Mark 4:1-34


Mark is known as the epistle of ACTION.  There is constant movement throughout the book.  Jesus is constantly DOING.  But the greater part of this chapter reflects a deviation from that pattern.  This chapter contains a sermon.  It is one of only two sermons in the entire book.





            He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land.  2   And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching (Mark 4:1-2).


Once again, Jesus comes to the sea.  He has been here before.  Again there is the sea.  Again there is a large crowd.  Again there is a boat.


This time we are specifically told that He got into the boat and utilized it as a floating pulpit from which to teach.  As was appropriate for a teacher in that culture, He sat down to teach.  But this time, there was a difference.  This time, He taught by means of parables.


What is a parable?  It is a story with a meaning.  It is truth illustrated.  A vocal cartoon.  The story might be pretend or it might be a true story.  The point is not the story but the truth it illustrates.


Jesus had dramatically changed His mode of teaching.  The reason for this is because there had been a change in the audience.  That change had been vividly illustrated in the previous chapter when certain Jewish leaders had declared His miracles to be empowered by Satan.  The change was one of growing unbelief.  And in the face of that unbelief, Jesus begins to teach in parables.




            “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow;  4 as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up.

            “Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil.  6  And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.

            “Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.

            “Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”

            And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:3-9).


The first story that Jesus tells is of a farmer going forth to spread his seed upon the ground.  He did not have to explain this process.  His story was familiar to everyone listening.  There were no doubt many in the crowd who were farmers themselves.  It was common practice to scatter the seed first and then to come back and plow the earth to cover the seed.


The initial character described in the story is the farmer.  But the focus of the story quickly changes.  The sower will not be mentioned again.  Instead, our attention is focused upon the seed and its deportation.  The seed falls onto four different types of ground.


1st Seed

2nd Seed

3rd Seed

4th Seed

Beside the road

Rocky ground

Among thorns

In good soil

Not much soil

No roots

Bad company


Eaten by birds

Scorched by the sun

Choked by thorns

Bore fruit

No life

Temporary life

Eternal life

No fruit



The same sower sowed all the seeds.  The seeds themselves were all the same.  The only difference was in the ground where the seeds landed.  Certain types of soil brought about certain results.


            Seed beside the road had no protection.  It was eaten by birds even before it had a chance to grow.

            Seed in rocky ground had no chance to establish roots.  Although there was some initial growth, it quickly withered and died under the heat of the sun.


            Seed among thorns also saw an initial period of growth.  But the thorns grew at the same time and soon the good seed was choked.


            Finally, seed was sown on good ground.  This grew up into plants which produced an abundance of fruit.


The story which Jesus is telling is being acted out before them.  He is doing what He is describing.  He is the sower.  He is sowing the word.  The sowing takes place over four different types of ground and with four different results.


The point of the story is that, although the sower does his job and the seed is sufficient, it is only when it falls upon good ground that there is growth.





            As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables.

            And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables,  12  so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:10-12).


I imagine that as the disciples heard the parables, they nodded their heads as if in understanding.  But as soon as they were out of earshot of the crowds, they asked Jesus what their meaning might be.


Unspoken is the question behind the question: Why is Jesus speaking in parables when the meaning of those parables is not immediately clear?  It is one thing to give an illustration so that everyone can understand.  It is another thing to give illustrations in such a way that no one understands.  And yet, this is exactly what Jesus was doing.  Even His disciples did not understand the meaning of these parables.


Up to this point, Jesus had not spoken in parables.  At the most, he had given a few vivid illustrations, but they were always in the context of clearly stated teachings.  But now there is a change.  He has now begun to teach exclusively in parables.


What can account for this change?  Why is the preaching strategy of Jesus so different from this day forward?


It is because of what happened in the last chapter.  It is because of the unpardonable sin.  It is because of the rejection of Jesus by the scribes.  It is because they pointed at the work of God’s Holy Spirit and labeled in the work of Satan.  It is because they had pointed at the Spirit of God and called Him the devil.


