devils." He did His work in face of unceasing and bitter hostility on the part of the rulers. Our Lord was just a Sower, and it was cheerless winter weather for Him from the Baptism to the cross.
A Painful Work.
A Sower! The very work of the sower is in a way painful work. I mean this, sowing is imparting, giving, flinging away. It is very different from harvesting. Harvesting is gathering, getting, receiving. No wonder there is joy at harvest; for the harvest means increase and enrichment. But sowing at the moment is sacrifice and impoverishment. The sower goes forth weeping, bearing his precious seed. He parts with a present good in the hope of a future reward. And Jesus was just a Sower. His whole life was a giving and an imparting, and it culminated in the sacrifice of the cross. Ah, my brethren, it was hard work, it was sorrowful work, it was painful work. He went forth weeping, bearing His precious seed, but He looked for some far off interest for His tears. "Except a corn of wheat," He said as much to Himself as to the crowd "fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).
A Work with its Disappointments.
A Sower! What disappointments the sower has to face! It is not every seed that issues in a harvest. "Out of a thousand seeds," says Tennyson, "Nature brings but one to bear." This particular sower dropped some seed by the wayside, and some on rocky ground, and some among the thorns, and from these there was no fruit. So the Lord Jesus was a sower, and similar disappointments attended Him. The wayside hearer and the rocky-ground hearer and the thorn-patch hearer they were all in His congregation. From the vast majority in the crowds that hung upon His words Jesus gathered no fruit.
Some of those who read this may at times feel almost broken-hearted by failure in Christian work. Men and women for whom we have worked much, and from whom we hoped much, turn out such disappointments! I know how hard it is. I know something of the heart-break of the sower who sows and reaps no harvest. But Jesus knew it too. What a sower He was! But for all His abundant sowing, what scanty fruit He reaped! Yet He never murmured nor complained. Let us go on with our sowing. It is sufficient for the disciple to be as his Lord, and, if need be, we must be willing to be baptized into the baptism of disappointment into which He was baptized.
And with its Joys.
"But some on good ground" that is the saving clause. That is the ray of glorious light in what might otherwise have been a gloomy picture. "Some on good ground" there was a Peter and a John, and a Matthew and a Thomas among His hearers, and it was worth while sowing the Word, if only for their sakes, for in them it brought forth thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. "Some on good ground"; it is not all disappointment. "Some on good ground," preachers of the Gospel, for one and another comes and asks the way of Salvation. "Some on good ground," teachers, for this child and that learns to love and obey Jesus. "Some on good ground," Christian worker, for the faithful word, often seemingly spoken in vain, sometimes finds a receptive soul. "Some on good ground" therein is the promise of the harvest. Let us not be weary in well-doing. "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing bringing his sheaves with him" (Psalms 126:6).
Chapter 27. The Responsibility of Hearing
"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. And He said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given. For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath." Mark 4:21-25.
Mark 4:21-25 An Application.
The words we are now to consider are very closely connected with the preceding parable. They form, shall I say? a kind of pendant to it. In part, they are meant to correct possible misconceptions that might arise from some of Christ's words, especially those in Mark 4:11 and Mark 4:12. In part they are designed to enforce and emphasise the teaching of the parable. If you like so to put it, they constitute the application of the sermon. The parable, as you may remember, seta forth the different kinds of reception the spoken Word meets with. The fate of the Word does not depend, says our Lord, simply upon the character of the Word itself, or upon the preacher; it depends also on the character of the hearer. These verses work upon that truth, and emphasise the responsibility of hearing.
And a Corrective.
I think we can readily believe that the twelve had been congratulating themselves that they had privileges in this matter of hearing that were denied to the general multitude. The crowd had heard the story of the Sower, but the Twelve and a few other intimate disciples had heard its explanation as well. "Unto you," Jesus had said, "is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables" (Mark 4:11 R.V.). Very likely they had been pluming themselves on the fact that secrets hidden from the ordinary hearer were revealed to them. This first word if the disciples cherished any such feelings must have been a correction to them, for it asserts that privilege carries with it responsibility, and that light had been given to them simply in order that they might spread it.
The Duty of Sharing.
"Is the lamp," said Jesus, using a homely but most suggestive figure, "brought to be put under the bushel, or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand?" (Mark 4:21). The use of a light, Jesus said in effect, is to shine, and when men light a lamp they do not put it under a couch or under a measure, they put it where it will shine the best, they put it on the stand, in order that, as Matthew adds, it may give light unto all that are in the house. Light, Jesus says, is to be spread, diffused and shared. Now, we are back here at a principle which runs right through the New Testament, viz., this, that every gift conferred upon us by God is conferred upon us for use; not for our own enjoyment or enrichment, but for service. God never blesses a man for his own sake; He blesses him that he may become a blessing. He never saves a man for his own sake; He saves him that he may become a saviour He never enriches a man for his own sake; He enriches him that he in his turn may become a source of enrichment to others.
A Corinthian Example.
Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians xii. quite a long list of gifts enjoyed by the members of that quarrelsome but spiritually opulent Church. Some of them had the gift of knowledge, and others the gift of faith, and others the gift of healing, and others the gift of miracles, and others the gift of prophecy, and others the gift of tongues, and so on. But not one of these gifts was bestowed for private and personal gratification merely; each was bestowed upon the individual member for the benefit and profit of the whole body. The principle runs, indeed, through the entire ethical teaching of the New Testament. The individual exists not for himself alone, but for others. And this is specially true in regard to the Word of the Gospel. The Word of the Gospel is not a thing to be hoarded, it is a thing to be shared. We hear it in order that we may proclaim it. We listen to it in order that we may preach it. We receive it that we may spread it.
The Choice of the Illustration.
The Word a Lamp.
Now let us look a little more closely at the figure our Lord uses to enforce this truth. "Is the lamp," He asks, "brought to be put under the bushel, or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand"? Now it is not by accident that our Lord used that figure. It is not a case simply of a pretty illustration. He uses it because the lamp sets forth certain qualities of the Word. The analogy is justified by a kinship. Just as the Word is like the seed, in that it contains within itself potentialities of life, so is it like the lamp, in that it is a source of knowledge and enlightenment. "Thy Word," says the psalmist, "is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Psalms 119:105). A lamp! and a lamp is only used when night falls. The lighted lamp implies the presence of darkness, and when the psalmist says, "Thy Word is a lamp," he implies a darkened world. A world in the dark about God, in the dark about duty, in the dark about the beyond. But "Thy Word is a lamp!" "The entrance of thy Word giveth light!" With the lamp of the Word in his hand, no man need stumble. He may walk safely and surely to his journey's end.
But not for Private Use only.
But once again, the lamp is not for a man's private and personal use. "Let your light so shine before men," said Jesus, "that they may see your good works" (Matthew 5:16). That others may see! That was the purpose and end of our illumination that others may see! For there are thousands and millions of our fellow-creatures groping their way through the gloom, and we have to let our light so shine that these others may see. If we have a lamp, we must put it where it will best be seen. For the light was given to us that it might serve them too.
