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Chapter by Chapter - Mark 4


Before we look at the parables themselves we need to talk about what Jesus says his purpose for the parables are in the first place. He tells us this in between his telling and his explanation of the parable of the soils. Parables are not quaint illustrations about farm life that make Jesus’ teaching easier to understand. On the contrary, they are actually meant to intentionally obscure.[1] So that those who are outsiders, that is, according to the parable of the sower, those not planted in the good soil, will see but not perceive and hear but not understand.

Because when Jesus finally does tell a parable that is plainly obvious to the listeners, that is the parable of the vineyard in chapter 12, the result is not that they gladly accept the truth and repent, rather they put the wheels in motion that lead directly to his crucifixion.

And this shouldn’t surprise us because we’ve seen Jesus doing this right from the start by silencing demons and telling people not to spread the word about what he’s done for them. Because, as we’ve seen, plain teaching results in plain opposition – and Jesus has more to say and do before that opposition results in his death. But at the same time, he’s not in a position to muzzle himself and stop preaching. Therefore, he teaches in parable so that he becomes obscure enough that only those who have ears to hear will understand. Those who are truly interested and listen and wrestle with it and think about it will be rewarded. Those who aren’t will pass by and his accusers will have a difficult time finding a basis for accusation against him.

When we look at the Old Testament use of parables, we discover also that parables are typically reserved for times of impending judgement. And in this same vein, Jesus tells his disciples that he is speaking in parables because Israel is again in a time of judgement. He quotes from Isaiah chapter 6 which was prophesying the destruction of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. Jesus was claiming that prophecy for his own time as well.

We should all recognize that Jesus was much more than a mere prophet. But we must also recognize that he was never less than a prophet. Just like all the prophets of old, Jesus had a message for his generation: repent or perish. This was a necessary message for individuals to realize their need for salvation, but also for the entire nation and culture to realize that, without repentance, they were doomed. The obvious heirs of the Babylonians in Jesus’ day were the Romans, and the day was coming soon when Israel would be destroyed at their hand, and just as Jeremiah’s job as prophet during the time leading up to the Babylonian invasion was to preach to a people who by and large would not listen so as to preserve a faithful remnant during the coming tribulation so Jesus was calling out a remnant to escape the judgement in his day, in order to form a new People from the faithful remnant.

The Sower

The first parable we get from Jesus in this string of parables telling us what the kingdom of God is like is the parable of the sower. Most often this parable is explained as 4 different responses that people can have to the gospel. In many ways this is true and a right and proper application to this text. However, Jesus specifically says in Matthew that the parable is about how different groups of people respond not just to any word but the words of the kingdom, symbolized by the growth of the seeds in different soils.

First, we have a reaction that is no reaction at all, the seed along the path. Second, we have seed that grows up quickly, but also withers quickly, the seed on the rocky ground. Third we have the seed that is chocked out by the thorns and proves unfruitful, and lastly seed that falls on good soil and produces a bountiful harvest. We must remember that Jesus is first and foremost speaking to the people that are actually right in front of him and not to individuals (us) living 2000 years later.

On more than one occasion Israel’s return from exile has been symbolized as a seed being planted in the land by the Old Testament prophets.[2] But between that time and Jesus’ arrival on the scene something has happened to that seed. It has gone bad. Jesus sees numerous people who are completely unwilling to listen to the words of the kingdom. They have utterly rejected him from the start like the Pharisees. These are those who have fallen along the path. He sees those who view the kingdom as a means for political gain and power and want him to inaugurate the kingdom and overthrow the Roman overlords and reject the cross as the means for defeating the true enemy. Groups like the Zealots and even most of his very own disciples fall into this category. Notice that the very thing that provides them with quick growth, the shallow soil which symbolizes a shallow view of the kingdom, is also the means of their falling away. It didn’t take long for Peter to go from cutting off someone’s ear to protect Jesus to being so scared of a little girl that he rejected him three times. Jesus also sees those who find only material comfort in the kingdom. They are comfortable with the way things are and eventually stop believing altogether. These are the Sadducees and the Herodians who at the time hold all the political power and office in Israel in their view a future kingdom was unnecessary.

But there is a fourth response. There is one soil in which, if people are planted in to it, will produce fruit, 100 or 60 or 30-fold. That soil is Jesus himself. Even though the people have geographically returned from exile and have been planted in the land much of the seed has gone bad. Jesus is calling the people out of their spiritual exile and calling them to be planted in the true land of promise which is himself.

