The Servant King’s Upside-Down Kingdom – Mark 4:21-34
I don’t know about you, but usually my birthday is a time of reflection and most of the time it is easy for me to bemoan the fact about where I am in life, how much have I accomplished, how much have I really changed, etc. I can easily become self-absorbed and come close to borderline despair.
I think most of it is because the kingdom of the world bombards us with its values and definitions of success. For instance, take a look at this guy: Mark Zuckerburg. I would think most 28 year olds hate this guy. What did you do on your 28th birthday? The Facebook CEO on his 28th birthday opened Facebook to investors and the stock market. It is expected to be worth $100 billion dollars.
So Hugh Whelchel in a blog post writes, “By age 28, many face what’s called a ‘quarter-life crisis,’ thanks to the two great lies our culture promotes among children in school, students in college, and professionals in the business world. The first great lie is, ‘If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.’ It is often sold as the American Dream, expressed in sayings such as, ‘In America, anyone can grow up to be President.’ The second great lie is like the first one, yet possibly even more damaging: ‘You can be the best in the world. If you try hard enough, you could be the next Zuckerberg.’” You can master your own destiny.
If we are honest, that’s what we think success is. And the American Dream is a nightmare because in the end, it is the ultimate glory thief. Keller notes, “More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.”
Our culture values performance, position and power. How many followers do you have? What is your title? Who are you connected to? Sadly, North American Christianity is not much different. Now it’s so much about size, money and number of people in attendance.
But when Jesus showed up on the scene, gathered some followers saying, “The Kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15) and started demonstrating the power of the in breaking of the Kingdom, His disciples were excited and full of expectation. They started to think that finally Roman oppression will be over. Their religious leaders will be so thrilled to have found an answer to their prayers for a Messiah.
Not only was the King here, but He had chosen them to be under Him! They all had their own expectations and definitions of success and how they thought life was going to work now. I am sure temptations of fame and power started to fill their hearts. However, Jesus is a different King. The Kingdom of God was a different Kingdom. It’s an upside down Kingdom. Actually, it is the right side up Kingdom and the kingdom of this world is an upside down kingdom. There is nothing remotely “successful” about dying alone and naked on a cross and being abandoned by all. I am firmly convinced Jesus would not be welcome to speak at many of the Christian conferences today. The fruit of His life, labors and ministry were not seen until AFTER his mortal days.This Kingdom works on different principles. He says weakness is strength. He says leaders are servants. He says the way up is down. He says to find life, you have to die and the way to get back at your enemies is to love them. He says the way to true riches is to give it away. What?
And this King doesn’t seem to be about ruling politically. He is opposed by the religious authorities, calling Him demon-possessed (Mark 3:22). Jesus’ own family thinks He’s gone nuts (Mark 3:21). He tells the leper not to tell anyone about Him (Mark 1:44). He just shared the story about the four soils and it seems like He’s saying 3/4ths of what He’s doing seems like it’s going to waste. What is this Kingdom about Jesus?
Maybe we feel the same. Jesus the King has come into our lives. But sometimes His Kingdom seems to be non-existent. All I do serving Him…is that a waste? Is He still on the throne? We wonder, as anxiety fills our heart about our future and uncertainties we may have. The world seems to be getting worse. Maybe your loved ones are still not saved. Maybe we feel like we ruined our witness to people in our life with choices we made or things we have said. Maybe you feel discouraged by the weakness of your efforts or maybe you feel like a loser evangelistically and lazy devotionally? Where is the Kingdom today when we feel like this?!
Studying this was good for me as God-ordained it perfectly this week, once again. In today’s passage Jesus is reassuring His disciples and all of us that His Kingdom works differently than we think or the way the world thinks. It is an upside down Kingdom and embracing the Servant King’s Kingdom is necessary to persevere and thrive. Let’s explore that today. First,
- The Upside-down Kingdom of God is temporarily concealed, but will be fully revealed (vv.21-22)
Jesus seems to be talking to the multitudes (according to Mark 4:33-34) here with four parables. These parables are meant for reflection and digestion and to awaken our hearts to ask the question, “Which Kingdom am I really living for? Is it the Kingdom that Jesus has died for?”
The first parable is that of a lamp. Don’t be fooled by your pre-understandings of what Jesus is saying. In Matt. 5:14-16, Jesus says to let your light shine before men, live like a believer and hide it under a bushel, no! But in this context, Jesus is saying something different. Interestingly in the original, He says, “Does THE lamp COME.” Translators made it sound more understandable saying lamp is BROUGHT IN since lamps can’t come on their own, but I wonder if we lost the meaning as a result.
