The Once and Future Kingdom | Mark 4:30-32
Andy Lindgren | August 30, 2020
It’s a privilege to be able to share the word with you this morning. My name is Andy Lindgren; I’m one of the elders here, if you didn’t know that. I’m filling in for Pastor Brian as he takes a well-deserved break, and we are so grateful for his ministry to our church body here and the way he faithfully and diligently and tirelessly serves the Lord.
I’d invite you to turn in your Bibles to Mark 4:30-32, as we look at a parable of Jesus and consider the “once and future kingdom.”
One day I walked into my high school art class, and our art teacher informed us that we would be starting a unique project, that this would be a painting without any brush strokes. She explained that we would be trying our hand at something that was a branch of 19th-century Impressionism in the artistic world, which was called pointillism. In pointillism, distinct dots of color are applied in a pattern in order to form an image.
She passed out our medium, our poster board, and we were to sketch out the outline of our painting, and we actually had to map out the different hues and the different shades of colors we would be using in our painting. Then we were each given a paper clip, and we had to unbend our paper clip and, using the tip of the paper clip, we dipped in the paint, and with one little dot we started our painting.
I remember after that first dot looking down and thinking, “You have to be kidding me! This is going to take forever!” Indeed, it did take several classes, but it was really interesting, through the course of those classes, to see an actual image start to come out of this long and laborious process that started with just that little dot.
This morning, we’re going to be looking at a parable which deals with this concept of something small and unexpected turning into something vast. In Mark 4:30-32 we read these words: “And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which when sown on the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’”
We’re going to be looking at:
I. The Kingdom Plan
II. The Kingdom Way
III. The Kingdom Come
I. The Kingdom Plan
First of all, the kingdom plan. In verse 30, Jesus makes it clear that this parable is about the kingdom of God. Now, that specific phrase, that Hebrew idiom “kingdom of God,” with that word order, doesn’t actually appear in the Old Testament. However, the concept of God’s kingdom and his reign and dominion is prevalent throughout the entire Old Testament. In fact, it’s one of the dominant themes that continues throughout all of the Old Testament books.
George Ladd, a New Testament scholar, gives us a good definition, I think, for the kingdom. He says this, “The kingdom is God’s reign and the realm in which the blessings of his reign are experienced.”
We see that all the way back in the beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis. We read that God decides to create outside of himself, out of an abundance, out of an overflow, not to fill any lack or need, he creates a universe, he speaks it into existence, and he forms a world to be inhabited, and he fills it with plants that have seeds in themselves that are able to reproduce plants after their own kind, and animals, and creatures in the sea, and creatures in the air, and stars and planets and galaxies. Then, in the apex of creation, we have the creation of man and woman, of humankind, Adam and Eve, and the text tells us, “created in God’s own image and likeness.”
Now, whatever else the image and likeness of God entails (and I believe it entails more than just one thing), one dominant feature of being made in the image and likeness of God is royal representation. In the ancient Near East, kings would set up images, literal statues of themselves, in their kingdoms, to make it clear who the kingdom belonged to. With the creation of Adam and Eve, we have the creation of image-bearers of God, of divine representatives, vice-regents, if you will—those entrusted to rule the earth and to subdue it on behalf of Yahweh—priest-kings of Yahweh, if you will. Kings in the sense of representing God to his creation, and then priests in the sense of leading the rest of creation in worship of the Creator.
This is a truth that’s beautifully celebrated in the eighth psalm, where it rejoices that man has been set just a little bit lower than the angels, with all of the works of God’s hands beneath his feet, and given dominion over the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and everything that swims in the seas.
However, we don’t have to read much further in the text to see a breaking in this kingdom, to see a fracturing. Adam and Eve, instead of subduing creation, and instead subdued by it, by listening to a liar instead of their Lord, by believing the lie of the serpent, and in squandering their royal privilege they sin against their Creator; they commit cosmic treason. They become dispossessed royalty, banished from the garden, exiled from the presence of God, from the special cosmic mountaintop, if you will, of Eden, where God walked freely and communed with his image-bearers in an unhindered way; when there was shalom, when heaven and earth intersected and everything was in harmony, the way it should be. They lost all of that by being exiled from the garden.
