“The Inherent, Supernatural Process of Spiritual Sowing and Growing”
INTRODUCTION What is the Meaning of Mark 4.1-34
Mark chapter 4 in your Bibles if you will.
One of the joys of going through large portions of Scripture like this, especially narrative, is that we get to see the bigger picture of what’s going on. And as we continue from week to week, I am becoming more and more convinced that this is the right way to preach these passages. The reason for that is because we get to see, not only how verse relates to next verse, but also how one section of Scripture relates to next section of Scripture. Often times when Bible expositors preach such tiny passages of Scripture, everybody loses sight of the forest for the sake of the individual trees. However, the primary message of any particular section of Scripture might be found in the forest. Sometimes, we can lose the primary purpose of a larger section of Scripture if we focus too much on the details. So I am encouraged to continue going through such large portions of Scripture. I myself am seeing things in the gospel of Mark that I have never seen before. And that’s a great joy for me personally.
Last time, we saw beginning in chapter 2:23, that Jesus is the Lord during controversy. And toward the end of chapter 3 we saw various responses to Jesus. You remember how we mentioned the trilemma of Jesus, is Jesus the Lord, a lunatic or a liar? Well, we saw last time that if you were to ask the Pharisees, they would say to you that he is a liar. They claimed Jesus was able to cast out demons because he was possessed by the ruler of the demons, Satan himself. They were calling Jesus a liar because Jesus clearly claimed to be able to cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why he tells those Pharisees that they are committing the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, calling the Holy Spirit Satan.
And if you were to ask Jesus family, they would tell you that Jesus was a lunatic. We saw last time that Jesus family exclaimed, “He has lost his senses and so they came to take custody of him. Then you remember in the last verses chapter 3, how Jesus’s family came looking for him and calling him. There were looking for him and calling him in order to take custody of him. And Jesus said that his true family members were those who sit at his feet and learn of him and do the will of the father.
So these are those who responded to Jesus as a liar or lunatic. What about those in the story who said that he was the Lord? These responses of course are found in the crowd. But in our story last week, Jesus never responded to the crowd. What would Jesus say to those who would call Him Lord? Would he tell them they have all received eternal life? Well, we have His response in our passage this morning, chapter 4:1-34. Jesus’ response to those who would call him Lord is what we have in the parables of Jesus. Now a parable is a figure of speech. In this figure of speech, Jesus illustrates a moral or spiritual truth through an analogy drawn from everyday experiences. And in the parables before us, Jesus highlights the very common experiences of farming. And I know that most of us here could relate to these parables today.
Beginning in verse 3, you have the parable of the soils. There, Jesus illustrates positive and negative responses to the word. This kind of like the first Act of a play.
Then, the section beginning in verse 21 serve as an intermission. Here, Jesus exhorts those who have truly responded positively to the word, that is, they are the good soil as it’s found in the first parable. The point in this intermission is “Pay close attention to the truth because it causes growth!” Act 2 of the parable starts in verse 26 with the parable of the seed.
In the parable of the seed, in verse 26 the point is that the human heart, under the right spiritual conditions, inherently causes growth naturally, not by human manipulation. And of course, collectively, the individual growth of those in the kingdom of God continues all the time. That’s why Jesus gives the parable of the mustard seed in verse 30. As the process of sewing and growing continues, the point there is to illustrate the overall growth of the kingdom of God itself.
So this passage fits into one nice neat little package. In the first part of chapter 4 in the parable of the soils, Jesus describes the negative responses and the one positive response to the word. And then, next, he exhorts those who have responded positively to the word to pay special close attention to spiritual truth because it causes growth. And this individual growth is described in the parable of the seed when we let the inherent power of the word in our hearts cause us to grow. And as we grow as Christians and as Christians throughout all of human history grow spiritually and numerically, this also participates in the growth of the entire kingdom of God, as Jesus describes it in the parable of the mustard seed. So all of these parables fit together and form a nice progression concerning the one subject of this passage which is the inherent, supernatural process of spiritual sowing and growing. And the process of this spiritual sowing and growing has an effect on both individuals and on the entire kingdom. So the message of this passage again is the inherent, supernatural process of spiritual sowing and growing.
