Studies in Mark: the Seed and the Soil

Mark 4:1‑9  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 11
19. The Sower, the Seed, and the Soils
“And again he began to teach by the seaside.1 And there is gathered2 unto him a very great multitude, so that he entered into a boat,3 and sat in the sea; and all the multitude were by4 the sea on the land. And he taught5 them many things in parables, and said unto them in his teaching,6 Hearken:7 Behold, the sower went forth to sow: and it came to pass, as he sowed, some8 seed fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured it. 9And other10 fell on the rocky ground, where it had not much earth; and straightway it sprang up, because it had no deepness11 of earth: and when the sun was risen, 12it was scorched; 13and because it had no root, it withered away. And other 14 fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And others 15 fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing; 16and brought17 forth, thirty-fold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. 18And he said, Who19 hath ears to hear, let him hear” (9:1-9, R.V.).
In the fourth chapter a marked change is indicated in the ministry of the Servant of Jehovah. And it will be seen that a modification in His teaching was made at this juncture by the Lord both as to what He taught and as to the manner in which He communicated His message. At the first Jesus announced with authority that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, the appointed time being fulfilled, and all classes were invited to repent and believe these good tidings. But now the Lord commenced to teach that there would be only a partial acceptance of the gospel, and much hostility would be aroused by it, so that the external form of the kingdom would be changed in consequence. This change the Lord placed before His audience in a series of parables, a method of teaching in strong contrast with the plain statements of the Sermon on the Mount, spoken previously, as we learn from Matthew's Gospel.
Why was this change made? This question may be answered to some extent from the history of the Lord's ministry up to this point, as it is presented by Mark. Brief and compressed as his narrative is, we are therein shown that the responsible leaders of the people made a studied and determined resistance to the prophetic testimony of the Servant of Jehovah, regardless of the holy and benignant nature of His words and works. Thus, the scribes inwardly condemned Him as a blasphemer because He absolved a man's sins (2:6). They also with the Pharisees discredit Him because He ate bread with publicans and sinners (2:16). They further accused Him of countenancing a desecration of the Sabbath, because His disciples plucked corn on that day (2:24). The Pharisees and Herodians conspired to take His life (3:6). His relations declared that He was demented (3:21). The scribes from Jerusalem ascribed His power over demons to Satan (3:22). This last charge the Lord said was evidence of a spirit of animosity of such a nature that it could not be forgiven, and would cause the nation to be set aside. So that in these two chapters (2 and 3) there is delineated a complete outline of that implacable hatred to our Lord by the chosen nation which culminated in His death. The hour was not come for His crucifixion, but the spirit that ultimately condemned Him to be crucified was before His eyes. He was thus a rejected Messiah already, so far as the nation as a whole was concerned. He came to the vineyard seeking fruit, and there was none. But if He could not gather fruit for the Father who sent Him, He would sow seed so that a remnant in Israel might bear fruit for the Husbandman. Accordingly, He virtually abandoned the nation at large, and offered His word to any who had ears to hear it.
TEACHING IN PARABLES
Coincident with this recognition by the Lord of a faithful remnant in Israel who would do God's will in contrast with the rebellious nation as a whole, we find that the Teacher and Prophet of Jehovah adopted a new style of address, presenting the doctrine of the kingdom in the form of parables or similitudes. In the parabolic form the truth was presented in a manner easy of retention by those who heard it. Who does not recollect with ease the simple yet striking parables of the Gospels? Their meaning is not so apparent, however, and, in point of fact, was only to be apprehended in so far as an explanation or interpretation was given by the Teacher Himself to those in a moral and spiritual condition to receive it. The parables were spoken publicly to the multitude, and their meaning unfolded privately to the disciples only.
In Matthew's Gospel there is an ample record of the Lord's statement upon this very point, in which he shows the distinction between the mass of the people and the believing remnant, and that this distinction was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance, but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is being fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive; for this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them (Matt. 13:10-1710And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? 11He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. 12For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. 13Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. 14And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: 15For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. 16But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. 17For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them. (Matthew 13:10‑17)).
By these words the Lord placed it beyond question that parables were used by Him for the: delivery, of truths concerning the kingdom in a form which could only be understood upon His own exposition of them to those who received Him by faith. Quaint Thomas Fuller compared the parables to the divine appearance at the Red Sea which was at once light to the Israelites but darkness to the Egyptians.
The quotation from Isaiah shows that the adoption of this form of teaching was in view of the judgment imminent upon the nation. In the prophet's day Israel was about to be subjugated to the power of the Gentiles and brought into captivity to heathen kings. In the Lord's day a severer judgment was at hand because the nation rejected and crucified its Messiah. Jerusalem would be trodden under foot of the Gentiles, the nationality of the people destroyed, and a gospel universal in its scope proclaimed. This national judgment, with its far-reaching consequences, was of course foreknown of the Lord, and He communicated the same to His disciples for their instruction before it came to pass, but not to the multitude at large save in parables only, because He was still presenting Himself to the daughter of Zion in both Galilee and Judea as the promised King. Until the Jews had finally rejected their King and delivered Him to the Romans for crucifixion, the Lord continued to offer Himself to them, although the hardened and hardening spirit that refused Him was ever before His gaze. His ministry in parables of the impending change in no wise interfered with their responsibility to receive Him, seeing they did not understand. Therefore “all these things spake Jesus unto the multitudes in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them” (Matt. 13:3434All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: (Matthew 13:34)), but when they were alone He expounded all things to His disciples (Mark 4:3434But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples. (Mark 4:34)).