"Heaven doth with us, as we with lighted torches do
Not light them for themselves, for if our virtues
Did not go forth from us, 'twere all alike
As though we had them not."
This Word of the Gospel, this good tidings of God to which the disciples had been listening, they were to spread it, to diffuse it, to publish it. It was spoken to them just in order that they might proclaim it to others. The lamp was put into their hands just that they might put it on the stand and let it shine.
Have used it Aright?
Do you think that Christian people have learned this lesson, and recognised this obligation? Have we learned it? Have we recognised that the Word of the Gospel has been given to us that we might spread it? That we hold it in trust for others? That every hearer ought to be a preacher? "I have not hid Thy righteousness within my heart," says one of the psalmists; "I have declared Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation" (Psalms 40:10). Is that what we have done? Have we been intent upon spreading the good news? Have we taken every opportunity of telling others all around what a Saviour we have found?
Or have we Hidden it?
We rejoice do we not? in the possession of the lamp. Where, then, have we placed it? On the stand? Or is it hidden away under the bushel or the bed? For, as Dr. Glover says, there are all sorts of "bushels" under which we hide our lamp. There is the bushel of modesty, false modesty. "O Lord, I am not eloquent," said Moses; and we excuse ourselves to-day from bearing our testimony on the ground that we are not good enough or wise enough to speak, and so we turn the soul into a dark lantern. And then there is the bushel of selfishness. We do not trouble ourselves that other people are in the dark. Is not that the reason why people are so unconcerned in face of the paganism at home, and the vast stretches of heathenism abroad? We do not care enough for them to carry the light of our lamp to them. And then there is the bushel of timidity and cowardice. "I am not ashamed to own my Lord," we sing; but is it true? Do we not sometimes hide our faith? In certain society do we not keep silence about our Christian allegiance?
We are disciples, but secretly. We do not boldly announce it. We keep our lamp under the bushel we do not put it on the stand. I am quite convinced there has been a great deal too much hiding of the light. We have not been eager, as we ought to have been, to spread and preach the Word.
"Let the redeemed of the Lord say so." (Psalms 107:2). But we have kept quiet about it. We need to learn the principles of this passage. The light was given that it might be reflected, the Word was communicated that we might proclaim it. The good tidings have been announced to us that we might go and tell. The duty of evangelising both at home and to the uttermost parts of the earth is wrapped up in this little sentence. Take your lamp from under whatever "bushel" may now be hiding it, and set it on the stand.
The Manifestation of the Hidden.
"For," our Lord proceeds, "there is nothing hid, save that it should be manifested; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light" (Mark 4:22). Our Lord assigns this as a reason for putting the lamp on the stand. The pertinency of the reasoning is not all at once apparent. But it becomes clear when we look at it more closely. All this connects itself with that Mark 4:11, to which I have already referred, in which Jesus said to his disciples, "Unto you is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God." The disciples may have thought that this was a kind of esoteric doctrine, which was to be kept secret from the crowds. No, says our Lord, whatever light is given to you is given that you may share it, for there is no one thing hidden unless that it may by and by be manifested. Nothing is to be hidden for ever. There is always a final end to the hiding, and that is that it may be manifested.
The Method of our Lord.
Our Lord kept certain things back from His disciples, but He hid them for a time only, that He might manifest them when they were able to bear it. He kept certain things back from the crowd, and revealed them to the disciples, only in order that the disciples might reveal them to the crowd when they were spiritually fit to receive them. Jesus did not divide his disciples into two classes, as some of the Greek philosophers did, an outer and an inner circle; an outer circle, to whom He communicated elementary truth; an inner circle, to whom He communicated advanced truth. In Christianity, as Dr. Chadwick says, there is no privileged inner circle. There is no esoteric doctrine. All Christian knowledge is to be communicated and shared. If you have gained possession of any truth which is hidden from the average Christian, you are not to keep it hidden. There is nothing hidden, but that it may by and by be manifested; so set your lamp upon the stand.
Nothing hidden but that it may be manifested! Its primary reference is to Christian truth, but one cannot pass it by without a brief word about its broader application. Hiding, says Jesus, is not permanent; manifestation is the ultimate end. Now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face. "Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
But this is not true of spiritual truth alone. It is true of all hidden and secret things. The final end is manifestation. Nothing is hidden save that it may be made manifest. The thoughts and intents of the heart, they shall all be made manifest. The desires and yearnings of our souls, they shall all be made manifest. The things we hide from our nearest and best, they shall all be made manifest. What we really are, not what we pretend to be, it shall be made manifest. What terror it would strike to our hearts if our hidden things were made manifest! And yet that manifestation is certainly coming. Concealment cannot last for ever. There is nothing hidden, save that it should be made manifest. And that manifestation of our real selves, of our inmost hearts, will be the judgment. Every man shall go to his own place. To you who read this I say, have nothing hidden which you will be ashamed to have revealed. Keep a clean heart. And make this your daily prayer, "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Strength, and my Redeemer" (Psalms 19:14).
How to Hear.
And now our Lord, having spoken these words, perhaps for the warning of His disciples, returns to the broad and central lesson of the parable. "If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4:23). It is, as Dr. Morrison says, a proverbial and anecdotal saying, but its meaning is obvious enough. Hearing is not the simple matter some people think. It is not merely a case of possessing the physical faculty of hearing. For the wayside hearer heard, and the rocky-ground hearer heard, and the thorn-patch hearer heard. That is to say, they heard the words, but they profited nothing by them; for they did not hear with the soul, they did not understand, they did not accept the Word. Hearing, I repeat, demands more than the mere physical faculty. It demands the earnest attention of the mind, the prepared heart, the receptive soul. You would think it strange if your minister should come upon the Lord's day into the pulpit without having prepared himself to speak. It is, however, equally blameworthy to come and sit in the pews before him unless you have prepared yourselves to hear. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." So much depends upon the hearing. The Word will only profit us as we receive it with meekness into honest and good hearts.
What to Hear.
Our Lord proceeds to add yet another counsel, "Take heed what ye hear" (Mark 4:24). And what a necessary counsel it is! "Take heed what ye hear." Listen, said our Lord, with all earnestness. but be sure first of all that it is the kind of thing to which you ought to listen. There is to be election and selection in the case of the things to which we listen. I think our Lord had in view the fact that false teachers would come teaching pernicious and deadly heresies. It is not the Christian's business to listen to them. "Take heed what ye hear!"
A Modern Duty.
