Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Joy Comes in the Mourning


Do you know what it’s like to feel the sorrow of a bereaved mother? A mother’s life is wrapped up in the care and well-being of her children. When those children are taken away from her or, worse, when they’re wantonly slaughtered before her eyes, it’s like ripping out her heart. She feels empty. She feels as if she no longer has any purpose for existence. Perhaps you’re experiencing that kind of grief. You’ve not been bereaved of your children, but you feel the same kind of empty sorrow. You feel hopeless and without purpose in the world.

But there is hope if you will believe the good news about Jesus Christ. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy will come in the “mourning.” That’s one of the biblical themes that the apostle Matthew highlights in his Gospel account. Let’s reflect on how Matthew develops this theme in the second chapter of his Gospel.

The Slaughter of Bethlehem’s Children

When most people think of birth of Christ and the little town of Bethlehem, they have in mind a beautiful and peaceful scene—shepherds and wise men worshiping the young Christ. But that is not the whole picture. Matthew would remind us that from the very beginning, there was much hatred aimed at the Lord Jesus Christ—hatred that resulted in the shedding of innocent blood!

In the second chapter of his Gospel, Matthew records an event that followed the birth of Christ: the slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. According to verse 7, Herod had learned from the wise men when the star first appeared. Then, once he realized that the wise man had become privy to Herod’s scheme and escaped, he calculated the time elapsed from the appearing of the star, and he sent his soldiers to slaughter every male child two years and under.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men (Matt 2:16 ESV).
Matthew’s portrait of Herod accords well with secular history. History portrays Herod as a very gifted and capable leader, which is one of the reasons he was called “Herod the Great.” In his lifetime, he had many achievements to boast to his credit. But Herod was also a very cunning and cruel ruler. During the latter years of his rule, Herod became very suspicious that someone would usurp his throne. In fact, we’re told that he had three of his seven sons murdered, as well as one of this wives, because he suspected them of treason. For this reason, the Roman Emperor is reported to have said: “Better to be Herod’s pig [hus] than his son [huios].”

So it should be no surprise us to see Herod responding this way to the news that the King of the Jews has been born. Bethlehem’s population was probably under 1000 people, which, according to statistics, would put the number of baby boys slaughtered at around 20-30. Can you imagine such a horrible scene? Why would Matthew include such a gory scene in his gospel?

Not Everybody Loves Jesus

Commenting on this text, J. C. Ryle notes that Christ is portrayed as “‘a man of sorrows’ even from his infancy.”[1] Don’t let the sweet little Nativity Scenes fool you. Here’s the “rest of the story”: not everybody loves Jesus. And there are still people today who, like Herod, would rather murder the Christ than worship Him.

What’s more, if you’ve been a Christian for very long and if you’ve made a public commitment to Christ, you know about the opposition. You’ve experienced the truth underscored by the apostle Paul: “All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12).

The End of Rachel’s Tears

There is another reason why Matthew includes this tragic incident. According to verses 17 and 18, this gruesome event was no mere accident, but it happened in order to fulfill OT Scripture:
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ”A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:17–18 ESV).
Ramah was a city located on the border between Ephraim and Benjamin, about 5 miles north of Jerusalem and 10 miles north of Bethlehem. This is significant, because Ephraim was part of the Northern kingdom and Benjamin was part of the Southern kingdom. According to Jeremiah 40:1, the city of Ramah was used as a staging place for the deportation of God’s people into captivity. Rachel was one of Jacob’s wives. She had two sons: her first son was Joseph, to whom was born Ephraim. Her second son was Benjamin.

The Tragedy of the Exile

But Rachel has been dead for over 1,000 years. How could she be weeping? Obviously, Jeremiah is using figurative language to portray Rachel as the mother of the nation—Ephraim represents the north and Benjamin represents the south. From the grave the mother of the nation weeps for her children, and she refuses to be comforted because they are no more!

Try to imagine what this would be like. Families are literally being tom apart. Husbands and wives are being exiled to separate locations. Brothers and sisters will never see one another again. Mothers are being separated from their children. What great sorrow and grief! As Matthew reflects upon the sorrow experienced by the mothers at Ramah and that experienced by the mothers at Bethlehem, he obviously sees a clear correspondence.

All Hope Seems Lost!

But the correspondence is much deeper than mere emotional grief. As you know, the hope of redemption was bound up in the promise of a male seed who would descend from the nation of Israel, from the tribe of Judah, and from the line of David.

But when the young men of Israel—especially the descendants of David—were lined up in Ramah to be exiled from the Land of Promise, all hope of redemption seemed to be lost! All hope of salvation forever vanished!

Joy Comes in the “Mourning”!

And yet, all is not hopeless! “Though weeping may endure for the night; joy comes in the morning” (Psa 30:5). And so, the Jeremiah assures God’s people:
Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer 31:16–17 ESV).
Jeremiah’s prophecy is not primarily a prophecy about sadness and grief. It’s primarily a message about joy and hope! In fact, as you know this chapter goes on to predict the coming of a New Covenant! (31:31-34). Yes, tears will precede the joy. But joy will come in the morning!

Jesus Wipes Away Tears

That’s Jeremiah’s message, and I believe Matthew’s point is that the “end of Rachel’s grief” portrayed by Jeremiah has come to fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah which began with the grief of Bethlehem’s mothers. In other words, the weeping mothers of Bethlehem do not merely recapitulate the sorrow experienced at Ramah. But they serve as a harbinger of the Messianic hope foretold by Jeremiah! As Donald Carson writes
The tears of the exile are being fulfilled—the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day are climaxed and ended by the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. The heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant promised by Jeremiah.[2]
Isn’t that glorious! Let me put it in more practical terms: Christ is the end of sadness and grief and He is the beginning of joy and hope to all who will believe. And that’s true for sinner and saint alike! Whoever you are, look to Christ and find joy in the midst of your mourning.
______________

[1] Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 1:15.
[2] “Matthew” in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 95.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A New Seminary


Note: Keith Throop here! Doing some blog maintenance and editing, I accidentally messed up and then had to delete my blog partner Jeff Johnson's post about the new seminary begun through the efforts of his church. I was able to post it again it myself, but, of course, I am not the pastor of Grace Bible Church of Conway, Arkansas. Perhaps Jeff can post it under his own account again later and delete this post. This means you will get yet another reminder about the seminary, but, hey, that is a good thing, right? Anyway, what follows is from Jeff!

