I’m pretty sure this post can stand alone, but it would be beneficial to get the larger context by reading the first part of this chapter. To do so, click here: The Kingdom of God Unplugged: Part One
The Mustard Seed Kingdom
The next parable in Mark is a famous parable and has been inextricably tied to a similar parable. Here we see the mustard seed used to demonstrate the kingdom of God, and we are reminded that the example of the mustard seed is used to describe faith as well. Mark 4:30-32 says,
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 the herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.’
The surface truth about the kingdom of God given to us by Jesus is that the kingdom starts small but grows large. There is a relationship defined here that we just have to explore. Christ uses the language construct of “smaller than” and “greater than”. We hear these phrases a lot in today’s society and people use the “less than” and “greater than” symbols on tee-shirts, signs, ad campaigns, etc. What comes through almost shouting is, “What looks to be less than has the potential to be greater than!” If a person can’t get excited about this message from the God of the universe, then I’m afraid you might not have a pulse. This just begs the question of why does Jesus compare the kingdom of God to the smallest of seeds? One would assume that the announcement of the kingdom of God would be big news, with all the bells and whistles, angels flying around with trumpets blaring, and all the earth bowing to the God of heaven. But alas, Jesus paints a much different picture of the present kingdom of God.
One facet to this multi-faceted truth is that the kingdom is sown as a tiny little seed. In one personal interpretation (and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has expressed this notion), I compare the ground to a human heart and the seeds of life as ideas placed in that heart. Think of all the planted seeds we have in our hearts: the idea that wealth brings happiness, the idea that in order to be accepted in society we have to be physically attractive, the idea that if we want to be accepted by God then we must be “good enough”, the idea that a measure of our worth is tied to popularity, the idea that success is measured by the approval of our peers, and maybe the idea that our life doesn’t really matter unless we become what the world views as important. These are just a few of the many ideas that we harbor in our souls. These ideas are “large” in our minds because these ideas are alive and well and promoted by the world; the kingdom seed is “small” because it defies logic, it is intangible, and it is not something that can be seen! The “itty-bitty” idea that we are precious in God’s eyes seems impossible to us. This itsy-bitsy idea that there is more to life than what we can see is beyond our intellectual, scientific analysis of self. Like all ideas, they grow the more we give attention to them. I liken this to watering; by being plugged into the worldly system, we water bad ideas. And likewise, when we water the kingdom with the Word, it grows. So what we choose to tend, grows in direct proportion to our attention. This concept can be built upon with feeding, pruning, being in the sun, etc. If we think about negative or worldly things, then we are in essence feeding the flesh; and likewise, when we think about positive and spiritual things, we are feeding our spirit.
The other thing to consider is that the kingdom, when it is sown in our hearts is, in fact, invisible! You can see and definitively know the balance in your checking account; you and everyone else can see how we look on the outside; you can see a nice house, nice car, nice clothes; you can see material gain; and you can see most of the things that we are misled into believing will bring us happiness. The kingdom seed however is not seen. The effects of the kingdom’s growth can be seen, but no one outside of God can see a human heart. Eventually, the kingdom “tree” produces the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, hope and many other intangibles. All of life’s worries (the lesser weeds) are eclipsed by the shade of the kingdom! From the outside looking in, a person can be described as rich, attractive, poor, unattractive, etc. But eventually the kingdom produces evident fruit that can be observed as well; things like joy, love, peace, and gentleness can be seen, but they exist under the surface and have outward expressions but are indeed intangibles. Other people are attracted to this light, and eventually they will want to know what you have that they do not! They may ask, “How can you be so happy, when ______ has happened in your life?” or “How are you always at peace, even when __________ comes at you?” or “Why do you love people so much and why are you always trying to help ______, when no one else seems to care?”
Even scratching the surface is astounding; think of how many more spiritual truths there are for us to explore in this one parable. Just a few to mention: the mustard plant has many medicinal uses, the mustard plant is very fast growing, the mustard plant would seem out of place in the middle of a garden to a person living in Christ’s time, the birds of the air nest in its branches (a reference to Ezekiel), and we could continue.
At this point, are we beginning to get at least a taste of what the kingdom entails? Is it not abundantly clear that Christ is teaching on several levels? And the primary level He is concerned with is our spiritual understanding of the kingdom. The obvious description of a spiritual life is found within almost all of Christ’s teachings, some parables and some blatantly clear statements. Yes, there is an eschatological aspect to some of His teaching on the kingdom, but we would be absolutely blind to miss the impetus placed on the born again spiritual being. My purpose is to flesh out the spiritual life and its importance to truly being what we describe as a “Christian”; a Christian is a person described as one who follows Christ, and to follow Him we must be like Him. So, to finish up in Mark, let us examine a lesson found not only here but also in Matthew and Luke. Now is as good a time as any to lay one of the more important foundations of the kingdom of God, for this foundation has an exclusionary tone to it.
