“What animal do you most closely resemble?” This question makes up a game that most of us have played at a party or some other social event. It’s an exercise to build relationships and get to know one another a bit better. Perhaps you think of an animal that you physically resemble, such as a giraffe if you have a long neck, a leopard if you consider yourself sleek, or a hippopotamus if you think you have the spiritual gift of leverage. But most often it’s a character trait that we share in common with an animal: an elephant is able to remember, a fox is clever, a snake is an introvert (if bothered in your secret grotto you may bite), a bird enjoys freedom and resists structure, a monkey is highly trainable, a dog lives for entertainment, a bear loves sleep, a pig is notoriously messy, a cat is aloof, a donkey stubborn, a squirrel resourceful, a tiger aggressive or protective—you get the idea. From these animals or others, which animal do you most closely resemble?
In Mark chapter four, Jesus plays a very similar game. But the choices are limited and the consequences far-reaching. Jesus describes for us four different types of soil that vary according to their receptivity to sown seed, and begs the question: “Which soil does your life most closely resemble.” Chapter four is one of only two places in Mark where Jesus teaches extensively (also chapter 13). Here He uses parables—short instructive stories that contain analogies from everyday life. Parables disclose information and conceal it at the same time—depending upon the receptivity of the listener’s heart. This indirect approach attracts some and provokes others. Some of the best known biblical passages are parables. The first parable in today’s passage is the Parable of the Soils.23
4:1 Again he began to teach by the lake. And such a large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there while the whole crowd was on the shore by the lake. 4:2 He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching said to them: 4:3 “Listen!25 A sower went out to sow. 4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. 4:6 When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it did not have a root, it withered. 4:7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and they grew up and choked it, and it did not produce grain. 4:8 But other seed fell on good soil and produced grain, sprouting and growing; some bore thirty times as much, some sixty, and some a hundred times.” 4:9 And he said, “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!”
4:10 When he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 4:11 He said to them, “The secret26 of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside, everything is in parables,
4:12 so that although they look they may look but not see,
and although they hear they may hear but not understand,
so they may not repent and be forgiven.”27
4:13 He said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand any parable? 4:14 The sower sows the word. 4:15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: whenever they hear, immediately Satan comes and snatches the word that was sown in them. 4:16 These are the ones sown on rocky ground: as soon as they hear the word, they receive it with joy. 4:17 But they have no root in themselves and do not endure. Then, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately they fall away. 4:18 Others are the ones sown among thorns: they are those who hear the word, 4:19 but worldly cares, wealthy pleasures, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it produces nothing. 4:20 But these are the ones sown on good soil: they hear the word and receive it and bear fruit, one thirty times as much, one sixty, and one a hundred.”
Earlier Jesus had his disciples prepare a boat in case the crowds became too great and threatened to force Him into the water. Here the crowds had grown so large that Jesus has to use that boat as a platform (though He sits as was customary for a teacher) while the listeners gather by the edge of the sea. At the beginning and end of the Parable of the Soils, Jesus invites these listeners to listen carefully, suggesting that the meaning might not be self-evident. The four soils share in common the “hearing” of the Word—they each receive seed. The contrast lies in their varying levels of receptivity to that Word. While Jesus is not often given to explaining His parables, here He chooses to do so for those close to Him.
Like the social game in which we identify which animal we most closely resemble, Jesus now describes four different types of soils and asks which soil we most closely resemble. Which soil best represents the condition of your heart?28
Soil sample #1:
Soil sample #2:
Soil sample #3:
Soil sample #4:
Remember, in the Gospel of Mark Jesus calls His followers to a lasting response. This parable is a warning to the soil. It conveys the importance of lasting fruit—fruit that remains. Only soil that produces fruit pleases the Father. Has the Word of God affected you? Are you an influenced follower?
The moral of the story: Be the right soil.
4:21 He also said to them, “A lamp isn’t brought to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it? Isn’t it to be placed on a lampstand? 4:22 For nothing is hidden except to be revealed, and nothing concealed except to be brought to light. 4:23 If anyone has ears to hear, he had better listen!” 4:24 And he said to them, “Take care about what you hear. The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you. 4:25 For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is like someone29 who spreads seed on the ground. 4:27 He goes to sleep and gets up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 4:28 By itself30 the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 4:29 And when the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come.”31
4:30 He also asked, “To what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use to present it? 4:31 It is like a mustard seed, that when placed on the ground is the smallest of all the seeds scattered on the ground.32 4:32 But when it takes root, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all garden plants, and grows large branches so that the birds of the sky can nest in its shade.”
4:33 So with many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear. 4:34 He did not speak to them without a parable. But privately he explained everything to his own disciples.
Mark 4:21-25 describes for us the purpose of the Message. In the same way that the purpose of a lamp is to provide light for many, so the purpose of the Message is that it not be hidden away but broadcast widely. That same Message that has transformed your life is not to be retained, but to be given away. Global influence begins with individuals and moves to influenced individuals and moves to influenced individuals influencing others with that same Message that first influenced them. Thus, as good stewards, we are to “take care about what we hear.” It cannot stop with us; it moves through us to others. That’s the purpose of the Message.
