Structure wise, chapter 4 contains another one of Mark’s “sandwich” narratives. In verses 1 through 9, he tells the parable. Then in verses 13-20, he explains the parable. Inserted in between, in verses 10 through 12, is a teaching on the kingdom of God.
Jesus Teaching With Parables
The crowds continued to follow and press in on Jesus. He used this as an opportunity to teach. So he got into a boat and had the crowd sit on land and listen to him. There is a place called the Bay of Parables or the Sower’s Cove that is a natural amphitheater. It has been proven that a voice will carry from a boat to the land.
Jesus taught them many things in parables. This was Jesus’ preferred form of public teaching. There are about 60 parables in the gospels. A parable takes a common subject to illustrate a truth.
The most common subject of Jesus’ parables is the kingdom of God. He used things from ordinary life to illustrate truths of the kingdom. That does not mean they were easy to understand. In fact, they were not generally understood by any who did not have faith in Jesus.
Parable of the Sower
This parable is often called the Parable of the Sower. Some call it the parable of the soils, but that can lead us to miss the point of the parable. Parables normally have one main point.
Here the sower is a farmer sowing seeds. This was done by hand. There was no plowing. The farmer just scattered seeds on the ground.
Here some of the seeds were eaten by birds. Others sprouted but were burned by the sun and died. The third group sprouted but were choked by thorns. So, three fourths of the farmer’s labor was lost.
Yet, there was a great harvest. The seeds that produced grain produced a harvest from 30 to 100 times the number of seeds planted. (9)
The Purpose of Jesus’ Parables
The verses are the insert, the filling of the sandwich. Here Jesus explains the his purpose in teaching through parables.
Verse 9 is a good lead in to this explanation, as Jesus says “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”. He implies that some can hear and some cannot.
Those who get this explanation are his closest followers, the Twelve and some others. (10) He said they were given the secret of the kingdom God. A secret, or mystery, means a knowledge of God that humans cannot attain by natural means. It is “given” to them, not attained by their own devices.
This is similar to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not understand the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”.
These followers are those on the inside. The others are on the outside. This is another example of Mark’s inside vs. outside contrasts.
Those on the outside receive parables. Jesus applied Isaiah 6:9 to the situation. Isaiah 6 contains the commissioning of Isaiah as a prophet. In verse 9, God told Isaiah that his message would not be accepted by Israel and would, in fact, harden hearts. The Israelites would hear, but not understand. They had rebelled against God and could not and would not understand his word.
God’s words were a judgment upon the people of Israel who had turned away from God and did not believe him. So, Jesus’s words indicate a judgment on those of that generation who did not believe in him.
The secret Jesus’ followers were given is that the kingdom of God comes in the person and preaching of Jesus. Remember, the first words of Jesus that Mark records are: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”. (Mark 1:15)
God chose to reveal this secret of the kingdom in veiled way, understood only by those of faith who recognize Jesus as the Son of God.
The sower is Jesus. The seed is the word of the gospel. The soils are those who hear in various ways.
Some have the word taken away by Satan immediately upon hearing. (15) Some hear and receive it with joy, but fall away when troubles come because they really have no root. (17) Some hear, but cannot leave the desire for money and things to put Jesus first. This was the case of the rich young man of Mark 10.
The good soil represents those those who hear the word and believe and come into the kingdom. They accept it. (20) They bear much fruit. They become a great harvest.
The point of the story is that the kingdom comes in slowly, one believer at a time, but grows exponentially over time as the word is preached. Many refuse the gospel, but those who believe will become a great multitude. As Paul said:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”
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