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Growing in Christ | Stages of Growth
April 23, 2023
26And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst
To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships
To participate in God’s mission to the world
Almighty God, as we gather together may we rest in your Spirit, and may we remember that you alone renew our lives. Help us shake off all that weighs down, that we may be free to hold fast to you, the One who fills our lives with unmerited grace and abounding love. In the name of Christ, your Son, we pray. Amen.
Responsive Prayer—Psalm 126:1-6
1When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
3The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negeb!
5Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!
6He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
Summary and Connection
In our previous discussions based on select passages from the Gospels, we focused on discovering the character and the claims of The Authentic Jesus. In our discussions on The Authentic Jesus, we have learned that we can’t remain indifferent to the claims of Jesus. We are compelled to decide—either to reject Jesus or to acknowledge Jesus as he is, and to wholeheartedly follow him for who he is—The Son of God. What does it mean to wholeheartedly follow Jesus? How do we actually grow as Christians? In our new sermon series entitled Growing In Christ, we will focus on the dynamics of Christian life—how to grow up into maturity in order to become the fullest version of ourselves.
This week’s discussion is based on Mark 4:26-29. This short parable is only recorded in Mark’s gospel. In this parable, Jesus talks about a farmer scattering the seeds on the ground and the organic growth that follows. In Mark 4:1-9, we read about the parable of the sower, where Jesus emphasizes the eternal significance of paying heed to the message of the kingdom of God. This parable acts as an extension and explanation of the parable of the sower. Here Jesus employs the analogy of farming to emphasize the growth of the kingdom of God, particularly the mystery of a Christian’s spiritual growth. This short parable offers us insight into three fundamental aspects of spiritual growth—stages of growth, means of growth, and power of growth.
Stages of growth
In verse 28 we read Jesus talking about the stages of growth: “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” The blade, the ear, and the full grain (corn) represents the three stages of a Christian’s spiritual growth. Anglican preacher and hymn writer John Newton is fondly remembered for his letter correspondence with Christians. In one of his letters, he addresses the issue of growth in grace of Christ using Mark 4:28. Newton classifies Christian growth into three stages: stage A—grace in the blade, B—grace in the ear, and C— grace in the full corn.
Stage A (Childhood): This represents the childhood of a Christian’s faith journey. Baby Christians are known to be full of enthusiasm. This stage is also marked by amplified feelings towards God—exaggerated zeal to grow in God’s favor, and an insignificant knowledge of God and the extent of their own sinfulness. They tend to have warm affections towards God without a deep understanding of the character of God. Due to their limited knowledge of God and self, baby Christians are inclined to seasons of spiritual pride where they rebuke even older and mature Christians for their lack of faith and spiritual growth. Since their understanding of growth in Christ is narrow, they believe that God’s love for Christians is based on their performance. It is vital for us to understand that immature faith is an active sign of the grace of Christ at work. The fact that Jesus uses an agricultural analogy to represent Christian growth is a sign of surety that our hope in God and knowledge of God will organically grow, eventually yielding fruits.
Stage B (Youth): While stage A represents the season of growing desire and zeal, stage B represents the trials and conflict of Christian life. Newton compares stage A and B to the book of Exodus. Stage A marks the deliverance of Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and stage B encapsulates the wilderness experience—an ongoing conflict between hopes and fears. This stage is also marked by seasons of rest in Christ wherein the believer grows in his understanding of the sufficiency of Jesus’ wisdom, strength, and righteousness. Stage B is characterized by enhanced awareness of the existence of sin but limited knowledge of the extent of sin’s deceitfulness and wickedness.
Stage C (Old Age): This stage represents the season of maturity and contemplation. In this stage, Christians have experienced the faithfulness of God, and their assurance is more stable and simpler. This stage characterizes the paradox of Christian life as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:9-10—Christ’s strength perfected in our weakness. According to Newton, the cardinal features of this stage include a deepening sense of humility, submission to the will of God, tenderness towards fellow Christians, an abiding reliance on God, and a deep desire to live for the glory of God and the good of God’s people. However, even the mature Christians are in the same state of absolute dependence on God —incapable of resisting temptations and yielding fruit in their own power—as they were on the first day of their journey.
Means of growth (or grace)
Means of grace are the instruments God has appointed to help Christians to grow in their faith and knowledge of Jesus. God employs the means of grace to communicate his love for us, and the glorious blessings of our union with Jesus. God uses Scripture, prayer, and sacraments—baptism and communion to help us grow in Christ. In other words, baptism, attending church on Sundays, and taking communion are vital aspects of the means of grace; however, they are incomplete without our experiential knowledge of Jesus through personal Bible reading and prayer. To grow in grace is to grow in our likeness of Jesus, and our growth is directly proportional to our employment of the means of grace. The means of grace holistically influences both our intellect (left brain), and affections (right brain), enabling our growth in relationship with Jesus.
