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Note of the Day – July 24

In yesterday’s note, I looked at the basic setting of the saying in Mark 4:11 (and its Synoptic parallels); today, I will be examining a bit more closely the meaning and significance of the saying in context.

Mark 4:11 / Matt 13:11 / Luke 8:10

Here again is the saying in all three versions; for the sake of simplicity, this time I substitute “parable(s)” for the more literal “(illustrations) cast alongside”:

Mark Matthew Luke
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those th(at are) outside, all th(ese thing)s come to be in parables.” “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of the Heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given.” “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to the rest (of them, only) in parables…”

Several key points can be drawn from this saying in context:

Contrast between the disciples and other people—In all three versions, the pronoun “(to) you [u(mi=n]” is emphatic, set at the start of the sentence; and the narrative setting makes it clear that Jesus is addressing his followers (including the Twelve). They are contrasted with all the others who might hear Jesus’ words; this is expressed differently in each version:

  • Mark: “to you… to those th(at are) outside”
  • Matt: “to you… to those (others)”
  • Luke: “to you… to the rest (of them)”

But the contrast juxtaposing the two ‘groups’ is definite, by use of the (adversative) conjuction de/ (“but…”). It is of course a common feature of (religious) group identity to distinguish those within the circle of believers from those without. This was an important element of early Christian identity, and it is hardly surprising that it extends back to the earthly ministry of Jesus and his followers. Especially in the case of those who face persecution or marginalization by the wider society, a tightly held group identity becomes all the more prominent.

The parables are meant to establish and confirm this contrast—Interestingly, the idea of the parable would seem to point in the opposite direction—i.e. that the illustration would help to explain and clarify Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom, etc. This is certainly the conventional thinking adopted by many commentators—i.e., that Jesus used simple illustrations from daily life to make his teaching easier for the common person to understand. The explanation offered by Jesus himself (in Mark 4:11-12 par) rather indicates that the parable was actually meant to hide the truth about the Kingdom from people at large. In this regard, we might observe that Jesus’ parables and stories are deceptively simple—they contain profound meaning and (spiritual) insight which centuries of study and interpretation have scarcely exhausted.

Only Jesus’ (close) followers are given an explanation of the parable—This is the whole point of the context of Mark 4:10-12, set in between the parable of the Sower (vv. 3-9) and its interpretation/explanation by Jesus (vv. 13-20). It is really the only parable (along with the similar parable of the Weeds in Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) for which such a detailed explanation is recorded. Some critical commentators have expressed doubt that Mark 4:13-20 par is authentic and represents the meaning of the parable as originally spoken by Jesus. It is not possible to address this issue in the space here, other than to state that I find little clear evidence to indicate that it is an early Christian product, rather than Jesus’ own teaching. There are, of course, many passages which depict Jesus’ followers (especially the Twelve) receiving information and insight from Jesus, apart from the crowds—cf. Matt 5:1ff (but contrast with 7:28); Mark 7:17ff; 8:14-21; 8:27-9:8ff; 9:30-32; 10:23-31, 32-34; 13:3ff; 14:12-31, etc, and pars.

Image of the Seed—All but one of the parables in Mark 4 use the image of a seed to describe the kingdom of God. The comparison is made directly in the two short illustrations in vv. 26-29, 30-32:

“So the kingdom of God is as (though) a man should cast the scattered (seed) [spo/ro$] upon the earth…”
“How should we liken the kingdom of God?… as a grain of (the) mustard plant, which when it should be scattered upon the earth…”

It is also central to the parable of the Sower:

“See! the one scattering (seed) went out to scatter (it), and it came to be, in the scattering (that)…” (vv. 3-4a)

In verse 14, in the explanation Jesus gives to his disciples, it is stated: “The one scattering (seed) scatters [i.e. sows] the word/account [lo/go$] (of God)”. The implied qualification is made explicit in the parallel of Lk 8:11—”The (seed) scattered is the word/account of God [lo/go$ tou= qeou=]”. Matthew’s version refers to it as the “word/account of the kingdom” (13:19a); it is perhaps likely that both Matthew and Luke have glossed an original lo/go$, each interpreting/explaining it in their own way. There are several important aspects to this image of the seed:

  • The seed is small and apparently insignificant (emphasized esp. in vv. 30-32)
  • It is effectively hidden, buried in the ground
  • The initial growth takes place unseen by human observers
  • The growth is gradual—before one realizes it, the plant has sprouted and shot up
  • Ultimately a large plant (or crop) comes from the tiny seed

The image of God (or Christ) as a man sowing seed also appears in Matthean parallel of the “parable of the Weeds” (13:24ff), and also in 25:24-26. Trust/faith (in God) is compared to a seed in Matt 17:20 / Lk 17:6. Most notably, Jesus ties the seed-image to his death (and resurrection/exaltation) in John 12:24; on this, cf. below.

