MARK CHAPTER 4.
Teaching by Means of Parables. Mark 4, 1-34.
V. 1. And He began again to teach by the seaside; and there was gathered unto Him a great multitude, so that He entered into a ship and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. V. 2. And He taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in His doctrine. Jesus had devoted some time to the private instruction of His disciples, in which He had been interrupted by the dispute with the Pharisees. He now resumed His ministry to the people of Galilee and the others that had come from other parts of Palestine. We have here one of the two chapters in Mark that present a connected discourse of the Lord, chapter 13 being the other. Christ's teaching was, for the most part, done in the open air, at various points along the shore of the sea. Greater crowds than ever assembled about Him, making it necessary for Him to enter into a boat and address the people while seated out there, at some distance from the land. The entire multitude, meanwhile, stood or sat along the shore, which arose from the sea in a gentle slope. Jesus thus had the advantage of having His entire audience before Him so that He could see practically everyone of them, and it was much easier for Him to address them with uplifted head, since the voice carries better. And the people, in turn, were all able to see Him, a condition which is almost a prerequisite for close attention. Mark emphasizes the fact that the Lord's address was teaching, instructing. His purpose was not to keep the crowd amused, but to impart to them the knowledge pertaining to their salvation. This must be the aim of all true Gospel-preaching. The preacher that degrades His church into an amusement-hall and His sermon into a mountebank's foolishness, does not follow in the footsteps of the great teacher. The feature of Christ's teaching was his speaking in parables, in the simple telling of incidents taken from every-day life, but with profound application to spiritual matters. Note: There was never the least of the frivolous or profane in the stories as told by the Lord. His was not the cheap art of the professional exhorter; the matter with which He dealt was far too serious to permit of unseemly levity.
The parable of the fourfold soil: V. 3. Hearken! Behold, there went out a sower to sow; V. 4. and it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the wayside, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. V. 5. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth; V. 6. but when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. V. 7. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. V. 8. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. V. 9. And He said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. Jesus calls attention to His words, He wants all hearers to listen, very closely, in order not to miss one word of His discourse. For His are not the words of a mere man that often uses words without meaning and connection, but every word is here fraught with heavenly wisdom. This is true of the entire Gospel. Men are inclined to discard the verbal inspiration of the Bible, saying that it is not necessary for a proper understanding of the spiritual truths, and especially of social Christianity. But Christ's ideas in this case, as often, do not agree with the wisdom of this world. Upon a single word, yea, upon a single letter, as Luther says, more depends than on all creation. The parable itself Jesus now introduces with "Behold!" He places, paints a picture before their eyes, one with which they all were familiar. But He wants them to note every detail, for there is a lesson for them there. A farmer at seed-time goes out to sow his seed, broadcast. The farm-land of the Jews was not divided into sections, but lay for the most part in irregular parcels, and the paths to the various villages and cities, which had been made ages ago, were left just as the present owners had found them. The soil was prepared up to the path on either side, but the path itself remained. And so it could very easily happen that some of the seed fell on the path, all along the way where the people went to and fro. No harrow covered it, nor could it sink into soft soil. And so the birds used it as food. In another part of the field there was a mere veneer of soil over the rock beneath. The seed which fell there could not sink in very deeply before sprouting. The warmth retained in the rock and the moisture of the night all combined in causing it to germinate very rapidly. In a very short time the young plants showed above the ground. But their tiny rootlets which enabled them to rise above the ground were not large and strong enough to supply a more mature plant, and there was no room for them to spread out and grow into deeper soil. The little moisture was soon used up, and when the sun began to beat down upon the unsheltered plot, they drooped, and presently their lack of a sufficient root system had its effect: they died. In still another part of the field the ground had either not been worked well enough to grub out all the thorns and weeds, or some weed-seed had remained from the previous year and welcomed the working of the soil as an opportunity for rank growth. The seed which fell here sprouted, and the plant started to grow, but the weeds had greater vitality, they grew up rank and strong and soon caused the grain to suffocate, so that it could produce no fruit. But still other seed fell on soil that repaid the farmer's work most handsomely: The stems grew up high and strong, the ears of grain were formed long and full, the grain filled the ears in the proper manner, and the harvest proved to be all that the husbandman could desire, for the yield was thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold. Again, the Lord emphasized the importance of the lesson which He wished to convey to His hearers by calling out: Whosoever has ears to hear, let him hear. The mere possession of physical ears and the mere outward hearing of the words of Christ's discourse are not sufficient. There are thousands of people that hear the Word in that way and have no benefit from it whatsoever. Christ here calls for a hearing and understanding of the heart, that the real meaning of His words be comprehended and the proper application made by every individual.