Receiving the Kingdom as a Child
Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.’ And He took them in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.
The inescapable and glaring point here is that in order to “enter” into the kingdom, one must “receive” it as a child would receive it. Notice the contrast of language found in just one sentence: the word “receive” connotes something given; the word “enter” connotes an action (the exact same wording is found in Luke 18:17). In other words, to receive something is a passive verb, and to enter something is an active verb. If anyone ever wants to argue about whether the Bible is the Word of God and truly inspired by God, don’t be fooled. Just in one sentence, Christ shows us a magnificent truth! The truth is this: God is offering you a gift, all you have to do is receive it to start the process, the eventual maturation of this process allows entrance. Another way to define this construct is as follows: first God, then you, then God (He gives, you receive, God allows entrance). I know this sounds simple, but it is deep indeed. God is the antecedent! You are not the antecedent. This relationship will come into a brighter light as we progress into the teachings. All things spiritual follow this harmonious rhythm. This rhythm is a continuing flow where each part of the process of enlightenment is connected to the previous and the one to follow. To use the above progression, we can continue the flow. Think of each three part section as a train car: the front has a coupler (God), the actual box car (your action or response), and the back has a coupler (God again). Now, we can string these cars together where the back coupler becomes the front coupler to the next when more box cars are connected. So the rhythm goes like this: God, you, God, you, God, you, etc. It looks like this: God gives, you receive, God allows entrance, you choose to enter, God gives you the power to enter, you enter, God, you, God, you…I will give you a quick example.
Take faith for instance. We think we “have” faith, like we are the antecedent; or rather, we possess faith as a currency of sorts in the kingdom. Is this true? Yes, according to Scripture that statement is true. But where do we get or how do we acquire this faith? Is it something you can somehow “muster up” inside? No, it is not. So where does it come from? Here is the construct: God speaks (antecedent), you believe, God gives you faith. You see, Jesus is constantly harping on the phrase, “If you will only believe…” We confuse belief with faith constantly! It, in many ways, is the bane of our Christian experience; or rather, it is the reason for so much unnecessary suffering and defeat. Paul tells us that faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11), and not something we can produce out of our own efforts. Again, the progression is this: God speaks, we believe, God gives faith. That is why Jesus constantly reminds us throughout His ministry with the familiar phrase, “Oh you of little faith!” So we respond by thinking He is accusing of us not having faith, when in reality, He is accusing us of not believing and therefore stopping the chain-reaction of receiving faith. If you can, take the time and read all of the scriptures you thought you knew about believing and faith and this truth I just shared with you will knock you right between the eyes! Now God’s gift of faith becomes the antecedent for works of power! This construct is laid out nicely in James 2:14-26, contrasted with what Paul tells us, mainly, that we are saved by faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:9). It would seem to anyone not familiar with the “flow”, that James and Paul are contradicting one another. But closer examination proves that faith gives birth to works (James), and to reverse the order (Paul) makes us, rather than God, the antecedent! Understanding this principle is worth the cost of this book and the time invested to read it; if you gain only one truth from this entire work, make it this one! Faith is a flow that we place ourselves in by believing; you cannot possess faith, but you can live in its flow. You are required to first listen and believe; where you stop, God begins. I sometimes describe faith like water: you can put your hand in it and feel it, but if you try to possess it by grabbing a handful, it simply passes through your grasp. But as we will learn, faith without works is indeed dead (to use James’ language) because if the flow stops, then the water becomes stagnant. More of this later, but I just wanted to make it abundantly clear that there is a system we absolutely must understand. To some, this concept will be foreign and confusing; fear not, it will become more and more clear as we progress and as we look at practical examples.