Is not the counsel needed still? I am amazed at the absolutely gratuitous and irresponsible way in which Christian people will read books and listen to teachers whose whole aim is to undermine the Christian faith. Now do not misunderstand me. I am not for shutting Christian people up in a kind of glass case. I am not for having them close their eyes to all criticism of the truth. A faith that can only be preserved by refusing to listen to what can be said against it, is not worth very much. What I mean is that Christian people, not earnestly in search of truth and not intellectually fitted to be champions of the faith, will in sheer wantonness read any book and discuss any theme and listen to any teacher, and so imperil the faith of their souls. I know of people who have brought themselves into desolation and doubt through not taking heed what they hear. What wonder is it, Dr. Chadwick says, that people who play with edged tools injure themselves, and become perverts and agnostics? When without possessing the intellectual equipment for discussing great religious problems, we read, for instance, sceptical books, we are deliberately rushing into temptation, we are deliberately playing with fire, and the penalty of playing with fire is that we get burnt.
The counsel admits of wider application. "Take heed what ye hear." There are certain books we had better never read, certain kinds of speech to which we had better never listen. Is it not a singular thing that we are more fastidious and nice with regard to all our other senses than we are with regard to our sense of hearing? How particular, for example, we are about our sense of taste! How nice we are about the matter of food! No one would dream of eating unclean, diseased or foul food; we shrink with disgust from the idea of feeding upon garbage. But we are not so particular about what we hear. We can listen to the diseased talk of the tattler and the scandal-monger. And we listen sometimes to foul and unclean talk. We are not afraid of garbage for the mind. And yet, what is the injury inflicted by diseased physical food, compared to the injury done by diseased and unclean mental food? The one taints the body, but the other defiles and debases the mind. What endless mischief and ruin would be saved, if only our boys and girls, our young men and young women, yes, and we older folk too, took heed what they heard!
Give and Take.
"For with what measure ye mete," said Christ, "it shall be measured to you." He is back again at the subject of the responsibility of hearing. What you get, He says, depends upon what you give. What of profit you derive from any service depends upon what you bring to it. If you bring to it an indifferent mind and a distracted heart you will get no profit from it. But if you bring to it the eager mind, the receptive heart, the waiting soul, if you bring to it faith and expectancy and prayer, you shall receive the hundred fold. We complain sometimes that services are dry and barren and profitless. Whose fault is it? We are ready enough to say, the preacher's. But are we never to blame? Have we contributed our share? Have we come in the Spirit? Have we come up with prayer? Have we contributed the believing mind? What you get from a service depends upon what you bring to it. "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given... but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath" (Matthew 13:12).
Chapter 28. The Parable of the Fruitgrowing Earth
"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.
A Difficult Parable.
This is not a parable altogether easy of interpretation. In fact, scarcely two of the commentators I have consulted agree as to what is the real heart of the parable. And the difference between them becomes evident by the different titles they give to it In our English Bible the parable is spoken of as the parable of the "Seed growing secretly," and in that description of it, apparently, Bishop Chadwick and Archbishop Trench agree. That places the centre of gravity of the parable in Mark 4:27, and makes the sentence "the seed should spring up and grow, he knoweth not how," the salient and all-important sentence. Dr. A. B. Bruce, on the other hand, calls the parable "The Blade, the Ear, the Full Corn," and he maintains that the chief lesson of the parable is that of the orderly development of the Kingdom of God. Dr. Salmond takes yet another point of view, and calls the parable the Parable of the Fruit-bearing Earth, and finds its central lesson in the statement, "The earth beareth fruit of itself;" and apparently Dr. Glover agrees with Dr. Salmond, for he says that the subject of the parable is the power of growth inherent in things divine.
A Parable of Encouragement.
Now, when commentators diner so widely, it is perhaps presumption for an ordinary working minister to express an opinion. Especially, as all the truths which the different commentators maintain to be the central and primary truths are to be found in it. For the secret and mysterious growth of the seed is certainly here; and the orderly growth of the seed is also here; and the fruit-bearing power of the earth is also here. It is only a question, after all, of relative importance. It is only a question which of these various truths which are to be found in the parable is to be regarded as the central and primary one. On that question I side with Dr. Salmond and Dr. Glover, and believe that the lesson the parable is meant chiefly to emphasise is that there is a power of growth inherent in things Divine, "and that the Kingdom of God working, in quiet and without haste, through the moral forces deposited in human nature and society, is moving on to its assured end, by laws of its own." The parable is meant to be a parable of encouragement and in that respect is a complement to the Parable of the Sower.
Complementary to the Parable of the Sower
The Parable of the Sower, from one point of view, was a discouraging parable. For it spoke of the disappointments and failures that attend upon the work of the man who sows the Gospel seed. It mentions three cases of failure to one case of success. In the case of the wayside hearer and the rocky-ground hearer and the thorn-patch hearer, the seed might just as well not have been sown, for it brought forth no fruit to perfection. Now, I say, that was a discouraging parable, enough almost to frighten any one from work attended with so much disappointment. This parable is meant in a way to counteract any discouraging effect produced by the former parable. For this parable speaks, as Dr. Salmond says, of hidden forces beyond our knowledge or control, which secure the growth of the seed; it speaks of secret and prolonged processes, and tells us how seed which we have sown and almost forgotten, may at last issue in the full corn in the ear. This parable is the New Testament counterpart of that great Old Testament promise, "As the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater; so shall My word be that goeth forth out of My mouth; it shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11).
The Limitation of Human Effort
Now let us turn to the parable itself. "So is the Kingdom of God," says our Lord, "as if a man should cast seed upon the earth; and should sleep and rise night and day" (Mark 4:26-27, R.V.). What is the meaning of this sentence about "sleeping and rising night and day?" Does it signify indolence or carelessness, or indifference to the fate of the seed? Not at all, but rather the consciousness that the farmer had done all he could do, and that he must just leave the rest to Nature's processes. In connection with the seed and its growth, the farmer has something to do at the beginning, and he has something to do at the end. He has to do the sowing, and when the harvest is ripe he has to do the reaping. But all that lies between the sowing and the reaping is God's part, and not man's. No anxiety on the farmer's part will help the growth of the seed; it depends now on the sunshine and the dew and the rain things in God's control, and not in his. There is a limit to what a man can do in the matter of preparing for a harvest. He can prepare the earth, and sow the seed in it. There is practically nothing else that he can do. Having done that, he may sleep and rise night and day, i.e., go about the ordinary duties of life, and pursue his varied avocations, for the future growth of the seed depends not upon him, but upon Nature and Nature's God.
The Spiritual Endeavour.
And the Kingdom of God in its growth and development is much like that. There is a strict limit to what man can do. The growth of religion in the soul is not a human work, it is a Divine work. What can a man do? He can sow the seed. He can preach the Word. But having done that he has practically done all that he can do. Nothing that we can do can ensure that the seed shall take root and fructify. Nothing that we can do can ensure the thirty-fold and the sixty-fold and the hundred fold. We have not the power to give a man a new heart, or to beget within him a new life. In a word, we have not the power to change and convert men. We can sow the seed, and we can take care it is good seed that we sow, but the question of fruitage and harvest we must leave entirely to God. The best and saintliest of men have to leave it there. Paul may plant, Apollos may water, but God giveth the increase. "Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6).
A Fact to be recognised with Thankfulness.
