In 1990 General Motors purchased rights to a song performed by Bob Seger to use as a product theme.1 Seger’s song, “Like a Rock,” become the motto for Chevy trucks for the next decade. The theme made a powerful impression in the minds of consumers. For right or wrong, people began to associate Chevy trucks with permanence and durability. Those three words, “like a rock,” create a clear picture, and when applied to a vehicle they tell us exactly what the manufacturer wants us to think about it.
Parables function in a similar way; they impress the point being taught upon the minds of the hearers. In fact, Jesus begins two parables in Mark 4 by saying, “The kingdom of God is like . . .” Not like a rock, but like a farmer who sows his field and like a mustard seed. It is critical to understand what parables are and how they function in order to understand the three parables in Mark 4.
What Are Parables? (4:1–2, 9–13, 33–34)
A parable is a teaching method (4:2) by which one paints a picture to create a simple likeness of a deeper reality (4:30). Literally, a parable throws a lesson alongside of life (the Greek word para means “alongside of”; bole means “to throw”). Parables vividly describe a scene so that the listener can say, “I can picture that.” Or, to use another analogy, a parable creates a window that allows us to view a concept from another angle. The traditional, simple definition of a parable is helpful (if not perfect): An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
Contrary to conventional wisdom Jesus told parables both to reveal and to conceal the mystery of the kingdom (4:10–13; 33, 34; cf. Matt. 13:10–17). The word “mystery” (4:11) indicates something that is not evident by intuition; not everyone understands. That’s true of the kingdom of God; it’s a mystery that must be revealed. By way of parables God makes some “get it” and leaves others in their own confusion. This dual purpose of parables is evident in Mark 4. The parables made a powerful impression on the disciples when they were made to understand them. Others found the parables confusing. Both results conformed to God’s purpose. All the words of God serve a dual purpose; they both harden and soften.
Whether people understand it or not, a parable is a story designed to make a point and usually one main point. The various details ofthe story might not have meaning when isolated from the whole. The following would be an inappropriate way of isolating a detail from a parable: Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Mustard is spicy. This parable teaches us the need for kingdom zest. Like all good stories, Jesus includes some details simply to support the story. On other occasions, the details are essential to the parable. In the parable of the sower, the sower helps us understand the role of a gospel minister (1 Cor. 3:5); the title of the main character is a vital detail. But, unless we have good reason to focus on the details we should stick to the main point.
General Lessons from the Parables
First, Jesus’ parables teach us that God is a revealer. God reveals His invisible attributes by what He has made—this we call general revelation (Rom. 1:20). He also reveals Himself through the spoken word of special revelation. Jesus’ teaching ministry is a powerful testimony to God’s mission to reveal Himself to lost sinners. Jesus used a variety of means to communicate His truth, including questions, pictures, looks, gestures, actions, lectures, and stories. He teaches in public and in private; in hostile and in cordial settings. In Mark 4 He’s teaching from a boat. Why? Because that was how He could best reach the people who needed to hear His message. Jesus’ parables are not always simple. But He does interpret the parables for those who will hear them (4:10). If we don’t hear God’s revelation, the problem is ours, not His (Rom. 1:18–24).
Second, Jesus’ parables teach us that God is not obligated to reveal Himself to anyone.2 God would be just to leave all of us in the darkness of our own wicked imaginations. Until we understand the terribleness of sin we will tend to think that God owes saving revelation to everyone. But to think this way would be hypocritical. We don’t tell important secrets to our enemies but to our friends. Jesus uses parables to tell the mysteries of the kingdom to His friends, to those who have been given ears to hear and hearts to understand. The fact that He reveals Himself to anyone is an act of pure grace flowing from His sovereign election.
Third, Jesus’ parables teach us to beware of hardening hearts. Through parables Christ speaks passionately to people whose hearts have grown dull of hearing (Matt. 13:13–15). Remember that the Pharisees and scribes had responded to Jesus’ ministry with questions, doubts, and accusations; they have made it clear that they are outside of the kingdom. They’ve grown dull. Similarly, the crowds were largely following Jesus for amusement; they were not interested in the things of God. To these, therefore, Jesus spoke in parables to conceal from the profane God’s precious things. Those who reject the clear teaching of God’s Word will have it taken away from them (see Ezek. 7:26). Those, for example, who in their youth hear the gospel with disinterest develop dull hearts which become seemingly impenetrable to spiritual things. Whatever they now hear of God sounds like confusing parables.
