The Parable of the Sower, 1-9
4:1 Again he began to teach by the lake. Such a large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there while the whole crowd was on the shore by the lake. 4:2 He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching said to them: 4:3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. 4:6 When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it did not have sufficient root, it withered. 4:7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and they grew up and choked it, and it did not produce grain. 4:8 But other seed fell on good soil and produced grain, sprouting and growing; some yielded thirty times as much, some sixty, and some a hundred times.” 4:9 And he said, “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!”
Parables – Edwards summarises: ‘Jesus did not invent the parable genre, for there are occasional examples of such in the OT (2 Sam 12:1–14; Ezek 17:1–10) and among Jewish rabbis from the second century onward. There were, of course, also many stories and fables in Greco-Roman antiquity, some of which resemble parables. But in quantity and excellence Jesus’ parables are without parallel in the ancient world. The Gospels record some sixty different parables of Jesus, most of which are found in Matthew and Luke, fewer in Mark, and none in John.’
On the nature and purpose of Jesus’ parables, Edwards remarks that the most common subject is the kingdom of God, which is illustrated from everyday objects and events – fishing, farming, housekeeping, and so on. Although they demand no special knowledge, they are not straightforward to understand. They cannot be comprehending by simply inspection from the ‘outside’. They can only be understood from the ‘inside’, by hearers placing themselves in the world of the parable and finding where they fit into the story.
Parables do not simply speak; they act. They do not function primarily to inform, but to prompt a response.
Garland remarks that ‘the parable of the sower and the parable of the tenants of the vineyard are the two major parables in Mark. Both come after challenges from religious authorities from Jerusalem (Mk 3:20–35; 11:27–33). Both are allegories that provide vital clues for interpreting what is happening in Jesus’ ministry. The parable of the tenants of the vineyard allegorizes the rejection of Jesus, the son who has come to collect the fruit of the harvest, and portends his death. The parable of the sower evaluates the various responses to his sowing of the word and portends the misunderstanding that accompanies his word and deeds as well as the harvest that will occur among those who do understand and respond.’
All the gospel accounts agree that this was the first parable spoken by Jesus. Indeed, here begins a phase when the parabolic method became Jesus’ primary means of teaching, 4:33-34. Accordingly, the disciples expressed their surprise and puzzlement over this new form of teaching, 4:10.
It was springtime by the Sea of Galilee. Great numbers came enthusiastically to hear our Lord preach, v1, but would they remain faithful? The seed was being faithfully sown, but what would the harvest bring? We can picture Jesus sitting in the prow of a boat, pointing his hearers to the fields where the green corn shoots a promising a rich harvest. But how much of the seed scattered by the sower would be fruitful?
Our Lord, knowing that many who thronged to him would, sooner or later, neglect, or misunderstand, or reject his message, gives a solemn word of warning in the form of a parable. Cf. Lk 8:18.
We should see the sower as Jesus himself, in the first instance. As Garland says, ‘Mark has framed his mission as one who goes out to sow the word: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come [out]” (Mk 1:38). “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17).’
The elements: the seed (representing the word of God, Lk 8:11); the Sower (representing Christ, Christ, cf v37, and by extension his ministers, 1 Cor 3:9); the soil (representing 4 types of human heart with 4 different responses to the word of God). The main thought: the growth of the seed depends on the quality of the soil. That is, the results of the hearing of the gospel depend upon the condition of the human heart. Not all hearers of the word profit by it.
‘So intent is the farmer on a harvest that he sows in every corner of the field “in hopes that good soil might somewhere be found,” said Justin Martyr in his retelling of the parable over a century later (Dial. Trypho 125.1–2). Even so, rocks, thorns, and adverse elements render three-quarters of the labor lost.’ (Edwards, on Mark)
It should be noted then, that the effectiveness of the gospel does not depend (only) upon the efforts of the preacher, but upon the disposition of the hearers. The pulpit is criticised often; the pew seldom. It is good for ministerial students to be taught how to preach, but also good that our congregations be taught how to hear. The preacher is called to sow the seed of the word indiscriminately, and does not hold sole responsibility for its effects. There is a common call of the gospel to the many, and an effectual call to the few, Mt 22:14. We should be be surprised by a relative lack of success: three types of soil were bad, and only one good, cf Isa 53:1.
v4 The fact that the seed is sown everywhere – in unpromising places as well as promising places – is richly suggestive for Christian evangelism. The word is to be sown everywhere. As Garland says, if the sowing had been left to the Pharisees, they would have severely restricted the terrain where the seed was to be sown – lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors would be excluded.
We should not despair over apparent failures. Jesus himself met with rejection and opposition, but this did not stop him from sowing the seed of God’s word.
‘Marcus helpfully suggests that we should notice that each of the failures occurs at a different stage in the maturation process—the first seed scattered doesn’t even germinate, the second withers away as soon as it sprouts up, the third grows but seems to produce no fruit.’ (Witherington)
1. THE PATHWAY HEARER – THE UNRESPONSIVE HEART
The seed just remained on the surface and was gobbled up by the birds.
This is a picture of the unresponsive heart, in which the word of God takes no hold. The heart has been trampled over by the traffic of many things, and the evil one has no difficulty in snatching the word away before it has any effect on the heart. The hearer sees no importance in the great issues of eternity. He sees neither hisown sinfulness and danger, nor the suitableness of God’s grace offered in Christ.