Grace Bible Church of Conway, Arkansas, where I am privileged to pastor, is starting a church based seminary called Grace Bible Institute of Pastoral Studies. See here.

This is truly amazing. Planting the church over fifteen years ago in my living room, I never thought this would be something God had in store for us. We are thanking God for this great opportunity.

In some ways, the seminary has been forced on us. With more and more young men joining our church with a desire to minister and preach the Word, our responsibility to train them became more and more evident. I have felt for some time now that it is the local church’s responsibility to equip the next generations of pastors. 2 Tim. 2:2 teaches us that pastors are responsible to train pastors. After starting a class that would meet once a month, more pastoral students have been sent to us by God. With such a reservoir of men, and with God supernaturally supplying the financial resources, it became clear to us that we needed to start a more robust training program.

Our objective is to equip, ordain, and send out the next generation of church leaders by providing faithful men with a doctrinal education and pastoral experience within the context, oversight, and accountability of our local church. We not only desire to offer a rigorous education in the classroom, but supply practical, real-life experience under the mentorship of our pastors.

So we created a degree program that is based on four avenues of study. First, we are offering four module courses a year where we will bring in some of the leading professors in America. Over an extended weekend, our students will be able to earn 3 credit hours in a classroom setting. Second, we will provide four residential classes a year that are taught by the elders of the church—including myself. Third, we will require six credit hours of self study a year that will be guided and overseen by the Institute’s staff. Fourth, preaching and counseling practicums will be required throughout the program.

If you want to view our course list, check here.

Dr. Bob Gonzales taught our first module on the Doctrine of the Word, and Dr. Tom Nettles is scheduled to come and teach Baptist Church History next week. For more information on this, see here.

We desire to train pastors who self-sacrificially care for God’s sheep.

Though we are not currently accredited, our goal is to become affiliated and then accredited with the Association of Reformed Theological Seminaries.

If you would like to help us, we are seeking to build a robust theological library and would appreciate book donations. We are in the mist of the building construction of our new church and seminary facilities, and with limited wall space, we plan to build a 25 by 16 foot bookshelf with a spiral staircase and catwalk at the 8 foot mark. So, we need books.  

Most importantly, we could use your prayers as our goal is not to make a great name for ourselves, but to help ordain and send out laborers into the harvest.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

2016 "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll August Update

Seven months ago we began a poll on the blog. If you identify yourself as a Reformed Baptist and you haven't already taken part in the poll, please check out the "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll on the right sidebar on this page (the red box with white type). The intention is to run the poll for one year with an interest in how the Reformed Baptist community might answer this question. I have given four options for answers that I think basically sum up the various groups or individuals that I have found to be using the term. Here are the four possible answers:
To regard oneself as a Reformed Baptist, one must ...

1) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology.

2) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology.

3) adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility).

4) adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689.
For those interested, here are the results thus far:
14% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

25% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

41% say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility) in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

20% say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
Again, if you haven't yet taken part in the poll, please do so. You may read more about the poll here in order to understand better why it is phrased as it is.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Parable of the Doorkeeper (Mark 13:32-37 Teaching Outline)

Note: In our previous examination of the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree, we saw that the disciples asked our Lord Jesus about the time when the destruction of Jerusalem would occur. We also saw that He gave them a two-part answer. The first part of His answer dealt primarily with the coming destruction of Jerusalem within the lifetime of that generation, but the second part of His answer dealt with His second coming. The Parable of the Budding Fig Tree was intended to go with the first part of Jesus’ answer about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The Parable of the Doorkeeper, however, which we will examine today, was intended to go with the second part of Jesus’ answer about His second coming.
 
Introduction: The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian believers about the great mystery of the incarnation in this way:
NKJ Philippians 2:5-8 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
Paul later explicitly referred to the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a mystery:
NKJ 1 Timothy 3:16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God [θεὸς, NU = ὃς, He] was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.
Today we are going to encounter one of the mysterious things about the incarnation of the Son of God, namely the mysterious way in which He was limited in His full humanity as our Messiah and Savior, yet remained fully God at the same time. For example, last week we saw how Jesus assumed His own complete divinity when He said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (vs. 31). Yet in the very next line He also assumes His own complete humanity when He speaks of the limitations of His knowledge in His role as our Messiah. We will see this as we examine 1) the context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the application of the parable.
 
I. The Context the Parable
 
We find the context of the parable in verses 32-33.
NKJ Mark 13:32 But [δέ, here with strong adversative force meaning on the contrary] of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son [i.e. the Son of Man, vs. 26], but only the Father. [See also Matt. 24:36, which does not include the words οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, nor the Son.]
When Jesus spoke of “that day and hour,” He was referring to the timing of His second coming about which He had spoken in the second part of His answer to the disciples in verses 24-27. We know He cannot be referring to the first part of His answer about the coming destruction of Jerusalem because He expected them to understand when that was going to happen based on the signs He had given them.
 
