Jesus grows his followers (Mark 4:21–34)

There are two ways in which a farmer can increase the size of the crop he is able to produce. The first way is to acquire new land and expand the area of his crop onto it. The second way is to increase the yield of the same land by introducing new methods of agriculture. In short, he can increase the quantity of his farmland or he can improve the quality of it.

Of course, an ambitious farmer will do both. Last week, we looked at the fact that Jesus rejects those who are outsiders, who aren’t truly his disciples. This week, we’ll see how ambitious Jesus really is when it comes to growing his followers and expanding his kingdom. Jesus goes for both quality of disciples and quantity.

Jesus picks up right where he left off with the parable of the four soils. He had been talking about how outsiders are ignorant when it comes to God’s kingdom—this is God’s judgment on them. Insiders, on the other hand, are characterized by “fruit-bearing,” or the marks of a disciple. In Mark’s gospel, so far, disciples are identified as people who are with Jesus and who imitate Jesus. He explains why disciples are guaranteed to grow, using two illustrations.

First, Jesus asks what the purpose of lighting a lamp is. Is it lit so that its light may be hidden, or is it lit so that its light may reveal what is hidden? Obviously, it’s the latter. In the same way, the gospel message that Jesus brings is intended to reveal the truth about God and his work in the world. While it may be hidden from the blind and deaf outsiders (verse 12), it will certainly reveal truth to attentive insiders, who have “ears to hear.” That is its purpose.

Second, Jesus shows that his disciples will be given more and more understanding. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you,” he promises. “For to the one who has, more will be given.” He will reward his followers, who are eager to know him and to understand his message. Jesus will give them exactly what they are looking for and more! He will overwhelm them with blessing. But he also warns, “From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” There will be fake disciples who have a loose grasp on who Jesus is and what he is doing. These outsiders will not be blessed with insight but will become even more spiritually dull than they were before.

Now that Jesus has established the fact that his individual followers will grow in knowledge, he launches into two parables describing how his kingdom will grow in general. The first parable tells the story of a farmer who sows seed and watches as it grows over time by itself. He does nothing to make it grow; he is mystified by how it can produce a crop. All he does is sit back and wait for the harvest. So we see that when Jesus’ gospel message is spoken and believed, it produces growth in the lives of many people. This growth comes from God; it’s not something that the speaker can produce. In other words, you and I can’t change other people’s hearts! All we can do is tell them the good news and let the Holy Spirit do his work in his timing. The kingdom grows gradually and mysteriously. With each passing day and month and year, Jesus’ disciples begin to recognize his reign over them and respond to him as their King. They produce fruit that identifies them as insiders.

The second parable describes the kingdom as a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous, tree-like mustard plant which towers over all the other garden plants. In other words, the kingdom may start small, but it gets big, like a snowball rolling down a hill. It may seem unimpressive now, but it won’t stay that way for long. Jesus may only have a few followers now, but they will grow in number, until his kingdom has expanded to fill the whole earth with the glory of the Lord. With the seed of his gospel message, Jesus will grow God’s kingdom into a powerful worldwide movement.

Let’s stop to consider the implications for you and me. What this means is that real disciples will always bear the marks of insiders. They will produce fruit, being with Jesus and imitating him. They will be growing continually. The gospel message, to them, is not a one-time decision that they leave in the past. They do not simply “pray a prayer” and move on. No! The gospel is the source of their growth, and they return to it day by day so they will not become stagnant. They grow through the power of the Holy Spirit. They grow in godliness and influence, extending Jesus’ gospel message to a world that needs to hear it.

Mark wraps up his account of Jesus’ parables by telling us that Jesus is only speaking to the crowd in parables now. He is hiding his gospel message from outsiders. He is only explaining the parables to insiders. So which group do you belong to? Are you an outsider, either consciously or unconsciously opposing Jesus? Perhaps you call yourself a Christian, but you’ve deceived yourself for many years; you’ve never understood the gospel and never been a part of God’s kingdom. Or are you an insider, slowly learning and growing as the Lord mysteriously transforms your heart? If you truly are a disciple of Jesus, you will learn and change and grow, because Jesus loves his followers, and he always makes sure that they will grow.

Jesus wants committed followers (Mark 3:7–19)

Which do you think Jesus prefers: a 15-member house church or a 5,000-member megachurch?