As a result, Jesus will no longer speak clearly to these scribal authorities.  The door of salvation has been closed to them.


1.         Mysteries Revealed:   “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God...” (4:11)


When we think of a mystery, we usually imagine an Agatha Christie novel and a suspicious butler.  But we must understand that the word “mystery” is a transliteration of the Greek word musterion.  It carries the idea of something that has been hidden and which is now being revealed to the initiated.


The Greek cults described their cultic rites as the musthria - the rituals which only the initiated were permitted to observe.


These parables are going to reveal a number of truths which had previously been hidden.  Those truths will continue to be hidden to those who are not disciples of Jesus.


The word “parable” (from parabole) means “to throw up along side.”  It is an earthly story thrown up along side a heavenly truth which is being taught.  But the way Jesus used parable did more than illustrate truth.  It also hid truth.


Have you ever watched an unbeliever hear the parables?  They don’t get it!  They listen to the story, but they do not understand what it is trying to teach.


2.         Mysteries Hidden.


            “...but those who are outside get everything in parables,  12  so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:11-12).


Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah.  His quote is taken from the passage where Isaiah has his vision of the glory of God.  It is a glorious vision with angels and the majesty of God and a call to be a spokesman for heaven.  Isaiah answers the call, “Here am I.  Send me!”  And the very next thing that we read is a commission to speak to a people who will not listen.


            And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.’

            “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, lest they should see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10).


Jesus quotes this passage and likens it to His own situation.  In the same way that the people in Isaiah’s day did not listen to him, so also the religious leaders of Israel had now rejected Jesus.  In the same way that the Israelites of that day had been condemned, so now Jesus issues a condemnation against those who have rejected Him.  In the same way that judgment had come upon Israel in the form of the Assyrian conquest, so now judgment would come at the hands of the legions of Rome.


The immediate manifestation of this judgment is in different teaching modes utilized by Jesus.


To You

To Those on the Outside



Given the mysteries of the kingdom of God

Given everything in parables


Here is the principle.  God’s truths are not given to those who do not want God’s truths.   The secrets of the kingdom are family secrets.


There are things that my family knows that no one else knows.  The only way that you would know these things is if you became a part of our family.


The kingdom of God is like that.  It has family secrets and only those who are a part of the family are entitled to those secrets.


Now you are probably thinking, “I’ve always been taught that we are to give God’s truths to everybody.  Didn’t Jesus tell us to go out and make disciples of every nation?”


Yes, He did.  But when people hear the gospel and then decide that they want no part of it, we are to stop presenting the gospel to them.


That is what Paul did during his missionary journeys.  He would go into a city and he would preach to the Jews.  If the Jews rejected him, then he would turn to the Gentiles.  If the Gentiles also rejected him, then he would move to another city.


The same principle can be applied today.  Are you a wife with an unbelieving husband who wants no part of the gospel?  Don’t talk to him about the gospel.


            In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won WITHOUT A WORD by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. (1 Peter 3:1-2).


There are times when, in my zeal for the gospel, I have not followed this principle.  In those instances, I have seen unbelievers hardened to the gospel in a dramatic way.


On the other hand, I have also seen times when I was obedient; when I stood back and allowed the Holy Spirit to do His work, with the result that a new brother eventually came into the kingdom.





Jesus now prepares to explain the parable of the sower.  He will not explain all of the parables, but He DOES explain this one.  And He prefaces this explanation with a question which seems to underline the importance of this particular parable.


            And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13).


It is possible that the parable of the sower serves as the key to the understanding of all of the other kingdom parables taught in this chapter.  Both the parable and its explanation is found in all three of the synoptic gospels.


            “The sower sows the word.

            “These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them.

            “In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy;  17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away.

            “And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.

            “And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:14-20).


Unlike most parables which teach only one major point, this parable has a number of points.  Let us begin by identifying the elements of the parable.



