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Mark 4 – Parable of the Four Soils

When I was in high school, I played soccer, basketball, and track & field. While we played, the cheer leaders would do their thing along the sidelines. But most of the time I was preoccupied with the competition and didn’t pay attention to what they were doing. One day, we were playing in a soccer tournament at a Christian camp in North Carolina. When I came out of the game for a rest break, my cousin (dressed in a lion mascot outfit) began a pitiful cheer by herself. She almost mumbled the words and acted disinterested. That got my attention and made me mad. What was she doing? She was supposed to be cheering us on. But then she did the cheer again a little bit louder. And a third time, she was yelling at the top of her lungs. What I didn’t understand was that she had planned this cheer to get the crowd’s attention. Once I understood that, it all made sense.

At another time, our cheerleaders gave a Friday afternoon pep rally. Once again my cousin led the school in a cheer. But this one involved clapping with her. She clapped once and then clapped several times and then some more. I was oblivious to how to match the claps, but the crowd seemed to understand and were able to clap at the same time she was. It wasn’t until afterward that I learned that she was clapping 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 times and then 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 times. Until I understood the pattern, I was very confused.

Have you had a similar thing happen to you? The people in today’s Scripture passage did. In Mark 4:1-20, we will be reading about Jesus’ use of a parable which at first nobody understood. But when things were explained to the disciples, it all made sense. Let’s take a look at what happened.

  1. The Parable of the Planter (Mark 4:1-9)

    Jesus took another opportunity to teach the people. This time it was near the sea. There were so many people that He got into a boat and taught from the water. This would have kept them from pushing against Him and would also have kept Him visible to everyone. When He began teaching, it was not in straight forward principles. Instead, He taught with parables.

    A parable has been described as “a short discourse that conveys spiritual truth by making a vivid comparison. The truth to be taught is compared to something in nature or a common-life experience. … A parable draws its hearers to take part in a situation, evaluate it, and apply its truth to themselves.”1 With that in mind, can you think of any parables and how this definition fits them? How about the parable of the prodigal son? Jesus told the parable about a wayward son who lived in sin and finally realized his wrong choices. Jesus used this story to show how merciful God is to those who repent of their sin and come back to him.

    In this parable, Jesus spoke about a farmer who went out to plant seeds. “He worked with a leather bag containing the seed, either wheat or barley, tied it to his waist while he scattered the seed by hand.”4 With our modern way of farming, his method seems haphazard. He simply cast the seeds around hoping that some of them would land in a good place and grow. Some of the seeds landed on the wayside. “The wayside was either a road at the edge of the field or a footpath crossing the open field.”5 But the birds ate these seeds before they could take root. Some seed fell on stony ground where there wasn’t very much dirt. The plants grew quickly at first but when the sun scorched them they withered away. Some of the seeds landed among the thorns. But the plants that grew there were unable to grow because the thorns were so thick. But there were some seeds that fell on good ground and later grew into productive plants which produced a good crop.

    “Both before and after Jesus told this parable, He urged the crowd to listen carefully.”1 He started with “Listen!” and ended with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” This should cause us to stop and consider what Jesus is saying and how it applies to each of us. Will you do that today?

  2. The Purpose of the Parable (Mark 4:10-12)

    Later, when the multitudes had gone home, Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples. They asked Him about the meaning of the parable. Jesus explained to them that they were being given the ability to understand the mystery of the kingdom of God. But those who were outside would only hear parables. This withholding of information was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He then quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10.

    Isaiah 6:9-10 – “And He said, Go, and tell this people: Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed.”

    At first it may seem unfair that Jesus only explained the parables to His disciples, but there is more to the story. Much time had passed since He first began teaching the people. And “Jesus’ audiences were not denied the opportunity to believe in Him. But after they persistently closed their minds to His message, they were excluded from further understanding of it by His use of parables.”2 When people rejected His teaching, Jesus allowed them to remain in their unbelief and did not explain the parables to them.

    What does it mean?

    There are two types of people. There are some to whom God reveals the truth and some to whom it will not be revealed. The difference between the two is not their innate goodness but the work of God. Jesus had chosen the twelve to be His disciples and with that privilege had given them this great opportunity to know God’s truth. But the others, including many in the multitude, were not given the opportunity to understand the truth.

    Jesus explained this hiding of the truth from some by quoting Isaiah. The Old Testament prophet was told by God to speak to the people but that they would not understand or perceive what was being said. They had come to a place where they had rejected God’s message so often that they were no longer able to understand or repent.