The Parables of the soils: Respond to the Word (4:1-20)
Mark begins ch. 4 by informing us that Jesus is once again teaching by the sea, the sea of Galilee. And here comes the crowd. A very large one. This is Jesus’ chance to address the responses of the crowd so far. Generally, Mark depicts the crowd as not being against Jesus. So Jesus gets in a boat and sits down in it. While Jesus is in the boat which is pushed out a ways from the land, the whole crowd was listening to him teach in parables as they stood on the land. And now he begins the first of his parables.
For the sake of brevity, what we’ll do is read through the four soils and I will make necessary comments along the way to help us understand.
Then, we will give the purpose of the parables as it’s found in verses 11-12. Then, we will delve into the explanation of the parable from vv.13-20.
Now, we are dealing with the parable of the soils. I’m calling this the parable of the soils because it’s the soils that are the illustration. The sower is not the main focus of the illustration and neither is the seed in this case. That will come later.
So Jesus grabs the people’s attention and the first word out of his mouth is, verse three, “listen.” The word for listen is used more often in this chapter than in any other chapter of the New Testament. It’s translated in this chapter as “hear” as well.
Jesus begin his parable by saying that a sower went out to sow his seed. You can picture a Middle Eastern man reaching into his sack of seed grabbing that see and then throwing it at random. That seems to be the picture here.
And as he throws the seed, groups of seeds land on four different types of soil. The first soil is found in verse four where it says that some of the seed fell beside the road. And the birds came and ate it up. It didn’t even have a chance to sprout at all.
The second soil is the rocky ground. Some of these seeds fell here. In the Middle East, rocky ground had a layer of limestone underneath the soil. This created a very warm soil as the limestone conducted heat from the sun. The warm soil caused the seed to quickly germinate and sprout. The soil also caused the rapid growth of the plant, making the plant spring upward too soon.
And when the sun rises, verse six, it scorches that seed. And because it does not have a firm root, it withers away.
The third set of seeds fall among the thorns, meaning that at least the roots of the thorns are present here. When both the seed and the thorns attempt to come up, the thorns end up choking out the seed and the seed yields no crop.
Finally, the last set of seeds fall onto good soil. And this good soil mixed with this seed, together, they produce a fruitful crop, as it’s described in verse eight.
This thin soil caused two effects. The warm, moist soil induced immediate sprouting. And rapid growth of the plant caused it to push prematurely upward under these warm conditions.
As Jesus would teach in parables, verse nine, he would merely say to them he who has ears to hear and let him hear, which gives a very serious call to anyone listening.
TRANS: So, the disciples take him up on that, verse 10, and as soon as he was alone, both Jesus disciples and his followers ask him about what he was talking about. But first in verses 11 and 12, Jesus gives the purpose of his teaching in parables.
Purpose of the Parables: Judgment on Self-Hardened Outsiders
And what he says is that the purpose of his parables is that the parables are a judgment on self-hardened outsiders. An outsider is someone who as yet is not in the kingdom. So the parables are a judgment on self-hardened outsiders.
The concept that Jesus parables are a judgment on self-hardened outsiders is found in Matthew 13:12-15. In our passage this morning, Mark merely states that the parables are a judgment on outsiders. By doing this, Jesus creates a stark contrast between believers and unbelievers. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus clarifies that these parables are a judgment because these people have first hardened themselves. We’ll read Mark 4:11-12 here but then I’ll have you listen to Matthew’s account. Mark writes…
Mark 4:11-12 (NASB) 11 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.”
However, listen to Matthew 13:12-15 (NASB) 12 “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. 13 “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 “In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND; YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE; 15 [and here is the self-hardening …] FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL, WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR, AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES, OTHERWISE THEY WOULD SEE WITH THEIR EYES, HEAR WITH THEIR EARS, AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN, AND I WOULD HEAL THEM.’
