Mark 4: 1-20
BRIEF INTRO: I am not sure how much time has elapsed until Jesus arrives by the sea, but that is where we now find Him as we begin chapter four. Jesus is now teaching by the sea, “and such a very great multitude gathered to Him” (v.1). The crowd was tremendous, so much so that Jesus needed to get into a boat to give Himself some space and, conveniently, a platform to preach from.
I do not think that we need to apply some sort of reason or meaning behind Jesus sitting to teach other than what would be the most obvious. I have learned in my study that sitting was the normal or “typical” rabbinic position when teaching. But we can also understand that the boat was likely moving back and forth in the water.
So, with His disciples by His side and the vast crowd gathered around Him, Jesus, sitting in a boat, begins to “teach them in parables” (v. 2).
4 Again, He began to teach by the sea. Such a huge crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat on the sea and sat down, and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land. 2, And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching,
FOCUS ONE: Why parables?
This is not the first time that Jesus spoke in parables (3:23). But in all the instances that He does, He has a particular reason for doing so! We find ourselves with two questions to ask and answer before we dig into the teaching itself:
- What is a parable?
- Why does Jesus incorporate them into His teaching at times?
A parable is a rhetorical device used to explain the truth. It is a manner of teaching that is meant to stimulate a person’s thinking, make important points, and move the listener toward a rational, reasonable response.
So it should make sense then that Jesus uses parables to draw people to the truth. But why then do we read in verse eleven that there are some people (outsiders) that are NOT meant to understand His teaching?
From other places in scripture, we know that His parables were not always clear; the disciples had trouble at times understanding their meanings, such as we read in Mark 7:17 and our current text. But, we also read (vv.11-12) that there will be those that will not understand them. People who will not have ears to hear or eyes to see (v. 12).
So, before we seek to understand the parable itself, we must first come to grips with their purpose in the teaching of Christ. “*So Jesus taught in parables (at least on some occasions) so that His enemies might not be able to comprehend the full significance of His words and bring false accusations or charges against Him. He knew that in some cases understanding would result in more sin and not in accepting the truth.”
Our context is about Jesus beginning to unfold “the mystery of the Kingdom.” The “mystery” is revealed in greater detail to those who believe but is hidden to those who do not believe, reject Christ, and reject His gospel. A mystery, in this sense, is simply something that was previously hidden but has now been revealed. I believe the sense is that of continual willful rejection, not ignorance.
So, as He begins to teach using this parable, we must recognize these two distinct groups within the crowd. Those who have ears to hear (people who listen, understand, and have faith) and those who do not!
3 “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundred times as much.” 9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, [a]let him hear.”
FOCUS TWO: The parable employed
We notice that Jesus emphasized the importance of paying careful attention to what He is saying twice. He says “listen to this” in v. 3 and “He who has ears to hear” in v. 9. It is not wise to take the words of the Lord superficially. In this case, the importance is that all the other parables coming next can only be understood rightly if the people grasp the truth of this first one. “Do you not understand this parable? And how will you understand all the parables” (v. 13)?
Before we can correctly comprehend and apply this parable, we need to figure out from within the context what the main point is.
The sower and sowing—are not the main point. He only uses one short sentence: “The sower went out to sow” (v.3). That does not mean that the sower is unimportant. Christ Himself sowed the seeds of the gospel of the kingdom, then His disciples, and now those who have come to faith through them!
The seed — is not the main point of the parable either. We read of the seed being scattered, scattered in various places upon different soil. BUT THE EMPHASIS IS ON THE SOILS.
The soils are the main point!
Someone goes out and sows the seeds on various soil types (beside the road, rocky ground, among the thorns, on good soil), and those soils, all but one, prove to be “fruitless.” There is only one soil mentioned in this parable that the seed grew in and produced fruit! And that is the last one that was mentioned.
14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them. 16 And in a similar way these are the ones sown with seed on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and yet they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution occurs because of the word, immediately they [a]fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown with seed among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the [b]world, and the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things enter and choke the word, and it [c]becomes unfruitful. 20 And those are the ones sown with seed on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundred times as much.”
FOCUS THREE: The parable explained
In verses 3-8, Jesus sought to teach the crowds of people by employing imagery that would be relatively normal in their rural life in Palestine. In our following verses, 14-20, Jesus explains the parable to His disciples and others who are around Him (v. 10). It is evident that the twelve did not understand the meaning of the teaching, and so, with much patience, He explained His words to them so they could grasp hold of the truth He shared. Truth relating to the “kingdom.” This parable is about How the kingdom grows, so it is vital to understand this one or the others will make no sense (v. 13)!
The sower is not identified, but the context indicates that He most likely represents Jesus and/or those who will sow (herald) the kingdom’s message (gospel).
The seed is the word (the gospel) as we see in other places: 1:15, 45; 2:2; 6:12).
The soils represent different people’s reception of the word. The parable teaches them and us that in our faithful witnessing for Christ, we will come across various types of “hearers” in whom the seed has been sown. It is also made clear in His explanation that there will be many people who give a negative response to the seed sown.
Those pesky birds (v. 4)! They represent Satan, who actively seeks, at all costs, to “immediately” take away any coherence of the word given. In effect, these people have no response to what was sown. Read verse 15 over again so that you don’t miss the unveiling of what they represent.
Then there are the “rocky ground” hearers. This group is said to have no depth of soil; no firm roots. In other words, they receive the word in a “shallow” manner. There is no real depth to their understanding or profession. Since their “roots” are shallow and not firm, they last only a short while. Like the seeds landing on rocky places would suffer trials (sun scorching them), these types of hearers of the word are only for a short while because when troubles come or persecution, they quickly fall away (v.17).
The third type of soil (hearer) is said to be like the seed among thorns. These people “hear,” BUT are preoccupied with the things of this world. Their desires for other things, things they give priority to, eventually “choke” out the word that was heard. Sadly, Jesus says of them,” and it (word) becomes unfruitful (v. 19).
But lest we despair and lose hope, He gives us the encouragement we need to persevere in spreading the gospel seed! Any farmer rejoices at having “good soil” to plant in. Such soil produces crops! Often many fold more than he could wish for. So it is with the good soil that receives the gospel seed!
Please recognize that this is the only type of hearer that truly benefits from the gospel. The only ones that are genuinely regenerated! The other three soils are representative of those who flat out reject the gospel, those that are shallow-minded and so hear it, understand it, but turn away from it. None of those people were ever adopted into the family of God. The only ones who will be justified in Christ and adopted into the family of God are those that “hear the word” AND “accept it.” Such people WILL bear fruit in keeping with their repentance (v. 20)!
This is how the kingdom grows.
Be encouraged, dear Christian. We have been told, straight out from the Lord, that many people will not listen to what we have to say, or they may express some superficial sense of belief that, in the end, will reveal itself for what it truly is. Even so, our encouragement comes from the fact that there are people out there who will listen, accept it, and be born again by God’s grace!
So don’t lose heart; don’t give up. Keep on sowing!
*The Bible Expositors Commentary on spreading the gospel seed!