Mark 4:1-20. When you don’t hit paydirt.

  Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty fold and sixty fold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘They may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.'”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: When they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty fold and sixty fold and a hundredfold.”

In this chapter, we have the first long stretch of Jesus’ own teaching in Mark’s Gospel. Until now, Mark has given us snapshots of Jesus’ ministry, building a developing picture. Mark has begun with Jesus’ purpose- as explained by John the Baptist, and by Jesus himself. Jesus has come as the God of Israel himself, with John as his servant, preparing the way. Jesus has gone through a symbolic death in his baptism- going under the waters and coming up again- to express his willingness to suffer on behalf of those who long for forgiveness of sins.

But while this may be understood by Mark and others who look at it from a post-resurrection perspective, it was certainly not understood well, if at all, by those who witnessed it at the time. So Mark has moved onto the way Jesus’ ministry developed in the public eye. Jesus has toured around Galilee, teaching, healing, and casting out demons. His fame as a Messianic figure has been growing- and with growing fame, opposition also has grown. We’ve seen hatred to Jesus’ kingdom awaken, and concentrate itself throughout Ch. 2, with a climax in 3:6, when the Pharisees and Herodians plot to kill Jesus, and another climax in 3:22 when the teachers from Jerusalem accuse him of being possessed by Satan.

Mark has so far concentrated on Jesus’ actions and disputes, and has only given us a very brief summary of Jesus’ public teaching- “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark’s Gospel contains the least of all the Gospels of Jesus’ teaching, but this isn’t because Mark considers it unimportant. He often tells us that Jesus taught the crowds. And now we have a lengthy example of Jesus preaching; both to the Jewish public, and to his own disciples.

Mark tells us that Jesus taught in parables- extended metaphors. Jesus tells 4 such parables in this chapter; the Sower and Soils, the Lamp on the Stand, the Growing Seed, and the Mustard Seed. We will look at the first of these, and the conversation Jesus has with his own disciples about it afterwards.

The parable of the soils:

1) What is the purpose of the parables? To reveal truth, or to conceal it?

2) What would Jesus’ parable of the sower have meant to the crowd?

3) What would it have meant to the disciples?

4) What does Jesus actually mean by it? Why does Jesus say that those who don’t understand this parable won’t understand any of the parables?

5) When those around him with the twelve ask Jesus “about the parables”, are they asking Jesus to explain the parables, or are they asking something else? Why does Jesus quote Isaiah to them?

6) What implications does all this have for our evangelism today?


1) Almost any longish non-literal statement could be called a parable. But why would Jesus want to teach that way? Why not proclaim things literally?

In the Old Testament, the Jews will have read prophetic sayings that could be described as parables- see for example Ezekiel 17, or the better known passage in 2 Samuel 12 from Nathan the prophet. Nathan came in to King David and tells him a story about a poor man and a rich man. The poor man had one ewe lamb, which was like a daughter to him. The rich man had many sheep, but he stole the poor man’s one lamb, and killed it when he needed to lay on a meal for a guest. David thought that Nathan was bringing before him a definite real-life injustice, and he became angry with the rich man, and pronounced his kingly judgement that the rich man should restore four-fold what he had so pitilessly stolen.

Then Nathan said “Well, you are that man”, and explained the parable to him. Nathan had been describing a real-life injustice, but not in the way David had thought. Nathan was talking about David’s theft of Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. David then saw his own wickedness. Nathan’s “parable” had revealed the truth to him. David had been drawn in by the story, had taken sides and made judgements, and then when Nathan finally showed him that the story was all about David himself, David stood condemned by his own mouth.

Often, we are told that Jesus’ parables were meant to function in this way- that parables were used because they were particularly effective ways of teaching. We are told to think of the parables as nice accessible stories with a pointed meaning, a sting in the tail. Jesus is telling stories about farming and seeds and household lamps because that is a world his hearers are familiar with, and he thinks that they will connect with it, and understand better. The attitude is, “Well, there’s no point in filling their heads with dry academic doctrine. These are simple homely folk, concerned with fishing and farming. There’s no point giving them systematic propositional truth- they’d forget it as soon as they heard it. No, what they need is narrative. They need stories about the kingdom of God, and then they’ll understand.”

