Mark 4:26-34

The Mustard Seed
"The Mustard Seed" by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.


Note: Some divide our text into three major paragraphs. The first two paragraphs each contain an individual parable. The third paragraph speaks in general of Jesus' use of parables.

Verses 26-29 are found only in Mark. We cannot agree that this parable is Mark's version of Matthew's parable of the tare and wheat found in Matthew 13:24-30. If Luke knew Mark's Gospel or, more importantly, used it to write his Gospel, why did he not include this exquisite parable?

Interpreter's Bible says: "Both Matthew and Luke omit the first one (26-29) -- Matthew substitutes for it his parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24-30) -- but it can scarcely be thought that it was not in their edition of Mark. Perhaps they stumbled at the word "of itself", as if the kingdom spread by some automatic or physical principle, apart from the will of God or the response of men." The parable of the tares is wholly different from this parable. That is a poor argument.

And to say that Matthew and Luke stumbled at what Mark wrote is even worse. These Notes  do not say that Matthew and Luke did not know Mark's Gospel or that they did not use Mark's Gospel. But this business of "rewriting" or eliminating false ideas shows the utter weakness of the argument of Markan Priority in the sense that Matthew and Luke used and embellished Mark. Markan Priority is still only a theory fraught with real problems. Stick to 2 Timothy 3:16.

Mark 4:26 He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. (Buls: And He went on to say: "The kingdom of God is like a person who sows seed in the ground.)

Here Jesus introduces a particular parable. Compare verse 30. We have direct discourse.

Jesus is here speaking about the Kingdom of God. He is describing one characteristic of that Kingdom. Here it is the power inherent in the Gospel to grow until the time of harvest, the end of this age. We say "inherent" because man cannot assist the Gospel.

"Of God" has been called possessive, subjective and adjectival genitive. It is all three of these and it is difficult to decide which one is predominant.

Note that five verbs in the subjunctive mood appear in verses 26 and 27. The first is aorist to distinguish the sowing in 26 from the growing in 27.

Luke 8:11 tells us: "The seed is the Word of God." The point of comparison is the life-giving element. That is implied in Mark 4:26.

Mark 4:27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. (Buls: That person sleeps by night and rises by day and the seed sprouts and grows in a way that he does not understand.)

The sprouting is absolutely unaided by man and incomprehensible to man. "Know how" is used of inherent knowledge. The truth found here is axiomatic. People soon learn that the sprouting of seed cannot be hurried nor is its growth comprehensible to man. That's the way it is with the Gospel.

Mark 4:28 All by itself the soil produces grain -- first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. (Buls: Of its own accord the earth bears fruit, first the stalk, then the head, then finally the mature grain in the head.)

"All by itself" is found only here and Acts 12:10 in the New Testament. We use an adverb or adverbial phrase where the Greek uses an adjective. This verse does not mean that the earth PRODUCES life. The point is that man cannot understand how seed germinates and grows. Nor can he understand how the Word can cause conversion and sanctification.

"First the stalk, then the head, the finally the mature grain in the head." The point is that the plant passes imperceptibly from one stage to another in a way which causes us to marvel. Likewise with the growth which the Gospel produces.

Mark 4:29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come." (Buls: And when the condition of the crop permits, immediately he sends forth the sickle because the harvest has come.")

This sentence is a conditional relative clause on the analogy of the present general condition. This is always what happens. The Greek-English Lexicon says: "When the condition of the crop permits." Whenever the growth, in the estimation of the one who sowed it, is mature, he harvests immediately.

The Kingdom of God in this parable means the mysterious power of the preaching of the Gospel from the time of preaching until entry into heaven. These verses tell us that the Gospel, like seed, generates spiritual life and causes spiritual growth not only in individuals but also in groups in a way that is incomprehensible to man. This parable should cause us to preach the Gospel faithfully, without worry, and in all patience.

Mark 4:30 Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? (Buls: And He went on to say: "How shall we liken the Kingdom of God or with what parable shall we portray it?)

Jesus answers His own question in verse 31.

Mark 4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. (Buls: It's like a mustard seed which, at the time of sowing in the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth.)

"Plant" occurs twice, once in this verse and once in the next verse. In 31 "plant" lays stress on the time of sowing, but in 32 it lays stress on the sowing itself.

At the time of sowing the mustard seed is the smallest seed. Jesus is speaking of seeds ordinarily planted in His day. He has been criticized because botanists know of seeds smaller than the mustard seed. Jesus is not giving a lesson in botany. He is making a point which becomes apparent in the next verse.

Mark 4:32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade." (Buls: But when it is sown it grows up and becomes bigger than all the plants and produces long branches so that wild birds can nest beneath its shelter.")

In verse 31 stress was laid on the size of the mustard seed at the time of planting. Verse 32 lays stress on what happens to the seed after it's been planted.

This is what always happens, human experience corroborates it, and people easily understand it. It grows up, it becomes, it produces.

"Garden plants" is variously translated "shrubs, plants, garden plants." Not "trees" but tree-like enough to have large branches.

In verses 30-32 Jesus is describing the mysterious growth and spread of the Gospel from small beginnings to vast proportions, bringing blessings even to unbelievers. The church began with twelve apostles. Now there are many millions of Christians.

Mark 4:33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. (Buls: By means of many such parables He customarily spoke to them just as they were able to hear.)

Verses 33-34 are a summary statement of Jesus' constant use of parables. People like illustrations. They stick in people's minds. "By means of such parables, many of them, He customarily spoke to them."

"Them" is all those who heard Him preach. "The word" means primarily the Gospel. Both of the parables noted here deal with spiritual growth. The Law cannot make alive or cause growth. Only the Gospel can do that.

Christ preached no more and no less than they could hear. His hearers' benefit was His total concern. Use Him as your model.

Jesus was practicing what He preached. He sowed the seed of the Word and explained further to His disciples so that the seed could bring forth spiritual life either in justification or sanctification.

Mark 4:34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (Buls: And apart from a parable He did not speak to them, but in private He explained everything to His disciples.)

This does not mean that Jesus taught exclusively by parables but that parables constantly were being used. This was His customary action.

There is much comfort for us in verses 33-34. Jesus fits the preaching of the Gospel to our ability to hear it. And He is very patient in explaining what His Word means.

Lenski limits the sower in verse 26 to Christ. This causes difficulties. He also identifies "mustard seed," in verse 36 with Christ.

With reference to this text Kretzmann quotes a worthwhile passage from Luther concerning the fact that Mark 4:33 does not contradict Matthew 13:13-14.

From verses 33-34 the faithful preacher can learn much as to attitude and teaching methods.

Pertinent Parallel Passages:


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B Mark-John, Sundays after Pentecost, Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp. 13-15

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