Hearts may be sin-hardened – especially hardening are those self-sins which freeze the heart over with an impenetrable layer of ice: self-interest, self-advancement, self-esteem. Habitual sin tramps over the heart until it becomes as hard as pavement. Truth has no more chance of taking root there than a seed of corn has of sprouting in the middle of a busy road. Think of Judas: how tenderly the Lord spoke to him on the night of his betrayal; but covetousness and dishonesty had crusted his heart over, and he went out, coldly and callously.
Hearts may also be gospel-hardened – it is possible to sit under the sound of the gospel week after week, becoming more and more impervious to its overtures. In the words of Billy Graham: they have just enough religion to inoculate them against the real thing. For this reason God sounds a warning note in Scripture: ‘today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ The preacher can do much to prevent this happening, but seeking fresh ways of presenting age-old truths. But hearers too can take steps to neutralise this tendency, by thoughtful prayer and preparation before attending the means of grace, by engaging our attention during, and by meditation afterwards.
To be specific, what are the ‘birds’ which can gobble up the seed before it takes root in the heart? (a) Wandering thoughts; (b) Idle chatter; (c) Weariness.
‘It is not enough to sit under the means; woeful experience teacheth us that there are some no sun will tan; they keep their own complexion under the most shining and burning light of the Gospel.’ (William Gurnall)
v5 2. THE ROCKY GROUND HEARER – THE IMPULSIVE HEART
The seed falls on soil which is just an inch or so thick and underneath is a shelf of rock. The seed appears to flourish and to show exceptional growth, but because it cannot put down roots it is scorched and finally killed by the hear of the sun. Note: that energy which was meant to strengthen and ripen the seed, scorched and destroyed it.
This describes those who readily receive the Christian message, and show great enthusiasm at first, but when trouble or temptation arise, they forsake their Christian profession and return to their former lives. They are the superficial and the impulsive hearers of the gospel. They go so far: they hear the gospel; they receive it readily. While some others are still pondering, and wondering, and questioning, these have already made their decision. But there is no root, no staying power: they are attracted by the peace, the joy, and the security which Christ offers; but they do not reckon that faith in Christ also involves self-denial and possibly persecution. So it is a case of ‘easy come, easy go’. Such people fail to count the cost, Lk 14:27-33, and so became too easily discouraged. Examples: 8:19f; 19:16-22; also Judas, 26:14-16; and Demas, 2 Tim 4:10. Christ had ‘fair-weather’ friends who shouted ‘Hosanna!’ and then just few days later, ‘Crucify!’ Think too of the relatively small proportion of those who ‘make a commitment’ at evangelistic rallies, who remain faithful.
In these people, the very hardships which are designed by God to promote Christian growth and fruitfulness, prove to be the undoing of what had appeared to be real signs of life. That which causes constancy in some, causes apostasy in others. See 1 Jn 2:19. The cross of Christ, which is the fragrance of life to some, is the smell of death to others, 2 Cor 2:16.
These hardships are identified as ‘affliction’ and ‘persecution’. Remember: true discipleship – the way of the cross – involves sacrifice and suffering. Fair winds of opportunity are quickly followed by storms of affliction, and we must be able to keep afloat in both.
We are too apt to misjudge others: we prefer the enthusiastic convert to the calm and cautious disciple, cf Mt 20:16.
We should beware of announcing to soon the results of evangelistic activity. ‘It is a serious injury to a person to receive him into the number of the faithful unless there is good reason to believe that he is really regenerate…What mean these despatches from the battle field? “Last night fourteen souls were under conviction, fifteen were justified, and eight received full sanctification.” I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens, this exhibition of doubtful spoils. Lay aside such numberings of the people, such idle pretence of certifying in half a minute that which will need the testing of a lifetime. Hope for the best, but in your highest excitements be reasonable.’ (C.H. Spurgeon, The Soul-Winner, 2)
People without principles are like ships without ballast: they travel faster at first than those laden with cargo, but soon capsize when the weather turns stormy.
v7 3. THE THORNY GROUND HEARER – THE PREOCCUPIED HEART
Here the seed falls on ground which has been imperfectly weeded: the roots of thorn bushes have still been left in the ground. The thorns grow up with the seed, depriving it of nourishment and preventing it from reaching fruitful maturity.
Here is a partial, incomplete, or half-hearted response to the gospel. The hearer goes just so far in Christian things, but stops short of real fruitfulness. He does not cast off his profession, but the promise of faith is killed off by preoccupation with other things.
The cares could be those of a Martha, whose world does not extend beyond her home; the riches those of a young man, too in love with his money to give it up for Jesus; the ambition that of a Pharisee, more eager for the approval of others than for the approval of the Lord; the pleasures those of any one of us in this hedonistic age: and how can true Christian faith be combined with the fashion frivolity that characterises so much of this world?
Note that these things are like ‘thorns’: they came in with the fall, and are a result of the curse. ‘They are entangling, vexing, scratching’ (Henry); they distract and divert us, they sap our energy. They do not have eternity in them, and the land that produces them will be burned, Heb 6:8; cf 1 Cor 3:11-15.
‘Whatever things pertaining to this life go so near to a man’s heart as to take up the room, time, travel and affections which heavenly things should have, they are but thorns which choke the seed of God’s word.’ (Dickson)
‘Open sin is not the only thing that ruins souls. In the midst of our families, and in the pursuit of our lawful callings, we have need to be on our guard’ (J.C. Ryle).
