Welcome to Week Three in How To Study the Bible series! (To begin the series click here.)
As you explore Mark 4 this week, you will…
1) learn Jesus’ favorite method of teaching
2) learn how to interpret parables
3) understand the differences among Bible translations
Review of Week Two: Insights and Tools for Mark 1-3
First, how did exploring the harmony of the gospels chart go? Taking time to read several authors’ account of an event provides the most enlightening, multi-dimensional understanding.
Second, Jesus’ prayer life remained an essential and decisive component throughout his ministry. The disciples even asked him to teach them how to prayer. Here are a few simple suggestions to increase prayer in your life.
Lord…guide us in our study of your Word. Help us to have eyes to see, ears to hear and the ability to understand. Thank you for the gift of the Scriptures. In Jesus Christ’s name, Amen.
Read Mark Chapter 4.
In the first three chapters of Mark, we see how Jesus taught with plain language. Mark 4 notes a change: Jesus begins to use parables. A modern day example of this literary tool is the Parable of the Cracked Pot.
Many scholars point to the increasing hostility that Jesus’ direct teaching received from the Pharisees and Scribes. Teaching through parables allowed Jesus to illustrate a doctrine discretely. Those desiring truth could ponder the analogy and find light cast on an important subject.
Jesus frequently used parables to describe the Kingdom of God…a concept so abstract and new that it was difficult for his followers to grasp (including us at times, too!).
Interestingly, none of the writers of the other books in the New Testament use parables. A few allegories, yes. But no stories as Jesus employed.
When reading a parable, look for the central message it conveys. Jesus used each one to illustrate a singular, particular point. Picking apart a parable and adding meaning to peripheral details, leads to inaccurate applications. One check on your interpretation is to confirm that it is in line with the rest of Jesus’ teaching. He does not contradict himself.
When interpreting a parable, it’s also important to consider the turn-of-the-millenium culture. Wedding customs, education, roles of men and women, and family traditions were radically different than what we experience today. Being in a rural, agrarian community, many of his parables used plants and farming imagery. I suppose if Jesus taught in the 21st century, he’d be more likely to use cars, corporate headquarters, and computers!
Chapter 4 opens with one of the most famous of Jesus’ illustrations…the Parable of the Sower. Matthew and Mark both include this story in their gospels as well. All three authors graciously give the meaning of the parable: how different people receive the gospel message. My “Sower” blog series explores this parable at length.
For this lesson we’ll look at the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32). This link to the passage will take you to the Bible Gateway website. Another amazing resource for studying the Word!
When studying a parable, consider the following questions:
1) What was happening that led to this teaching?
2) Use Harmony of the Gospels to gain additional details, if any.
3) Does Jesus give an interpretation?
4) Write a summary of the parable. Include notes on culture and customs.
5) What is the main truth of the parable?
6) How can I apply this to my life?
Now, return to the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jot down your responses to the above questions.
Here are my thoughts (please do yours first, then compare with mine!):
1) Jesus was teaching beside the lake. So many people were there that he moved to a boat to preach. Then he departed with the disciples.
2) One observation: Mark and Matthew describe the thorny location as making the seed “unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22, Mark 4:19). Luke states that the seed in this environment does not “mature” (Luke 8:14). Hmm…interesting to ponder … maturity and fruitfulness seem to run a parallel course.
3) No (bummer)
4) Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. He describes how this small seed grows and produces a plant large enough for birds to perch in its shade.
5) From the smallest of “efforts” much will come…the Kingdom will grow!
6) The beginnings of the Kingdom started very small and has grown phenomenally, beyond the first disciples’ wildest imaginations. It is by grace that the birds have shade and a place to perch. It is by grace that the Kingdom of God has grown (and continues to grow!) both physically in the world as well as within each of our own hearts.
If you have time, repeat this process with one of the other parables in Mark 4. Please share with me what your discover in Scripture…especially how you will apply it to your life!
Question: What if the illustration does not work for you? What if you don’t get the wording of the parable or the agrarian motif? When the gospel writer does not give Jesus’ interpretation, sometimes I am left mystified! One option is to read additional translations of the passage.
This lesson became very long! So I moved the discussion on Bible translations to a separate article. Please click through to Part B…