“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” writes the apostle Paul (Rom 10:17). Since we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, it is everlastingly essential that we pay attention to God’s word, to the message of Christ. Failure to hear and heed God’s word has damning implications. In fact, if we do not heed God’s word, we have not truly heard God’s word. On the other hand—a much better hand!—if we faithfully hear and heed God’s word, then the implications are everlastingly blessed. Jesus made this very clear in the parables of Mark 4.
In this study, we will look at both the first and second parables because they share the similar theme: the stewardship of hearing.
The theme of how one hears the teaching of Jesus is dominate in these parables. Verses 3, 9, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 all employ words such as “listen” and “hear.” But we also notice the words “perceive” and “understand” (vv. 12, 13). Finally, in v. 20, a word is translated “accept” (or “receive” [KJV] or “welcome” [CSB]).
Jesus is concerned that those who follow him do so faithfully. That is, they must do the hard work to listen to him that they might live by him and for him. This is always how it has been for Jesus’ disciples.
If we will benefit from him, we need to work at paying attention to him. If we will be fruitful as a Christian, we need to take seriously our opportunity to listen to Jesus. To put this another way, we are as fruitful in the Christian life as we choose to be and as we are committed to be.
The encouraging truth is that we can be “fourth soil people.” Not only is this taught in the first parable, but it is found in the second parable also. In fact, we will begin with a study of the second parable and then return to the first parable for some important applications
Though the two parables may seem like mixed metaphors, nevertheless, they share a huge commonality: stewardship of hearing.
Stewarding the Light
Verses 21–25 form the second parable, in which we read of stewardship of the light:
And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
In this passage, technically there is one parable, but these verses also contain some proverbial statements, which help us to understand the meaning of the parable.
Jesus, the Light
We must be careful here to allow the text to say what God intends it to say. Jesus begins the parable: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (vv. 21–23).
We need to be careful that we don’t make the leap from “the lamp” as referenced here to the mention of the lamp in Matthew 5. In that context Jesus taught that disciples are to let our light so shine before men that they might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (5:16). Here the lamp refers to Jesus himself. The use of the definite article probably indicates this, as well as the word “come.”
The word erchomai is translated “brought” but it would be better translated “come.” “Come” would be a strange way to speak of a lamp. Lamps do not “come,” they are brought, and so perhaps that is why some translators translated it that way. But that is an interpretation rather than a translation. A more accurate translation would be, “Is the Light come to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?”
Jesus was saying that he did not come into the world to remain hidden. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” was the plan when Jesus was a baby, but the older he got, and the closer he got to the cross, the more he was to be revealed. And since his resurrection and ascension, the need for his fuller revelation is even greater. As France put it, “Like the organizer of a treasure hunt, things are hidden in order to be found.”
Seek and Find
The whole context of this chapter has been that of revelation: the revelation of the kingdom of God and the revelation of the King. And the King is the Lord Jesus Christ, the one whom John calls “the Light of the world” (John 3:16–21; 8:12). The Sower is also the Lamp.
Jesus was saying that he did not come to remain forever hidden. In fact, that would be impossible to do! The secrecy of the King and his kingdom was for a time (chapters 1–3), but that was coming to an end in a couple of ways.
First, it was historically about to come to an end. That is, the time had come for Jesus to go public.
For thousands of years, the Messianic secret, though prophesied, was veiled. There were plenty of promises, as far back as Genesis 3:15. The tabernacle, the temple, the sacrifices, and the manifold ceremonies all pointed to Messiah and to the eventual establishment of his kingdom. But because they were “veiled” (see 2 Corinthians 3), when Jesus the Messiah, the Light, had come into the darkened world, many did not notice. They were confused about what to look for.
That which was hidden had now come, and this was always the intention—“for nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.” Wessel helpfully comments,
As the purpose of the lamp is to be put on a lampstand and not under a bowl or a bed, so the present hiddenness of Jesus will not always be—hidden things are meant to be brought out into the open—and God intends that one day Jesus will be manifested in all his glory…. But who Jesus really is, is now hidden. It is therefore of the utmost importance for us to be careful hearers, i.e., to have spiritual perception.
Second, the “secret” will eschatologically be revealed. I think that is implied in the passage. Each person will give an account of how well they have paid attention to what they have heard (Romans 2:16). Our responsiveness will be measured. We will look at this shortly.
This brings us to the third observation, and to the next verse. Third, the “secret” was revealed to those who would steward what they heard (v. 23). It was revealed to those who were committed to the hard work of hearing. It was revealed to those who sought to see.