This is a fact to be recognised with humility and thankfulness, says Dr. Bruce. With thankfulness, for it relieves the heart of the too heavy burden of an unlimited responsibility. It would be more than flesh and blood could bear, to think that it depended upon us, and us alone, whether men were saved or not. But God relieves us of that heavy burden. We have to scatter the seed; to preach the Word, to declare the Gospel in all sincerity and earnestness. We must leave results and effects to God. Our business is to do the sowing; the harvest is God's care.
And with Humility.
It is a fact to be recognised also with humility. For it teaches us that the real worker is God, and it drives us to a more humble dependence upon Him. We can oftentimes do more by prayer and humble waiting upon God than we can by fussy zeal. I am not sure whether we do not sometimes think we can manufacture a harvest of our own. I mean this; the tendency of our time is perhaps to multiply our forms of activity, and to neglect prayer. But the limits of the good that any activities of ours may do are very quickly reached. No amount of activity on our part can make religion take root and grow in the soul. That is God's work. And, if we want to see a harvest from the seed we scatter, it is to Him we should address ourselves. "My soul, wait thou only upon God, for my expectation is from Him" (Psalms 62:5).
The Quietness of Growth.
The farmer flings his seed upon the ground, and leaves it there. He goes off to other work, to one or other of the varied duties of the farm. He sleeps and rises night and day; and what of the seed itself? The seed springs up and grows, he knoweth not how; quietly and silently. Here we are at that truth which our Authorised Version emphasises as the central lesson of the parable the lesson of the quiet and steady growth of the seed. You have noticed how silently the very mightiest forces work. The law of gravitation that holds the worlds in their places makes no noise. The light that transforms the entire face of nature comes without tumult. The sunshine and the dew that cause the earth to bring forth and bud, visit us with absolutely noiseless tread. But there is no process more wonderful than the death and resurrection process, that takes place in the history of every seed planted in the bosom of the brown earth. God has, as Dr. Raleigh used to say, His laboratory beneath the soil. He opens in every field ten thousand times ten thousand fountains of life. He kindles there ten thousand invisible fires; He never leaves the field. And by and by, for every seed he scattered, the farmer receives back thirty, sixty, and a hundred. This marvellous multiplying process has taken place in absolute silence and quietness. You can see and hear a building grow. You can mark its rise, brick by brick, storey by storey; but you cannot trace the growth of the seed beneath the soil. The child who plants the seed to-day, and then digs it up to-morrow, will not see the growth. It is a silent, quiet, imperceptible process, and it is like that, our Lord says, with the Kingdom of God.
The Growth within the Community.
I think that possibly the original reference in the parable is not so much to the growth of religion in the individual soul, as to the spread of religion in the community. The disciples were expecting an outward and visible Kingdom. They wanted it to come at once. You remember their question, "Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the Kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). They did not see why it should not come suddenly, as the result of some great act of power. But "The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation" (Luke 17:20). Men can never say, "Lo, here! Lo, there!" And yet quietly it is growing, ceaselessly growing, and grow it will till the kingdoms of the world become the Kingdoms of our God and of His Christ.
The Growth in the Individual Soul.
But though the primary reference may be to the Kingdom in its broadest sense, what our Lord says here is true of the growth of religion in the individual soul. Spiritual growth is mysterious in its beginning. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). And it is quiet and imperceptible in its development. God is quietly at work in many hearts unknown to us. We can see no signs of life or change, perhaps; and yet the seed is springing and growing up.
Encouragement for Workers.
There is infinite encouragement and hope in all this. We soon come to the end of our little resources, and we grieve that we see no visible results. But when that is so, remember that God never leaves the field. He never ceases His work, and under His fostering care the seed we scattered, unknown to us and unseen by us, is growing up. Where we never see it, faith is in existence. Where we never suspect it, it has often made considerable progress. Think of God's answer to Elijah, when he moaned out, that he alone in the whole of Israel was left to worship the living God. "Yet I have left Me seven thousand in Israel," was God's word to him, "all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal" (1 Kings 19:18). Think of God's message to Paul, when he was cast down and almost broken-hearted, at the seeming failure of his work at Corinth. Our Lord appeared to him in a vision by night, and told him, "I have much people in this city" (Acts 18:10). The seed that Paul thought had been scattered in vain had all the time been growing secretly. And so still in unsuspected places, and without any arresting sign, the truth takes effect. The minister sees nothing. Members of the family see nothing. Companions see nothing. Yet under God's fostering care the seed is growing up.
A Personal Reminiscence.
Shall I tell you a personal incident? When I was at Lincoln I preached a sermon on "Friendship." It was addressed especially to young men. I remember feeling particularly discouraged after preaching that day. I kept company with Elijah under the juniper tree, and felt I had laboured for naught and in vain. But since coming to Bournemouth I received a letter from Australia about that very sermon. And this was what it said. The writer was in Lincoln the Sunday I preached it. He was a complete stranger, and quite casually, or rather shall we say providentially, he turned into my old Church. He went out to Australia immediately afterwards, and lived rather a rough and careless life; but the sermon he heard at Lincoln clung to him. In his wildest days he said he kept hearing the appeal to make a Friend of Him who sticketh closer than a brother. And at last, six years after the sermon was preached, he gave himself body and soul to the Lord. Who would have thought of what was passing in the heart of that young fellow during these wild and careless years? Let us be of good cheer. Let us scatter the seed. In the most solitary places, in the most stubborn and obstinate hearts, it grows and springs up we know not how.
The Spontaneity of Growth.
"For," says our Lord, "the earth beareth fruit of herself." This is not meant, of course, to exclude the Divine agency. What our Lord means to say is this; that when man has done with the seed, other forces begin to act upon it, forces inherent in the earth to which it is committed, forces of God's own providing in the way of fructifying sun and showers. Thus the truth Jesus wants us to remember is, that there are other forces besides our own human efforts which make for the growth and development of the seed.
From the Life in the Seed and the Possibilities of the Soil.
First of all, there is an amazing life in the seed itself, "The Word is quick and powerful." By itself and of itself often the mere Word seems to effect great spiritual changes. Then let us never forget that the heart of man is made for the reception of the Divine Word. We say that the heart of man is "desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9); and that is true. But we have to remember the truth expressed by Augustine in that well-known saying, "O God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee." There are hearts described by our Lord as "good ground," hearts favourable to the growth of the Divine Word. Is not Augustine himself an illustration of this. His mother's prayers and teaching for years seemed wasted upon him, while he plunged into folly and excess and sin. But all the time the heart was retaining the Word, and bringing it to fruition, and then one day, to his mother's delighted surprise, Augustine gave himself in glad surrender to the Lord. And then, in addition to the life in the seed and the capacity of the heart, there is the ceaseless ministry of the Spirit of God. He is continually working upon the souls of men, and in the most wonderful ways bringing the seed to harvest. And so my brethren we may venture to hope and trust; though we may see no sign of harvest, yet we may with patience wait for it.
