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. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Mark 4:26-29 ESV
Although Ezekiel’s life was filled with God calling upon him to do and say strange things as a prophet, one of the most notable is recorded in chapter 37. There the prophet tells us that the LORD took him in the Spirit to a valley full of dry, long-dead bones. After showing Ezekiel these bones, God asked the prophet a question: “Son of man, can these bones lives?” To which the prophet replied, “O Lord GOD, you know” (v. 3). The LORD then commanded Ezekiel to declare God’s Word to the dry bones, ordering them to be covered in flesh, filled with breath, and live. The prophet did so, and the bones reassembled themselves and were covered with flesh. Yet they were lifeless still, so God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy breath into their lungs. And it was so. The LORD then told Ezekiel what this vision meant:
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.vv. 11-14
Although God gave Ezekiel this vision specifically to prophesy of the exiled people of Israel being restored as though from the grave, we learn in the New Testament that this imagery is very true of us. In Ephesians 2, Paul wrote that before salvation we were dead in our sins, yet God has raised us to life in Christ. We who were once dry, dusty bones now have both flesh and breath. Only God, whose Word formed the cosmos, can also bring the dead to life through nothing more than His Word. As we will see, our present parable largely teaches us the same principle.
A PARABLE OF THE KINGDOM
We come now to this fourth of the five parables recorded by Mark in his fourth chapter, and it is one of the few segments of Mark’s Gospel that has no parallel in the other three. It has been given many titles, but we will refer to it as the Parable of the Growing Seed. It begins simply enough: The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.
This should immediately bring back to mind the Parable of the Sower, which as least in the context of Mark’s Gospel appears is sort of the parable of parables, since it gives us the framework and summons for understanding the others. Indeed, two elements are explicitly present in the Parable of the Sower: the Word of God as seed and how the Word is heard or received. The following four parables then further expound upon those two themes. First, the Parables of the Lamp and the Measure, which we studied last week, address how the Word is received. Next, the Parables of the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed display to us how the seed itself functions.
Of course, even though these final two seed parables are closely related both to themselves and to the Parable of the Sower, we should take care to interpret each one properly, for the seed plays a slightly different role in the two of them. In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which is by far the more well-known of the two, the seed is explicitly an illustration of the kingdom of God: “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” (vv. 30-31). In our present parable, however, the kingdom of God is still being illustrated, yet it is specifically the seed alone. Instead, the entire scene of this parable is illustrating the kingdom of God for us. The seed, therefore, should presumably still be interpreted as the Word of God, which is the foundation of the kingdom (see Ephesians 2:20).
With this in mind, let us consider the parable as a whole, and then we will make a few particular comments.
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. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.
While the message of the Parables of the Sower and the Measure were to take care how you hear God’s Word, this parable more resembles the message of the Parable of the Lamp. The Sower and the Measure call us to receive the Word with care, while the Lamp and the Growing Seed reveal God’s sovereignty over making His kingdom known. Indeed, sovereignty is the unspoken yet still key word to understanding this parable. While seed must be sown and while farmers and gardeners can create ideal conditions for plant growth, a seed’s sprouting, growth, and fruit are all the work of God, and so it is with God’s kingdom. God alone grows His kingdom as the seed of His Word is planted into the hearts of His people. That is the very simple message of this parable.
SOVEREIGNTY IN SPROUT, GROWTH, & HARVEST
With the principle of the parable now explained, let us consider some particular applications and exhortations that we make take from this parable. Or, as the Puritans were fond of saying, let us observe some uses of this text. We will consider four.