“Hmmm…is this a trap?” you ask, dodging my question. And of course, my answer is yes. As we’ll learn today in the gospel of Mark, it’s not numbers that Jesus is concerned about. He wants committed followers.

We’ve reached a point in Jesus’ ministry where his popularity is starting to get out of hand. Once again, he has to pull out of the town of Capernaum, and once again he can’t get away from the crowds. In fact, they’re coming not only from Galilee but from “Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon,” from great distances to the south, east, and north. Jesus has transitioned from a local hero to a regional celebrity.

Unfortunately, with celebrity status comes a celebrity circus. The crowd presses around Jesus, touching his clothes, pleading that he would heal them from their diseases. Jesus realizes that he may be crushed by the mob; the situation is so dangerous that he asks his disciples to get a boat ready in case he needs to put some distance between himself and the crowd. Worse, demon-possessed people begin to make a ruckus, falling down at his feet and announcing, “You are the Son of God!” For the second time in Mark’s account, Jesus acts to suppress the news about himself; he orders the unclean spirits not to reveal who he is. There seem to be a couple reasons for this (as we will see once we reach chapter 4), and one is purely practical: the crowds are inhibiting Jesus’ ministry. He loves them and takes care of their needs, but this isn’t the right climate to continue the mission he has come to accomplish.

So Jesus leaves the crowd behind and chooses twelve disciples to climb a nearby mountain with him. This is odd because in first-century Jewish culture, disciples would usually choose their rabbi. But that is not acceptable to Jesus; it’s important for him that he gets to decide who is close to him. So on the mountain, he appoints these disciples as the Twelve, and he gives them two charges. First, he appoints them “so that they might be with him.” Jesus doesn’t want to hold his followers at arm’s length. Sometimes I think of Jesus as an aloof, sort of spacey leader. The fact is, Jesus would rather have twelve friends than twelve thousand fans. He wants a close circle of companions who can share life with him and learn from him. That’s what Jesus wants from you, too. If you are his disciple, he has hand-picked you to be with him. It doesn’t matter that you’re not perfect; he didn’t select you because he saw something good in you. So don’t let your sinful flesh discourage you. Just be with him first of all, because he wants to be with you.

Second, Jesus appoints the Twelve so that “he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” If that sort of mission sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what Jesus has been up to in the first few chapters of Mark. Essentially, Jesus gives the Twelve a mission, and that mission turns out to be the same thing he’s been doing. Jesus wants his disciples to imitate him. When Jesus chose you, it was to give you a mission just like his. He wants you to join with other disciples in advancing the good news of his salvation. He wants you to tell the truth to the world and show by your love that you really mean it. In our postmodern culture, your authority to speak the truth will be questioned; people will be offended that you claim to know the truth. But your authority comes from Jesus, so you can imitate him by telling the truth with a gracious attitude. The authority he has given you is so tremendous that you have power over unimaginable spiritual forces arrayed against you. So don’t let the world and the devil discourage you. Just imitate him first of all, because he wants you to be like him.

At this point in the story, Mark lists the Twelve. The order of their names is important. First of all comes Jesus’ inner circle within the inner circle: Peter, James, and John (and sometimes Andrew, the annoying kid brother of Peter). Jesus is going to focus much of his attention on them, and they will be leaders among the Twelve. Leaders of the church especially need to stay as close to Jesus as possible. And last of all comes “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” You can almost hear the anger in Mark’s voice. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is the only thing people remember about him. This betrayal is so prominent in Mark’s mind that he simply must mention it, even though it spoils the story. How terrible it is for someone to spend so much time near Jesus and in the end betray him! How much hotter the fires of hell will be for churchgoers who never truly commit themselves to their professed Savior! This is a horrifying and sobering truth.

You and I need to be with Jesus. He is the only one that can keep us from falling away. We can’t hold anything back from him. We can’t live secret lives; we can’t nurture secret sins. Jesus wants all of you. He really does want to be with you, and he really does want you to be like him. Please—don’t hold back from Jesus.

Teaching with authority (Mark 1:16–31)

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” “You can’t push your morality on me.” “You have no right to order me around.”

We just don’t like authority here in the West. In an increasingly cynical and postmodern culture, people in authority are eyed with suspicion. Authority threatens our sense of autonomy. Even in the church, the role of authority has been questioned—to the point where the bestselling Christian novel, The Shack, has denounced authority as inherently evil. We just don’t like the idea that someone can waltz into our lives and demand that we drop everything and do what he commands.

