Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mark 4:30-34

30 And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?
31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,
32 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."
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.
34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
(Mark 4:30-34 ESV)

30 καὶ ἔλεγεν, πῶς ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, ἢ ἐν τίνι αὐτὴν παραβολῇ θῶμεν
31 ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως, ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς,
32 καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ, ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους, ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν.
33 καὶ τοιαύταις παραβολαῖς πολλαῖς ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον, καθὼς ἠδύναντο ἀκούειν·
34 χωρὶς δὲ παραβολῆς οὐκ ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς, κατ᾽ ἰδίαν δὲ τοῖς ἰδίοις μαθηταῖς ἐπέλυεν πάντα.
(Μάρκον 4:30-34 GNT)

Smallest of all the seeds

Have you ever known a person that often takes everything you say literally, and calls you on it?  You might say, "I've looked everywhere in the house and can't find the TV remote."  He's sure to retort, "You looked everywhere? That must have taken a long time."  Or maybe you say, "I've never been more thirsty than I am right now."  She would ask, "Never? This is the most thirsty you have ever been?!" 

This is one of those passages in the Bible that some people are unable to resist pointing out as a supposed scientific inconsistency in the Bible.  They counter that the mustard seed is in fact not "the smallest of all the seeds on earth". They are correct. And yet, that is not what Jesus was claiming. He was not making a sweeping, universal declaration about all seeds on the planet.  

Unlike most scholars, then and now, Jesus was not interested in flaunting His vast knowledge at the expense of alienating the people listening to Him. Instead, his intent is to relate at their level in order to effectively communicate the ideas He is speaking about, in this case, explaining what the kingdom of God is like. In that 1st century agriculture-based society, it was common knowledge that of all the seeds cultivated for food or other immediate uses in that area of the world, the mustard seed was by far the smallest, and yet it also produced one of the largest mature bushes. This same, seemingly common reference to the mustard seed's size is also seen in the reference to "faith like a grain of mustard seed" (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6).  It was not primarily given as a factual statement about the seed itself, but as a common phrase about the small size.

What good would it have done if He had referenced, perhaps, the Sequoia tree seed or the seed of an orchid?  These are small seeds, and maybe the smallest of all seeds. But the farmers in that area would be unfamiliar with them and the point would have been lost.

Now then, we have this parable, which we've learned is a "setting alongside" so that the new idea that we are trying to explain is set alongside something with which are already familiar; the mustard bush grows quite large from a very small seed. Continuing with the already established concept of the "seed" representing the Gospel or God's Word, we can conclude that the end result is a large, branching "tree", enough so that "birds" are able to nest in it.

Birds of the air

Remembering that we shouldn't press every detail of a parable as if it is critical to the lesson being taught - parables are not allegories - I think it's safe to say that the focus of this parable is on the small seed producing a large result, or rather the amazing growth resulting from planting that seed.  I believe it could be misleading and even dangerous to try to allegorize the branches and the birds as "significant players" in this parable. I believe they are merely Jesus painting the full picture.  By suggesting that "the birds of the air can make nests in its shade", He illustrates that the plant is substantial enough to support them; it is a large bush, maybe even nearly a tree in stature. These birds, while not irrelevant, merely play a supporting role, supplementing the illustration of just how large this plant will become.

I would be remiss if I did not include the fact that I have read accounts interpreting these birds through the lens of Mark 4:4,15:

And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. (Mark 4:4)

And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. (Mark 4:15)

Their interpretation is that with the growth of the kingdom of God being so remarkable from the planting of such a tiny seed, this will allow Satan and his league to infiltrate, setup shop, and operate from within.  I do not disagree with the assertion that the forces of darkness do endeavor (quite often successfully) to infiltrate and plant "agents" within churches.  Obviously, history has proven time and again that there have been such "goats" among the "sheep", and they do manage to "build their nests" in the "branches of the church".  However, I do not think that is necessarily the reference in this parable.

Something seemed familiar about this story, specifically the birds making nests in the branches.  It reminded me of similar illustrations in the Old Testament.  After doing some searching, I found a few references in Ezekiel and Daniel.  

Thus says the Lord God: "I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. 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.  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; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest.  And 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.  (Ezekiel 17:22-24 - emphasis mine)

Nearly every resource I can find suggests the obvious - that this is without a doubt a reference to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and His Kingdom.

In another spot, Ezekiel records a reference that appears to describe the kingdom of Assyria (Ezekiel 31:3-9).

All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth to their young, and under its shadow lived all great nations. (Ezekiel 31:6 - emphasis mine)

Ezekiel's ministry ranged around 592 B.C. until about 570 B.C. and it is believed that he was a contemporary of the prophet Daniel (605 B.C. through 536 B.C.), whom he names in Ezekiel 14:14 & 28:3 as an already well-known prophet.  We read a similar reference in Daniel to birds living in the branches.  It could be suggested that this was a not uncommon word picture?

