The Sower, the Seed, and the Soil
Text: Mark 4:1-20
Main Point: There is more than one way to miss the Kingdom of Heaven.
I. The Parable (vs 1-9)
II. The Purpose (vs 10-12)
III. The Point (vs 13-20)
And as we turn to this parable this morning, I want to begin by asking every-single-person here this morning, have you turned away from every hope in yourself and received God’s free gift of forgiveness and restoration through faith in Jesus Christ? I’m asking this because the parable of the seed and the soils shows us that affinity for Jesus is not the same thing as saving faith in Jesus.
Main Idea: Listen closely and respond rightly to the gospel because there is more than one way to miss the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, we see this clearly in the “sandwich” structure of our passage, as Jesus tells a parable, explains the purpose behind his parables, and describes the main point of his parable.
- The Parable (Mark 4:1–9)
- The Purpose (Mark 4:10–12)
- The Point (Mark 4:13–20)
This morning we will be focusing on the parable and the purpose (vv. 1–12), and after Easter we unpack the point of the parable (vv. 13–20).
The Parable (Mark 4:1–9)
The Event(Mark 4:1–2)
What’s the first thing that we see in this account today? Jesus’ ministry is exploding! In fact, Mark may, very well, be indicating that this is the largest crowd that Jesus has ever taught because he employs a superlative adjective to describe the “very large” crowd. The second thing we see is that Jesus is teaching the crowd in parables not what we would call expository sermons. The third thing that we see is that Jesus begins his parable with a command—not just an invitation—to listen in verse three! The unmade maker of heaven and earth who upholds the entire universe by the word of his power is commanding his audience to listen! And not only that, he concludes his parable with an exhortation to spiritual discernment, “He who has ears let him hear!” In other words, the implication is that some people in the crowd will have spiritual discernment and others will not.
And this spiritual discernment is not simply a matter of listening comprehension or biblical knowledge… it’s ultimately a disposition of the heart toward God. Listen to God’s scathing indictment against Judah in Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 5:21–25 Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not. 22Do you not fear me? declares the Lord. Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it. 23But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and gone away.24They do not say in their hearts, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest.’ 25Your iniquities have turned these away, and your sins have kept good from you.
Just like in the days of Jeremiah, Israel as a nation, is mix of rebel and remnant. People who honor God with their lips while their hearts are far from him and people who truly fear and love God because their hearts are turned toward him. But, as we turn to the parable itself what are they supposed to be hearing?
The Sower, The Seed and The Soils (Mark 4:3–9)
Let me begin by pointing out an important detail that we can easily overlook—the farmer doesn’t focus his attention on the “good soil” alone, he spreads it on every corner of his property! The farmer isn’t stingy, he spreads his seed everywhere he can because he wants to have an abundant harvest.
Next as we turn our attention to the seeds there is a logical progression in each of the 4 soils with a three-fold verbal description of what happened to the seed.
- The Path: Fell–came–devoured (4:4)
- The Rocky Ground: Fell–sprang–was scorched (4:5–6) Without roots it cannot draw enough moisture from the ground to survive, and the sun scorches it to death.
- The Thorns: Fell–grew up–choked (4:7) We see this all the time in Washington State, you cannot grow a vegetable garden in a blackberry patch. The blackberry vines will choke the life out of almost anything else.
- The Good Soil: Fell–produced–yielded (4:8)
In the first three examples, the seed is lost at later stages of growth. While, the fourth is seed is the only one that survives to “produce grain.” So in this we see that, even though there are four different kinds of soils, there are only two results—harvestable grain and no grain / fruit and no fruit. So what can we tell from the parable itself? We can see at least two things:
- Nothing is wrong with the seed!
- The soil’s condition is the determining factor when it comes to the seeds growth and fruitfulness.
But, here is the problem.The parable doesn’t tell us who the sower is, nor does it tell us what the seed and the soil are! Apart from an explanation this parable is nothing more than a general observation about farming… even worse, there is no direct call, like in Mark 1:15 “repent and believe.” Yet, as Jesus withdraws from the crowd to spend time with “those around him and the twelve disciples” (4:10) he provides an unexpected explanation. (Mark 4:10–12)
The Purpose (Mark 4:10–12)
I realize this is going to be jarring for some of you this morning because if you have been in the church any length of time, you have heard someone describe a parable as, “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” And while this simple definition carries some truth it does not explain the complexity of Jesus’ parables.
Mark is not telling us that Jesus taught in parables because he was trying to illustrate his main point or make his teaching more accessible to the masses. Rather, Mark is telling us that Jesus chose to teach in parables in order to separate the “insiders” from the “outsiders.” And note, the “insiders” here are not just the 12 but include other people who were following Jesus as well (4:10).
Parables are not pithy expressions about general religious truth. Parables reveal the secret or the mystery of the kingdom of God in such a way that the meaning could only be found in Christ alone. The mystery or secret is this: that the promised Messianic Kingdom would not arrive in the triumphant glory of a conquering military ruler; but that the power and presence of the kingdom were breaking into human history in the words and deeds of Jesus himself. So this mystery is at least two things: (1) a how and (2) a who.
But, why? Why does Jesus obscure when he could just as easily clarify? He’s God he can remove any barrier to human understanding! Well, Jesus provides the answer to this question himself by citing Isaiah 6:9–10… parables were a direct manifestation of God’s judgment against the very ones who should have recognized and welcomed Jesus Christ.
