The Parables of the Servant
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 4:1–34
We all like a good story. Most of us can probably recall getting ready for bed as children and asking a parent to read us a story before tucking us in and turning off the light. Or maybe it was crawling onto the lap of a grandparent and begging them to tell us a story.
As a youngster I would at times sit in the company of older men and listen to them spin yarns on a variety of subjects. Their stories would stoke my imagination and at times transport me into another world of thought. Even after our own children and grandchildren came along, I would often enjoy making up stories that would often leave them with wonder and asking for another. Stories paint vivid pictures in our minds in ways that other forms of communication cannot do.
Much of Jesus’ teaching ministry was by way of storytelling, namely in the form of parables. In fact, Mark 4:34 says that “He did not speak to them without a parable.” And while parables tell a story, their purpose is much greater than providing entertainment value. The term actually comes from the Greek word “παραβολη,” which speaks of “the placing of one thing beside another for the sake of comparison.”
Parables are a distinct form of communication. They aren’t straightforward, literal descriptions or explanations of things. Nor are they just pictures or illustrations of a higher truth. In some ways, parables are more like riddles. When Jesus spoke in parables it was not just for the purpose of communicating information or providing entertainment. Neither were they designed to make things easier to understand...at least not for the masses. Each of His parables was instead intended to send “shockwaves” to those who heard it, colliding with the ordinariness of their lives, leading some to greater faith while confirming others in their disbelief.
The purpose of parables is to reveal truth to those willing to receive it, as well as to conceal or hide it from those who are not willing. One writer has said: “The condition of one’s heart determines its receptivity to truth...Those who receive truth and act upon it receive more. Those who reject truth will ultimately lose the bit they have. The parables were full of truth, but for truth-rejecting people, they were inscrutable.”
So the parables are not like the stories we may have had read to us as children. They are not nice little fables with a moral at the end. Nor do teach “timeless principles.” Instead they are about the “new thing” that God was doing in Jesus’ Christ right under the noses of those who heard them. It is only when we see these sayings of Jesus as parables of the Kingdom that Jesus was introducing that they make any sense at all.
With that in mind, we turn to Mark, chapter 4, verses 1 through 34. Within this passage, Jesus speaks four parables. The first is the longest and is the only one that Jesus bothers to explain. It is also the one upon which the others are built. We know it as...
The parable of the sower and the soils (verses 1-20)
...and we find it in the first twenty verses of this chapter. It is noteworthy that it is the only one of Jesus’ parables that is recorded by all three of the Synoptic writers. Because this is a lengthy section, we’ll consider it in parts. We’ll start with verses 1 through 9:
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.”
Jesus will offer an interpretive explanation of this parable in verses 13 through 20, but before we look at that let’s take just a moment to review its content.
The setting of the parable is described for us in verses 1and 2. Jesus is teaching along the Galilean coastline and the crowd has become so large that he is forced to get into a boat and launch out a few feet into the water just to have room enough to address them. Matthew indicates that this scene immediately followed Jesus encounters with his family members and the scribes which we saw last week in chapter 4. So it had already been a long and emotional day for Jesus.
The substance of the parable is given in verses 3 through 8. Jesus describes a scene with which His hearers would have been quite familiar. A man goes out to sow seed in his field, and the seed falls on four different types of soil. Some fell along the path which had become hardened by foot-traffic, and it lay on the top where it became easy-food for the birds to fly down and snatch. Other seed fell on ground that was filled with rocks and stones which provided insufficient soil for it to mature. A young plant quickly sprang up, but it was unable to grow and to withstand the sun’s strong rays because it had no root. Still other seed fell upon soil that was thorn-invested and, therefore, unable to keep from being choked by the wild plants which grew up all around it. Fortunately, the remaining seed fell into healthy soil, allowing it to take root, grow, and yield a productive crop.
And then in verse 8 we have the summons of the parable, as Jesus declares what will become proverbial and familiar words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” That statement is actually born out of Isaiah 6(:9-10), where the Lord commissions that prophet to go and preach God’s message to a people whose hearts would be too dull to understand, whose ears would be too heavy to hear, and whose eyes would be too blind to see. Their unbelief, in other words, would be confirmed in the manner in which they responded to the prophet’s message, in the same way that many of Jesus’ hearers would react to His words.
