Mark chapter 4 is a bit of a turning point in his gospel. In chapters 2 and 3, Jesus begins to experience some opposition. This is a foreshadowing of the opposition that would lead to Jesus’ death on the cross.
However, we also notice in chapter 3 that great multitudes are following Him. Despite some critics and those who have questioned Him (ref. 3:7) multitudes continue to gather to Him. Again, in chapter 4, Mark brings to our attention that multitudes are still following Him.
Mark 4: 1
And again He began to teach by the sea. And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea.
This time as the crowds gather to hear Him, Jesus begins to teach them in parables. Chapter 4 contains four parables, the Parable of the Sower, a Light Under a Basket, Growing Seed, and the Mustard Seed. Each of these parables are about the kingdom of God—a theme that Mark has been developing through His gospel.
Why does Jesus teach in parables? What can we understand from His teaching?
Jesus begins with a call to “listen” (ref. 4:3) “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.” We also see that this section of teaching as Mark records is bookended with the word “hear”.
And with many such parables, He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.
One of the first things we can notice, as we come to this section of teaching, is that Jesus wants His hearers (and us) to listen to His words intently, to seek to understand, and to perceive what He is teaching.
Mark has arranged these parables, or teachings of Jesus, in His gospel for a specific purpose. Notice that these are not all of the parables that Jesus taught, “And with many such parables He spoke the word to them…” (ref. 4:33). Mark has included these four parables for a specific purpose. I believe he has arranged these to help us understand God’s kingdom, Jesus’ work in establishing God’s kingdom, and our part in the story of His kingdom. To understand this, we will need to listen intently.
Perceive, Understand, Forgiveness
In the Parable of the Sower, the first parable Mark shares with us, Jesus says something very curious.
“…‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them.’ ””
Is this consistent with the whole of the gospel? The Scriptures teach us the Lord's desire for all people to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah, something Jesus’ hearers on this day would have recognized.
Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ “Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.”
In the first five chapters of Isaiah, we read about the wickedness of Judah. We read about their sinfulness, how God has cultivated and provided fertile ground for them yet they have failed to produce fruit.
It’s interesting to note that in chapter 5 of Isaiah, we read of God’s vineyard and how God had tended to the vineyard. As we compare this to the parable Jesus is speaking in Mark 4 of the Sower, the parallels start to be seen. The prophet Isaiah is speaking about the judgment of God that is coming upon Judah and Jerusalem because of their rebellion to His word. They have closed their ears, they have shut their eyes, and despite the prophet‘s call to repentance, they will not turn to be healed. This is not God’s desire, but it is a pattern we often see. God’s word can draw us to Him or in our rebellion it can push us away from Him so that we close our ears and we close our eyes to His word.
Not much has changed in the hearts of people. Jesus, speaking in Mark 4, understands His words are going to draw some to Him whereas others will close their hearts to the gospel of the kingdom of God, they will not turn and be forgiven.
Able to Hear
Some desired to hear the words of our Lord. They desired to know more, they sought for understanding.
And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.
Some were open, they were ready to hear all that Jesus had to say. They sought to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Jesus said in the Parable of the Light Under a Basket “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.” (ref. 4:24). In the context of this parable, Jesus is saying, listen carefully to my words and seek to understand them, the more you do, the more understanding you will receive. The word of the Lord is true (ref. Jn. 17:17), they are words of life (ref. Jn. 6:68), but we must be willing to listen and hear His words.
We need to ask ourselves, “If I were one of the persons standing among the multitudes that were listening to Jesus, who would I have been? Would I have been the skeptic? Would I have been one who was accusing? Or, would I have been one who was pressing forward to hear more, one who was seeking to understand?”
The Kingdom of God
God’s kingdom, as Jesus describes in these parables, is not what people were expecting. God’s kingdom does not just explode on the world’s stage rescuing Israel from oppression. No, God’s kingdom as Jesus explains will be like:
Some of the words spoken by Jesus will be quickly removed by the adversary from the hearts of people. Others will stumble when difficulties and trials come. While others will value the things of this life more so than the things of the kingdom. But there will be some, perhaps a small number, who accept His words and this seed grows in good soil.
The kingdom of God will be as a light on a lampstand. It will illuminate and not be kept secret, it will bring light to the world.
God will cultivate His kingdom, it will grow but we also know that there will be a time when the harvest has come and the sickle will be brought to the harvest
God’s kingdom is not going to explode on the world’s stage as some had expected but will start with humble beginnings as a mustard seed. His kingdom will grow, greater than all other kingdoms, and it will be a place of rest and refuge.
Are we willing to hear the words of Jesus? Are we willing to press forward so that we can understand more? Such is the person Jesus is looking for.
We today are not that much different from the multitudes who followed Jesus or those that Isaiah called to repentance. Some remain skeptical, some would seek to accuse, others closed their eyes and ears, yet some desire to know more. Which person are we? If we desire to know more we are going to look intently into God’s word, we are going to be active in seeking to understand His word. Will we desire to know how we can become workers in His kingdom as we find our story in His?
Scripture from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
bio: Steve and Brenda have been married for the past twenty-seven years and have three beautiful daughters. In addition to producing content for and managing SimplyRevised, Steve is the preaching minister at Southbelt Church of Christ located in Pasadena, TX.