Jesus Christ was a story-teller. He was the Master story teller. The Gospel writers all include numerous accounts of him telling stories. Thankfully so, for stories have a way of illuminating our understanding, perhaps better than by direct instructions. Aesop’s Fables—The Tortoise and the Hare; The Boy Who Cried Wolf; etc.—are still good today to teach children important lessons.
This was one reason that Jesus spoke in parables. He used concrete, natural situations with which his hearers were familiar to teach them a supernatural truth.
It is often said that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Well, yes—and no. You see, a parable, as used by Jesus, was meant to both illuminate and to hide. The disciples recognised that when they said to him, “See, now you are speaking plainly and using no figure of speech!” (John 16:29). That is, “Lord, now we get it! You are no longer making us work hard at discovering truth!”
We see both the illuminating and the hiding effect of parables in the passage before us. Jesus told a story about a sower sowing the word of God and, in the end, receiving a great harvest. His intention was for this story to serve as a mirror to the lives of those who heard it, and for us today as we read and hear it. As Ferguson explains, the point of this parable, and every other parable of Jesus, is to “force us to ask the question, ‘Where do I stand in relation to the kingdom of God?’ They show us our own hearts in the light of God’s word.”
What kind of a heart do you have?
As we study the parable of the sower, let us do so looking into the mirror of God’s word, that we might see our hearts and know where we stand in relation to the kingdom of God. Specifically, where are we in relation to his great harvest from the gospel seed he has sown?
We must first notice the setting.
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 …
Jesus was, “again,” by the seaside in Capernaum—on the same day as the events from 3:20–35 (see Matthew 13:1). And, “again,” the crowds roll in.
Jesus, and presumably the disciples, climbed into a boat and pushed off from the shore. They perhaps dropped anchor. Jesus sat down (customarily for a Rabbi of those days) and began to teach. The literal reading is interesting: “He got in a boat and sat on the sea.” Was this a linguistic cue from Mark that Jesus is God (see Psalm 29:10)? Perhaps. After all, the parables that he would proclaim had everything to do with the reality that the King had come, and that he has brought his kingdom with him. Those who had ears to hear would see this. They would see that the one sitting on the boat was actually sitting on a throne (see 4:35–41).
The crowds presented Jesus with a wonderful opportunity to instruct them concerning what it means to follow him.
As we have seen, there was much enthusiasm surrounding Jesus, but there was also a lot of angst. Some were seemingly devoted to him, others were indifferent or, at the least, sceptical, and still others were hostile to him. And the distinguishing mark, at least at this point, is how these people listened to him; how they heard. We will look at this in a moment, but, before we do, we must note the phrase, “he was teaching them many things in parables.”
With the opening of Mark 4, we encounter Jesus doing a lot of teaching, which was his priority (1:14–15, 21, 27, 38–39; 2:2, 13). But here, Jesus is seen and heard teaching in a way that would become customary for him—teaching through parables.
We have already seen this from Jesus, but in this section, he will present four more parables, and Mark will later record three more.
What is a Parable?
A parable is a “comparison.” It was not invented by Jesus (although as Creator, technically, it was!). The use of parables was a common teaching tool in the ancient world.
In a parable, a story was told, which contained elements that would be comparable to the point being made. The technical meaning of “parable” is “to lay alongside.” It is “a story placed alongside a truth to illustrate it” (Grogan). The story itself is true to what is known, but it contains an underlying truth.
As one understands the point of the parable, it then serves “like stained glass windows in a cathedral, dull and lifeless from the outside but brilliant and radiant from within” (Edwards). Like the parable before us.
As Jesus would instruct those who followed him, not everyone sees what is “brilliant and radiant” within the parable. Something is required if we will enjoy the view from the inside. This brings us to the next phrase—a very significant one: “and in his teaching [i.e. in parables] he said to them: ‘Listen! Behold.’”
These are imperatives—commands, if you will. We could paraphrase, “Listen and see.” This is an important principle for us all.
The only way to “see” such beauty is by properly “hearing.” That is, one must “listen and see,” otherwise the life-informing and life-transforming point of the parable, is lost; it remains merely a lifeless and seemingly pointless story.
Sadly, this is how the word of God comes across to so many who only hear it superficially. The result is that they miss out on the harvest that could be them, as well as theirs, in the kingdom of God.
An Arabian proverb says that the goal of a speaker is to turn people’s ears into eyes. So here.
