The Secret of the Kingdom (Palm Sunday)


Luke 8:1-15

It is Palm Sunday and I thought of interrupting our series of sermons on Luke to provide a sermon apropos this particular Sunday of the year – which is what I usually do – but then I realized that the text before us was perfectly suited for a Palm Sunday sermon. So we continue on in Luke.

Text Comment

v.1       We must never forget that first and foremost Jesus was a preacher of the good news of the kingdom of God. Because he wanted everyone to hear he went to them, moving from place to place, preaching both in the larger towns and the smaller villages because he didn’t want to miss anyone! [Bock, i, 712]

v.3       Mary Magdalene was so called because she came from Magdala, a town in Galilee. She had been demon possessed and was, no doubt, deeply devoted to Jesus for the deliverance he had granted her from what must have been a miserable existence. The Christian imagination has thought of her as a particularly beautiful woman who had been a prostitute, but there is no evidence for any of that.

            Joanna is mentioned again as one of the women present in the garden on Easter Sunday morning. Otherwise we know little about her. The fact that her husband was an official in Herod’s court has led to the perfectly plausible speculation that Joanna may have become first a disciple of John the Baptist and through John and after his execution transferred her loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. Others have suggested this Chuza might have been the official whose son Jesus healed, of which healing we read in John 4:46-53, in which case there was still more reason for Joanna to serve the Lord. Of Susanna we know nothing more than her name. Some of these women had means and contributed to the expenses of the Lord’s itinerant ministry. Everyone in the group had to eat, perhaps occasionally to spend a night in an inn, and these women helped defray those costs. It is interesting, by the way, that no woman is ever identified in the Gospels as an enemy of Jesus. Those are all men. You can do with that fact what you will.

v.4       It is generally accepted in Gospels scholarship that this parable, given pride of place in the three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – represents something of a turning point in the Lord’s ministry. He was gathering huge crowds to be sure; there was immense enthusiasm, but he was looking for more than superficial interest and so at this point he intensified his use of parables, short little stories that yielded their meaning only to those who were prepared to think carefully about what they had heard and to seek and find the truth. The parables served to separate the sincere seeker from the superficial enthusiast. [Morris, 170] Interestingly, the word “crowds” is found much more commonly in this earlier part of Luke and much less often in Luke’s account of the Lord’s later ministry. Later the Lord concentrated his attention on his real disciples: those who were actually committed to him and to his message. The crowds were interested but only superficially so. [Bock, i, 723]

By the way, his use of parables, little stories that have left their mark on the consciousness of the world ever since, was a mark of his unique genius. There is no other teaching quite like this from the period.

v.8       The Palestinian sower sowed first and plowed afterwards. It is this fact that explains why seed might be wasted. It was thrown over the stubble that remained from last year’s harvest and would then be plowed into the field. The path may be simply the path over the field that the villagers had worn since the time of the last harvest. So, before the plowing began birds could eat the seed, or it could fall on shallow soil that wouldn’t hold moisture and wouldn’t be known to be so until the plow struck the underlying limestone, or the seed might fall upon soil where seeds of thorns were also present which would grow and later choke the life out of the grain. The description Jesus gives here is very true to agricultural life and every one of his hearers would have known that it was. [cf. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 11-12]

v.10     “Secrets” or “mysteries” in the New Testament are truths that we would never have discovered for ourselves but which God has revealed. For example, in Paul, such a mystery is the epoch of the Gentiles: the rejection of the Jews and the gathering of an almost universally Gentile church from all over the world in the weeks and month and years and decades and centuries that would follow Pentecost. No one was expecting that. But there is a different secret here. We’ll return to that momentarily.

            Parables both reveal and conceal truth. To the one with ears to hear, to whom Jesus made reference in v. 8, they explain fabulously important things in wonderfully memorable ways; but to others they are simply cute stories. That was not only the result of the parables Jesus taught; it was their purpose: to reveal to some, to conceal from others. “Parables are a mine of information to those who are in earnest, but they are a judgment on the casual and careless.” [Morris, 171] And so it is predictable that the Lord’s disciples should be the ones to ask what the parable meant. They were curious in the right way; they wanted to know what he was teaching them because they intended to believe whatever truth he revealed. The rest were not interested in the Word of God; they were fascinated by Jesus’ power, but not his message. Indifference to the Gospel brings consequences and one of the worst and weightiest consequence is that the message may not be brought to you again in a form in which you can understand it!

v.15     We have here a definition of true faith: hearing the word, holding fast to it in the heart, and bearing fruit from it, no matter the obstacles the devil, the flesh, and the world may place in the way.

