Mark 4. Parables of the Kingdom.
Key Notes: Four degrees of receptivity. Why parables? Sow the seed.
The parables in Mark show a change in the direction, or at least the description, of Jesus’ ministry. We will hear some content of His teaching. The parables are both delightful and troubling when we consider their content and the reasons for using them. After years of reading and studying, I still find new insights in the parables. That is their attraction: we keep coming back to them and they keep adding to our insight.
4:1 Again Jesus was on the shore as He was twice before (2:13, 3:9) but this time the crowd has grown so great that He must use the boat. As we know, still water amplifies sound and enables the speaker to address a large crowd with ease. He sat in a boat, and for the first time, we have his teaching to study.
4:2 He taught them in parables. The parable of the sower and the seed is very well known, easy to tell and explain. There are four kinds of soil on which the Word of God falls. These soils represent four kinds of receptive people. The parable is about receptivity, because that had become the issue: many were refusing His message. The four kinds of people responding to the message so far can be identified from what we have read.
*Those who are completely resistant to the word are the Scribes and Pharisees, who would happily kill the sower of the seed. (3:6). Satan makes sure that nothing Jesus says will register with them.
*Those who have shallow roots are the fickle crowd that will wilt and disappear when any trouble erupts or Jesus' words are less appealing. Jn.6:22–71.
*Those who take root but are hindered by their worldly preoccupations are around Jesus (4:10), but have not made the commitment to give up their preoccupations with worldly activities or to endure the opposition of the religious leaders. Jn.9:22
*The disciples are dedicated to Christ and will bear fruit, some more than others.
4:11 Why did He speak in parables? “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” is the explanation given to children, but the reason for the parable is more complex. Jesus quoted an abridged portion of the text from Isa. 6:9–10. It is a sequel to Isa. 5 in which Israel is described as a vine planted by God that failed to bear fruit. They were greedy, drunken, proud, and amoral. An invasion was coming to punish them. In Isaiah 6, the indictment takes another form.
“Hear and hear, but do not understand;
See and see, but do not perceive.
Make the heart of this people fat,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes,
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their hearts
And turn and be healed. “
That is a hard message. God’s word is being resisted even though the crowd continues to grow. Therefore the lessons are disguised. When contrition and obedience are demanded, the human heart naturally rebels. When the message is resisted, hardening of the heart occurs, and eventually the message is no longer heard or understood. It is called “judicial hardening”. It was a dramatic part of Pharaoh’s multiple interactions with Moses. Ex.5–12
Nevertheless can it be that the Savior of men is presenting His Gospel in such a way that His people will not get it? Would He not surely bend every effort, as we would, to make the message clear? How could He possibly obscure what we all need so badly? The answer is as complex as the question is disturbing.
1. The painful text of Isa. 6:9–10 is not limited to this occasion but is used repeatedly in the NT as a general statement of Israel's unbelief. The other Gospel writers all cite the passage in their telling of the parables. John also quotes it as a summary of Jesus’ public ministry. (Jn.12:40). Paul quoted it to the Jewish leaders whom he met in Rome. (Acts.28:26–27). Paul also uses it in his three-chapter treatise on Israel’s resistance to the Gospel. Rom.11:8
Jesus is repeating to His generation what He had instructed His prophet Isaiah to say to his people 700 years before. (Jn.12:41). The message is the same as it was then. Israel’s resistance to God had not changed over the centuries.
2. The use of parables is not the use of unintelligible jargon. The disciples and followers understood the meaning when Jesus explained it, as audiences do today. In fact, the parable is better retained than a simple explanation of the Kingdom. The disciples did not fully understand its implications either, although remembering the story is easy. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, they were still asking the wrong question: “Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
3. The parable is about the mystery (Gr. “mysterion”) or secret of the kingdom of God but it is not mystical or mysterious. The simplest concept is that the kingdom begins with Jesus’ words sinking into human consciousness and bringing new life and productivity into the individual person. That view of the Kingdom is still so strange that we do not yet grasp its full significance even when we have heard it repeatedly. When the Jews thought of the kingdom they thought of the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, occupying Palestine and emerging victorious over Rome. We still think of the Kingdom like King Arthur’s Court, in terms of rank, royalty, pomp and parade, of castle and mote, knights and lances, banners and horses. C.S. Lewis’ writing (“Prince Caspian”) leaves this impression also. When we have finished the other parables, we can speak more intelligently about the Kingdom.
4. Does the indictment imply that there is not hope for the soil; can it not be changed? Please note that this message tells them how the Kingdom of God works. If they do not understand it, they are not lost forever. Jesus has not yet given them the salvation message directly, that the Son of Man will give His life a ransom for many. So failure to comprehend the Kingdom is not in itself fatal, although failure to comprehend is not a hopeful sign.
Jesus’ family gives us hope. They were hard soil, unresponsive at this time in Jesus’ ministry. They thought He had lost His reason. Yet by Pentecost (Acts 1:14), after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they will be among the 120 dedicated disciples and will become productive.
The sad note is that even those who respond, and start to grow may fail because of conditions they live with—social pressure or unduly busy lives. While we can be pessimistic, thinking that three quarters of the listeners fail to respond productively to God’s word, there are also varying degrees of success. Paul could represent productivity of the hundred-fold; Peter, James and John the sixty-fold, and the other apostles, perhaps thirty-fold.
4:21–25 What should the disciples do with the parables, with this new light? Put it out to be seen! What is now known will be shown everywhere . Listen! Listen! The more you hear, the more you will receive. To those who refuse, all will be lost. Both messages encourage eager pursuit and delivery of Jesus' message. Who hears the most when the symphony orchestra is playing, the conductor or the grounds-keeper? The conductor can hear the lone piccolo among the ninety orchestra players; the grounds-keeper hears a big loud sound. The one has been in life-long music training; the other is mostly interested in cutting the grass.
4:26–29 The Kingdom of God is seed planted by people that will grow up by itself, without human intervention. We all believe the Kingdom depends on us. God says it is His miracle of grace operating in the world. Paul knew that; he said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (ICor.3:6)
4:30–32 The third parable teaches that the kingdom will grow rapidly from its tiny beginnings and will grow large enough to shelter diverse groups. The tree as a shelter for birds is in Ezekiel’s parable of the cedar (Ezek.17:22) and in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of his empire. (Dan.4:12). Whether the birds are nations or Christian churches is not clear and is a matter of interpretation.
The Kingdom of God began to show itself in our Age by Jesus’ presence. He announced that the Kingdom is at hand. (Mk.1:14). He began preaching and healing, casting out demons as a manifestation of His power. His word enters the soil of humans and makes a new life. It is tiny at its beginning but it becomes a large shelter for human groups. The Kingdom grows of its own internal dynamics and it is not ultimately under human control. It has indeed grown great, with millions more believers today than ever lived before and with thousands of new believers pouring in. There also will come an end when there is a harvest, a collection of the productive and their joyful offspring. Matt.13:30
Spread the seed now. And be there at the harvest!