Mark 4:1-32

(A Bible Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds – March 8, 2012)


We are looking at the third major section of Mark’s Gospel is from 3:7 – 6:6a.  In this section we have a summary Jesus’ later ministry in the area of Galilee.  In this larger section are six major movements:

1.      An introductory summary of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (3:7-12)

2.      The choosing of the twelve (3:13-19)

3.      Scandalous accusations from His own family and from the scribes from Jerusalem (3:20-35)

4.      Parables about the Kingdom of God (4:1-34)

5.      A series of miracles demonstrating His power (4:35-5:43)

6.      Rejection by the people of His hometown of Nazareth (6:1-6a)

In this study we are going to focus on the fourth movement in this section of Mark.


Introductory statement (verses 1-3)

Only two times in Mark’s Gospel is there a lengthy section of the sayings or teachings of Jesus.  One is in chapter 4 and the other in chapter 13.  In chapter 4 Mark gives us a selection of Jesus’ parables.  The statement in verse 2, “And He was teaching them many things in parables…” indicates that Mark selected from the many things Jesus taught the particular things highlighted in this chapter.


Mark introduced the word “parable” in 3:23 and used it seven times in this chapter (4:2, 10–11, 13, 33–34). The word means “to throw alongside.” Jesus used familiar images to help explain the spiritual truths in His message about “the kingdom” (vv. 11, 26, 30). He used this approach so that He could arouse the careless and instruct the concerned, and yet conceal the truth from His enemies who would use it against Him (vv. 10–12).[1]  For those who choose to believe, parables force them to think and to see new truths.  For those who refuse to believe, parables obscure truth.


Notice this chapter begins with the phrase “And He began to teach again by the sea.”  There were probably two reasons for this.  First, because of the growing hostility of the religious leaders, especially the scribes who had come from Jerusalem to observe Him, He stopped teaching in the synagogues.  Second, the crowds around Him had become much too large for the relatively small space in the synagogues.


The parable of the sower and soils (verses 3-20) – It is important to follow the sequence of these verses.

·         Verses 3-9 contain the parable

·         Verses 10-11 contain an explanation of why Jesus taught in parables. 

·         Verses 12-20 contain an explanation of the parable



VERSES 3-9 – The parable

4:3 “ ‘Listen to this’ ” This is a PRESENT ACTIVE IMPERATIVE. Remember, parables were given orally. The rabbis would teach, then summarize, then illustrate. Jesus follows this pattern (cf. William L. Blevins’ Birth of a New Testament, pp.1–13).

“sower” This was a very common sight in Galilee. This parable makes so much sense when one realizes how these village farmers plowed all of the ground around their villages. These farrows were across paths, weeds, etc. Then they sowed the entire field by hand. Jesus used this common practice to illustrate spiritual receptivity (i.e. four kinds of soils).

4:4 “beside the road” This refers to the public footpaths through the collective fields of the villages. When these fields were plowed the trails disappeared briefly but they quickly reappeared with use.

4:5 “rocky ground” This referred to a rocky formation, under just a few inches of soil, not loose rocks in the field. The shallowness of the soil was not obvious to the viewer.

4:7 “among the thorns” This referred to the well-established thorn patches that were also not visible after plowing.

4:8 “yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” Different types of soil and location allowed different amounts of fruit. There are several manuscript variants related to the preposition en. However, the variety of Greek manuscript variations really does not change the meaning of the text. Probably all three should be en, which would follow an Aramaic influence.

4:9, 23 “ ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’ ” This is a Semitic idiom. It shows the need for careful thought and personal application (cf. Matt. 11:15; 13:9, 43; Luke 8:8; 14:35; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9). This probably reflects the Hebrew prayer, the Shema (cf. Deut. 6:4), which meant “to hear so as to do.” Hearing must result in action (cf. James 2:14–26).[2]


VERSES 10-12 – An explanation of why Jesus taught in parables. 

4:10  The change of scene here is significant. Verses 10-20 occurred later but Mark put them here to illustrate the principle stated in Mark 4:11, 33-34, and thereby show the importance of parables.


