Mark 4:21–33

God uses even the smallest, seemingly insignificant efforts of His people to build His glorious kingdom. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark by explaining several of Jesus' parables that describe God's unfolding plan for the ages.


This morning, we will return to our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. We are in the fourth chapter, and I will be reading today from Mark 4:21–33. I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”

And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”

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.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, we ask now that You would impart to our understanding the content of these parables Jesus taught. Give us ears to hear deeply, that we may respond with faith and obedience to every word that comes to us from the mouth of Christ. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

Not Just Any Lamp

I will begin this morning by being a little bit picky about the translation I just read. It almost baffles me, but I have a theory to explain the mystery of why this translation and most others translate verse 21 with the statement, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?”

It baffles me because in this translation, the indefinite article is used rather than the definite article. The concept of the lamp is left in a generic sense when the Greek Testament clearly uses the direct article and makes the lamp the subject of the sentence. The only proper way to translate the original here is: “Does the lamp come in order to be put under a basket or under a bed?” What is the difference, and why am I not completely baffled?

To understand this significant detail, in biblical days when the gospel writers were compiling their documents, they did not just spin things out of their minds. It is an almost assured conclusion that an early group of Jesus’ sayings were circulated called Logia or simply, the words or teachings of Jesus, which were at the disposal of the Synoptic writers. Included in these Logia were lists of similes, aphorisms, parables, and so on.

The gospel writers had the authority and opportunity to place these statements of Jesus in any context they wanted in their gospels in order to make the points they were trying to make. This simile of the lamp that is not to be put under a bushel or table is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. Since Matthew and Luke do not use the definite article, I suspect that is the reason why our translators ignore the fact that Mark does use the definite article.

So, what is the concern? If we look at this simile as generically referring to any lamp ever brought into a room and placed under a basket or table, we miss the significance of what Mark is saying. He is not talking about any lamp. He is not talking about a lamp. He is talking about the lamp, who is the subject of this discourse. What Jesus says is, “The lamp comes not to be hidden under a bushel.”

What is the lamp Jesus speaks of? More properly we should ask, “Who is the lamp?” In biblical categories, God Himself, and particularly His law, is referred to as the lamp. Jesus is talking about the Light that has come into the world with the breakthrough of the kingdom of God, and the One who is the lamp is Jesus Himself.

Do Not Hide the Light

In this simile, Jesus is saying: “I did not come here to be hidden and concealed in secrecy forever. I came here as a lamp that is to be set upon a lampstand, so that the light I bring may burst forth and manifest itself clearly to all who dwell in darkness. I didn’t come to be covered with a basket or hidden under a table.”

The reference Jesus makes is drawn from the common experience of the people of that day, whose homes were illumined at night by oil lamps. It just so happens that I brought one of them with me this morning. This little piece of pottery is over two thousand years old. It dates to biblical times.

This lamp is a very crude instrument. The lamp is like a bowl where a couple of the edges have been pinched together. This was a typical oil lamp from the ancient world, where the oil would be poured into the bowl and in the pinched-together portion would be a floating wick that would come up out of a point. The wick would be drenched in the oil from the lamp and lit with fire, and then the tiny lamp was expected to give light to the room.

You would not take a lamp like this and put a bushel basket over it, would you? It would shut out the light. Nor would you take a lamp like this and put it under a table where the light would be blocked or eclipsed. Rather, Jesus says, “You take a lamp like this and put it on a place where whatever light it generates may be clearly perceived throughout the house.”

The Eclipse of God

This past Sunday morning, I was in Dallas giving an address to the National Religious Broadcasters convention for their Sunday morning service. My message was “The Eclipse of God in Our Day,” in which I talked about the eclipse of God not only by the forces of the secular culture around us but inside the church. I mentioned that in the image of an eclipse, when a shadow passes over the sun or moon, it does not destroy the sun or moon. It only hides it.

I must tell you, I was sitting in the front row during the two-hour worship service waiting to preach, and everything was prepared as a stage, and things were announced as performances. Before I spoke, there was a twenty-minute segment of music, which they introduced by saying, “This is now the worship part of our gathering,” as if listening to the Word of God was not part of worship.

As I sat waiting to go up on the stage, listening, my spirit just kept going down and down. I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes after ten, Dallas time, and I thought: “It’s ten after eleven in Sanford. The second service at Saint Andrew’s has already started. Oh, how I wish I could be there right now instead of here.”

I do not feel comfortable preaching on a stage in the context of entertainment, particularly when my message is a plea to the leaders of evangelicalism to stop the eclipse of the character of God and to stop exchanging worship for entertainment.