The king of Babylon has a dream and relates it to Daniel for interpretation:

The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great.  The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth.  Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it. (Daniel 4:10-12 - emphasis mine)

Daniel interprets this dream for the king:

The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived—it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth.  (Daniel 4:20-22 - emphasis mine)

In Daniel's interpretation, we see that the "birds of the heavens" are representative of the nations of the earth, which benefited from the wealthy and stable rule of this king of Babylon.

So, Ezekiel uses the same wording in describing the Messianic kingdom, and then the kingdom of Assyria.  Daniel uses the same phraseology in describing the Babylonian empire.  All of this brings us back to our Messiah speaking in parable of birds of the air making nests in the shade of this tree.  I believe without a doubt that He is making reference to that passage in Ezekiel, and that He is obviously foreshadowing His Kingdom and the pervasive reach that it will have.

Untying riddles

Previously, in a couple other posts I have discussed parables and how Jesus used them to explain spiritual concepts such as the kingdom of God.  Here again in Mark 4:33-34, the gospel writer explains that Jesus didn't teach the crowds apart from parables. He was always teaching them in parables, only explaining them to His disciples.  

There is something in the original Greek that I find interesting in the phrasing at the end of verse 34, "he was explaining".  The word is ἐπέλυεν and the idea contained in it, at least as much as I can determine from my study, means "to loose" or "to untie".  I just find that to be quite a mental image of what Jesus is doing with His disciples.  He is untying the riddles, He is letting loose the truth from the mysteries. His parables undoubtedly were a mystery in the minds of those that were hearing Him speak, but unable to understand what He was teaching.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mark 4:26-29

26 And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 
He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 
The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 
29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  (Mark 4:26-29 ESV)

26 Καὶ ἔλεγεν· οὕτως ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς ἄνθρωπος βάλῃ τὸν σπόρον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς
27 καὶ καθεύδῃ καὶ ἐγείρηται νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, καὶ ὁ σπόρος βλαστᾷ καὶ μηκύνηται ὡς οὐκ οἶδεν αὐτός.
28 αὐτομάτη ἡ γῆ καρποφορεῖ, πρῶτον χόρτον εἶτα στάχυν εἶτα πλήρη[ς] σῖτον ἐν τῷ στάχυϊ.
29 ὅταν δὲ παραδοῖ ὁ καρπός, εὐθὺς ἀποστέλλει τὸ δρέπανον, ὅτι παρέστηκεν ὁ θερισμός.  (
Μάρκον 4:26-29 GNT)

When I was a little boy one of the most exciting phrases I could hear my father say was, "Wayne, do you want to help me with this?"  Really?!  Dad wanted my help?  I mean, the man that I thought could do anything was asking me to help him.  As a father myself today, I now understand that he was merely condescending to my little self primarily because he loved me and wanted to include me in something that he was doing.  He was not doing so for his sake, but for mine.  It wasn't as if he was incapable of doing whatever it was without me, but he chose to have me involved because he wanted to include me.  As that young boy though, I was sure that my part was crucial to what he was doing.  I'm sure that I told everyone I met the rest of the day that daddy had needed my help with that and we fixed it together, though I couldn't begin to tell you how my standing there holding a wrench or turning a couple nuts and bolts did anything to fix the lawnmower.

In this parable, Jesus explains that our Heavenly Father includes us in His work too, but only in planting the seed.  There is a good deal to unpack in this parable, while at first glance it appears to be very simple.  It is crucial that we understand that this is primarily about "the kingdom of God".  It is easy to overlook that.  It is what Jesus is explaining here.  As usual, He explains something foreign and complex in a very familiar and simple way, so that His disciples can understand it, but also so that those that do not "have ears to hear" will be unable to discern the meaning.

Let's remember though, that this is a parable and it is not intended to be pressed to every detail.  Many times Jesus makes reference to "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven" and with each instance He is explaining a portion or clarifying a particular attribute.  Bernard Ramm reminds us how we should interpret parables in his book, "Protestant Biblical Interpretation":

Determine the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach. This might be called the golden rule of paraboloid interpretation for practically all writers on the subject mention it with stress. “The typical parable presents one single point of comparison,” writes Dodd. “The details are not intended to have independent significance.”  Others have put the rule this way: Don’t make a parable walk on all fours.

A parable is not like an allegory, for in the latter most of the elements of the narrative have meaning. To be sure, some parables are more elaborate than others and in this regard approach an allegory. But as a general or guiding rule, look for the one central thesis of the parable. A parable is a truth carried in a vehicle. Therefore there is the inevitable presence of accessories which are necessary for the drapery of the parable, but are not part of the meaning.

