Mark 4


‘Again, Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said’. Mark 4:1-2

Jesus’ ministry was breaking barriers on all fronts and came in two stages

1. Preaching.

2. Teaching.

The teaching was usually done in the synagogue not outdoors by the seashore and so here we see teaching happening in a different place and in a different way, with the use of parables. This was something that was never done in the synagogues.

He taught and spoke in parables in a way that people could understand. This is a lesson all preachers and teachers need to learn, keep them simple. Jesus uses illustrations and leaves those listening to discover truth, if people were interested they would come back to ask for more details.

Notice that Jesus got into a boat, there would have been a small rowing boat that would take the disciples further out to the main fishing boat which was larger. We see this happening later when is asleep on the boat, Mark 4:35-41.

‘Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’ When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” Mark 4:3-20

Although this is called ‘the parable of the sower’, the key to understanding this parable is understanding that the seed is the Word of God and so maybe it should be called ‘the parable of the soil’.

Jesus frequently taught in parables. A parable is a story with a spiritual application. Here, Jesus described a farmer who went out to sow seed in his field.

Naturally, as he went along scattering it with his hand, the seed fell onto different types of ground. The harvest depended on the kind of soil where the seed fell. The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant, so they asked Him to explain.

Jesus described four types of people who hear the word of the Gospel

The first type is like hard-packed soil. These hard-hearted people do not let the word penetrate their life; they reject it immediately because they have closed their minds.

The second type is like seed sown in rocky places. The idea here is of a thin layer of topsoil covering a large rock. When the seed is sown in such a place, it will germinate and grow in the shallow soil, but it will not develop deep roots.

When the sun comes out and it doesn’t rain for a few days, the plant will wither and die. This represents a person who eagerly receives the word, but doesn’t develop roots through faith and Bible study. This person will not have the ability to withstand the temptations and persecutions that come along in life.

Third, Jesus described the thorny soil. In this ground, the plant is overshadowed by taller weeds which suffocate fruit production. This soil symbolizes people who receive the word and although they allow it to continue in their lives, permit competing interests to dwarf it.

These other influences may not be bad things in themselves, but they dominate the person’s life so much that the seed can’t bear fruit.

Finally, Jesus described good soil in which plants bear abundant fruit. This soil represents Christians who are diligent in the service of God.

Which soil are you?

Everyone has a place in the parable of the sower. Jesus wants us to evaluate which type of soil we are.

1. Hopefully, we won’t be the hardened, wayside soil. If we are, we will close our minds to the truth and refuse to allow the Gospel to penetrate our hearts and change our life.

2. Perhaps we’ll be the rocky soil. On the surface, we appear to be growing and serving the Lord enthusiastically. But we aren’t deepening our roots through faith, study and a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When times become tough, we will fall away, and others will marvel because on the surface it looked like we were doing so well.

3. If we end up being the thorny soil, we will continue to ‘be a Christian,’ but our life will be dominated by other activities and we will never have much time or attention to share with spiritual concerns. This is probably the most subtle danger because the plant in thorny soil never completely falls away. As a result, we can soothe our conscience and believe that we are still doing OK, when in fact, we aren’t bearing fruit.

4. Ideally, we will be the good soil that bears the fruit of righteousness for the Lord.

Thoughts about the seed

Jesus explained that the seed represents the word of God, Luke 8:11. There are many lessons that can be learned by the analogy between seed and the word. For example, a seed always produces after its kind. That is, rice seed always produces rice plants; corn seed produces corn plants and pumpkin seed pumpkin plants.

There are no exceptions. By the plant that results, one can determine what seed was planted. So it is in the spiritual realm. When the pure word of God is planted, the resulting plants are Christians.

When you end up with other things, say Buddhists, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know that something besides the word of God was planted. To produce a Buddhist, you must plant the teachings of Buddha. To a Mormon, the book of Mormon and the teachings of the Mormon church must be planted. Jehovah’s Witnesses are formed by planting the teachings of their organizational headquarters, the Watchtower Society.

What would happen if you merely planted the Scriptures, without mixing in any other teachings?

Seed never changes

It would be theoretically possible to eliminate pumpkin plants from the face of the earth. Yet if pumpkin seeds were preserved, someone many years later could plant them, and again produce pumpkins. So also in Christ. The seed is the word of God, 1 Peter 1:23-25.

Even if there had not been servants of Christ on the earth for a long time, when people returned to following the Bible only, they would become Christians. Our goal should be to reproduce pure disciples of Christ in the twentieth century, just like they were in the first.