This further confirms the fact the previous parable – the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree – was intended to go with Jesus’ teaching about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, since it was about recognizing the signs that would help one know when it was to occur. But the parable He is introducing here – the Parable of the Doorkeeper – is about not knowing when one’s master will return. In fact, this is why Jesus introduces the Parable of the Doorkeeper by stating that “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
 
Jesus also hints at the second part of His earlier answer to the disciples’ question when He stresses that not even “the Son” knows when it will happen. This is a reference to His previous mention of Himself as “the Son of Man” in verse 26:
NKJ Mark 13:26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
In addition, Jesus mentions “the angels” again, just as He had spoken of them in verse 27:
NKJ Mark 13:27 And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.
We have, then, clear contextual reasons for understanding that Jesus was referring here to the timing of His second coming in the distant future, about which He Himself, in His capacity as the Son of Man, did not even know. So, if He wasn’t thus made privy to the Father’s timing, we must think that we shall be! And we must be content with not knowing. As a matter of fact, as J. P. Lange wrote in his commentary on this verse, “What Christ may not know, what angels cannot know, Christians should not wish to know” (Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical, e-Sword).
 
But why is it so important to our Lord Jesus that we get this point? Why is He so emphatic in asserting that “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”? I think the reason that Jesus is so intent on getting this point across is because of the great danger of deception about which He has warned the disciples in the immediately preceding context:
NKJ Mark 13:5-6 And Jesus, answering them, began to say: “Take heed [βλέπω, NASB = See to it] that no one deceives [πλανάω] you. 6 For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am He,' and will deceive [πλανάω] many.”
NKJ Mark 13:21-23 Then if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “Look, He is there!” do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive [ἀποπλανάω], if possible, even the elect. 23 But take heed [βλέπω]; see, I have told you all things beforehand.
These warnings were given with respect to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, at which time Jesus says that many false christs would arise. But apparently such deception would not stop in those days but would continue throughout the time we await His return. Thus Jesus wants to us to know that no one who claims to be the Christ should be believed because, as He has already made clear, when He Himself actually does return, no one will be able to miss it! Let’s recall again what He said:
NKJ Mark 13:24-27 But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars of heaven will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.
So, Jesus is especially concerned that we understand both the true nature of His return and the fact that the precise timing of His return is not something anyone can know. And He wants us to be aware of these things so that we will not be deceived and led astray, which is why He immediately go on to issue yet another warning to “take heed.”
NKJ Mark 13:33 Take heed [βλέπω], watch [ἀγρυπνέω, NASB = keep on alert] and pray [προσεύχομαι; NU leaves out καὶ προσεύχεσθε, and pray]; for you do not know when the time is.
Now, if you have an NASB, NIV, or ESV, you will have noticed that your Bible does does not include the third command to pray, and you will probably find a textual note that says that this command is not included in all of the Greek manuscripts of Mark. This is why there is a difference between my version and yours. But, as usual, the difference isn’t really as great as it might at first seem, since we know from the parallel account of Jesus’ teaching that He did command the disciples not only to watch but also to pray as they watched:
NKJ Luke 21:36 “Watch [ἀγρυπνέω] therefore, and pray [δέομαι] always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
So, we can have no doubt that, in the mind of our Lord Jesus, for us to remain watchful is also to remain prayerful, especially in light of the constant attempts there will be to deceive us. So, with this context in mind, we will now turn our attention to the parable itself.
 
II. The Communication of the Parable
 
We find the communication of the parable in verse 34.
NKJ Mark 13:34 It is like [ὡς] a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch [γρηγορέω].
Only Mark records this parable for us, and, although we don’t know the precise reason he chose to include it, it would seem that his decision to do so was due to the special application of the parable to a special kind of watching as we await our Lord’s return.
 
As is clear from the preceding context, this parable is intended to represent the fact that Jesus would be going away for a time, after which He would return. It also indicates that there may be a significant delay in our Lord’s return, since the master of the house is pictured as going to “a far country.” In the meantime he gives his servants work to do, along with the authority to accomplish the work. But the doorkeeper in the parable is given a particular kind of work to do. The doorkeeper is commanded to “watch.” So, although the doorkeeper himself is simply another of the master’s servants, he is nevertheless called upon to fulfill a special role. What we know of the role of doorkeepers in the first century also leads us to this conclusion. For example, as the IVP Bible Background Commentary states that:
Slaves held many different roles, but the doorkeeper’s role was a prominent one, because he held the master’s keys, kept out unwanted visitors and checked other slaves leaving the premises. But with the relative prestige of the doorkeeper’s position (some were married to freedwomen) came great responsibility as well. (e-Sword)
Thus a doorkeeper had an important role that involved not just watching out for the master’s return but also involved the security of the master’s property and servants. It would seem, then, that the doorkeeper in the parable represents the special role that Jesus’ disciples would have in protecting the Church as each believer goes about the work he or she has been called to do. This special role would later be taken up by the elders in the churches after the these disciples had all died. The author of Hebrews, for example, speaks of this role when he writes:
NKJ Hebrews 13:17 Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out [ἀγρυπνέω] for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
Such was the role Jesus’ disciples were given. But, as we shall see in Jesus’ application of the parable, He will expand His command to include all believers, indicating that we must all take part in this role to some degree. This brings us, then, to our third point.
 
III. The Application of the Parable
 
We find Jesus' application of the parable in verses 35-37.
NKJ Mark 13:35-36 Watch [γρηγορέω] therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming – in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning – 36 lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping.
Here Jesus continues the metaphor, in which “the master of the house” clearly represents Himself, and He has in mind the period of time that will elapse between His ascension and His second coming.
He also stresses for the third time our ignorance of the Father’s timing. He has previously asserted that, “of that day and hour no one knows” (vs. 32). Then He said, “you do not know when the time is” (vs. 33). And now He says, “you do not know when the master of the house is coming” (vs. 35).


