Mark 04:01-24, The Parable of the Sower
Text: Mark 4:1-13
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.” 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.” 13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
1. The Parable
This is an amazing parable. It is perhaps one of Jesus’ best known parables. It is a parable that many of us have heard many times. It is a favorite parable and it is a foundational parable. And yet, we have heard it so many times, that perhaps we have never heard it as we ought to hear it.
As we read this parable, we are a bit surprised at the reaction of the disciples. They did not understand it. We read the parable and think that it is easy to understand. What’s so hard about this parable? Yet, the disciples did not understand what Jesus meant. In verse 10, they came to Jesus to ask him what it meant. Jesus responds to them in verse 13,
Mark 4:13 NLT … “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables?
We read the parable and wonder why they did not understand it. What’s so difficult about understanding this parable? But the very fact that we seem to have no difficulty understanding this parable, while the disciples did not understand it, — that fact indicates that we have missed something that they saw. So we want to look at this parable more closely.
In fact, this story is rather shocking. Anyone who knows anything about farming — and you don’t have to know much — but anyone who knows anything about farming knows that this is no way to run a farm. This is not the way to plant seeds. No farmer worth his salt treats his seed with such little concern. No farmer simply throws his seed in every direction. Seed is too precious, too costly, and the harvest too important to sow seeds in places where they are guaranteed not to produce fruit.
(1) Seed on the Footpath
Mark 4:4 NLT As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it.
The sower in this parable throws some of his seeds on the footpath. Now any real farmer would know that you do not throw precious in every direction. You do not throw it on the footpath. This is where people walk. This is hard packed ground. There is no chance that the seeds that fall on the footpath will penetrate the ground and sprout. Even if by some miracle they were to sprout, they would be trampled on by people walking on the path. But there is no chance of these seeds taking root: the birds swoop down and eat the seeds. This is a very good way to feed birds, but it is no way to plant seeds.
(2) Seed on Rocky Ground
Mark 4:5-6 NLT Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died.
Again, this sower does not seem to know what he is doing. What kind of farmer sows seed like this? The work of preparing the soil must come first. Rocks and coral must be removed before planting. The seed is wasted when the soil is not prepared. Obstacles to growth must be removed if you want a harvest.
The initial results are most deceptive. Here the seeds sprout quickly. Nice green shoots spring up and the promise of harvest presents itself to the farmer. In this, the farmer no doubt rejoices, but he will soon be disappointed. The sun rises and the plant soon wilts under the hot sun because it has no deep roots and cannot draw enough water to withstand the heat. It withers and dies.
(3) Seed among Thorns
Mark 4:7 NLT Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain.
What’s this? The sower does not bother to clear the weeds and thorns?! He just tosses the seed in the middle of the thorns and hopes that it will grow. He might have failed to note that the footpath and the rocky ground would not produce a good crop, but how could he possibly ignore the thorns. He must have known that the thorns would win out and choke out the tender plants so that they would not produce any grain.
(4) Seed on Fertile Soil
Mark 4:8 NLT Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”
Finally, and it seems to be by chance, some of the seeds fell on good soil. This is not due to the planning and preparation of the farmer. Jesus simply says that the seeds “fell” into good soil. The farmer went out, scattered the seed in all directions. Some fell on the path. Some fell on rocky ground. Some fell among thorns. And some fell into good soil. There was no planning. No preparation of the soil. Just a sower who throws the seed in every direction. Then Jesus says,
Mark 4:9 ESV… “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Mark 4:9 NET … “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!”
2. The Purpose of the Parable
When we realize how foolish this farmer is, wasting precious seed by throwing it in every direction, we have to wonder what this parable is all about. When we begin to understand what Jesus is actually saying, we find ourselves in the same situation as the disciples. We do not understand this parable.
We often think that Jesus told parables to make truths clear or to illustrate important truths, but that does not seem to be the case. That is not what Jesus explains:
Mark 4:10-12 ESV 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.”
Here Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6 where the prophet Isaiah received the call of God. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a vision of the sovereign Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. The Lord’s glory filled the temple, and seraphim called out to one another, “Holy, holy holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Next Isaiah had a vision of himself: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Isaiah is then cleansed and has a vision of the people, and hears the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Then we find the words of the LORD, quoted by Jesus:
Isaiah 6:9-10 ESV And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
So Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that those outside “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (4:12).
Mark 4:12 BSN Nao long fasin ya ‘bambae olgeta oli save luk, luk, luk, be oli no save luksave mining long hem, oli save harem, harem, harem, be oli no save haremsave…
Yes, those who were close to him and who followed him with the disciples were “on the inside.” They gathered around him in verse 10 and asked him about the parables.
Mark 4:11 ESV 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,
Those “outside” were those who had opposed him. Hostility toward Jesus was rising.