Think back to that first Palm Sunday. You can picture the scene: the excited disciples ranged around the Lord and walking beside him as he rode down the Mount of Olives on the donkey colt along the road that leads to the gate of the city. The city and the magnificent temple fill their eyes as they draw nearer. It had been only days since the Lord had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, a miracle that set the whole city and its environs astir. And to make matters even more auspicious, it was almost Passover and the population of Jerusalem had swelled with pilgrims and was perhaps three times its normal size. There was excitement in the air. Everyone had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, many knew people who had been healed by him. The Jews had been longing for the promised Messiah to arrive and for a great many people, what they had heard of Jesus of Nazareth was enough to make them think he might be the one! A man who had divine power at his beck and call, a prophet who had done the very same things Elijah and Elisha had done long before: feeding great multitudes with a little bit of food and, even more, raising the dead. What was not to like about Jesus as a candidate for the Messiah. God had visited his people again; the long night was nearly over! That’s what thousands of people had begun to believe.

No wonder then the growing excitement as news of the Lord’s arrival began to spread throughout the city and as the road, already crowded with Passover pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem who could travel now that the Sabbath was past, was further jammed with people – men, women, and children – coming out of city to hail the coming king. The enthusiasm was contagious. We know from our recent experience how a little demonstration can suddenly become a very big demonstration. A great multitude was swept up in the prospect that great events were unfolding that would change the fortunes of Israel forever.

And for the ordinary Jew there was no doubt about what the Messiah’s coming would mean. The Jews were then a small, insignificant people, living under the boot of Roman power, ruled locally by a combination of foreign kings and Roman governors, their glorious past as the kingdom of David and Solomon long forgotten. No one else thought of them as the people of God.  No one thought that the Jews were of any consequence whatsoever except the Jews. The Messiah would change all that. He would lead the Jews in conquest of their enemies, restore the greatness of Israel, and force the whole world to reckon with the fact that they were indeed the favored people of the one true and living God. No wonder the “Hosannas” of the crowd, no wonder the palm branches laid before him as he rode toward the city gate. He was going to restore their pride and their place in the world. At the most patriotic time of year, a great leader had suddenly appeared and the people were welcoming their new king!

No one, I mean no one – no one in the crowd, no one among the Lord’s truest and most sincere and loyal disciples – had the vaguest idea of what would actually come to pass over the next five days.

And that takes us back to our text and the parable of the sower or, as it is sometimes called, the parable of the soils. I have heard, over the years of my life, a number of powerful and searching sermons on this famous text. I remember when I was in college there was a cassette tape –  many of you younger folk don’t know what a cassette tape is, but at one time it was a really neat thing – I say such a cassette tape was circulating among the students of my college containing a sermon on the parable of the sower by a prominent reformed Baptist pastor, Al Martin. It is a parable that preaches itself in many ways, all the more as the text includes an authoritative interpretation from the Lord himself. What is more, what the parable describes we who have eyes to see can ourselves see happening every day. Truer words were never spoken that this charming but searching parable. The four groups of people identified in it we can identify as easily in our day as Jesus identified them in his. In fact those of us who have been in this church for any length of time have met all these people here through the years.

Usually the point of sermons on this parable is self-examination, the preacher pressing us to consider how we are hearing the Word of God, or which of the four situations best describes ourselves. Are we people who heard the word, as if it were seed fallen on the hardened path, and in whose hearts the Word of God never took root? It was picked up, carried away. Or are we better described as the shallow soil where the rock comes so near to the surface and the ground dries so quickly after the rain that the seed does not get enough water to germinate and become a health plant. We seem to have believed for a short time, but very quickly lost our interest. Or are we the soil secretly inhabited by last year’s thorn bushes which, once the growing season has begun in interest, will choke the wheat? That is, are we going to think ourselves Christians and be taken to be Christians by others but only until true faith in Christ begins to pinch our bank account, or until we face some real disappointment or temptation, or until it becomes clear that if we are to follow Christ we are going to have to give up some favorite pleasure? Or are we the true Christians likened here to soil in which the Word takes root and bears a great harvest? Sermons on this parable are usually a summons not to be found in the first three categories but to be in the last.

I know people, you probably do as well, who fit to a “T” each of these descriptions. I could tell you their stories. You see so much practical truth here: that faith is known by its fruit, that the devil cares for nothing so much as that the first motions of faith in a human soul be quashed, that there are a number who begin but who do not continue in the Christian faith, that the cares of life, money and pleasure are great enemies of real faith in Christ, and so on. A preacher could preach a hundred sermons on this text and not exhaust its applications.