If we will see the truth of God’s word, then we must properly hear it. We must have ears to hear. In fact, the theme of hearing is all over this parable (vv. 3, 9, 12, 15, 16, 18, 20).
But, of course, this means far more than merely physically hearing; it means spiritually hearing. Jesus was saying that their ears revealed their hearts. Christian, we must continue to have ears to hear the word of God. We must therefore learn to listen up! A harvest depends on it.
In vv. 3b–8, Jesus tells the actual story:
“Listen! Behold, 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 thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Jesus told a parable about a sower who went out to sow seed in his field. In that part of the world and, in those days, sowing preceded ploughing.
Some have suggested that Jesus, looking toward the shore, saw a man in the distance doing this very thing. That is speculative, if intriguing.
Some seed fell on the trodden pathway, other fell into rocky and shallow soil, other fell into ground encumbered with thorns (below the surface), while some falls on good soil.
In the first case, the seed was eaten by the birds, and so there was no opportunity for germination.
In the second case, the seed germinated and sprang up, but its root didn’t dig deep. Therefore, when the heat arose, the plant withered and dies.
The third case seems more hopeful. Even though the seed germinated, and its roots went deep enough to sustain growth for a time, yet the thorns choked off what the plant needed and so it was fruitless in the end.
Enter the fourth situation—the fourth soil. In this case the soil was such that the seedsgerminated, its roots went deep, it withstood the harsh elements, and the seeds proved fruitful—very fruitful—in the harvest. Some seeds produced thirtyfold, others produced sixtyfold, and some even a hundredfold—a crop of biblical proportions (Genesis 26:12)!
What’s the Point?
Note that the same sower sowed the same seed in the same field, yet there were different results. So what? Any agrarian would know this. It’s clear that the thing that makes the difference is the condition of the soil.
But obviously Jesus was not merely instructing people about the importance of where to plant seeds. This was not a story merely about planting (though it was that); rather, it was a parable about paying attention. When you lay this parable alongside that theme, it makes sense—at least to those who have ears to hear.
The point of this parable is simple to those who know the “secret”—namely, how we hear the gospel of the kingdom has everything to do with the character of the soil of our heart. There is more to it than that, but that is the main point that Jesus was teaching to those listening. They needed to know this, and his disciples must know this.
After all, the disciples would find their hearts sometimes like that of the hardened path, sometimes like the shallow and rocky soil, sometimes like the thorn-infested ground and sometimes, by the grace of God, like the good soil that brought forth an abundant harvest. Again, it would all depend on how they heard.
In v. 9, Jesus issues the saying he wants his hearers to hear: “And he said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’” (v. 9).
The ability to hear is often taken for granted, but consider someone who has lost their hearing but is enabled to hear again. Or consider someone who has never been able to hear, who for the first time is able to detect sounds (via cochlear ear implant or something similar). It is an amazing experience, an unforgettable experience, a celebratory experience indeed!
I would think that, from that point forward, one would never again take the ability to hear for granted. Or perhaps not. Humans are like that. We tend to eventually get used to our blessings and once we do, a ho-hum aura takes over—much like the disciples, and many in the crowds, who were following Jesus. They were blessed to hear his teaching and to observe his gracious and glorious ministry. Yet they faced the danger of losing their hearing. It was because of this very real danger that Jesus Christ taught in parables.
Verses 10–12 reveal the real secret:
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.”
Later, after telling this parable, Jesus was alone with the disciples and others. They asked him to explain the parable. It seems that they had asked him why he was speaking in parables. Jesus explained.
He told them that parables were important at this stage in his ministry because the kingdom of God, though here, was not going to be embraced by everyone. Only those who had been “given the secret of the kingdom of God” would truly be able to “hear.” Such were the true insiders. All others were outsiders.
So, what makes the difference? Intellectual ability? Education? Social status? Nurture or nature’ Nope. God makes the difference.
Verse 12 causes great discomfort for many. This quote, from Isaiah 6:9–10 (occurring three other times in the New Testament), seems to be saying that God was deliberately hiding “the secret of the kingdom of God” from those who did not hear.
A better translation is “in order that” rather than “so that.” This strengthens the discomfort. But such it is. God, in his mysterious and all-wise sovereignty, does veil the secret of the kingdom from those who do not hear. Here we have a clear case of the yoking together of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
Just as the Bible reveals both that Pharaoh hardened his heart and that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (see Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:12; 10:1), so here. Jesus made clear that the “secret” (mystarian) is given to these who understand. It is not earned but given. It is given graciously, I might add.