So, when I prepared for this morning, I could not help but remember last week. In this text, Jesus is saying, “I did not come to be hidden, to be eclipsed by vignettes of pop psychology from the pulpit or by ministers communicating their private opinions on social and political issues of the day. I came to be the Light of the World.”

Dear friends, it is the duty of the church in every generation—it is the duty of every pastor and the duty of every Christian—to take that lamp, remove the basket, and put the lamp in a prominent place where people can behold the truth of God and His Son.

Impossible to Quench

Jesus continues His teaching, saying, “For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.” He is saying that even though He has brought the lamp into a world of darkness, as John tells us, “The darkness could not overcome it.” Darkness has no power to quench light when light is present.

Jesus understood that we live in a world that prefers darkness to light, a world that likes to dwell in secret. From the time the first sin was committed, fallen people went into hiding from God and feared the light, lest the light dawn and we be exposed, naked, and ashamed. So, it is our nature as corrupt people to try to cover the pure light of the gospel.

But Jesus says: “It’s impossible to quench this light. Nothing that is in secret now will stay in secrecy. Everything that is hidden—everything that is concealed—will be revealed.” He is talking about the full manifestation of His nature and kingdom on the last day.

Called to Set Forth the Light

Then Jesus goes on to say, “If anyone has ears to hear this, let them hear it.” He is saying: “Are you listening? Are you paying attention to what I’m saying? I am the lamp of God, and I am supposed to be made manifest. Do you hear what I’m saying? Do you grasp My teaching?”

Jesus says: “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.” There is a play on words here because the basket He talks about is used for measurement. It is as if Jesus is saying: “The same size basket you put over this lamp, I’m going to put over you. If you hide My light completely, whatever light you’ve had will be taken away. But the same measure by which you manifest My lamp, I will manifest My glory in you.”

It is a tremendous thing that we are called to be children of the light, and we are called to set forth the light of Christ to this dying world around us. He says, “However much you listen and heed, however much you are involved now, whatever you possess of that light in this earthly sojourn, when the kingdom comes in its fullness, all the more will be given to you.” It is like the parable of the talents. If you take that talent and bury it in the ground, if you take that light and cover it with a bushel, whatever you have now will be taken away forever.

The Seed Grows Unseen

Then Jesus gives another parable in which He says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day.” At this point, He comes back to the metaphor of sowing and the seed. Last time we were together with Mark’s gospel, and we looked at the parable of the sower. Jesus is taking a little tangent from that and instead of talking about the different soil into which the seed is sown, He talks about one of the most remarkable dimensions of nature, which we experience all the time.

Jesus says: “A man sows the seed. Then he goes to bed at night, gets up in the morning, and he hasn’t done a thing. He was sleeping. While he was sound asleep, the seed that was sown is at work. It’s energized. It’s already in the earth. The rain comes while he is asleep, and the earth brings forth first a blade, then a shoot, then the fruit. Then the whole harvest becomes ripe, and the sickle is brought to the harvest.” Jesus says that is the way the kingdom of God is, like a tiny seed placed in the ground. You go to sleep, and while you’re sleeping, the seed is coming to life imperceptibly, in a mysterious manner.

In seminary, when we listened to the higher critical scholars with all their cynicism and skepticism, attacking the Bible at every page, I had one professor who said, “I can’t believe the arrogance of these men.” I asked, “What do you mean?” He responded, “They think they can watch the grass growing from two thousand years away.” They could not see it even if they were there. You cannot perceive all that is going on with the kingdom of God. This is very comforting to me, and it should be comforting to you that this is how God’s kingdom works.

I remember standing at the door after a service one time, though I do not know where it was. A young man came up to me and said: “Hi, my name is so-and-so. I met you fifteen years ago when you were preaching in a little country church in Pennsylvania.” The young man told me what my sermon was, then said, “I came to you after the service as I was going out, and I shook your hand, and I asked you a question.” He told me what he said, and then he repeated verbatim what I had said to him fifteen years earlier. He said, “I went home, and I could not get your words out of my head, and God used the comment you made that day to convict me to go into the ministry.” I said, “I sure didn’t plan that.”

You know, really, it was scary. It was terrifying. I thought, “I wonder how many other words I’ve spoken to people that I don’t remember at all but wounded them and created scars on their souls that they carry to this day.” We have no idea how powerful a simple word can be.