Mark 4:26-29 describes for us the power of the Message. Perhaps someone might misunderstand Jesus to be giving us the responsibility to change others’ lives. Not so. Jesus makes it crystal clear that the sower is not responsible for any resulting growth. Rather, “he does not know how” the seed spouts and grows, for it does so “by itself.” Who’s going to influence this vast kingdom that Jesus speaks about? These 12 unlikely candidates? If they were responsible for the result, then rest assured that the mission is doomed from the start. Instead, their responsibility is merely to scatter the seed (and to remain good soil for the seed itself to grow from). As sowers of the Word of God, it is not our power that affects change in others’ lives; it is the power of the Message Itself that does so. The seed holds within itself the secret power for growth. You may doubt weather you could possibly contribute to such growth in the present kingdom. Remember, your job and mine is merely to remain faithful and available sowers of the Message. We are not responsible for the growth of the hearers.
Mark 4:30-34 describes for us the potential of the Message. Although small and seemingly insignificant now, it will one day be global. If you doubt that such a glorious kingdom could grow from such humble beginnings—remember the mustard seed. It was common knowledge that God’s kingdom would one day fill the earth; Jesus here teaches that Jesus and this small band of close followers, though obscure, would continue to spread His Word until such kingdom is established. Certainly the glory of the kingdom is for the future age, but there is still the sowing and growth in the meantime.33 These parables are meant to be encouraging to the sower. Has the Word of God affected others through you?
I am a teacher by design. I have taught at junior high and high school levels and above. In my days as a teacher I would often observe the ritual of passing out papers by standing at the front of each row, counting the number of students in that row, and matching that number with papers I would hand to the first person in that row. Like most teachers, I am rather meticulous about numbers. When I counted six students in a row, you can rest assured that I counted out precisely six papers for distribution. Still, part of the ritual requires that before we can go over the material I’ve passed out, someone must raise their hand and inform me that they did not receive a paper. It always happens. Usually it is someone toward the back of a row. When this happens, I never go to my desk to retrieve for them another paper, for I am supremely confident that I’ve passed out enough for everyone to have a copy. You can guess what has happened: Someone has misunderstood me. My instructions to the class were to take and pass on. Yet someone in the room has a stack of duplicate papers on their desk, and they are so enamored by the brilliance that the top copy contains that they have neglected to pass the others on to the person behind them. In other words, someone is hoarding a whole stack of papers that were meant to be given away. You and I are students in Christ’s classroom. He has meticulously counted out the papers to ensure that there is enough for everyone. And yet so many today are raising their hand claiming to have been overlooked because you and I are so fascinated about what the paper means for us, that we neglect to pass on the other papers. We are influenced, but we are not influencing others with the Message entrusted to us.
The moral of the story: Be a faithful sower.
The title of this lesson is deliberately ambiguous. It could refer to the influence upon the follower; it could also refer to the influence wielded by the follower. In fact, it refers to both.
It is no coincidence that Mark 3:14 was our meditation verse in the previous lesson. Jesus appointed them to be with Him and to go out to preach and to accomplish ministry. In fact, that verse serves as the outline for today’s message. When we are with Jesus, we are being influenced by Him; when we are sent out we are being influential for Him. The disciples are with Jesus now; what do you think might happen in the next couple of chapters? That’s right—they will be sent out equipped with nothing but the Word of God. Look for it.
We conclude each lesson with one verse from the passage we’ve studied. We refer to it as a “meditation verse” to leave a broad range of uses: mediate, reflect, memorize, reread, etc. Our meditation verse for chapter four is Mark 4:20.
“But these are the ones sown on good soil: they hear the word and receive it and bear fruit, one thirty times as much, one sixty, and one a hundred.”
23 This title is more accurate than the common designation, “Parable of the Sower,” since Jesus’ emphasis is not on the sower but on the contrasting responses of the four different soils.
24 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are taken from The NET Bible.
25 Literally, Jesus’ call to attention reads, “Listen, behold.”
27 Does Jesus deliberately conceal the truth? Apparently. He probably does so because of those who are persistent in their unbelief? Thus it can be said that parables disclose information and conceal it at the same time, depending upon the receptivity of the listener.
28 In the original context, Jesus was depicting varying responses to His Message. The first three should be taken together as differing responses that all displease Him. Only the good soil represents a believer’s heart—a life changed beyond pretense. Nevertheless, the soils contain strong applications for Christians, reflecting different responses that even believers might have to God’s Word.
29 “Someone” is deliberately ambiguious, thus Jesus is no longer pictured as the lone bearer of the Message.
30 “By itself” translates the one Greek word, “αὐτομάτη,” from which we get “automatic.” Together with the preceding phrase “though he does not know how,” Jesus is trying to convey the power of the seed apart from any influence by the sower.
31 The parable in 4:26-29 is only found in Mark’s Gospel.
32 While the mustard seed was the smallest seed that Jesus’ hearers would have been familiar with, the orchid seed is nevertheless smaller.
33 See Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993), 251-54, for a helpful discussion of the relationship between the present growing “kingdom” and the consummate, eschatological kingdom established by Christ at His Second Coming.