See, they have closed their own eyes. They have rendered their own heart dull and have made their own ears scarcely able to hear.
So Jesus says here in Mark 4:11 that to the 12 disciples and to Jesus followers, has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God. They get the mystery of the kingdom of God, they get the truth that was once concealed now revealed to them. Specifically that truth concerning the kingdom of God. But those who are outside, those who are not of the 12 disciples and who are not his followers, they get everything in parables.
Now it’s as if at the end of verse 11 somebody pipes up and asks the question, “what happens to people if you teach them in parables?” You could kind of insert that there to help us understand verse 12. “What happens to people if you teach them in parables?” Jesus responds with the answer to that question in verse 12 and he responds by saying that if I teach them in parables they will not understand and because they do not understand, they will not return to God nor be forgiven.
That sounds like it’s a judgment. Jesus teaches those who are outside of the 12 disciples and outside of Jesus followers with parables so that they do not understand, verse 12, and so that they don’t return and aren’t forgiven. The purpose of the parables this so that these people become further hardened.
Now, that sounds a little harsh doesn’t it? However, keep in mind the essential cross reference I mentioned in Matthew 13. These people have first hardened their own hearts. And then, when Jesus speaks to these self-hardened individuals in parables, they do not inquire about its meaning. But those who are on the inside, the 12 disciples and followers, they receive the truth because they inquired, as it says in 4:10. Those on the outside, they do not inquire about what Jesus meant. And because they do not inquire about what Jesus meant, they will be even further hardened to the truth just by a clearly natural process. They will be hardened because like everyone else is because they grow accustomed to failing to ask about the truth.
So the parables were meant to be a judgment on those who already decided to harden themselves. The parables separated the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers. Those who inquire about what was spoken gave evidence of being true followers. Those who failed to ask the meaning were left with merely more hardness because they grew more accustomed to failing to respond.
TRANS: Jesus then explains the parable of the soils. When Jesus asked them Mark 4:13 “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?” What he was saying in those questions is that if you do not understand this parable then you will not understand all of the parables in this chapter. This parable of the soils is the key to unlocking the other parables.
To unlock the meaning of this parable, you first must know that the seed illustrates “the word,” which would be the gospel message of salvation. The sower is spreading the gospel message of salvation. The soil is representative of the heart of man, where a man thinks inside of himself.
Explanation of the Soils
The meaning of the illustration about the seed cast along the road in verse 15 is unlocked if you understand that the birds represent Satan.
For some people then, when they hear the gospel message, Satan comes along and takes away the message from their hearts.
The meaning of the illustration about the seed cast into the rocky soil in verse 16 is unlocked if you understand that the springing up of the seed in that warm rocky soil illustrates how some people respond when they hear the gospel message and they receive it with joy.
But just because they are so happy about it, doesn’t mean that they have truly received the word in a saving way.
The way that you will know if they have received the word in a saving way is if they, end of verse 17, don’t fall away. If they don’t fall away then we know they not only received it with joy, but they go on to actually yield a crop.
So some people receive the word with joy, but, verse 17, they have no real saving root in themselves. They are really only temporary. What causes them to temporarily believe and receive the word? Well, verse 17, they may experience affliction or persecution because of the word. When that happens, they fall away, they cease believing. And it’s clear that these people never possessed saving faith because they never went on to produce a crop.
These people will fall away when their life doesn’t get better because of the word. When God doesn’t answer their prayer for unbiblical request or if they suffer any persecution because of the word.
The meaning of the illustration about the seed sown among the thorns in verse 18 is unlocked if you understand that the thorns illustrate the three things in verse 19. Just like thorns, the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things can get right into the heart of somebody and it chokes out the seed of the word so that it cannot grow in order to bear fruit. You can’t serve God and wealth.
The meaning of the illustration about the seed sown on the good soil in verse 20 is unlocked when you understand that the good soil illustrates the heart of somebody who hears the gospel message and receives it and bears spiritual fruit. He produces a spiritual crop that could be described as 30, 60, or a hundredfold.