We mentioned already that the intention of Jesus speaking in parables was to obscure his teaching to those outside. But just in case his disciples get the wrong idea about the reasons for this, he immediately tells the parable about a lamp and a basket.

The Lamp

The apostle John tells us in John 1:9 that Jesus Himself was the very light of the world. Therefore, the words of Jesus, His teaching, was also a light for men. He and his teaching are the lamp in this parable and a lamp is meant to be put on a stand to light up the whole room not under a basket or under a bed.

But isn’t this exactly what Jesus was doing by speaking in parables? Wasn’t he hiding the light of his teaching to those who were outside? Well yes, He was. But we’ve already mentioned that this was a necessary fact of Jesus life and ministry because His teaching would inevitably lead to His execution and Jesus was going to be the one to decide when that would take place.

This is the reason he tells this parable to the disciples. Basically, he says, “Sometimes you have to hide something in order to make the revealing of that thing even more special.” Think of a surprise birthday party. Everyone turns off the lights, hides behind the furniture and in the closets and when the person walks through the door they jump out and shout. So, if we go with this metaphor, Jesus is the party planner. In order to make it a special surprise party, he has to keep everything under wraps except to those who are on the party planning committee with Him. In the parable he says, “Nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.”

In other words, if you stay hidden in the closet all night and never jump out and yell surprise, the secret was pointless. Yes, it’s being kept under wraps for a short time, but it was always meant to be revealed. Jesus’ secrecy is temporary. Eventually the disciples will be responsible for relating publicly everything Jesus teaches them in private.[3]

And as is often the case, Jesus’ criticism is not only for the individual but for the community at large. The Pharisees, as the religious leaders of Israel, are representative of the whole nation and there is no question that at this point in her history, the nation of Israel had ceased to be a light to the nations as they were intended to be. And that responsibility is now ours, as Christians. This is the essence of the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”. Christians, we are to be the “city on a hill” and to be “salt and light” for all peoples, tribes and nations.

Paul, in the book of Ephesians is very clear that everything we have is by grace, “For it is by grace you have been saved… not of works, lest any man should boast.” All we have we owe to the grace of God and nothing else: Our faith, our holiness, our very existence.

And yet scripture is clear that the degree to which a believer receives and benefits from grace is often closely connected with his own use of it. The words of Jesus here are an example of this, “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.” With the measure you use it, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. In other words, your faithfulness in living up to the light and knowledge which you possess is the measure with which God will use to give you more. This is one of the overarching themes of the proverbs:

  • Proverbs 13:4 - The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.

  • Proverbs 12:24 - The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.

  • Proverbs 21:5 - The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes to poverty

It is simply a fact of scripture and of Christian experience that those who experience rapid growth in grace will always be found to be diligent in their application of that grace. As Jesus says, to the one who has, more will be given.” Or, “you reap what you sow.”

There’s no other area of our life, whether it’s cooking or working out or playing chess or literally anything we would say is important to us yet not learn more about it. Not practice it and get better at it and tell all our friends how great it is. Yet this is exactly what we do with our faith. We say it’s the most important things in the world and yet we won’t even attempt to know it better.

These next two parables take us back to the parable of the soils again and focuses our attention onto the fourth soil, the one that sprouted and gave forth a bountiful harvest. This parable of the growing seed helps answer for us how that happens? And the answer is, “Without any intervention on our part.”

The Growing Seed

A few bullet point thoughts on this parable on how the kingdom grows:

  • There must be a sower

The earth never brings forth a beautiful, bountiful harvest on its own. When you take a drive out in the country and you see the golden wheat fields and the tall stalks of corn all neatly in their rows that didn’t happen by accident and it couldn’t happen without ploughing and planting and pruning and all the other things the farmer does. Without that, there is no harvest.

Grace in the heart of man is the same. On its own it is barren of grace. Unable to give itself life. God must ready the soil by his spirit and scatter the seed through the preaching of faithful ministers of the gospel.

  • There is much that is beyond man’s comprehension and control

Man doesn’t know how prosperous the harvest will be. He doesn’t know which seeds will live and which will die. He can’t predict the particular hour when life will break through the ground to show itself. He sows the seed and leaves the growth to God. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So neither he who plants, nor he who waters (referring to different preachers and teachers) is anything, but only God who gives growth.”