First, the growth of the kingdom comes through the proclamation of God’s Word. Of course, Jesus has exemplified this for us by displaying to us His steadfast resolve to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. Indeed, since entrance into the kingdom is by repenting of sin and believing in the gospel, Paul’s words are wholly true: “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Furthermore, as citizens of the kingdom, we are called to that task. Spurgeon helpfully points out that no Christian is excluded from this work:
There is not a man among us who needs to stand idle in the marketplace, for work suitable to his strength is waiting for him. There is not a saved woman who is not left a holy task. Let her do it and win the approving word. “She has done what she could.” Something of sacred service is within the reach of everyone’s capacity, whether it be the mother in the family, the nurse-girl with the infant, the boy in the school, the workman at the bench, or the nurse at the bedside. Those with the smallest range of opportunities can, nevertheless, do something for Christ and His cause. The precious seed of the Word of God is small as a grain of mustard seed, and may be carried by the feeblest hand where it shall multiply a hundred-fold.
None of us are entirely isolated from other people; therefore, we will each have opportunities to sow the seed of God’s Word. We must each strive to live out the words of Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We must treasure the Word ourselves, and then gladly speak it to those around us.
Second, God is sovereign over His Word and the harvest that it produces, which necessarily also means that we are not. As with Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, we cannot raise one lifeless skeleton back to life nor can we give life to those dead in sin. That is the prerogative of God alone. In fact, we cannot even convince a fellow believer to repent of sin and walk in obedience without the Spirit’s work. Although Nathan was the instrument by whom God rebuked David for his sin, the king’s repentance was due to the Spirit movement through the word of the LORD.
Efforts to usher in the kingdom by our own efforts or our own cleverness almost always go awry. We think that if we can just minister to our community enough and really show them the love of Christ, if we can just hold to the right theological convictions, if we can just be culturally relevant enough, if we can just be traditional enough, if we have the right structure and strategy, if we have spirit and passion, if we can just be empathetic, if we can just be rational, if we can just preach love, if we can just preach sin, people will become Christians and the church will grow.
Time and time again we think we have the killer program, the system, the strategy, the secret for achieving Christian maturity and church growth, but the Bible tells us the Spirit blows where he wills, like the wind (John 3:8). We cannot generate a move of God; otherwise it would be called a move of us.
This is the reason why we must conform ourselves to Scripture and resolve, like Paul, “to know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). We must proclaim life to dead souls and the forgiveness of sins in atonement of Christ. Then all life and fruit that follows can only be attributed to the life-giving God. The more gimmicks that we rely upon, the more we obscure God’s hand. Indeed, we must remember that Christ alone will build His church.
Third, harvests are not produced in an instant. J. C. Ryle makes this much needed point:
The plant goes through many stages before it arrives at perfection,–‘first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.’ But in all these stages one great thing is true about it,–even at its weakest, it is a living plant.
The work of grace, in like manner, goes on in the heart by degrees. The children of God are not born perfect in faith, or hope, or knowledge, or experience. Their beginning is generally a ‘day of small things.’ They see in part their own sinfulness, and Christ’s fulness, and the beauty of holiness. But for all that, the weakest child in God’s family is a true child of God. With all his weakness and infirmity he is alive. The seed of grace has really come up in his heart, though at present it be only in the blade. He is ‘alive from the dead.’ And the wise man says, ‘a living dog is better than a dead lion’ (Eccles. 9:4). 
Perhaps we can see this principle most readily in the lives of our children. We certainly cannot bring them to faith in Christ. We can only sow the seed of God’s Word in their hearts and pray for God to bring forth the growth. Nevertheless, do we actively look for and cultivate their growth in grace? Or do we ignore their spiritual development in favor of focusing upon social, educational, physical, etc.? This is a point at which credobaptists can often move too far away from paedobaptists. We can subconsciously assume that our children are not believers until they prove themselves to be genuine; instead of assuming that they are believers until they give us reason to conclude otherwise. We must see them as the infants in Christ that they are and rejoice with gladness at the first sprouts of grace in their lives.
