Jesus has come to reject those who won’t make him central, so shape your life around him (Mark 12:1–12)

Ever since my sophomore year in college, I’ve lived in houses which I’ve rented from several different landlords. I’m familiar with what it’s like to be a tenant. It’s only in the last few months, however, that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be a landlord. I’ve been working for an apartment management company, and while most of our tenants are well behaved, it’s the 10 percent that misbehave who give us 90 percent of our headaches. Nearly every day, I come home with new stories about irresponsible or clueless tenants.

But it’s tough to complain when you read about tenants like these.

It’s not hard to see who Jesus is pointing the finger at. His opponents, the religious leaders of Israel, recognize themselves right away as the tenants. After all, the prophet Isaiah had also compared Israel to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–7), and they saw themselves as tenants of that vineyard. Speaking through Isaiah, the Lord had condemned Israel for its rebellion, and now Jesus specifically condemns the religious leaders who have opposed him.

The tenants in the parable are traitors. They have been given great responsibility to care for the landlord’s vineyard and produce a crop for him. However, they don’t want to serve him; they want the vineyard for themselves. So they humiliate and beat and kill the messengers he has sent, just as the religious leaders of Israel have rejected the prophets whom God has sent, all the way up to John the Baptist. And when he sends his only son, whom he dearly loves—an act of mercy and madness!—they kill him, too, hoping that his inheritance would end up as their own.

Jesus is shredding the righteous disguise of his opponents. They appear to be doing the work of God, but in reality they are opposing his Messiah, the anointed King he has sent to rule Israel. They want control; they want to rule God’s kingdom for themselves.

Even though these leaders have been trained in the Old Testament scriptures from childhood, Jesus challenges them, “Have you not read this Scripture?” He quotes Psalm 118:22–23:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Why would the builders of a palace or temple reject a stone carved out of a quarry? Obviously, it’s because they see some sort of defect in it. It doesn’t fit into their blueprint for how the structure should look. The Psalmist felt like such a stone; he was rejected by his enemies as unfit to be one of them. Yet he and his allies marveled as the Lord delivered him, turning the rejection upside down and giving him victory over his enemies.

Jesus is the culmination of this pattern of deliverance. He is to be rejected, betrayed, and crucified by the powerful and influential men of his day. Then, despite their best efforts to destroy him, the almighty God will raise him from the dead and give him “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).

Jesus doesn’t fit into the plans of the religious leaders. He is a threat to their positions of power. If he is put in charge, they can no longer have authority over Israel; they can no longer demand that people follow their traditions; they can no longer run their lives the way they want to.

When the rejected stone is made the cornerstone of the building, then the blueprint must be changed, and the building plans must be altered to fit the new cornerstone. This means that Jesus will not “fit in” to our pre-existing lifestyle. No, Jesus demands thorough and foundational change from you and me. He will not be added as an extra ingredient in your life to make you feel spiritually fulfilled. He insists on being your foundation; he insists that you reorder your dreams and goals and values and morals around him. You must shape your life around him as the center. If you and I do this, his triumph will be “marvelous in our eyes.”

If you and I will not do that, then we appear in this parable as the wicked tenants, attempting to kill Jesus so that we may usurp his throne. But “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35)—the Lord will bring about a great reversal, our kingdoms will be flattened, and his eternal kingdom will be built over their ruins, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.

So are you a faithful tenant of the Landlord? Or will you oppose him until he comes, inevitably, to reject you?

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 changes everyone (Mark 4:1–20)

As every preacher knows, there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t like a good story. Being able to tell an anecdote or a personal experience is a great way to illustrate God’s truth in a way that everyone can understand. Of course, you’ll have the occasional speaker who will get so caught up in telling a story that he becomes lost in the wilderness of his own imagination. But any preacher worth his salt will do his best to avoid that mistake; he wants his stories to reveal truth, not hinder it.

Once again, Jesus isn’t just any preacher. We typically think that he tells parables so that people will understand truth. That’s not the reason that he gives, though.