4:11-12 These verses must be viewed in the context of unbelief and hostility (cf. 3:6, 21-22, 30). To those who believed, to you (emphatic first position in Gr.), the disciples, God had given the secret [mystery] of the kingdom of God (cf. 1:15). But to those on the outside (of the circle of disciples, the unbelieving crowd) everything, His whole message and mission, was stated in parables. The word “parables” here has the special sense of “enigmatic speech.” The crowd did not really understand Jesus.[3]

Both groups were confronted by Jesus and His message (cf. 1:14-15). God enabled the disciples to see in Him the “secret” (mystērion) about the kingdom. This refers to the disclosure of God’s present kingdom plan which is to be an Age of “seed-sowing” (cf. 4:13-20; 13:10). It was previously hidden to the prophets, but now was revealed to people of His choice (cf. Rom. 16:25-26).

The basic “secret,” common to all the kingdom parables, is that in Jesus, God’s rule (kingdom) has come into human experience in a new spiritual form. The disciples had believed in Jesus. God had already given (dedotai, perf. pass.) them this “secret,” though so far they understood little of its full impact.

On the other hand those blinded by unbelief saw in Jesus nothing but a threat to their existence. They rejected Him and did not come to know the “secret” of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ parables served to conceal its truths from them.

They were like the Israelites in Isaiah’s day (Isa. 6:9-10). Isaiah said that this spiritual blindness and deafness that comes to people is God’s judgment. [4]


VERSES 13-20 – Explanation of the parable is simple because Jesus interprets the parable for us.


“sower” – Represents Jesus and all who sow (proclaim) the good news of Jesus


“seed”Described as “the word” in v.14, meaning the word or message of God.  Matthew says it is “…the word of the kingdom…”


Four responses to the message of God are revealed in this story.  Some refer to this not as the parable of the sower but the parable of the hearers because the story is about ways people respond to the message of God.  It is interesting to note that three out the four responses described are negative.  That’s a reminder that not everyone, not even a majority of people, are going to respond to the gospel.


·         “…beside the road…” – Those who hear and reject the word.  They are closed to God’s word and vulnerable to the evil influence of Satan.

·         “...on rocky ground…” – Those who hear and accept in superficial way.  At the first sign of difficulty or disappointment, they fall away revealing the shallowness of their belief.

·         “…among thorns…” – Those who hear but are too preoccupied with this world to think of the next world. 

·         “…good soil…” – Those who hear the word, accept it, allow it to take root in their lives, and bear fruit by sharing the word with others….


In our journey through Mark we have already seen these four responses to Jesus:

·         The religious leaders heard and rejected Jesus

·         The multitudes that followed after Him were superficial, looking for a miracle from Him

·         His family members were overly concerned about this world

·         The disciples responded with genuine belief



The parable of the lamp (verses 21-24)


VERSE 21 - There are many ways to interpret the little parable about the lamp in v.21...

·         Some interpreters say lamp represents Jesus who is the light of the world and whose identity was becoming known [Hurtado, New International Biblical Commentary]...

·         Others say lamp represents the witness of the disciples who were to bear witness to Jesus [Wiersbe]...

·         Still others say the lamp represents truth in general which must be proclaimed [Barclay]…


VERSE 22 - At first reading may appear to be threatening know, "You'd better watch out or the Big Policeman in the sky will get you!"...but that's not at all the intent of these Matthew's Gospel Jesus prefaces this statement by saying, "Do not fear..."[Matt.10:26]...not meant to be negative motivator but a positive effect saying, "Don't forget that God is with you.  He sees everything you do.  Live your life publicly and privately in full awareness of that."


VERSES 24-25It is important not to misinterpret what Jesus is saying hear...this is not a get rich quick scheme as some of the prosperity preachers on television or radio would have you've heard their pitch..."The more money you give (preferably to their ministries) the more God will give back to you."...don't think Lord is talking here about material things... instead, He's laying down a basic principle of human relationships...and principle is that generally, not in every particular instance, but generally people will treat us like we treat them...want you hear what William Barclay says about this verse... think his is an astute observation:  "One of the great facts of life is that we see our own reflection in other people.  If we are cross and irritable and bad-tempered, we will find other people equally unpleasant.  If we are critical and fault-finding, the chances are that we will find other people the same.  If we are suspicious and distrustful, the likelihood is that others will be so to us.  If we wish others to love us, we must first love them.  The [person] who would have friends must show himself friendly." [Barclay, p.102]


These verses remind us that as we let the light of Jesus shine through our lives, God is pleased and others are blessed.


