This article is linked to the TLW Bible Study Post for June 13 which explores the three readings in detail.
Becoming aware of the unseen work of God’s Spirit bringing God’s order
OT: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 — God rejects Saul as Israel’s king and instructs Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint a successor
NT gospel: Mark 4:26-34 — Jesus teaches on the hidden growth of God’s rule and reign in people’s hearts
NT letter: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 — Knowing Christ’s love gives us the strongest motivation to live His kingdom life
This is the time of year when what has been growing, unseen, in the ground or in an insect’s hideaway, comes out in all nature’s best shapes and colours.
Yet that burst of new life had a preparation, and it contains within it the capacity to multiply and spread. Have you ever tried to count the seeds in the dandelion’s delicate silver lattice? They can float a long way on the wind like an army of paratroopers to take root and carpet another area in brilliant yellow.
Jesus had something to say about the kingdom of God being like the seeds that sprout and produce a harvest — but we’ll get to that.
The story this week revolves around three memorable sayings
- “The Lord looks at the heart”
- “The kingdom of God is like seed that sprouts and grows”
- “We live by faith, not by sight”
These come from the OT, the NT gospel, and the NT letter readings, respectively. Let’s dive in and see how they teach us what the kingdom of God is like, and why all our perspectives change when we can live in it.
1. “The Lord looks at the heart”
The first instance of hidden life and hidden growth comes from the Old Testament and the story of Samuel and the story of his involvement in finding a successor to a king who clearly was not taking his lead from the kingdom of God, and the discernment of God’s choice of a person no one would have considered, as a successor.
In the Old Testament the idea of the kingdom of the LORD, the realm of God’s protection and influence, was to do with God’s covenant people as a whole and their reverence for God and obedience to the covenant. It was also associated visibly with the Ark of the Covenant. This became clear when the Ark was captured by the pagan Philistines, 1 Samuel 5, who found their idol, Dagon, lying shattered on the floor of the temple in Ashdod and suffered an outbreak of tumours. They sent it away to Gad, and then Ekron, with devastating effects — before they had the sense to send the Ark back to Israel where it belonged, with a gold offering.
The exceptions to this blessing, or curse, of the whole nation were the prophets, who received a special call and anointing to know God’s will and to speak forth on His behalf.
Samuel was a renowned prophet who also acted as Iarael’s judge. Towards the end of his life, he was faced with a new demand by the Israelites to find them a king:
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”1 Samuel 8:4-5 NIV
This was not the kingdom of God but the opposite — the people seeking security in a visible, figurehead ruler rather than relying on the unseen heavenly king of the LORD, Yahweh.
As this plays out, we can see the kingdom of God operating around the people that clearly love God. Samuel hears God telling him to stop mourning the failure of Saul as a godly leader, to take his horn and his anointing oil, and travel to Bethlehem, never mind the fact that he will be passing right through Saul’s settlement.
The Lord said to Samuel,”How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”1 Samuel 16:1-2
But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”
The Lord gives Samuel a strategy — the prophet would go to make a sacrifice and lead worship, but importantly, he would also meet with Jesse and receive further instructions at that time.
“Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for Me the one I indicate.“1 Samuel 16:3
The story relates how Samuel meets Jesse and the seven older sons, and there was a kind of identity parade of Eliab, Abinadab and Shammah — none of whom gave Samuel the ‘inner witness’ he was relying on.
The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts.Proverbs 20:27 ESV
Neither did the other four sons.
Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.”1 Samuel 16:10-12
So Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”
“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said,”Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
So he sent for him and had him brought in…
Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
This was the kingdom of God, God’s realm of order and influence, working in the hearts of Samuel and Jesse who were righteous, sincerely worshipful people. And so God’s strategy was discovered, and, although David was well down the pecking order in age, and just a boy at that stage, God in his kingdom order was already preparing him for the big role which was to follow more than a decade later, when he was eventually crowned as Saul’s successor.
From that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.1 Samuel 16:13
2. “The kingdom of God is like seed that sprouts and grows”
The second instance of hidden life and growth is in Jesus’ teaching about how the tiniest of seeds can sprout and produce a bush tall enough for birds to perch on. This teaching is given in slightly different ways in the three narrative gospel accounts. We’re taking Mark’s account of the ‘growing seed’ analogy. This is just one of Jesus’ ways of explaining how the influence of God’s will works in the hearts of people who hear God’s word:
Jesus said: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.Mark 4:26-29
Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.
All by itself the soil produces corn – first the stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
As soon as the corn is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Jesus makes the point that the kingdom of God may start very small but it has within it extraordinary capacity to grow and to spread.
“It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.Mark 4:31-33
Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.
