What is the biggest threat to your faith (or spiritual well-being)?
Read Mark 4:1-20
Mark’s gospel began quickly. Both John and Jesus’ preaching ministry was about repentance and belief that the kingdom of God has come near. Jesus has attracted attention from all around through his healing ministry but he has said that the reason he has come is to preach.
He has called a group of disciples to follow him and has already stirred up trouble with regard to understanding the Sabbath. One stand out event so far was the healing of a paralyzed man where Jesus declared himself able to forgive sins – like only God can!
He has declared the those who do God’s will are included in his family.
- Ready to teach in parables (1-2)
- The parable told (3-8)
- The problem with parables (9-13)
- The parable explained (14-20)
Ready to teach in parables (1-2)
“Again Jesus began to teach by the lake.” Lake Galilee is where he has preached before and has been referenced previously. Mk 1:45, 2:13, 3:7. The first reference doesn’t mention a lake but the second implies that he has preached by a lake before. He was not able to preach in the synagogues since Mark 1:45.
“The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat…” This seems like a very practical way of creating a natural staged area where he faced the whole crowd and wasn’t engulfed. The point here is that it was a practical solution.
“He taught them many things by parables…” As stories go, they begin with setting a scene before they introduce the problem. Verse 2 can be seen as the problem of this narrative. Yes, he will tell a parable and then explain the parable and we will learn a great message from the parable…but the problem in this narrative is that he teaches in parables. This is made clear by verse 2 and verses 9-13. The parable is one layer of the story but the outer layer is that the kingdom is being revealed to those who God reveals it to.
The parable told (3-8)
“Listen!” This is not an incidental word. Verse 9 ends the parable with Jesus’ challenge to hear if you can! Can we listen?
“…some fell on…” Verses 3-8 are not challenging to listen to on a literal level. He speaks easy words to understand which you can draw on paper. Jesus explains the parable later, but for now, we just observe the four stages of his story. 1) a path 2) rocky places 3) thorns and 4) good soil. Drawing them out can be very helpful. How many of the four scenarios are commendable?
The problem with parables (9-13)
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” This is the challenge from Jesus. He began with “Listen!” and ends with “Did you listen?”
“When he was alone… the others around him…” It seems odd to describe him as alone and yet accompanied by the 12 and others. Assuming that the writer is not an idot, this means that the large crowd of verse 1 was gone and now Jesus was alone – with those who were travelling with him.
“The secret of the kingdom of God…” Jesus’ first recorded words in Mark were “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.” Now he talks about the secret of the kingdom of God. The key word here is secret. Paul will talk about the mystery of God which has now been revealed in Jesus (Eph 1:9; Col 1:26-27; 2:2). Jesus is the mystery of the kingdom revealed. He is the word of God. He will stand right before everybody and only those who will listen will see him.
“…has been given to you. But to those on the outside…” Jesus will speak plainly to his disciples but speak in parables elsewhere. These disciples will take the mysteries and give them to the world. Even then, only those who have ears will hear.
“They may be ever seeing but never perceiving…” Isaiah 6:9-10 are referenced here. There is not a word for word quote but idea for idea. Notably the original quote says healed rather than forgiven. When Jesus came, the big idea for God’s salvation was honed in toward forgiveness rather than prosperity. The idea is that the kingdom of God has come near – but who will enter? Once you understand grace and who Jesus is truly, and embrace him, the kingdom of God makes so much sense like you can’t understand why everybody else has a difficulty seeing it! It’s not rocket science. But people are kept from believing because of the deception of wickedness (2 Thess 2:10).
“Don’t you understand this parable?” The problem of the narrative of Mark 4:1-20 is about understanding and hearing. The good soils will be those who hear and embrace the truth – the word of God. What prevents producing crops in the kingdom is closed ears.
“How can you understand any parable?” I’ve come to notice that Jesus asks rhetorical questions from time to time (eg, Mk 10:18) but we actually need to answer the question! How will we understand any parable? What is the answer to that? Isn’t it that Jesus will tell us? That the word itself will explain it? How do can we have ears to hear? We must turn them on and turn to the bible and listen. The bible will explain what the bible means. There is more to it: The Spirit, who the Son and the Father sent, will lead us into all truth. There is an act of grace in having the secrets to the kingdom of God revealed. It takes the mercy of God. But on our par, it takes turning on our brain and opening our ears and listening to the bible. Jesus explained the parable to the disciples! That is how they would understand the parable.