A biblical secret is not like a Baptist secret, which you tell to one person at a time! No, a biblical secret or mystery is something that would forever remain hidden unless God graciously opened our eyes to see and our ears to hear.
Yet note that Jesus did not excuse those who did not see or hear. No, they were very much held accountable. Hardened hearts would lead to the judicial punishment of dull ears. If you can hear and see, thank God!
After this sobering truth—that our only hope for hearing and believing and being saved is by God’s illuminating power—the Lord then asked a very searching question: “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all parables” (v. 13). In other words, it is as though Jesus was asking the disciples, and those around him, if they were truly insiders.
“How will you understand all the parables?” This parable, said Jesus, is foundational for all the other parables. In what sense? In the sense that this parable is all about responsiveness to the word of God. 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.” So, if these hearers didn’t get it, then perhaps they didn’t have the secret! We need to ponder this.
When I preached through the Gospel of Matthew, many years ago, I interpreted this parable (as related in Matthew 13:1–23) quite differently than I will here. Then, I interpreted it as showing that the first three soils were the hearts of unbelievers, while the fourth soil was the heart of a believer. Though there is some similarity with that position, I no longer think that that was Jesus’ primary intention. Rather, I am persuaded that the parable of the soils pictures how a disciple of Jesus might respond at different times to the word of God.
Sometimes the word of God will not enter our hearts before Satan comes along and steals its impact from us. This was certainly the case for the disciples at times.
As you read through the Gospels, there are scenes in which they completely missed the transcendent truth that Jesus taught. There were times when they thought only in materialistic concerns (Matthew 16:5–12). Note how often Jesus’ foretelling them about his crucifixion completely went over their heads!
There are times when the disciples received truth with great joy only to shortly thereafter deny that truth. As the heat of hardship challenged their worldview, sometimes, like Peter, their faith was scorched and withered away (Matthew 16:13–23).
There were also times when the disciples experienced great highs and began to abound in fruitfulness, only to fall away as the pressures of the world encroached upon them. Think of James and John who argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom. Or Peter, who denied the Lord in exchange for supposed security in the world.
But more positively, there were times when the word of God brought forth a marvellous harvest in the lives of the disciples, particularly after the Lord’s death, resurrection and ascension (Acts 2; etc.).
When we consider these soils, and the disciples, we realise that we are them!
So, how is your hearing? Is there something hindering you from hearing God’s word? If you are having trouble hearing, you will probably have trouble speaking.
Several years ago, our church hosted Mark Dever on a Sunday night. That afternoon, he sat down with our elders as an opportunity to ask him some questions. After our time together, fifteen minutes before the service, he asked me if I have an earbud. He had something stuck in his ear, which, he said, was seriously affecting his ability to think and talk. If he could not resolve it, he said, he would be unable to preach!
I did not have an earbud. One of our church members, however, is an ENT, and so I found Duane and explained the problem. Duane rushed home to get some of his tools and performed a mini surgery in the church counselling room. Mark preached, and afterwards told me that he was not joking: If Duane didn’t help him, he would not have been able to preach!
Are your ears cluttered with the sounds of the world? Are you taking for granted the grace of hearing?
Your hearing will be tested. We must faithfully steward the grace of hearing.
The calloused heart faces the danger of indifference and the consequent inability to hear. We can become calloused to the word of God as the world system slowly treads on our hearts. We need to be on guard against the influence of media—and social media—and the godless assumptions of the world. We do well to remember that words like those recorded in Hebrews 3:8, 15; 4:7 were written to professing Christians.
The consumer’s heart faces the danger of a superficial, even self-centred, response to the word. “I like the benefits, but am not too thrilled about the burdens.” This is what drove Peter to reject revelation of the Lord’s crucifixion (see Matthew 16:21–23). This is why spouses bail on their marriage covenant when challenges arise. It is why pastors hear “God’s call” to leave when challenges arise. It is why church members run when the going gets tough, rather than persevering through the difficulties.
As Maclaren pastorally observes, “The Christianity which has taken a flying leap over the valley of humiliation will scarcely reach firm standing on the rock.”