And there is something very plausible about that take on the point of using parables. It rings true in our own experience. We are familiar with Aesop’s fables, are we not? The story of the sun and the wind, making a bet about who could remove a man’s coat sooner? The wind tries to blow it from the man’s neck, and only makes him wrap it around himself all the more tightly, but the sun gets the man to remove it himself by warming him. The fable tells us about the value of persuasion over coercion, but it does so in a memorable and engaging way. The fable is better and more convincing than just saying, “Persuasion is more effective than coercion”.

The parables make a direct appeal to the imagination, and involve hearers in the situation. It entices the hearers judge the situation depicted, and then challenges them to apply that judgement to themselves, just as Nathan did with David- so not only is it sensible, it has Biblical precedent.

And if you want to theologise about it, you could argue that basic to the parables is recognition that the natural and the redemptive strata of God’s creation are intrinsically alike. Through parables, Jesus uses the natural and familiar to draw attention to things previously hidden about the redemptive. Both originate in God’s purposes. The created natural order is an appropriate vehicle for revealing the redemptive purposes of God, because both originate from God himself and they show his character.

1,2, & 3) But if you really want to blow gaping holes in that view of Jesus’ parables in this chapter, just ask yourself what Jesus’ hearers made of his parable. You will see that all the above is, at best, only a half-truth.

In fact, if all you say about the parables is that Jesus used them to help people understand him, then you’ve missed the real point completely. Some of Jesus’ parables in other places are meant to reveal truth. But the ones in this chapter are not. For this chapter, it would be better to say that Jesus used parables so that people wouldn’t understand him. And that is exactly what Mark says. Mark says that Jesus used parables so that people would hear a story, and nothing more.

Just put yourselves in the place of Jesus’ hearers for a moment. There are these guys- normal working Jewish men- who gather round Jesus to hear him teach. Without explanation, he tells them about a farmer who sows seed everywhere. Some of the seed springs up, and some of it doesn’t. What are they supposed to make of that? Jesus is supposed to be a rabbi, and more than that, people are talking about him as the Messiah. Shouldn’t he be laying out his political manifesto for his kingdom? Or explaining his military plan of action? Or at least calling Israel to holiness and faithfulness to God’s covenant? 

Let me tell you a parable about the parables. Imagine that you were walking through your town centre, and you saw a crowd gathered around a man on a soapbox, and there was a sign next to him saying, “Gospel preaching”, and he was preaching to the crowd. And you thought “Oh good, I wonder what he’s saying” and you went closer, to listen. And when you came to the edge of the crowd, you heard him telling a story. He said,

“Once upon a time, there was a lottery winner, and he won a jackpot of £10,000,000. He was a wise lottery winner, oxymoron though that may be, and he decided to invest his money. So he hired a financial manager, a man familiar with the ways of the stock exchange. The rich man said to his financial manager, “I want you to invest this ten million pounds in 100,000 different companies. Divide the money into packets of £1000, and buy shares in 100,000 companies. I want you to spread the investments far and wide. Buy UK shares, and shares in Japanese and American markets. Buy shares in the steel industry, and in oil, and farming, and shipping, and financial companies. Spread the money all over the world. Sink it into all sorts of ventures, so that whatever happens to the markets, I will get some return. And so the manager did according to the word of his millionaire boss.

Now some of the companies in which he invested were run by crooks, and they embezzled the money and let the companies go bankrupt. Other companies had lazy workers and incompetent bosses, and though they generated excitement among the investors initially, it was soon obvious that they were going nowhere and they started making a loss. Some of the companies were new start-ups, trying to carve a niche in an already overcrowded market, and they were choked out by the established competition and couldn’t turn a profit. But some of the companies did just great, and they were very profitable, and the rich man received huge annual dividends, £30,000, £60,000, even £100,000. Thank you for listening and goodnight. I hope you hear and understand.”

And then the speaker picked up his soapbox and walked off. What would you think? Good sermon? Would anybody gain useful spiritual lessons?

To explain the parable about the parables, of course the crowd wouldn’t get the story about the investor. As an evangelistic sermon, it stinks. To the crowd, this is just a story about a millionaire and his share portfolio. Maybe a Marxist would draw applications about the evils of the capitalist system that gives moneymaking opportunity only to those who have money to invest already. Maybe a free-marketeer would draw applications about the benefits of a system where the lazy and the corrupt go to the wall, and the hard working and clever attract more investment. Maybe a hermit would draw lessons about the unpredictability of the stock exchange and the advisability of keeping apart from it all. Maybe a hedonist would draw arguments in favour of living for today because tomorrow your money may all be gone. But the meaning of the speaker himself is completely opaque… unless you already knew what he was on about. Nobody understands it. Any meaning given to it has to be imported into it. The man is a rotten witness to the Gospel.

