The Text: Mark 4:1-20 – He began again to teach by the seaside; and a great multitude was gathered together with Him, so that He entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. And He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:
“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow [seed]. And it came to pass, while He sowed, [that] some fell by the roadside, and the birds of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much soil; and immediately it sprang up, because it didn’t have deep soil. But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other [seed] fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased. And [they] brought forth [fruit], some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundred.”
And He said to them, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”
And when He was alone, those who were around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “To you it’s given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all [these] things are coming in parables. So that ‘Seeing, they may see and not perceive; and hearing, they might hear and not understand; lest at any time they might be converted, and their sins might be forgiven them.’”
And He said to them, “Do you not perceive this parable? And how, then, will you know all [these other] parables?
“The sower sows the word. And these by the roadside are they where the seed is sown, but when they have heard, Satan comes in immediately, and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. And likewise, these which are sown on stony ground are they who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and have no root in themselves, and so [they] endure only for a time. Afterwards, when affliction or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they are caused to stumble. And these which are sown among the thorns are they such as hear the word, and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches and lusts of other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. And these which are sown on good ground are they such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”
The parable of the sower is one of the best-known of Jesus’ parables. I don’t have any idea how many times I’ve heard some part of it referenced (often the “cares of this world” line), but it’s a lot. It’s mentioned by Matthew (chapter 13), Mark (chapter 4), and Luke (chapter 8). And though many people refer to it as the “parable of the soils,” Jesus called it “the parable of the sower” (Matthew 13:18). Therefore, while Jesus spends a lot of time dealing with the different kinds of soils, His main emphasis is on the sower.
The Text, part 1 – The Setting (Mark 4:1-2)
[Jesus] began again to teach by the seaside. And a great multitude gathered [together around] Him, so that He entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land.
Matthew 13:1 tells us that at first, Jesus sat to teach by the seaside (most likely next to the sea of Galilee). But the crowds gathered, and Jesus stood up, walking to a ship that He could board so that He could teach the crowds without being mobbed. Then, He sat down on the ship and began to teach the multitude that was on the shore. This wouldn’t have been like a rowboat, but probably one of the fishing boats. Jesus must have had a very strong voice to be able to teach this great crowd of people while sitting on this boat.
And He taught them many things by parables.
The word “parable” comes from the Greek parabole, which literally means “to throw beside.” It’s the idea of putting two things side-by-side for comparison’s sake. A parable is often described as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” and quite often that is true. I’d be more specific, and say that a parable is a story dealing with things that are known and understood in order to explain something that is not necessarily known or understood. Every parable that Jesus gave dealt with things that the listeners could identify with and understand, things like planting and harvesting, or losing something valuable and rejoicing when it is found (Luke 15). And behind all these parables were deeper truths. Some parables foretold the rejection of the Jews (Matthew 21:33-45), while others taught Godly attributes (like the Good Samaritan).
And in His teaching to them, He said “Listen.”
Jesus didn’t speak to waste His breath. He expected those people who gathered around to pay attention to the things He was trying to teach them. As followers of Jesus Christ today, we should respect the Lord enough to listen to Him and listen to His word being proclaimed.
The Text, part 2 – The Parable Given (Mark 4:3-8)
This word means not just to look, but to perceive, to comprehend. So, as Jesus began to speak, He opens with the words, “Listen. Perceive.” In other words, Jesus is telling them that in order to understand His teaching, they would have to pay attention, and do some thinking. He explains why a little later on.
“A sower went out to sow”
Literally, “the scattering one went to scatter.” This kind of sowing is done by a person with a large bag, like a large purse, with the handle over his shoulder and neck. He reaches inside the bag, grabs a handful of seeds, and then scatters them all across the field as he walks. He knows ahead of time that not all the seeds will take root, but given the sheer number of seeds that he throws out there, he knows that some of them will produce the desired plant.
“Some [seed] fell by the road, and the birds of the air came and devoured it up.”
The road, whether it be rock or dirt, was packed down so hard that no seed could penetrate—so it just sat there, and was free food for the birds who gladly take advantage of it.
“Some [seed] fell on stony ground, where there was not much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil.”
You might imagine soil with lots of gravel or little rocks mixed in with it, but that’s not what Jesus is describing. He’s describing ground where there is a very small layer of soil, and underneath that is just rock. That’s why He says “it has no depth of soil [or earth].” Anyone who has ever tried to plant a garden in this kind of soil knows that it is almost impossible to get much to grow and produce, because there’s simply not enough soil to support the plant.
“But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.”
When Luke records this statement, he says that the plant withered away because it “lacked moisture.” The thin layer of dirt couldn’t hold on to the necessary moisture to sustain these plants, and the plants died as a result.
“Some [seed] fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.”
These are weeds among which the seed fell. These weeds, with thorns, stole moisture and nutrients from the soil, and worked to overtake the plant, keeping it from being able to produce any fruit. This is why anyone who has much experience with gardening knows you’ve got to “weed” (or de-weed) your garden so that your crops can grow and produce.