However, there’s a word of hope, even in the very beginning there. In Genesis 3:15, when God is addressing the serpent in his curses, he says this, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring [literally ‘seed’] and her offspring [literally ‘seed’]. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
You see, in what Adam and Eve did in letting sin enter the universe, they surrendered their dominion, in a sense, to this serpent. Under God’s sovereignty, under his wisdom, temporary authority in some measure was granted to this usurper, which is why we have the apostle Paul calling him “the prince of the power of the air” and “the god of this world,” and Jesus calling him in the Gospel of John “the ruler of this world.”
However, the promise is that things will not always be that way. There will be dominion. The serpent’s head will be bruised, and he will be bruised by a descendant of Eve, one of her offspring, one of her seed—a human. It is a human being, a flesh-and-blood person, one of these image-bearers of Yahweh, that will reestablish dominion. So begins the long hope for this offspring.
After the debacle and the tragedy with Cain and Abel, Eve rejoices that the Lord has given her another offspring named Seth. You can almost feel the hope in that statement, that “is Seth going to be the one? Is he going to be the one to take dominion over the serpent, that’s going to lead us back into God’s presence?”
It’s not Seth, and so begins the long line of hope in redemptive history for this kingdom to be reestablished through an offspring of Eve. Seth eventually leads to Noah, and Noah eventually leads to Abraham, and Abraham has Isaac, and Isaac has Jacob, and Jacob has 12 sons. We read in the Scriptures that there’s something very special about one of his 12 sons, Judah; that it’s from Judah’s line that this king will come.
Judah eventually leads to David, and David is actually a literal king over this literal nation that’s supposed to be this nation being God’s representative to the earth. For awhile, maybe it looks like David’s going to be the one to bruise the head of the serpent, he’s going to be the one to take it back. In the Psalms, David is celebrated as the prototypical vice-regent of Yahweh, this representative who rules over God’s people wisely and who leads God’s people in worship.
But alas, things don’t quite pan out with David. David isn’t allowed to build the temple where God will come and dwell, and that’s passed to Solomon. For awhile it looks like maybe Solomon is the one that’s going to reestablish it. Solomon builds the temple where God’s presence comes to dwell, and the kingdom of Israel expands under Solomon’s rule. He’s extremely wise and he’s subduing creation with all this wisdom.
But then everything goes sideways with Solomon, and then the kingdom fractures, and then the spotlight moves in the book of Kings north and south, north and south, looking for the king, looking for the one who will fulfill it. It ends in tragedy with the last descendant of Judah, Jehoiachin, being captive in Babylon.
At the end of the Old Testament, there’s still this yearning for this representative, for this kingdom to be reestablished through Eve’s descendant.
II. The Kingdom Way
Have you ever wondered why, in the Lord’s Prayer—Jesus is instructing us in these very few sentences the essentials of daily prayer, judging by the context of it—that we’re to pray for God’s kingdom to come, why that’s such a high priority on the list? That’s not only so that God will be glorified, but that’s for our own peace and joy and happiness. There will always be disharmony in our lives and in our world until God’s kingdom is restored. That’s why this world is such a wonderful and such a terrible place at the same time.
We see this illustrated in Samuel anointing David for kingship. Everything went sideways with Saul, so God tells Samuel, “You need to go to Jesse, and one of his sons you’re going to anoint as the new king.” So Samuel goes, and he sees Jesse’s sons, and they look the part! They look like kings. They have the jaw, they have the stature. They look like they have it together.
But one after another God keeps telling him, “No, not him. Not him, either. He’s not the one either. Not him either,” until all the sons go through, and Samuel says, “Do you have anyone else?”
Almost as an afterthought, Jesse says, “Well, yes, there’s David, but he’s the youngest, and he’s a shepherd. He’s out messing around with his sheep.” So they call him back, and God tells Samuel, “That’s the one. It’s him. Little David, unexpected David; he’s going to be the one you anoint as king.”
The apostle Paul tells us that God works this way in order for him to be glorified. In 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 he says that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. This is not only an obscure way, this kingdom way is also an unexpected way. Like a painting with no brush strokes, God works in a way that often mystifies us.