Again, the hearers were exhorted, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” That is, “Think about what I have just said. The Light has been revealed. But for you to see it, you must hear. Listen! Behold!” Those who properly hear his word see the Light. They have properly responded to the imperative to listen and to behold (v. 3). They have ears to hear (v. 9) and therefore they can see and they perceive and understand (v. 12). And therefore they can turn and be forgiven—their greatest need!
We need spiritual illumination. We need to carefully consider what God is saying, and pray for divine power to hear.
At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, “note the tension between the optimism of the secret relieved in vv. 21–22 and the realism that not all will positively respond in vv. 24–25. The difference is the result of the principle of v. 23” (France).
Jesus, the Judge
Having delivered the parable, Jesus now gives a word of explanatory exhortation: “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mark 4:24–25).
As we consider the theme of these parables—stewardship of hearing—we need to consider that all stewards ultimately give an account to their Master. Christian, so will we. In fact, so do we. And these verses make that case. In other words, there may be more in these parables than meets the eye, or the ear.
As France puts it, “There will be different degrees of response to what is heard, depending on what the hearer brings to the encounter…. The principle of reciprocity: the care expended in understanding and responding to Jesus’ parables will be proportionately rewarded. What you get out of them depends on what you put in.”
The Motivating Reward
Jesus is God and therefore he is just and equitable. If we do what is required of us, then he will reward accordingly. He makes the point here. Jesus tells his hearers that if they listen well—if they take their stewardship of hearing seriously—they will be recompensed fairly, and even richly. “With the measure that you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given.” That is generous. That is gracious. And that should motivate us to better stewardship! After all, Jesus is saying that if we want more understanding of who he is, then all that we need to do is to properly “pay attention to what [we] hear” (Blepo). “The more one listens to the word of Jesus with spiritual perception and appropriates it,” says Wessel, “the more truth about Jesus will be revealed.”
This cannot be overemphasised. Jesus continued to drive home the need for those who follow him to continue to pay attention. The hearing—the paying attention—is to be continual. It is to be presently active.
Following Jesus, the King, and seeking the kingdom of God, is a continual pursuit (Matthew 6:33). And this is a pursuit for which we will give an account.
The opportunity to hear the King must never be taken for granted. This is a privilege of grace. If we are faithful stewards of what he hear (that is, if we pay attention as proven by bearing fruit) then God will give us further opportunity to hear. This is clear from the New Testament.
According to John 7:14–17, there is a moral basis to faith. Philippians 2:12–16 highlights the same truth. Paul writes in Ephesians 3:14–19 about Christ dwelling in the believer’s heart through faith and the believer being rooted and grounded in love. He does not assume that this will automatically occur but that the Christians will embrace their responsibility. Similarly, he writes to the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (3:16). There is responsibility to obey here.
We need God for this (1 Thessalonians 3:12–13; 2 Thessalonians 3:5). We need to remember that God sees our hearts (Revelation 2:23) and ask him to search and cleanse our hearts (Psalm 139:23–24).
But as the context of these verses make clear, we steward our responsibility in context of community. So, be faithful and fruitful together: disciple one another, gather with one another. Have loving and therefore difficult conversations with one another. Accountability is vital.
The Motivating Warning
If we are unfaithful stewards of what we hear, then not only will God stop giving us more to hear, he will actually reduce our ability to hear. For in this encouraging passage, we also read a warning: “And from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” What does that mean?
The person who has no understanding—that is, the person who does not have ears to hear—will experience even further inability to hear (see v. 12). Those who refuse to listen will be given more of their rebellious wish; their hearing will continue to atrophy. Wessel gets it right: “Whoever does not lay hold of the word now, even the little spiritual perception he has will be taken from him.”
I think of the words of C. S. Lewis, who observed that there are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Your will be done.” Lewis asserted that all who are in hell choose it.
The principle is clear: Use it or lose it. As William Lane observes, “Because God enters the world through the word of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, the matter of one’s response to Jesus is of ultimate seriousness.” Realize the awful danger of not responding to the gospel. Further opportunities may not arise!
The Judge is the Saviour
The parables drive home the seriousness of that which is being taught. As here. The thought of God as your Judge is frightening, if you have ears to hear. But the gospel of the kingdom of God is just that—gospel—good news. The good news is that the Judge is also the Saviour.
The gospel of the kingdom is predicated on the fundamental truth that God came to save sinners. It is for this reason that Jesus is not willing to remain hidden. He wants outsiders to become insiders. Christianity is not an exclusive cult; it is rather a family of those forgiven by God. Each member at one time was an outsider who, by God’s grace, has been brought inside to the inner circle.