The Orderliness of Growth.
"The earth heareth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear," (Mark 4:28, R.V.). Notice the progression. "First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear." This is the orderliness of growth. Through all these stages the corn passes, and you must give it its time. You must not expect the full corn in the ear in the springtime. It is the blade that you will see then. The full corn in the ear belongs to the golden and mellow autumn. There are similar stages in the development of the good seed of the Kingdom. There are the feeble beginnings, the enlarging strength, and the full maturity of Christian growth. There are some Christians who are in the infant class, engaged with the beggarly elements. There are some who are pressing on to perfection. John in his Epistle seems to refer to three distinct stages of Christian development. There are the little children who have had their sins forgiven, the blade; there are the young men who are strong and have overcome the evil one the ear. There are the fathers rich in experience, mature in knowledge, who have known Him who is from the beginning (1 John 2:12-14) the full corn in the ear. The Christian life is a gradual and ordered growth. Sanctification is a lifelong process. And this ought to teach us patience and kindliness. You have no right to expect in the young beginner the rich experience of an old disciple. However crude the beginner's religion may be, hope the best, and believe the best. When Dr. Dale was a young man, many of the old saints in Carr's Lane shook their heads over him. I daresay his preaching then was a little violent and ill-balanced. "Let him alone," said John Angell James; "he'll come right." The blade with patience and kindly care will develop into the ear, and the full corn in the ear.
Questions for Ourselves.
In what stage are we? Some of us have been Christians for many years. Is our sanctification making progress? Are we getting to that stage of Christian life when our Lord is getting a rich harvest in us? When He sends forth the sickle, because the harvest is come, will He find us with full corn in the ear?
Chapter 29. The Parable of the Mustard Seed
"And He said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it." Mark 4:30-32.
Discouragement and Encouragement.
This, like the Parable of The Seed Growing Secretly is a parable of encouragement and good hope. There had been in the Parable of the Sower, as I have already pointed out, a great deal to discourage and depress. It seemed to suggest that of the seed sown in men's hearts, three parts would be lost. For it records three cases of failure for one of success. And, according to Matthew's account, the parable of the Sower had been followed by a more discouraging parable still, viz., the parable of the Tares. In addition to the perversity of the human heart, our Lord told His disciples that they had to reckon with an adversary who was just as tireless sowing the seeds of noxious weeds, as they were in sowing the good seed of the Kingdom. Between the parable of the Sower and the parable of the Tares I can well believe the disciples were sorely discouraged and depressed. They may have wondered whether it was worth while to sow the seed of the Kingdom at all. And so our Lord followed up those two parables about the difficulties and discouragements of Christian work, with these two about the encouragements and glorious results of it. First, the parable of the fruit-bearing earth, and the seed growing secretly. And secondly, this parable of the mustard seed, which from tiny beginnings developed and grew until it became greater than all the herbs in the garden, and almost attained to the dimensions of a tree.
The Main Lesson of the Parable.
The broad lesson of the parable is simple and obvious enough. It is that, as Dr. Hamilton puts it, of "a little germ and a large result, a small commencement and a conspicuous growth, an obscure and tiny granule followed by a vigorous vegetation, the least of all seeds becoming the greatest of all herbs." It was meant to teach the disciples not to despise the day of small things. The Kingdom of God, as they now saw it, was so unlike their anticipations, and so insignificant in its appearance; there was such a difference between their Master a humble carpenter from Nazareth and the conquering Prince of their dreams, that they may well have been filled with gloomy anticipations. It may have been the "mustard seed" appearance of the Kingdom that made Judas turn traitor. So this parable was spoken to correct any doubts in their minds, and to give them the assurance of a mighty future, in spite of the small and obscure beginnings.
The Tiny Seed.
And now let us turn to the parable itself. Our Lord begins with fine oratorical tact, as Dr. Morison puts it, by asking a question. He invites His hearers to think of suitable similitudes. He invites them to let their minds play upon the subject. How shall we liken the Kingdom of God? He asked. Or in what parable shall we set it forth? And then, perhaps, He paused, as if waiting for a reply. I wonder what were the similitudes that suggested themselves to His hearers. If I had to guess, I should guess that they were all ambitious, grandiose, high-flown. For you must remember that these men had been brought up on the glowing imagery of the prophets. All their conceptions of the Kingdom they had derived from their impassioned pages. They would naturally and inevitably think, therefore, of those splendid pictures of Zion exalted on the tops of the mountains, and all the nations flowing into it (Isaiah 2:2); of that glorious city whose walls were Salvation and whose gates Praise, into which all nations poured their wealth, and to which the Kings of Sheba and Seba offered gifts (Psa. lxxii). It was some such majestic and ambitious picture as that, that presented itself to the disciples' minds. Judge, therefore, of their surprise, very likely of their disappointed surprise when, after a gentle pause, Jesus answered His own question, and said, "It is like a grain of mustard seed." The disciples were thinking of something very great. Jesus Himself compared it to something very small. For the smallness of the mustard seed had passed into a proverb. It was indeed, as Jesus says Himself, "less than all the seeds" i.e., all the seeds in common use. And the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like that.
The Insignificant Beginnings of Christianity.
Now, what our Lord has in mind here is the insignificance of the historic beginnings of Christianity. And what really could be more insignificant? Think of Jesus Christ Himself since, as Archbishop Trench says, He Himself is really the Mustard Seed, for from Him all subsequent developments of Church and Kingdom have issued. What could be lowlier, humbler, more insignificant, judged by men's ordinary standards, than the career of Jesus? Growing up, as Trench says, in a distant and despised province; working in His town as an ordinary carpenter, He did not till His thirtieth year emerge from the bosom of His family. Then for two or three years He preached and taught in the neighbouring towns and villages, with occasional visits to Jerusalem; gathered about Him a small band of disciples, for the most part fisherfolk; and at length, falling into the hands of His enemies, with no resistance on His part or on that of His followers, died a malefactor's death upon the Cross. What could have been more insignificant? The life and death of Jesus scarcely made a ripple in the life of the great world. Cæsar in his palace never heard His name, and probably would not have given a second thought to it, if he had heard it. The story of a Jewish provincial who had died a slave's death would be regarded as quite beneath notice. The insignificance and humbleness of the whole movement which Christ initiated were, indeed, cast up as a reproach against Him. "Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on Him?" (John 7:48) was the taunt flung at Him by unbelieving Jews. Here Christ quite freely and frankly admits that insignificance. There was nothing striking or obviously great about the Kingdom, as represented in Himself and His tiny band of disciples. "It is like a grain of mustard seed."
Other Characteristics of the Seed.
Some commentators find a lesson in the fact that it is to the mustard seed Christ compares His Kingdom. Trench, for instance, thinks that our Lord chose the mustard seed not simply because of its tiny size, but also because of its heat and fiery vigour; and the fact that only through being bruised and broken does it give out its best virtues, all of which makes the mustard seed a fit type of the destinies of that Word of the Kingdom which centres in the preaching of Christ crucified a Saviour who gave His body to be broken and His blood to be shed for us a preaching which seemed to the Greek foolishness, and was to the Jew a stumbling-block, but which, as a matter of fact, proved itself to be the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The Seed and its Growth.
