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Mark 4:21–25 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
A Light under a Bushel
21 And he said to them, “A lamp is not brought out to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it? Is it not brought out to be put on a lampstand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be exposed; nor is anything hidden but that it would come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And he was saying to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For whoever has will have more given to him, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
One of the peculiarities of our Lord’s method of teaching is His repeated use of a number of favorite sayings—or maxims, we may call them—in varied connections and in differing applications. This gives a remarkable piquancy to His speech and must at the time have served the double purpose of fixing the several teachings which He embodied in these gnomic sayings firmly in the minds of His hearers, and of attracting them to the matter of them as something peculiarly weighty. In the passage before us we have a cluster of these “proverbs,” all of which meet us elsewhere and sometimes with other applications, but which are combined here to give pregnancy and force to the specific message of this passage. Here is the beautiful parable of the lamp. Here is the amazing paradox of secrecy in order to openness. Here is the crisp proverb that ears are given for hearing. Here is the simile of equitable measures. Here is the gnome of the relation of possession to receptivity. No one of these is a stranger to readers of the Gospels. They are found elsewhere also in much the same connection as here; but they are found elsewhere also in other connections. They are marshalled together here to give wings to a specific teaching.
What is that specific teaching?
Well, there is too much in it—too much depth of suggestion, too many implications of meaning, for us to attempt to draw it all out at once. But we may direct our attention to at least four things that lie on the surface. Obviously, this cluster of sayings lays before us an important declaration, presses on our attention an urgent exhortation, reveals to us a profound philosophy of life, and founds on this a serious warning. Let us attend for a moment to these four things.
The important declaration that is made in these sayings amounts to this: that there is no esoteric element in Christian teaching. This is the primary suggestion of the parable of the lamp and the explicit assertion of the startling paradox which immediately follows it, to the effect that “there is nothing hid save that it may be manifested, neither has anything been made secret save that it might come abroad.” For a lamp exists, the parable tells us, for no other purpose but to illuminate; it comes not to be put under the bushel or under the couch, but on the stand—that its light may shine. And, the paradox adds, there is to be nothing cryptic or apocryphal in the whole sphere of Christian teaching. It is, in effect, the very contradiction of Christianity as truth, to imagine that it can exist for any other end but to serve the purpose of truth—to enlighten.
The strength of our Lord’s emphasis on this important declaration just on this occasion finds its explanation of course in the need that had arisen to guard from misapprehension His own methods of teaching. For a change had just been introduced into His modes of instruction, from which His disciples might be tempted to infer that Christianity was a double system, with an esoteric and an exoteric aspect. Our Lord, who had hitherto spoken plainly, had suddenly begun to speak in parables; and He had not concealed from His disciples that His object was to veil His meaning. Was there not introduced thus the full-blown system of esoterism? It is to correct this not unnatural inference that our Lord declares so emphatically that the truth He is teaching—even in parabolic form—is a lamp, and has for its one end to shine; that what is now hid and made secret under this parabolic veil, is hid and made secret not that it may not be made known, but just that it may be made known. The impulse to use parables thus arises from wisdom and prudence in teaching, not from a desire to conceal. He teaches in parables in order that He may teach; not in order that He may not teach. This method of veiled teaching, in a word, is forced on Him by the conditions under which He is teaching and arises from the state of mind of His hearers; it is not chosen by Him in order to conceal His meaning, but in order to convey it to those for whom it is intended. It is with Him either to teach thus or not to teach at all; and He consequently teaches thus. This is the fundamental doctrine of parabolic teaching. I do not say it is the whole account to be given of it; we may see in the sequel that there is more to say, and that the adoption of parabolic teaching has a punitive side—as, indeed, it could not fail to have—with reference to those who could and would not endure sound doctrine; whom it puzzled, therefore, rather than instructed. But this is the fundamental account of it.