Power of growth
In his parable of the seed, Jesus emphasizes the mystery of spiritual growth. The kingdom of God, like the crop, grows by divine intervention and not human intervention. Our spiritual growth is not based on our performance, but on the grace of God. Similar to agricultural growth, our spiritual growth is organic and imperceptible. Like the sower in the parable, Christians are ignorant about the dynamics of their spiritual growth. Jesus masterfully uses this parable to teach his disciples about the agent and power of growth. According to Jesus, he is the sower who sows the seeds of the word of God (gospel) on the ground of the human heart. Jesus, as the word of God, is also the seed that is sown to establish and extend the kingdom of God. Jesus ushered in the kingdom through his proclamation, spread his kingdom by his death and resurrection, and one day will gather in the harvest of the kingdom when he returns in glory.
1. Looking at the Bible
What does the text say? What according to you is the theme of this passage?
- What can we learn about the nature and growth of the kingdom of God from this parable?
- Describe the three stages of growth in Christian life.
2. Looking at Jesus
At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.
- What can we learn about Jesus as the sower, seed, and the harvester from this passage?
- What are the means of grace? What is the relation between the means of grace and our growth in Christ?
3. Looking at Our Hearts
The following are personal application questions based on the stages of growth in Christian faith.
- How did the circumstances surrounding your salvation experience impact your growth as a Christian? John Newton talks about “special cordials” or sweet gifts God graciously gives us in our childhood stage to help us grow. What sweet gifts did you receive from God as a baby Christian?
- Depending on your own stage of spiritual growth, do you think God is disappointed in you and expects you to be further along than you are at present? If yes, why? If not, why not?
- Have you experienced seasons of abundantly answered prayers, and seasons when God withheld something you desperately prayed for? If yes, what did you learn about God and about yourself in those seasons?
- What is the one significant area of your life where God has been changing you in your walk with him? Apart from the means of grace, what other tools have been powerful implements of growth in your life lately?
4. Looking at Our World
- How does this passage offer us hope and confidence to be the instruments of grace—sharing and living out the gospel, in New York City?
God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.
View Study Guide Notes
Question 1: This parable acts as an extension and explanation of the parable of the sower (4:1-9). In the parable of the sower Jesus emphasizes on the importance of the Word of God (Gospel) in establishing the Kingdom of God. In this parable, Jesus focuses on the mystery of the growth of the Kingdom of God. The Jews in Jesus’ day anticipated the arrival of the Messiah to deliver them from their oppression. However, the religious leaders and the Jews anticipated the Messiah to establish a geo-political kingdom, and not the spiritual kingdom. Jesus masterfully employs the agricultural metaphor to point out the organic and imperceptible nature of the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is established by divine intervention, not by human intervention. The Jews believed in usurping the kingdom of Caesar and establishing an earthly Messianic kingdom in Jerusalem. Here, Jesus subverts their idea of kingdom by teaching them about the nature, character, and growth of the kingdom of God. Like the crop, the kingdom grows by divine intervention. As the spontaneous growth of the crop necessitates the harvest, so the organic and imperceptible growth of the kingdom of God necessitates the harvest of followers of Jesus from all tongues, tribes, and nations. In the final harvest, the chaff of unbelievers will be separated from the wheat of believers who will enjoy the benefits of the kingdom of God.
Refer summary and connection for second question
- Jesus as the sower: The Gospels record the life and ministry of Jesus. According to the Bible, by his incarnation, Jesus ushered or brought in the Kingdom of God on earth. The Kingdom of God indicates the presence and power of God. Like the sower, Jesus sowed the seed of the Gospel (Word of God) by his preaching and healing ministry. Jesus demonstrated the Kingdom of God by his preaching and Jesus enacted the kingdom of God by his miracles and healings. Without the sower there is no seeding or harvest. Without the proclamation of the gospel there is no heart transformation or spiritual revival. The Holy Spirit is the primary agent who sows the seed of the gospel in the hearts of the people yielding in growth in Christ.
- Jesus as the seed: In the gospel of John, Jesus is described as the Word (logos) made flesh. God creates and sustains the universe by his word (Jesus). In this parable, Jesus not only identifies himself as the agent (sower) of spiritual growth, but also as the power (seed) of spiritual growth. The seed that is sown on the ground is the very word of God—Jesus, who offers eternal life. In order to sprout, grow, and produce fruit, the seed has to be sown (buried). Similarly, to offer eternal life, Jesus had to redeem the sinners from their bondage of sin and death. In order to redeem sinners, Jesus had to fulfill the righteous demand of the law, and to satisfy the just wrath of God. Jesus accomplishes the redemption by laying down his life on behalf of the sinners on the cross. Thus, the death of Jesus on the cross is the seed sown that leads to new birth, and the resurrection of Jesus the promise of the harvest and eternal life.