God has done this by sending his Son to this world, to live in this world in perfect accordance with his law. Jesus did just that. But then he died on the cross in the place of sinners like you and me. He died like a sinner in that he took God’s wrath for every sinner who will repent of their sins and trust Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.
Jesus proved this good news by rising from the dead three days later. Forty days later he ascended to heaven, where he sits on the right hand of God making salvific intercession for everyone who will believe this good news; for everyone who will trust him and him alone as their guilt-bearing Saviour.
This all depends on what we saw in the beginning of this study: responding in faith to this word. Those who have ears to hear will perceive and understand. They will be saved and, as they steward additional opportunities to hear God’s word, will continue to receive more and more revelation of the glory of Jesus.
Is this your desire? Then be a faithful steward and enjoy new insights into the glory of our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian, use your grace-given privilege and use it well. William Lane summarises well:
The ultimate disclosure will result in a salvation far richer than a man can possibly anticipate even by faithful hearing and appropriation. The second word carries the thought one step further: what will ultimately be received in the Kingdom of God will depend upon that which a man possesses of it now.
The principles are simple.
First, make the most of your opportunity to hear, to receive, and to bear fruit. True subjects of the King are marked by hearing the word of the King and responding accordingly. Read and meditate on God’s word daily. Attend the corporate means of grace. Prepare yourself to listen and to learn and to live and to love.
Second, we must shine the light of the Light. There is an application here for us concerning shining the light of Christ in a dark world. We must shine the light and sow the seed. But this will happen to the degree that we grow in appreciating the Light, who is the Lord.
Third, and finally, Jesus’ followers are to make known the truth while at the same time understanding that we do not know the results (see vv. 11–12).
Stewarding the Seed
Jesus asked, “How will you understand all the parables?” (v. 13). This parable, he said, was foundational for all the other parables. In what sense?
It was foundational in the sense that this parable is all about responsiveness to the word of God. Related to this, if they did not properly hear the importance of hearing, and respond accordingly, they would not make any spiritual progress. In fact, to hear and yet not hear is to imperil you even more than you already are (vv. 21–25).
What a sobering, and necessary, consideration! After all, Jesus just said that those who are “in” are those who have been given the secret of the kingdom of God. If the disciples did not get it, perhaps they didn’t have the secret. We need to ponder this.
Though there may be times when we fail to hear and heed, resulting in fruitlessness, nevertheless the overriding characteristic of a disciple of Jesus is fruit-bearing—a harvest that varies from thirtyfold to a hundredfold. We might say that faithful hearing results in fruitful bearing.
As an aside, the first three soils probably primarily refer to superficial believers—that is, those who are not truly Christians. Yet as we saw previously, there are times when a Christian may respond to God’s word in similar ways. The difference, and it is an everlastingly significant difference, is that the Christian will not be characterised by such a response. If this is the person’s pattern, you can be sure they are no disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. The carnal Christian is a mythical figure who finds no place in the New Testament.
Without debating the questions of the varying degrees of fruitfulness, the main point of the parable of the sower is that of properly hearing the word of God. Our hearts must be such that when the seed of the word is planted, a harvest of God-glorifying fruit results. Sowing the seed and growing the seed are essential elements of this parable.
All true disciples of Jesus Christ will bear fruit. That is, the seed sown in their hearts will become a seed that is grown in their hearts. But a most important question we must address is, what is it that grows? That is, what is the fruit spoken of here?
It seems from other teaching of Jesus that the fruit he is speaking of is another Christian (John 15:1–8, 16–17). Yes, the initial fruit is the character of Christ, and so the initial fruit is the disciple becoming a Christlike person. But if we are Christlike, then we will bear the fruit that Jesus did—other Christlike disciples!
We can conclude that Jesus was clearly teaching in this parable that his true disciples will be making disciples of the King. That is how the kingdom comes. God sows the seed, the seed lodges in good soil, and it continues to multiply. If we don’t get this, then we have missed the point. In fact, we have not properly heard. If we are not making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ then we have not properly heard or heeded our King. In other words, those whose ears God has opened will give of themselves to open the ears of others.
The harvest depends, in a very real way, on how well the disciples of Jesus are hearing. Stewardship of hearing has much to do with the size of the harvest.
