Sunday Morning Greek Blog

February 27, 2011

Of Crowds, Thorns, and Broadcasting God’s Word

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Greek,Mark Gospel of,New Testament — Scott Stocking @ 2:18 pm

Mark is the shortest of all the Gospels, but in the first five chapters, I have found much to unpack. Mark has many repeated exegetically significant words. I have already mentioned the use of εὐθὺς (euthys ‘immediately’) in a previous blog entry, and that occurs another four times in Mark 4:1–20, which I will discuss below.

Another pattern of repeated words I have seen has to do with Jesus’ audience and apparently favorite place of ministry. The word “crowd” (ὄχλος ochlos) appears 38 times, evenly distributed, in the book of Mark. In Mark 1–5, which I read this week, it occurs 13 times. Along with that, the words “sea” or “lake” (θάλασσα thalassa) occurs 19 times in 15 verses in Mark, with 13 occurrences in Mark 1–5; the word “boat” (πλοῖον ploion) appears 17 times in 15 verses in Mark, with 10 occurrences in Mark 1–5. Maybe, just maybe, God is calling me to a seaside ministry. NOT!

I spent much of my ministry career with smaller congregations. I served a couple congregations that had been stuck in the 150–200 range. But most of the congregations I served for any length of time were well under 50. Small may be cozy, comfortable, and easy to manage, but small is not what Jesus was after when he went out to preach. Small is fine for teaching (Jesus often went off with his disciples alone to teach them more thoroughly (e.g., Mark 4:10ff), but he wanted to get God’s word out to as many people as possible.

We’ve been reading The Screwtape Letters in Wednesday night class at my congregation. In chapter VII, Screwtape says this about small churches to his nephew Wormwood: “We [the demons] want the church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy [God] but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique.” How many times have I heard that criticism of smaller churches from the world?!?

Before moving back to Omaha, I spent two years in a growing, vibrant congregation whose attendance was about one-third the population of the town. We drove 30 miles to get there, because it was the best thing going in the area for one, and I had known the pastor for several years as well (it was my ex-wife’s home church).

When I moved back to Omaha, I jumped right in to my former congregation. When I attended there in the 80s, attendance was hovering at about 200. When I came back last September, I discovered that my little Timothy church had become a megachurch, averaging 1200 in three services in a new building, and they’re still bursting at the seams (with a new addition on the way). I have experienced first-hand the benefit of being part of the “crowd.” I am seeing lives changed (my own included) daily because a crowded congregation has virtually unlimited resources to get things done and make a powerful impact on its community.

The crowd is great, and the crowd is necessary, but I have also been able to experience the intimacy (without the cliquishness) of a small group setting. I have a wonderful small group that is growing, and I’m part of a great “Men’s Fraternity” group that is helping me reach new levels of spiritual maturity I never thought possible for myself. What a joy to be part of a vibrant community promoting God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1–20)

One of the “crowd/intimate” stories is the Parable of the Sower and Soils in Mark 4:1–20. Jesus tells the story of the farmer who “broadcasts” his seed (as opposed to carefully planting it in rows) onto four different types of soil: the hard-trodden path, the rocky ground, the thorns, and good, fertile soil.

I find in this passage a description of spiritual warfare, especially as Mark relates it. I mentioned above that the word εὐθύς occurs 4 of 41 times in Mark in this pericope. Its first occurrence is in vs. 5, where Jesus says the seed (i.e., God’s Word) that landed in rocky soil “immediately” dries up, because it had no root. However, when Jesus explains the parable further to his disciples, he uses the word three times in vv. 15–17. Satan “immediately” snatches the Word from the hardened path. By contrast, the person with rocky soil receives the Word “immediately” with joy, but because it has no root in that person’s life, the first sign of trouble causes that person to “immediately” fall away.

The spiritual battle is fierce here: Satan wastes no time trying to choke out the Word of God from our lives. But notice the progression: the greater the chance of the seed getting to some soil, the greater the effort needed to choke out or uproot God’s Word. Notice that in three of the four soils, God’s word starts to take root. But the degree of cultivation determines how well the root takes and how successful its growth will be. Notice that even among the thorns, God’s Word grows, but because of the thorns, it cannot bear fruit.

I think many of us can say that our lives have been represented by each of these types of soils at one point or another. But hopefully we’ve had someone else there to “break up the fallow ground” (Hosea 10:12), clear away the rocks, remove the thorns, and prepare us for not only receiving God’s Word with joy, but allowing it to extend deep roots into our lives, “like a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3).

To tie this entry together, let me conclude with this: A large congregation can cast a wide net, bringing in people of all types of soil. But it also has the “saintpower” to counteract the enemy who would try to snatch away God’s Word before it has a chance to take root in someone’s life. The church should be “broadcasting” God’s Word to as many as possible, but we also need the intimacy of close relationships to make sure the Word takes root deeply and produces much fruit.

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