How many of us need to be delivered from ‘gnawing anxieties and delusary fantasies’? See Pr 30:7-9; Isa 26:3; Mt 6:19-34; 19:23-24; Lk 12:6-6,13-34; 1 Tim 6:6-10; Heb 13:5-6.
v8 The very idea of ‘harvest’ hints at OT imagery about the breaking in of God’s kingdom, Isa 9:3; Ps 126:6. A harvest of a hundredfold would have been regarded as remarkable, and a sure sign of God’s blessing (cf. Gen 26:12).
Edwards notes: ‘The parable of the sower, like the parables of sowing to follow (4:26–29, 30–32), reports astounding results in spite of inauspicious beginnings.’
The abundant yield is all the more striking, given the fruitlessness of the three other kinds of soil.
The ‘climactic focus…remains on the astonishing impact of those who are faithful. Jesus provides his followers with an important reminder of God’s continued blessings on their work, even as large numbers of people become increasingly hostile to the gospel.’ (Blomberg, on Matthew)
‘Despite resistance and rejection, there is an irrepressible empowerment behind the work of Jesus, as momentous as the generative agency of the seed that “grows, produces, and multiplies.” Let not hearers suppose the opposition of scribes, Pharisees, crowds, and even his own associates, as adversarial as the hardpan, rocks, and thorns of Galilee, will be the last word. Despite discouraging odds, the harvest in Jesus’ ministry will be beyond compare.’ (Edwards)
4. THE GOOD GROUND HEARER – THE RESPONSIVE HEART
Such was Cornelius, Acts 10:23, and the Bereans, Acts 17:11.
According to Calvin, ‘these three gradations are tortured by Jerome in an absurd manner, as if respectively the indicated virgins, widows, and married people.’!
The responsive heart is characterised by:- (Lk 8:15)
(a) Attention: he listens to the word; he refuses to be distracted. How often our Lord and his ministers urge their hearers to ‘listen’, Mk 4:2-3; Lk 19:48; Acts 8:6; 10:33; 13:16; 16:14; Rev 2:7. Attend especially to the Scripture itself as it is read and explained; to those words which speak to your own spiritual condition; and to those things which the preacher declares with special warmth and conviction. Resist especially wandering thoughts and drowsiness.
(b) Retention: there is an inward digestion of what was heard. 1 Thess 5:21 Jas 1:21. As the seed must be able to germinate in the soil, so the word in the heart. Let both the reading and the hearing of the word be followed by thoughtful meditation. This is a neglected duty. Ps 119:97,148. Cf. Deut 4:9; 6:6-7; Lk 24:32; Acts 17:11; 27:29. Ask the Lord to help you in this, 2 Tim 1:14.
(c) Production. They ‘produce a crop.’ ‘To hear without obeying is to harden the heart.’ As Garland says, fruit-bearing is ‘an essential mark of the kingdom of God’.
See Acts 16:14: ‘One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.’
On spiritual fruit-bearing, see Ps 1:1-3; 92:14; 104:13; Mt 3:10; 7:17-20; 12:33-35; Lk 3:8; Jn 15; Acts 2:38; 16:31; Rom 7:4; Gal 5:22; Eph 5:9; Php 4:17; Col 1:6; Heb 12:11; 13:15; Jas 3:17-18.
Let preachers and congregations remember that it is not the number of hearers which is the important thing (cf. v2), but their response.
Note, every believer is fruitful, although not all in the same degree. Let us all be enrolled in Christ’s school, even though not all in the same class. We are members of his body, though not all equally prominent parts of it. But let us aim for the highest degree of fruitfulness of which we are capable, Jn 15:8.
What sort of soil are you? How has the word of God taken root in your heart?
The Purpose of Parables, 10-20
4:10 When he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 4:11 He said to them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside, everything is in parables,
4:12 so that although they look they may look but not see,
and although they hear they may hear but not understand,
so they may not repent and be forgiven.”
4:13 He said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand any parable?
When he was alone – This was evidently at a different time, because in v1 and and v36 Jesus is in the boat, preaching to the crowds. Now he is ‘alone’ with his disciples and others. As Edwards remarks, such private settings often provide opportunities for revelation in Mark.
The Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables – Garland notes that Jesus’ parabolic teaching is very different from the orderly propositional teaching that many value and engage in today. Who among us would dare to preach an obscure message, and then wait for earnest enquirers to come to us afterwards and ask for an explanation? But Jesus did not see his teaching ministry as merely about information transfer. He wanted to wake people up. He wanted them to see things afresh. He wanted them to come to a new realisation. But such teaching will always separate out those who, on the one hand, are impervious to the things of God, too easily distracted by the attractions of the present world, and, on the other hand, those who sincerely desire to seek God. Are we trying to impress people, or bolster attendance figures? Or are we prepared to teach the things of the Kingdom the way that Jesus taught them, even if we meet with widespread rejection?
Verse 11f raise various exegetical and theological questions, expresses by Douglas McComiskey as: ‘What is the “secret” of the kingdom of God? How is it “given” to the disciples? What are the lines along which Jesus divides disciples from “those outside”? What is the function of the Isa 6:9–10 quotation in his argument? and, perhaps the most important and difficult question: Does he desire that certain people not be saved?’
“The secret of the kingdom of God” – or, ‘the mystery.’ Such mysteries are ‘inside information on life which only believers, only disciples, are given to understand. They are…truths which the natural man cannot discover by himself. They are great missing pieces, if you like, of the jigsaw puzzle of life.’ (Stedman)
This is ‘not a mystery in the sense that it is incomprehensible, but it is a “secret” in that not everyone yet knows it’ (France).
