Continuing our studies into chapter 4, we remain in the Galilean ministry of the Lord. The continuing opposition and conflict from the religious authorities of the day, observed in chapter 3, leads the Lord to alter His method of teaching and to adopt teaching by parable. Such teaching was commenced in chapter 3 verse 23 and is continued here. In this chapter we also have the fourth and fifth seaside scenes recorded by Mark.
We can divide the chapter into four main sections:
Within the first section we have the public teaching of the parable of the sower.1
Whilst the Lord had taught by the seaside before, Mark records what is a new departure in the ministry of the Lord, ‘he began again to teach’, v.1. The Lord had taught in a similar location before. He had taught a multitude before. However, this is the first time He had specifically ‘taught them many things by parables’, v.2. He had used parables in chapter 3 when addressing the Pharisees and scribes, but this is the first recorded use of parables in the teaching of the multitude.
The Lord is in the ship, separated from the multitude by a small stretch of water. In what is regarded as a natural amphitheatre setting, He begins to teach.2Some have suggested that this was also a natural setting for the work of a sower. Near to the natural irrigation afforded by the lake and the river that flowed from it, it might have been possible to see a sower on the slopes around the lake. In this way, the Lord relates His teaching using a picture that would be familiar to His hearers.
It is only Mark who records the word of the Lord that commands the attention of His hearers, ‘Hearken’, v. 3. Hiebert comments, ‘The present imperative calls for the continuing attention of the hearers’.3 From the commencement of this public declaration of the message through to its close in verse 9, the Lord is stressing the need for careful attention to the message delivered.
Although ‘there went out a sower to sow’, v.3, the real emphasis in this parable is not on the sower but upon the seed and where that seed falls. All these types of ground are introduced for us, in verse 4, by the words, ‘And it came to pass’. This would indicate that it was not the purpose of the sower that the seed should fall into any of these areas other than the good ground. In this way the Lord directs our minds to the soil and its productivity. There are four basic situations into which the seed falls:
The picture demonstrates that there was no problem with the seed. In the good ground, it brought forth an amazing harvest, between three and ten times greater than that which would be expected naturally. It kept on yielding!
As the Lord commences with the word ‘Hearken’, v. 34, so he closes his discourse with the words, ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear’. The Lord is stressing that it was not just a matter of listening to the parable. As Cole suggests, it is ‘a warning lest we dismiss it lightly without searching our own hearts’.5 They needed to heed what was taught and this was a continuing duty upon them all. Their responsibility is placed firmly upon them.
The responsibility was placed upon all that heard the parable of the sower, but it was only those who were about the Lord, and remained with Him when the majority had left, that askedHim the meaning. There seems to have been a chronological gap here, possibly one of a few hours but one that did not distract the earnest seekers after truth.
As the multitude, together with the scribes and Pharisees, had departed, the Lord is left alone with His disciples and a small group.6At this point,those that remain enquire of the Lord the meaning of the parable.
First, the Lord explains His reasons for teaching in parables.
There was a two-fold purpose in the use of parables. The parable was to veil the truth from those who would not hear but also to unveil the truth to those who would hear. ‘Unto you’, says the Lord, v.11. This small group of enquiring listeners would be given the key to understanding the parable. Whereas, ‘them that are without’, v.11, would remain mystified as to its meaning and application.
The Lord is here confirming the chosen path of those who had rejected His teaching and message. The context of these verses shows the extent of the Lord’s rejection, for in chapter 3 they had accused Him of casting out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of the demons. As plain as the truth may be, it cannot be understood by those who have set their minds against it.
However, in verse 13 the Lord shows that to really know the meaning and significance of any parable, or portion of the word of God, requires divine intervention.
Second, the Lord explains the meaning of the parable itself.
To the small group of enquiring listeners, the Lord now explains the meaning of the parable. There are five parts to the explanation:
The parable shows the lasting power of the word of God. It can accomplish great things in the lives of those that will hear it and receive it into their hearts by faith. Hiebert comments, ‘The life that continually takes in God’s Word, assimilates it, and is submissive to its demands, will be characterized by personal goodness and power for continued service’.8
On the subject of parables, Wiersbe comments, ‘A parable begins innocently as a picture that arrests our attention and arouses our interest. But as we study the picture, it becomes a mirror in which we suddenly see ourselves. If we continue to look by faith, the mirror becomes a window through which we see God and His truth. How we respond to that truth will determine what further truth God will teach us’, op. cit.
Wuest comments, ‘The acoustics on a lake shore are excellent. One can hear and understand the human voice at quite a distance’, op. cit., pg. 81.
Hiebert, op. cit., pg. 106.
Hiebert, op. cit., pg. 107.
Cole, op. cit., pg. 90.
A. T. Robertson points out that it is only Mark that indicates there were others present and not just the disciples.
J. MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, Logos Bible software resource.
Hiebert, op. cit., pg. 114.