We saw a “sandwich story” the last time we looked at Mark, and now we’re seeing one again. We find Jesus beside the sea again, and this time he hops in a boat right away so the crowds don’t crush him. Then he tells them a bunch of parables, which are short fictional stories that illustrate a truth about God and his kingdom. One parable in particular stands out: a farmer sows seed on four different kinds of soil—a footpath, rocky ground, a thorn patch, and rich soil. The seed only produces grain in the rich soil, but this soil is so good that it yields an absurd amount of grain. So all of that is the upper slice of bread in the “sandwich.”

Then comes the meat between the bread. Jesus’ followers approach him, asking him to explain why he’s teaching in parables, and he gives a rather surprising reason. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” he says, “but for those outside everything is in parables.” In other words, Jesus knows something very important about the kingdom which God is going to set up, but he won’t tell it to just anyone. It’s only for his disciples to know. The reason Jesus speaks in parables isn’t to reveal the truth about the kingdom to “those outside”—it’s to hide the truth about the kingdom from them. Jesus’ disciples are the insiders, and he will explain the truth to them, but he won’t tell it to anyone else.

Why not? What reason could Jesus possibly have for keeping God’s kingdom a secret? He reaches back to the Old Testament and adapts a famous stanza from Isaiah 6:9–10. He is hiding this knowledge from outsiders so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Does that bother you? It bothers me. But I suppose I should ask a more important question: is this the Jesus you think you know? Does he have the right to say, “There is a certain group of people whom I will hide the truth from so that they won’t repent and be forgiven”? That’s the Jesus whom you and I are facing in this story. That’s what Jesus is like in real life.

So now we are left to ask, “Who are these ‘outsiders’? Why is Jesus holding back the truth that would cause them to repent?” So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus reject the religious leaders because they have hardened their hearts against him. We’ve seen him reject his own family because they refuse to be with him and imitate him, which is what his disciples do. And now, he’s going to add new groups to the ever-expanding circle of “outsiders.”

The meat of Mark’s “sandwich” has given us the clue we need to understand what comes next. And what comes next (the lower slice of bread) is Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the four soils. Jesus says to his followers, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” In other words, this is a special parable because it’s actually a parable about parables—a metaparable, if you will. The seed represents “the word”—Jesus’ good news about the coming kingdom, which he tells in the form of parables. The first soil, the hardened footpath, represents those who are hard-hearted, like the religious leaders. The word doesn’t get in at all but lies dead on the surface, where Satan plucks it away. These outsiders won’t even consider what Jesus has to say. The second soil, the rocky ground, represents those who respond to the word with joy, but have only a shallow commitment. When tough times come, these outsiders fall away, because deep down they don’t really get it. The third soil, the thorn patch, represents those who have other dreams and desires besides the kingdom. These outsiders are distracted by a love of money or possessions or entertainment or anything else the world can offer. All these desires choke out their supposed love for God because they don’t really understand Jesus’ message, either.

Finally, Jesus tells us about the good, rich soil. When the seed falls here, it produces  a ridiculous bumper crop. A hundredfold yield was unheard of in Jesus’ day; this soil is unbelievably rich. This soil represents the insiders, Jesus’ true disciples. You can tell them apart from the outsiders because they “bear fruit.” This is because they have been given “the secret of the kingdom of God.”

What we’ve just read is a sobering message with so many implications that you and I couldn’t possibly sort through them all in the space of a single blog post. We know now that many people in the church will look like insiders but are actually outsiders who don’t understand the gospel. We know now that it’s an enduring faith, not a flash-in-the-pan spiritual experience, that marks a true disciple. We know now that many professing Christians are under the judgment of God, who blinds idol worshipers who turn to something or someone other than God for ultimate security (see Psalm 115:8).

Above all, we see that Jesus’ message changes everyone, because Jesus is a polarizing figure. Some people he transforms into his disciples. Other people he hardens into his opponents. His message has already changed you. Are you an insider or an outsider?