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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.
In the end of the previous chapter we saw how the family of Jesus came to take him home. But Jesus refused to go, continuing instead with his Father's business (Luke 3:49) and withdrew for a time from his family. The Lord never asks any of his disciples to do what he was not prepared to do. In Matthew 10:37, he said, “He who loves or takes more pleasure in father, mother, son or daughter than in me is not worthy of me”. We do not hear about Jesus’ family again until we read of his mother being present at his crucifixion (John 19:26). We find Jesus again at the seaside, this time sat in the boat, teaching the people, not preaching, but by using parables.
What Parables are and their Purpose.
4:2 He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching said to them:
The simple definition of a parable is that it is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. It might be more correct to say that when Jesus took an everyday activity or common item and used it to explain a spiritual truth, then that is what we call a parable.
The Parable of the Sower and its Meaning.
In this passage it might be easier to place Jesus’ parable given in vv. 3-9 side by side with the explanation he later gave to his disciples in vv.14-20.
4:3 ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow.
4:14 The sower sows the word.
The seed is the Word of God. In the first instance the sower is the Lord Jesus Christ; but he has since passed the responsibility for sowing God’s word to all his followers (Mark 16:15). By his Spirit he enables them to carry out this responsibility (Acts 1:8). Although we may wonder at times why God’s word is not as effective as it should be, it is not the seed that is at fault, as this parable clearly shows. The word of God is pure (Psalm 12:6) and sure (Luke 21:33). Every good gardener knows that if you want your seeds to germinate then the ground has to be prepared properly first, and the soil needs to be good for it to produce abundantly. It is the ground that it is sown in is at fault if the seed fails to produce fruit.
4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
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.
In Jesus’ parable, the sower did not sow his seed sparingly from a packet but from a large basket; scattering it plentifully over the ground. As he does some falls on uncultivated ground. This speaks of those who have a hardened heart. They hear the word but it goes no further than their ears. Like the birds come to eat the seed on the path, so Satan snatches away the word from unbelieving hearts (2 Cor. 4:4).
4:5-6 Other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it did not have sufficient root, it withered.
4:16-17 These are the ones sown on rocky ground: As soon as they hear the word, they receive it with joy. 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.
Some fall on rocky ground - these are the emotional hearers. They receive the word straight away with great joy and they seem to flourish for a while. But because they have not taken the word into their hearts when trouble comes and they are persecuted for the word's sake they fall away and are seen no more.
4:7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and they grew up and choked it, and it did not produce grain.
4:18-19 Others are the ones sown among thorns: They are those who hear the word, but worldly cares, the seductiveness of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it produces nothing.
Then some fall among the thorns - this is the worldly hearers. They receive the word of God but are so tied up with the world that they never become separated from it. They continue to walk in the ways of the world and to desire and fill themselves with it until the word is crowded out and there is no room for spiritual fruit to grow in them (see 1 John 2:15; Rom. 12:2 ).
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.
4:20 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.’
Some seed fell on good ground – which stands for those with prepared and receptive hearts. These are the people who receive the word into the depths of their soul where it abides and matures. Such people grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and the fruit of the Spirit abounds in them.
This parable is generally applied to the sowing of the gospel message among the unconverted, but it is equally applicable to believers and how they respond to the word of God. Jesus demands the attention of his hearers, in verse three he says “listen” and in verse nine he is saying if the Holy Spirit has opened your ears then you are now responsible for how you will receive the word.
4:10 When he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.
After speaking the parable to the masses of people when his disciples and the twelve were alone with Jesus they asked him what was the purpose of his speaking in 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,
To those who are Christ’s followers and believe in him, the truth about the kingdom of God is clearly revealed. But to those who are outside, these spiritual truths remain hidden within the 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.’
This verse is a quote from Isaiah 6:9-10 which concerns Israel. Whilst Jesus’ hearers may have understood the natural processes mentioned in the parable, they did not consider its spiritual application. Although they heard what was said they did not truly understand; for they did not want to. For if they should see and understand then they would no longer have an excuse for their wilful rejection of the truth that they should be changed and have their sins forgiven. Such is the hardness of men's hearts. To put it another way “there is none as blind as those who do not want to see and none as deaf as those who do not want to hear”.
Spiritual Growth in the Individual Believer
4:26 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is like someone who spreads seed on the ground.
The fact that Jesus refers to this parable as one concerning the kingdom of God makes it clear that it is about those who have received the word into their hearts (1 John 2:14). The word “kingdom” refers to a territory or people over whom a king reigns therefore the kingdom of God refers to those who have willingly accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as king of their lives and who reigns within their hearts (Matt. 13:38; Luke 17:21; Eph. 3:17). The kingdom of God is within the church of Christ for he is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22). The kingdom is with us at the present time because it dwells within the heart of the believer. The kingdom is also to come when we are present with the Lord, when he comes to take his church to be where he is.
4:27 He goes to sleep and gets up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.
The word of God, having been sown, is left to grow within the heart. The farmer who goes about his daily business keeps an eye on the seed bed to see how the seeds are getting on but leaving nature to do its work. Thus the Lord keeps on eye on his own to make certain that everything is going according to his work of grace and to make certain that there is growth.
4:28 By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.
The Lord speaks here of the mystery of how a seed sown in the earth grows of its own accord. Man may sow the seed but it is God that causes it to grow and increase. So it is with spiritual growth; it is not brought about by our efforts but by the grace of God (1 Thess. 3:12). But we are to be willing and have a desire to grow in Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). Notice that it is not a sudden growth; it does not happen overnight like the seed sown on stony ground, but is gradual. First the blade – this is the first sign of something happening; the change that begins to take place in the believer's life which is visible to others. Then the ear - when more steps of faith are taken and a greater understanding of God's word and his ways are realized, until finally the full corn, the fullness of Christ is achieved (Eph. 4:13).
4:29 And when the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come.’
When we reach, or should I say, if we allow the Lord to bring us to full spiritual maturity, then he will gather us to himself, just as a farmer harvests his field when the corn is fully ripe. In this way Enoch who walked with God, when he reached the goal of spiritual maturity, did not see death but was transformed and transported to heaven (Gen. 5:24).
Spiritual Growth in the Church
4:30 He also asked, ‘To what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use to present it?
Jesus may have looked around to find another illustration to explain this next truth concerning the kingdom. Perhaps he caught sight of a mustard bush, and realised that the mustard seed would be ideal for his purpose.
4:31-32 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 — 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.’
To start with the kingdom of God in comparison with other religions or philosophies was very small, like the mustard seed. Jesus had a very small band of followers compared with those who followed Judaism or the pagan gods. But when the small seed of the kingdom of God was sown it grew to become the largest of them all (Acts 5:14). Not only the largest but also it has spread its branches from Jerusalem and Judea to the uttermost parts of the world (Acts 1:8; Matt. 24:14; Rev. 14:6). The church of the Lord Jesus Christ has become a sanctuary and refuge to millions of people throughout the centuries and will continue to be until Jesus comes. Just like the mustard bush became a dwelling for birds.
4:33-34 So with many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear. He did not speak to them without a parable. But privately he explained everything to his own disciples.
Mark records only three of the many parables that Jesus told and that it was only by using parables that he taught the people; but later he explained everything to his disciples. Today the Lord does not need to speak to us by parables or to explain them for he has sent the Holy Spirit to teach us all things plainly in accordance with the truth (John 16:13).
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This study is taken from our Bible study guide Faithbuilders - The Gospel of Mark