Jesus definitely did not want us to miss this point, did He!? He wanted us to know with certainty that we cannot know when He will return! But He also didn’t want us to misunderstand the implications of this lack of knowledge. It should not lead to apathy but rather to awareness of our responsibility. It should not lead to endless speculation about the future but rather to striving to live as we ought to live as we await His return. As David Guzik put it:
Some people have the idea, “We don’t know when Jesus is coming, so it doesn’t really matter.” Others have the idea, “We don’t know when Jesus is coming, so we have to find out and set a date.” The right response is, “I don’t know when Jesus is coming so I have to be alert, eager, and ready for His coming.”(Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword)
Recall also that Jesus had previously said that we cannot know “of that day and hour” (vs. 32). In this parable, however, He uses the Roman system of dividing the night into four watches rather than the Jewish method of dividing the nigh into three watches (William Lane, NICNT, e-Sword). This was no doubt due to His intention that His words be clearly understood by all His future hearers.
 
In keeping with the imagery of the parable, Jesus’ warning is to watch, “lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping.” This refers, of course, to the idea that someone might be sleeping when he ought not to be sleeping. In other words, just as the doorkeeper should not fall asleep when he ought to be awake, alert, and watchful, even so the disciples should not fail to be watchful when they are expected to be, namely during the time in which we await our Lord’s return.
 
But, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus expands the application of the parable regarding watchfulness beyond the disciples to all believers, as we see in the last verse.
NKJ Mark 13:37 And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch [γρηγορέω]!
So, although the disciples have a special obligation not only to watch for Jesus’ return but also to watch out for the Church, even so we all have the same obligation not only to watch for Jesus’ return but to watch out for our fellow believers. To be sure, the disciples had a special obligation in this regard, as do the elders who now lead the churches, to protect the people of God from the errors and deceptions that we face every day, but this does not mean that we do not all share some responsibility to be watchful in this way. For example, such a responsibility was later emphasized by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:
NKJ Ephesians 4:11-16 And He [Jesus] Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-- Christ-- 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
Then, later in the same epistle, when speaking about the nature of spiritual warfare, Paul wrote:
NKJ Ephesians 6:17-18 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful [ἀγρυπνέω] to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints ….
Thus we see that we all have a role to play in watching out for the welfare of the Church as we await our Lord’s return. And this role involves knowing of the Word of God, speaking the truth of His Word in love to one another, and being constant in prayer for one another as we look for His return.
 
Conclusion: As I conclude our examination of this parable, I would like to share the application of Ray Stedman, who describes the teaching of the Parable of the Doorkeeper this way:
Now, what is he to watch for? Is he to watch for the master's return? That is the way this is usually interpreted. But that is not it [I would say that is not all of it], for he is to start watching as soon as the master leaves. They know he will not be back right away. What then is he to watch for? He is to watch lest somebody deceive them and gain entrance into the house, and wreck and ruin and rob all they have. So Jesus' word is, “Be alert; don't go to sleep; watch! There are temptations and pressures which will assault you, to make you think that it is all a lie, to make you give up and stop living like a Christian, stop walking in faith, stop believing the truth of God. Watch out for that. And, in the meantime, do your work. Don't let anything turn you aside. Don't let anything derail you from being what God wants you to be in this day and age.” This is the way you watch. We are not to be looking up into the sky all the time, waiting for his coming. That will happen when he is ready. We are to watch that we are not deceived.
I have been disturbed, as many of you have been, at how many Christians of late seem to have fallen away. I look back across thirty years of ministry and I see men whom I would have sworn were solid, tremendously committed, faithful, Bible-teaching Christians, but who are now denying their faith and have turned aside. And on every side, seemingly, this increases – people falling off into immorality and iniquity, turning away from their faith, saying, in effect, they no longer believe the Lord or the Bible. It is this our Lord is warning against.
Therefore he says we are to keep awake. Do not believe all the secular voices that tell us the world will go on forever as it is now. Don't believe the other voices which tell us there is no God, so we can live as we please, or that if God exists, he will never judge us. Don't believe the voices which whisper to us constantly and try to turn us away from our faith. With one sharp, arresting, ringing word of command, Jesus ends his message: “Watch!” (Online sermon entitled Watch!)
May God grant us all grace to be faithful both in watching for our Lord’s return and in watching out for one another.

Friday, July 29, 2016

e-Sword 11 Is Now Available!

I have been a long time user of e-Sword (alongside BibleWorks) and cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a free Bible study software program that rivals many that you would have to pay for and is better that most. This program also makes basic word studies a breeze and has been of great use to those in my congregation to whom I have recommended it. In fact, they often tell me that they love the layout and how user-friendly the program is. There is not a very steep learning curve with this program, so most anyone can catch on to it quickly. But with its recent update to version 11, an already great program has gotten even better. For those interested, here is the rest of the list of updates in the latest version:
Sword modules are now HTML-based! This change will allow many new and unique resources to be created for e-Sword. Don't worry, e-Sword will still work with the older RTF-based modules as well. Most of the resources have been updated to this new format, so you may want to download the updated versions of these modules, especially the non-English Bibles as they now contain the actual Unicode characters which makes for better search results. The new module format has also introduced a new Lexicon module type.
There is a new Pericope feature which places section headings throughout the Bible. This feature can be turned on/off by selecting "Options, Display Pericope" from the e-Sword menu.
The Copy Verses feature has been expanded with an option to include the Lexicon definition for Strong's numbers in any Bible with them.
There is a new Morphology popup tooltip for any Bibles that include these grammatical parts of speech codes.
The new Reference Book modules now adapt to the user-defined font settings as the other module types do.
Although a number of modules have been developed for purchase by eStudySource, the list of free modules grows daily. There are quite a few free modules already offered at the e-Sword downloads page, such as John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, the Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, or A.T. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament. This list has grown steadily over the years. There is also a growing list of free modules available at BibleSupport.com, about which I have previously posted here.