Maybe that’s part of the reason we have such a big problem following Jesus. He is not afraid to insist on his own authority.

Take a look at today’s passage in Mark. The first scene opens with Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a deep lake known for its excellent fishing. He sees two sets of fishermen working the family business, calls to them and commands them to follow him, and they obey. Mark doesn’t really get into the backstory of these men (though John’s gospel explains that they already knew who Jesus was). Mark simply offers us a scene so abrupt, so startling, that we are left wondering, “What man possesses authority so great that he simply asks a handful of fisherman to leave their lifelong family business in order to follow him around?” Jewish Rabbis didn’t seek out followers; their followers sought them. Yet here is Jesus, walking up to these men and staking his claim on their lives. As far as he was concerned, they belonged to him. He owned them.

Do you find that last sentence a little threatening? I’m an American citizen, and odds are that you are as well. We like to think we’re free; we like to think that nobody has the right to order us around. The problem is, Jesus has that right. “Follow me,” he insists, “and I will make you become fishers of men.” There is a threatening beauty to Jesus’ statement: it is a command followed by a promise. To men who have no greater ambition than to make money and pass on the family occupation, Jesus offers something far greater. “You won’t be fishing for fish anymore. No, I will turn you into someone who fishes for people. The gospel of the kingdom that you’ve heard me proclaim is the gospel that you will proclaim.” Jesus gives them a new destiny, providing a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives that they have never had before.

So what do Simon, Andrew, James, and John do? Jesus says, “Follow,” so they follow. They leave their jobs and their families and obey him at once. That’s the sort of authority Jesus has.

With his disciples in tow, Jesus shows up in the town of Capernaum along the seashore. He arrives in the local synagogue on the Sabbath day and is invited to teach. When he does, he astonishes everyone there because he teaches them with authority, “and not as the scribes.” The scribes were the local teachers of the law, who would simply parrot what other teachers had said about the Old Testament. Not Jesus! He steps up and teaches his own ideas, and he teaches them with the air of someone who is perfectly within his rights to order you around.

However, there is someone in attendance who doesn’t want to be ordered around. A man with an “unclean spirit”—a demon—tries to shout Jesus down. He wants to shut down Jesus’ teaching, so he instigates a confrontation, shrieking, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit is attempting to wrest control of the situation from Jesus. He goes on the offensive with three statements. First, he demands that Jesus leave him and his demonic comrades alone. Second, he announces that he knows Jesus’ plan—to destroy him and his fellow spirits, who have been harassing the people of Galilee. Third, he knows Jesus’ secret identity. He is “the Holy One of God”—someone with a special relationship with God, if not the Messiah himself! The unclean spirit pulls out all the stops to gain control over Jesus.

Jesus will have none of it. “Be silent, and come out of him!” he demands. Jesus had been teaching, the spirit had tried to shout him down, and now Jesus shuts up the spirit. This demon leaves the man with one final act of defiance, “crying out with a loud voice.” And then—silence. Jesus has the stage to himself. The crowd is astounded—this is a man of impossible authority! And notice the emphasis in the text: “a new teaching with authority”! Jesus’ victory over the unclean spirit demonstrates that his teaching really does have authority. Jesus really does have the right to tell you and me what to do. He’s not afraid to use that right. He owns us.

But the next scene shows the beauty of this authority. After that day’s incredible encounter in the synagogue, Jesus spends the afternoon at Simon’s house. While he is there, his disciples tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Here, we find the first act of faith in Mark’s gospel. The disciples see that Jesus had the authority to drive out an unclean spirit. Maybe he has enough authority to heal her from this dangerous fever! They ask Jesus if he will do something about it.

Think about this. Here is a man with an authority they have never witnessed before. They have no right to demand him to perform a miracle of healing. He is perfectly within his rights to refuse them. Yet Jesus approaches the bed, takes the woman by the hand, and lifts her up. The fever leaves her, and she is finally able to show hospitality to her guests. Jesus wasn’t forced to heal her—he chose to heal her. He uses his authority for our good. He wants to heal us; he wants to free us; he wants to give us a new destiny.

Yes, his authority threatens us. And it’s a lovely sort of threat.