Do you like a good story? Today’s passage will look at three parables of Jesus. The story of the farmer, seed, and soils describes how the human heart responds to the truth. Also we’ll see Jesus divine power over nature as he calms a storm.
Jesus Tells the Parable of the Four Soils / 4:1-9
In the first three chapters, Mark recorded the quick pace of Jesus’ ministry. In this chapter, Mark turned his attention to the content of Jesus’ teaching, including a series of stories. Jesus’ stories entertained the many who were merely curious, while they enlightened the few who genuinely sought to know God. These earthy stories have profound spiritual applications.
4:1 Again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore (of the Sea of Galilee). The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake. Jesus spoke from there.
4:2-3 Jesus used many stories, or parables, when teaching the crowds. These stories used familiar scenes to explain spiritual truths. A parable compares something familiar to something unfamiliar. It compels listeners to discover truth, while at the same time conceals the truth from those too lazy or too stubborn to see it.
This story gave a familiar picture to Jesus’ audience—a farmer planting seed, with the resulting increase dependent on the condition of the soil. In ancient Israel, seed was sown by hand. As the farmer walked across the field, he would throw handfuls of seed from a large bag slung across his shoulders. No matter how skillful, no farmer could keep some of his seed from falling by the wayside, from being scattered among rocks and thorns, or from being carried off by the wind. So the farmer would throw the seed liberally, and enough would fall on good ground to ensure the harvest.
4:4-7 Some of the seeds fell on a footpath. The hard and compacted soil of the road made it impossible for the seed to penetrate. So it sat on top, as tempting morsels for the birds that came and ate the seeds. (In 4:15 we learn that these “birds” represent Satan.) Some of that seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. Unlike the wayside, the rocky places had some soil to accept the seed, but not much. The seed sprang up quickly in the shallow soil, but the sun took the moisture out so rapidly that the young plants wilted. Some of the farmer’s seed fell among thorns. Thorns rob the sprouts of nutrition, water, light, and space. So, when the thorns grew up, the good seed was choked out.
4:8-9 However, some of the seed landed in fertile soil. This seed had the depth, space, and moisture to grow, multiply, and produce a crop. A farmer would be happy to see his crop multiply even ten times—thirty, sixty, or a hundred times would be an incredible yield for it would mean even more to plant and harvest in the coming year.
Jesus pointed out that “listening” makes fertile soil for the message of the Kingdom. If we bear fruit, it is proof that we have listened. If others bear fruit, it shows that the seed we have planted has taken root in their heart. Those willing to hear are those who will do a deeper kind of listening with the mind and heart that is necessary in order to gain spiritual understanding. Some people in the crowd were only curious about Jesus, a few were looking for evidence to use against him, and others truly wanted to learn and grow. Jesus’ words were for the honest seekers. Those who honestly seek God’s will have spiritual hearing, so they will be able to listen and understand.
Jesus Explains the Parable of the Four Soils / 4:10-25
The story of the soils was one of many Jesus used to create questions in the minds of his followers. Later, in a smaller group, Jesus explained why he used these stories, called parables, and what they meant. Although Jesus pointed out that the parables kept some people in ignorance, he willingly explained their meaning to the disciples. Any hearer who continued to be ignorant or confused did so because he or she refused to learn. Those who failed to understand the parables were not ready to obey the truth they taught.
4:10 When Jesus got away from the crowd and was alone with his true followers (the twelve disciples and the larger group of believers), a more intimate question-and-answer period followed. Perhaps these close followers did not want to reveal their ignorance about Jesus’ words in front of the entire crowd. So, as soon as they were alone with Jesus, his followers asked him about the stories in general, and particularly the story of the four soils.