Jesus fleshes that out a little more in verses 10 through 12, so let’s read those verses:
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.”
It seems at this point that His twelve disciples were as perplexed as the rest of the crowd in seeking to understand the meaning of the parable, so once Jesus is alone they approach Him and ask for an explanation. At first glance, His response appears to be equally as enigmatic. But let’s look at it more closely.
We notice right away that Jesus is separating those who hear the parables into two distinct groups: His disciples and the ones He refers to as “those outside.” In other words, to those who were His own the parables would reveal truth. But to those who persisted in their unbelieving opposition to Him the truth would remain hidden.
In fact, that is precisely what Jesus says in verse 12. This quote is taken from Isaiah 6:10, and it is introduced with a ‘ινα- or “so that”-clause, which implies purpose. In other words, the very reason that Jesus speaks in parables was to keep those with hardened hearts from hearing. I realize how that may sound to you, so I’ll let William Lane explain. I believe that he is correct in commenting on Jesus’ use of Isaiah 6:9 and 10, saying that it...
“...does not mean that “those outside” are denied the possibility of belief. It indicates that they are excluded from the opportunity of being further instructed in the secret of the Kingdom so long as unbelief continues. That the Kingdom has come in an initial phase in the presence of Jesus can be discerned only through faith, which is to say by the grace of God. Jesus’ presence, therefore, means (both) disclosure and veiling; it reveals both grace and judgment.”
In other words, the parables of Jesus contain both the threat of hardening for those who refuse to believe as well as the promise of forgiveness for those who do believe.
And that brings us to the significance of the parable in verses 13 through 20. Before Jesus explains the meaning, He reminds His disciples of the necessity of “getting it.” The failure to understand this parable would hinder their ability to comprehend the others. So, what is so important about this particular one? Jesus offers this explanation:
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 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.”
Our Lord’s explanation is methodical and clear. He is “the sower,” and “the seed” is the Word or the message He proclaims. As the Word is broadcast, it will fall upon four kinds of hearers. Like the trampled soil in the parable, the hearts and minds of some hearers are so hard that the word lies on the surface and is quickly snatched away by Satan. And others, like the rocky soil, upon hearing the word receive it with joy, but when the trials and pressures of life strike—as they inevitably will—these hearers demonstrate their lack of endurance and soon fall away. And like the thorny soil, still others respond favorably at first, but soon find that they are not willing to deny themselves and take up their cross each day in order to follow Jesus (cf. Luke 9:23-24). But thankfully, there are those who like the good soil “hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” for the glory of God’s great name.
So what does this parable have to say to you and to me this morning? I find a within it a twofold application:
The first is that each one of us is represented by one of these four types of soil. And the way that you are able to determine which one best represents you is to take a careful look at how you respond to God’s Word, including the message you are hearing—or are not hearing—this morning. Do you find it cold and sterile, something to be forgotten as soon you walk out of the building today? Or are you perhaps emotionally excited at hearing the Scriptures, but at the first difficult experience you face this week you will abandon what you heard and retreat to your usual manner of life? Or maybe you have a desire to hear and follow Jesus, but your priorities and possessions are considered too valuable for you to give up in order to fully surrender to Him? Does one of those responses describe you? If so, then Jesus says in verse 11 that you are on the “outside.” In other words, in spite of your arguments and excuses to the contrary, He declares that you are not one of His followers. On the day that He spoke these words, our Lord was marking out those who would “hear (His) word and accept it and bear fruit” for His eternal glory, separating them from those who would not. And today He is still looking for those among us who have “ears to hear.”
