Another parable that cues us in to the nature and workings of the kingdom of God is found in Mark 4:26-29 and again begins with, “The kingdom of God is like…” In this case the kingdom is like “a man who casts seed upon the ground; and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows – how, he himself does not know. The earth produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
This parable gives rise to our idea of the kingdom of God being a secret kingdom. To His first century hearers, it must have appeared that all this talk of Jesus initiating the kingdom of God was not accompanied by action. After all, Herod was still king. The Romans still occupied Palestine. And Jesus rebuffed any attempts to be made king in an earthly sense. We may feel the same way today. Why don’t we see more evidence in the world of God’s kingdom at work?
The fact is that God’s kingdom, though clearly operating on a world-wide scale, is a secret kingdom. Just like the farmer in Jesus’ story had no idea how or even if the seed was growing, we may feel like the evidence of a growing kingdom is not very obvious. In fact, if God is represented by the farmer as the planter, we may feel like He is following the farmer’s example of doing relatively little work while the seed is growing. The words “goes to bed at night and gets up by day” suggest the farmer is not doing anything to make the seed grow. He is just going about his normal business of waiting. But God is working. After all, unbeknownst to the farmer, God is growing the seed.
Notice how the seed is growing; “by itself.” (vs 28). “By itself” is translated from the Greek word, automatos; the Greek root of our English word, automatic. We are all familiar with the word “automatic” used to describe things that seem to run “by itself”, like an automatic transmission or automatic dishwasher. The message here is that the kingdom starts as a seed. Seed is vulnerable. The beginning of God’s kingdom is vulnerable. Jesus is a zygote in His mother’s womb. With such a small start, how does the seed grow? How does the kingdom grow? According to this parable, it grows automatically. And we know from the rest of the New Testament that it is God causing the growth that appears to be automatic. This fits Jesus’ description of the church, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.” (Mt 16:18).
As with the parable of the wheat and the weeds, this should bring us great encouragement. When it does not appear to us that things are happening fast enough, when evidence of God’s growing kingdom is blurry, rest assured that God is at work. Growth is happening, “the seed sprouts up and grows…first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.” (vs 27-28). And similar to the wheat and the weeds, there is a harvest coming when, “he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (vs 29).
Now with God working automatically, do His kingdom citizens do nothing? No! We partner with God. “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (I Cor 3:5-7). We plant the seed. We water the seed. We dive in wherever God leads us to be involved.
But God is the one who accomplishes the work. We are not responsible to make it happen. This can be such a challenge in ministry. We want to see something happen. We want to see something big happen. But there are no Messiah complexes here. The pressure is off us to make it happen. Our role is the incredible opportunity to come alongside God and join Him in His work. God is growing His secret kingdom. Won’t you join Him in His work?