Three Agricultural Parables
The basic point of each of the parables in Mark 4 is that the kingdom grows as the Word of God takes root in our hearts and lives.
Parable of the Four Soils (4:3–9, 13–20)
In His first recorded parable, Jesus makes the main point that there are only two kinds of responders to the preaching of the Word. Those who hear either bear fruit, or they do not.3 In the hand of a sower, a seed has one purpose: to bear fruit. Failure to do so betrays a problem in the soil, not the seed.
Jesus says there are two main types of non-fruit-bearing hearers, both of which have problems of the heart. The first type immediately rejects the seed of the Word. They are unresponsive and uninterested in the Word of God from the start. Jesus says these people are in bondage to Satan.4 Perhaps you’ve tried to sow seed in this kind of heart. It seems hopeless. Be encouraged to keep spreading seeds. All it takes is God to hold Satan back and cause that seed to take root and grow, and they too will be saved.
Other fruitless hearers seem to receive the Word only to fall away. Some seem to be believers for a time but then apostatize; the gospel never developed sustainable roots in their lives. These hearers often fall away on account of the challenges of godliness. Sadly, into this category of hearers fell the masses of Jesus’ audience. Thousands thronged our Lord when He was new and popular, but when persecution came the crowds vanished. God promises a tremendous reward of grace. But the way to the reward is hard. Christ calls us to count the cost and take up the cross. If we don’t, we’ll fall away when the going gets tough.
Other hearers fall away on account of worldliness. In any square foot of earth there is only enough opportunity for so many things to grow. To the worldly the cares of the present age are stronger than the promise of the gospel. Is it possible that masses of people today are choking out the gospel’s message by way of a steady distracting stream of mass media? Is not the myth of “wealth brings happiness” alive among us? Is there not a deceptive urge in each of us to gravitate toward that which gratifies our desires? How shall we interpret the swelling attendance rolls of churches where the gospel is light or absent but church is fun, the speaker charismatic and energetic, and programs abound? William Hendriksen calls them “preoccupied hearts” who are distracted from the gospel by worldliness, wealth, and wants. They have “no room for calm and earnest meditation on the word or message of the Lord.”5 Each of us should pray for deliverance from such distractions.
Gladly, there are also those who hear the Word and embrace it till the end. Mark 4:20 says three things about this last category of listeners.6 First, fruit bearers hear the Word. We will not bear fruit unless we hear God speak (cf. Rom. 10:17). All of us are obligated to carefully listen to God speaking in the church, in family worship, and in private worship. When we add up the amount of time we spend hearing the Word of God on a given week, how does it compare with the time than we spend manicuring our nails or our yards? Are we hearing the Word?
Second, fruit bearers accept or receive the Word. The word for “accept” is elsewhere translated “welcome” (Acts 15:4 ESV). Those who are blessed by the Word welcome it. They don’t see Bible reading or sermon listening as a duty to be done but as a gift to be received. Those who ultimately bear fruit also have a sensitivity to the Word; they accept what it says. They see themselves in subjection to the Word. They are often cut to the heart by it; they are convicted by it.
Third, fruit bearers apply the Word. Bearing fruit means putting the Word to work; it means using it the way God intended it to be used (2 Tim. 3:15–16). There are many who hear the Word, even agree with it but are unwilling to be changed by it and put it to work in their lives. One of the best ways to ensure that we apply the Word is to listen to it with application in mind. Whenever you hear something that pointedly speaks to you, acknowledge the convictions that you feel. Better yet, write down these convictions either in the form of a prayer (“God help me to . . .”) or in the form of an indicative statement (“God wants me to . . .”). Sermon listening should be active, not passive. What kind of heart do you have? Are you receptive to the Word (Mark 4:9)?
