Mark 4:21-25

After the interpolation of the previous paragraph – a prolepsis in which Mark jumps ahead to the Lord’s interpretation of the parable of the sower given to his disciples at some later date – he returns in v. 21 to the teaching that Jesus was giving that day from the boat to the crowd on the shore of the lake.

Text Comment

The “consider carefully what you hear” reminds us that it is not hearing per se but hearing with understanding and commitment that separates the one in the kingdom of God from the one who remains outside of it.
The point of the saying in v. 24 is explained here. Verse 25 begins with a “For” which the NIV omits. The point is that the “care expended in understanding and responding to Jesus’ parables will be proportionately rewarded,” [France, 211] and even more so. The one who searches out the meaning and embraces and grasps it for himself and lives accordingly will get even much more. On the other hand, there will be many others who will fail to derive any spiritual insight from the fact they heard the Son of God himself explain the meaning of life.

We are well used to the saying about people not putting a lamp under a bowl but upon a stand so that it can give light to the house. Since we were children we have been used to the conclusion Jesus drew from this homely observation: “Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” As children in church we sang, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

That isn’t what Mark is talking about! He is not talking about our letting our light shine. He is not talking about our light at all. He is talking about the kingdom of God and the secret and mystery of that kingdom, the subject we considered last Lord’s Day morning. By placing this saying here, in this context, and by relating it to the issue of hiddenness and secrecy on the one hand, and disclosure and revelation on the other – a subject that is also part of the meaning of the parables that follow this one – the Lord has indicated what he means by what he says here.

Lamps are meant to give light; as much light as possible. The light has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, God the Son now incarnate, now also a human being. But the light is hidden, at least to a significant degree, at least mostly hidden. Jesus is not obviously the Son of God, at least not so obviously that he is generally recognized as such. His divine glory is hidden. Had it been revealed as it was sometimes in the history of mankind everyone who saw Jesus Christ would fall in terror at his feet, but they think of him as a man and only a man, not as God the Son. There is a hiddenness to him and to his ministry. It was so from the beginning – despite the miracles – and who he really is remained quite profoundly a secret to most of those who saw him, heard him or learned about him during his ministry. Christ and his kingdom would become more hidden still as time passed until he was finally hung up on a cross to be executed for his supposed crimes against the public order. If the kingdom of the living God came in the person of Jesus Christ, never was that less obvious than when his life was ebbing from him those hours he hung on the cross of Calvary. There were testimonies of his deity even then – the darkness and the earthquake, the tearing of the temple curtain – but for most of those there at the time, they were coincidences, unrelated to the life or the death of this Galilean troublemaker whose sorcery, so they thought, had created such a temporary stir.

Now, some commentators argue that the hiddenness of the kingdom during the ministry of Jesus was brought to an end by his resurrection. After Pentecost they think, the message that was hidden was now to be shouted from the rooftops. We have here, in other words, a hint of the worldwide ministry of evangelism. “Whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open,” and so the secret of the kingdom would be brought out into the open after the Lord’s ascension as the apostles carried the good news of Jesus Christ with them to the four corners of the earth.

But I think it is quite clear that such is not the Lord’s meaning. In fact, the kingdom is still hidden in very much the same way in which it was hidden in Jesus’ day. During the ministry the Lord preached himself about the kingdom of God, he proclaimed it, he made no bones about announcing it’s coming to those who would hear and he sent his disciples out with the same message to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God and still today it is the same. In those days the kingdom was discerned, it was spied out, it was seen and understood and grasped and embraced by some who had ears to hear, who had been given to hear, but it was missed by some many more. Still today the message is proclaimed, but the kingdom is hidden, and only those who have ears to hear, only those who have eyes to see, grasp, understand and embrace and are saved. It is not the lack of preaching that hid the kingdom of God in Jesus’ day, its not the lack of preaching that hides it in ours. Certainly v. 11 of chapter 4, which speaks of the same reality as our text this morning, is as true a description of things today as it was when Jesus first uttered the words.

“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. It has not been given to many others.”

They don’t get it; most people don’t get it at all. And the description of the four soils and the various responses of men and women to the gospel is obviously as accurate a portrayal of the gospel’s fortunes in our world today as it was of its fortunes during the days of the Lord’s public ministry. If the kingdom of God were a secret, if it were largely hidden from human beings in the days when Jesus was teaching and preaching, then it is surely hidden today. Perhaps we would have to say that in our day it is even more completely hidden because the incarnate Son of God is no longer walking among us, performing his breathtaking works of divine power before our very eyes.