The spiritual system is defined by Christ in the one sentence, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it”. God is trying to give, we need to receive it, and then God allows entrance. But the caveat is that we receive it “as a little child”, so we must address the conditional requirement. Now I am sure that this is the subject of much debate and personal conjecture, but in my humble opinion, it speaks primarily to the spiritual system that I defined above. Children believe what is spoken to them by an authority. Dad said, “The sky is blue”; therefore, I say, “The sky is blue.” There are many derivatives of this notion, but the main point Jesus is trying to make is that our posture necessarily has to be one of a passive, receptive, and trusting nature. We must trustingly receive the kingdom as a gift with an acceptance of God’s good intentions and with the enthusiasm appropriate to a child about to burst in excitement! How many of us have been a victim of the “it is too good to be true” thought? How many people today want to completely deconstruct and reconstruct the gift of God? The same will say things like, “People who believe in God and a spiritual life are simply believing fairy tales.” Their own intellect has betrayed them. Children don’t question or over-analyze a gift; children gladly accept a gift and immediately begin to interact with the gift. If as a parent, you give your child a toy, does he/she look at you funny and question your motives? Does your child ask a litany of questions about the toy or question your intent? Imagine your surprise if your 6-year old receives a toy from you and then says, “Oh, I don’t know about this. I don’t know if this toy is for real or not. I’m not sure I want this gift if I can’t completely understand exactly what it is. You know, dad, here you go…take it back. I don’t want it until you completely explain what the toy is, where it came from, and how it works…tell me how it was built, by whom, and prove to me the validity of the toy.” Seriously, don’t many people do the same thing today? I know it’s funny, but it is also very tragic.
It is a shame that we live in a skeptical, tainted society. Who would blame us for being tainted? The use of a child as an example of a proper disposition for receiving a gift can be lost in today’s society much like the relationship of a father. Our hearts have been scarred immeasurably by our sin and corruption. Using the phrase “as a child” can be lost on a person who experienced their innocence being taken away at the hands of an abusive adult! Our children today are subject to mental, physical, and sexual abuse…how profoundly sad! And in the same vein of reasoning, many today cannot conceive of God as a father because they either never had a father in the home, or were abused by their father, or were given a twisted paradigm of what a father is, was, or is supposed to be! The enemy is hard at work destroying the family today; he knows that if he can ruin our God-given understanding of relationship as defined by the family, then he knows that we are less apt to grasp much of what God needs us to hear. Never, ever, ever underestimate the enemy; he doesn’t play by the rules and he revels in the fact that a broken home without God’s intervention, leads to broken lives. And the enemy absolutely loves it when we blame God for our pain and suffering!
I don’t want to go down that road right now, but I had to at least mention this so that people who have had bad experiences as a child or with a twisted understanding of the word “father” wouldn’t feel alone. I feel your pain. My father left my mother and me when I was very young, and I know what it is like to have your hopes dashed against life’s rocky shore as a young child. What you need to understand is that God can and will go the extra mile with you and give you a special blessing if you have had these bad experiences. Am I saying that God pays extra special attention to those whose lives have been affected by a ruined concept of family? Darn right I am! I could easily prove this through His Word and give you personal examples in preponderance, but at this point just believe me when I tell you that God seeks broken hearts out like there is no tomorrow!
I honestly believe that a person could spend a lifetime contemplating a childlike receiving of the kingdom. I often look at my own children and our lives together and think of all the joy that I receive from living vicariously through their wonderful eyes. God feels the same way as a loving parent, it brings Him joy to give us joy, He is blessed when we are blessed, and He derives pleasure when we enjoy our time together. I can recall times when my daughter and I would walk down a long beach together. We could walk in silence as the wind blew through our hair, as the sound of crashing waves caressed our ears, and in simply beholding the largeness of the ocean was all we needed. I could sense her own feeling of awe as a young child almost drunk with stimuli. We would have telling conversations about life, she would ask profound questions, and I would be more than willing and actually honored to answer her questions. With the sun bathing us in warmth, we both were just as happy as two humans could be. When my sons and I would just “hang out” together, the freedom and security allowed us to probe the deepness of being just by talking and laughing and loving on one another. What makes us for a minute forget that our Father derives the ultimate blessing by sharing time with us in silent walks, answering questions, and just “hanging out”? We miss the true beauty of Christianity when we overcomplicate the relationship. God loves you, and all He has ever wanted to be is your everything; He would do anything to be with you and actually laid His own life down for you; His desire above all else is to be part of your life; and you are the most prized possession in the universe in His eyes. The only reason a person is truly special is because God thinks you are special! I encourage all who claim faith in God to take some time every day to be a child; after all, aren’t we called the “children of God”? What we must understand however, is that God will not force Himself onto us. God gave us free will and He can’t make us love Him; we have to choose to be with Him and seek His face. For the essence and power and blessing of love is the choice to love. We must choose Him, for God has already chosen us. Remember the spiritual rhythm? Listen to what John and Paul say about love and you can sense the divine melody contained within its simplicity:
We love Him because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
The antecedent was, is, and always will be Him! Our Father says, “I love you”, and He eagerly awaits us to simply receive and believe that one simple statement. For, if we believe that one simple statement, our entire lives are forever changed.
To go forward to the conclusion of Chapter Three, click here: Thy Kingdom Come…