STUDY SEVEN: MARK 4:1-34
© Rosemary Bardsley 2013
In Mark 3:6-7 Jesus, aware of his rejection by the Pharisees and their plotting to kill him, withdrew from the villages and taught by the lakeside. Now, having been misunderstood by his family, and falsely accused by the teachers of the law [3:20-30] when he was again teaching in the community, Jesus once more went to the lakeside and taught the people from a boat.
Mark reports that Jesus taught them many things by parables. A ‘parable’ is a simple truth or anecdote from ordinary life used to communicate spiritual truth. The word comes from the Greek paraballo, which means to put or throw things alongside each other. In a parable the truth exists alongside the mentioned life situation.
In 4:10-13 Jesus explains that those who believe in him and are responsive to his word understand the messages about the kingdom of God hidden in the parables; those who do not believe in him and are not receptive of his word cannot understand them. Indeed, this was his reason for teaching in parables.
For further on Jesus’ reason for teaching in parables go here.
A. THE SOWER – Mark 4:3-20
Having just experienced a range of varying responses to himself and his teaching Jesus now tells the parable of the sower, in which the four soil types are used to refer to four different human responses to ‘the word’.
A.1 People like the pathway – 4:15
When these people hear the word Satan immediately takes it away from their hearts and minds. It makes no impression at all. Matthew reports that Jesus said these people do not understand the word [Matthew 13:19]. These are ‘hard’ hearts.
A.2 People like the rocky places – 4:16-17
Here the word makes an immediate impression, but it is only an impression, not a considered response. These people immediately receive the word with joy, but there is no depth to this response ‘since they have no root’. Their superficial reception of the word lasts only a short time. When their association with the word attracts trouble or persecution they quickly fall away.
We are reminded here of those who ‘believed’ in Jesus in John 2:22-24. Jesus knew their response was superficial, and on his part did not ‘believe’ [this is what the Greek means] in them. In other words, they never did really believe in him.
These are ‘shallow hearts’.
A.3 People like the thorny places – 4:18-19
These people hear the word, but there is no room in their busy lives for it, no time to think about it, no place among their anxieties and their materialistic priorities. All of these other things in their lives ‘choke the word’. It can do nothing: it produces neither faith nor obedience. These are ‘overcrowded’ and ‘earthly-minded’ hearts.
A.4 People like the good soil – 4:20
In these the word has its intended effect: it produces ‘fruit’ – the fruit of faith and obedience. The size of the fruit varies, but it is fruit. Matthew reports that Jesus said these people hear and understand the word [Matthew 13:23].
Some teachers believe that this parable teaches that faith, and therefore salvation, can be lost, and that the seed that fell in the rocks and among the thorns represent people who have genuine faith and then at some later time discard that faith. But this perception that genuine faith can come to an end, and that salvation can be lost, is contrary to the assurance of salvation that pulsates right through the New Testament.
[For New Testament passages affirming Assurance of Salvation go here .]
To uphold the New Testament understanding that true faith perseveres, and that salvation is guaranteed because it is by faith and through grace and grounded in the death of Jesus Christ, it is unacceptable to understand these second and third soils to indicate loss of faith and loss of salvation. These seeds in the rocky soil represent not an ending of genuine faith but the inevitable failure of a superficial, shallow faith that has no grounding in understanding, no grounding in God’s truth. The thorny soil indicates an absence of any kind of faith, even superficial faith, for this person’s mind is over-filled with many distractions that keep him from giving the Word of God the consideration it deserves. These two have not lost faith, for they never had true faith; nor have they lost salvation, for they never had it.
For more detailed study on the Parable of the Sower go here.
Task #1: Discussion points
 What is needed for anyone who is a path, rocky and thorny soil person to come to genuine, saving faith?
 Suggest what Christians can do to assist a path, rocky or thorny soil person to come to genuine, saving faith.
 In respect to those who rejected or misunderstood Jesus in Mark 3, describe how some of these who could once have been described as path, rocky or thorny people, later, according to the New Testament records, became good soil people.
 How can you be sure that your faith is genuine, saving faith?