But while such analogies may be true and helpful, I do not think they were in the mind of Christ when He uttered this parable. He had one single lesson which He wished to teach, and that was that very tiny beginnings might have great endings. Very likely the disciples were discouraged by the small show the Kingdom was making. They looked for thrones, and here they were a band of wandering preachers dependent on charity for support. Christ admits the insignificance; they were indeed but a "little flock," but He lifts their eyes to the great and glorious future. "It is like unto a grain of mustard seed," He said, but the mustard seed has this quality about it, that "when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all the herbs, and putteth out great branches" (Mark 4:32, R.V.). Some people have felt that the grown mustard herb was too insignificant a figure to describe the majestic growth of the Kingdom. The great oak or the cedar of Lebanon, they feel, would have been a more fitting simile. But it is not so much the majesty of the Kingdom that Christ is emphasising here as the contrast between beginnings and endings, the difference between the seed and the product. And while the difference between the acorn and the oak is conspicuous enough, the difference between the mustard seed and the mustard herb is more striking still. For in the East, according to the testimony of travellers, the mustard will grow till it overtops a man on horseback. And that is the truth Christ wishes to drive home great results may follow from tiny beginnings.
The Large Result.
Christ never had any fears about the future. The fewness and the poverty of His disciples never dismayed or daunted Him. The fact that His career was to end upon a cross did not stagger Him. He looked away from the discouraging, depressing, insignificant present to the great and glorious future. He knew that, in spite of seeming weakness and defeat, the future was His. He knew His disciples were but a "little flock," few in numbers, almost beneath contempt in position and social influence, and yet He dared to say to them, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).
He knew that the cross was preparing for Himself, and yet, when thinking of it, it seemed to be transformed into a throne. "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me" (John 12:32). And here He is bidding His disciples remember that from tiny and insignificant beginnings great results may flow; the seed, the least of seeds, may become a tree.
The "Great Tree" of To-day.
Has not our Lord's prophecy come true? No movement had any more insignificant beginning no movement has ever had more stupendous results. It is the "great tree" we see to-day. The Kingdom which began with Jesus and His handful of Galilean disciples, is now the mightiest force in the world. It has spread into every land. It numbers its subjects by the million. It differs from every earthly kingdom. They often make a great beginning, but come to a miserable and shameful end. Christ's Kingdom came without observation, but it is advancing by steady and persistent growth to its glorious consummation. The mustard seed has become greater than all herbs. That is always the way with the Kingdom of God. Its beginning is always insignificant, but none can compute its results.
The Growth in the Individual.
It is so with the individual. The Word of the Kingdom drops into a man's heart. There is perhaps but little immediate and striking outward change. The Word is like a mustard seed, promising but little, but if allowed to grow, what mighty results it will produce! It will transform a man's whole life. It will affect all his activities. The Kingdom grows and grows until, body, soul and spirit, the man becomes the servant of King Jesus.
And in the Community.
And as it is in the case of the individual so is it also in the case of communities, and perhaps it is this aspect of the growth of the Kingdom that is specially in Christ's mind. Numbers of illustrations of this rapid and striking growth of the Kingdom suggest themselves. Thirteen hundred years ago Colomba and a dozen companions sailed from Ireland in a frail little skin-covered boat for Scotland. They landed in Iona, and built a tiny Christian temple there. That was the beginning of Christianity in Scotland. The Kingdom of God was a grain of mustard seed. But from Iona, Colomba and his companions went and preached to the dwellers on the mainland, to the Picts with their painted faces, to the Druids in their groves. And modern Scotland, with its innumerable houses of prayer and its widespread religion, is the result. The mustard seed has grown into the tree. Four hundred years ago the seed of the Gospel found a lodging in the heart of Martin Luther. It was a case of the mustard seed in those days, when Luther, a humble and unknown monk, travailed in soul. But from Martin Luther and his spiritual conflicts the Protestantism of half Europe and America and Australia has sprung. The grain of mustard seed has become a great tree. A hundred and fifty years ago John Wesley's heart was "strangely warmed," in the little meeting-house in Aldersgate Street. The Kingdom of God in this case was like a grain of mustard seed. The great world never knew that anything extraordinary had happened. But from that experience sprang the great Evangelical Revival and the Methodist Church of to-day. The grain of mustard seed has become a great tree. A little over a hundred years ago William Carey's soul was filled with concern about the heathen. He was a man of no great position and of little influence. Even his brother ministers poohed-poohed William Carey and his notion of converting the heathen. The Kingdom of God was like a grain of mustard seed. But from that passion in William Carey's heart the whole modern mission enterprise has sprung. The Northampton cobbler poring over his map of the world, that is the grain of mustard seed. The noble army of missionaries who have gone forth to plant in every land the banner of the Cross, the immense and incalculable work of missions in well nigh every quarter of the globe, that is the great tree. I need not multiply examples. The little one, as Dr. Glover says, when it is Divine, always becomes a thousand, and the small one a strong nation. "There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon" (Psalms 72:16).
A Message of Encouragement.
What an encouragement all this is! We have our depressing and discouraging times. We are almost in despair at the weakness and insignificance of our efforts. But we may share our Lord's radiant faith. The future is ours! Despise not the day of small things. The Kingdom may be like the grain of mustard seed, but that tiny thing has life in it, indestructible life. The forces of evil cannot crush or destroy it. It will grow in spite of them. It will out-top and outlive them. "Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end" (Isaiah 9:7).
The Shelter of the Kingdom.
"And putteth out great branches; so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow thereof" (Mark 4:32, R.V.). What are we to make of this sentence? Is it added merely for picturesque effect? Or did our Lord mean it to add something to our conception of the Kingdom? I believe He meant it to add something to our conception of the Kingdom. "It putteth out great branches," He says, and I think we may, without being fanciful, see here a reference, shall I say to the collateral blessings and benefits of the Christian faith? The prime business of the Church is to witness to the Unseen, the Spiritual; religion is its central, concern. But the Church has continually put forth branches from the main stem; in addition to its purely religious function, the Church has started and still maintains all manner of philanthropic and social agencies. Very early it began to care for the sick, the poor and the orphan. A little later it made the education of the child its charge. To-day it is providing pure and healthy recreation for our young people in the large cities. Our hospitals and infirmaries, they are just a branch; our orphanages and homes, they are just a branch; our institutions and schools, they are just a branch; our Young Peoples' Clubs and Y.M.C.A.'s are just a branch. All kinds of ameliorative and redemptive agencies owe their very existence to the Christian Church. As it has grown, it has put forth "great branches."
And its Rest.