We might understand his meaning- but that would be because we are already professing believers, and already know about Jesus’ parables, and already have understanding of what the man is talking about. Someone who hadn’t got that understanding would not gain it from the parable.

But Jesus here does exactly that. He tells a story, gives no explanation, and that’s all folks. Forget that there is an explanation later in the chapter, because the crowd don’t hear that- it is given privately to the disciples. In front of the crowd, Jesus simply tells the parable, then says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”, and then moves on. Even Jesus’ own disciples don’t understand him- they have to ask him to explain later. Maybe they’ve tried to interpret it, but come to no firm conclusion. Is Jesus encouraging them as they see few who are ready to join them? Or is he warning the crowd to listen carefully and be good soil? Or is he just reflecting on the mixed success of his work and saying that as in agriculture, this is only to be expected? Or what? If the disciples don’t understand, then the crowd certainly don’t understand.

Jesus is not doing what Nathan did. Nathan explained his parable to David, saying “You are the man”. Jesus pointedly refuses to explain his parables, saying “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear”. These parables are clearly not stories told to aid understanding. Rather, they divide the hearers into those who have understanding already, and those who don’t- those who do have ears to hear, and those who don’t.

4) And this first parable is about exactly that. It is about those who have ears to hear, and those who don’t. Later, the disciples came to Jesus, and asked him about the parables, and he explained it to them. The different types of soil are different groups of people. They all hear the same message, in the same words, on the same day, from the same speaker- just as the same seed is scattered over all the soils and the same money is invested in all the companies. But the seed takes root in some soils and not in others- and this is not the fault of the seed. It is good seed. If it doesn’t produce fruit, then the soil is at fault.

Some people just will not hear. Satan stops up their ears, or convinces them that what they are hearing is nonsense. Try to preach to Richard Dawkins, and that is the response you will get, unless God restrains Satan’s activity.

Others hear with joy, and ask some good questions, and say, “I’d like to talk again. See you next week” But then they feel embarrassed- or their friends tease them about being a God-botherer- and the next time they see you, they don’t want to know you.

Others still listen and think “Hmm… That makes a lot of sense” but then they’ve got such a lot of work on at the moment, and their cousin is getting married next week, and Corrie is on tonight, and they always watch Corrie, and so they put off thinking about God until another day, which often means never.

But some hear, and think, and believe, and obey.

Jesus’ point is that the seed is now being sown. The kingdom of God has come. And if it isn’t springing up and flourishing in Israel, then that isn’t because it hasn’t really come- it is because the soil is not fertile. Those who have ears to hear can indeed take encouragement in an apparently fruitless work. They can be warned to listen carefully and guard against the world, the flesh, and the devil. But those who don’t have ears to hear, won’t hear. They are bad soil.

Jesus sees this parable as key to understanding all the other parables- “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” I don’t think that Jesus is saying “But guys, this parable is the easiest one! If you can’t wrap your heads around this, then you’ve no chance with anything harder.” Rather, he is saying “This parable contains the reason why I tell parables. This parable is about those who hear and those who do not, and the way they respond differently to the message. I tell parables precisely so that some people won’t understand me. And if you don’t understand that, then you won’t understand why I tell any of the parables.”

5) When the disciples ask Jesus “about the parables”, Jesus doesn’t immediately explain their meaning. Instead, he says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘They may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

By asking Jesus “about the parables”, maybe the disciples are not only asking, “What did that mean?” Maybe they’re also asking, “What on earth are you doing?” “There’s this crowd, eager to hear you, and you’re using the opportunity to tell them things they already know about agriculture!” The disciples, like us, weren’t always wise enough to realise that Jesus knew better than they did. We can see Peter who, when Jesus tells him that he is going to die, takes him aside and begins to rebuke him! We can be just as bone-headed about doing things the way we want to do them without asking whether we are guided by Scriptural principles.