God Reaps the Harvest

Every year in America, sixteen thousand ministers leave the ministry, some for moral reasons, but most leave because they feel unappreciated by their congregations. They feel like they are spinning their wheels, like they are preaching their hearts out and nothing is happening. They need to hear this parable. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not like throwing some seed on the ground and five minutes later reaping a humongous harvest.” They ought to listen to Paul when he says, “One sows, another waters, but it is God who brings forth the increase.”

I do not like to be personal like this, but I must tell you what happened this week. I talked to Joni Eareckson Tada. She has had to cancel her appearance at our upcoming Ligonier conference because she is in so much pain that she cannot even be in her wheelchair. When I talked to her, she said to me, “I’m watching your videos and listening to your tapes every single day for hours, and I’m getting strength from those.” Then she said, “Can I pray for you?” She is praying for me. I thought, “I can’t believe that our materials have been such a help.”

Then Vesta came to me yesterday and said, “You have to read this letter.” Because of the radio program, we get hundreds of letters regularly. I do not have time to read all the letters, and I certainly do not have time to answer them, and a lot of them are nasty hate mail, so our staff protects me from the mean ones. I do not do what Chuck Colson does. When somebody writes him a nasty letter, he sends it back and says, “Dear so-and-so, some lunatic is writing me letters using your name.”

Anyhow, Vesta said, “You have to read this letter.” So, I read the three-page letter, in which a gentleman told me about how he first heard one of my lectures twenty years ago or so, then he read some books, became involved reading Tabletalk, and so on. He was just thanking me for Ligonier’s ministry. Then I got to the end and read his name. He is on national radio every day. He is one of the great leaders of the church in our society, and I had no idea that anything I ever said or wrote had any impact on him.

But that is the way the kingdom is. We do not know what God does with our service or efforts. We plant the seed, go to bed, and God takes that seed and germinates life, and the life grows and produces a full harvest. Then God Himself reaps for His own glory. So, we need to forget about trying to see the fruit of our service immediately. It does not matter if we see it. We are supposed to take the light, make it clear, make it plain, and let the chips fall wherever they fall.

The Smallest Seed

Jesus continues with another parable drawn from growing. He says: “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”

Back in the 80s, we were involved in the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and we were calling the church and its scholars back to a firm defense of the inspiration and infallibility of sacred writ. There was a New Testament professor at one of the largest seminaries in America who had abandoned the doctrine and was teaching his students that one could no longer believe in the inerrancy of sacred Scripture because there is a clear mistake in the New Testament, right here in the passage I just read.

The professor would tell his students, “Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds, and we know that there are seeds more minute in size than the mustard seed.” Imagine giving up your whole view of Scripture and Jesus based upon that.

Is there no room for hyperbole in the teachings of Jesus? Do not the gospel writers tell us, “And all Capernaum came out to hear Him”? Do we understand that to mean that every man, woman, child, and disabled person came out that day? No. Recently, the Pittsburgh paper said, “The whole city turned out to welcome folks from Detroit.” When we read that, we do not accuse the reporters of lying.

We also know that in Hebrew idiom, it was a common adage among the Jews to refer to the mustard seed as the smallest because it was superlatively small. There is small, smaller, and smallest. It was in the category of the superlatively small. To accuse Jesus of falsehood because of this text is astonishing to me.

This is the point Jesus is making about the kingdom of God: when you take this tiny seed—not a watermelon seed or an acorn, but this tiny mustard seed—you can hardly keep it in your fingers because it is so small. When you put it in the earth, out of this tiny, infinitesimally small seed, the earth erupts, and it grows into a tree so big and full that the birds put their nests and get shade from what began as a seed so small it was almost invisible.

The Word Brings Fruit

Jesus is not just interested in telling stories about farming. His concern in this text is to teach us about how the kingdom of God works. The smallest word you speak, the smallest service you give—God can take that tiny, seemingly insignificant thing and bring a kingdom out of it. This points to the greatness of God, not to the greatness of the mustard seed, but to the greatness of God’s providence, which works every day to bring about His plan for the ages.

We are not wasting our time this morning. You have had half an hour of listening to the Word of God, and that Word is at work in you right now. By tonight, you may have forgotten everything I said this morning. If I gave you a quiz at the evening service, “What did I preach on this morning?” most of you might flunk it. That is part of why sixteen thousand ministers quit the ministry.

But I do not care if you cannot remember it tonight, because the Word of God is in you now, and it is at work, bringing its fruit in its season. That is how God’s kingdom is built; not with entertainment, not with flash, not with all the pizzazz we try to conjure up, but by obedience to His Word, which is attended by His Spirit and grows until the day the Lord of the harvest comes for His fruit.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.