What is the secret of the Kingdom?

In Matthew/Luke, the plural is used—”secrets [musth/ria] of the Kingdom…” They also qualify the verb used—”to you it has been given to know [gnw=nai] the secrets…” This seems to refer to knowledge regarding various details and aspects of the kingdom of God—its nature and growth, how it functions, its characteristics and manifestation, etc.—as illustrated in the various parables and other teachings of Jesus. The Markan version, on the other hand, suggests that the disciples themselves receive the Kingdom (or a key aspect of it): “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”. It is possible that the plural form has been influenced by the (Aramaic) expression “(the) secrets of God” (la@ yz@r`), which is found in several of the Qumran texts (1QpHab 7:8; 1QS 3:23; 1QM 3:9; 16:11, etc; cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 708). I would emphasize three fundamental ways of understanding this “secret”, in terms of:

1. The person of Jesus, his identity—As I discussed briefly in the previous note, the only real “secret” recorded in the Synoptic tradition has to do with who Jesus is, i.e. his identity as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) and/or the “Son of God”. This is central to the core Synoptic narrative, best represented by the Gospel of Mark, and sometimes referred to as the “Messianic Secret”. In the Markan framework, Peter’s declaration (“You are the Anointed [One]”) comes at virtually the midpoint of the Gospel (Mk 8:29), and is set parallel with the declaration (from Heaven) in the Transfiguration scene (9:7); in both episodes Jesus directs the disciples not to tell anyone about they have seen and heard. These events also surround the first of the three Passion predictions (8:31, followed by 9:31f and 10:33-34), which likewise involve a certain amount of secrecy (9:30; 10:32); clearly, the disciples were not able to understand the significance of these things at first (8:32-33; 9:32; 10:32)—cf. also the wording in Lk 9:45; 18:34, which is similar in sense to the citation of Isa 6:10 in Mk 4:12 par. In a subsequent note I will examine the idea of Jesus “hidden” among the people of the world; for the basic image of the Kingdom being present among people without their realizing it, cf. Jesus’ famous saying in Lk 17:20-21.

2. The death and resurrection of Jesus—This too is only implied in the parables of Mark 4; however, from the early Christian standpoint, the “word/account of God” (Mk 4:14 / Lk 8:11) primarily involved the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. below). A number of parables have this theme as well—cf. Mark 12:1-12 par; Matt 12:38-42; Lk 15:3-7 (cf. John 10:11-18); 16:19-31 (vv. 30-31). As will be discussed in an upcoming note, Jesus’ death and resurrection also informs Paul’s use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) in 1 Corinthians. As noted above, even Jesus’ disciples at first did not understand what he told them regarding his death (and resurrection); to the rest of the populace it would have been completely hidden. Only the suffering and death of the Prophets of old (who also proclaimed the word of God) was available for comparison, by way of foreshadowing (Matt 5:12; 11:11-14; 12:39-40; 23:29-36, 37-39 pars; and cf. Mark 8:28 par).

3. The proclamation of the Gospel—This is certainly how Christians have understood the seed (“word of God”) in the parable of the Sower. From the standpoint of Jesus’ own teaching, the expression must be taken somewhat more broadly, to encompass his proclamation of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15 etc, par), and other teaching, in light of the Old Testament (and Jewish) tradition. But, ultimately, it is the early (Gospel) proclamation (kerygma) that comes into view, with its emphasis on who Jesus was (point 1 above), his death and resurrection (point 2), and the salvation/forgiveness which is available (in his name) to all who come to trust in him. The book of Acts plays out, in narrative form, this aspect of the (seed) parables—through the proclamation of the Gospel, knowledge of Christ gradually spreads throughout the territory of the Roman empire, transforming the hearts and lives of many. In the first chapters of Acts we find numerous statements which summarize this early Gospel—e.g., 1:1-4; 2:22-24, 32-33, 36, 38-39; 3:13-21; 4:10-12, 27-28; 5:30-32; 7:52; 10:37-43; 13:23-31. Only after the resurrection could the truth be understood and the “secret” proclaimed (Mark 9:9 par; Matt 10:27 (cp. Lk 12:3); Lk 24:6-9, 25-27, 44-47; John 2:22; 14:19-20, 26; 15:26-27; 16:13-15, 25-26ff).

A proper study of Mark 4:10-12 still requires an examination of the quotation from Isa 6:9-10 (in v. 12 par)—this will be done in the next note.

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