There was a time some years ago when it became the consensus in biblical scholarship that a parable should be understood to have but one point, one lesson. Everything else in the parable was taken to be simply local color. Thankfully, that position has been largely abandoned. The Lord taught a number of truths at the same time in his parables. So let me assure you that the sermons you have heard on the parable, as the sermons I have heard, the sermons that emphasize the different ways people receive the word about Christ and salvation and how only the faith that bears fruit is true and living faith are entirely appropriate. These are important lessons and we need to learn them and remember them.

But having said that, it is clear that distinguishing the various responses to the gospel in this homely way is not the main point of the Lord’s famous parable. That is not the great application of the parable as the Lord Jesus taught it to his disciples and to the crowds. We are alerted to that fact by his statement in v. 10:

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables…”

In other words, there is a secret, a mystery about the kingdom of God that is revealed in this parable, something we now know but which people didn’t know back then; nobody anticipated the kingdom of God being like this; nobody had the faintest idea that the kingdom of God would come in this way. Afterwards it became perfectly obvious, but at the time, it was a secret, pure and simple.

Take, for example, another of those secrets or mysteries of the kingdom of God: the epoch of the Gentiles. Nobody who read the OT expected that the Messiah would come twice and that between his comings the good news would be preached throughout the world for thousands of years, the Gentiles would become the lion’s share of the people of God, the Jews would be grafted out of the olive tree for a time, and that only after the times of the Gentiles had been fulfilled would Jesus come again and bring history to its consummation. No one was expecting the Messiah to come twice. No one was expecting that to be how the kingdom of God would come. They expected the Messiah to come, to conquer the enemies of Israel, to restore the kingdom of David to its rightful place in the world, and to bring in the golden age of peace. Even those – however few of them there were – who understood that a sacrifice had to be made for sin and that the Messiah would also be the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah, I say even they did not expect two comings with thousands of years between. We take it all for granted now, but it was a complete secret beforehand.

And so too this secret of the kingdom of God disclosed in the parable of the sower and the soils. We are so familiar with the words that we never feel the jolt to the gut that those opening words must have been to the Lord’s more thoughtful disciples when he explained to them later that in the parable he was talking about the kingdom of God. In other words he was describing to them how the kingdom of God would advance in the world. And obviously he was saying something surprising, something unexpected, something that was up to this time a secret. Why, otherwise, would Jesus imagine that this parable actually hid its meaning from the crowds? Things aren’t as simple as they seem. The kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing his seed in the field.

What?! The kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seed, and some of it is eaten by the birds and some falls in this soil or that and only some of the seed falls in fertile ground and grows up to bear fruit? That isn’t the way anyone thought the kingdom of God would come, would advance, or would grow. Far from it!

The kingdom of God was supposed to come in a rush. The king was to arrive, he was to gather a great army and lead Israel in conquest of her enemies. The kingdom of God was supposed to advance behind a great leader astride a white charger at the head of a great host. The kingdom of God was to come with lightning and thunder and earthquake. Think of how the kingdom of God came at the time of the exodus? The great plagues brought mighty Egypt to her knees, the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds gave Israel her highway to freedom and then, coming back together, destroyed the vaunted army of Pharaoh, the cloud and pillar of fire led Israel through the wilderness, the trumpets of God brought down the walls of Jericho, and on and on. Now that is how the kingdom of God advances! And, understandably, they were expecting that again. They thought of Messiah’s coming in the same way we think of his second coming, as a sudden catastrophe for the enemies of God and as a triumphal procession for the people of God.

Throughout the Gospels we find and will continue to find people unable or unwilling to credit Jesus as the Messiah precisely because he did not fit the profile of the Messiah they had in their minds. His kingdom didn’t come like the Messiah’s kingdom was supposed to come. The last thing they imagined the Messiah to be like was a farmer! There was, we will learn, much that confused and even discouraged his disciples. The people tried to make them their king and he refused. He came among his own people and did the most remarkable things for them and the result was deepening opposition on the part of the religious leadership. The crowds showed real enthusiasm for him but were ready to turn on him at a moment’s notice.

Jesus was that farmer who went out to sow his seed! And then he came to Jerusalem that Palm Sunday and finally all seemed to them to have come clear. He was the great king after all and the people were recognizing him for whom and what he was. That was a happy day! But then five days later he was dead, humiliated on the cross, his movement crushed and come to nothing. How could that have happened to the Messiah? They were devastated. As often as the Lord had told them that he was going to Jerusalem to die, as clearly as Isaiah had foretold the life and death of the Man of Sorrows for the sins of his people, this was a secret to them, a mystery that their minds had never penetrated. And then came the resurrection and all the fog began to clear.