As we saw in the previous study our personal response to the Word of Christ, which is the Word of God, is critical. How we respond to Christ and his Word is an expression of our response to God and determines our eternal destiny. Our original sin in Genesis 3 was a rejection of God and his word. In the presence of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we are commanded to repent: to reverse that original rebellion against the word of God.
A.5 Another perspective
While the above understanding and application of this parable is probably the most common, there is another way of reading it. This takes the question away from ‘Is my faith saving faith?’ and the question of my salvation, and applies the parable to my response to the Word on any and every occasion that I might physically hear it or physically read it. The question becomes ‘Am I responding rightly to the Word of God at this moment?’
While it is difficult to apply this level of application to the ‘rocky’ people, it is very easy to see how the path, thorns and good soil can be understood in this way:
 there are times when we do not really hear with our heart or mind what our ears are hearing or our eyes are seeing. We can sit through a sermon and fail to receive the Word of God. We can read a chapter of the Bible, and it makes not impression on us.
 there are times when our minds are so full of the distractions and cares of this life that the Word of God, the truth of God, is crowded out. We can be physically under the ministry of the Word, yet our minds are at our place of employment, or in our bank account, or sorting out some troubled relational issue.
 and there are times when we are receptive – when we hear and understand the Word, and it produces growth in us in terms of faith or obedience or both.
It is not the Word of God that is at fault – it is our response.
Task #2: Personal challenge
What strategies do you need to employ to ensure maximum, continuing, personal responsiveness to the Word of God?
B. THE LAMP – Mark 4:21-25
In the parable of the sower sowing the ‘seed’ parallels communicating the ‘word’. Jesus refers to this ‘word’, or the message it contains, as ‘the secret of the kingdom of God’ [verse 11].
The metaphor now changes from ‘seed’ to ‘the lamp’, and the reason the lamp comes. The ‘lamp’ is the ‘word’, the ‘secret of the kingdom of God’. The Greek text of verse 21 reads literally:
‘Does the lamp come …?’
The ‘lamp’ is the subject of the verb ‘come’. It is the lamp that is actively coming. It is not that someone is bringing the lamp.
Jesus asks, is the reason or purpose of the coming of the lamp, the light:
‘in order to be put under a measuring bowl, or under a bed’?
Is it not rather:
‘in order to be put on the lampstand’?
Jesus then says:
‘Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open’ [Mark 4:22].
Jesus’ focus in Mark 4:21,22 is on purpose. When people respond to his parables with ‘never perceiving’ and ‘never understanding’ and never turning and being forgiven [Mark 4:12] that is not the purpose of the truth:
The truth is not proclaimed with the purpose that Satan snatches it away [4:15].
The truth is not proclaimed with the purpose that it be received superficially [4:16,17].
The truth is not proclaimed with the purpose that it be crowded out [4:18,19].
The truth is not proclaimed with the purpose that it be hidden under a bed or a bowl [4:21].
These things happen, but that is not the purpose the lamp comes.
Rather, the truth is proclaimed with the purpose that it be understood and produce the right response of faith and repentance [4:20], which produces a readiness for further truth and further understanding [4:25]. The lamp comes with the purpose to reveal, not to hide.
The result, however, is, for many, at odds with the purpose.
Task #3: Discussion questions
 What does Jesus command in Mark 4:23?
 What does Jesus’ command in the first sentence in Mark 4:24 mean?
 How critical is it that we ‘hear’ in the right way?
 What happens to those who ‘hear’ like the ‘good soil’ people?
 What happens to those who ‘hear’ like the path, rocky and thorny people?
 What challenges do Mark 4:21-25 hold for you?
Task #4: Looking further
Mark reports this parabolic teaching about the sower and about the ‘lamp’ on the ‘lampstand’ to communicate the critical necessity of responding rightly to the teaching of Jesus Christ. John communicates the same urgency by reporting Jesus’ claims to be the ‘light of the world’.
How do these verses communicate the critical and urgent necessity of rightly hearing, understanding and receiving the message of Jesus Christ? And, how do they parallel Jesus’ teaching in Mark 4:21-25?
C. THE IMPACT OF THE WORD
In Mark 4:26-32 we read two brief parables of growth of the Kingdom from the planted ‘seed’. The ‘seed’ is the word of God, the message of the Kingdom of God.
