Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20)
As previously observed, the Gospel of Mark does not follow a direct chronological order in relating the works and teaching of our Lord. This portion, which corresponds to Matthew 13, gives us an account of parabolic instruction delivered by the sea of Galilee in the summer of a.d. 28, according to the most likely system of time reckoning.
The land rises gently from the particular part of the sea of Galilee where this instruction was given. As the Lord Jesus sat in the fisherman’s boat His audience would be before Him, conveniently seated or standing, as in a natural amphitheater. This natural setting enabled all to hear the voice of the teacher whose message and personality had attracted them to Him. He used parables in teaching them. These parables were illustrations drawn from things with which the hearers were perfectly familiar, so that they could follow Jesus readily if they were so disposed.
Possibly even as Jesus taught them the parable of the farmer, the audience could see a man sowing seed not far away. The sower pictures Christ Himself primarily, though the application is true of every preacher of the Word. We need not be discouraged if much of the seed seems to be lost, for even when the greatest of all sowers was here, there were many who paid no attention to the words of grace that fell from His holy lips. Their hearts were utterly hard and unfeeling, like the well-trodden wayside paths.
“Some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth.” The soil in this instance may have looked fair, but it had not much depth. Underneath there was hard ground, speaking of lack of repentance before God. The seed without root soon withered away. Where there is no divine conviction there will be no lasting effects following a temporary stirring of the emotions.
“Some fell among thorns… and it yielded no fruit.” The careful farmer is commanded to “break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns” (Jeremiah 4:3; Hosea 10:12). Thorn s can more easily be avoided when dealing with individual souls. When addressing men in the mass, necessarily there will be many who are so occupied with worldly affairs the good seed can find little room to lodge.
“Other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased.” The good ground pictures hearts prepared by God to receive the seed of the gospel, though even then all hearts do not produce alike. Much depends both on the depth of the Spirit’s work of conviction before conversion and the time given to soul-cultivation afterward.
“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Thus with these solemn words, the Lord challenged our attention. It is easy to listen only with the outward ear and so fail to get the message into the heart. To those who had ears to hear and desired to understand the parable, Jesus readily gave a full explanation.
The disciples and others who had been pondering the story in their hearts came to Jesus privately and asked for its meaning. It was in the quiet of the evening in all probability, after the day’s activities were ended, that He expounded the parable of the sower to them, assuring them that the mysteries of the kingdom of God would not be hidden from them. However, He would teach in parables without explaining their meaning to those who were content to remain in ignorance, in order that they might go on in their self-chosen path of blindness and indifference to spiritual truth. If they had no desire for instruction, they were to be left in ignorance. This was the righteous judgment of God on those who refuse to turn to Him and so find forgiveness of sins.
The expression, “the mystery of the kingdom of God,” refers to the secrets concerning the coming days when the rejected King would return to Heaven. But as the principles of His kingdom were diffused through the world, a system would develop in which Christ would be recognized as the rightful King, and His Word would be acknowledged as rule. This system is the sphere of profession commonly called Christendom, which means literally “Christ’s kingdom.” In it are found those who are real and unreal, who profess subjection to His authority whether truly born of God or not.
Christ explained the parable by saying that the seed represents the word—the truth He came to proclaim. The wayside hearers are those who are utterly without exercise as to spiritual things. They hear the word with the outward ear but are so under the control of Satan (represented by the birds) that he takes away all consideration for the seed sown in their hearts.
The stony-ground hearers seem at first to give evidence of real conviction. Like Bunyan’s Mr. Pliable, they are easily persuaded to make a Christian profession and just as easily turned from it when difficulties arise. They stumble because they have no root in themselves.
The thorny-ground hearers apparently receive the word with joy, but the quest for wealth and the desire for worldly advantage choke the word so that it becomes unfruitful.
The good ground hearers not only hear the word but also receive it in faith in their hearts. They bear fruit unto God, thus demonstrating the reality of their confession. It is true that all do not produce to the same degree; but all bear fruit to some extent: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.
In considering the work of preaching the gospel we must take into account God’s blessed purpose of grace and the condition of the hearts of men to whom the message comes. To some the gospel message is of no interest. They are indifferent to it from the first and never become concerned. Some are interested for a time. Their emotions are stirred, but there is no depth of commitment. Others have a measure of concern, but they are men of double mind. They would like to make the best of both worlds, and so they never give eternal things their proper place. Others, prepared by the Spirit’s convicting work, are eager to know the way of life, and so “receive with meekness the engrafted word” (James 1:21) and bring forth fruit unto God.