In reply to the question about the parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6. He says that the secret of the kingdom of God is given to the disciples, but that to those outside, everything is given in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear, but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

That sounds very alien to our ears, does it not? It sounds ungracious. It sounds uncompassionate and unforgiving. Isn’t Jesus loving and forgiving? Doesn’t he want his hearers to find forgiveness? For some people, this just plain doesn’t fit their ideas about what Jesus is like. But there we go again, thinking that we know Jesus’ character better than he does, and that we know what he should have said better than he did. We blaspheme in our hearts, and we need to repent.

Jesus meant exactly what he said. He quotes Isaiah because Isaiah also exercised a ministry in which God purposefully hardened his hearers though the prophet’s words. Look at the quote in context- the context in which Jesus himself knew it.

Jesus is not actually quoting Isaiah’s words. He is quoting God’s words, recorded by Isaiah. Isaiah has just seen the vision of God in the temple, high and lifted up, with the holy seraphim who cannot bear to look upon him. And Isaiah has broken down and wailed in misery at his own sinfulness, saying, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips”. And then one of the seraphim has flown to the altar there in the temple, where all the sacrifices were burnt, and he has taken an ember from the altar- maybe a charred piece of animal flesh, maybe a blood-soaked coal- and he has touched Isaiah on the lips with it. By the burnt-up sacrifice, Isaiah’s lips are purified as though by fire. The seraph says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for”. Isaiah then hears God’s voice, saying “who shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah replies “Here am I! Send me”. And God commissions Isaiah to go and be his spokesman to Israel.

But- and this is where we see a strong similarity with Jesus’ parables- Isaiah’s preaching will not turn the people to repentance and renewed faithfulness. Rather, God warns Isaiah that his ministry will be a miserable one. Isaiah will preach and preach and preach- and will see no result. In fact, he will see a negative result. “Make the heart of this people dull and their ears heavy and blind their eyes”, God says to him, “Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed.” Isaiah is to preach his heart out, and he will see Israel become harder and harder as a result.

Isaiah asks God “How long will this go on for?” And God says, Until cities lie waste   without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” God’s patience with Israel was at an end. He sent Isaiah to them not in order to turn them, but so that they might be left without excuse when he punished them. Isaiah is a faithful preacher, but his message is rejected, and wrath falls on Israel as a result. And all this was God’s plan from before Isaiah began to preach.

But there will be some who will be restored. God says to Isaiah (still in Isaiah 6) that Israel will be like a mighty tree felled so that only the stump remains. And the holy seed is the stump. Later, Isaiah will speak of a shoot coming from the stump of Jesse (Isa 11:1). The Davidic dynasty, cut short when the final king of Judah’s sons and heirs are killed in front of his own eyes just before his own eyes are put out, will come to life again in the Messiah.

Jesus then sees his own ministry as performing a similar (but greater) function to Isaiah’s. He comes to bring judgement as well as mercy. The two are inseparable. If Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth, then it will be made obvious that some come into it and receive mercy, and some turn away from it and invite judgement. And the apparent lack of success is not a statement about Jesus ministry not being blessed by God- it is a statement about Jesus’ hearers not being blessed by God. The seed is good, the soil is bad. And this was all in God’s purposes, just as with Isaiah.

In Ch. 3, you have this division between those who oppose Jesus and conspire to destroy him, declaring his power to be demonic and the disciples who are his family. Against this backdrop, Jesus draws the distinction in Ch. 4 between the disciples to whom God entrusts the mystery of the kingdom, and the unbelieving multitude. The Jewish nation is being cut off. The Messiah comes, and they are like poor soil, not bearing the harvest they ought to bear. And yet there are some among them who bear an abundant harvest, a harvest unreal in its vastness- a hundred times the seed sown. As the old Israel dies, so the new Israel flourishes.

Jesus says that the secret of the kingdom is given to the disciples. God’s righteous kingdom has finally come. But only the disciples have any awareness of it. Most Jews expected it to come with trumpets, a glorious Messiah appearing and sweeping all before him, establishing a golden age for Israel, just like David- forgetting of course that David himself lived in obscurity for many years, and was on the run from Saul even as the anointed king. The disciples do recognise Jesus as God’s king, and they obey him and work for his kingdom. But those on the outside do not. Just as Isaiah preached to a people who refused to listen, so Jesus’ hearers cannot understand. This is a process that will end in the final chapter of Acts. Acts 28- and almost the last words of the book are this same quotation from Isaiah. Paul is speaking to the Jews at the heart of the Gentile world, in Rome itself, and most of them seem to reject his message. They then turn their backs and walk out on Paul because he says to them that the Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet Go to this people, and say, You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Paul then says that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and that they will listen. Luke’s history of the apostolic church then ends with a short statement about the success of the Gospel in the centre of the Gentile world.