“Other [seed] fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundred.”
This here is the reason why the sower goes out and scatters the seed: because there is good soil out there, and if he scatters enough seed, some of it will land in that soil. That seed will then sprout, take root, and produce a good harvest.
The person sowing the seed during those days wasn’t usually the land owner—at least not on the bigger fields. It was someone working for the person who owned the field. Usually, there were several working the fields at once, and they would scatter the seed all over the place, covering every possible area. Some of it would land in bad soil, but some of it would land in good soil. These workers oftentimes had no way of knowing what kinds of soil were all around them. Their job was merely to scatter the seed.
The Text, part 3 – Hearing and Understanding (Mark 4:9-13)
He said to them, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”
This is something that Jesus said on more than one occasion. He said it after telling His disciples that John the Immerser was the fulfillment of the prophecies about Elijah (Matthew 11:7-15); after asking them whether a candle should be hid under a bushel (Mark 4:21-23); after chastising the Pharisees for elevating their traditions over God’s word (Mark 7:1-16); after explaining the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:36-43); after instructing the multitude on the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:25-35); and at the conclusion of each of the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2-3).
The phrase means that everyone (because they all have ears) is supposed to listen. In fact, the phrase “let him hear” is the same as the word translated “Hearken” (KJV) or “Listen” that Jesus used back in verse 3. It is a command to hear the message that is being presented.
But not everyone understood the message…
When He was alone, they that were around Him, with the twelve, asked Him about the parable.
Mark is the only one who gives us this piece of information, that is, that they waited until Jesus was alone to ask this question. They apparently didn’t want to ask the question in front of the multitude, and they also didn’t want to interrupt Jesus’ teaching. So, they waited until later.
Mark is also the only one who tells us that it was more than just the apostles asking this question. Matthew and Luke simply say “the disciples,” which sometimes is a reference to just the twelve. But this was the entire group of Jesus’ disciples, all the ones who were faithfully following Him—including the apostles.
It appears that none of them understood the deeper meaning behind Jesus’ parable of the sower.
He said to them, “To you, it’s given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all these things are coming in parables.”
The disciples, including the apostles, were being taught about the Kingdom of God by Jesus. He told them that it was “at hand,” and showed its power to them by casting out demons and healing the sick. But there was more to it than just power. The Kingdom of God included enduring rejection by the very people Jesus came to save. The disciples needed to understand that the key to understanding Jesus’ parables was knowing about the Kingdom. The Kingdom would be spread by sowing the word of God (as He will allude to momentarily) in the hearts of people.
But to those who don’t understand, who haven’t opened their eyes to the reality of Jesus spiritual kingdom, these parables would have no meaning—for they didn’t have the key.
The KJV says these things are “done” in parable, but literally, He says they are “coming” in parables. That is, He’s presenting those things in parables to the masses.
“So that ‘Seeing, they might see, and not perceive; and hearing, they might hear, and not understand”
Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9, and applies it to His own teaching in parables—a definite claim that He is the Messiah.
The parables are spoken, according to Jesus, so that they would have the opportunity to see and perceive, to hear and understand—if they had the right heart and desire. It isn’t made clear in English, but the verbs are in the subjunctive mood, showing possibility. So, literally, Jesus is saying “Seeing, they might see, and might not perceive; and hearing, they might hear, and might not understand. Some people have accused Jesus of intentionally hiding the truth from people so that they couldn’t understand it—but that’s not the case at all. He’s teaching in a way that helps those who sincerely want to understand to put everything together. In fact, the word translated “understand” is a compound word in Greek which means “bringing together.”
“‘Lest at any time they might be converted, and their sins might be forgiven them.’”
Again, these are conditional statements. Some of the people did listen to Jesus, and some of them were converted, and did have their sins forgiven. But the majority did not. In Isaiah 6, where this statement came from, the Lord sent Isaiah to proclaim the truth that the people really didn’t want to hear—that their cities were going to be utterly wasted. And the more they heard that they didn’t like, they more they ignored the prophet.
The same thing happened with Jesus (see John 6:66). There were hard-hearted people who didn’t want the message of a spiritual kingdom that required godly living and evangelism and obedience. So, Jesus spoke it to them in parables, keeping the true meaning just under the surface—those who were spiritually-minded would dig and find it, while those who weren’t interested would just think it was a story and shrug it off.
And He said to them, “Do you not perceive this parable? How then will you perceive all [the other] parables?”
Jesus was kind (because He explains the parable to them), but at the same time, this statement expresses a disappointment in the disciples. They, the ones who should be best equipped to understand the meaning, didn’t see it. And you have to know that it stung a bit when Jesus quoted Isaiah 6:9, and then immediately afterwards asked them if they were among the ones who fit the description of “not perceiving.”
This parable is a fairly straight-forward one, and when we understand that it is about the kingdom of God, the rest of the pieces fall into place pretty easily. And Jesus asks them how they could hope to understand His other parables if they didn’t understand this parable. So many people want to jump headfirst into the deeper matters of the Bible without first having an understanding of some of the simpler parts. If you can’t grasp the simple parts, you have no hope of understanding the more difficult ones!