In case you are interested in how I am currently using the program, here is a screenshot of the passage I am studying as I plan to teach through 1 and 2 Thessalonians in the near future:
 
 

Click on the screenshot in order to enlarge it, and you can see that I have purchased a few modules but also that I have many modules that I have downloaded for free from BibleSupport.com. The commentary module I have selected in the commentary pane on the right side of the picture is the NICNT module, the commentary is by Gordon Fee.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Parable of the Budding Fig Tree (Mark 13:28-31 Teaching Outline)

Introduction: As our Lord Jesus prepared to ascend to the Father, His disciples still did not fully understand all that He had taught them concerning the kingdom of God, so they asked Him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6b). Jesus’ reply was one which we should all take to heart whenever we seek to understand the future fulfillment of His kingdom promises:
NKJ Acts 1:7-8 And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Of course, Jesus had promised them at an earlier time that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). Yet, as we have seen, before His ascension Jesus made it clear that the things the Holy Spirit would bring to remembrance and teach them would not include the “times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.”
 
In fact, Jesus had stressed the same idea when He taught the disciples about His second coming in the passage before us. After prophesying about His return and the events that would precede it, Jesus taught the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree. Then, right after the teaching and application of the parable, He said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (vs. 32). This is an issue we will consider more next week. For now I will just say that it is one of the reasons why I am not going to spend time this morning trying to understand all the specific details of the prophecy leading up to the teaching of the parable.
 
Although we will try to get a good basic understanding of what our Lord Jesus was saying, our focus will only be on seeking an understanding sufficient for the task of properly understanding the parable itself and Jesus’ intended application of it. With this in mind, we shall examine 1) the context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the application of the parable.
 
I. Context of the Parable
 
As I have already indicated, the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree follows immediately after a significant section of future prophecy given by our Lord Jesus. This teaching was given in response to a question asked by the disciples after Jesus foretold the destruction of the temple and the surrounding buildings:
NKJ Mark 13:1-4 “Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’ 2 And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’ 3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, 4 ‘Tell us, when will these things [ταῦτα, taũta] be? And what will be the sign when all these things [ταῦτα … πάντα, taũtapánta] will be fulfilled?’”
In the first part of His answer, Jesus speaks about the destruction of the temple, which focuses primarily on the future destruction of Jerusalem, which we now know took place in their lifetimes. We see this in verses 5-23:
NKJ Mark 13:5-23 And Jesus, answering them, began to say: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 6 For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am He,' and will deceive many. 7 But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These [ταῦτα, taũta] are the beginnings of sorrows. 9 But watch out for yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues. You will be brought before rulers and kings for My sake, for a testimony to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations. 11 But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 So when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet [Dan. 9:27], standing where it ought not” (let the reader understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let him who is on the housetop not go down into the house, nor enter to take anything out of his house. 16 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 17 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 18 And pray that your flight may not be in winter. 19 For in those days there will be tribulation [θλῖψις, thlípsis], such as has not been since the beginning of the creation which God created until this time, nor ever shall be. 20 And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake, whom He chose, He shortened the days. 21 Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'Look, He is there!' do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 But take heed; see, I have told you all things [πάντα, pánta, recall vs. 4] beforehand.”
In the second part of His answer, Jesus focuses on His second coming and the cosmic events which will accompany His return. We see this in verses 24-27:
NKJ Mark 13:24-27 But [ἀλλά, allá] in those days, after [cf. Matt. 24:29, “immediately after,” but the emphasis here is more pecisely on the tribulation that would occur within that generation] that tribulation [θλῖψις, thlípsis], the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars of heaven will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.
Thus Jesus has taught about a time of terrible tribulation that would come upon Jerusalem, and He has indicated that sometime after this terrible tribulation period, He will return, and there will be amazing cosmic signs which will accompany His return. It is this teaching about the future which leads to His communication of the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree, to which we will now turn our attention.
 
II. The Communication of the Parable
 
We see the communication of this parable in verse 28:
NKJ Mark 13:28 Now learn this parable [παραβολή, parabolē, ESV = lesson] from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.
 As the Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark explains, “in the springtime the sap, rising through the limbs, makes tender the branch which has been stiff and dry through the winter, causing the leaves to sprout” (p. 417).
 
This is something that was common knowledge in first century Palestine, where there were so many fig trees. So, the parable is actually very simple, isn’t it? It is a basic analogy from nature that is used to make a point. Just as one may easily tell that summer is near when he sees the fig tree begin to sprout leaves, even so the believers living in Jerusalem could know that its destruction was near when they saw the signs Jesus had described. Jesus made this point even more clearly when He Himself applied the parable to His hearers.
 
III. The Application of the Parable
 
We see Jesus' application of the parable beginning in verse 29: 
NKJ Mark 13:29 So you also, when you see these things [ταῦτα, taũta] happening, know that it [as in the KJV and NIV; ESV and NASB = he/He] is [Pres. Act. Ind. 3S > εἰμί, eimí], near – at the doors [or gates]! [Note: There is no pronoun in the Greek text in the clause it is near; the pronoun is implied in the verb and must be supplied. In this case it could be either a masculine or a neuter pronoun.] 
Some of you may have a slightly different translation of this verse. For example, the ESV translates the verse this way:
ESV Mark 13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. [Italics mine.]
This translation understands Jesus as referring to the fact that, when they see these things, they may know that He Himself is near, whereas the New King James Version understands Jesus as referring to the nearness of the destruction of Jerusalem that He has also just foretold. The Greek text can actually be understood either way, depending on how one understands the context. For example, to what do the words “these things” refer? Well, here is where our brief rehearsal of the preceding context will prove fruitful, for Jesus is referring back to what He had said in His earlier prophecy, where his disciples had used the phrase these things in their question about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Remember, for example, that, after Jesus said that “Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (vs. 2), His disciples had asked, “when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?” (vs. 4, italics mine). Thus Jesus uses the same language here that the disciples had used in asking about the destruction of the temple.
 