"So that the birds of the heavens can lodge under the shadow thereof." And that suggests to me the Kingdom, the Church of God as a place of rest. You remember that prophecy in Ezekiel about the tender twig which the Lord shall plant; it shall bring forth boughs, said the prophet, and bear fruit and be a goodly cedar and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing. "In the shadow of the branches thereof they shall dwell." I think our Lord had a similar thought in his mind when He uttered these words. He thought of His Church as a shelter and rest. He thought of men flying to it for protection and peace. And such a shelter the Church has been. Read the records of the past, and you will see how in the past the Church has been the great bulwark against tyranny and oppression, and that quite literally the poor and friendless fled to it for protection. But in a still deeper sense is the Church a shelter to men. It is a shelter to the man who is oppressed and harassed by temptation. Think what a difference it would make to many a tempted soul if all the holy and restraining influences of Christianity were removed. Men and women who are sorely tried out in the world yonder are strengthened for duty by communion with God's people. They find shelter in the tree. It is a shelter to men who are pursued by their sins. They come up to God's house, they enter the fellowship of Christian people, and they hear of the cleansing blood of Christ, and their sins cease to pursue them. They are under the shelter of the Great Rock. I saw men not long ago, weary men, asleep in St. Paul's Cathedral. They were evidently poor. They had probably been walking hither and thither looking for work, and there, tired out, they were asleep in the great cathedral. But there is a better rest than that, which men find in the Kingdom. "Come unto Me," says Jesus, "all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28) rest to the soul, perfect satisfaction; and I can see men coming from every part of the world seeking it. "Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?" (Isaiah 60:8). They are the many children of men seeking rest in the shadow of the tree. By her we shall be covered from the heat, and in her glory shall we dwell.
Chapter 30. The Storm
"And the same day, when the even was come, He saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side. And when they had sent away the multitude, they took Him even as He was in the ship. And there were also with Him other little ships. And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And He was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake Him, and say unto Him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And He said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?" Mark 4:35-41.
This story of the storm is, as Dr. Chadwick says, one of the most familiar narratives of the New Testament. It is a first favourite in our Sunday Schools. It has formed the subject of many a picture, the theme of many a hymn. Looking back to the days of my own childhood, I believe that the first hymn I ever learned and it has clung fast to my memory ever since was that old hymn which begins:
"A little ship was on the sea;
It was a pretty sight,
It sailed along so pleasantly,
And all was calm and bright."
The Christ of the Story.
But this incident of the storm is more than a pretty story. It is not only a charming narrative for children. It is pregnant with instruction for grown-up men and women. Indeed, my difficulty is not to know what to say, but to know what to leave out. But let us confine our attention here to the Christ this story reveals. There are many other things in the story. There is a whole sermon, for instance, in a study of the conduct of the disciples their considerateness, their panic-fear, their speechless wonder; but all these we must pass over, and be content to look simply at the Christ this narrative reveals.
The Weary Christ
And our first view of Him is a view of the weary Christ. Mark makes a special point of the day on which this incident took place. It was, he says, on "that day," that is, on the day on which He had preached these wonderful parables and several more besides, as we know from St Matthew's account. Apparently He had been preaching all the day long. It may have been one of those days when the multitude pressed upon Him to hear the Word of God, and He had not leisure so much as to eat. Anyhow, from morning till night He had been busy at His Holy work; and it was not till even was come that He suggested to His disciples that they should go over to the quiet and lonely shores on the other side of the lake.
A day's preaching in the hot and stifling atmosphere of the Galilean Sea, must, however, imply a tremendous strain. But the physical strain was not all; preaching was, with our Lord, no cheap and easy business. Indeed it is not a cheap and easy business to any preacher worth the name. To be an ambassador for Christ, beseeching men on Christ's behalf to be reconciled to God, this is no light or unimportant task. "Knowing... the terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Corinthians 5:11), that is no light responsibility. To warn men to flee from the wrath to come, that is not a thing a man can do with a gay and irresponsible heart. To watch for souls as those who shall give account, that is no pastime, that is not something a man can do with a laugh and a smile. Preaching, when it is worth the name, is a costly business. I know a great many folk think it is a very easy thing to preach, that the preacher has what is known as "a soft job." Possibly some who are themselves preachers find it such. But that is only because they have missed their vocation; for there is no work so burdensome, so toilsome, so exacting, so costly, as that of the true preacher. It puts a strain, not upon body and mind simply, but upon heart and spirit as well; it costs blood and sweat, and agony and tears. And of all preachers Jesus realised most vividly what preaching meant. His heart went out in a perfect passion of pity to the crowd to whom He spoke.
"Oh, to save these to perish for their saving,
Die for their life, be offered for them all."
Preaching cost Him a great price. "Virtue went forth from Him." His pity, His passion for souls, drained Him of vital force. There was entreaty, there was desire, there was agony in the preaching of Jesus, and it left Him utterly exhausted and spent.
How all this comes out in the narrative before us! It was the disciples who had to dismiss the crowd, and then they take Him, even as He was, and set sail for the other side, "Even as He was!" We have but to give play to our imagination, and we may see a whole world of pathos in that little phrase, "Even as He was," without stopping to furnish Him with another cloak for what might be a cold journey across the lake, without waiting even to refresh Him with food and drink, they take Him, "even as He was," weary, worn, faint and spent in the boat; and once in the boat, Nature asserted her claim. On the hard boards of the fishing boat, our Lord fell asleep, with probably a bundle of nets for an extemporised pillow. He slept the deep and dreamless sleep of a worn-out and exhausted man. He slept on when the wind began to rise; He slept on through the roar of the waves; He slept on through all the excitement caused by the filling of the little boat. He was tired, weary, utterly spent. That is the Christ we see at the beginning of this incident, the worn and weary Christ.
The Lord Jesus as a Worker.
What a worker Jesus was! He never spared Himself. He toiled till He dropped. We sing in our hymn "Go, labour on, spend, and be spent." It is a fine sentiment with most of us, and little or nothing more. Who of us finds himself spent in the service of his fellows? Who of us finds himself utterly worn out and exhausted in the work of doing good? Spent! But it just describes our Lord's case. He spent Himself in ministering to men; comfort, ease, even time to eat Christ cheerfully sacrificed them all. The zeal of God's house ate Him up. Here He is at the end of a day's work, and the disciples take Him with them, even as He was, a spent and weary Christ!
And for us.
What a hint we get here of the cost of our redemption! We are apt to confine our view to the cross when we think of the price paid for our redemption; but in a deep and true sense, Christ's whole life was a sacrifice, and long before He gave His blood, He lavished upon men sympathy and compassion and love at a cost beyond our computation. I look on this tired Christ, and I see all this was for me. It was part of the price He had to pay for our deliverance. And how near this brings our Lord to us! "He was touched with the feeling of all our infirmities." All? Yes, all! And among other things He knew what it was to be tired. There are a great many tired folk in the world. Well, Christ can sympathise, for He was one Himself, a tired Christ. And there are some of us who get weary and worn in Christian work. We are in a glorious succession, for we are following in the steps of that weary Jesus, who fell asleep in the ship's stern and whom not even the hurtling storm could awake.