Now, to compare the kingdom of God to a mustard seed would have been a bit of a shock to the original audience. In their minds, in their conception of the coming of the kingdom, it would be immediate, it would be large, and it would happen all at once. But to compare its start to a mustard seed just wouldn’t compute with them. It would have been mystifying.
George Ladd talks about the mystery of fulfillment without consummation, of the kingdom being already present and not yet consummated. We see this demonstrated in the life and the teaching of Jesus. He kept constantly pointing, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, to himself as the agent of the kingdom, the one in whom the kingdom was present, the one who was fulfilling the kingdom, but also there was this future consummation of the kingdom that would take place at a later date. It just did not fit their mold and their expectation for the way God was supposed to work and bring things about.
This was especially true when it came to the concept of a suffering Messiah. That just defied all expectations. The glorious Son of Man—that the Son of David would suffer and be crucified and killed and mocked was incomprehensible to them. You see the apostles, they don’t get it, even though Jesus tells them point-blank that not only it’s going to happen, but it must happen in order to fulfill Scriptures. They just keep bumping up against it again and again. Even after they believe it, after they witness him resurrected and are commissioned by him and filled with his Spirit, part of their apologetic, we read in the book of Acts, when they went to Jewish synagogues, was they had to prove from the Scriptures that the Christ had to suffer. We see this appear again in their epistles in various forms, this mysterious mustard-seed way of the way the kingdom works.
This is also true in our lives as believers, isn’t it? The apostle Paul tells us that it’s through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that “if they persecute me, they will persecute you,” that his way is a narrow way. Even in sanctification, in our journey of holiness, the minute we come to Christ we are not completely free of every trace of sin, but we are enlisted in a lifelong process of putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, so that we may live. We’re enlisted in a struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil; a journey. It’s the mustard-seed way.
Think about Joseph, Mary’s husband. Matthew tells us that Joseph was given four separate dreams—an angel appeared to him in a dream four separate times in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. An angel had already come to Mary, told her what was going on; she’s pregnant, she tells Joseph. He does not believe her.
He says, “Well, I guess the best thing to do as a godly man is to divorce her quietly,” so that’s his plan, until an angel comes to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, don’t do that. You need to marry her, because what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” He wakes up convinced.
You can just imagine the thrill and the excitement. “The Son of David himself is in my fiance’s womb! I can’t believe this! I can’t believe that I’m a part of God’s work in this way!”
Then there’s the birth and there’s the shepherds coming to him, telling him about what they heard and the angels in the sky telling them about the Son of David was in Bethlehem and they were to come to find him in swaddling cloths, and all of this excitement; and then the magi coming.
But then, all of a sudden, there’s opposition. It’s so severe that they have to actually flee in order for Jesus’s life to be spared. So an angel comes to him in a dream a second time and says, “Joseph, you need to take Mary and the child, and you need to go to Egypt.”
Now, the text doesn’t tell us what Joseph’s reaction was to that and what his thought process was, but you can just imagine him thinking, “Egypt? That’s the land of our bondage! That’s where our people were enslaved, where God performed mighty miracles to bring us out. The Lord, the one who did all these miracles to bring us out of the land of Egypt, you’re saying that the Son of David’s life is in danger, and you can’t even do one miracle to protect him here? We have to go hide in the land of bondage, in our former slavery?”
So Joseph does, and, as it were, holding a mustard seed in the palm of his hand, wondering what in the world God was doing, he took his wife and they fled to Egypt.
But an angel appears to him in a dream a third time, and in this dream, “Joseph, return to the land of Israel.” You can imagine him thinking, “Yes! This is when it’s going to happen! I bet he’s going to have us go right to Jerusalem, because he’s going to be the Son of David, right, he’s going to be the king. He’s going to take the throne and he’s going to have me stage messianic battles with him in the backyard, and the kingdom’s going to come. He’s probably having us head towards Jerusalem.”
But as they return to Israel they realize there is still danger in the local government. So an angel comes to him one last time, the fourth dream, and says, “Joseph, you need to return to the backwater district of Galilee, where you came from, to little Nazareth,” where Joseph would raise Jesus until Joseph would die without seeing Jesus perform one messianic sign. He was called to a life of faithful obedience to raise Jesus like any other Jewish boy, along with brothers and sisters, the children that Mary and Joseph had after him.