The kingdom of God is hidden. It is not visible. It will not be until Christ comes again. It is not obvious to most human beings this kingdom, this reign, this realm of God. Its evidence – which is everywhere and overwhelming to the discerning eye – remains completely invisible to most men. The facts are clear as day to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, but all is opaque to the unbeliever.

Listen to Samuel Rutherford describe the unbelieving man or woman.

“Although the unconverted man might ‘have a good smell outwardly’ and might be honest and civil, he was really ‘only a man buried in a grave’ with a few flowers growing on top. He lacks life itself, being spiritually dead; he lacks reason for everything he does, is guided by worldly calculation; and he lacks a sense of life, for he does not feel wounded when he sins. ‘As beautiful as he looks without, yet within he is nothing but a workhouse of the devil.” [Adapted from Coffey, Politics, Theology, and the British Revolutions, 83-84]

Well, show me an unbelieving man or woman who accepts that as a fair description of himself or herself. And yet every Christian knows it is a perfectly true assessment of the unbeliever’s life and the most important thing that can be said about his or her life. But it is all a mystery, a complete secret to that unbelieving man or woman. They do not see, they cannot see even the truth about themselves that looks back at them from the mirror; they cannot hear it when it is shouting in their ear. Think with me of the ways in which the kingdom of God is hidden from the sight of so many in our world today.

Richard Rorty died a few weeks ago, perhaps America’s most influential public intellectual and professional philosopher. He taught at Princeton, the University of Virginia, and, finally, at Stanford. Rorty was one of those modern thinkers of which there are legion, who undermined all confidence in the existence of timeless truth and of fixed standards, absolutes of moral law, and then spoke and wrote and lived with an intellectual and moral passion as if timeless truth and fixed moral laws not only existed but had been discovered by him and could be preached as the duty to be observed and embraced by all the rest of the world. Rorty reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who admitted of himself before he became a Christian, that at one and the same time he did not believe in God and resented God for not existing. He resented God who did or did not exist for creating such a flawed world. He denied God even as his moral judgments assumed and depended upon his existence. [Downing, Most Reluctant Convert, 50-51]

And so it is all around us. Men marvel, they are left breathless at the stupefying wonders of nature and then imagine that it all came into being including our capacity for awe and wonder accidentally. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “I myself am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially to the extent to which it’s been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books in the future. Posterity will marvel that so very flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the incredible credulity that it has.” [The End of Christendom, 59]Christians sit dumbfounded as intelligent people blithely account for the marvelous almost immeasurable complexity of life and for man’s ability not only to uncover that complexity but to marvel at it as nothing more than a mindless accident.

Or men will pronounce moral judgments about everyone else’s behavior but hardly ever consider what it must mean to live in a moral universe. They have within themselves a witness to their own eternity but rarely reflect on what that must mean or whence it comes. Man has a conscience and knows very well his own moral failure. Chesterton said the most universal experience of human life is an uneasy conscience, but generally thinks very well of himself. He smells out the pride in others from a great distance but is utterly oblivious to the stench emanating from himself. And on and on it goes. Evidence abounds of the truth described in Holy Scripture but it might as well not exist for all the good it does in the case of so many human beings.

The Christian believer, who may have been in precisely the same darkness himself or herself at one time, sees all of this as plain as day, but, explain it to the unbeliever as he will, the non-Christian cannot see it; it makes no sense to him. This is true even among the religiously minded.

John Stott recollects regarding his life before he became a Christian, the great Anglican evangelical of the last half century,

William Grimshaw, one of the great eighteenth-century evangelical leaders, told a friend after his conversion that ‘if God had drawn up his Bible to heaven, and sent him down another, it could not have been newer to him.’ It was a different book. I could say the same myself. I read the Bible daily before I was converted, because my mother brought me up to do so, but it was double-Dutch to me. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was all about. But when I was born again and the Holy Spirit came to dwell within me, the Bible immediately began to be a new book to me. Of course I am not claiming that I understood everything. … But I began to understand things I had never understood before.”

As I read it God began to speak to me; verses became luminous, phosphorescent. It was as if I heard the very Word of God through the Scriptures.” [Dudley Smith, i, 99]

Well, so it was in Jesus’ day as it has been since. The Son of God stood before them, but they didn’t recognize him. His miracles notwithstanding, they simply didn’t get it. It was all double-Dutch to them. He spoke the truth – the truth that really matters most to human beings – in a manner clearer, more authoritative, more winsome and persuasive than the truth about God and man and the world and salvation and the future had ever been taught – and they heard every word and went home no wiser than they had been before. It all passed right over their heads; in one ear and out the other.