4:11 The you to whom Jesus spoke was the group of his true followers. They had been given a special gift by God, for only they—among the crowds around Jesus—were permitted to understand the secret about the Kingdom of God. They understood, though only partially, the secret that God’s Kingdom had arrived among them in the person of Jesus. The Kingdom of God had been a “secret” to the prophets of the Old Testament because, though they wrote about it, they did not understand it (see Romans 16:25-26). The believers who knew Jesus personally received spiritual insight that illuminated the secret so that it was no longer a mystery to them.
Jesus was aware of the unbelief and outright hostility of many of his listeners. The outsiders have not yet accepted the message of salvation and may never do so. So, for them everything will remain concealed. Those “outside” (the religious leaders and the vast majority of the crowd) would never comprehend the secret, for they would not come to God for the answer. Choosing not to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, they would not be able to understand his Kingdom. The parables allowed Jesus to give spiritual food to those who hungered for it; but for the others, Isaiah’s prophecy would explain their situation.
4:12 God told Isaiah that people would see but not perceive, and hear but not understand (Isaiah 6:9); that same kind of reaction was witnessed by Jesus. The story of the farmer was an accurate picture of people’s reactions to all of Jesus’ stories. By quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus was explaining to this inner group of followers that the crowd resembled the Israelites about whom Isaiah had written. God had told Isaiah that the people would listen but not learn from his message because their hearts had hardened beyond repentance. Yet God still sent Isaiah with the message because, even though the nation itself would not repent and would reap judgment, some individuals would listen. Jesus came to the Israelites hundreds of years after Isaiah, but the scenario was the same. Most would not repent because their hearts were hardened; but a few would listen, turn from their sins, and believe.
The deafness to the message did not mean the message was false or that the messenger was somehow at fault. It is not for us to understand why some believe and some do not; instead, we are simply to continue to trust in God and proclaim his message. Neither Isaiah’s nor Jesus’ audiences were denied the opportunity to turn from their sins and be forgiven. Instead, the point was clearly made that refusing to listen would mean inability to perceive and understand anything Jesus had to say.
4:13 People cannot see without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. To understand is like formerly blind eyes being made to see. By nature, humans are spiritually blind. But the spiritual insight given by the Holy Spirit illumines Jesus’ stories and indeed all of God’s word so that believers can truly “perceive” and “understand” what God has to say (4:9). Jesus was speaking to those to whom the “secret” had been revealed (4:11); so, they shouldn’t have needed any explanation at all.
4:14 The farmer was Jesus (see Matthew 13:37) and—by extension—anyone after him who would bring God’s message. The seed that is sown is the word of God (4:3).
4:15 The story reveals people’s varying responses to the gospel message. The attitude or condition of their hearts would govern their response. The word makes no impression on the “hard-path” people. Satan (like the birds, 4:4) comes at once and takes it away. Perhaps the person feels no need in his or her heart, no desire for anything other than this life, no guilt of sin or need of forgiveness. Satan has no trouble with these people.
4:16-17 The “rocky-soil” people hear the message and receive it with joy (4:5). These people receive the Good News of the gospel because of the promises offered. They initially show some promise of growth. These people understand some of the basics but do not allow God’s truth to work its way into their souls and make a difference in their lives—their roots don’t go very deep and so they wilt. When trouble comes (the hot sun, 4:6), they fall away.
4:18-19 “Thorny-ground” people hear and accept the Good News and allow it to take root in their hearts, giving hope of a harvest. But “thorns” grow up and choke out the growing seed—distractions and conflicts rob new believers of time to reflect on and digest God’s word in order to grow from it, as well as robbing guidance and support from interaction with other Followers of Christs. Jesus described the thorns: cares of this life, lure of wealth, and desire for nice things. Worldly cares (no matter how important or how minor), the false sense of security brought on by prosperity, and the desire for material things (including anything that serves to distract a person) plagued first-century disciples as they do us today. Daily routines overcrowd and materialistic pursuits distract believers so no crop is produced.
4:20 But other people are like the good soil—they hear, accept, and produce a huge harvest. These are the true disciples—those who have accepted Jesus, believed his words, and allowed him to make a difference in their lives.