Spiritual Truth

The Sower

The One who sows the Word - Jesus

The Seed

The Word of God - the message of Jesus

The Soil

The hearts of men


The Sower is Jesus Himself.  He has been preaching to the people.  He has been sowing the Word among them.  We have also been given a ministry of sowing the word.  Jesus gave His disciples a charge to go out and make disciples of all men.  The Sower commissioned others to continue the work of sowing.  We share in that commission.


As the disciples have been watching Jesus sow the word, they have also been watching the reaction of the crowd.  Though there has been some opposition, much of the reaction has seemed to be positive.  And yet, this parable will serve as a warning that not all who initially react in a positive manner to Jesus will bear fruit.


There are four specific types of ground upon which the seed falls.


Type of Ground

Initial Response

Type of Response

Final Result

Ground beside the road

Does not understand

Casual reception

Satan takes it away

Rocky places

Receives it with joy

Shallow reception

Falls away in the face of affliction

Among the thorns

Heard the word

Worldly reception

Choked by the things of the world

Good ground

Understands and accepts

Responsive reception

Bears fruit


Notice that there is a progression in each of these four cases.  The first sees no growth at all.  The second sees initial growth, but the roots have nothing onto which to hold.  The third grows strong roots, only to be strangled by the surrounding thorn bushes and weeds.  Only the fourth makes it to maturity.


1.         The First Instance.


This is the seed which was sown beside the road.  It represents the casual receiver of the word.  He is like the had, beaten-down path that is well traveled.  He hears the word of God and it has no impact at all upon his life. It is like water off a duck’s back.  He is an unbeliever and he wants to go on being an unbeliever.  He will get his wish.


2.         The Second Instance.


This one represents the shallow receiver of the word.  He hears the gospel and his immediate reaction is positive.  He has an emotional high and gets a case of the “warm fuzzies.”  He jumps onto the Jesus bandwagon.  But something is wrong.  There is no root.


Paula and I have some fake flowers.  They are very bright and cheerful and Paula has set them into a planter just as if they were real flowers.  They have leaves and petals and look just like the real thing.  There is only one problem.  They are fake.  They have no roots and no life.  This person is like that.  He has leaves, but no roots and no fruit.  He is spiritually dead.


It is easy to be spiritual on Sunday morning.  It is harder to be faithful where you live and work.  When the going gets tough, the fake fall away.  This is why persecution so often has a purifying effect upon the church.  All those people who are false on the inside fall away.


3.         The Third Instance.


This is the worldly receiver of the word.  This is the man who hears the word and who wants to receive it, but something gets in the way.  He is the double-minded man.  He wants to live for God on Sundays and Wednesdays and to live for the devil the rest of the week.


Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler?  He had too much stuff.  His material possessions got in the way of following Jesus.


Just as the rocky soil represents someone who cannot handle adversity, so the thorny soil represents the one who cannot handle prosperity.


4.         The Fourth Instance.


This is the responsive receiver of the word.  He is the Christian - the one who hears the word and believes it and whose life is changed by it.  The evidence of this change is that he bears fruit.  You know what fruit is.  Fruit is the natural outgrowth of a living plant.  The fruit of the Spirit is the supernatural outgrowth of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.


There are some important lessons in this parable.


a.         The lesson of false beginnings.


Two of these instances saw an initial period of growth, only to have the plants die.  These represented an initial commitment to Christ that did not last.  They ultimately fell away.  And by doing so, they showed that they were not a part of the kingdom.


b.         The lesson of an effectual seed.


Ability does not negate the effectiveness of the seed.  I have already suggested that you have a ministry to sow the word.  But you might feel that you are not skillful at presenting the gospel.  That is okay. Even the unskilled sower will manage to get some of the seed on the good soil where it will bear fruit.  The response of the soil does not depend upon the skill of the sower.