Garland says that although the nature of this secret is not made explicit, the context suggests that it has to do with ‘the kingdom of God coming in a veiled way in the person, words, and works of Jesus.’
“Has been given to you” – a divine passive (Edwards). It is not known or perceived by merely human means, but, rather, by revelation. We are mindful, that although the disciples were in this privileged position, they would frequently demonstrate confusion and obtuseness.
‘Disciples are not quicker than others, nor are they able to unravel mysteries for themselves. The mystery is something that is “given” to them. The understanding comes by grace as Jesus’ interpretation unlocks the mystery for them.’ (Garland)
Those on the outside – We are not to understand there to be an immutable distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. As Edwards remarks, ‘some outsiders will become insiders—the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1–20), the woman with a flow of blood (Mk 5:25–34), the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24–30), a Gentile centurion (Mk 15:38–39), perhaps even a scribe (Mk 12:28–34). Likewise, some insiders, such as Judas, will become outsiders (Mk 14:1–2, 10–11, 21, 43–46).’
Garland, similarly, says: ‘As the story progresses, the disciples’ dazed incomprehension (Mk 7:17–18; 8:14–21, 27–33; 9:9–13, 30–32; 10:23–31, 32–45; 11:20–25) and blindness (Mk 4:35–41; 6:45–52; 9:2–8; 14:17–25, 32–43) reveals that even they are at risk of becoming outsiders. They particularly fail to grasp fully the secret of the cross and resurrection. At the end, one becomes a traitor and betrays him; another denies him. All flee, leaving him to die alone. On the other hand, apparent outsiders often show the faith of insiders: the woman with the flow of blood (Mk 5:34), the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:29), the father of an epileptic (Mk 9:24), the exorcists who do not follow the disciples (Mk 9:38–41), the mothers of children (Mk 10:13–16), blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46–52), the woman who anointed Jesus (Mk 14:3–9), and the Roman centurion (Mk 15:39).’
“Everything is said in parables” – Lit. ‘All things come in parables’. As Garland says, this suggests that Jesus’ ministry generally, including his miracles, may be regarded as parabolic, requiring interpretation (see Mk 3:22–30; 6:51–52; 8:14–21).
A parable is like a door: it lets some people in, while it keeps others out. Some remain outside, staring at the door. Others open it and go through.
Without spiritual insight the parables are unintelligible. They are therefore a condemnation to the wilfully blind and hostile, while they are a blessing to the teachable.
‘It is naive to say Jesus spoke [parables] so that everyone might more easily grasp the truth, and it is simplistic to say that the sole function of parables to outsiders was to condemn them. If Jesus simply wished to hide the truth from the outsiders, he need never have spoken to them. His concern for mission (Mt 9:35–38; 10:1–10; 28:16–20) excludes that idea. So he must preach without casting his pearls before pigs (Mt 7:6). He does so in parables—i.e., in such a way as to harden and reject those who are hard of heart and to enlighten his disciples. His disciples, it must be remembered, are not just the Twelve but those who were following him (see comment on Mt 5:1–12) and who, it is hoped, go on to do the will of the Father (Mt 12:50) and do not end up blaspheming the Spirit (Mt 12:30–32). Thus the parables spoken to the crowds do not simply convey information, nor mask it, but present the claims of the inaugurated kingdom and so challenge the hearers.’ (Carson, EBC)
v12 In this quotation from Isa 6:10 ‘parables are presented not as windows through which outsiders perceive the kingdom of God but as doors debarring them from it’ (Edwards)
The teaching of teaching Jesus parallels that of Isaiah, who was sent to preach despite being warned in advance that people would not listen.
So that… – hina (“in order that”) is hoti (“because”) in Matthew. Witherington says: ‘If Lane is right that the formulaic introduction to the quote with ινα means “so that” rather than “in order that,” the point would be that Jesus’ parables have the effect, rather than the purpose, of concealing the truth from those not ready to perceive, and perhaps revealing the truth only to those who are (which depends on what type of soil they are).’ But Witherington himself thinks that a purposive sense is inescapable.
Matthew interpolates as follows:- ‘In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah…’
The paraphrase of Isa 6:10 (“lest they repent and it be forgiven them”) follows the Targum (“and it be forgiven them”) rather than the Hebrew (“and I will heal them”).
According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, ‘this is one of the most controverted in NT scholarship. It implies a harsh determinism where Jesus spoke in parables in order to prevent his hearers from perceiving or understanding “lest they convert and be forgiven.”’
Hurtado thinks that these words of Jesus are not so harsh as they appear to be: ‘Isaiah 6:9–10 is an indication of divine sovereignty and foreknowledge intended to say that the apparent failure of the messenger is no argument against his divine call. In its form, it is an ironic statement, giving the foreseen net result of the prophet’s ministry as if it were all intended, when this is of course not the case. That Mark 4:12 is an allusion to Isaiah 6:9–10 suggests that this too is prophetic irony.’
It is not that the parables cause unbelief, but that they reveal it. Had Jesus tried to persuade people to belief by miracle, by moral code, or by doctrinal formula, it would have been false belief.