Just a few of His hearers would grow into disciples of His who would be the ones carrying the message of his life, death and resurrection — and the good news of a life free from the burden of sin with the guidance and enabling of His Spirit — to other lands and cultures. Those early evangelists, many named in the NT letters and just ordinary people of no great influence in themselves, are like a handful of seeds — dandelion seeds in the wind of the Spirit if you like — but in a decade or two assemblies of believers energised by the Spirit of God were becoming like glowing cities seen on night-time earth from space.
The kingdom of God is not just in our believing and growing, but also in what God is doing. He cannot extend it without us (or at least, He limits Himself to working through His people of faith). It is vital to recognise, although often overlooked, that we cannot grow the kingdom of God without Him. The kingdom of God is not just an intention, it is where the partnership is happening. Where that partnership is sincere and maintained prayerfully, the work can be extraordinarily fruitful.
3. “We live by faith, not by sight”
The third instance of the hidden life and growth of the kingdom of God is by constantly choosing the new life of the Spirit over and above the former independent and self-centred kind of life, that we used to allow to be ruled by our preferences and even prejudices.
Once we take hold of the truth that in Christ Jesus we have been created anew, and given a new identity, we will want to live differently.
If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!2 Corinthians 5:17
The transition from ‘in self’ to ‘in Christ’ is really quite uncomplicated — although it involves a real, quality decision.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.2 Cor. 5:16
Jesus Christ from heaven to earth to live as one of us, about two thousand years ago — and much about His short life and rather prolonged death is a matter of historical record supported by non-Christian and somewhat critical sources as well as the Christian gospels and other writings. We can know a lot about Him and even have a good understanding of His philosophy and teaching, and even believe it on a certain level. But all this is regarding Christ in a worldly way — the way we might learn about ay influential figure of history.
Once I take the step of both believing and receiving Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour, and acknowlege Him as Lord — in charge — of my life, there’s a little chain reaction of spiritual adjustments:
- Jesus is My Saviour! He has taken the penalty owing for my sin and independence and sheer selfish behaviour.
- Once I knew about Him in a shadowy kind of way — “worldly point of view” — but now I KNOW Him. He is real to me, someone I can talk to and be aware of as He talks to me.
- My inner self, human spirit is now energised by the Holy Spirit. The things of God I struggled to understand intellectually, or “from a worldly point of view”, start to come into focus. I had the INFORMATION but now I am receiving REVELATION.
- The Bible, that was obscure in places, with a confusing timeline, now begins to speak to me as God’s word with His truth shining a light on the choices of day to day life. And I want to read it!
- Worship, that could be ‘going through the motions’ is now my opportunity to honour God for who He is. A remote and even austere deity has come alive to me as ‘Father” and, amazingly, I can draw close to Him and know Him draw close to me.
- Even though I felt loved and accepted by others, I never know this kind of being loved without condition, without strings, without any sense of earning the affections. It’s a kind of love that needs its own word…
- Fears and anxieties that used to be part of the daily mix of emotions have not disappeared but they have changed. They do not have the same force. Knowing that whatever happens, my destiny is “to be at home with the Lord”, v.8, does change things. Knowing that I belong to someone who is not only the very definition of kindness and mercy, but who also knows the end from the beginning, puts my ability to trust on an entirely new level.
This changes how I want to live. I don’t have the need to live for myself, or to prove anything. If Jesus can give His life for me, why would I not want to give over my life to Him?
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again.2 Cor. 5:14-15
This spiritually reborn life…
…in Christ, (experiencing how) the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!…2 Cor. 5:17
… is the kingdom of God within, and from that moment of decision it grows stronger within us, and overflows to others around us.
This kingdom life comes from a hidden growth — it all happens in the human spirit, which cannot be seen — but the changes are noticed by others, and become an opportunity to share and witness. Why would others not want, what they see we have got?
This personal adjustment, this re-orientation is a big part of what would become Jesus’ central — and some would say, only — message.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Mark 1:14-15 NIV
- The kingdom of God is not like a place or a country — but it can be entered.
- The kingdom of God is not a political movement or an institution, nor any particular church stream — but it is more influential than any of them.
- The kingdom of God is not directly visible — but its effects are plain to all.
- The kingdom of God cannot be controlled, packaged or delivered as a benefit because it is not subject to any man’s preference — where present it produces its own peace and harmony and spiritual growth
- The kingdom of God has no banker or backer — but God’s kingdom work does not lack God’s supply.
This is the kingdom realm of God that grows within us. And it grows around us and beyond us in the fellowship we create as those who are “in Christ”:
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in My name, there am I with them.”Matthew 18:19-20