- Jesus as the harvester: The ‘harvest’ in verse 29 is a clear warning of the coming end of the age. In Joel 3:13 we read about God’s decisive intervention in the affairs of humanity at the end of the age. Throughout the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, we read about the metaphors of harvest and reaping. It is a common picture of salvation, judgment, and end of the age. As the spontaneous growth of the crop necessitates the harvest, so the organic and imperceptible growth of the kingdom of God necessitates the harvest of followers of Jesus from all tongues, tribes, and nations. In the final reaping, Jesus the harvester separates the chaff of unbelievers from the wheat of believers. In other words, the kingdom of God, which has been inaugurated by the earthly ministry of Jesus, will surely be established by the kingly rule of Jesus when he returns as the harvester. As Christians we live in ‘the already but not yet’ stage of redemptive history. This parable helps us to remain patient and faithful in the waiting period, knowing that the one who sowed will return to gather his harvest.
Refer to summary and connection for the second question.
Question 3: Expect awkward silence due to the nature of personal application questions. Give your group a few moments to prayerfully consider the questions before answering them. One way to dilute the awkwardness and create a safe space for discussion is by taking the lead in answering the question yourself. Barbara Duguid’s reminder is relevant as you discuss questions about personal faith: “Christians grow spiritually at different rates in different areas even if they come from similar backgrounds and hear exactly the same sermons. The Holy Spirit is working out his perfect will in sanctifying each of us, and this doesn’t always look the way we think we should.”
God gives special “cordials” or sweet gifts to young converts to encourage them to press on. Jesus, as the gentle shepherd, gathers the immature and fearful lambs in his arms, and carries them. According to Barbara Duguid, author of Extravagant Grace, God grants new believers “extra measures of enthusiastic desire, success in spiritual discipline, and protection from Satan.”
According to Newton, the life of the baby Christian is experienced primarily in the realm of feelings rather than in the realm of knowledge. A baby Christian’s “faith is weak, but his heart is warm.” Young believers tend to think the sweet gifts of God will remain throughout their Christian life. However, when they enter the wilderness, prompted by their indwelling sin—lack of desire to read the word, no appetite for prayer, or attend church—they become discouraged. Seasons like this make us doubt God’s love for us. We tend to think that God is disappointed in us and expects us to be further along in our growth. This stage is often referred to as “backsliding.” However, Newton corrects the error by arguing that in seasons of apparent “backsliding,” God is actually leading the Christians forward in their walk with Christ. God has precisely ordained our circumstances—good and bad, to help us move forward in our walk with Christ. God who began a good work in each Christian, will carry it on to the day of completion (Philippians 1:6). Barbara Duguid makes an insightful observation: If you are a Christian, “at this very moment, you are exactly as holy and mature in your faith as God wants you to be. He cannot be disappointed in you or surprised by you if he is the one controlling the entire process of growth from start to finish…we cannot change our own hearts, but neither can we resist the change that God is determined to accomplish in us.” Encourage the group to take comfort in the fact that the rate of a Christian’s growth rests entirely in the hands of the Holy Spirit. This infallible truth should energize us to work out our salvation in fear, knowing that God is at work in us.
God uses all circumstances to draw us closer to him and enable us to rely less on ourselves and more on his grace. Sometimes God exposes our idolatry by answering our prayers. For example, God, by his grace, may answer our prayer for a child. His grace draws us to praise him for his faithfulness. However, God may also use the object of blessing as an instrument of exposing our idolatry of making our kids as the center of our world. God, like a surgeon, excises our pride by giving us what we desperately crave, and thereby showing us how desperately we need his grace to survive. At other times, God exposes our idolatry by withholding what we desperately crave. In both granting, and withholding our requests, God gently leads us to humility and repentance.
Question 4: The central motif of Jesus’ parable of the seed is to show us the nature and reign of God in the human heart, to enable our trust in Christ, and our confidence in God as the harvest giver. As believers living in a post-Christian culture, we are often tempted to lose hope and confidence in God as the agent and source of growth and harvest. The rapidly growing number of dying or dead churches, the threat of theological liberalism, or persecution at the hands of dominant culture, could dampen our zeal in sowing the seed of the gospel. However, this parable invites us to look to Jesus as the sower whose words will accomplish what he desires and achieves what he purposes. This parable compels us to put our confidence in Jesus the sower who offers the fruit of eternal life by giving his life on behalf of undeserving sinners. Finally, this parable empowers us to faithfully work for the kingdom of God, knowing very well that the Lord of the harvest is in the business of gathering people from all tongues, tribes, and nations to himself.