But still the truth of the parable of the sower and the soils had to be faced. True enough, in those heady days after Pentecost it seemed as if the gospel were sweeping all before it, but as the new church grew so did the opposition of the unbelieving old church. Persecution increased with every new expansion. The apostles were imprisoned, and then one was executed, Stephen was stoned to death even before James. And then came the sad realization that just as there had been a Judas among the Twelve, so there would be among the company of those who claimed to believe in Jesus. Ananias and Sapphira and Simon Magus are mentioned in the early chapters of Acts, but no doubt there were many others. Just as the Lord had foretold in his parable some would hear the word but never really respond; others would receive it with some enthusiasm but very soon lose interest, and others would not only confess Jesus Christ as Lord but live for him for some time only to have their commitment choked out of them by the pleasures and temptations of this world. As the work of the Spirit advanced in human hearts, the Devil came right behind to ruin what he could.

But, as the Lord promised there were also multitudes in whose hearts the seed of the Word of God was sown, grew, and bore much fruit. The church grew by the thousands and, when a champion was needed, the Lord would supply an Apostle Paul. And so it has continued ever since. No one at the time of the Lord’s ministry, no one at the time of his resurrection, no one at the time of his ascension, no one on the day of Pentecost imagined that we would be here, two thousand years later, with a church that was only partly believing, that in many ways was thoroughly compromised by worldliness and unbelief. This was a secret. No one then thought that after the Messiah came the kingdom would pass through long years of setback and stagnation, then to be renewed again, only to slide once more into stillness, before being roused again.

And, of course, this was not the only secret. After all, the idea of seed growing up and bearing fruit suggests a slower progress, the passage of time, all the ups and downs of a growing season, of greater and lesser harvests, and the rest. You know that in Matthew and Mark we read that the Lord had said that among those who bore fruit some would bear 30 fold, some 60 fold, and some a hundred fold. Who among those who saw the Lord’s miracles, saw him alive again after he was put to death on the cross, and felt the power of the Spirit on Pentecost then imagined the Christian life as it has actually been lived all these years since?

You know very well the fits and the starts of the ordinary Christian life. How much sin remains, how many stumbles, how much moral failure, how weak our faith so often is, how it seems we take a step backward for every forward step we manage. This is not what we would have predicted. When the kingdom comes to a human heart, the reign and rule of God Almighty, and transforms a human life, we expect that heart to be transformed root and branch; we expect great things, we expect consistent, steady progress in holiness, we expect great usefulness in the lives of others.

And, indeed, that is to a degree what we find – we do bear fruit and the world must give its own testimony to the hundred fold – how different this world is and the life of mankind because of all the followers of Jesus serving him in it. But the hundred fold is still the way of the farmer sowing seed, the seed growing over time, weeks and months passing with almost nothing seeming to have happened, it’s all under the ground, and then the first indications of growth and then the months as the plant grows higher and higher and then as the fruit begins to appear. Divine grace has not often made leaps through these thousands of years; it has gone the way of the farmer and the seasons and the slow growth of a plant.

What we are to see, brothers and sisters, is that the kingdom of God came and grew exactly as the Lord Jesus said it would, even though that was utterly the reverse of everyone’s expectation at the time. The kingdom is growing; much fruit is being added to the harvest, though in this way of the farmer in his field. Did you notice those last two words: “and patience.”

Why patience? Because still today we want the kingdom of God to come faster, to come more powerfully, more obviously; we want it to sweep its enemies from the field. But it is not to be until Jesus comes again; it was never to be. Our Savior said that it would not be so. Why? I confess I do not know. I can see so many good reasons for it being otherwise, but God’s ways are far above our ways and past finding out. We are to take comfort from the fact that the kingdom of God is growing in the world, has grown mightily over these past millennia, but as our Savior said always in the way of a farmer in the field. The Lord said it would be so and it is ours to see that it has been so and to live with patience. Everything has happened as he said it would: from the cross, to the empty tomb, to Pentecost, to the gospel’s spread to the four corners of the earth. There is nothing more unlikely in human history than that the Christian message born in Jerusalem and believed at the outset by a few hundred Jews should now be the most common faith in the world today. But everywhere it has come to be so like a farmer sowing his seed. It should be easy for us to believe that the Lord will come again when everything else he has told us, and told us ahead of time, about his kingdom has proved to be exactly the case. It is, therefore, the easiest thing to believe that he will come again as he said he would when the gospel has been preached to everyone and the times of the Gentiles have been fulfilled. He has been right about everything; even about the most utterly unexpected things.

When will the kingdom come in that other way, the sudden, final, world-shattering way? We do not know. That it will come in that way we are absolutely sure. So we are to be patient. Bear your fruit in patience in the sure and certain hope that the final harvest is drawing near.