I think William Lane makes an excellent point when he observes regarding these things referred to in verse 29 and all these things referred to in verse 30 that, “They cannot have reference to the cosmic dissolution described in verses 24-25 since these are phenomena which accompany the parousia [second coming of Christ], not preliminary events which point to it. These things in verse 29 refers to the entire discourse from verses 5-23, with special reference to verses 14-23” (NICNT, e-Sword).
 
The ESV Study Bible also favors this interpretation when it states in the notes corresponding to this passage that “‘These things’ probably refers not to the events of 13:24-27 (for they are the end) but the events of vv. 5-23” (BibleWorks). So, although the ESV translation understands the clause as properly being translated He is near, the notes in the ESV Study Bible apparently disagree and understand the clause as better rendered it is near.
 
So, when Jesus speaks of these things, He is referring to the first part of His answer in the preceding context rather than to the second part. That this is the best way to understand what Jesus is talking about is reinforced by what He says next.
NKJ Mark 13:30 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation [ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη, hē geneà haútē] will by no means pass away till all these things [πάντα ταῦτα, pánta taũta] take place.
Again we see that Jesus uses language that hearkens back to the questions His disciples had asked about the destruction of the temple – which turns out to be about the destruction of Jerusalem as well – when He speaks of “all these things.” But here Jesus makes it clear that these things will happen within the lifetimes of the people to whom He is speaking. He specifically says that “this generation” will not pass away until these things take place. This means that we were right to understand the words these things as a reference not to Jesus’ second coming which had just been prophesied by Him, and which has yet to take place, but rather as a reference to the coming destruction of Jerusalem which had also just been prophesied by Him, and which we know did take place within the lifetime of that generation, because it happened in AD 70.
 
Now, some people take Jesus not to be referring to the generation alive in the first century but to a future generation yet to be born, but that is not the most obvious reading of the text. In addition, the interpretation I have offered reflects the way Jesus had referred to that generation on several earlier occasions. For example:
NKJ Mark 8:11-12 Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him. 12 But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, “Why does this generation [ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη, hē geneà haútē] seek a sign? Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation [τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ, tē geneã haútē].”
NKJ Mark 8:31-38 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke this word openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33 But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” 34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. 36 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? 37 Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation [τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ μοιχαλίδι καὶ ἁμαρτωλω, tē geneã haútē moichalídi kai hamartōl], of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
NKJ Mark. 9:17-19 Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. 18 And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” 19 He answered him and said, “O faithless generation [γενεὰ ἄπιστος, geneà ápistos], how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.”
Now, it may be that the tribulation that took place in AD 70 in association with the destruction of Jerusalem was only a foreshadowing of yet another future period of tribulation that will precede the second coming of Christ. This is my own view on the matter. In fact, I think a dual fulfillment, with one in the near future and one in the distant future immediately preceding the return of our Lord Jesus, is the best way to explain the complexities and difficulties in understanding these prophecies and the parallel accounts in Mathew 24 and Luke 21. But that is an issue for another time. For now I will just say that I don’t see how there there can be any doubt that, when Jesus said “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place,” He intended a near future fulfillment in the lifetimes of those who heard His teaching.
 
So, Jesus was warning them that all they once knew as most important in their lives as Jews under the Old Covenant would soon be passing away. But what was really most important would never pass away, as He went on to make clear.
NKJ Mark 13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
This would have been a very startling statement to anyone who had not already accepted Jesus as the divine Son of God, for in it Jesus claims for His own words what can only be said of the words of God Himself. In fact, the statement reflects Old Testament language about the Word of God. As Isaiah said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8).
 
The reason that God’s Word stands forever is, of course, because God Himself endures forever, as the Psalmist says:
NKJ Psalm 102:24-27 I said, “O my God, do not take me away in the midst of my days; Your years are throughout all generations. 25 Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. 26 They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. 27 But You are the same, and Your years will have no end.”
As William Lane put it, “While heaven and earth will be cataclysmically destroyed, Jesus’ word is established forever. This claim of high dignity for Jesus’ words implies a christological affirmation: what is said of God in the OT may be equally affirmed of Jesus and his word” (NICNT, e-Sword)
 
Jesus’ statement here is therefore just one more way in which He assumed His own deity and equality with God the Father in His teaching. In this case, however, He stresses this fact so that we may be confident that His words will indeed come to pass. We can be sure that, no matter what terrible things happen in our lives, or no matter how many changes we see taking place all around us, the word of our Lord is a sure foundation upon which to build our lives.
 
Conclusion: So, what are the primary lessons our Lord Jesus wants us to take away from His teaching and application of this parable? I would suggest at least three.
 
First, we can trust that the future is firmly in the hands of our sovereign Lord. Nothing will take Him by surprise. Even the terrible tribulations and sorrows of this life serve His greater purpose. As the Apostle Paul taught us, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We should not fret, then, as we see things disintegrating all around us and as we watch the judgment of God upon our culture.
 
Second, since our Lord knows the future, and nothing takes Him by surprise, He is able to warn us about things to come so that we may be prepared to face them. Despite the fact that we cannot know the “times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:7), we can know certain signs of the times that will help us to be prepared for the terrible things to come, and we can become well acquainted with His ways so that we can understand how He often works in the world and therefore not be surprised or hindered in our faith. As the Apostle Peter said:
NKJ 1 Peter 4:12-13 Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
Third, we can rely upon the Word of our sovereign Lord as the sure foundation for our lives and our future hope. As our Lord Jesus said in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders:
NKJ Matthew 7:24-27 Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.
This leaves each of us with a decision to make. Will we trust in our Lord Jesus and His Word, or will we try to build our lives on the shifting sands of the world and its lies?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29 Teaching Outline)

Note: The Parable of the Growing Seed is found only in the Gospel of Mark, and Mark indicates that it was told in the context of two other well known parables, the Parable of the Sower, which precedes it earlier in the context, and the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which immediately follows it. It is important, then, to read verses 1-34 in order to get the proper context in our minds, without which we not be able to correctly understand why Jesus told the parable.
 