‘Jesus’ parables are not simply teaching aids, like charts, diagrams, or other such devices. Though they present the kingdom of God in story form and analogy, the kingdom of God they describe does not conform to general expectation but makes its appearance in “secret” form in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Thus, the parables are difficult, challenging, because they embody and testify to a reality not easily recognized and received for what it really is.’ (Hurtado)
Fee & Stuart: ‘If the parables…are not allegorical mysteries for the church, what did Jesus mean when responding to the disciples’ inquiry about the parables (Mark 4:10–12) with language about the “mystery” of the kingdom of God? Most likely the clue to this saying lies in a play on words in Jesus’ native Aramaic. The Aramaic term mĕthal, which was translated parabolē in Greek, was used for a whole range of figures of speech in the riddle/puzzle/parable category, not just for the story variety called “parables” in English. Probably the phrase “to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (v. 11) meant that the meaning of Jesus’ ministry (the secret of the kingdom) could not be perceived by those on the outside; it was like a mĕthal, a riddle, to them. Hence his speaking in mathlîn (parables) was part of the mĕthal (riddle) of his whole ministry to them. They saw, but they failed to see; they heard—and even understood—the parables, but they failed to hear in a way that led to obedience. They were looking for their idea of power and glory, not for a humble Galilean who cared for all the wrong kinds of people.’ (How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, p156)
Edwards discusses the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility: ‘The tension was already present in Isaiah 6, where God sent his prophet to a people who would not respond. It was evident in Pharaoh’s hardness, which is attributed alternatively to his own choice (Exod 7:14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 35; 13:15) and to God’s will (Exod 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20; 11:10). It is evident in the parable of the sower where a farmer sows seed on ground that cannot produce a yield. The tension is preserved in Mark’s reflection on the defection of Judas, one of Jesus’ chosen, who betrayed him: “ ‘On the one hand, the Son of Man must be betrayed as it is written, but woe to that man through whom he is betrayed’ ” (14:21). The disbelief and rejection experienced by Jesus were later experienced by the early church as well, and again Isa 6:9–10 (along with Jer 5:21) spoke to the problem of the hardened heart (Acts 28:26–27; John 12:40).’
Edwards explains: ‘The parable of the sower is like the cloud that separated the fleeing Israelites from the pursuing Egyptians, bringing “darkness to the one side and light to the other” (Exod 14:20). That which was blindness to Egypt was revelation to Israel. The same event was either a vehicle of light or of darkness, depending on one’s stance with God.’
Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) summarises the meaning of this difficult text: ‘If too many understand too well, the prophet’s liberty of movement, and perhaps life, may be cut short. Jesus knew his kingdom-announcement was subversive. It would be drastically unwelcome, for different reasons, to the Romans, to Herod, and also to zealous Jews and their leaders, whether official or not. He must therefore speak in parables, ‘so that they may look and look but never see’. It was the only safe course. Only those in the know must be allowed to glimpse what Jesus believed was going on. These stories would get past the censor—for the moment. There would come a time for more open revelation.’
‘God’s mysterious revelation…reveals the blindness of the world, and that blindness is manifest in surprising groups: the religious authorities, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Mk 2:1–3:6; 3:22–30), Jesus’ nearest relatives (Mk 3:31–35), and even his disciples (Mk 8:14–21).’ (Garland)
“Otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” – Garland sees deep irony here: “…because the last thing they want to do turn and be forgiven!”
Many scholars doubt the authenticity of verses 13-20. Blomberg (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels) summarises the reasons for such doubt: (a) as a skilled teller of parables, Jesus would not need to explain them, just as a skilled comedian does not need to explain his jokes; he would have been especially unlikely to have given a detailed allegorical interpretation, such as we have here; (b) this interpretation, focusing as it does on the different kinds of soil, misses the main point of the parable, which stresses the scale of the harvest from the seed that fell in good soil; (c) the language of the interpretation is unlike the language of Jesus, and more like the language of a Hellenistic church. In response to (a), which Blomberg describes as the most forceful of these objections, it should be stated that rabbinic parables usually ended with explanations, and often with quite detailed allegorisations. Whereas subsequent interpretations of Jesus’ parables have sometimes engaged in allegorisations that would not have been comprehensible to their first hearers, there is nothing in in the interpretation attributed to Jesus of that nature. In fact, Jesus’ interpretation would have been readily understood and appreciated by the people of his own day.
Edwards says that Jesus’ interpretation of the parable forces us to consider what a parable is and does: ‘Parables are a plastic rather than a static medium. They are not bricks, dried hard and fast in the sun, but wet clay that invites new impressions. Whether the new impressions are made by the hands of the potter or by later apprentices is very difficult to say, and for Mark’s purposes unimportant.’
Although initiated into the mystery of God’s Kingdom, they were still slow to understand. If they cannot understand this parable, all the others will remain obscure to them also. The Parable of the Sower is a key to all parables, because it describes the different degrees of receptiveness of the human heart to the word of God, which different degrees it is the general design of the parables to expose.
Edwards discusses the question of why understanding this parable is key to understanding all the parables of Jesus. Noting that this verse is absent in Matthew and Luke, he suggests that the parable of the sower picks up two themes that are central to Mark’s message: Christology (in vv3-9, where the seed is the word/gospel) and discipleship (in vv14-20, where the seed becomes the hearers).
4:14 The sower sows the word. 4:15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: Whenever they hear, immediately Satan comes and snatches the word that was sown in them. 4:16 These are the ones sown on rocky ground: As soon as they hear the word, they receive it with joy. 4:17 But they have no root in themselves and do not endure. Then, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately they fall away. 4:18 Others are the ones sown among thorns: They are those who hear the word, 4:19 but worldly cares, the seductiveness of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it produces nothing. 4:20 But these are the ones sown on good soil: They hear the word and receive it and bear fruit, one thirty times as much, one sixty, and one a hundred.”