The parable explained (14-20)
“…like seed along the path, where the word is sown.” The combination of the seed and the path are in focus. The seed is the word of God. God speaking. The bible. Sometimes when the word of God is shared, it falls on the path.
“…as soon as they hear it…” This is how the word is sown, by sharing it to those who can hear it.
“…Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.” This is both sudden and criminal. Satan steals it away. The hearer treats it as junk. Message heard and ignored or ridiculed.
“…on rocky places…at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time.” These hearers receive the word of God with joy. It pleases them. Like a lovely and comforting story. Not immediately discarded but heard with a smile on their face.
“…when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” Can Christians fall away? Not if they remain! But hearers with shallow roots quickly retreat when tested or challenged. Their understanding of the gospel is shallow. Any number of arguments or alternate options can knock them off their faith. Paul celebrated the church in Colossae because they had hear the true gospel and truly understood the grace of God (Col 1:3-8).
“…seed sown among the thorns…” The challenge to the third group is the struggles and worries of this life. If group 2 are easily challenged by their faith, group 3 are overwhelmed by the distractions of this world. Finances, ambition, entertainment, idolatry, everything else comes before Jesus. Colossians 1:15ff talks about the priority of Christ for life and salvation.
“…worries of life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word…” Matthew 6:19-33 contains Jesus’ advice to stop worrying and seek first the kingdom of God.
“…making it unfruitful.” The first three scenarios are unacceptable outcomes. It is not good enough to be 2 because it is better than 1! All three end in the same result – the word of God produces no fruit in them.
“…hear…accept…produce a crop…” This is the lesson. Listen. Adopt. Do.
“…some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” The word of God does not stop with this one person but produces more. Both good works and more seed sown by the farmer. The Twelve listening to Jesus will produce an international church that has not and will not end until Christ returns.
Suggested questions for running this study
Q1. Verses 1 and 2 set the scene for Jesus’ sermon. What stands out in the description of this scene?
Q2. Draw the parable as explained in Verses 3-8. Which of the four scenes are commendable?
Q3. What does Jesus reveal to be the real problem here according to verses 9-13?
Q4. Talk about each type of soil where the word is planted. What are the differences between all three? And which of the four soils are fruitful?
The kingdom of God is about hearing the gospel (Jesus the mystery of God revealed). To unlock the secret of the kingdom of God we need to listen, adopt and do what it says – like it is worth listening to (not to be stolen or discarded), like it is rich in knowledge and truth (deep roots), and like it is of highest priority (not strangled by the things of this world. Jesus is offering us the keys to the kingdom. What we need to do is stop and listen – have ears to hear and do what it says!
Challenge#1 – Sharing the word to those who don’t care.
There will be many who don’t know what to do with the message of the gospel. It will be either white noise to them or they will be repulsed and hate every word of it. Our task is not to only plant where there will be fruit, but to speak the word everywhere. There is nobody on the planet that doesn’t need to hear the gospel and have a chance to listen.
Challenge#2 – Hearing the depths of the gospel.
Simply knowing that God loves you and that Jesus is awesome is not enough to sustain you in your faith. Believing that church is lovely but not knowing your bible well is not a healthy place for anybody. The word of God is written for adults to dig deep and understand as well as for children to read and grasp. But we don’t want to remain children in the faith. The knowledge of God is vast and the bible is filled with robust theology. It can handle scrutiny and can stand the test of time. Only shallow readers and mockers think that it is not worth reading and knowing or that Jesus is only 2 dimensional. Set goals to continue to grow in your knowledge of God and his word.
Challenge#3 – Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise
Knowing what the Kingdom of God is about ought to set our compass on eternal things and not the things of this earth. Read Matthew 6:19-34; or Luke 12:22-31; or Colossians 3:1-18 during the week to pray about seeking our eternal treasure and setting our minds on heavenly things and not on earthly things. Write a list of all the things that fill your mind regularly with worry and take them all to God in slow and concentrated prayer. Cast your anxiety on him and seek first the kingdom of God. Once you have ears to hear, it makes perfect sense.