THE lamp has come. Jesus is Jesus is the lamp of God who has come to bring light and revelation (John 1:5; 8:12). The purpose of a lamp is not to put it under a bed or cover it with a bowl. This defeats the purpose. In verse 22, Jesus explains it further. Essentially He is saying it’s like playing hide and seek. You don’t hide in that game to hide forever. You hope eventually you are found, though hopefully you are the last one and you win the game.
Only that which is first hidden can be found. Likewise, Jesus is telling the people that the Kingdom of God right now is hidden. Jesus is a veiled King. He does not come with pomp and prestige. It looks unpromising and inauspicious. It is like a lamp covered. But one day, the veil will come off. Jesus is hidden in order to be manifested. Concealment intends disclosure. True that Jesus was fully revealed following his resurrection, but the kingdom will not be fully realized until the consummation
Yes today it seems gloomy and dark. Life seems ordinary, as there is nothing more ordinary than walking into a room and seeing a small lamp, or a seed, for that matter. Jesus may seem to be forever playing hide and go seek. It may seem like prayers are lost. Many…remain clueless until the end because their eyes have been blinded by the dazzle of this world’s fond hopes and because their ears have been deafened by the din of this present evil age. But take heart! The Sovereign Sower is sowing the seed of the gospel through the church, though it appears most of it is wasted seed, 1/4th of this seed is finding good soil and the harvest will be wildly disproportionate growing up 30-60-100 fold and the lamp of God will be manifest when He receives this harvest at the end of the age.
In the midst of the ordinary, the extraordinary is taking place. The eventual result is remarkable. It does not seem immediate or have widespread influence now, but seed is being sown throughout the world. The lamp of God will be revealed.
Yes, its baffling now, but just because we don’t understand what God is doing or why He’s doing it and just because we can’t think of a good reason, does NOT mean He doesn’t have one. The day will come and the lights will all turn on. Let that encourage us when we have run out of patience with ourselves and with people, when we have stopped praying and despair has filled our hearts. He didn’t come into our lives to be hidden forever. God’s not done with us. The Kingdom is an upside down kingdom. It is a concealed Kingdom that will be revealed one day.
- The Upside-down Kingdom of God operates on the principles of giving, not grasping (vv.23-25)
Jesus stops to give people an exhortation to listen. We have some form of this verb about 13x in Mark 4, the most in any chapter. With this knowledge of the secret of the Kingdom comes great responsibility. We are under obligation to respond. God cares more how you hear His Word than the fact that you are hearing His Word. One commentator says, “To hear the message is not a neutral affair. Hearing puts them under great obligation…the time has come, not just for Jesus to preach and heal, but also for them to make up their minds.” No spectators allowed.
Then He gives us another parable about measuring to explain what He means. Literally the Greek reads: “In whatever measure you measure it will be measured to you and will be added to you.” This is basic knowledge. You will get out what you put in. One must invest before one can benefit. One must put in before one can draw out. One must deposit if one desires to withdraw.
Tim Keller explains it this way: “The people who give the most have the most. The more you give, the more you will have. The way to fullness is to empty yourself…Givers have more and more to give. Graspers, keepers, will have less and less to hold onto.” Giving, emptying yourself, is the way to fullness.”
Here Jesus is saying that depending on the way we receive and respond to the truth, our capacity to receive more truth and receive the effects of truth is enlarged. The measure you use to meditate on the Gospel through your study of Scripture, to hear sermons, serve and get involved at in church will be measured to you. The attentiveness we give to the Word and the Gospel in our heart will determine the effect of the Word and the Gospel in our lives. The way you use what you hear now will influence how you hear God in the future. Your future is being shaped right now by your response to God’s Word as you are hearing it. And in v.25, there is a warning. Those who fail to repent and believe and fail to respond to the Gospel is in grave danger. If there is continued indifference to what you hear, the inevitable result is increasing hardheartedness and deafness. On that day He comes and you did not respond to the message, He removes His presence and grace finally from you, which He had graciously and mercifully given.
But it is not just that God makes you bigger and enlarges your capacity as the Gospel goes into you. You can just be a fat sheep sitting in the pew. How does the knowledge of Jesus grow? You have to give it away. If you have ever led a Bible study or preached and sometimes I hear this from those of you who tirelessly lead our small groups or kids in children’s ministry that the person who has received the best feast is the one who was trying to feed everybody. You want to grow in knowledge of Christ, give it away. Share it, teach it, give it and not grasp it for yourself.