Most of us are familiar with Isaiah’s vision of God in the year that king Uzziah died: the smoke, the earthquake, the seraphim proclaiming “holy, holy, holy,” Isaiah’s terror over his sin, and subsequent purging by holy fire. And then the verses that have encouraged countless thousands to abandon their careers in the pursuit of foreign missions.
Isaiah 6:8 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.”
But no one ever reads any further. Yet, the verses we always skip are the very verses that Jesus cites.
Isaiah 6:9–10 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10Make 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’s mission is heart breaking! God is telling him that his ministry is not going to turn millions of people from their sin despite the fact that he is going to spend his entire life calling Israel to repentance. So, How does this text in Isaiah help us understand why Jesus is teaching in parables?
The first is the context of Isaiah.
- God commissioned Isaiah to preaching a message of repentance to sinful Israel despite the fact that almost no one would respond to his message. And Isaiah needed to know this at the beginning because he might be tempted to think that he was, in some way, responsible for Israel’s unresponsiveness
- But, the truth be told, his message fell on deaf ears because Israel was hard-hearted and because God had determined that the time for judgment had come.
- Isaiah was the last prophet in a long list of prophetic messengers that Israel had already rejected and killed. But, his preaching up to the very day of destruction meant that Israel was without excuse.
- To put it another way, Israel’s obstinance was not only the reason that God decided judge, but it would also be the very means by which God would accomplish his purpose.
Second, is the context of Mark’s gospel.
- As we have already seen, in chapter 3, Israel’s religious leaders have openly rejected the clear evidence that God was work in the ministry of Jesus Christ and blasphemed the Holy Spirit when they said he was possessed by the devil (3:28–29). On account of this obstinate and unwarranted rejection, the religious “insiders” become “outsiders.” While sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors were welcomed as “insiders.”
- Jesus therefore taught in parables to revealthe truth to those who were receptive and to concealit from those whose hearts were hardened.
- Just like Isaiah, their rejection of Jesus’ call to repentance and faith was the very means by which God chose to accomplish his redemptive purposes… and not just despite their unbelief but actually throughtheir unbelief. But, unlike Isaiah, Israel’s rejection of Jesus was the very means by which Jesus purchase salvation for sinful men (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34).
Now before you start thinking that God, in some way, takes people who would otherwise believe in him and makes it impossible for them to believe in him. Or that he drags people against their will kicking and screaming into heaven… We need to remember Romans 1:24–32.
Romans 1:24–32 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
What do we see in this passage? God is not turning passionate worshipers into rebellious sinners. NO. God is choosing to give rebellious sinners over to their sin and ever-increasing hardness instead of granting them a heart of repentance because they are hell-bent on going their won way.
So we are not talking about a parent who kicks a loving and obedient child out of the house. Rather, we are talking about a child who rebels against their loving parents, telling them for 18 years, “I hate you. I want to live my own life. I never want to see you again.” And the broken hearted parents telling their 18 year-old child—after the ten-thousandth time—“Ok honey, you can have it your way.”
And this is why Jesus began teaching in parables, the religious leaders examined everything he was doing and concluded that he was in league with the Devil. On the one hand, it left these so-called leaders in the dark. But, on the other, his parables were an open invitation to pursue understanding from Jesus himself.
Parables were Jesus’ way of saying, “Do you want more? Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you!” But, the only way you can do this is if you admit you don’t have all the answers and that you come to me for help.
I Do Not Believe We are Called to Preach or Teach in Parables Today
What I mean by this is that we are called to preach, teach, and share the gospel with winsome clarity not obscurity because we are convinced it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.
1 Peter 3:15But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
2 Timothy 2:24–26And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Questions are Always Welcome
If you are struggling with the gospel itself or implications of the gospel, please ask! I’d be happy to talk to you. I understand that some people struggle with the gospel for a while before they believe. The key is that we pursue these questions in faith looking to God and his revealed Word for understanding.
You don’t have to be a professing Christian to attend this Church. But, I hope that over time you will come to faith in Jesus Christ.
A Plea: Don’t Harden Yourself Against the Gospel
You might be tempted to say, well it’s too late, I’ve done too much, there is no hope for me. God must hate me so much that he will be happy to consign me to hell for all of eternity… Well, you couldn’t be more wrong!
Ezekiel 33:11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Every breath you take is a God-given opportunity to find freedom, hope, and forgiveness through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Everyone lives forever. The question is where…
Mark L. Strauss, Mark, vol. 2 of Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 179.
The farmer is so intent on a harvest that he sows in every corner of the field “in hopes that good soil might somewhere be found;” (Justin Martyr, Dial. Trypho125.1–2).
Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 198. To put it another way, the first seed never germinates; the second seed sprouts but dies; the third seed becomes a plant but is choked by weeds; and the fourth seed produces a harvest of grain.
Walter W. Wessel and Mark L. Strauss, “Mark,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark, Revised Edition., eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 750.
Wessel and Strauss, “Mark,” 756.“In both cases God’s proffered salvation is met with rebellion cloaked in piety, especially on the part of the nation’s wise leaders;” (Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990], 226).
And Scripture gives us clear witness that there are times in which, God in his wisdom chooses to harden some in order to carry out his sovereign purposes (cf. Ex 8:15, 32; 9:12; 10:1; Ro 11:25–32).
I am indebted to Dr. Jason Meyer for this illustration, https://bethlehem.church/sermon/the-heart-of-a-disciple.