Parable of the Candle (Mark 4:21-25)
It is possible that in Mark 4:21 -25 we have a portion of the sermon on the mount, but on the other hand we may well suppose that Jesus frequently used the same metaphors to enforce the truth of His messages. In these verses the Lord gives further instruction stressing the importance of reality in our profession of faith.
A candle or lamp is not to be hidden under a bushel (which speaks of business), nor under a bed (which suggests the love of ease), but is to be displayed on a lampstand in order that it may give light to all in the house. The meaning is clear. If we profess allegiance to Christ, we are not to allow the claims of business or selfish desires of any kind to hinder our faithful testimony to Him whom we have acknowledged as our Savior and Lord.
All unreality will be disclosed sooner or later. Nothing can be hidden from the holy all-seeing eye of the Lord, nor kept secret from Him who knows the innermost thoughts and intents of the heart. All will be revealed in the clear light of His judgment seat. Happy are we if we are among those who, having ears to hear, give heed to His words!
We are warned to be careful as to what we hear and how we judge, for we ourselves will be dealt with as we deal with others; and as we hear in faith the truth of God, our knowledge will be increased. It is a law of that kingdom that to him who uses well what he has, more will be imparted, and he who has nothing but an empty profession will, at the last, be stripped even of that.
Parables of the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:26-32)
The two parables recorded in Mark 4:26-32 are related to each other morally. These parables are also recorded in Matthew 13 though in a different order.
“So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground.” Preaching the word is sowing the seed, whereby the kingdom of God in its spiritual aspect is spread throughout the world. “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). The wonder of the new birth is just as inexplicable as the mystery of life in a seed that leads to the development of a plant. (John 3:6-8).
“First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” The law of growth in the natural world illustrates growth in grace and in understanding of spiritual realities. Men do not suddenly become mature saints. While we are saved in a moment when we trust the Lord Jesus, our growth is a matter of years. It is as we assimilate the truth by study of the Word, prayer, and devotion to Christ that we bear fruit to perfection.
“When the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.” So the great husbandman is watching over His tilled fields (1 Corinthians 3:9) until the yield is at its best. Then He will take to Himself the fruit for which He has waited so patiently (James 5:7).
“Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God?” Next the Lord Jesus used an altogether different illustration to picture an aspect that the kingdom was to take on after He had gone back to the Father. In this second illustration, very different indeed from the first picture of a field of wheat, He compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. He said that the mustard seed is “less than all the seeds that be in the earth.” It is not exactly that there are no seeds anywhere smaller than those of the mustard plant, but in a garden of herbs the mustard seed is the least of all. This tiny seed pictures the small and seemingly insignificant beginning of the kingdom of God in the world, following the ascension of the Son of man to the right hand of the Father.
“It… shooteth out great branches.” The mustard tree is the largest of all the herbs and fitly pictures the kingdom as a power to be reckoned with in the earth. In other words, the mustard tree represents that which the Lord foresaw Christendom was to become—a vast all-inclusive society where “the fowls of the air” find a hiding place. The fowls of the air are representatives of Satan and his emissaries (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12). They devour the good seed in the parable of the sower, and now they are seen hiding in the branches of the mustard tree. How well the Lord knew the turn that events would take! The mustard-tree growth of the professing church looks good for a time, but its evanescent character will soon be manifested.
Contrasted Views of the Kingdom. The field of wheat and the mustard tree present very different pictures of the kingdom. A field of wheat is made up of many thousands of stalks, all more or less alike, differing only in the heaviness of the heads of grain. This is what the church of God should be in the world.
The mustard tree is, in a sense, an imitation of a great world-power, such as the cedar tree of Assyria (Ezekiel 31:3-6) or the great tree of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:10-12). In both Old Testament instances, as in this parable, the fowls of the air—the emissaries of Satan—find lodging in the branches. It might have seemed impossible that the kingdom of God could ever become like this. Yet that was what our Lord predicted, and it has come to pass throughout the centuries since.
Importance of Parables (Mark 4:33-34)
The use of parables by our Lord was for a twofold purpose. He taught many deep and important truths in this form in order to test the reality of His hearers’ interest. If truly concerned, they would seek to get the meaning of the story and would become earnest inquirers. If indifferent, they would pay no further attention and would go on in their careless way, hardening their hearts against the truth (Matthew 13:11-15; Luke 8:10). Those whose consciences were exercised would find that these vivid illustrations fixed in their minds the great truths that Jesus taught, making an indelible impression on them (Matthew 13:16-17).