4:21 In ancient Israel, a lamp was a lighted wick in a clay bowl that was full of oil. The lamp was not lit and then put under a closed place. Instead, the lamp was lit and placed on a stand, where its light will shine and illuminate the room. The disciples may have wondered why Jesus seemed to be deliberately hiding the truth of the gospel through his stories. Perhaps they thought that if the word was going to fall on hard hearts, then why should they sow it so liberally? Shouldn’t they just limit their teaching to those who were ready and eager to listen? “No,” explained Jesus, “I am not deliberately trying to hide the truth from people. That would be like lighting a lamp and then putting it under a bowl. Why then light the lamp at all? If I am hiding the truth, there is no reason for me to teach.” The purpose of the stories was not to conceal the truth, but to reveal it; the stories explained spiritual truths in everyday terms. So the stories do not obscure, they clarify—but only to those who are willing to listen and believe.
4:22 Jesus continued his explanation for his use of parables. Although the truth may be hidden or secret for a while, it will not remain so. One day the truth will be brought to light. This could refer either to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (when his followers would fully understand Jesus’ words) or the Second Coming. Jesus’ followers did not understand everything about Jesus at that time, but all their questions would be answered one day.
4:23 This saying, which repeats 4:9, often concluded Jesus’ important statements. As explained in 4:9 above, Jesus spoke of a deeper kind of listening: hearing not with the ears, but with the mind and heart. Only then could the hearers gain spiritual understanding from his stories.
4:24 Because the stories are so important in what they teach, Jesus warned the people to pay attention to his words. We must treasure the words of Jesus. Those who heard, understood, and then shared with others would be given even more understanding to pass along. Believers are responsible to use well their God-given understanding, insight, and opportunities to share the gospel. Whether they have little or much, that is not nearly as important as what is done with what they have. “The more you do this, the more you will understand”—a person’s openness and perception of the Kingdom message will bring great rewards. Ultimately, believers will receive eternal blessings in heaven.
4:25 The people who listen and understand are those who are open to Jesus’ teaching. To them God will give more understanding. They will continue to grow because they let God’s word make a difference in their lives. In contrast, those who are not listening will lose whatever they had. Jesus’ words here may have been directed to the Jews who had no understanding of Jesus and would lose even what they had—that is, their privileged status as God’s people. Or Jesus might have meant that when people reject him, their hardness of heart drives away or renders useless even the little understanding they had. Eventually, any opportunity to share in God’s Kingdom will be taken away completely.
Jesus Tells the Parable of the Growing Seed / 4:26-29
Many of Jesus’ stories sprouted from similes. He focused on what people knew or saw and then pointed to a similarity between that and a characteristic of the Kingdom of God. The way Jesus made use of his surroundings demonstrates that all of creation is filled with lessons and pointers. This story teaches us that spiritual growth cannot be measured by a stopwatch. The Kingdom of God may be planted in us in an instant, but its growth becomes apparent only with the passing of time and the practice of faithfulness.
4:26-28 This story about the Kingdom of God, recorded only by Mark, reveals that spiritual growth is a continual, gradual process that is finally consummated in a harvest of spiritual maturity. We can begin to understand the process of spiritual growth by comparing it to the slow but certain growth of a plant. Even though the farmer did not understand the actual process of growth, his ignorance does not stop it from happening—the seeds sprouted and grew. In the same way, the Kingdom of God begins in a person’s life with a seed of understanding that takes root in the good soil of a ready heart. That seed sprouts and grows into strong faith. But how that happens is God’s responsibility.
The disciples, wondering about the difficult mission ahead of them, were being told by Jesus that they need not worry about how the Kingdom would grow. That part was up to God. Their job was to plant the seed. With his coming to earth, Jesus planted the Kingdom of God, and God would bring that harvest to fruition.