- The questioned his ability to forgive sin: “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
- “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
- “Why do … your disciples not fast?”
- “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
- In 3:6, the Pharisees and the Herodians joins ranks to destroy Jesus.
- The scribes accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan.
- Even his own family tried to stop him, saying that he was out of his mind (3:21).
- Ten verses later we read that his mother and brothers are “outside” seeking him. Jesus then declares that his true brother and sister and mother — the insiders — are those who do will of God (3:35).
Those who are “in” are given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those “outside” everything is in parables.
- The more we read the Bible, the more we should gain a sense of wonder at what God has put together. This Book is not a collection of verses; it is an integrated piece of tapestry from Genesis to Revelation.
- We should grow in thanksgiving to God for the gift of seeing the truth about Jesus and the gospel. Knowing the truth is not a result of our intelligence and our ability to grasp spiritual truths; it is the result of the grace of God in our lives.
- We should also understand that we need to be clear yet discreet in witnessing when in a hostile environment. There were times when Jesus pushed the envelope, so to speak, but there were also times when he spoke in parables so that the outsiders would see but not perceive, hear but not understand.
Disciples in the Dark
Yet the disciples seem to be in the dark as much as the outsiders.
Mark 4:13 ESV And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
The disciples did not know what this parable meant. And how could they? On the one hand, the meaning seems so obvious, but how is one to understand a farmer who casts his seed on foot-trodden pathways and stony ground and among the thorns? What kind of a farmer throws his seed all about? It is no wonder they marveled at the parable and wondered exactly what Jesus wanted to teach them.
3. Jesus Interprets His Parable
So Jesus interprets his parable. His first clue is the key to the rest of the parable:
Mark 4:14 ESV The sower sows the word.
So the seed is the word. That is the key to understanding this parable.
Principles of the Parable
If the seed is the word, then it is the word that is heard. The pathway, the rocky ground, the thorns, and the good soil all represent different responses to the word. And therein lies the mystery of the crazy farmer. The farmer has failed to respect the most fundamental principles of farming. Every farmer knows that there are many places where the seed simply cannot grow. Every farmer knows that the field must be plowed, rocks and weeds must be removed. In short, if you want a good harvest, you must start with a good soil. You must prepare the soil.
- And yet, that is exactly what the sower of the word cannot do. That brings us to the first principle of the sower:
The sower of the Word never knows what kind of soil he is dealing with. He is absolutely blind to the conditions of the soil. The sower does not know what kind of ground is fertile and what kind is not. We cannot tell by looking at people whether or not there will be a response. We cannot tell whether or not a person will be receptive to the gospel. So the sowers of the Word must be more generous, than strategic, in casting the seed. We must scatter the seed everywhere, tossing it in all directions because we cannot know what kind of soil we are dealing with.
Many commentaries suggest that this would be better called the parable of the soils, but Jesus himself calls it the “parable of the sower” (Matthew 13:18). On the one hand, he tells us to be careful how we hear. On the other hand, he is telling his disciples that they cannot know the kind of soil they are dealing with. They are to be like the sower who sows the seed in all directions.
The people we share the gospel with may or may not be open to Christ. We look on the outward appearance, but the outward appearance is deceptive. God looks on the heart, but that we cannot do. So we cannot be like the farmer who carefully measures out his seed, plots his ground, breaks up the fallow ground, clears the land of rocks and weeds, plows the field, and sows in good soil. No, we are like the sower who scatters his seed in every direction, announcing the message of salvation through Jesus Christ to young and old, to the rich and to the poor, to the broken and to the unbroken because we cannot possibly predict the results of sharing the Word.
That is why we are charged to…
2 Timothy 4:2 NET Preach the message, be ready whether it is convenient or not, reprove, rebuke, exhort with complete patience and instruction.
The Apostle Paul sowed the seed of God’s Word in many directions. He preached to Jews and Gentiles, to freemen and slaves, to the weak and to the strong:
1 Corinthians 9:19-22 NIVO Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
Paul did so that he might save “some.” There are never guarantees as to what kind of harvest there will be in response to sowing the Word.
2. So that brings us to the second principle: There were no guarantees of great success in Jesus’ commands to go. He only told us how we are to respond to positive and negative responses.
Matthew 10:11-14 NIVO “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.
Paul faithfully sowed the seed of the Word. He was kicked out of synagogues, whipped, beaten with rods, imprisoned, chased out of town, and stoned and left for dead. But synagogue rulers were sometimes saved, the families of jailers converted, and even people in Caesar’s courts came to Christ.
3. The third principle is this: The effectiveness of the sowing depends more on the soil than on the sower or the seed. That is what Jesus shows in his explanation of the parable.
Responses to the Word
There are three responses to the Word of God that are ultimately unfruitful.