Our Lord was the prince of preachers, and we are told that “without a parable spake he not unto them” (Matthew 13:34). The human mind is so constructed that it receives instruction far more readily through apt illustrations than just by the setting forth of either arguments or definitions. Spurgeon said it well: “The sermon is the house; the illustrations are the windows that let the light in.” Those who depend entirely on abstract truth to reach the hearts and consciences of their hearers are far more likely to fail to accomplish their desires than those who brighten up their discourses by relating appropriate and enlightening incidents. In teaching, as in all else, Jesus Christ is our great exemplar. His early followers, whose utterances and letters are recorded in the New Testament, used the same method.
The parables of the Lord Jesus Christ are remarkable for their fidelity to nature and to human life. He drew His illustrations from those things with which His hearers were thoroughly familiar, so that they could understand Him readily. The illustrations and the related lessons would be fixed in their minds if there was a real desire to know that truth which makes free (John 8:32).
Jesus always took into account the moral and spiritual conditions of His hearers and gave the word as suited to each group. He used illustrations of the most clear and yet simple character. If His hearers showed any further interest He was glad to explain the meaning of any similitude that His hearers could not comprehend. He ever ministered to the needs of men. He never sought to charm or allure by “great swelling words,” as do the representatives of evil systems. He used language that was easy to understand and was ever prepared to instruct any seeking soul. In all this He was the master preacher, an example to all who seek to serve Him by proclaiming His Word.
Power over Creation (Mark 4:35-41)
When Jesus had finished teaching by parables and as evening was approaching, He said, “Let us pass over unto the other side.” All was settled in His mind. He did not suggest that His disciples attempt to reach the other side of the lake, which was the country of the Gadarenes (5:1), but He spoke definitely of actually crossing over. If they had remembered these words later, they would have known that no storm could alter His plans.
“They took him even as he was in the ship.” He had been healing and teaching all day and no doubt was physically very weary as they received Him into the boat that was to carry Him across the lake. Note that “other little ships” were also with them.
“There arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship.” To the natural eye, conditions had become very critical. But the Lord Jesus Christ slept in peace as the storm raged. In their terror the disciples turned instinctively to the Lord Jesus and roused Him from His slumber with their cry of distress. Of course He cared, but they were as safe in the storm as on a smooth sea when He was in the ship with them.
In a quiet display of His creatorial authority He commanded the wind to die down and the angry waves, which were leaping about the vessel like mad dogs, to be “muzzled,” as the command has been translated. Instantly the elements obeyed their Master, and the storm subsided. Even so He speaks today to troubled hearts and tempest-driven lives!
“Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?” It was as though Jesus would call the minds of His disciples back to the words He had spoken before they began their voyage. He had declared they were to pass over to the other side—not be drowned in the midst of the sea. This should have been enough to quiet their fears, and would have been, had there been real faith in His words. The disciples did not yet understand the mystery of His person, and so they questioned one another in perplexity as to His actual identity. All nature acknowledged His power. Could He then be other than God incarnate?
Who raised the storm? Was the raising of the tempest that evening on the sea of Galilee simply a natural phenomenon, or was it of definite Satanic origin? It would seem that it was an effort on the part of the adversary to destroy the Lord Jesus Christ before He could fulfill His mission. But just as when the people of Nazareth tried to shove Him over the cliff and kill Him but were unable to effect their purpose (Luke 4:28-30), so in this instance Satan was again foiled. He had no power to take the life of the Son of God. That life could be laid down only voluntarily by Christ Himself in accordance with the Father’s will (John 10:17-18).
The Miracles of Jesus Christ. Rationalists and rationalizing professors of Christianity are fond of trying to explain on purely natural grounds the remarkable things credited to the Lord Jesus in the Gospels. A sample of this kind of reasoning is found in a widely-read book, The Nazarene. But the clear purpose of the Holy Spirit in recording these wonders was to show us that He who so marvelously healed and helped suffering humanity was God Himself come down to earth as man. No far-fetched explanations are needed if we consider who it was who did these things. All were perfectly normal manifestations of divine power at work in response to the needs of men. To deny the miracles is but an effort to belittle Him who performed them.
Jesus Christ our Lord is Master of all circumstances and sufficient for every emergency. Winds and waves obey Him; demons flee before Him; disease and death are destroyed when He appears. Nothing can withstand His power. He has all authority in Heaven and on earth. And the wonderful thing for us to know is that He is our Savior and Redeemer. We who have trusted Him are directed now to cast every care on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Difficulties are but opportunities for Him to display His power. Emergencies give us the privilege of proving His loving interest in us as we confide in His grace and count on His might.