We may see this from an illustration. Take as such the teaching which was the immediate occasion of these remarks of our Lord’s. He had just been delivering the first cycle of the parables of the Kingdom. Why had He taught the fundamental facts as to the Kingdom in parables? Briefly, because He could not have taught them in any other way. For His conception of the Kingdom was at just the antipodes of that of the people He was addressing. Should he have plainly and didactically proclaimed just what their error was, just what the truth was? He certainly would have been understood in that case. But there would have been an end to His teaching and so of His mission as Teacher. And so, instead, He told them some beautiful stories. In these stories He embodied the whole fundamental doctrine of the Kingdom. What was the effect? To those open to His instruction the whole doctrine of the Kingdom was conveyed. Those not receptive to it were simply puzzled; instead of being outraged and driven to violence, they were simply puzzled and thrown back into dull inertia. When He said, the Kingdom of Heaven is like the sower, and the like, they could only look perplexed and shake their heads. The Kingdom of Heaven as they understood it was like nothing less than these things. What could He mean? And thus He obtained opportunity—the Great Sower that He was—to sow His seed and to exemplify His own parable. Meanwhile receptive souls pondered and understood, understood, that is, more or less. For even His own disciples, nay, the Apostles themselves, were not yet capable of receiving the truth in its purity and entirety. And, accordingly to them too, He taught as occasion offered, in parables, by which He lodged the truth in their minds that it might germinate and grow.
Nothing is more obvious than that this wise prudence in the mode of disseminating the truth has nothing in common with esoteric teaching; and our Lord’s broad denial of esoterism was as justified as it was needed. A lamp that is shaded is shaded, not for the benefit of the lamp, as if it were too good for common use, or existed for some other end than enlightening, but for some extrinsic end. There may be a violence of wind from which it needs temporary protection; there may be weakness of eyes which require guarding. So with the truth which Jesus came to teach. It is not too sacred for the knowledge of men; it exists to be known. But it may require temporary protection from violent opposition; it may require veiling because of the weakness of men’s understanding. Hence it is spoken under the veil of parables. But this is that it may be spoken, that it may be made known, and not that it may be concealed. No cryptic message, no apocryphal (hidden) message is in place here!
Accordingly, then, within this declaration there is embodied also an urgent exhortation. It is interlaced with the declaration in this passage of Mark so as to be scarcely distinguishable from it. Elsewhere it is brought out most explicitly and with tremendous emphasis. It is an exhortation to the recipients of the truth to see to it that it is not quenched in the darkness of their own hearts, but permitted to act in accordance with its nature as light—to shine. In Matthew, for example, we read: “Even so let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Here it appears only in the way of implication. Jesus says in effect: The truth I am delivering in this veiled form is, like all truth, of the nature of light; it comes to enlighten; temporarily it is veiled, but, emphatically, it is hid only that it may be manifested; it is made secret only that it may come to light. Ye are my chosen witnesses; to you I say with significant emphasis, “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” There is a subtle implication that not the truth only which He spoke is the lamp, brought to be put on the stand; but these disciples of His, to whom the truth has been brought, have been lighted by the truth, and having been lighted, are lighted that they too may shine. In effect, there is a solemn commission given here to His disciples—not to His Apostles only, but (as verse 10 shows), to the whole body of His disciples, to see to it that what He is now preaching in parables shall be in its due season brought out on the housetop. There is careful provision made, in a word, for the cultivation of the seed He was now sowing. He was speaking in parables—the times required it—but they are to see to it that what is thus taught veiledly shall in due time be announced openly.
No doubt, in this whole procedure, there is divine sanction given to the principle of wise adaptation of our preaching to times and circumstance. But, O, how easy it is to misapply this principle and pervert it to cowardly ends of personal profit. Preach to our times? Yes, of course. But preach what to our times? Our Lord’s example does not give warrant to the suppression of unpalatable truth. It only sets an example of how still to preach the unpalatable truth while staving off for the fitting time the inevitable rupture and providing for its full proclamation in the end. He spoke in parables? Why in parables? First, because by speaking in parables, He could still teach the unpalatable truth. If He had been willing to suppress the unpalatable truth He would have had no need of preaching in parables. There will be no need of a veil if we remove the thing to be veiled. And secondly, because He would so teach the unpalatable truth, that men must needs hear it before they know what they are hearing, and thus He would catch them with holy guile. You see there is nothing here so little as an example of suppression of the truth. There is only an example of finding a way to preach to men, despite their opposition, what they do not choose to hear.