But there is a second application, and it is for those into whose lives the seed has fallen, taken root, and begun to bear fruit. For the time being, I will presume that describes most of those to whom I am speaking this morning. Like Jesus, you also have been called to be a “sower.” And lest you think it is an easy task, let me remind you that it cost Jesus His life to “sow the seed.” It may cost you your reputation and the respect of others. You may lose your job. You may lose your friends and family. And you may lose your life. That’s because many who hear you broadcast His message will have hearts that are hard toward it. Others will have stony hearts. And still others will have thorny hearts. Most simply will not hear what you have to say. But that is the cost of following Jesus. It is a willingness to bear the same scorn and reproach that He bore.
I say this not to discourage us but to encourage us, because not a single seed of the Word of God that is sown will “return to him empty, but it shall accomplish that which (He) purpose(s)” (cf. Isaiah 55:11). As the 19th-century British theologian Charles Bridges has reminded us, “The seed may lie under the clods until we lie there, and then spring up.”
In considering the direct application of this parable to ourselves, my thoughts turned this week to those living all around our church who are virtually untouched with the Gospel. They represent the nearest “mission field” to us, in terms of proximity. They are the most immediate ones to whom God has called us to “sow the seed.” To be frank, we have not done a very good job of reaching them with the Gospel. With our Vacation Bible School just weeks away, I am asking you to join with me in taking advantage of opportunities to reach into many of the homes around us so that we may introduce our Lord and ourselves to our neighbors. Some of us will soon be prayer-walking through our neighborhood, and others will be distributing VBS-flyers, providing us opportunities to speak with and pray for residents along the way. If you’re willing to be a part of that, let one of the elders know. As we go, we do so recognizing that some of the seed we sow will never bring forth fruit, but some will. As the Lord told Paul regarding his ministry in the sin-filled city of Corinth, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many is this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10).
Whether it is in our community, at our places of employment, or in our own homes and families, the Lord is calling us to “sow in hard places” so that His Word gets to those who need to hear it. And here’s where it gets personal: Your response to His call probably reveals which type of soil best represents you! Don’t let that thought pass too quickly.
We have spent considerable time with this first parable, so as we look at the other three we’ll view them in their connection to this one. Verses 21 through 25 give us...
The parable of the lamp and the lampstand (verses 21-25)
Let’s read those verses:
21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Throughout this entire passage that we are studying this morning, there is an almost-exaggerated emphasis on “hearing.” The word “hear” is found eleven times and “listen,” which is actually the same Greek word, once more. And there are other allusions. Clearly the reader is being encouraged to respond favorably to the message being proclaimed. That is because the announcement of “the kingdom of God” is like bringing a lamp into a darkened room. The arrival of the King exposes everything that is hidden and brings all things into the light. We are, therefore, implored to “Pay attention to what (we) hear” because the more positive our response to Jesus’ message about the Kingdom, the greater our degree of comprehension. But the reverse is also true... for the one who ignores or rejects that message, even the level of understanding that he has will be taken from him.
That explains why the Bible remains a cryptic book to so many, and perhaps even to some of you. Spiritual understanding doesn’t take place passively or in a vacuum. The Word of God requires interaction on our part, and it takes place incrementally until the hidden treasure is found. Elsewhere Jesus said, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God” (John 7:17). When you come to a service like this, is your mind prepared because you have already read and meditated upon the text that will be preached? Is your spirit ready to receive what the Lord has to say to you that day. None of us grows spiritually by simply being “around” the teaching of the Word.
In order for it to do its darkness-dispelling work, “the lamp” must be prominently displayed. And that is what you and I are called to do...to display the “light” of Christ and His Kingdom. What’s more, “the measure” of which Jesus speaks seems to indicate that there is a proportionate return for the investment we are willing to make. To return to the seed-sowing imagery, in order to produce any sized crop, the seed must be faithfully sown. And that’s our role...to “sow the seed” and to display the light. Therefore, we again hear Jesus’ warning in this regard: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Moving on to verses 26 through 29, the agrarian metaphor continues as we come to...
The parable of the growing seed (verses 26-29)
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Mark is the only one of the Gospel writers who records this parable. It shares similarities with the earlier parable of the sower and the soils, and is related to it. But the emphasis here is upon the ultimate achievement of the sovereign purpose of God. That work which He has begun through the planting of the “seed” will reach its climactic fulfillment in the “harvest” that will most assuredly come.