You can imagine Joseph being tempted to discouragement. All of these promises at the beginning, these angels showing up in dreams and to people, and the rest of his life was just faithful obedience, serving the Lord. It’s a mustard-seed way.
We should learn from this not to love our idea of the kingdom way more than the reality of the kingdom way, and to not be discouraged by obscurity. It’s the way the Lord reestablishes his kingdom.
Listen, if you feel like God’s plan for your life right now is dangling by a thread, if all you see are mustard seeds, don’t be discouraged, because you’re in good company. Read Hebrews 11 for more on that note.
III. The Kingdom Come
Finally, this brings us to the kingdom come in verse 32, where we read, “...yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
We see here, first, the dominion of the kingdom. Larger than all the other garden plants—it’s bigger than all other kingdoms, all other competing ways of being human. We see this explored in the allegory that’s actually a background to this text, in Ezekiel 17:23-24, where we read, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out.’” Now, in this allegory the cedar represents the Davidic dynasty, the kingdom through which the Messiah would come. Jehoiachin has been taken captive in Babylon; he’s the sprig that’s been removed.
Ezekiel goes on to say, “‘I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.’” This descendant is the Messiah, this little tender twig. “‘On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar, and under it will dwell every kind of bird, and in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest.’”
Now, earlier in the text, Ezekiel refers to Zedekiah turning to the eagle of Egypt, so the Gentile nations are represented as birds. But now the birds of the Gentile nations are going to come to this kingdom for shelter, instead of turning to their own resources for help.
Ezekiel continues, “‘All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord, I have spoken, and I will do it.’”
Remember in Daniel 2, when Nebuchadnezzar has the dream of this image, this statue, that represents his kingdom and three lesser successive kingdoms. And this rock, “not cut by a human hand,” representing its divine origin, comes and strikes the statue like the stone that struck Goliath, and it falls and is destroyed. Then that little rock becomes a mountain that fills the whole earth, and it becomes a kingdom that stands forever.
Jesus is telling us that no matter what it looks like in the present, that even though the kingdom starts out small, its eventual dominion is unstoppable. Remember, when Jesus spoke about the future he was never speculating. He’s telling us the way things are going to be.
We see here not only the dominion of the kingdom, but also the shelter of the kingdom. It puts out large branches, so that even the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. First of all, this tells us about the inclusion of the kingdom, that Gentiles—we already saw the birds represent Gentiles in Ezekiel’s text—that Gentiles are now included in this kingdom, too. It’s not just the Jewish people. Paul celebrates this in his epistles, doesn’t he, that the Jew and the Gentile are now one, that every ethnicity is open to become a part of the blessed people of God.
This inclusion also includes all strata of society, as we saw in Jesus’s public ministry. It didn’t matter if you were a prostitute or a tax collector—no matter what you had done, what your background was, you were welcome to be a part of this kingdom, to be included in the people of God.
There’s not only inclusion in this shelter; there’s also provision in this shelter. Remember in Psalm 84:3 we read, “Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.” There’s rest and provision in God’s kingdom, because there’s a restoration to the status that we were originally created for.
C.S. Lewis, in his last Chronicles of Narnia book, in The Last Battle, he puts these words in the mouth of one of the characters who are entering the true Narnia after they have died, and he says this, “I have come home at last. This is my real country. I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”
Remember Jesus’s words, “Fear not, little flock…” Why? “...because it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Or remember what he said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” and then what? “All these will be added to you,” whether food, clothing—all these things the unbelievers worry about, you will have provided for you by your Father.
Paul, taking in the scope of redemptive history, looking to the end, says all things are yours, which we have now in a down payment form by God’s providence and provision to us, and that will one day be fulfilled when the meek will inherit the earth.
The last thing I want us to look at in this text is the agent of the kingdom. In verse 31, Jesus talks about “when this seed is sown on the ground.” When was this kingdom seed sown on the ground? This Greek word for this grain of mustard-seed appears only a few times in the New Testament. One of the other few times (it’s the only other time Jesus used it besides the other parables when he talked about a mustard seed) was in John 12:23-24, where we read these words.
“Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’”
Jesus is the ultimate, unexpected kingdom seed. There’s no greater contrast between unexpected beginnings and unexpected results in the life of Jesus. The one who was in the very form of God, who did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped—remember, he made himself nothing, he assumed human nature onto himself in order to fulfil the prophecy of Genesis 3:15. He shrunk himself down, smaller and smaller and smaller, until he became a seed in the womb of the virgin Mary. Upon his birth, he was persecuted and hunted; his life was almost extinguished from the womb. When he began his public ministry, there were threats on his life, even outright attempts on his life.
You remember how he died, forsaken by his friends, lonely, and then exposed to extreme shame and mocking, and then, finally, excruciating torture and then spiritual agony.
But do you remember what he told Pilate in John 18? “It is for this reason I was born, to be a King and to testify to the truth.” That cruel, unyielding spade of the cross was used to plant the Son of Man in the heart of the earth, after he had taken the punishment for the cosmic treason upon himself and died for his subjects.
In a turn of events more shocking than the annual growth rate of the mustard plant, he shot up from the earth three days later, was resurrected, exalted, ascended, and sat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, bearing fruit of restored vice-regents to his kingdom, restoring image-bearers—the second Adam, the perfect priest-king, as was celebrated in Psalm 110. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that this Jesus of Nazareth is Lord, to the glory of the Father. That confession will be either to the everlasting glory or the everlasting shame to those confessing it, depending on their relation to the king and if they’re in the kingdom.
But for now, as kingdom subjects, we are in the “already/not yet” still, and by his Spirit the Lord is remaking that royal image inside of us. Listen, if you’re a Christian, this means that Jesus was planted in Mary’s womb and he was buried in Joseph’s tomb so that he would be formed in you, so that the image of God would be restored through this work of sanctification in our lives.
The last time that Greek word for “grain” appears in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul talks about how the body of a believer will one day be glorious like the resurrected body of the Lord, this amazing inheritance that we’re going to enter into.
That’s also celebrated in Romans 8, when it says all of creation will follow God’s children into their freedom and into their glory when they take their place as restored vice-regents—not because they were able to restore that office on their own, but because Jesus restored it for them, and we are co-heirs with him and united to him. Shalom is restored, peace is restored, as once again heaven intersects earth, when the new Jerusalem comes down. God will put his painting, his pointillism in the display case of the universe to show forth his glory in his kingdom way.
If you’re listening to this this morning and you’re not a Christian, will you be planted with Christ? Will you go to the cross, the place where he went to establish his kingdom? Remember the thief who died next to him on the cross. He recognized he had done wrong, he had committed treason against his Creator, against his King, but he turned to Jesus and he said, “Remember me when you enter into your kingdom.”
Remember what Jesus says? “Today you will be with me in paradise.” You can have paradise waiting for you and have a down payment of paradise in your heart by his Spirit if you come to him, because it’s only by being born again that you’ll be able to see the kingdom of God.
Christian, there is eternal significance in the obscure and in the unexpected in your life. Don’t be discouraged. Remember what we’re heading towards. We’re heading towards a city whose builder and maker is God, where will see Jesus crowned with glory and honor, the perfect vice-regent, the perfect representative, and where we will serve him as priests and kings forever, where we will cast our crowns at his feet, and where from his throne and from the throne of the Father will flow the river of life, and on either side of the river will grow the tree of life, bearing its fruit in its 12 seasons, it’s 12 kinds of fruit, and where the leaves for the healing of the nations will flap in the breeze. Let’s pray.
Lord, we are so honored and amazed at the love you’ve shown for us, that even though we rebelled against you, Lord, and tried to set up our own kingdoms, and though each and every one of us has done that in various ways in our own lives, you the King, you laid down your life for your subjects. Lord, we’re amazed at this love, and I pray that anyone listening to this message this morning who is not a Christian, that they would come to you in faith and repentance, they would enter into your kingdom by being born again from above, by trusting in you, the perfect life you lived, Lord, and the death that you died in order to enter into your kingdom.
Lord, may we not be discouraged by the way your kingdom works in our lives, but know that one day this plant will grow tall and that there will be branches and shade and rest and provision for us. In the name of Jesus we ask these things, Amen.