Two parables about the kingdom of God (verses 26-34) - In the teachings of Jesus, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven (and I think those terms are used to mean same thing) plays central role...there are more than 100 references to kingdom or kingdom of God or heaven in the teachings of Jesus...the kingdom of God is not an outward political, military kingdom, even though that's kind of kingdom people in first century world were expecting the Messiah to establish...nor is the kingdom of God the church, even though the true church is made up of people who are participants in the kingdom of the Scripture, the kingdom of God/heaven is an intensely personal thing...means the reign or rule of God in the lives of people...Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done" and those phrases mean the same thing...the kingdom of God is the will of God being done in our lives...with that in mind, look at what Jesus said about the kingdom in Mark 4:26-34…want to point out three basic truths about the kingdom of God from these verses…


1.   We cannot earn our way into God's Kingdom

1.   Think that is basic point of the little parable of the seed in vv.26-29...the analogy in the parable is fairly simple...though a person can plant a seed, that person certainly can't make a seed matter of fact Jesus said the person can't even explain how it grows...however, the seed does grow and eventually the crop is harvested...the person who enjoys the fruit of the harvest did not produce the fruit...he/she is merely the recipient of the fruit...

2.   This parable is not comparing the kingdom of God with the man who sows seed or the seed or the harvest or the sickle...the comparison is between the kingdom of God and the entire process of a seed falling to the ground, germinating, sprouting, growing, and producing fruit....and basic idea is that we can no more earn our way into God's kingdom than we can make fruit come from a seed...that is not something we can do or produced...however, it is something we can receive and enjoy...

2.   God's kingdom will accomplish its intended purpose

1.   People in 1st century world, as people in our world very much impressed by size...they often equated bigness with power and success and influence...consequently, when they thought of the kingdom of God, they thought in terms of God breaking into human history in a dramatic way...they felt God would come with awesome power, swift results, wicked would be struck down, and righteous would be vindicated...

2.   Was extremely difficult for the early disciples to reconcile their preconceived ideas about what would happen when the Messiah would come and establish God's kingdom and what happened in the coming of Jesus...after all--

--God did not reveal himself in overwhelming power; He came to our world as a baby!

--Jesus did not talk about military conquest; He talked about love, forgiveness, and servanthood!

--The masses of people in 1st century world and the influential religious leaders were not rallying around Him; His followers consisted mainly of people labelled as sinners and outcasts...certainly weren't the beautiful people of the 1st century!

--The power structures of the Jewish nation (not to mention the Roman Empire) were apparently left unchanged by His coming...

3.   In light of all that early disciples needed word of encouragement about the future of this new kingdom...could it really survive?...was there anyway for it to accomplish its purpose?...was it worth committing their lives to?...and the parable of the mustard seed in vv.30-32 was intended to answer such questions...just because something has small, inauspicious beginning does not mean it is would hardly guess the potential of a mustard seed by looking at its size...from that tiny seed can come a large plant reaching a height of 8 to 10 feet...the plant was so big the birds would use it as a tree...

4.   And point Jesus was making is that even though God chose for His kingdom break into history in quiet way, through life of an obscure Galilean, in insignificant place far from the power centers of the world, the kingdom would grow and would no doubt accomplish its intended purpose...

3.   The Kingdom of God is open to all people

1.   The statement at end of v.32 about birds nesting under the shade of the mustard plant is commentator points out birds are fond of little black seeds produced by mustard plant...not uncommon see cloud of birds hovering around and even nesting in such a plant...but more to statement than that...

2.   The phrase "...the birds of the air can nest under its shade" is a quote from several OT OT great empires were often described as tree...and the nations which were part of a great empire were described as birds nesting in a using this particular analogy, Jesus was saying that just as great empires are made up of many different nations, so the Kingdom of God would be made up of many different kinds of people...

[1] Wiersbe, W. W. (1997). Wiersbe's expository outlines on the New Testament (112). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

[2] Utley, R. J. D. (2001). Vol. Volume 2: The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and I & II Peter. Study Guide Commentary Series (53–54). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[3] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures (Mk 4:10–12). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[4] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures (Mk 4:11–12). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.