It works in relationships. The people I notice are relationally so rich, gracious truth tellers and truthful grace-givers are the ones who go into relationships more about serving people in relationships as opposed to going into relationships to get something for yourself and getting your needs met, which is really what we tend to do most of the time.
The times I have focused on trying to influence people are the times I don’t think I influenced anyone. But I have noticed that the times I just served people just to serve, they thank me for influencing them. So the way to influence is to serve. Keep your money and be obsessed with it and have anxiety about it, but cultivate a generous heart, give it away and trust God to meet your needs.
Parents, think of all those nights you got up (and some of you still getting up), all of that rocking and feeding and cleaning and serving these little sinners. You have no time for yourself. Some days you couldn’t shower or brush your teeth and you are frustrated because the kid doesn’t want to eat and yet in the middle of that tough day, you can’t help but to keep watching and smile at that video you took of your kid cooing or giggling. You’re in love with them.
It’s the Upside-down Kingdom. The world says, “If you want to be happy, try to be happy. Look out for number one. If you want wealth, hold onto it.” The Bible says, “No, it’s absolutely wrong. It works the other way around.” The way to be happy is not to be obsessed with happiness, but to serve others and trust God with your happiness. When Jesus gives the Beatitudes, He says, “Blessed (literally happy) are those…” and it’s a bunch of different things. He never says, “happy are those who pursue happiness.” It’s a by-product of seeking first the Kingdom (Matt. 6:33). That’s why C.S. Lewis says aim at God and you’ll get God and joy. Aim at joy, and you’ll get neither. Aim at changing your spouse or fixing your children, everyone will grow bitter and frustrated. Aim at serving God and serving him/her, trust God for joy in your marriage and parenting.
The late Millard Fuller was a millionaire by the age of 29. He aimed at money and lived for fame and fortune. In his own words, he had bought his wife Linda everything she could possibly want. But one day he came home to a note that announced that she had left him. Millard went after her. He found her on a Saturday night in a hotel in NYC. They talked into the wee hours of the morning as she poured out her heart and made him see that the “things” that our society says are supposed to be so satisfying had left her cold. Her heart was empty and her spirit was burned out. She was dead inside and she wanted to live again. Kneeling at their bedside in their hotel room, Millard and Linda decided to sell everything they had and dedicated themselves to serving poor people.
People were shocked they did such a thing. “Why did you give up all that money?!” Their response was, “We were not giving up money and the things money could buy. We were giving up period.” Millard and Linda started an organization you’re probably familiar with – Habitat for Humanity.
So you might hear the Upside down Kingdom’s principle and think, “So God wants me to give up my money and give up my time and give up my comforts and give up my this and that…right?” No, He doesn’t. It’s about giving up, period. It’s about giving up our lives to following Jesus. Everything we have and are considering it as dung (Phil. 3:8), to know Him. The Upside-down kingdom works through the principles of giving not grasping. Lastly,
- The Upside-down Kingdom will gloriously expand and triumph in spite of human ability or humble appearances (vv.26-34).
Jesus starts yet again: “The Kingdom of God is as…” What do you expect here? So far he used a lamp and a measuring cup. And now the final two parables are about seed again. Once again, He gives a commonplace and seemingly insignificant examples. One author says, “No marching armies, heroic deeds, and valorous exploits, but the humble, homely imagery of sowing, tilling, and harvest. The seed is scattered, falls, and lies on the ground, and meets a variety of fates. Instead of striking out, defiant and aggressive, the Kingdom of God appears lowly and vulnerable. The seed is subject to adversity, rejection, delays, and loss.” Why? Jesus does not tell us how high and lofty God is but how very near and present he is, and how the routines of planting and harvesting are mundane clues to the nature and plan of God.
Look at the mention of the mundane and routine day in and day of life: night and day, sleeping and rising. The Upside down Kingdom of God is not spectacular or attractive at the moment. What if you saw that in the normal day-to-day of life, the changing of diapers (well maybe not this, which is more like the kingdom of darkness), sitting with my kids, praying and serving, being with other believers, encouraging someone through a text or phone call, the Kingdom of God is present? It is slow. What does the man actually do in this parable? His work is actually minimal. He doesn’t even understand it fully. He sows and goes to sleep. Everything else happens by God. The man’s job is one thing: sow and wait by faith. This is not a call to laziness, but that it is not he who plants or he who waters, but God who causes things to grow (1 Cor. 3:7).