Finally, God’s kingdom is growing and fruitful. For a time after seed is sown, nothing can be seen. Within the ground, the seed sprouts, yet it takes time for the sprout to force its way to the surface. We must trust that the same is true with God’s Word, as through it God builds His kingdom. Even when God’s church appears to be stagnant or, worse, decaying, we must trust that the reality is not so. I am sure that many Christians in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries believed that Christianity was barely holding on by a thread. With each new outbreak of persecution, they might have quietly lamented before God how long His church could endure imprisonments, crucifixions, and being fed to the beasts for all to see in coliseums. Yet what appeared to be a weak and groaning church under the powerful hand of Rome would in the 4th Century overtake the oppressor.
A powerful story of this reversal is seen in the life of Theodosius, a Roman Emperor who was also a devout Christian. After an incident in which he ordered soldiers to attack a crowd of people, leaving 7,000 dead, Ambrose who was the bishop of Milan and Theodosius spiritual adviser refused to permit the emperor to receive the Lord’s Supper until he publicly repented. And he did so, setting aside his imperial garments and humbled himself before God in the sight of all his people. What Christian from the previous three centuries could have ever imagined such a sight?
We must continually remind ourselves that God delights in moving steadily. We, unfortunately, do not. With the near collective knowledge of all of humanity constantly in our pockets (although more likely our hands, right?), this rings even truer today. Or, to use the imagery of the parable, we no longer look to the harvest for our food. We do not need to harvest grain and then grind it into flour to make bread. We simply go to the store and by one of the fifty-plus options to choose from. Indeed, the only waiting that we have to do for food is when asked to pull up at the drive thru because the next batch of fries isn’t finished yet.
God, however, often makes His people wait, many times for their entire lives without ever seeing the promise in which they hoped. Hebrews 11 lists many Old Testament saints and their great works of faith, and yet the author of Hebrews concludes with this statement: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us” (vv. 39-40). They were all ultimately waiting for the Christ to come, and none of them saw Him in their lifetime.
Or perhaps we could get more specific. Consider God’s promise to give Abraham the land of Canaan. Despite this promise, Abraham only owned a single cave in Canaan (where he buried Sarah and then was buried himself). His son Isaac and grandson Jacob, nevertheless, continued to believe God’s promise to Abraham. Even when Jacob journeyed down to Egypt to receive the best of the land because of Joseph’ exalted position, Jacob still made his sons promise to bury him in the same cave in Canaan where his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother were buried. Indeed, more than 400 years would pass before his descendants would enter Canaan at last. Yet Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not in their lives reap the harvest of God’s promise, yet they still believed.
In our world of the instant, perhaps one of the best witnesses that we can provide is patient confidence in the work of God. It can be all too easy to buy the frantic obsession with now from the culture around us. They can do nothing less. R. C. Sproul points out that Latin contained two words for world, mundus and saeculum. The first referenced the world in space, here, while the second referred to the world in time, now. Therefore, “the secular refers to this world in this time. Its point of focus is here and now. The accent of the secular is on the present time rather than on eternity.” It is inevitable, therefore, for secularism to fixate upon this present moment, largely forgetting the past and caring little for the future. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” is the secular motto, and it has become the theme of nearly every “inspirational” Hollywood movie.
We, however, should think differently. We certainly live our lives in the present; however, we know that our moment here is short and fleeting. We stand rooted in a deep past, filled with brothers and sisters (most of whom we do not yet know) who were steadfast and faithful. And our hope is anchored, not in this present moment, but in glory that is still to come, in the redemption of all things, in our resurrection from the dead. With those fixtures in the past and in the future, we must confidently approach the present. God’s kingdom is not decaying; it is growing ever larger, seed by seed in each child of the kingdom’s heart. Although we do not yet have physical eyes to see it, God’s kingdom is growing mightier each day.
But we shall observe that point more next week.
 Charles Spurgeon, What the Farm Laborer Can Do and What They Cannot Do, 2.
 Jared Wilson, The Storytelling God, 163.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 59-60.
 R. C. Sproul, Making a Difference: Impacting Culture and Society as a Christian, 27-28.