The Text, part 4 – The Explanation (Mark 4:13-20)
“The sower sows the word.”
That statement is the key to the entire parable. Luke records it as “the seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). Without this knowledge, the parable is hidden in a mist of confusion. But when you know that “the seed is the word of God,” everything else makes sense.
“These by the road are they where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.”
The word of God makes no lasting penetration into these hearts. Just like the birds eating seed off the hard ground, Satan has no trouble removing the word of God from the hearts and minds of this kind of people. They aren’t really spiritually-minded to begin with, and so they don’t take in the word of God, they don’t treasure it. It’s just there, ready to be forgotten at the first opportunity.
“Likewise, these which are sown on stony ground are they who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so they endure but for a time. Afterwards, when affliction or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately, they are caused to stumble.”
These are what you might call “shallow” Christians. They want the salvation that comes through Christ, but they don’t have any roots, no depth to their faith, and so when things get tough, they simply fall away.
It’s interesting that in the parable, Jesus described the sun as part of the reason the plant died, and then he describes affliction and persecution as what causes a believer to die (spiritually). But the sun has a very positive effect on plants which are properly planted; and persecution and affliction has a very positive effect on Christians who are properly planted in God (see James 1:2-4, Acts 5:40-41).
The word “offended” (KJV) or “stumble” (NKJV) is the Greek word scandalizo. It’s where we get the word “scandal.”
“These which are sown among thorns are those, such as hear the word, and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”
In contrast to the previous people, these aren’t “shallow” Christians. These are people who know the truth, believe the truth, and may have even at one time been very fruitful in the truth. But they are the ones who have gotten caught up with cares of the world (friends, family, work, politics, fun, pleasure) and as a result, they’ve relegated God’s word to second place (or third or fourth or fifth…) in their lives. These are the ones who have allowed the material things to become the focus of their lives (money, wealth, things). Jesus adds that it’s also “the lusts of other things.” It’s basically Jesus saying, “and other things like these.”
When those things become the focus, it chokes out the word of God in your life, and you become unfruitful. Even if you were at one point in time an active, evangelistic, fruitful Christian, you can still fall—you can still get so tangled up in the cares of this world that you end up forgetting that this world isn’t our home, and we’ve got a better world awaiting us.
“These which are sown on good ground are those, such as hear the word and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”
These are active, faithful, working Christians. These are those who are productive for the Lord. There’s two different ways we can look at what this “fruit” is:
First, we could use the word “fruit” as John the Immerser did in Matthew 3:8, “Therefore, bring forth fruits suitable for repentance.” By this, the “fruit” would have a reference to works (in our context, it would be good works). Paul uses the phrase in a similar way in Romans 7:5-6.
Second, we could look at something God says about “fruit” in the creation account in Genesis 1:11: “And God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed is in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” Since the fruit has the seed inside it, and the seed is the word of God, then to “bring forth fruit” would be converting people to Christ. Each person you convert to the Lord now has the word of God (the seed) inside them.
Ultimately, the two options are really two parts of the same thing.
Preparing the Sower
Since Jesus called it the “parable of the sower,” He wanted His disciples to view it from that direction first. In telling them this parable, He was preparing them for the different kinds of reactions that they would receive when they went about preaching the word. We need to take the same lesson from it as well, and know ahead of time that there will be people who are so hard-hearted that the word of God won’t take hold in their heart. We need to realize ahead of time that some people will accept it, but they will be shallow and fall away. Some will accept it, and stick with it, but they won’t bear fruit because they’re too busy with the things of this life. These things aren’t our fault—that is on them. But we also need to know that there are people out there who will gladly receive the word of God and who will bear fruit. That is the reason we need to keep trying to bring others to Christ, because these kind of people are out there!
Preparing the Soil
The secondary purpose of this parable is from the standpoint of the soils, or the heart. What kind of heart do you have? Is it a hard heart? A shallow heart? A rocky heart? Or a good and pure heart? As most of you are certainly aware, bad soil doesn’t have to stay bad soil. It can be broken up, tilled, cared for, rocks removed, weeds removed, and it can become productive. The same thing is true of your heart. If you honestly look at your heart and discover that you are one of the first three, then you can do something about it! You can cultivate your heart, be more conscious of where your focus is, on what is most important, and then you can start being fruitful for the Lord!
Just possessing he seed isn’t enough. Just tossing it on the ground isn’t enough. In order for that seed to produce a plant, there’s something else that has to be present, and that’s water. The same thing is true with the word of God. Just having it isn’t enough to save you. Just believing it isn’t enough to save you (for the demons believe and tremble, James 2:19). It’s when you make the decision to repent of your rebellion to God, and add water—being baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of your sins—that you become a Christian.
Won’t you please become a fruitful follower of the Lord today?
-Bradley S. Cobb