The Seemingly Heedless Christ.
And there is another Christ we see in this story. We see the seemingly heedless Christ. It was fine when they started out on their sail across the lake. Under ordinary circumstances a sail of an hour and a half would have seen them across. But it was to be no swift and safe passage this time. The Lake of Galilee is notorious for its sudden and furious squalls. The commentators will tell you that its position in a kind of deep gorge, below the level of the sea, and with the snowy slopes of Hermon not very far away, accounts for the lake's bad reputation in this respect. And one of these sudden and furious squalls struck the lake on this particular night. There arose, says Mark, "a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling" (Mark 4:37, R.V.). You may be sure the disciples did their best to keep their little boat afloat, for they were expert sailors. But, in spite of all their efforts, the storm was getting the better of them. "The boat was now filling." The furious waves dashed into their little craft, and a watery grave stared them in the face. And all the time while they were straining every nerve to ward off the threatening danger, all the time that they were fighting for dear life, Jesus was lying asleep in the stern, seemingly quite heedless of and indifferent to their trouble.
At last they awoke Him, and you can catch in their words the reproachfulness of the men who thought they had been neglected in their hour of need. "Master, carest Thou not that we perish?" (Mark 4:38). The Master sleeping on, while His disciples were battling for dear life here you have what to all appearance looks like a heedless Christ.
And there are times when it does seem as if Jesus did not care. Listen to this verse: "Behold, a Canaanitish woman came out from those borders, and cried, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, Thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil" (Matthew 15:22, R.V.). There you have a poor soul in sore trouble. Of course Jesus will give a swift and gracious answer. "But He answered her not a word" (Mark 4:23). That looks like a heedless Christ. Listen to this other verse. "Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, of the village of Mary and her sister Martha... The sisters therefore sent unto Him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom Thou lovest is sick" (John 11:1, John 11:3, R.V.). Of course Jesus will hurry swiftly back to Bethany on the receipt of that news, for Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus (Mark 4:5). But this is what I read: "When therefore He heard that he was sick, He abode at that time two days in the place where He was" (Mark 4:6). What do you suppose the brokenhearted sisters thought of Him, when the days passed, and He did not come? Do you not think they must have thought Him a heedless Christ? And there come times to us when the storm of doubt and trouble and sorrow beats down upon us, and we are in sore and dire trouble, and Jesus makes no sign of coming to our help. We cry, and He does not seem to hear or answer us. We fight for very life, and He sleeps on, apparently indifferent to our fate, and we are tempted to think sometimes that He does not care.
Heedless in Appearance only.
But the heedlessness is never more than in seeming. "Master," said these panic-stricken disciples at the last, roughly perhaps awaking Him, "carest Thou not that we perish?" And Jesus was amazed at their panic. "Why are ye fearful?" He said. "Have ye not yet faith?" (Mark 4:40, R.V.). Not yet! They were slow scholars. The Master had given them proof after proof of His power. They had witnessed His authority over human disease and evil spirits. They had seen Him rescue this person and that from danger and death. The knowledge that Christ was with them in the boat ought to have been a sufficient safeguard against fear. They might have known no harm could befall them. Christ is not heedless. His presence, though He seems silent, is the pledge of our safety. Read the story of the Canaanitish woman to its close. This is how it ends: "O woman, great is thy faith; be it done unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was healed from that hour" (Matthew 15:28, R.V.). She knew before she went home that Christ was not a heedless Christ. Read the story of the sisters to its close, and this is how it ends: "When He had thus spoken, He cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. He that was dead came forth" (John 11:43-44, R.V.). When they received their brother back again, alive and well, Martha and Mary would know that Christ was not a heedless Christ. Read this story to its close, and this is how it ends: "And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm" (Mark 4:39). Before they reached the other side, these disciples knew that Jesus was not a heedless Christ. He is never a heedless Christ. He hears our sighs, He counts our tears. He may seem to be asleep sometimes, and to be indifferent to our distress; but He is watching all the time, and at the fitting moment He will come with help and succour. Be quite sure of this, my brethren, that to have Christ with us is a pledge and absolute assurance of safety. "No one shall snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:28, R.V.). Have Him in your life's vessel, and the storm is yet to be born that can overwhelm your little bark. "Row on! row on!" cried Cæsar to his boatmen, as they were crossing the Adriatic in the teeth of a furious storm; "you are bearing Cæsar and his fortunes." Well, I do not know that "bearing Cæsar and his fortunes" was any guarantee of safety. But if we are bearing Christ, we need not fear.
"With Christ in the vessel, I smile at the storm."
The Mighty Christ.
Now let me pass on to speak of another view of Christ I get in the narrative. I see Him not simply as the weary Christ, as the seemingly heedless Christ, but I see Him also as the mighty Christ. When His disciples awakened Him with their faithless cry, He arose and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, "Peace be still." "Be muzzled," He said, as if it were a raging, roaring beast. And both wind and sea heard His voice, and obeyed it, for "the wind ceased, and there was a great calm." Usually, long after the storm has blown itself out, the sea, by its heave and swell continues to show the results of it. But at the bidding of Jesus, as Dr. Salmond says, "the lake sank back, like an exhausted creature, into motionless repose." What power is this! Incidentally, notice how swift Christ is to answer human appeals, even when they are faulty and faithless. The cry of the disciples was scarcely a cry of faith. And yet Jesus responded to it. He deals gently and tenderly with the feeblest and most imperfect kind of faith. When a man can get no further than, "Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!", He hears and answers. It is a great encouragement to us. Cry to Him, even when faith falters and fails. He will never turn a deaf ear. "Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37).
It is a strong Deliverer whom this story reveals to us. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. He can hush the storm even now. What are some of the storms that break upon our heads as we pass through this mortal life? Well, there is the storm of trouble. It presses heavily upon us sometimes. We can say with the Psalmist sometimes, "All Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over me" (Psalms 42:7). And yet, even such a storm as that our mighty Lord can still. "Thou wilt keep Him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee" (Isaiah 26:3). "Rejoicing" says St Paul, "in tribulation." There you have the storm stilled. And there is the storm of guilt and shame. How men are tempest tossed by the consciousness of sin! "Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24); that is a man out in the fierce storm. "Thanks be to God... through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:57); that is the storm stilled. In what a tempest of shame and sorrow the sinful woman knelt at Jesus' feet in Simon's house! But Jesus stilled the storm, "Go in peace," He said (Luke 7:50). And in that troubled soul there was great and holy calm. Then there is the storm of death. How that shakes and terrifies the soul! And yet Jesus can still even that storm. "I am now ready to be offered," cries Paul... "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day" (2 Timothy 4:6, 2 Timothy 4:8). That is the storm stilled. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me" (Psalms 23:4). That is the storm stilled.
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Jones, J.D. "Commentary on Mark 4". J.D. Jones's Commentary on the Book of Mark. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17