Introduction: In a well-known passage, the LORD spoke through the Prophet Isaiah about the power and effectiveness of His word to accomplish His intended purposes:
NKJ Isaiah 55:6-11 Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. 8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
Today we shall see that Jesus’ Parable of the Growing Seed presupposes this very thing, that the Word of God always accomplishes His purposes, for in this parable Jesus shows us that the Word of God causes the growth of the kingdom of God until He returns. I think you will see what I mean as we examine the parable under two headings: 1) the context of the parable, and 2) the communication of the parable. Along the way, we will also see how the teaching of the parable applies to us.
 
I. The Context of the Parable
 
The preceding context of this parable features the Parable of the Sower that Jesus told to the crowds who gathered to hear His teaching (vss. 1-9). This is followed by Jesus’ explanation of the parable to His disciples (vss. 10-20), after which He used the analogy of a lampstand to introduce a warning to be careful how one hears His teaching (vss. 21-25). This context preceding the Parable of the Growing Seed has led many commentators to assume that it was intended by Jesus to compliment the Parable of the Sower. For example, John MacArthur has written that, “Only Mark records this parable which complements the parable of the sower by explaining in more depth the results of spiritual growth accomplished in good soil” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, e-Sword).
 
This point of view is also often supported by observing the similarities between this parable and the Parable of the Sower. For example, in both parables there is the metaphor of sowing seed in the ground, and in both parables the seed that is sown must be seen as the Word of God or the preaching of the Gospel, since this is the way Jesus has taught that the kingdom of God advances in this world. In fact, He explicitly stated in His explanation of the Parable of the Sower that “The sower sows the word” (vs. 14). It is easy to see, then, why so many commentators arrive at the conclusion reached by MacArthur.
 
However, although I agree that we must see the seed that is sown as the Word of God, I think that it is best to see the Parable of the Growing Seed as being paired with the Parable of the Mustard seed in the context immediately following it rather than preceding it. I think this for several reasons.
 
First, although following the Parable of the Sower in the context, the Parable of the Growing Seed does not follow directly after it. Not only is there an explanation of the Parable of the Sower in the intervening context, but there is additional teaching about the care one must take in listening to Jesus’ teaching.
 
Second, in the context immediately following this parable, after relating the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Mark says, “And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples” (vss. 33-34). This means that, after telling us that Jesus spoke privately to His disciples and explained the Parable of the Sower (vss. 10-20), He has again started to give more of Jesus’ public teaching in parables. This would include at least the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed immediately following it. The parable is not, then, given simply to compliment the Parable of the Sower in order to explain “in more depth the results of spiritual growth accomplished in good soil” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, e-Sword), for Jesus is no longer explaining the Parable of the Sower to His disciples at this point.
 
Third, although Jesus made it clear in His explanation of the Parable of the Sower that He was describing reactions to His own current teaching ministry, as we shall see in our examination of the Parable of the Growing Seed, Jesus changes His focus to the growth of the kingdom until the future harvest that will occur at His return. This leads us to our second major heading.
 
II. The Communication of the Parable
 
We see this in verses 26-27.
NKJ Mark 4:26-27 And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, 27 and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how [ὡς οὐκ οἶδεν αὐτός, how he does not know, with the emphasis on ὡς (how) at the beginning of the clause].”
Here Jesus describes the advancement of the kingdom of God by means of the analogy of a farmer sowing seed. The seed represents the preaching of the Word, which Jesus has already identified as the means by which the kingdom is advanced in this world (vs. 14).
 
When Jesus observes that, after sowing the seed, the farmer will then “sleep by night and rise by day,” He indicates that he goes about his daily routine while the seed sprouts and grows. This fact, combined with Jesus statement that “he himself does not know how” it grows, emphasizes the fact that the farmer does not cause the seed to grow. It happens in a manner that he himself neither causes nor understands. In this way Jesus was helping His disciples to see that, although the kingdom had not come as they had expected it to come, it was nevertheless present and growing, despite their failure to fully understand how this was happening.
 
Application: The application to us should be fairly obvious. As we continue to sow the seed of the Word, the kingdom of God is growing in a manner that we do not cause and that we cannot fully comprehend. It is a mystery to us, and we cannot explain it, a fact that reminds of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus:
NKJ John 3:3-8 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The way in which the Spirit works in growing the kingdom of God as individual people are born again so that they may see and enter the kingdom is a mystery to us. It is not something that we ourselves can truly understand, let alone bring about. This latter point is emphasized again in what Jesus says next.
NKJ Mark 4:28 For the earth yields crops by itself [Adj. αὐτόματος, emphatic first position in Greek text]: first the blade, then [εἶτα] the head, after that [εἶτα, then] the full grain in the head.
The word translated with the phrase by itself is actually placed in an emphatic position at the beginning of the sentence in the Greek text. We could thus translate the clause this way: “For by itself the earth yields crops ...” The word translated by itself is autómatos, which refers to something that happens without a visible cause (BAGD #1287, BibleWorks). It is used only one other time in the New Testament. It is found in Luke’s account of Peter’s miraculous release from prison:
NKJ Acts 12:5-10 Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church. 6 And when Herod was about to bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison. 7 Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, “Arise quickly!” And his chains fell off his hands. 8 Then the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and tie on your sandals”; and so he did. And he said to him, “Put on your garment and follow me.” 9 So he went out and followed him, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord [Adj. αὐτόματος, by itself]; and they went out and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.
Thus we must understand Jesus’ use of the word autómatos in the Parable of the Growing Seed as a means of emphasizing not only that the human sower does not cause the growth but that the growth happens by the working of God. So, when Jesus says that the seed grows “by itself,” and thus indicates that it does not grow by means of human agency, He does not mean that no one causes it. We must understand that God causes the growth. After all, He is talking about the growth of the kingdom of God.
 