Again, grace in the heart of man is the same. It is utterly mysterious and unsearchable. We don’t know why the word produces effect in one man and not another. Why some who have every perceivable advantage reject and die and some who have every perceivable disadvantage and difficulty accept and live. We cannot define precisely the manner in which a man receives a new nature. These things are hidden from us. We see certain results but can go no further.

  • Life Manifests Itself Gradually

You may be familiar with the proverb, “nature does nothing at a bound”. The plant goes through many stages before it reaches perfection (ripeness) but in every stage, one thing is true: even at it’s weakest, it is a living plant.

Once again we see that the workings of grace in the heart of man work also in degrees and stages. Men see only in part their sinfulness and Christ’s fullness and God’s holiness and over time grow in that awareness. But for all the imperfection, at every stage in that development, what we might call sanctification, they are a true child of God.

  • There is no harvest until the seed is ripe

No farmer harvests his wheat when it is green. He waits until the sun and wind and rain and heat and cold have all done their work.

God never removes his people from the world until they’re ripe and ready; till their work is done. No one dies at the wrong time; however mysterious God’s timing may be to man.

We’ve focused specifically on the individual here, but what happens to the individuals, necessarily happens to the whole. God’s people, His church universal, grows in the same way. It starts with the work of the sower. Its growth is beyond man’s comprehension and control. It manifests itself throughout history gradually and will not be harvested before it’s ripe.

This parable of the growing seed answered the question of how the kingdom of God will grow. The answer was, without any intervention on our part. In other words, through God’s grace alone. This mustard seed parable tells us not how, but how much the Kingdom of God will grow. The answer, we will see, is that it will grow into something grander than any kingdom the world has every seen.

The Mustard Seed

1. In its beginning the kingdom was small and weak

Even though the visible church and the Kingdom of God are not the exact same thing, it is a visible manifestation of God’s Kingdom here on earth. And it would be difficult to find a symbol that represents the history of the church better than a grain of mustard seed. Weakness and insignificance were the characteristics of its beginnings

  • Its king was born in Bethlehem with no army, riches or power

  • The men whom the king gathered around himself were poor and unlearned

  • The last public act of the king was to be crucified as a common criminal

  • The message the king’s men went out preaching afterwards was a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

2. Once planted the kingdom was to grow and greatly increase

While the Kingdom begins as a tiny Mustard seed, it doesn’t take long for it to be the largest tree in all the garden. So large that even the birds of the air come, find shelter, and make nests in its shade. Remember, in the parable of the soils it is these very birds of the air who represent those working against the growth of the kingdom by devouring some of the seed before it could even sprout. And now they have found rest in the branches of God’s Kingdom. And this shouldn’t really surprise us, since every one of us, before we were converted, were God’s enemies.

I believe Jesus’ description of the Kingdom is calling us to remember how the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel both described the kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria with similar language.

Its leaves were beautiful and its fruits abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches. – Daniel 4:12
Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches and forest shade, and of towering height, its top among the clouds… All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs. – Ezekiel 31:3,6

These nations, for a time, prospered because of God’s blessing and in turn provided safety and security and salvation for those who were part of them. Just like God’s Kingdom does. The problem with these trees was that they were temporary. You see, Daniel also tells Nebuchadnezzar that the tree of Babylon would be chopped down, its branches lopped off, its leaves stripped, and its fruit scattered. And it’s also Daniel who tells us that God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom that never passes away. It is the stone cut by no human hand which breaks to pieces and bring an end to all other Kingdoms; all other claims to ultimate authority and it shall stand forever as it grows into a mountain.

So, this stone or seed began growing at Pentecost and grew with such force and rapidity that nothing can account for it apart from that hand of God. As we learned in the parable of the sower, instead of the typical harvest that has a yield of ten to fifteenfold, God’s Kingdom yields thirty, sixty or one hundredfold. And it’s not done growing. There are yet more birds to find rest in its branches. More enemies to become its allies.


For an audio version of this Chapter by Chapter click here.


[1] Mark 4:10-12 (quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 which describes the hard-heartedness of Israel)

[2] Jeremiah 31:27-28; 24:4-7; Hosea 2:21-23; Isaiah 61:10-11; Ezekiel 17:22-24; Ezekiel 36:6-11

[3] Mark Horne, The Victory According to Mark, P.93

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