4:29 The farmer lets the seed grow in the fields and goes about his other work (4:26-27), but as soon as the grain is ready, he has work to do. The farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle (a curved blade mounted in a short handle). Likewise, the time will come when God will intervene decisively into the world’s affairs.
Jesus Tells the Parable of the Mustard Seed / 4:30-34
Mark concluded this sampling of Jesus’ stories with a second lesson about the Kingdom of God. He began the chapter with the story of the four soils, which illustrates the variety of responses to the gospel. The two following stories focus on what happens when the truth finds a receptive heart. The story of the growing seed illustrates the growth rate of the Kingdom of God. The story of the mustard seed illustrates the surprising size of the growth from such a small beginning.
4:30 As if repeating from 4:26, Jesus prepared again to explain the Kingdom of God in a story. No one story could completely describe God’s Kingdom in all its aspects, so Jesus employed several of them. The crowds, and even some of the disciples, were expecting the Messiah to be a political leader who would free Israel from Rome. The only “kingdom” they could picture was an earthly one. So Jesus attempted to clarify his Kingdom even further for them.
4:31-32 In this story, Jesus stressed that his Kingdom would have a small beginning—indeed, it began with Jesus alone and, upon his ascension, was left in the care of twelve apostles and a few hundred other followers. Jesus compared this beginning to the mustard seed, which was the smallest seed a farmer used. The mustard seed was so small that it would take almost twenty thousand seeds to make one ounce. From this very tiny seed would grow a large shrub—the largest shrub among all the herbs that the farmer would plant in his garden. A mustard shrub could grow ten to twelve feet in just a few weeks. Jesus’ point was that just as a tiny seed can grow into one of the largest of plants, so God’s Kingdom can begin with a few people who truly believe and grow into such greatness that, upon Christ’s second coming, it will overpower the entire earth and rule supremely forever. For the disciples, and for us, this story meant that size or relative power does not indicate final results. God’s Kingdom would take root and grow across the world and through the years. This would be no political coup; the Kingdom would grow slowly but surely in people’s hearts, making a difference in people’s lives and preparing them for life to come in God’s eternal Kingdom.
4:33-34 Mark made clear that he did not record all of Jesus’ stories—there were probably too many to record. Jesus adapted his methods to his audience’s ability and desire to understand. He didn’t speak in stories to confuse people, but to challenge sincere seekers to discover the meaning of his words. As explained in 4:2-3, Jesus spoke in stories to the crowds (see also 4:1), but when he was alone with his disciples, he explained the meaning to them (see also 4:10). The disciples here are specifically the Twelve.
Jesus Calms the Storm / 4:35-41
In this section, Mark has described the intense encounters between Jesus and various groups (religious leaders, crowds, his own family) and given us a series of teaching stories. In this section, he recalled a series of miracles that demonstrated Jesus’ power over the natural elements, the spiritual realm, and the human body. He presented a strong case for Jesus’ startling uniqueness and divine nature.
Mark’s details of Jesus calming the storm are absent in the accounts of Matthew and Luke. These details indicate that Mark used Peter as a source. He gives intimate facts that only an eyewitness would have known. Believers today profess trust in Jesus’ power over the storms of life, but many fall short of demonstrating that trust when the storms arrive. Saying we believe that Jesus can help us takes on a whole new meaning when we actually depend on him for help.
4:35 When evening came, Jesus suggested that he and the disciples cross to the other side of the lake—that is, to the east side of the Sea of Galilee. The boat probably belonged to one of the fishermen in the group, most likely to Peter. For Peter to set sail in the evening was not unusual because he was used to fishing at night (see John 21:3). Fishing was best then; storms usually came in the afternoon.
So, when Jesus finished speaking, the disciples pulled up the anchor and set sail. Jesus’ ministry was never without purpose. He was crossing the sea in order to enter a new area of ministry. Along the way, the disciples would be taught an unforgettable lesson about his power.
