The fourth chapter of Mark is a pivotal answer to a problem that has surfaced from the third chapter. Remember in the third chapter we saw some surprising challenges against Jesus. Not only were the Pharisees trying to destroy Jesus (3:6), but remember that Jesus’ own family thought Jesus is out of his mind (3:21). The scribes said that Jesus casts out demons by the prince of demons and is possessed by Beelzebul (3:22). So now we are seeing a problem. Why is everyone rejecting Jesus? Why are the religious leaders rejecting Jesus? Who is going to follow Jesus if people think he is crazy and are trying to destroy him? What is going on? Mark is going to record a series of parables in this fourth chapter to explain what is happening and why no one should be surprised by this response.
The Parable (4:1-9)
Notice that the first verse shows that crowds are still flocking to Jesus. In chapter 3 we saw that the crowds were crushing Jesus (3:9) and the same is happening now. The crowd is so large that Jesus must step into a boat to speak to them while the crowd is on the shore. Jesus said he came to teach (1:38) and he will take that opportunity here. But notice how Jesus taught. “And he was teaching them many things in parables” (4:2). So Jesus asks everyone to listen and understand. Then Jesus tells a parable in verses 3-8. After telling the parable, Jesus calls for people to listen and consider what he just told them (3:9). Notice that Jesus does not explain the parable to the crushing crowd. Jesus just tells the parable. This brings out some questions.
Why Parables? (4:10-12)
In verse 10 when the disciples are alone with Jesus they ask him about the parables. It seems so strange to tell a story and then leave without explanation. What is Jesus doing? Why is Jesus telling parables? Look at Jesus’ answer in verse 11.
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:11–12 ESV)
We need to consider Jesus’ answer carefully. Is Jesus saying that I am only letting you (the 12 apostles) know the secret of the kingdom and no one else? Or is Jesus saying something different? Further, is Jesus saying that he teaches with the purpose of blinding so that the people will not understand? To help us understand what Jesus is saying in verse 11, we need to understand the scripture he quotes to prove what he is doing which is in verse 12. Notice that Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 to validate his teaching method. So we need to go back to Isaiah 6 so that we can understand what Jesus is doing.
The first five chapters of Isaiah reveal a condemnation against Judah for their sinfulness and their failure to bear fruit for God. God describes the judgments that will come against the nation for their rebellion. Isaiah 6 records the call of Isaiah. Isaiah has a vision of the throne room of God. In this scene God commissions Isaiah to be his prophet sent to the nation after atoning for his uncleanness (6:5-7). Look at Isaiah 6:8-10.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to 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 blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:8–10 ESV)
This is the strangest commission ever. Go preach to the people and tell them to keep on hearing but not understand and keep on seeing without perceiving. As Isaiah is preaching to the people, what will happen is that the people’s hearts will grow dull, their ears will become heavy, and their eyes will be blinded. If that wasn’t the case, they would be able to see, hear, and understand and turn to be healed. But that is not going to happen. Isaiah asks how long this is going to occur (6:11) and God answers that this will continue until his judgment falls upon the nation. This is the message of this passage in the days of Isaiah. Now think about this a moment. Is this the effect God wants? Of course not. God is not sending Isaiah to make sure that Judah will be condemned. Rather, God sends Isaiah to warn and preach to the people knowing that the effect of the preaching will be that the people will be all the more hardened and experience greater blindness. This is what God’s word does, as seen in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as well as the heart of Pharaoh in the face of the miraculous plagues through Moses.
This is important because Jesus is giving the same message to the disciples. Why does Jesus tell parables? Jesus uses parables because nothing has changed in his day than in the days of Isaiah. The word of God will either cause you to dig and figure out what God is saying or causes you to not perceive and understand. Parables were to challenge the heart to listen and consider. Why was the secret of the kingdom being revealed to these disciples? They are receiving the secrets because they are coming to Jesus asking about the parables! The rest of the people will not. This is the point of Isaiah and fits what Jesus is saying. Jesus speaks in parables to see who is going to dig deeper into what Jesus is saying and learn and who will hear the words and walk away with dull ears and hard hearts. Jesus is asking who will be willing to be taught by God. Who will discern what the Lord is saying? Who will be blinded by the message and have their hearts become dull? Thus, Jesus starts and the ends the parable with listen. Who has ears to hear and will hear?
We often have a false idea that we need to make God’s teachings as watered down and as simple as possible so that people will come to the Lord. But that is not the way Jesus looked at the situation. Jesus did not make it easy. He offered God’s word and then looked to see who would come to him to learn more. Who had questions? Who dug deeper into his words? Who wants to know the answers? The problem is not with the speaker but again is with Israel because their stubborn hearts prevent them from seeing and understanding.
The Parable Explained (4:13-20)
Notice that leads perfectly into the meaning of the parable. Read Mark 4:13-20. Notice in verse 13 that Jesus says this parable is everything. If you do not understand this parable you will not understand any of the other parables. The reason why is that this parable tells how to hear the word of God and how not to hear the word of God. Every time the word of God is proclaimed, spiritual warfare occurs in the hearts of every person. Notice that there are a variety of reactions to the proclamation of God’s word.
First, we see the completely unresponsive heart. In verse 15, some hear and forget. There is no chance for the word to work on the heart. The word is gone as soon as it leaves the mouth of the speaker. God’s word is going to do that with some people. There is nothing wrong with the seed and there is nothing wrong with the sower. What is wrong is the soil. This is a soil that will not receive the seed. This pictures a completely unresponsive heart.