There is a sense in which every Christian goes through this progression.  As you first hear the message of the gospel, it is the first scenario which presents the greatest danger.  This is the point where you might walk away from the gospel and ignore its message.


Once you pass that point, it is the vulnerable rootless existence that is the most dangerous.


The next pitfall is that of worry and riches.


Where are you?  If you tell me which danger you have overcome, then I can tell you which one lies ahead.





            And He was saying to them, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed?  Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand?

            “For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light.  23  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:21-23).


The purpose of a lamp is to give light to an area in darkness.  A lamp belongs on a lampstand.  It is only there that it accomplishes its purpose.  When you cover up a lamp by placing it in an inappropriate place, it cannot perform that function for which it was designed.


The kingdom is like that.  It is meant to be seen before a watching world.  Its message is meant to be proclaimed to the nations.  This will involve taking it beyond the borders of Israel.


The truth WILL be heard.  The kingdom will not be able to be suppressed. Truth is like that.  It always finds a way to be revealed.





            And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to.  By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides.  25  For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” (Mark 4:24-25).


A man’s getting is determined by his giving.  Whatever you put into something, that is what you will get out of it.  You get what you give.  And you get it with interest.  Because of this, you actually get more than you give.


This is why farmers farm.  They place a seed into the found in order to receive, not simply a seed, but an entire fruit tree.  There is an increase.


But there has to be an initial planting.  There has to be an initial action in order to receive a reaction.  And with respect to the kingdom, there must be an initial commitment to that kingdom in order to receive kingdom truths.  This is illustrated in the next parable.





            And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil;  27  and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows ‑‑ how, he himself does not know.

            “The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.  29  But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29).


Once again, we have a parable which utilizes the realm of agriculture to illustrate God’s kingdom.  Again there is the sowing of seed.  Again there is the resulting growth.


1.         Growth comes from God.


No farmer was ever able to bring about the growth of a plant.  You can plant the seed, cultivate the soil and add water.  You can remove the thorns and building fences and scarecrows to keep away the ravages of animals and birds.  But the growth takes place apart from any effort on the farmer.


The kingdom is like that.  There are a lot of things that I can do in the service of the kingdom, but its increase will be the work of God.


2.         Growth comes in stages.


You do not plant a seen in the ground and then jump out of the way as a full-grown tree shoots up to its full height.  Growth comes in slow and steady stages.


3.         The Goal of Growth is the Harvest.


There is coming a day when the harvest shall come.  The kingdom will be completed.  The harvester shall return to His field.


History is headed toward a goal.  That goal is the return of Christ and the redemption of the world.  It is illustrated by means of a harvest.  God is growing something.  There is coming a day when that growth shall be completed.





            And He said, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it?

            “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32 yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32).


This is the third parable that has dealt with seeds and with growth.  This time the parable deals with a certain type of seed - a mustard seed.  The Greek terms is a kokko sinapeos - a grain of mustard.  The mustard plant was a large herb, growing from a very tiny seed to a height of 12 to 15 feet.


The kingdom is like that.  Starting with a simple Galilean carpenter-turned-rabbi and a handful of fishermen, it will grow to fill the whole world.


This parable is very important for the disciples to hear.  They are not world leaders or great statesmen or mighty generals.  And yet, they have been called to change the world.  In the darkness of their nights, they will wonder if they have made a mistake.  They will wonder if they have followed a Don Quixote and are fighting windmills.  And so, Jesus gives them this parable to let them know that they will succeed.  Out of the little seed, their word will grow to start a mighty tree.


            With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it;  34  and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples. (Mark 4:33-34).


We have already noted that the parables were meant, not only to reveal truth, but also to hide truth.  What makes the difference?  A part of the difference is seen in the explanations that accompany the parables.  Those who do not believe are not given these further explanations.  Those who do believe are made privy to them.


In which group are you?  These parables are meant either to enlighten you or else they are meant to keep you in the dark.  The difference will depend upon the state of your own heart.


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