9 min read


Mark 4:1–20 (ESV)

The Parable

1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

  • In chapter 3, we see the developing divide between insiders and outsiders, and that will be further defined here.
  • Large crowd gathers (Mark emphasizes they are on the land, same word as soil in the parable) - the various soils of the parable represent the people in the crowd
  • Some OT background imagery to the some of the ideas in this parable:
    • Isaiah 55:10-11 - “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
    • Jeremiah 31:27-28 - “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord.”
    • Hosea 2:21-23 - “And in that day I will answer, declares the Lord, I will answer the heavens, and they shall answer the earth, and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil, and they shall answer Jezreel, and I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’ ”
  • It falls on different soil, with varying result:
    • Path - eaten by birds
    • Rocky - sprouted but scorched and withered
    • Thorns - thorns choked it preventing fruit
    • Good - sprouted and produced fruit of varying yields
  • Jesus warns: Those who have hears, hear!
    • What does he mean by this?
    • Strauss -

      The meaning could be either 1) anyone who has ears (i.e. everyone) should hear and respond to Jesus’ message; or 2) those given “ears” (i.e., special spiritual insight) by God ought to listen. The latter fits the following context well, where Jesus says the disciples have been given the secrets of the kingdom of God, but that others are blind and deaf to the message (Mark 4.11-12). Furthermore, in Matt. 13:43 the saying appears in a context of private instruction to the disciples. (227)

Before we get to the explanation here, let’s look at what Mark interjects between the parable and it’s explanation, as this hints to us that this parable is a key to all his parables.

The Reason for Parables

10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that “ ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”

Why the parables?

  1. In a sense, they are not different from the rest of Jesus ministry - all of his teach and miracles need interpretation to be properly understood.
  2. They provide a way to teach truths of the kingdom, but in an obscure fashion such that those who oppose or are disinterested can be left in the dark (a hardening judgment) and those who repent seek out Jesus for the answers can know the truth and be changed by it.
  3. There’s also a connection between the opposition Jesus receives and his transition to using parables in the Gospel. Beginning with the pharisees and then the scribes.
  4. OT Background - parables reserved for time of Judgment - Psa 78:2, 2 Sam. 12:1
  5. Interestingly, Jesus will eventually tell a parable that’s easy to understand (Mark 12:1-12) and will be crucified for it.
  6. Garland -

    “like the cloud which separated the fleeing Israelites from the pursuing Egyptians. It brought “darkness to the one side and light to the other” (Exod 14:20). The same cloud which condemned the Egyptians to their hardness of heart also protected Israel and made a way for her through the sea. That which was blindness to Egypt was revelation to Israel

  7. One commentator writes on this teaching technique:

    Parables do not always make something obscure clearer by using vivid picture language. On the contrary, they may only befuddle. If one is blasé and takes no interest in what they might mean or in the one who speaks them, or if one refuses to make any decision until all the facts are in, one will remain in a fog…. How many would have the courage to deliver a deliberately obscure message, as Jesus did, and then wait in the church parlor for worthy inquirers to come for an explanation? This text suggests, however, that we may fail to understand the truth of the gospel and rob it of some of its power if we think that everything must be kept simple and clear. It may lead us to reexamine what we are trying to do and how we are to go about making committed disciples. Jesus did not strive to make things easier for the crowds to comprehend or to make them feel more comfortable. His enigmatic teaching served to separate those who were curious from those who were serious.

  8. Isaiah 6 quote in context:

    Isaiah 6:9-10 shows up at least four other times in the New Testament with this same sense (Matthew 13:14-15; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; Acts 28:26-27). That is why the context of Isaiah 6 is so important. God declared judgment upon Israel for their idolatry. Why the reference to ears and eyes that don’t hear or see? God was communicating that this was poetic justice. They had become as blind and deaf and mute as the idols they worshipped (Isaiah 44:18-20).

  9. See the comparable activity in 2 Cor. 2:14-16
  10. Also Romans 11 (a partial hardening has come upon Israel) What makes the insiders (i.e. disciples) different from the outsiders? Do they have better insight or ability for comprehension?
  11. The difference is that they come to Jesus for understanding. God’s works in Jesus’ ministry and his work in our lives and in the world today are no always clear and easy to understand. We depend on him for understanding.

The Parable Explained

13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

The sower sows some seed - Who is the sower here? What’s significant about this? - We’re never actually given a sower, but the fact that Jesus is telling the parable and given the OT background of God being the sower of Israel, those who have ears to hear will hear that Jesus is fulfilling the work of replanting Israel and has come as the end-time sower. - The ambiguous nature of the sower (I think intentionally) leaves this element of the parable open. While in Jesus is sowing the word, it’s just as much his apostles and us after them sowing as well. - What do you make of the sower’s sowing practices? - He is sowing liberally, with little regard to as to whether the seed will take root or not. He’s the opposite of sparing with regards to whether the ground is ready for the seed or not. - Faithfulness is our calling, not focus on results. “We need a deep sense of God’s call not to be overcome by discouragement when our faithful labors meet with little response.” - How does this encourage us to persevere with sharing the gospel? - The state of a person’s heart is key to how they will receive the word, but it’s impossible to know from outside or whether God will change that hear upon the occasion of the preaching of the word.

The different soils:

The seed along the path - think of the pharisees and the scribes (232)

  • How does Satan take away the word? What are the limits to his ability to do this?

The seed on rocky ground - think of the crowds drawn to the healings, exorcisms, and the bread (cf. John 6:66)

There is an assumption here that trials and persecution will be part of the Christian life… When such trials come, only deep spiritual roots will prevent failure. If Mark’s gospel was written to Roman Christians during the Neronian persecution, this text would have sounded a strong warning to those considering abandoning the faith. (234)

The seed on the thorns - think of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-27). And it’s not just money - “the rest” is a catchall description of anything that draws us away from God.

The good seed - How do you tell good seed from bad? By their fruit

We are cautioned to be careful how we hear, and warned of the dangers of hearing wrongly and the blessing of persevering (Luke 8:15). The warning of the Chapter 3 to the Scribes and this chapter’s call to be careful how we hear, should make us quick to listen, quick to repent.

God hands over to judicial blindness those who are willfully opposing or simply indifferent to his word. Only those who seek Jesus and desire to know the truth in him will truly understand his word. - The parables function as a dividing tool, with those who are opposed or indifferent being left in the dark but those who are with Jesus being able to understand their meaning.