Second, we see a shallow heart in verses 16-17. They are enthusiastic but short term. Notice they receive the word with joy immediately, but then there is a problem. There is no root. They endure for a little while but then difficulties come and they fall away. The difficulties of life cause the word of God not to root in their hearts. This heart is not ready for the challenge of following Jesus. The heart is not ready to sacrifice and endure. There are some hearts that will not sacrifice and give to follow Jesus.
Third, we see a worldly heart in verses 18-19. They have too much else on their minds and hearts. The word is choked out by the worldly concerns and desires. Everything else in life and in the world gets in the way of fruitfulness. The plant lives but does not bear fruit. This soil says yes to God, but God is not placed before the cares and desires of the world.
Finally, we come to the good soil in verse 20. It is only good soil that brings about some sort of fruitful harvest. Again, we must notice that the differences do not come from the seed nor the sower. The various responses to Jesus and the kingdom does not mean that there is something wrong with Jesus. It does not mean that there is something wrong with his message. Jesus quotes Isaiah to show that this is exactly what the true proclamation of the word does: some reject, some accept but do not endure, some accept but are fruitless, and some accept and bear fruit. What made the difference? What made the difference is the heart of the person who heard the word.
Thus the key to the parable is actually in verses 10-12. Understanding God and his kingdom is found in Jesus. Those who are with Jesus and do the will of God (3:34-35) become God’s family and are the insiders to whom the mysteries of the kingdom of God are revealed. Jesus is telling parables because they are like spiritual tests intending to separate those who will come to Jesus to understand from those who will walk away blind. Unbelief is sealed in a person’s heart because that person stubbornly refuses to come to Jesus to learn and understand.
Let us bring this parable back into the context of Mark 3. Jesus is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and people think Jesus is crazy and desire to kill him. Jesus is saying that the kingdom works and grows in the midst of great rebellion. We need to hear this important point. The kingdom is not crushed in the midst of great rebellion. The kingdom will work and grow in the face of opposition and rebellion to it. Friends, we must not be discouraged by this world or by its resistance. It is not you and it is not the message. It is the hearts of the people which are growing duller and more resistant to every proclamation of God’s message. Do not be shaken by living as Christians in a hostile environment. Jesus sows the seed in a hostile environment. The heart is what is required.
Therefore, fruitfulness only comes from a receptive heart that allows the seed to take root and grow. We do not need to be more contemporary. We do not need to change our style. We do not need to modernize or adjust the message. We do not need to change the message for the 21st century. The issue is the heart and nothing else. Fruitfulness comes from a proper heart.
Jesus tells us we need to evaluate which soil we have cultivated in our heart. If we are not bearing fruit for the Lord, then Jesus’ answer is that our hearts are not good. If we are not growing and enjoying the Lord more and more each day, then there is something wrong that Jesus wants for us to consider. Do you have a heart that is completely unresponsive? What I want to tell you is that you have not given God a chance. You may think that you have but you have not. You have not let the seed of God’s word plant into your heart. You are evaluating God from the externals but not from a true personal experience with God. I do not pretend to think that I can change your mind. But I want you to be honest with yourself that you have not given God or his word a chance.
Perhaps we have received the word but we are not prepared for the trials and difficulties that come from serving the Lord. You have stopped listening because life is hard. Jesus is very plain that to be his disciple we must carry the cross to follow him. We have to make sacrifices. We have to deny ourselves. We have to be uncomfortable. We will be met with resistance for loving the Lord. Do you have a heart whose soil is only going to be here and serve the Lord when things are easy, comfortable, and going your way? Again, I do not pretend to think that I can change your mind. But I also want you to be honest with yourself that your root is shallow and you are going to miss out on the greatness of having a relationship with God if you are not ready to remain with the Lord through turbulent times.
Perhaps we have received the word but there is no fruit because we are too busy. You have stopped listening because the desires of this life are blocking your hearing. We are too caught up with this world. We are too caught up with life. We are worried with the cares of the world. We are pursuing riches. We desire other things. For our anniversary this year, April and I went to the Gumbo Limbo park in Boca Raton and saw these plant that strangles the trees and sucks out its nutrients. The tree is still standing and the tree seems to be healthy. But the tree is being choked and it cannot be fruitful. This is what our cares for the world and desires for this life do to us. Again, I do not pretend to think that I can change your heart’s desires away from the world. But I want you to be honest with yourself that you are also not experiencing the joy of the true Christian life because this world is choking it out of you.
How do we know that we are good soil? Jesus uses the picture of bearing fruit that we spoke about in this lesson and from the lesson in 2 Peter 1 a couple of weeks ago. But I want you to see something else from this context. Why was Jesus teaching in parables? Jesus wanted to see who would come to him and ask questions. Jesus wanted to know who would come to him looking for answers. Jesus wanted to know who would come to him and dig deeper and draw closer to him. This is how you know you have good soil in your heart. You desire more of God. You desire more and more. You cannot have enough. You want to know more. You want deeper roots. You want to hear his words. You want to be changed. You come to the Lord with open hands asking him to mold you and change you. You are not blind to the reality of who you are in your sins before the Lord and you love God because he has rescued you from doom. If this is not you, then your heart is one of the prior three descriptions and I hope you will accept that true that God is speaking to you and come to the Lord with a good heart.