1. First there is the footpath.
Mark 4:15 ESV 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.
This is the hardened footpath. People constantly walk on the path so that the soil is packed down and hardened. When the seed lands on it, it just stays on top. It does not penetrate the soil. And no sooner than the seeds land on it, the birds swoop down and devour the seeds.
This is the path that is frequented by the greatest number of people. This is the road that most people take. For most people, the Word of God goes in one ear and out the other. As soon as they hear the Word, Satan comes and takes it away. They give no thought or consideration to what God says. They are too busy. They are in a hurry to get on with life as they see it. They are in a headlong rush toward hell.
Matthew 7:13-14 NLT “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. 14 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.
These people hear the word but Satan immediately comes and removes it so that it is unfruitful in them.
2. There is also the rocky ground.
Mark 4:16-17 ESV 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.
These are the short-termers. Jesus says that they hear the word. They receive it, and they rejoice. These hearts are not fully hard, but there is no depth. They are like seeds that spring up quickly. They have beautiful tender green shoots and seem to be full of life, and they endure for a while. From all appearances the word is growing in their lives, but the only growth is up, not down. The word does not take root. It is superficial; it is not deep. Hard times come. When the sun gets hot, they wither. They seem to have had joy in Jesus, but they have no perseverance when persecuted, no endurance in difficult times. They are fair weather people. They are momentary Christians. They are seasonal Christians.
3. Then there is the thorny ground.
Mark 4:18-19 ESV And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the 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.
Three things happen to the seed sown on thorny ground. These are people who allow other things to choke out the word.
- The Word is choked out by the cares of this world. These people are distracted and pre-occupied with concerns about food and clothing. That is the focus of their life. Jesus said that those who do not know God, live for these things. But he told us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to us” (Matthew 6:33).
- The Word is choked out by the deceitfulness of riches. These people chase money. They are seduced by money. How horrible it is when preachers preach that being a Christian is a way to get rich! The Bible teaches us to be godly and content; that is true wealth.
- The Word is choked out by the desire for other things. These people pursue things rather than God. These distractions and desires choke out the word so that it is unfruitful.
4. The seed finally finds good soil.
Mark 4:20 ESV 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.”
These people are not casual hearers of the Word of God. They continue to hear it and to accept it and to bear fruit. God wants us to be fruitful, but fruitful is not about finances. It is not about money. It is about the life of Christ in us. The Apostle Paul said,
Galatians 4:19 ESV my little children, … I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
Each one heard the Word.
Mark 4:23-24 ESV 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.
Jesus is telling us to be careful how we hear.
Mark 4:9 NET And he said, “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!”
Again in verse 23,
Mark 4:23 NET If anyone has ears to hear, he had better listen!”
Mark 4:24-25 NLT Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given– and you will receive even more. 25 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.”
The command to be careful how we hear shows that each one of us determines what kind of soil we will be. Each of us determine whether or not our lives will be fruitful for Christ
- The message for us as hearers is that not all hearing is the same. Not all ears hear in a way that is fruitful. We must be careful how we hear. Jesus addresses the will. He tells us to hear. So how is your hearing? Are you listening? Are you obeying? Are listening to learn and to put God’s word into practice in your life? Be careful how you hear so that the Word of God may prove to be fruitful in your life.
- The message for us as sowers is that if we keep sowing the seed, in spite of resistance and disappointments, some of the seed that is sown will prove to be fruitful. For some, the word will produce marvelous results in their lives as they become not only hearers, but doers of the word.
Galatians 6:9 ESV And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
See also “Gospel of Mark”:
- Mark 01v01-11, “The Gospel of Mark”
- Mark 04v01-24, The Parable of the Sower
- Mark 06v06-13 The Global Mission of the Church
- Mark 06v45-52 “The One Who Walks on Water”
- Mark 07v01-23 “How Can I Be Clean?”
- Mark 07v24-30 “Jesus among the Gentiles”
- Mark 07v31-37 “He does all things well!”
- Mark 08:01-21, “Do you not yet understand?”
- Mark 08v22-26, “Men As Trees, Walking”
- Mark 08v27-38, “Who do you say that I am?”
- Mark 08v34-9:1, “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?”
- Mark 08:38-09:13, “A Risk Worth Taking”
- Mark 09v14-29, “Weak Faith and a Strong Savior”
- Mark 09v30-50, Defining Greatness on the Way to the Cross
- Mark 10v01-12, “God’s Plan for Marriage”
- Mark 10v17-31, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
- Mark 10v32-45, Walking with Jesus on the Way to the Cross
- Mark 10:46-52, “The Man Who Stopped Jesus”
- Mark 11v01-33, The Triumphal Entry and Judgment on the Temple
- Mark 12v01-12, Parable of the Wicked Tenants