What an encouragement that should be to us. Though it appears as if our contribution is small and our labor at times futile, it is good to know that the Lord will multiply what we present to Him, just as He did with the young man’s lunch in feeding the five thousand (cf. John 6:3-13). But let’s be clear, it is God—not us—who causes the growth to occure (cf. (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Yes, the seed must be sown, but notice that it “grows” while the man “sleeps and rises”... “he knows not how.” This is true with regard God’s global purpose as well as of His plan regarding the individual life. And there is an inevitable “cause-and-effect”...the faithful sowing of the seed is the pledge and guarantee of its final maturation.
Therefore fellow saint, take heart. The work of God will prevail. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the churches in Galatia—words that some of us need to hold onto when we are sorely tempted to give up. He says, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). The Lord will surely accomplish His sovereign plan, and He will use people like you and me in ways that we cannot imagine.
The final parable in this passage is found in verses 30 through 32. It is...
The parable of the mustard seed (verses 30-32)
...and it reads,
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Although this is one of Jesus’ better known parables, its interpretation is often debated. The imagery of “the seed and the soil” is again on display, but what is the message that Jesus is conveying? The “mustard seed” was proverbial in Jewish thinking as the smallest of all seeds. Unlike the previous parable which emphasized gradual growth, the emphasis here is on the comparison between a small beginning and a large consummation. The day will most certainly come when the “kingdom of God” will surpass in glory the mightiest kingdoms on earth because it is the consequence of God’s sovereign action. And it is slowly, imperceptibly working toward that goal even as we speak.
The “mustard seed” is the Word of God proclaimed by Christ and His followers. It possesses the inherent power that will one day make all things new. When the glory of that expression breaks forth upon men, they will be as startled as the man who considers how a mighty shrub could be produced by such a tiny seed.
There has been some debate as to whom “the birds of the air (who) make nests in its shade” refer. Because “the birds” in the first parable refer to “Satan” (cf. verses 4 and 15), we are tempted to automatically assume that they speak of him—or, at least, unbelievers—here. Those who hold that view interpret the parable to be saying that as God’s Kingdom grows on earth, so does Satan’s influence.
And while that may be true, I believe there is a better explanation. In Ezekiel 17:23 we find a passage where God likens His Kingdom to a growing tree, and there He says, “On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will rest.” It is clear that in this verse in Ezekiel, He is referring to the Gentile nations who will have a part in His glorious Kingdom.
And that is where you and I come in. Judging by appearance, the residents of Christ’s Kingdom tend to be those we might least expect. Look around in this room this morning and marvel at what God has already done. Walk out these doors at the conclusion of this service, cast your eyes on our neighborhood and envision what God is yet to do. You see, entrance into the Kingdom of God is for anyone and everyone “who has ears to hear.”
Our passage comes to a...
Conclusion (verses 33-34)
...in verses 33 and 34 with these words,
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
I remind you from last week’s message that Jesus “called to him(self) those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve...so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach” (cf. Mark 3:13-14). Still today, He is “calling,” “training,” and “sending” out those to “sow Gospel seed” and to “make disciples” of unlikely others...others like themselves...others like us. And our response to His call expresses most clearly the depth of our relationship with Him.
Bear in mind that the productivity of each individual life—like the soils—is not determined by the different kinds of seed that are sown into it, but rather by the condition of the heart that receives it. The seed is the same...it is the Word of God, namely the message of the Kingdom. The only distinction is the type of soil into which it is sown. So as you consider yourself this morning, which soil-type most accurately reflects your own life? Is the Word that you are hearing falling on a hardened heart and being quickly plucked away by the enemy? Or is your heart more like the rocky soil, where the seed begins to sprout but quickly withers at the first testing you encounter? Or, are you like the thorny ground, into which the seed has fallen, taken root, and grown into a leafy but fruitless plant because the things you value are of greater importance than your relationship and commitment to the Lord? Jesus is looking for “good soil” into which the “fruit-bearing seed” of His Word may be sown. Is He finding that soil among us? “If anyone has ears, let him hear.”