‘He said to them, ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.’ ‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued. ‘With the measure, you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’ Mark 4:21-25

Inherent in the purpose of a lamp is that it produces light. It’s therefore placed in a position to accomplish its purpose. Lamps exist for the very purpose of bringing light to men, Matthew 5:15-16. The function of light is to reveal that which is present in the house. There is nothing hidden that will not be manifested.

In reference to the preceding parable of the sower, the preaching of the Gospel will bring to light the true nature of the hearts of everyone who hears it. It’s the light that both enlightens and brings to light, John 3:17-18 / John 5:34 / John 6:40 / John 12:48. Those who hear will be revealed to have open hearts. Those who reject the word of God will be revealed to have hardened hearts.

They must understand and respond to what they hear. They must be as the good soil, Mark 4:8, that brought forth abundantly. ‘It will be measured to you’ means those who are of a humble nature are receptive to the teachings of Jesus. They hear with the intention of producing.

As a result of their willingness to hear, they will grow. To the ones who grow, therefore, more will be given in the sense that the righteous will receive far more in eternal glory than they expect, Romans 8:18.

‘Whoever does not have’ means those who aren’t of the nature of the good soil will not produce. They will thus not receive the bounty of more. That which unrighteous hearts possess will be lost in the final reckoning of all things.

Their good works will be in vain because they aren’t in Christ, 1 Corinthians 15:58. The unrighteous will lose whatever they had. The Bible is a light, but it’s useless if it remains closed on the bookshelf. In order to receive profit, we must open it up and read it. Although studying the Scriptures is essential, many read the Bible in vain, because they don’t read it correctly.

It’s significant that in the middle of a text stressing the importance of hearing the word, Jesus emphasised the need to be careful how we hear, Mark 4:24.

The fact that people who read the Bible come to markedly different conclusions about what it means demonstrates that many are not understanding it properly. Some are careless and simply don’t put much effort into their study.

Others twist the Scriptures intentionally, misinterpreting them to try to confirm the beliefs and practices they have already determined to follow.

How to study the Bible

Some common-sense principles can help you understand the Scriptures as you study.

First, learn to study in context.

The Bible has two main divisions:

The Old Testament, the first 39 books, and the New Testament, the last 27 books.

The New Testament is the part that directly relates to us today since it contains the teachings of Christ and the apostles. The Old Testament gives the background of God’s preparation of the Jewish nation for the coming of Christ.

These Testaments are subdivided into books, 66 in all. It is probably best to study book by book. This Bible study was designed to take a person through the gospel of Mark step-by-step.

You need to concentrate on what you read in the Bible to be able to understand it. Since each book is divided into chapters, it is helpful to approach your Bible study by working with a chapter at a time. Read through the chapter two or three times.

On the first reading, work to simply discover what the chapter contains, but on the second reading, you can begin to try to analyse the main points. Keep a notebook handy. Jot down a note or two about the main ideas or events of the chapter. A notebook is a good place to write down questions that arise as you study. Writing them down so that you won’t forget them allows you to progress in your study without getting sidetracked.

Later, you can search for the answers to these questions yourself, or you can ask someone else to help you.

‘He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’ Mark 4:26-29

Jesus said that the kingdom of God was like a farmer who planted a seed. That night he went to bed. The next morning, he got up and tended to other responsibilities. Meanwhile, the seed germinated, began to grow and finally bore fruit.

Jesus was teaching several things in this story

1. The one who plants the seed is not responsible for its growth; that is, the one who teaches the Gospel doesn’t control the growth of the word in the heart of the one who heard.

2. The growth of the word in a person’s life is gradual. One doesn’t hear the Bible today and become a mature Christian tomorrow. But if the hearer’s heart is right he will allow the word to shape and mould his life step by step so that he can become the kind of person God wants him to be.

3. In this parable, Jesus explained that He was harvesting the fruit of the field of Israel that had been planted centuries before through the establishment of the nation of Israel. Through the medium of His messengers, God had planted the seed of His eternal plan with Abraham, through whom all nations would be blessed by the Blessing that would come from his seed, Genesis 12:1-3.

By preserving Abraham’s seed in the nation of Israel, God brought forth the plan of redemption through the Seed, Jesus Christ, Galatians 3:16. As a nation, Israel grew and brought forth fruit.

Regardless of the sleeping and rising of the messengers of the kingdom, the fruits of the word of God continued to produce sons of Abraham by faith. Jesus’ point is that men have no control over the germination and growth that is produced by the seed of the kingdom, 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 / 1 Corinthians 3:12-15.

The growth and production of fruit are inherent within the nature of the seed of the kingdom. Therefore, the kingdom reign of God continued to permeate the hearts of those who were children of Abraham by faith, and thus, the seed produced growth and fruit.

