Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20)

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Today, we will look at a story Jesus told, called “the Parable of the Sower”, which is in Mark chapter 4.

Jesus’ parables uses images from daily life and nature. These images are very simple and concrete, yet convey deep spiritual truths. Let’s start with the first 9 verses of Mark chapter 4.

Mark 4:1-9

Why does Jesus teach in this way, instead of just explaining things directly? It’s his way of catching his audience’s attention, by inviting them to ponder: “What does Jesus mean?” They were memorable, making his teachings easier to remember. Finally and controversially, we might say that the parables divided people. Their response to the parables revealed their hearts.

The first parable here is often called “The Parable of the Sower.” Jesus starts by saying, “Listen!” He ends by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This echoes the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, which says “Hear, O Israel!”—which was a very familiar expression for the Jews.

Jesus is asking them not just to listen with their physical ears, but to let the words sink into the depth of their heart, in a way that leads to change.

Mark 4:9-12

Jesus also tells a series of other parables. They all focus on the theme of God’s kingdom. Later, Jesus’ disciples ask him what all these parables mean. His reply is difficult to understand. He says, in verse 11, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables”.

Is he saying that God purposely excludes some people from the kingdom by using cryptic stories? The word “secret” in verse 11 is “mysterion” in the original Greek language. In the Bible, God’s plan is sometimes called a “secret” or a “mystery,” but not in the sense that it is unknowable. We can know part of God’s plan, but only if he choose to reveal it. For example, his plan for salvation was kept secret throughout the Old Testament era but revealed when Jesus came (Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 3:3-9).

Alright, so clearly God wants to reveal his plan. But what does Jesus mean when he says in verse 11 “but for those outside, everything is in parables”? The next verse, verse 12, will help us understand better. It’s a quotation that Jesus takes from the prophet Isaiah: “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.”

During Isaiah’s time, God had sent this prophet to announce judgment on the people of Israel, who were persisting in idolatry and injustice. God warned Isaiah that the people would not accept his message. Because they persisted in living their own way, they chose to be deaf towards God’s message. And God allowed them to be deaf and blind to the truth—for a period of time.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus saw himself in a similar situation as Isaiah. Many in Israel could not grasp the meaning of his parables because their hearts were already deaf to God. They might hear but not understand. As a result, Jesus’ message did not have its intended effect on them: to help them turn back to God and be forgiven.

By the way, the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans (chapter 9 and 10) that this hardening of Israel’s heart is actually part of God’s plan too. In the end, even this rejection of Jesus will accomplish God’s mysterious plans for Israel.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ parables are like doorways. People can choose to enter a doorway and explore what’s inside. Or, they can remain outside, losing the chance to benefit from what’s inside. In that sense, a door divides people into two groups: inside and outside. For those already hostile towards Jesus, they could hear his words and yet fail to truly understand. They remained outside. Those who wished to understand Jesus’ teaching more, like his disciples, would walk through that door—taking time to ask and think about these parables.

Mark 4:13-20

From verse 14 onwards, Jesus explains the meaning of the Parable of the Sower after his disciples asked him in private.

He provides the key to understanding the parable which is this: the seed represents the “word of God”. Without this key, we might easily imagine other interpretations. This parable could very well be an analogy for business strategy, for love, or for parenting. But Jesus’ parables are intended to convey certain truths. In this case, the Parable of the Sower is about different people’s responses to God’s message.

At first, this parable was an observation about his own ministry of telling people about the kingdom of God. Later, as his disciples took up the same ministry, they would find Jesus’ observations to be true for their own experience too.

The first kind of response is lack of interest, suspicion, or hostility. In today’s world, these may be people who feel cynical about religion, who have been hurt by religious people, or who simply feel religion is irrelevant to their lives. So the seed of God’s word has no chance to even sprout before Satan swoops down like a bird to gobble it up.

The second response is short-lived interest and temporary joy. It is belief that doesn’t endure through difficult times.

The third response is faith that is stunted by the pressures and pleasures of life. Our worries, our commitments, our hobbies, our ambitions—these are all valid things, but when they are out of proportion, they can choke the effect of God’s word in our lives.

The last response is accepting God’s words in a way that leads to change in a person’s life. Although it is God who works to change us, he has also determined that we too should play our part in cooperating with him.


What are some things we can learn from today’s passage?

1) First, let’s not be discouraged when people aren’t receptive to your sharing about Jesus or your Christian view of life. Of course, we should examine ourselves, to see if anything we did or said has hindered them from listening. But often, we can do our best and still feel we have failed. Remember that Jesus—who was God himself in flesh—spoke and was rejected by many. If our Lord himself was rejected, it should be no surprise that we are too.

2) Second, let’s not underestimate Satan’s influence in this world. He seeks to snatch away God’s words before they can take root in people’s hearts. Not just to prevent non-Christians from believing, but to also hinder Christians from maturing and persevering in our faith. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesian church that our true enemy is not another human but “the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12).

Let’s have confidence that Jesus already defeated Satan by his death and resurrection. It is often said: Christians may lose many small battles, but we have already won the larger war. Still, through these small battles, Satan can cause our lives to be like seeds that never reach their potential.

This summer, I was sad to find out that two guys that I knew many years ago no longer consider themselves Christians. During their school vacation, they both attended a Bible and faith-formation course for teenagers. They joined activities to share the gospel. They learned about Christian apologetics (which is about how to logically defend your beliefs). They were active in church. Now, one guy has a suspicious business, and some people have accused him of being a con-man. He said, if he’s not breaking the law, then it’s not wrong. The other guy is now an agnostic. He would rather go hiking on Sundays than to think too hard about God and questions that he cannot answer.

3) And so my third point is this: Let’s examine ourselves regularly. Paul is wise when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

Because apart from Satan’s influence, there are other things that can hinder us from listening to God. Such as the worries and pleasures of this life. It doesn’t mean we should abandon all our obligations to people, or get rid of the things we enjoy. It just means we should regularly check at the condition of our hearts towards God. Small compromises and sin have a way of making our hearts hard, deaf, and blind—little by little.

In verse 13 of today’s passage, Jesus said, if you don’t understand the Parable of the Sower, you won’t be able to understand the other parables. I think he wasn’t just saying that this parable is the easiest to understand; rather, he’s saying this parable is fundamental. Our ability to benefit from Jesus’ parables depends on the condition of our hearts. Is our heart receptive and eager to learn? To be changed?


Let me end by saying that, in the end, we depend on God’s mercy to be good listeners. The disciples needed Jesus’ help to understand his parables. Likewise, we need the Holy Spirit’s help to understand God’s words and for those words to grow in our hearts.

Like other areas of life, listening to God is a partnership. We do our part to seek God, while God does his part to help us. And thankfully, even when we are not seeking God, he does not give up on us. He continues sowing the seeds.

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