The disciples ask for an explanation: V. 10. And when He was alone, they that were about Him with the Twelve asked of Him the parable. V. 11. And He said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: V. 12. that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. V. 13. And He said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how, then, will ye know all parables? The disciples of the Lord, the Twelve as well as the others that believed on Him and were with Him as much as possible, were still very dense in spiritual understanding. So they took the opportunity, when they were alone with the Lord, to ask Him about the meaning of this parable. He said to them: To you the mystery of the kingdom of God is given. The word "mystery" here, according to New Testament usage, does not mean something hidden and obscure, but something that is and should be revealed. "We usually think of a mystery as something hidden; but in the New Testament it means something revealed. It had been 'kept secret' and was still hidden to the world in general; but this mystery of God's nature and God's will had now been 'made known' (Eph.3, 3; 6, 19)." 11) The disciples, the members of His Church, should fully understand the meaning of the kingdom of God, how Christ, in and with the working of the Holy Ghost through the Gospel, engenders faith in the hearts of men, so that they might know their Savior Jesus Christ, perform truly good works by His power, and finally obtain the everlasting possession of heaven. Of those without, Christ says that He speaks everything to them in parables, and then quotes the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 6, 9, in which it is said of the unbelieving Jews that they see indeed, that they use their eyes, and yet get no picture of that which they see, that they use their ears and yet understand not, that therefore there would not be an opportunity for them to repent and receive remission of their sins. It is one of the severe passages directed against self-hardening. This word of the prophet found its application in the days of Jesus. The judgment of God against His former people, which had begun in the days of Isaiah, was now being fully accomplished. It became more and more evident that the majority of the people that crowded to Jesus had no thought of seeking salvation in their hearts; they were merely inquisitive, they wanted to see and hear this new Prophet, about whom they had been told so many wonderful things. And so God finally condemns them to remain in their perverse, hardened mind. The Gospel of Christ, preached by Christ Himself, served the terrible purpose of hardening their hearts, it was to them a savor of death unto death. But the disciples also needed an earnest admonition. Their spiritual dullness was a great danger, theirs was the condition of so many Christians that are satisfied with just a little and do not have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil, Heb. 5, 14. The Word of God is like a mountain full of treasures. The treasures on the outside have been picked over so often that their beauties have been brought down to the plane of mere platitudes with many people; but the searcher after the pure gold will dig and delve and search, and will find ever new veins and occasionally such a rich nugget of purest gold that he stands overawed in the presence of such sublimity.
The explanation of the parable: V. 14. The sower soweth the Word. V. 15. And these are they by the wayside, where the Word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately and taketh away the Word that was sown in their hearts. V. 16. And these are they likewise which are sown in stony ground; who, when they have heard the Word, immediately receive it with gladness; V. 17. and have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time; afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the Word's sake, immediately they are offended. V. 18. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the Word, V. 19. and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in choke the Word, and it becometh unfruitful. V. 20. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the 'Word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred. It is Christ that sows the seed of His Word, even to-day, by the preaching of the Gospel. But the hearers of the Gospel may well be divided into four classes, according to the soil of their heart and the treatment which the Word receives at their hands. These are the chance or occasional hearers, those that forget. They are the wayside men, those in whose case the seed falls along the way. Some of these may even become regular attendants at church. But the seed of the Word remains lying on top of their hearts, it does not penetrate even the crust of their sensibilities. Here, as Christ says, it is Satan himself that takes the Word away from their hearts. The second class are the overenthusiastic hearers, that have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. The Lord here identifies them with the seed rather than with the soil, though both factors act together. They are the rocky-ground men. With a change of pastors, or due to some other cause, they suddenly, all unexpectedly, accept the Word with great joy. Their interest in matters pertaining to the Church is most gratifying. But the soil of their heart is not prepared for a lasting faith. They are influenced by the weather, both literally and figuratively. They mold their Christianity according to the times. As soon as danger signals appear along the horizon, the temperature of their zeal is reduced to a point where it no longer is of any use. Tribulation and persecution they cannot stand; it makes them lose all interest in the Church and her business. The third class of hearers of the Word are rather promising, at first glance. They hear the Word, even diligently and attentively; their intention is to be worthy Christians. But they permit other plants, dangerous weeds and thorns, to rise up in their hearts. The cares and worries of this present time engross their attention more and more. The fallacy of riches, the idea that the mere possession of money will render happy, takes hold of them. And finally, the desire for the other pleasures which the children of the world enjoy with such apparent satisfaction and happiness gradually blinds their hearts to the true values in life. Faith struggles for a while to maintain its position in the heart, but it fights a losing battle, it remains without fruit. But to the last class belong those Christians that have been sown into good soil, where the soil of the heart has been prepared in the proper manner by the thorough plowing of the Law and by the gentle, merciful rain of the Gospel, where the seed may sprout and grow unhindered, until the full ears speak of the' rich harvest. There is a difference, of course, according to the gifts and opportunities of the individual Christian, some will yield fruit only in comparatively small measure, while others are rich in good works, but the fact of the yield is the same in all these cases. It is a searching sermon that is contained in this parable of the Lord's, and all Christians should take heed to remember the lesson: The seed that did not sprout at all; the seed that sprouted, but did not grow; the seed that sprouted and grew up, but bore no fruit; and finally the seed that came up to the expectations of the Lord.