C.1 The unseen working of the word in the heart [4:26-29]
These verses appear to be a commentary on 4:20 – on the way the word of God works in the ‘good soil’ people. In 4:20 Jesus said: ‘Others, like the seed on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what is sown.’
How does this happen? This mini parable in 4:26-29 tells us how:
Firstly, it is to do with the ‘kingdom of God’. It is not about a secular thing. It is not about a human action or a human ability. What is in operation here in the human heart is ‘the kingdom of God’. The message of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed. It has been sown in a human heart and mind by Jesus Christ or one of his followers. It has not been snatched away by Satan. It has not been received inappropriately. It has not been crowded out. It is there in the human heart and mind.
Secondly, without any further active intervention of the sower, the messenger, the preacher, the teacher, that truth about the kingdom sprouts and grows [4:27]. The message of the kingdom works in the heart and mind of this ‘good soil’ person, changing his thinking, moving him towards repentance and faith.
Thirdly, without any further active intervention of the messenger, the message produces ‘grain’ [4:28]. The message of the kingdom produces genuine faith and repentance, and the ‘good soil’ person is ‘ripe’ – he is harvested: he is added to the kingdom.
All of this is the unseen inner synergistic working of the word of God and the Spirit of God. Jesus spoke of this in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, where he compared the unseen, inner work of the Spirit to the unseen, yet active, wind. Here in Mark Jesus compares the unseen powerful impact of the word to the unseen, yet effective, natural growth of the planted seed.
It takes time. The planted seed does not immediately sprout and grow. It does not immediately produce fruit. All of this takes a period of time.
Task #5: Discussion questions
 What relevance does this mini-parable have for the way the church evangelizes the world?
 What does it have to say about our expectations when we proclaim the gospel?
 Does this parable mean that we should only tell a person the gospel once? [Remember Mark 4:25; read 1Corinthians 3:5-9].
 In terms of our own response to the Word, is it realistic or unrealistic to expect that the Word will always produce immediate fruit in our lives?
 What is the connection between the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ [Galatians 5:22,23] and this parable?
C.2 The end result of the message of the kingdom [4:30-32]
Jesus’ contemporaries were expecting the establishment of a visible, spectacular messianic kingdom – with a Davidic king on the restored throne of Israel, and Israel’s power and borders again what they were at the height of the reign of David.
But Jesus speaks of a different kingdom – a kingdom that begins not with the raising of a powerful army, but with the hidden and seemingly insignificant planting of the word of God in the individual human heart. A kingdom that begins with the few, not the many. A kingdom that is neither recognized nor understood by the path, the rocky and the thorny people, but only by the good soil people.
But just as the kingdom grows unseen and unnoticed in the human heart [4:27-29] as the word takes root and the Spirit gives life, so also it gradually but inevitably increases, beginning with a small handful believers in Israel and spreading out over the whole earth.
Task #6: Discussion questions
 What encouragement do you get from this parable?
 Discuss the concept of ‘insignificance’ in contemporary secular perceptions of Christianity.
CONCLUSION - Mark 4:33-34
In bringing this section to a close Mark tells us a few things about Jesus’ strategy:
 He spoke the word ‘with many similar parables’.
 He taught only ‘as much as they could understand’.
 He did not teach them (the crowds) without parables.
 He ‘explained everything’ privately to his own disciples.
Here we perceive both judgement and grace.
Consider this comment from Cranfield:
‘Calvin commenting speaks of Christ “accommodating Himself to their capacity” and adopting “a method of teaching which was proper and suitable to hearers, whom He knew to be not yet sufficiently prepared to receive instruction”, and then goes on to suggest that his purpose in employing parables was “to keep the attention of His hearers awake till a more convenient time”, in the meantime allowing them “to remain in a state of suspense”. Had he spoken to the crowds in a direct way he would have forced them to make a final decision at once, and that decision could only have been a decision of unbelief and rejection. Instead he spoke to them in an indirect way, thus engaging and maintaining their interest, and summoning them to decision without compelling them to make a final decision immediately. The parabolic teaching was at once a judgement pronounced upon their unpreparedness for the kingdom of God, and also the expression of divine mercy that desires to spare and save.’ [p171, The Gospel According to St Mark].