4:36 A few people in the crowd probably expected Jesus to come ashore to offer more healing or teaching. But Jesus, human as he was, needed rest. So he left the crowds behind when the boat set sail.
The detail that other boats followed is recorded only in Mark and signifies an eyewitness account—perhaps from Peter who sailed the boat and had to watch out for these other boats as they made their way out into the lake. (Josephus, an ancient historian, wrote that there were usually more than three hundred fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee at one time.) The other boats accompanying Jesus may have been filled with persistent followers. The tiny detail gives us a picture of God’s grace—many people on these other boats were also saved when Jesus stilled the storm.
4:37 The Sea of Galilee is an unusual body of water. It is relatively small (thirteen miles long, seven miles wide); but it is 150 feet deep, and the shoreline is 680 feet below sea level. Because it is below sea level and surrounded by mountains, it is susceptible to sudden storms. Winds sweeping across the land come up and over the mountains, creating downdrafts over the lake. Combined with a thunderstorm that appears suddenly over the surrounding mountains, the water stirs into violent twenty-foot waves. The disciples had not foolishly set out in a storm. In fact, they usually didn’t encounter storms at night and did not see this one coming. Even though several of these men were expert fishermen and knew how to handle a boat, they had been caught without warning by this fierce storm. Their peril was real as they battled huge waves that nearly swamped their vessel.
4:38 While this was happening, Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat. How Jesus could sleep during this storm indicates his complete exhaustion and reveals his human nature. That the noise, the violent rocking of the boat, and the cold spray of the water didn’t awaken him gives us a glimpse of the physical drain on Jesus throughout his earthly ministry.
The disciples had embarked on this journey at Jesus’ request after a long day. They were probably tired too, but they had set sail anyway. Then, of all things, a storm blew in—one that was threatening to sink the boat and drown them. And Jesus was sleeping through it! They woke him and asked, “Teacher, don’t you even care that we are going to drown?” Their words were more of a criticism than a call for help. How easy it is for us to complain and criticize God for not coming to our aid, rather than making our request and then trusting him to answer.
Although the disciples had witnessed many miracles, they panicked in this storm. Added to that, they revealed that they completely misunderstood their teacher. They had seen Jesus perform great miracles of compassion, but they dared to ask if he cared about them at all. Their question was rude; their misunderstanding was deep.
4:39 Jesus, abruptly awakened from a deep sleep, arose and without speaking to the disciples spoke instead to the elements. Standing in the stern of the rocking ship, Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the water, “Quiet down!” The disciples’ were shocked at the power of their teacher to speak and control the ocean waves. But they should not have been surprised. The storm was out of control, their fears were out of control, but Jesus was never out of control. He has power over all the forces of nature, and he listens to the appeals of those who love him.
4:40 The disciples had seen Jesus do incredible miracles, but they hadn’t taken their knowledge of his power and carried it to its logical conclusion. Jesus responded, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still not have faith in me?” They wanted him to do something; he wanted them to trust him! Despite all that the disciples had seen and heard so far, and despite their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, they still had not grasped that Jesus was himself God, given God’s power and authority over all of creation.
4:41 But the disciples still didn’t understand, as betrayed by their question, “Who is this man?” They should have known because this miracle clearly displayed the truth of Jesus’ divine identity. Being with the human, compassionate Jesus was fine; being with the powerful and supernatural Son of God was terrifying.
When we become followers of Chirst, we enter a cosmic struggle because Satan hates people to believe in Jesus. Satan’s limited power is launched against believers individually and the church in general, hoping to sink us to the depths of the sea. But we have the ultimate power on our side, and the final victory is assured. Jesus should be our Savior, to whom we turn with all our needs and fears, knowing that he does care and will help.
Tomorrow we’ll check out chapter 5. I am praying that you will continue to GROW in Christ.
For more about The Ridge Fellowship go to www.RidgeFellowship.com