Responsibilities of the Christians: V. 21. And He said unto them, Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel or under a bed, and not to be set on a candlestick? V. 22. For there is nothing hid which shall not be manifested; neither was anything kept secret but that it should come abroad. V. 23. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. There are two reasons why Jesus introduces this thought here which He had also used in the Sermon on the Mount. The knowledge which He here transmitted to His disciples was a part of their equipment as preachers, to be used by them for the benefit of their hearers. Mere general statements as to the will of God and the salvation of mankind may, under circumstances, be very obscure, in fact, unintelligible to the average audience. And therefore such explanation is demanded as will make the meaning plain and bring the fact of God's plan of salvation home to every man. Besides, it is true, in general, that the fruit which God expects in the Christians is such as will make itself felt in the world, as will wield an influence in the every-day affairs in the Christian's neighborhood. The light does not come, it is not brought by the bearer, in order to be placed beneath an inverted bushel-measure or under a sofa, such as were used when reclining at the table, but it should be placed on a candlestick. Then it may give light to all that are in the house, Matt. 5, 15. This Christ emphasizes: That which is now yet hidden, will surely be revealed; that seems to be a definite law; the person that conceals something, does so with the intention of bringing it out of the hiding-place at some future time. "This is universally true. Things are hid because they are precious, but precious things are meant to be used at some time and in some way." 12) It is the same thought that the Lord teaches Matt. 10, 27. The doctrine of the Gospel, the good news of the free justification of all sinners through the merits of Jesus Christ, that is hidden before men, no man knows anything of its beauty or of its comfort, and a great many so-called Christian preachers relegate it to a dismal background. But this mystery shall be revealed before the eyes of all men, both through Bound Gospel-preaching and through Bound Gospel-living. The Lord has a very good reason for adding His warning cry concerning the understanding of His words.
A further warning: V. 24. And He said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you; and unto you that hear shall more be given. V. 25. For he that hath, to him shall be given; and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath. Christ here uses some proverbial sayings, quoted by Him elsewhere, in a new connection, Matt. 7, 2; 13, 12. The disciples, and especially the Twelve, were now hearing, being instructed for their work as evangelists, as preachers of the Gospel. Two people may hear the same saying in an entirely different way, with a great difference as to the amount of benefit obtained. It is essential, therefore, that they keep their eyes open and watch what they hear; for careful hearing pays. The reward given to them by Christ will exceed the measure of attention if they are faithful. A Christian that studies his Bible attentively, with the object of finding in it Jesus, the Savior, John 5, 39, will be surprised by the measure of grace and understanding that will be given to him. The pastor and teacher that searches diligently will almost be overwhelmed by the mass of appropriate material that will be at his command. But a Christian that makes no headway in Bible knowledge will find even the little head knowledge that has still remained with him dull and commonplace; the pastor that does not grow in knowledge or the Scriptures will find himself growing shallow in his sermons and dull in his application. It is the judgment of God upon the indifferent and upon the lazy. "Whoso hath attention, knowledge will be given to him; and from him who hath not the seed of knowledge will be taken. For as diligence causes that seed to grow, negligence destroys it." 13)
The parable of the seed: v. 26. And He said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground, V. 27. and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. V. 28. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. V. 29. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle because the harvest is come. Here is another parable, addressed especially to the disciples, and containing an important lesson for them in their future work. If a farmer sows good seed into his fields, all his worrying about the crop will avail him nothing. He will tend to his other work and will follow his usual mode of living: he will go to rest in the evening and get up in the morning. He knows that it rests with God to give the increase. And this is as it should be. For it is God's promise that seed-time and harvest shall not cease. Gen. 8, 22. By the course of nature which God has ordered the seed sprouts, the blade appears, the ear develops, the grain matures. And thus it is in spiritual matters. When a pastor has preached the Word, publicly and from house to house, he has done that work for which he has been called. Worrying about results is as foolish as it is useless. The power of God is in the Word, and it rests with Him to bless the proclamation of the Gospel according to His promise that His Word will not return to Him void, Is. 55, 10. 11. God must give the increase, 1 Cor. 3, 6. 7. Too many pastors, especially young pastors, as it has been put somewhat quaintly, want to turn around and go into the field with the reaper after they have just come out with the drill. When God's time has come, then the harvest may be gathered; He will send His scythe and bring in the ripe sheaves.