6) For our own evangelism, this is helpful. Earlier, we thought of the man who stood up in a town square, and told a parable, and then packed up and went home- and I think our instincts are right about him- he was a rotten witness to the Gospel of the Son of God. Jesus has a reason to hide his glory for a while (and only for a while, as we shall see in the next few parables). He preaches so that people will not understand. But we live post-resurrection. We live in a day when the gospel is to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, when things are to be spoken clearly. We can read the book of Acts, and we see that nowhere do the apostles use parables in their preaching. Peter and John and the others speak clearly about the Son of God who took flesh, suffered, died, was raised, and reigns now in heaven. Their meaning is not deliberately hidden.

But we can still see that the purpose of evangelism is not to count numbers of converts. Rather it is to glorify God. Isaiah was told that his preaching would glorify God by hardening the hearts of Israel and magnifying God’s justice when he raised up foreign invaders to slaughter them and then sent them off into exile. And Isaiah lived with that, because he believed that God is all-important. Just read Isa 6, and you see the all-consuming vision of God that Isaiah had. Isaiah knew that God was the important one, not men. If we have that view of God, it will help us in our evangelism.

Jesus too was taken up with his Father’s glory. He wept at the hardness of Jerusalem, but he did not consider it his duty to focus on man’s need above God’s glory. He could teach in parables, deliberately hiding the truth from men, to fulfil God’s purposes.

This will encourage us when we seem to fail. Most evangelical churches in Britain in our day preach and talk, and deliver leaflets, and hold special meetings, and invite people along, and see nothing. And this can be so disheartening. We pray for God to convert many, and we seem to see only small answers to our prayers. But we need to remember that even if we see no conversions, evangelism has not failed. God will be glorified when his character is proclaimed. If we tell people that God is a just and a merciful God, then even if they harden their hearts against him, God will be glorified, terrible though it may seem.

It will refocus our evangelism away from a man-centred view and towards a God-centred view. A big temptation in our age is to be consumer-friendly. The corporate world invests millions in advertising campaigns, and the question is – what does the customer really want? And what he wants, he gets offered; to entice him to buy the product. The customer wants to be slim and good-looking and rich and successful with the opposite sex? Well then we’ll persuade him that buying this car will make him all of those things. Look, customer, see the car? See the man in it? He looks like a film star, and he’s got a holiday home in Bermuda, and his girlfriend is drop-dead gorgeous. Implication: Buy the car that this guy drives and you’ll be like him. Of course the reality is very different. Buy the car, and you’ll be £40,000 poorer, and you’ll develop a beer gut because you drive everywhere instead of walking. But that is the generation we’ve grown up in, and it can influence our thinking. We need to guard against it, and we need to be especially careful that it doesn’t influence our thinking in the church.

Be “seeker sensitive” is the thing. And that’s all well and good if it means, “Be nice to people”- manifest grace to them, smile occasionally, shake their hand, make them welcome. But it is wrong where the seeker becomes the focus instead of God. We must do everything we do with an eye to God. In fact, with both eyes to God. When being seeker sensitive means that we make decisions about what music and words to sing based on what people will feel comfortable singing, or on what we ourselves enjoy, rather than what is most appropriate to praise and honour God, then man has become an idol, usurping God’s throne.

When we decide that unbelievers won’t want to come to a meeting to hear the Bible explained, so we’ll forget that, and hold a 5-a-side football contest instead, because people will come to that; then we’ve forgotten that the Gospel is all about God. If people won’t come to hear about God, then they bring judgement upon themselves. Playing football with them is frivolous as a method of evangelism. We are heralds of the great king, and we bring an offer of peace to those who are at war with him. We are to offer to all- to sow the seed broadcast. But if people don’t want to know, then in the end, that’s their loss, not God’s. Not that we should be uncaring, but that in the end, we are God’s servants, not the world’s.

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