Witherington thinks that ‘in its present form, this explication and application seems to reflect the language of the early church, using words not elsewhere found in the teaching of Jesus, but rather in the epistles (e.g., λογος in the sense of gospel, cf. Gal. 6:6; 1 Thess. 1:6; προσκαιρος, 2 Cor. 4:18, in the sense of short-lived; μεριμναι, meaning cares, cf. 1 Pet. 5:7; η απατη, Col. 2:8, seduction).’
The word – in the present verse, the seed is the word; whereas in the next verse it becomes the hearers of the word. Moreover, the explanation of the parable contains a number of words that do not occur elsewhere in Mark (although they do occur in Paul). Again, the various obstacles to hearing (vv17, 19) are thought to reflect a later period. To some, these considerations suggest that this section stems from the early church and not from the lips of our Lord. Edwards, amongst others, thinks that the explanation of the parable can quite readily be understood as coming from the lips of Jesus. In any case, says Edwards, parables are fluid, rather than fixed in meaning. Even if later minds did adapt and re-apply certain aspects, this does not undermine either the original story or its later re-interpretation.
‘Whether the people are meant to correspond to the seed or to the soils is more a problem for us than for Aramaic speakers. Soil sown with seed, as a whole, is in view in each case.’ (Blomberg, on Matthew)
As soon as they hear it – Given the aorist tense, the implication here (and in vv17-19) that the word is quickly and superficially heard ‘in one ear and out of the other’, as Edwards puts it.
This idea of effective hearing is central to the meaning of the parable. Each type of soil receives (‘hears’) the word, but reacts to it differently. See also v23f.
“They last only a short time” – ‘All pangs are not the pangs of the new birth. The tree may blossom fairly in spring on which no fruit is to be found in harvest.’ (Thomas Boston)
The desires for other things – The pleasures of this life, Lk 8:14. ‘The world of sense drowning the world of spirit’ (RWP).
Others…hear the word – The aorist tense is now replaced by the present tense, signifying careful and continuous hearing (Edwards). They hear, receive and bear fruit.
The Parable of the Lamp, 21-25
4:21 He also said to them, “A lamp isn’t brought to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it? Isn’t it to be placed on a lampstand? 4:22 For nothing is hidden except to be revealed, and nothing concealed except to be brought to light. 4:23 If anyone has ears to hear, he had better listen!” 4:24 And he said to them, “Take care about what you hear. The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you. 4:25 For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
God’s truth is meant to be understood. Elsewhere, Mt 5:16, a saying like this has been used to impress on the disciples the importance of witnessing the to world. Here, however, it seems to be more to do with the purpose of parables: because they are essentially earthly stories carrying a spiritual meaning, they are not understood by people who lack spiritual insight. But, like lamps, their primary purpose is not to conceal, but to reveal. When he teaches in parables, the Lord is not being deliberately obscure; any lack of understanding is due to the hardness of their hearts.
The parable is (as Cole remarks) an argument from minor to major, such as the rabbis would have used: ‘if a person would not be so foolish as to hide the light of a lamp, how much less so God?’
Under a basket – where its flame would probably be put out, besides giving no light.
Under a bed – where it would not only give no light, but eventually set the bed on fire.
But the secret of God’s Kingdom will not always be hidden; its teaching will not always be indirect. There will come a time when it will be proclaimed from the housetops.
“Consider carefully what you hear” – A challenge especially to penetrate the outwards forms of Jesus’ teaching – the stories themselves – to the message they are intended to impart (Cranfield).
It is as important to hear the Word aright as it is to speak it aright. The word of God spoken with clarity and conviction, is a means of grace of immense importance, 2 Tim 4:2. But of equal importance is the right reception of the word, Rom 10:17. How much thought and preparation do put into hearing God’s word?
To some things we should be deaf, for they corrupt the mind. But things worth hearing should be listened to, understood, and heeded.
- Some who did not – Jn 5:37 Acts 7:57.
- Some who did – Jn 3:32 5:30 8:26,40 15:15.
- Some who should – Jn 6:60 Heb 2:1 3:7,15 4:7.
Three things to ‘consider carefully’:-
- That we should hear.
- What we should hear.
- How we should hear.
With the same measure… – In the present context, which has to do with hearing the Word, it suggests that our response to the Word will be more than matched by the blessing we will receive from God.
This saying impresses on us the importance of the right use of spiritual privileges and means of grace. Muscles grow stronger when exercised; but atrophy when unused. Reaping is in proportion to sowing. Practice makes perfect.
v25 To the man who hears the Word and responds to it, an ever-increasing insight into the kingdom of God will be given. However, the man who neglects the Word will one day lose it altogether. Cf. Mt 25:24-30.
In spiritual matters, it is impossible to stand still. We either advance or decline.
The Parable of the Growing Seed, 26-29
4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is like someone who spreads seed on the ground. 4:27 He goes to sleep and gets up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 4:28 By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 4:29 And when the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come.”
Here is the first of two parables of growth (cf. Mk 4:30-32). This one concerns the manner of the growth of the kingdom.
At the risk of allegorising, we note a number of points suggested by this parable which illustrate the development of the spiritual life: (a) the seed does not sow itself; there is a sower; (b) the growth of the seed is beyond our understanding; (c) the growth of the seed is slow but certain; (d) there is a final harvest when the seed is ripe.
It reminds us the the spiritual life has a natural propensity towards growth and maturity. This growth is both a gift, Php 1:6 and a responsibility, 2 Pet 3:18. Cf. 1 Cor 3:6.