Jesus had now come for the harvest, Matthew 21:33-44 / Revelation 14:15. It was now time for the fruit to be given to Jesus in order that the kingdom reign of God continues under His control as King of kings and Lord of lords, 1 Timothy 6:15. The harvest, therefore, was the consummation of the nation of Israel. All that God had done throughout history with the nation had come to a finality in Jesus.

Jesus’ mission, therefore, was to harvest the sons of Abraham by faith, and then terminate national Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He thus came in judgment on Jerusalem forty years after His ascension in order to finalise the consummation of Israel.

‘Again, he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.’ With many similar parables, Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.’ Mark 4:30-34

Jesus said that the kingdom is like a mustard seed. The mustard seed is tiny, but grows to be a great shrub. So also, God’s kingdom began in a small way during the ministry of an impoverished carpenter, Jesus, but gradually became a dominant world force.

Christians’ efforts to work for the Lord’s kingdom may seem insignificant, but God can grow large mustard trees from tiny seeds. Since the kingdom was never to be of this world, Jesus had to take our minds beyond the things of this world through parables.

‘Like a grain of mustard seed’, in the realm of spiritual growth, the kingdom reign of God permeates the hearts of men, Luke 17:20-21. When the will of the Father is done on earth as it is done in heaven, Matthew 6:9-10, spiritual growth occurs within the hearts of men.

The message that initiates the growth may appear small, but the results are tremendous. Through us, God ‘is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us’, Ephesians 3:20. See Romans 16:25 / 1 Corinthians 2:9.

When men allow the seed of the kingdom, the word of God, to direct their lives, the church of His people happens. The kingdom reign of the Son that was to be announced on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, would give rise to the beginning of the church. It would be on that day that hearts on earth would first respond to Jesus as the King of kings.

The ekklesia, church, of Christ, would thus be the manifestation of the kingdom reign of Jesus in heaven, Matthew 16:18-19. Those who have searching hearts will hear the message of the parables. Because of their desire for and love of truth, they will not reject the message that is being communicated through the parables, Acts 17:11 / 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12.

The truth that is given through the means of metaphorical language is understood only by those who have open minds and hearts. Those who have closed minds and hearts with hidden agendas will twist the message of God that has been given in metaphorical language, 2 Peter 3:15-16.

Understanding the kingdom of God as it is explained in the parables, therefore, becomes a test to determine if one has an open mind. If one comes to the parables with an established theology, he will not be able to objectively discover the message of the parables. It was for this reason that the scribes and Pharisees failed to understand the kingdom of God that was revealed through the parables.

‘That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ Mark 4:35-41

One of the reasons Jesus chose fishermen was because of their easy access to boats, they may even used a specific boat for Jesus’ ministry. Now, remember that most of the disciples were hardened fishermen and they would be used to being in storms. Jesus consistently demonstrated His authority by doing things that were totally beyond human capacity.

In this case, while the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, Jesus fell asleep on a cushion. A great storm arose, and the disciples panicked, these hardened fishermen were scared, this must have been some storm!

In desperation, they awoke Jesus saying, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He got up and calmly rebuked the wind and the sea, the word, ‘quiet’ means to muzzle. The storm ceased. Matthew also recorded that Jesus made this statement before the work of the miracle. This is the point that Jesus wanted the disciples to understand. At this time, all things were under the care and control of Jesus because He was head over all things, John 13:3 / John 17:2.

Jesus then turned to the disciples and reproved them for their lack of faith. Though they had seen Jesus perform many miracles, they were always amazed by each new one. They said, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?’

Once we recognise that Jesus is God and the Creator of all that exists, Colossians 1:16, then we will realise that nothing is outside the power of Jesus to control. For this reason, it is faith in Jesus that brings peace of mind, Philippians 4:7.

How well do we sleep?

Considering the things that the disciples had already seen Jesus do, their doubts about His ability to quiet the storm are astonishing. They had seen Him heal multitudes of people, cast out demons and prove Himself equal to any task at hand. Suddenly, they despaired because of a storm on the sea. Obviously, they didn’t really think Jesus could solve this problem because they were amazed when He did.

How could they have been so slow and so distrustful? What about us? Do we not believe that Jesus can handle any situation if we trust and obey His will? Have we not seen in the Scriptures how Jesus can solve every problem?

How do we react when we confront a fresh crisis in our lives–do we trustingly and confidently turn to Jesus, or do we throw up our hands in despair? How well do we sleep?

In the presence of Jesus, there should be a great emotional calm in our lives, Psalm 65:7 / Psalm 89:9 / Luke 4:39.

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