And from this final illustration, we understand that true believers bear fruit. There is no such thing as saving faith that does not bear fruit. Saving faith produces fruit. Someone who has genuinely received the truth of the gospel, will bear fruit. Now, there may be varying degrees of the crop. Some believer may appear to have produced a thirtyfold crop, other 60 or a hundredfold, but nevertheless, there will be some fruit. James in his book would say that saving faith produces good works. Good works do not save, but are the fruit of saving faith.
APP: So the obvious application to this is this: if someone observes your life, do you give clear evidence that you have received the word of God by your production of righteous works? Are you claiming to be believer and your life is still very clearly a life that looks like an unbeliever’s life? You still use the same language, commit the same sins, you use and find delight in all the world’s filthy entertainments and your life gives no convicting presence to other people who aren’t Christians. You find no delight in prayer or reading God’s word.
Now, Jesus’ point here is to demonstrate the different responses to the gospel message. He showed how some reject it and what they look like and he showed what it looks like to receive it. Those who receive it bear harvestable crop.
TRANS: Now, what should those who have received the word in a saving way do? Jesus explains in verses 21-25 they should pay close attention to revealed truth. In verses 21-23, Jesus illustrates that the truth is meant to be revealed. And then the major point in verses 24-25 is that those who have responded positively to the gospel message, must pay careful attention to the truth and should exercise their capacity to receive more truth.
Lamp and the Measure: Pay attention to revealed gospel truth (4:21-25)
In verses 21-23, Jesus illustrates that the truth is meant to be revealed. Notice how he puts it. These verses are somewhat of an intermission between parable of the soils in the previous verses and the parable of the seed in proceeding verses.
Lamp: Truth is meant to be revealed
Verse 21, would you put a lamp under a basket or under the bed? Of course not. You would put the lamp on a lamp stand in order that it might give light.
Now what does that have to do with anything? Well, verse 22, just like you would not hide a lamp’s fire, so also you would not hide the truth.
When Jesus says…
Mark 4:22 (NASB) “For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light.
What Jesus is saying is that just like you would not hide a lamp’s fire, so also the truth should be hidden, it should be revealed. Nothing that is secret, is meant to stay that way, it is meant to come to light. Though with the parables it seems that it’s meant to hide the truth from people, that’s not the case. If you inquire about its meaning like the disciples did, you will get an explanation. That’s why we have the explanation of the parable of the soils before us now. Jesus’ point here is to say that the truth is meant to be revealed.
So, verse 23, if you have an ear to hear, come and hear! The invitation is open. Truth is not meant to be concealed, but revealed.
TRANS: Now, when you receive revealed truth, how are you to respond? Jesus lets us know.
Measure: Pay careful attention to truth and exercise your capacity to receive more truth.
And he lets us know by issuing a command and then by illustrating the command. First, verse 24, he commands. He says, “take care what you listen to.”
Now, the way you should understand this is, “pay close attention to what truth you hear.” Now, this goes for every believer who has positively responded to the gospel message and has the heart of good soil bearing fruit. And part of the fruit that good soil bears is this very thing: paying close attention to what truth you hear.
Now if you wanted an illustration on what it looks like to pay close attention to what truth you hear, listen to what Jesus says next. When Jesus says “standard of measure” in verse 24, I want us to picture first, a ½ cup measuring cup. This measuring cup will illustrate your spiritual hunger for truth.
I’ll tell you what Jesus is saying and then I’ll show it to you more closely. In v. 24, Jesus is saying that if, spiritually-speaking, you come with an empty 1/2 cup, you’ll receive a full 1/2 cup of truth and then some! But, the point is as well now, if you come with something bigger, say an empty tractor-trailer and want that to be filled with spiritual truth, you will get that and then some more!
Look at verse 24 by whatever standard of measure you have, it will be measured to you, it will be filled. And then you’ll be given more. That’s the illustration. What Jesus is saying is in the first line of his statement when he says take care what you listen to, or, pay careful attention to what you’re hearing. Paying careful attention to what you’re hearing is kind of like coming to hear spiritual truth with an empty tractor-trailer expecting it to be filled!