“He himself does not know” – Spiritual growth is natural in the kingdom of God, and yet the process remains a mystery to the natural man, Jn 3:8.
“All by itself” – Gk ‘automatos‘. There is a hidden power at work in nature which is independent of human effort and assistance. In the spiritual realm, Paul explains this hidden life-giving power in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 2:10-12 3:6.
“First the stalk, then the head…” – A hint of the various stages of the Christian life.
Progress in the spiritual life is not only a matter of growth and maturation, but also of fruit-bearing, Jn 15; Lk 6:43-45; Gal 5:22-23.
v29 This appears to be a reference to the end of the world, which is often likened to reaping, Mt 3:12 13:30. Cf. Joe 3:13.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed, 30-32
4:30 He also asked, “To what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use to present it? 4:31 It is like a mustard seed that when sown in the ground, even though it is the smallest of all the seeds in the ground—4:32 when it is sown, it grows up, becomes the greatest of all garden plants, and grows large branches so that the wild birds can nest in its shade.”
The disciples often showed the failure fully to understand the reign of God. They looked for the revolutionary establishment of an earthly, political kingdom, Mk 10:35; Acts 1:6.
This parable shows, firstly, that the kingdom has small beginnings. Consider the small beginnings of the kingdom:
(a) the King was born as a feeble baby in a manger in Bethlehem, without pomp or ceremony;
(b) the apostles were ordinary people, neither wise nor powerful in this world;
(c) the last and principal achievement of the King on earth was to die a criminal’s death;
(d) its teaching is an offense to the Jews and folly to the Greeks.
This parable shows, secondly, that the kingdom grows from these small beginnings to be vast and powerful. Consider its growth on the day of Pentecost, when three thousand were added in a day, and five thousand more a few days later. It spread rapidly and through Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and beyond, Acts 1:8. It overspread much of Europe, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa until it became the professed religion of the whole Roman Empire. It has put down roots on every continent. Despite weakness and apostasy, and in the face of persecution and irreligion, it has marched on. And the growth has not yet finished; Christ’s triumph shall be yet greater than we have seen. The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God, and the water cover the sea, Isa 2:2.
Let us not forget the small beginnings of the kingdom; let us not despise the day of small things, Zec 4:10. But let us also not forget the glory and the splendour of the kingdom of God when it reaches it full growth.
This second parable of growth concerns the extent of the kingdom’s growth.
“A mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground” –
The growth of the kingdom is from small beginnings to a great conclusion. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven, planted in the field of the world as the smallest seed, in the most humble and unpromising manner, would grow till it far outstripped all other similar plants, and gave shelter to all nations under heaven.’ (Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah, 274) It is vital for us to remember this, for we can easily feel that our task is hopeless in the face of fierce opposition, gross neglect. Many Christians today are acting as though they are defeated, feeling that the church is destined for constant decline until the Lord’s return. But the principle of organic growth is a guarantee that the kingdom will indeed go from strength to strength.
The Use of Parables, 33-34
4:33 So with many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear. 4:34 He did not speak to them without a parable. But privately he explained everything to his own disciples.
…as much as they could understand – The teaching of Jesus was carefully adapted to the needs and level of understanding of the disciples, and supported, v34, by further explanation away from the crowds. We are not able to grasp all spiritual truth at once, but with help and encouragement we can make genuine progress.
He explained everything – The word literally means ‘untied’, which is a neat way of describing how Jesus dealt with the knots his disciples sometimes tied themselves up in!
Stilling of a Storm, 35-41
4:35 On that day, when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go across to the other side of the lake.” 4:36 So after leaving the crowd, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat, and other boats were with him.
‘The narrative is probably Petrine’ (Cranfield). Note the many eyewitness details in this account: (a) the note concerning timing, v35; (b) the reference to the ‘other boats’, v36; (c) the description of the effects of the storm, v37; (d) the reference to Jesus sleeping ‘on a cushion’, v38.
Here Christ is presented as Lord of nature. ‘Already, Mark has shown him as one who sees heaven opened, upon the Spirit rests, responsive to the Spirit’s guidance, enjoying angelic ministry, and receiving the testimony of God to his Sonship, though refusing the testimony of demons to his deity. Christ preaches and teaches with a new ring of authority: he heals the sick, expels demons, and forgives sins. And now, only he who had created the wind and sea in the first place would dare to address them so: and their instant obedience shows his full deity as Creator as well as Redeemer.’ (Cole)
“That day when evening came” – Mark places this even in its chronological sequence, in contrast to Matthew and Luke, who often group things in topical groups. It is Mark, therefore, who gives us an explanation of why Jesus fell asleep soundly in the stern of the boat: he was exhausted. Cf. Jn 4:6, ‘Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.’
“Let us cross over to the other side” – The voyage was made at Jesus’ request. The disciples could well have thought, when the storm was at its height and Jesus was asleep, “But he got us into this mess!”
Remember that Christ’s service does not exempt us from the storms of life; indeed, it may lead us right into them.
‘If we are true Christians we must not expect everything smooth in our journey to heaven. We must count it no strange thing if we have to endure sicknesses, losses, bereavements, and disappointments, just like other men. Free pardon and full forgiveness, grace by the way, and glory at the end, -all this our Saviour has promised to give. But he has never promised that we shall have no afflictions. He loves us too well to promise that. By affliction he teaches us many precious lessons, which without it we should never learn. By affliction he shows us our emptiness and weakness, draws us to the throne of grace, purifies our affections, weans us from the world, makes us long for heaven. In the resurrection morning we shall all say, “It is good for men that I was afflicted.”‘ (Ryle)
There were also other boats with him – This detail is only found in Mark, and not only suggests the recollection of an eyewitness, but also shows that the miracle which was to follow was on a wider scale than if only the one boat (that carrying Jesus and the disciples) was involved.