Some, of course, did understand. “I thank you Father that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent but revealed them unto babes.” Their ears were opened to hear with understanding and everything changed; their lives were turned upside down; they would never be the same people again. They had encountered God himself and had tasted his love and the power of his grace and the delicious impression of the truth and had felt the authority of his voice resounding in the innermost recesses of their souls. They opened their eyes on a new world. They stood among the masses of those who saw and understood not and heard and comprehended not and felt the influences of heaven washing over them. They saw, they heard, they understood!

And so it has been ever since. There are certainly many more Christians, many more true followers of Christ in the world today than there were in the days of the Lord’s ministry or in the months and years following Pentecost, but comparatively they still represent, we still represent a distinct minority among the peoples of the world. And, so we sometimes think, it needn’t be. Why should it be? The truth is all on our side. If God is for us, who can be against us? Why should his kingdom be a secret? Why should it not be visible to everyone, unmistakable, utterly convincing?

Why, pray tell, are not Christians, as soon as they become Christians, immediately the best and the most beautiful people in the world? Why is the world not forced to say, even against its will, that whether or not one believes the Christian message, one must admit that Christians are the kindest, the most generous, honest, caring, pure, hard-working, genial, genuine, and attractive people in the world and that every Christian an unbeliever knows is a better person than any unbeliever he knows?

It certainly lies within God’s power to make it so. He will, in fact, make it so in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, when we all shall be changed and be made like Christ himself when he comes again. Why then doesn’t he make us that way now? Why isn’t the rule and reign of God obvious? Why is the light under the bowl and under the bed? Why should we who have embraced the gospel still have to struggle against our sins as we do? Why should we so regularly be made ashamed by our failures? Why should the life of the church so regularly bring the gospel of our Lord into reproach? Why should Paul say that we Christians must groan in this world while we wait for the adoption of sons and the redemption of our bodies? If we are the great evidence for the kingdom of God, as Jesus said we would be, then can anyone possibly deny that the kingdom of God remains hidden under a bowl, under a bed?

Make the question more personal still. If the Holy Spirit dwells within us, if God is for us, if Christ is head over all things for the church, if we are born again, a new creation, how come our lives aren’t going better? How come we struggle with problems of this kind or that? How come there has been so much woe along the way of our pilgrimage through this world? Is it not the case that it seems very much as if the lamp of Christ, the light of his kingdom has been placed under a bowl or under a bed? Oh, yes; it has been. Jesus said it would be.

And why is there not more evidence available for all to see, to prove every assertion of the Word of God? Why does biblical scholarship so easily find its doubts and its objections to the teaching of the Bible? Why does it seem so obvious to so many biblical scholars that this assertion or that of Holy Scripture can’t possibly be true? Surely there are solid answers to these objections, but the objections keep coming together with the doubts and the Lord has obviously not seen fit simply to put a shuddering stop to them by revealing his truth in a way that would put paid to all objections once and for all. He could do that, of course; he will do it some day; so why not now? “I didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to let the Israelites leave Egypt, but I had to because of the ten plagues.” Signed Pharoah dug up by some archaeologist from a 15th century hole. Wasn’t Pascal correct when he wrote,

“There is enough brightness in the Scriptures to illuminate the elect and enough obscurity to humble them.”

And if there is enough obscurity in Holy Scripture to humble the elect, there is more than enough to feed the doubts of the unbeliever. As Mark Twain once wrote, “It isn’t the things I don’t understand in the Bible that trouble me; it is the things I perfectly well understand.” The Bible may indeed be the Word of God to us, the lamp that lights our way, and a priceless treasure, but to a great many people who pick up the Bible and read it, it is dull, uninteresting, or even positively offensive. Why? Because they cannot see the kingdom of God, they cannot grasp it, is a secret to them, a secret that has not been revealed.

What is all of this but evidence that the kingdom of God not only was in Jesus’ day but is and remains in ours a secret, known and understood and embraced by many whose eyes and ears God has opened, but utterly misunderstood and completely missed by vast multitudes? The kingdom is a secret and intended to be a secret! For all man’s brilliance, his invention, his moral concern, his inquisitive searching and restless wanting of more, he looks everywhere, he searches diligently in every place except where that truth may be found and considers seriously every possibility except that which God himself has revealed in his Son. He can look right past and right through the Word of God and the kingdom of God and see nothing, nothing whatsoever.