And Jesus can say that more will be given to you, that is, more truth will be given to you… Look right at verse 25 now. He can say more truth will be given to you, because, it works this way, “For whoever has [….Now you can put in there a standard of measure: maybe it’s a half a cup; maybe it’s a tractor trailer… So Jesus is saying… For whoever has whatever standard of measure for truth], to him [more…insert truth is the idea…for whoever has whatever standard of measure, to him more truth] shall be given; and whoever does not have [some standard of measure], even what […now insert “truth” … whoever does not have some standard of measure, even what truth] he has shall be taken away from him.”
In other words, as you grow in your capacity to receive truth, your capacity to receive more truth will grow. If you don’t have the capacity to receive truth, then what truth you may have, will be lost. If you don’t use it, you lose it. If you don’t use your spiritual capacity to receive truth, you will lose and forget what spiritual truth you do know.
Or even think of it this way for whoever has a certain level of hunger for spiritual truth, that person will be filled. But whoever does not have any level of hunger for spiritual truth, even what truth that he does have will be taken away from him because he fails to exercise any hunger for spiritual truth.
It’s the same way with our physical stomachs. If we stuff ourselves full of food at every single meal that we eat, our stomachs will begin to expand and we will need to eat more food to be full. That’s obviously a bad thing. But if you stuff yourself full of spiritual food at every single sermon, your spiritual capacity for truth will also begin to expand. “By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides.”
APP: this is why I recommend coming prepared to hear God’s word. What preparation do you do on Sunday mornings? After you hear God’s word on Sunday mornings, how do you respond to it? Do you continue to feed off of God’s word that you just heard by either reviewing any notes or talking about it with anybody else or praying over it? And I realize that many of us in here, through the teaching and preaching of God’s word here, are sensing their spiritual capacity for truth expanding, especially as we attempt to rush through the New Testament in five years.
TRANS: And if I’m going to finish this morning, I better rush on. These last two parables, the parable of the seed verses 26-29 and the parable of the mustard seed, verses 30-34 both concern spiritual growth in the kingdom. The parable of the seed in verses 26-29 concerns individual growth in the kingdom and verses 30-34 concerns the growth of the kingdom of God itself.
When a believer begins to expand his spiritual capacity for truth by preparing the good soil of his heart when hearing God’s word, that person will begin to grow and bear much fruit.
Parable of the Seed: Careful attention to truth causes individual growth (4:26-29)
The point of verses 26-29 is that, just like natural seed grows, spiritual growth happens progressively and inherently under the right conditions. Spiritual growth happens progressively and inherently under the right conditions. And the right condition for the good soil of our hearts is paying close attention to the truth that you hear.
Introduction: Farmers don’t know exactly how seeds grow (vv.26-27)
Jesus begins the illustration in verses 26-27. Jesus says that a farmer does not know exactly how the seed grows other than the fact that it grows progressively and it grows inherently. There’s something about a seed itself in the right condition that causes it to sprout.
Verse 26, the kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil. See, we’re kind of continuing the parable of the soils. And the farmer, verse 27, after he casts the seed upon the soil, he goes to bed and he gets up when it’s daylight and he sees that the seed has sprouted and grown and he doesn’t know how that happened.
Well, Jesus tells us, verse 28, that the good soil when it has seed in it, it produces the crop by itself. It’s inherent in the soil. And there’s a process to this. First, the blade pops up and then the head and then the mature grain in the head. That’s how it works. It’s progressive. The ability for the soil to produce any crop is within itself, it’s inherent in the soil and in the seed that’s in the soil.
And then it’s crop that’s in control at the harvest time, verse 29. Even the harvest is inherent in the crop. Jesus says, Mark 4:29 (NASB) “But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The farmer knows when to harvest the crop, because the crop permits it. This parable is carefully worded and the illustration is that when the conditions are right, the soil will produce a crop progressively, with the blade, then the head, then the mature grain, then the harvest… And also the soil will produce a crop inherently, it produces it by itself and the harvest comes when the crop permits it to come.
