Yesterday morning our church’s college class got into an interesting discussion on Mark 4. Specifically, we were looking at Jesus’ parables. What was their historical context? What do they mean for us today? Why did Jesus speak in parables in the first place?
Let’s take a closer look at that last question. Jesus actually gives us an answer in verses 10-12:
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
‘They may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven'”
Is Jesus saying what it looks like he’s saying? Is he speaking in parables for the express purpose that some might not turn and be forgiven? I think many of us, when we read passages like this, tend to respond like Jesus’ disciples did in John 6:60 — “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” We are tempted to repeat their mistake of taking offense at Jesus’ teaching when no offense was given. In Mark 4, as in many other similar passages, the words Jesus speaks are spirit and life (John 6:63).
The passage Jesus is quoting in Mark 4:12 is from the sixth chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet shares his vision of the throne room of God. After the initial description of what he sees there (insert shameless plug for my arrangement of Todd Agnew’s song “Isaiah 6”), there is an exchange between the Lord and the prophet Isaiah. God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here I am! Send me.” So God sends Isaiah back to the people of Israel with the message that Jesus quotes in Mark 4:12 (Isaiah 6:9-10).
Here we see the effect of the sinfulness of Israel, for which they had been rebuked thoroughly in the first five chapters of Isaiah. God had been faithful to Israel. He had given them the Law. He had given them judges, kings, and prophets. They knew the Truth, but habitually rejected it. God responded by hardening their hearts. Though there would always be a remnant of faithful believers (Isaiah 6:13), God’s judgment against Israel for their faithlessness was to close their hearts and minds to the Truth.
God had established this pattern long before Isaiah. During the time of Israel’s captivity in Egypt, God sent Moses to perform signs and wonders before Pharaoh, so that he would let God’s people go. But God told Moses, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21) Though Pharaoh is still responsible for his choices and actions, God sovereignly governs every event. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (incidentally, he also hardened his own heart on multiple occasions — see Exodus 8:15 for one) ultimately for two reasons: to bring God glory through vindication before his enemies (“The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” — Exodus 7:5), and to bring God glory through the deliverance of his people (“And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt” — Exodus 29:46).
God’s purpose in hardening hearts has always been the same. In addition to being quoted by Jesus in Mark 4, Isaiah’s prophecy was also quoted by Paul both in his letter to the Romans (Romans 11:7-8) and in person after he had arrived in Rome (Acts 28:25-27). In both instances, he tells us that the purpose of the hardening of Jewish hearts is to make salvation available to the Gentiles, which will ultimately cause the Jews to become jealous so that some of them might be saved as well (Acts 28:28; Romans 11:11-14). When we read the rest of Romans 11 and see how God’s mercy and salvation is made available to all through the hardening of hearts of both Jews and Gentiles, we are left with only one response:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the LORD, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen! (Romans 11:33-36)
If ever we are tempted to feel that God is unjust (Romans 9:14), we must remember that it is also God who softens and replaces our hard hearts, and gives us his Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). We all deserve death and eternal separation from God, because we have all sinned against Him (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But because of His infinite capacity to show mercy to undeserving sinners, He chooses to manifest his power in the lives of those He calls to repentance (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). As this grace is extended to others, God receives even more glory (2 Corinthians 4:15)! God gets ALL the glory, because we contribute nothing to our own salvation — it is a free gift from God (Ephesians 2:8).
As glorious as this gospel is, it is foolishness to most of the world. Like the Jews, those who are perishing (2 Corinthians 4:3) are prevented from seeing the gospel by a veil which only Christ can remove (2 Corinthians 3:14). They are unable to understand the things of God because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). Those who turn to Jesus, though, behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces because of the freedom that comes from the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)!
Which brings us back to Jesus in Mark 4. He speaks in parables which are difficult to understand. Everything He spoke was Truth, but the fullness of that truth was not revealed to those whose hearts were hard. To the disciples and those who remained after he had said “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” Jesus explained everything privately (Mark 4:10,34). Only those who had a relationship with Jesus benefited from the insight he offered into his teaching — God’s Word.
This is why Jesus said in John 16:7 that it was to the disciples’ advantage that he was going away. During his earthly ministry, only those in proximity to the incarnate Christ were able to receive the benefit of God’s wisdom, and even then their understanding was only partial — they would not fully understand until after Jesus had died and risen (John 12:16). When the Holy Spirit came, though, believers everywhere and for the rest of history would be guided into all truth by the Spirit of Truth himself (John 16:13)!
As Christians, this is the blessing that we have received from our God. He has chosen to reveal Himself to us by anointing us with his own Spirit so that we might live in darkness no more, but rather shine as lights before all men (Matthew 5:16; Philippians 2:15). Because of the Holy Spirit, we have the very mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16)! Praise be to God!
May we all, as Paul did, pray for one another and for others that God would grant each of us a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, that we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of our glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of his power that was displayed when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand (Ephesians 1:16-21), where we Christians will also be one day (and where spiritually we are right now — Ephesians 2:6) because we are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14)!