Parable of the grain of mustard-seed: V. 30. And He said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God, or with what comparison shall we compare it? V. 31. It is like a grain of mustard-seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth; V. 32. But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches, so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. It is not a matter of indifference, but of anxious concern to the Lord, as it should be to all true teachers of the Word, in what way He can make clear to His disciples the great truths which they must understand and be thoroughly familiar with, for themselves as well as for their hearers. He wants some comparison, some parable that will bring out still more strongly the lesson of the last parable, but in its application to the entire Church. He chooses a mustard-seed for His purpose. The characteristic feature of this seed is its small size, rendering it almost insignificant in comparison with others as it is sown into the ground. The results, however, are little short of marvelous. In the proper soil, and with the right conditions, it will grow up to be the largest of the garden vegetables, becoming almost treelike in its proportions, extending its boughs in every direction, so that the birds will welcome its shade and be glad to use the protection of its branches for a roosting-place. Thus the preaching of the Gospel is considered insignificant before men. It is despised in the sight of those that prefer the philosophy and wisdom of this world. But when it comes to results, to spiritual life and strength, then human wisdom cannot even come into consideration. For the Word of God alone can take hold of a man's heart and renew it entirely, change his entire life and manner of thinking. And the same effect may be observed in the history of the Church. A mere handful of disciples assembled in the upper room in Jerusalem has grown to a body whose size is such as to be known to God only, although even the number of those that profess Christianity is very large. That fact is a source of constant comfort to all believers, whether they be pastors or not: their labor cannot be in vain, since they have the living Word to deal with.
The end of the parables: V. 33. And with many such parables spake He the Word unto them, as they were able to hear it. V. 34. But without a parable spake He not unto them; and when they were alone, He expounded all things to His disciples. The parables here related by Mark were by no means all that the Lord spoke on that day, whether in the boat or at home. The ones given here are only a few of many. He tried to fit the instruction to the understanding of His hearers, especially that of His disciples, who were strongly in need of teaching. His subject was always the same: He spoke to them the Word, the Gospel of their salvation, He wanted to impress upon them the necessity of entering into the kingdom of God, of accepting the Redeemer, of having faith planted into their hearts. This verse, then, in no way disagrees with v. 12. "Mark says, chapter 4, 33, Christ had spoken in parables to the people that they might understand it, everyone according to his ability; how does this agree with what Matthew says, chapter 13, 13.14: He spoke through parables that they might not understand? This is to be explained thus, that Mark wishes to say: The parables serve this purpose, that unlearned people comprehend the story though they do not get its meaning, and yet may afterwards be taught and then understand them. For the parables naturally please the simple folk, and they remember them easily, since they are taken from the common things, with which they are familiar. But Matthew wants to say that these parables are of a nature that no one can understand them, no matter how often he hears and comprehends the story, unless the Spirit makes them evident and reveals them. Not that they should be preached for the purpose of not being understood; but that it naturally follows, where the Spirit does not reveal, that no one understands them. And yet Christ has taken these words from Is. 6, 9. 10, where the high understanding of divine foreknowledge is touched upon, that He conceals and reveals to whom He will and has had in mind from eternity." 14) That was the reason why this form of preaching was the usual form employed by Jesus. He was not wont to speak without a parable to the people, neither then nor at any other time. But He also had the habit of interpreting or explaining everything, parables and all teaching, to His disciples in private. He literally unloosened the difficulties, which might offer the same baffling task as a hard knot. By constant repetition of the most important doctrines and their application He intended to impress the Gospel-truths upon their minds. This method is thoroughly approved and to be recommended in the study of all the words of Christ; it will not remain without blessing.