And just like this is the case with physical soil and crops, so also it is with spiritual soil, the soil of our hearts and with the spiritual fruit we bear. Jesus doesn’t explain this one explicitly because he expects us to understand it because he already explained the first parable.
Just like natural growth, spiritual growth is inherent in the heart of a man and it happens progressively under the right conditions. If the soil of the heart is good soil, if someone is a believer, then under the right condition of a prepared heart, fruit will come.
Let me make two applications.
APP: Come prepared to our services, or whenever you know you will receive spiritual truth, like during your devotional times, come prepared to receive it. Prepare your heart beforehand by asking the Lord for illumination. Prepare the soil of your heart by taking notes or by listening attentively and let it bear fruit afterward even by talking about it with others. Those are the right conditions for spiritual growth.
APP: Secondly, just like no human force can speed up physical growth of crops, so also we can’t speed up spiritual growth either. We can exalt human standards and think that by obeying the commandments of men, we are spiritual, but in fact that is not the case. We will only do more spiritual damage, just like if we were to apply physical force to crops to get them to grow more. We must let the word of truth be implanted in our hearts so that our hearts can bear much fruit. This will happen slowly and progressively over time.
TRANS: finally, as we all grow, and the process of spiritual sowing and bearing fruit, that is evangelism and discipleship continues, so also continues in verses 30-34 now, so also continues growth of the kingdom of God itself as we evangelize and disciple others. Whereas verses 26-29 concerned individual’s growth in the kingdom, verses 30-34 concern the overall growth of the kingdom of God.
Mustard seed: Continued kingdom growth (4:30-34)
Jesus pictures the kingdom of God like a mustard seed. A mustard seed is a very small seed, but when it is sown upon the soil, it grows up, verse 32, and it becomes larger than all other plants. It forms large branches. It forms large enough branches so that, end of verse 32 now, the birds of the air can come and nest under its shade. When Jesus discusses the birds of the air and how they come to nest, Jesus quotes Ezekiel 17:23 in Mark 4:32.
The context of Ezekiel 17:23 makes clear that what we have going on here is the growth of the kingdom of God all the way up to the point and throughout the millennium, the thousand year reign of Christ. Suffice it to say for now that when that mustard seed, which is the kingdom of God, when it grows up it will be larger than all other so-called kingdoms of men. The kingdom of God will form large enough branches to embody all the birds of the air the point that they can nest under its shade. And the reference here clearly in the context of Ezekiel is that the birds represent the nations of the world. The kingdom of God is spreading out over all the nations of the world. This is happening right now as more and more people in all of those nations are receiving God’s truth and trusting Christ alone for salvation from sin.
However, there is also coming and a day when, as Ezekiel says in Ezekiel 17:24, that all the trees of the field will know that I and the Lord! Every nation on this Earth in the millennium will know that Yahweh is reigning over them.
So this marvelous passage of parables starts with the positive and negative responses to the word of God and then it transitions to those who positively respond, that they should pay close attention to spiritual truth, in the parable about the lamp and standard of measure. And then Jesus points out that close attention to spiritual truth will result in individual growth in the kingdom, when He gives the parable of the seed. And as the process of sowing and spiritual growth continues in individuals, so also will there be a growth of the kingdom of God itself, all the way up into the millennium.
The application for us is to survey our hearts and to see if we are indeed bearing true spiritual fruit. For example the spiritual fruit of paying close attention to the truth when we hear it. Or, are you one of those who only believe for a while? Are you temporary? Is either distress of some kind or the cares of this life pushing you away from a saving faith in the truth? Are those things preventing you from bearing spiritual fruit?
Matthew 7:21 (NASB) “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.
If you have a question about how to for certain receive eternal life this morning, the spirit of the passage this morning would say “Ask someone about it.” Come and talk to me, search the Scriptures and ask the Lord.
507 he who would valiant be addresses falling away. A true believer presses on.