Perhaps you are familiar with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s verse.

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts… They lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.

Well, of course, there is a loom, but men cannot see it and will not use it. The loom is the kingdom of God, God’s reality and God’s gracious reign as it was revealed in the life, the death, the resurrection, the ascension and the coming again of Jesus Christ the Son of God. He is the key to all truth and all meaning and he is the answer to every great question that has ever occupied the human mind and the fulfillment of every longing that has ever lain restless in the human heart. But that fact is unrecognized by the largest number of human beings in the world today, just as it was unrecognized by the largest number of people who actually laid eyes on Jesus, witnessed his mighty works, heard him explain the meaning of life and saw him point the way to God and heaven.

Why is the kingdom of God so hidden in this world? Why do Christ and his kingdom, his salvation and his lordship seem, as it were, to lie hidden beneath a bowl or a bed? Why is he not placed on a stand for all the world to see his glory? I don’t know. I know that it is the plan of God. I know that God discloses that secret of his kingdom to whom he will boy and girl, man and woman, one by one amid the vast multitudes of those who never see and never understand what the believer comes to see amid almost blinding light. I know that God has determined that we live in this world by faith and not by sight. I know that God has determined that through the entire course of human history it would easy for men to doubt the reality of the kingdom of God and it would be hard work for believers to hold fast to that reality through thick and thin. Men often speak as if faith were the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is believe. But, of course, of all things in this world, to live by faith, to live one’s life believing the truth of God’s Word and acting accordingly, I say of all things this is the most difficult. In fact, it is impossible for man, which is why such faith is and must be the gift of God.

No wonder that here, talking about the hiddenness of the kingdom of God Jesus should urge upon us to consider carefully what we hear and both warn us and encourage us by saying that “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more!” There is a reward from God for searching out the meaning of Christ’s teaching, of grasping hold of it, and of living by it. Its difficulty is precisely what makes such consideration and such effective hearing and such obedience and such faith something God will bless and bless richly.

In this little parable about a lamp under a bowl Jesus is talking here about your everyday life and mine. He is talking about the great fact of your existence and mine, compared to which all other facts are of minor importance. What is it that makes it so difficult to live the Christian life? Is it not the hiddenness of the kingdom of God? How easy it would be to follow Christ and give him glory if only we could see him in his glory. How easy to pray if only we could see the Lord and hear the replies as he speaks them back to us. How easy to resist our temptations if we could look up into the sky and see the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. How hard it would be to be discouraged by our own troubles or by the outrageous behavior of the world around us if only we could see Christ at our right hand and his angelic hosts all around us. Remember Elisha at Dothan asking God to open the eyes of his servant so the frightened man could see the hosts of the Lord there to defend them from the Syrian army that had surrounded the city? What was that mighty host, that covered the nearby hills with chariots of fire, but the kingdom of God, but it was seen but for a moment by one man. What if we could see that otherwise invisible host every day, or, for that matter, even from time to time, or, for that matter, even once in our lives!

But we do not. The kingdom remains hidden. Every movie and television program we watch tells its story as if there were no such thing as the kingdom of God. The newspapers never mention it amid all of their headlines. The New York Times claims to provide their reader with all the news that’s fit to print and it never includes a line about the kingdom of God. The great men of this world do their work and make their plans and steer the course of men and nations with no regard whatsoever to the kingdom of God. There will be, this Wednesday, the 4th of July, a great celebration of our nation’s history, but what is the United States of America. One temporary political arrangement in the history of mankind, more important than some, less important than others. But, will any of our leaders, will any political commentator say on Wednesday that compared to the kingdom of God, the United States is a drop in the bucket, a few grains of sand on the scale, a mere bagatelle? It is hard to be faithful to the kingdom of God when everything goes on around you as if such a thing did not exist. I say again: is this not the great temptation of our lives, this hiddenness of the kingdom, its being under a bowl or under a bed.

But here we are reminded, as so many times in Holy Scripture, of the great truth that we must never forget. Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed. The kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus Christ will not remain hidden forever. It will be revealed and everyone who has ignored it all this while will realize in a shattering moment what a galactic error he or she made. And for the believer, who remained faithful, steadfastly loyal to that hidden kingdom and its hidden king, “with the measure they used, it will be measured to them – and even more!