4:37 Now a great windstorm developed and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was nearly swamped. 4:38 But he was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die?” 4:39 So he got up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Be quiet! Calm down!” Then the wind stopped, and it was dead calm.
Sleeping on a cushion – ‘The only place one could sleep in a small fishing boat with water pouring in from a storm would be on the elevated stern, where one could use the wooden or leather-covered helmsman’s seat, or a pillow kept under that seat, as a cushion for one’s head.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
‘The Saviour in whom we are bid to trust, is as really man as he is God. He knows the trials of a man, for he has experienced them. He knows the bodily infirmities of a man, for he has felt them. He can well understand what we mean when we cry to him for help in this world of need. He is just the very Saviour that men and women, with weary frames and aching heads, in a weary world, require, for their comfort every morning and night.’ (Ryle) Cf Heb 4:15.
Incidentally, this point provides strong evidence in favour of the truthfulness of the account. Had the story been confected, in order to exhibit Jesus’ divine power, then he would scarcely have been represented as sleeping wearily in the back of the boat.
“Teacher, don’t you care…?” – We are apt to suppose it was Peter himself who utter these rather impetuous words. In any case, what did they expect Jesus to do? They were the skilled boatsmen. Certainly they did not expect him to calm the storm, for they were utterly astonished when he did so. Perhaps they thought that he would do something – at least show some concern. How many times do we reproach the Master thus? Cf. Jn 11:21,32.
He…rebuked the wind… – A reminder that all of creation is entailed in the curse arising from human sin, and equally that all creation will share eventually in redemption from that sin and its evil effects, Rom 8:20-21.
…and it was completely calm – What a deafening, stunning silence that must have been!
How unpredictable and uncontrollable the weather is, even in our own technological age! But Jesus is the master of the elements just as he is their maker. When we think of all the storms of life, we can know that he who is for us is greater than all those who are against us.
4:40 And he said to them, “Why are you cowardly? Do you still not have faith?” 4:41 They were overwhelmed by fear and said to one another, “Who then is this? Even the wind and sea obey him!”
“Why are you so afraid?” – Jesus’ sleep was not only the sleep of weariness; it was also the sleep of faith. ‘There is a rest of faith as well as a watch of faith’ (Cole). Cf. Isa 30:15. Fear and faith are mutually exclusive; hence the frequent command in Scripture to ‘fear not’, e.g. Ex 14:13; 20:20. If only they realised who was in the boat with them, they could have smiled at the storm.
Note that there is wonderment in Jesus’ words. We wonder at his grace and power; but we give him cause to wonder at our stupidity and lack of faith. All of our problems as Christians stem from these deficiencies on our part, not any lack of ability on his part. Yet our Lord does not threaten to reject them because of their lack of faith; he only offers a gentle and encouraging rebuke.
“Do you still have no faith?” – after all you have seen me do and heard me say?
“Who is this?” – A grand, sublime, life-transforming question. Edersheim notes that ‘it is characteristic of the History of the Christ…that every deepest manifestation of his Humanity is immediately attended by highest display of his Divinity, and each special display of his Divine Power followed by some marks of his true Humanity.’ (Jesus the Messiah, 276).
There is a wonderful unveiling of the two natures of Christ in this narrative. In this respect, it reminds us of the beginning of his earthly life, when the child in the manger is worshiped by angels and men as ‘Maker, and Monarch, and Saviour of all’; and of the end of his earthly life, when the crucified one in his resurrection and ascension is owned by God as Lord and King. Here, it is the weary man, asleep in the back of the boat while the storm rages. He seems unaware, unconcerned, unable to help. And there is the Christ who commands the wind to cease and the waves to be still. We do well to remember this in the storms of life. We feel that Jesus has sent us into a situation in which we are out of our depth, unable to cope. And he himself is unable, or unwilling, to help! But he still has his ancient power. He is still the Ruler of the winds and waves. They only rage with his permission. They always subside at his command.
Jesus is no longer subject to weariness and hunger. But he still is fully human, and able to sympathise with our weaknesses.
I heard of a Christian couple who were going through all kinds of trouble. He was dejected; she was struggling with chronic asthma and bronchitis. He went to his minister, who pointed out this incident in Mark’s Gospel and said to him, ‘Remember, the boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever.’ They prayed together and the man left. Some time later, the minister met the man again as said, ‘How are things going? How is your wife’ The man replied, ‘Oh, not much better. She can’t breathe, and she can’t take care of the children or the house, and we are having a hard time. But I do remember two things: the boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever. Then the minister received a latter from the man, saying that doctors had discovered a minor deficiency in the wife’s diet which needed to be put right. When that was put right, her breathing difficulties disappeared, and she recovered her health completely, and they were rejoicing together. At the bottom of the page he had written, ‘The boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever.’ Later still the minister received word that the wife was in hospital with suspected leukaemia, although the breathing problems remained under control. The couple needed to remember again, ‘The boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever.’ (Ray Stedman, adapted)
When tempted to lose faith and to give up, remember that ‘no temptation (test; trial) has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.’ 1 Cor 10:13.