The Parable of the Growing Seed (4:26–29)
It’s hard to miss that Jesus’ first parables all have to do with seeds. The imagery of seed is well suited to emphasize at the same time God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.7 As Paul says, man plants and waters but God brings the seed to fruition (1 Cor. 3:7). Both this and the next parable have to do with the growth of the kingdom. The main point of this parable is that the kingdom of God grows almost mysteriously toward a harvest. Even in a scientific age it is amazing to watch a seed grow from the earth with no help. Jesus tells the parable of the growing seed to encourage His disciples. They were given the task of proclaiming the kingdom of God by preaching and healing. Yet, they were average men who were prone to fear and discouragement. Jesus assures us that where the gospel has taken root it will grow. We don’t always know how. Sometimes we don’t see the kingdom grow. We listen to the Word of God week after week, yet we feel stagnant. We pray, we preach, we invite our community to worship, yet we see no church growth. So it is when you watch a garden. Day after day you check and nothing happens. But before long growth is undeniable. As James writes, we need to be as patient as the farmer who waits for the precious fruit of the earth (James 5:7–8). As we trust God He will provide the increase (2 Cor. 9:10). Sometimes we wonder how a seed can grow where it does. Recently, I saw a full-grown tomato plant growing in the crack of the sidewalk in front of a local pizzeria. When the kingdom grows within us or around us we should acknowledge that miracle and praise God for it. To the praise of God’s glory, the kingdom will advance despite our failures because it is God’s kingdom.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:30–32)
The final parable in this section has to do with one of the smallest of all garden seeds. Mustard seeds can be as small as one millimeter in diameter but can grow to twice the height of a man. Likewise, the kingdom begins small but will grow to great proportions (cf. 1 Kings 18:44–45). Jesus is reminding His audience of promises made in the Old Testament about Himself; a shoot that would grow from the stump of Jesse (Isa. 11:1–10; cf. Jer. 33:15) would become a majestic cedar providing peace for all who dwell in its branches (Ezek. 17:23).8 Christ Himself, the Seed of the kingdom (Gal. 3:16), seems small and insignificant in the world’s eyes. But one day every knee will bow before Him (Rom. 14:11). John Calvin—a man familiar with discouragement—writes of this parable, “Let us not despond, but rise by faith against the pride of the world, till the Lord give us that astonishing display of his power, of which he speaks in this passage.”9
A Final Warning: Take Heed! (4:21–25)
The Bible describes unbelievers as stopping their ears so that they can barely hear the Word of God (Acts 7:57). Those who suppress God’s revelation do so to their own destruction. Still, despite the best of human earplugs, God’s Word trickles in. For this reason, none of us can forget Jesus’ words about the responsibility that comes with receiving divine revelation. As the light of the world, Jesus will make Himself known at some point to every person who has ever lived. When we hear, we must take heed; we will be held accountable for what we hear. For believers, this warning comes with an invitation to make known what we know (Matt. 10:27) and to shine as lights in the world in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil 2:15; cf. Matt. 5:14–16). 1. Accessed on September 15, 2009, from http://www.leftlanenews.com/bob-like-a-rock-seger-no-chevy-driver.html. 2. Canons of Dort, 1.6. 3. Herman Hanko, The Mysteries of the Kingdom: An Exposition of the Parables (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1975), 14. 4. In fact, “in treating the word of God so lightly they are co-operating with the prince of evil!” (v. 15). William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary series (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 156. 5. Ibid., 158. 6. For an expanded treatment of these themes see William Boekestein, “Profiting from Preaching: Learning to Truly Hear God,” The Outlook 64:4 (2014): 22–24. 7. Hendriksen, Mark, 165. 8. Jesus may also be alluding to the positive influence of the kingdom on society. The reference to the birds of the air suggests that the kingdom provides blessing even to the unbelieving world. Note how “birds of the air” is used in a previous parable (Mark 4:1, 15) as a symbol of the unbelieving world; in fact of Satan himself. 9. John Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), vol. 2, 127.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. From which Old Testament texts is Mark 4:12 drawn? How do the context of those texts shed light on Jesus’ message?
2. Spend some time reflecting on the similarities and differences between farming in your context and farming in Jesus’ context, and how these thoughts affect our understanding of Mark 4.
3. What does it mean to “have no root in themselves” (Mark 4:17)?
4. How can “the cares of this world” choke out the gospel (Mark 4:19)?
5. How can riches be deceitful (Mark 4:19)?
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).