Hearing is Believing
To understand the life-transforming teaching of Jesus Christ we must have the proper aptitude for hearing. We need a special ability to hear his truth. How we hear is the difference between being an insider and an outsider (v. 11). The disciples heard and followed (1:16–20; 2:13–14; 3:13–19). The family of Jesus heard but did not hear (3:20–21). The Scribes refused to hear (3:22–30). Many in the crowd heard and obeyed (3:31–35).
Some say that seeing is believing; the Bible teaches that hearing is believing. Jesus desired to weed out those who would not hear as well as to challenge those who could hear to work hard to continue to hear. In other words, Jesus didn’t want his hearers to take for granted their gracious privilege to hear. Hence his exhortation: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The Gift of Hearing
In the broader church of our day, there is a lot of emphasis on the so-called gift of healing. Without entering into that fray, let me say that there is a much greater need for the gift of hearing. Jesus addresses this in these parables.
Jesus did not merely say, “He who has ears.” Most people have ears. This is not focused primarily on the physical ability to hear. Rather, the focus is on those who have been graciously given the ability to spiritually hear—those who are characterised as “fourth soil people.”
Same Character, Different Condition
As we have seen, in this parable the field is the same, the sower is the same and the seed is the same. What is different is the soil—to be specific, the condition of the soil. After all, the soil is essentially the same. That is, it is the same plot of ground. What makes the difference is not so much the character of the soil, but rather its condition. And this observation has particular relevance for Christians.
As we have seen, the first three soils certainly can refer to non-Christians. But, as I have maintained, they also represent Christians at different times in their walk. And I believe that that is in line with the huge emphasis, at least in these first two parables, on hearing the Word of God. Let me explain.
Take two Christians. Both of them, by the new birth, have hears renewed by the Spirit of God. They both have the Holy Spirit. They both, by definition of a Christian, love God (1 John 4:7). But when you look at their lives, one seems a lot more fruitful than the other. What makes the difference? The condition of their hearts.
One is hardened, at the moment, or crowded by things of the world, or consumeristically self-centred. This will not be true consistently, not continually, and certainly not characteristically. But for now, that is their condition.
But who is to blame? No one by them. Because of failed stewardship, they have not guarded their hearts and so the seed of God’s word seems unproductive. This was perhaps my situation for several years before the Lord graciously intervened and rescued me from myself.
Though the character of our soil is fixed (in the sense that it is dependent upon God’s sovereign grace), the condition is very much up to each Christian. Christian, take seriously your stewardship of hearing, for that has everything to do with the condition of the soil of your heart. We should plead with God for this gift of hearing for apart from this, we will not experience the life-transforming power of the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Insider or Outsider?
It is good for us to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Peter 1:10–12). In fact, it is necessary that we do so, as the interpretation of this parable will make clear. For sometimes we think that we are hearing when in fact we may not be.
Ask yourself about your appetite for the truth of God’s word. Do you have one? Is it healthy? Does God’s word bore you? Do you have a desire to read and to study it (1 Peter 2:2)? Does preaching interest you? Is it water off a duck’s back?
Ask yourself about your apprehension of God’s word. Are you able to grasp its central message of the good news of God’s saving grace? Does the proclamation of God’s word confuse you? Are you growing in your knowledge of truth (Romans 15:14)? Are you increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10)?
Ask yourself about your application of God’s word. Do you desire to obey God’s word? Do you design to obey it? Are you keen to declare his word?
Alan Cole observes with reference to this saying, “The whole of the Christian life is one of continual and progressive response to fresh spiritual revelation.” That is how the harvest grows in our life. It grows by faithfully stewarding the word of God as it is sown into our ears.
So, make much of the means of grace. Work hard at understanding the word of God. Spiritual slothfulness will stunt your growth; it will hinder your harvest.
This battle rages daily for the Christian. Our hearts are the targets of the evil one. This is the reason we must take so seriously the admonition of Proverbs 4:23: “Keep [guard] your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). That is, your heart is the key to your hearing.
We need to understand this parable in the light of Matthew 6:33: We must continually seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness. It is a continual quest to understand the word of God; to understand the gospel of God.
Hard work is required of those who have been gifted to hear. But like a harvest, if we work hard, we can enjoy the bounty.
Christian, Jesus wants you to know him. He is only hidden in order to be found by those who take him seriously.
The second parable has been explained in terms of a treasure hunt: Something is hidden in order to be found. Think of Jesus as the ultimate Treasure—and then seek him. As God has promised, he will be found (2 Chronicles 15:2; Hebrews 11:6).
How does one acquire such faith? By hearing the word of God. Let him who has ears, hear him through his word, today.