Christ does not yield to men; He triumphs over men. And this is the commission He gives to us: Let your light shine! Do not think you are imitating Him when you quench your light; when you permit the clamors of men to drown your voice of teaching. You imitate Him only when, despite men’s opposition, you find a way to make your voice heard and the truth with which you are charged a power among them. Silent, Christ was not; compromising, He was not; He was only persistently inventive in modes of proclamation. You imitate Him least of all when you put your light under a bushel or under a couch; to be like Him you must let your light shine.
It is already clear to us, no doubt, that there is implicit in this passage a fully developed philosophy both of teaching and of life. Why did Christ preach in parables? To conceal the truth or to teach the truth? The proper answer is, of course, both. The two are not mutually exclusive. Fundamentally we say, it was in order to teach the truth. Proximately it was, of course, so far to conceal the truth as to be able to teach it in the circumstances in which He stood. People who would not listen when He told them plainly what the Kingdom He came to found was like, would listen to His story and so have the unpalatable truth told them before they were aware. But this is not the whole story. There is more to be said and Christ says it. Truth so taught becomes a touchstone and discriminates among men. When Jesus said “the Kingdom of God is like to …” that was an opening familiar enough to the whole body of His audience. The most rigid Pharisee, the most fanatical zealot would prick up his ears at that. But when He went on and told them what—in His view—the Kingdom of God was like, what would the Pharisee, what would the zealot, make of that? Nothing. The disciples themselves could not make much of it. The others naturally could make nothing. Thus, the method of teaching by parables, certainly did not succeed in illuminating all. The plainest teaching under heaven could not have illuminated those minds. They were too filled with preconceptions, prejudices, personal desires, to be accessible to the truth. How could veiled teaching dispel their darkness? It could only avail to make the darkness of their minds deeper; they could only say in puzzlement, “We do not understand!” How can the glorious Kingdom of Heaven—God come to triumph over Israel’s foes, how can this be like the sower sowing His seed, and the like? So our Savior explains that the teaching is given to them in parables, that seeing they may see and not understand. In effect, parabolic teaching becomes the test of men. Whether men understand or do not understand the teaching veiled in the parable, is the revelation of their state of mind and heart, or, as it is fashionable nowadays to call it, of their receptivity. Parabolic teaching then comes into the world as a rock of decision; those who are open to the truth understand, those not open to the truth do not understand.
Observe how pointedly our Lord develops this idea in the later verses of our passage; with what piercing directness He asserts the effect in the last verse of all: For he that hath to him shall be given, and he that hath not from him shall be taken away even that which he hath. Here is the underlying philosophy of parabolic teaching; and along with it of all teaching. And is it not so, our own hearts being the judge? Let the parables fall on the ears of one instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven and how beautifully rich in their teaching they are. Points of attachment are discovered at every step and the conceptions that rest half-formed in us are developed in the richest manner. Let them fall on the minds in which no thought of the Kingdom of Heaven was ever lodged; and they are but as rocks in the sky. All teaching as to divine and heavenly things is, in a measure, parabolic; we can reach above the world and ourselves only by symbols. All such teaching comes to us, then, as a test, and the proximate account of its varied reception may be found in the condition of the ears that hear it. Have we ears to hear this music? Or does it beat a vain jangling discord only in our ears? The philosophy of the progress of the Kingdom in the world rests on the one fact—the condition of the hearer. He that has ears to hear, hears; he that has no ears to hear this music, remains unmoved.
Accordingly, then, the passage culminates in a great warning. “Take heed how ye hear.” And this warning is supported by the verses already incidentally adduced: “With what measure ye mete …”; “He that hath …; He that hath not …” The warning is, of course, of universal application. It is spoken here to Christ’s immediate disciples, and it is most immediately a warning to them to look with care and loving scrutiny on the teaching He was giving about the Kingdom. Do you not fail, it says, to hear and ponder; to understand and profit by this teaching. But it stretches further. As we, too, are His disciples it comes in these times also to us. Let us not fail to-day to hear and ponder and understand and profit by the teaching brought to us by these pungent words!
Benjamin B. Warfield
 The original meaning of the term “apocrypha” was hidden or concealed. (Lu 8:17) However, the term came to have an unfavorable connotation of “writings or statements of doubtful authorship or authority.”