Application: The application to us is again fairly obvious, for, although we continue to sow the seed of the Word as we await our Lord’s return, we must understand that the success and growth of the seed, and therefore of the kingdom of God in this world, does not ultimately depend upon us. We may not even always perceive its growth initially. The Apostle Paul later made a similar point, using similar metaphorical language, when he sought to correct the Corinthian church for having given too much credit to those who preached the Word to them:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.
This is a lesson we must remember as we sow the seed of the kingdom, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a lost and dying world. We must realize that true growth comes from God Himself and not from our efforts, despite His using our efforts in the sowing of the seed. We are simply His ministers through whom He works in this world.
 
As we look again at verse 28, we see that Jesus further describes the growth of the kingdom by analogy when He says “first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.” With these words His intention seems to be to emphasize that there is an appointed order for growth, an order which cannot be altered or evaded. In other words, God has His own plan for the growth of the kingdom, and He grows it in accordance with his plan. As Klyne Snodgrass has observed:
Jesus’ ministry has inaugurated a sequence of action leading to the fullness of God’s kingdom just as surely as sowing sets in play a spontaneous process leading to harvest. Even if hidden (cf. 4:22) and unrecognized, the kingdom is present and will be fully revealed in God’s time. The point is not merely that the kingdom is coming, for most Jews would assume that. The parable asserts that the kingdom process is already under way with Jesus’ teaching and activity and that the glorious revelation of the kingdom has its beginning in, and is directly tied to, what he is doing. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 189)
Application: This means that, as we sow the seed of the Word through which our Lord advances His kingdom, we must never think that we can intervene to cause growth ourselves if we mistakenly think that things are not progressing as we would like them to progress. God has chosen the seed, and He has ordained a process of growth that is in His own power. We must be faithful to play our part as His agents in this world, but we must never think that we ourselves can do what He alone can accomplish, or that we could ever have a better plan for growth than His own plan. Thus we must be patient as we trust in Him, as the Apostle James also reminds us, again using similar imagery:
NKJ James 5:7-8 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
We must be content to be faithful to do what God has required of us and to trust that He will accomplish His own purposes as we await our Lord’s return. And this leads us to the last part of the parable.
NKJ Mark 4:29 But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.
Here Jesus’ focus is on the ultimate purpose for which the seed has been planted, which is the “harvest” to come. When Jesus says that the sower “puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come,” He is actually using language that comes from a prophecy in the Book of Joel:
NKJ Joel 3:11-14 Assemble and come, all you nations, and gather together all around. Cause Your mighty ones to go down there, O LORD. 12 “Let the nations be wakened, and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. 13 Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, go down; For the winepress is full, the vats overflow-- for their wickedness is great.” 14 Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.
This is a prophecy that refers to events yet future to us, events which accompany the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, a fact that is made clear by the way the same passage from Joel is alluded to later in the Book of Revelation:
NKJ Revelation 14:14-19 Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and on the cloud sat one like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle. 15 And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Thrust in Your sickle and reap, for the time has come for You to reap, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So He who sat on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped. 17 Then another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle. 18 And another angel came out from the altar, who had power over fire, and he cried with a loud cry to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, “Thrust in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for her grapes are fully ripe.” 19 So the angel thrust his sickle into the earth and gathered the vine of the earth, and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.
The prophecy of Joel thus ultimately refers to the judgment of God that will come upon the wicked at the coming harvest. However, Jesus alludes to this passage in a context in which He anticipates the salvation of many people in light of the coming judgment of God. The Parable of the Growing Seed is thus about the growth of the kingdom of God until Jesus returns, during which time we must patiently sow the seed of the Word in anticipation of a harvest. The parable refers to an intervening time between the first and second coming of Jesus as the Messiah. Such a time was unexpected by the Jews in Jesus’ day.
 
Application: This is one of the mysteries of the kingdom of God which Jesus intended that we should know about. We thus carry out the Great Commission (cf. Matt. 28:18-20) with the knowledge that a future judgment is coming and that we have the privilege of being used by God to help lead people to salvation in the meantime.
 
Conclusion: As we conclude our study of the parable, I think Klyne Snodgrass is again helpful when he summarizes the teaching of the parable thusly:
While people go about their daily routines, the kingdom is present and at work, and God’s harvest with his judgment will certainly follow. Humans do not bring in the kingdom; they are servants of the kingdom, not its cause. The parable illustrates the proper attitudes toward the kingdom and its eschatological harvest: patience – it will come when God’s time is ripe, confidence despite appearances because God is the one at work, and comfort knowing that all is in God’s hands. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 190)
As we were earlier reminded from the Book of Isaiah, God says, “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). And He has ordained that proclamation of His Word is the means by which He will advance His kingdom in this world.
NKJ Romans 10:8-17 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
God has chosen the proclamation of the Word as the means by which he will bring about the growth of His kingdom, and we must not despise such means, even if the world regards it as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18-31). We must not think that we can bring about the growth of the kingdom through other means such as the telling of humorous stories or the entertainment of worldly people. Instead, we must know the Word of God and faithfully proclaim it to a lost and dying world if we want to be used by God to advance His kingdom in this world. And we must be patient as we wait for Him to work in His own time, confident that He will work as he has promised, and comforted by the fact that He is sovereign over the work.