The danger in parabolic teaching at this point is to interpret as meaningful what is drapery.
Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 1970, page 283

Taking this into consideration, it's important to identify the one central point that Jesus is making this parable, and not dwell on the "drapery".  But we should at least identify the major components.  We can draw on context for much of this. 
  1. The seed:  Having told the parable of the Four Soils recently, the seed would obviously remain the same, and that being the Gospel, or God's Word.
  2. The man:  We can infer that the man is a farmer, but I would hesitate to say that God is the farmer, at least not in this parable, because the farmer then sleeps.  God does not sleep (Psalm 121).  I think it's safe to interpret the farmer as a disciple of Jesus Christ, a Christian sowing the seed, sharing the Gospel with others.
  3. The ground:  Again, context would lend itself to understanding the ground to be the ones in which the seed is sown - the people of the world (1 Corinthians 3:9). 
  4. The harvest:  This is a reference to the end of the age when what has been sown will be reaped (Matthew 13:39).
We are familiar with the concept in verse 26 of the man scattering seed on the ground.  Reference the parable of the four soils

Verse 27 says that the man "sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how".  Pretty simple, right?  Seems normal enough.  The farmer worked hard sowing the seed, then he goes home to sleep.  We have the general passage of time: "rises night and day".  Do we not assume that time passes as usual?  It's probably safe to assume that he goes about the usual tasks involved with farming.  A good farmer doesn't ignore the field, he ensures that the conditions are right for the seed to grow.  But this is not to suggest that the farmer actually causes the seed to germinate and sprout, or cause it to develop it's fruit and then ripen to harvest condition.  He is not awake at all hours of the day fretting over the seed, digging it up and replanting it in a different place.  He leaves it where it is, attends to those things that he can do to condition the soil (water, fertilize, pull weeds, etc.) but the seed is under it's own power to take root and produce.  Such it is with the Word of God.  Once it has been planted in the heart of the hearer, it is in God's hands. 

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.  (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

Verse 28 starts out with an interesting word in the Greek:  αὐτομάτη  This word means "acting of one's own will".  We would say it does it "by itself".  The point obviously being made is that it's happening apart from man's interference.  Aside from the act of spreading the seed, casting it onto the ground, there is nothing that the farmer need do to cause the seed to grow, "the earth produces by itself".

Verse 29 has some interesting Greek. 
But when the grain is ripe (παραδοῖ), at once he puts in the sickle (ἀποστέλλει τὸ δρέπανον), because the harvest has come (παρέστηκεν).

...it could be rendered

But when the grain [is delivered up], at once he [sends the sickle], because the harvest [has been presented].

I point this out because it is all very relevant to those things concerning the end times.  What is it that God will be "harvesting" in the end times?  Is it not those that belong to Him?  Is it not the Church, the Bride of Christ?  Read this passage from Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present [παραστήσῃ] the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  (Ephesians 5:25-27)

The word used in Ephesians is just a different tense of the word used in Mark.  In Mark, it is "has been presented"; in Ephesians, it is "he might present".  When the Church has been presented to the Lord, then He sends the "sickle", or those that will do the harvesting (i.e. angels). 

...the harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels. Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father's Kingdom. (Matthew 13:39-43)

Our Lord, Jesus Christ, has given us a rich lesson in how the Kingdom of God progresses in stages, and a clear presentation of our part in it.  We are laborers.  Some are planting the seed.  Some are watering.  But at no time does He allow us to make claim to causing the seed to grow.  That is all of God.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How Firm A Foundation

This hymn is believed to have first been brought to the United States in the late 18th century by Dr. John Rippon, a Baptist minister from London, England.

While no one can say for sure, it is believed to have been written by a man named Robert Keene. Mr. Keene was the music director in Dr. Rippon's church. The hymn first appeared anonymously in Dr. Rippon's collection of hymns (here is a digital copy from early 19th century) with the author indicated merely as "K". Therefore, many believe "K" might be Mr. Keene.

Recently, while listening to this hymn on my way home from work, I found myself paying heavy attention to the words. It had previously escaped my attention just how theologically rich this hymn is, and I thought it could be beneficial to study those biblical truths to which we affirm when we sing this song.

[Unless stated otherwise, scripture references are from the English Standard Version.]

Verse 1

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

2 Timothy 2:19 says,
"But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal:
"The Lord knows those who are his," and,
"Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity."

More so, it is a truth of the faith that all that God has revealed to us, all that is necessary for us to know Him by His Son, Jesus Christ, is revealed to us in His Word.
but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20)

Verse 2

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I'll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

This second verse is almost an exact quote from Isaiah 41:10,
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Verse 3

When through deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Isaiah 43:2 appears to be the reference being made in verse three:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

Verse 4

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

I find a couple references in the fourth verse. The first being 2 Corinthians 12:9,
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

And from Zechariah 13:9,
And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.

Isaiah 48:10,
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.

and Isaiah 1:25
I will turn my hand against you
and will smelt away your dross as with lye
and remove all your alloy.
As we learn in the Epistle of James, and is so often quoted in Romans 8:28-29, we know that God assures us that "fiery trials" are ordained for our ultimate good, purifying and sanctifying us, in order to make us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Verse 5

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

It would seem that the best reference is found in the latter part of Hebrews 13:5,
...for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

Which is a reference to the times that God made this promise to:

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:15)

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31:6)

No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. (Joshua 1:5-6)

and David:
Then David continued, "Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don't be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. (1 Chronicles 28:20)