The crowded heart faces the danger of the cares and concerns of a materialistic world crowding out a desire for God alone. It faces the danger of pursuing a bigger portion of this world while abandoning God as our portion in this world and in the next. The crowded heart is consumed with that which is fallen and fading (1 John 2:15–17). Demas’s crowded heart caused him to desert Paul, in love with this present world (2 Timothy 4:10). James 3:14 and 4:8 describe self crowding the heart.
But then there is the Christian heart, which experiences the blessing of hearing in such a way that it bears fruit to the glory of God (John 15:1–6). It faithfully attends to God’s word by faithfully accepting God’s word (see Psalm 19:7–10). It reads, receives and submits.
Again, the Christian can experience all of these, at different times. It is true that the Christian will be generally characterised by the fourth soil, but that does not eliminate the reality that she might also at times have a heart that responds to God’s word like any of the three other soils. That is why Jesus exhorted his hearers to listen and to take heed how they heard—continually.
Daily, this battle rages 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 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 continuallyseek the kingdom of God and his righteousness. It is a continualquestto understand the word of God; to understand the gospel of God.
Hence, as Jesus also said, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). In other words, the coming of the kingdom of God to this world has always entailed a fight, and only those willing to fight will experience its fullness. It is interesting that, after Jesus said this, he followed these words closely with the phrase, “He who has ears, let him hear” (v. 16). In other words, “Understand what you’re getting into when you follow me.”
There is some debate as what to title this parable. Is it “The Parable of the Sower” or “The Parable of the Soils”? Without doubt, there is a lot of emphasis upon the soils. However, the act of sowing is significant, not only in this parable, but in two others in this chapter as well (vv. 26–29, 30–34).
The sower is clearly Jesus. He comes sowing the gospel of the kingdom of God. And the varied responses equip the disciples for what they can expect, even from those who profess to be the covenanted people of God. But there can be nothing to hear if there is nothing communicated. Hence, the importance of sowing.
As we sow the seed of the word of God, we can expect varied responses, both in the word as well as in the church. But we must persevere; we must continue to follow Jesus. And a huge part of that following is the proclamation of the word of God.
Just as the sower in this story sowed the seed indiscriminately, so should we. Just throw the seed and see what God does!
It is not our responsibility to find “fourth soil people.” No! It is our responsibility to sow the seed of God’s word and then trust him to do what he will (see vv. 10–12). Yes, sometimes it can be painfully discouraging. We watch people fall away. And, like Judas, some will fall away never to return. But others may temporarily fall away, only to return later—disciples like Peter; disciples like John Mark (who wrote this Gospel); and disciples like some reading this.
The emphasis of this parable is not on those who fall but rather on those who are fruitful, “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” That is quite a harvest, by any standard.
Be encouraged by the words of Alexander Maclaren:
He is a poor workman, and an unfaithful one, who wants to pick his ground. Sow everywhere … the character of the soil is not irrevocably fixed; but the trodden path may be broken up to softness, and the stony heart changed, and the soul filled with cares and lust be cleared, and any soil may become good ground. So the seed is to be flung out broadcast; and prayer for seed and soil will often turn the weeping sower into the joyous reaper.
We should be encouraged that our labour is not in vain in the Lord. The Lord has not returned, which means that there is more to the harvest than the church has experienced. We must keep sowing.
The Great Commission still matters. Supporting missions and outreach activities still matters. Supporting ministries that help to plant and strengthen churches still matters. Your continual gospel witness—at school, at home, at work, in your community—still matters.
Finally, and most significantly, this parable reminds us that the ultimate sower is also the seed. The sower is the Word of God, and he came to bring in a harvest. But first, like a seed, he would need to be planted.
Jesus would, as it were, sow himself in death to bring forth the miraculously abundant harvest (see John 12:20–26). He would die the death that sinners like us deserved. He would do this, bearing the guilt and penalty for our sins. He would experience the spiritual death that we deserve. Therefore, he would be forsaken by God, in darkness, under God’s holy wrath.
But he would also rise from the dead. Like a seed, he would die and be buried, and yet he would spring to life to die no more. He would ascend to heaven to be the eternal Advocate for all who repent of their sins and who trust him alone for forgiveness of their sins. We call such people Christians. And, over the centuries, there has been a massive harvest of them.
Are you one? Have you been harvested? Then, please, listen up! Hear the gospel promise. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
Christian, keep hearing with ears to hear. One evidence of this will be a desire for others to hear the seed that you continue to sow. Sow the seed and expect a harvest.