The second parable is similar, but slightly different. The first parable is about growth, the second is about contrast. The tiny mustard seed though small can grow into something majestic. Likewise, the Kingdom of God arises from obscurity and insignificance. God’s reign will not only be more real than the world can imagine, but it will also be larger and more encompassing…and out of the most insignificant beginnings, invisible to human eyes, God creates his mighty Kingdom, which embraces all the peoples of the world.
The Kingdom of God will grow like seed. There will be a harvest day. If we have entered this Upside Down Kingdom, then:
a) Faithfulness & Fruitfulness=Success
Fruit takes time. Seed takes time. Faithfulness is required. Patience is needed. We need long obedience in the same direction, not instant gratification. Jesus’ Kingdom advancing is not related to our personal greatness. Being faithful and fruitful to what God has created and called us to do, may or may not, result in “success” defined in temporal terms: numeric size, money, fame, and influence, etc.
Are you willing to be insignificant so He can increase? Anyone in relationships: Small group leaders, attendees, married couples, parents, etc. Fruit takes time. We are not machines. Community is fruit that is borne through shared brokenness (Henry Nouwen). Grow in faithfully sharing your brokenness. Share your wounds and the fruit community will be born automatically.
b) We are witnesses, not the source of our successes
We are witnesses to our success, not the source. I am responsible to sow seed—cultivate my faith, grow in the Gospel and grow in character. But ultimately, God is in charge of my life. Trust Him with your future. So parents, trust God with the spiritual growth of your children. Their future is not in our hands, but God’s. We will parent imperfectly, our children will make their own choices, and God will mysteriously and wondrously use it all to advance his kingdom.”
c) Is your idea “arrival” Him or something else?
Pastor Ray Ortlund asks this penetrating question: Every one of us thinks, “If only I could do __________ or be __________, then I would arrive.” So, what does “arrival” look like to you? If it isn’t Jesus, the risen Lord himself, every arrival you achieve is only another set-back. If you make financial security your arrival, you are already trapped in anxiety. If you make a thin body your identity, you will hate yourself more…God’s remedy for you is not more money or better looks or perfect control. God’s gift to you is Jesus. With Jesus, we are saved.” Is it a perfect spouse your arrival? The perfect job? The perfect ministry?
Where do you get the power to live in this Upside-Down Kingdom? How can I give up and follow this Savior? That’s asking a lot. I need assurance that it will be ok. How do I know my darkness will one day be overwhelmed by His light? How do I know if I surrender my grasping hands that I will receive this promise of more?
The power comes from the Gospel. Jesus, the light of the world, came down into ultimate darkness for you and me, so today our darkness is just the time before our dawns. The most glorious, most immense, most awesome person of the Universe became small, He became the smallest of seeds in becoming an embryo, being born to die. He Himself said talking about His own death and the upside down principle of following Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Why did He die like a seed in the ground? For you and me. If Jesus had stayed up, we would’ve gone down, but because Jesus went down, we’ve been brought up. He was the seed that went into the ground of ultimate death, so today when He lives in you and me, His very own life breaks through to live in this Upside Down Kingdom.
Jesus is the Upside Down King. On the cross you have Jesus Christ, not winning over losing, but through losing. You have Jesus, not triumphing over defeat, but through defeat. You have Jesus bringing about infinite wealth into our lives because of his poverty. We have Jesus bringing infinite power and influence in the world through absolutely giving all his power away. He was the one nobody wanted, He was overlooked and treated as insignificant so the Father can set His love on us, make us His Beloved and treat us as children of the King.
His life was given for us and now He lives in you and me. He is the seed that bursts forth, bearing fruit wildly disproportionate than we deserve. And now in Him, we find our joy and contentment. He has arrived for us, so I need not try to find my “arrival” in this world. I’m okay with getting less than my due, a smaller share than what I think I deserve from this world, because I know what I truly deserve and that was placed on my King. We no longer need to be a slave to preeminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. We don’t have this need to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. We have Him. He has loved us to the bottom of our heart and all the way to the skies. What is greater than that?
Billy Graham was asked a few years ago about what was the number one highlight of his evangelistic career? Maybe meeting all those presidents? Maybe getting all those keys to the cities? Maybe having millions and millions listen to you? Without a beat, he said, “By far the greatest joy of my life has been my fellowship with Jesus. Hearing Him speak to me, having Him guide me, sensing His presence with me and His power through me. This has been the highest pleasure of my life!” I don’t know about my fellowship with Jesus, but I stand here to say very confidently that HIS fellowship with me is the greatest thing in all my life. I don’t how much my heart is always set on Him, but I can’t fathom or even begin to understand how much His heart is set on me. Let that sink into your heart and it will burst forth into much fruit, for His glory.
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