Christ Stilling the Tempest. Mark 4, 35-41.
The departure: V. 35. And the same day, when the even was come, He saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side. V. 36. And when they had sent away the multitude, they took Him even as He was in the ship. And there were also with Him other little ships. V. 37. And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. It was on the evening of the day on which Christ had taught the people and His disciples in so many parables. He was probably very tired from the strain of speaking for many hours and desired a few hours of rest. So He proposed to His disciples that they cross over to the other side of the lake. They were with Him in the boat which He had used as platform for speaking and could easily carry out this intention, at least far more easily than to attempt to break through the wall of solid humanity on the shore. They simply left the people behind them as they hoisted sail and moved away from the shore. There was no delay, but also no special provision for the trip. Just as He was, without food or refreshment of any kind, they took Him along. Even so, there were some small boats that accompanied theirs. They had proceeded for some distance when a tornado-like storm broke upon the lake, a phenomenon which was by no means unusual in the deep valley and kettle-like depression of the lake. From all sides the waves rushed upon the boat, rising so high as to fall down upon it and thus filling it with water very quickly. It was a real crisis, and one that was apt to make the heart of the strongest and most seasoned sailor quake with fear.
The miracle: V. 38. And He was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow. And they awake Him and say unto Him, Master, carest Thou not that we perish? V. 39. And He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still! And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. V. 40. And He said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith? V. 41. And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him? In the midst of all this turmoil Jesus, true man as He was, tired out from the day's hard work, was soundly asleep, lying in the stern of the boat, with His head on the low bench or railing known as the "pillow," used by the helmsman to rest on when the ship follows the helm without difficulty. But with His humanity thus visibly portrayed, there was combined the divinity of Him that rules all, in whose hand all the powers of nature are held securely: the storm did not bother Him in the least. But the disciples soon gave up what seemed to them an unequal struggle. They roused Him from His sleep and said to Him: Teacher, does it cause Thee no worry that we are being destroyed? They include Him in their prayer, but are chiefly concerned about their own welfare. Whether this was a cry of fear or an actual reproach, at any rate they showed little faith in crying thus. Jesus told them so even before He arose, Matt. 18, 26. But then He had compassion with their weakness. He suddenly got up, He rebuked the wind and said to the sea: Be quiet, hold your peace. And at His word the miracle was performed before their wondering eyes. The wind did not merely die down slowly, it ceased abruptly; and at once there was a great quietness, all the more noticeable after the rushing turmoil of a few minutes before. The boat was. now gently parting the mirror-like surface of the calm sea. But then the Lord took the opportunity of reproving His disciples very earnestly: How fearful are you in this manner! How is it that you have no faith? Their trust in the Lord, their confidence in His almighty power, was still very weak and uncertain. More than a dozen times Mark mentions this weakness. Undoubtedly the chagrin and deep humility of Peter caused him to dwell upon this point so often in his account of the days and the Gospel of Jesus. The impression of the miracle on the disciples was profound. They feared a great fear; they felt utterly insignificant in the presence of this man that had given them evidence of such superhuman power. They said one to another: Who, then, is this man that wind and sea yield obedience to Him? Each of the two was a wild, lawless element; and yet He controls them as easily as though such an experience were an every-day occurrence with Him! Note the pictorial vividness of Mark's narrative: Evening, the sudden departure, the convoy of ships, the violence of the storm, the ship all but sinking, the image of Him that slept on the ship's pillow, the reproach of the distressed men that Jesus cared not, the words of rebuke to the wind, the strong reproof of the disciples, their great fear, and its effect. 15)
The evangelist here pictures Jesus, the Lord of the universe, who commands the sea, and it gives Him unquestioning obedience. The man Jesus is the almighty God. With His human voice He restored peace in the uproar of the elements. His human nature possesses also the divine glory and majesty! Jesus is an almighty man, was an almighty man even when He was here on earth in the midst of His humiliation. From that little nutshell of a boat, even while He was asleep, He governed heaven and earth, land and sea. Only His divine majesty was covered by the form of a servant. And as He did then, so He does now: He uses His divine power, His omnipotence, in the interest, in the service of men, especially of His disciples, of His believers. That is the comfort of this story.
Summary. Jesus tells the parable of the fourfold soil, expounding it to His disciples, also that of the seed that is cast into the ground, of the grain of mustard-seed, and others, and makes a journey across the sea, in the course of which He stills the tempest.