    How does it apply?

    If you are a believer today, you should thank the Lord for opening your eyes to the truth. If it had not been for Him, you would still be living in sin and walking away from Him. This is the way all of us are born. Isaiah described this well by saying, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way.” But God, who is rich in mercy, reached down and opened our eyes to the truth and brought us to the place where we would respond to Him. It may have been that God used a friend to share the truth with you. Or you may have been reading the Bible when you finally understood. Or you may have heard a preacher when God’s Spirit opened your eyes to understand the truth. At some point, you understood that you were a sinner who deserved God’s eternal judgment in Hell. But you also learned that Jesus gave His life on the cross to pay the debt for your sins. Then you repented of your sin and put your faith in Jesus. That is when God saved you and gave you a new life.

    But there are others who have not responded to the Lord as of yet. If you are one of them who has consistently rejected the Lord, you may find yourself in a bad situation soon. God’s patience with stubborn people lasts only so long. And when these Jewish unbelievers continued to reject Him and His ways, God finally gave them over to their foolish choice and let them become hardened to the point where they no longer could understand God’s truth. The solution to this is to listen and respond positively to what God is saying. Turn from your sin and trust in Jesus before you become too hardened to change.

  3. The Meaning of the Parable (Mark 4:13-20)

    It is interesting that Jesus chided the disciples for not understanding His parable. He seemed surprised that they didn’t understand the parable and was wondering if they would understand future parables. Thankfully, Jesus took the time to explain what His parable meant.

    What it means

    The seeds

    Firstly, Jesus explained what the seeds stood for. The seeds which the farmer planted in the parable stood for “the word” of God. In other words, the seeds were God’s truth which was spoken to various people. This would have included the Bible and also whatever Jesus said since He is the Son of God. God’s truth (the seeds) were being proclaimed to people just as a farmer scatters seed in a field.

    The soils

    The wayside (15) represents people who hear God’s truth but who are influenced by Satan and are convinced not to believe.

    The stony ground (16-17) represents people who “hear the Word with a hasty, enthusiastic, but shallow profession of acceptance.”2 Because of this, they don’t last long. As soon as they face persecution, they stumble. It would appear that “their profession proves not to be genuine.”2

    The thorn-covered ground (18-19) represents people who receive God’s truth but who are kept from being productive for the Lord because of worldly cares, the allure of riches, and covetousness. “These things choke the Word, making it (the Word, not the hearer) unfruitful (cf. 10:22), indicating they are not true believers.”3

    The good ground (20) represents people who receive the truth and then become productive for the Lord. While their productiveness may vary, they are all productive believers for the Lord.

    How it applies

    If you were to apply one of these soils to yourself, which one would fit?

    Are you someone who hears God’s truth but never gets around to responding to it? If so, you may be like the seeds planted by the wayside. Even though you have often heard God’s truth, you never respond to it because Satan is actively turning your mind to other things. Let this be your wakeup call today. Turn to the Lord while He has your attention today.

    Are you someone who at some point was excited about what you heard from the Bible but later fizzled out? If so, you may be like the seeds planted on stony ground. You thought being a Christian would make your life better but as soon as you faced opposition, you couldn’t handle it. Let this be a wakeup call for you today. You need to become grounded in God’s truth so that you can face the difficulties that will eventually come. Start reading the Bible and applying it to your life. Without this, you will stumble.

    Are you someone who has received the truth but who since then has allowed worldly concerns, the love of money, and a desire for things take God’s place? If so, you are like the thorn-covered soil. You have allowed things to take God’s place in your life. Let this be a wakeup call for you today. Are you so worried about temporal things that you can’t do anything for the Lord? Are you so concerned with money that you are distracted from serving the Lord? Are you always thinking about getting more things and have allowed that to take God’s place in your life? Remember what Jesus said.

    Matt. 6:33 – “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

    Repent of your misplaced priorities and seek God’s instead. Only then can you become a productive Christian for the Lord.

    Are you someone who has received the truth and have been a productive person for the Lord? If so, you may be embarrassed to say so. You may think that saying so would be sinful pride. But you needn’t think that way. If you are a productive person for the Lord, then you are like the good ground that produced for the planter. God’s truth has made a difference in your life and it is noticeable. This is not something to be ashamed of and neither is it something to be proud of. Instead, be grateful for what the Lord has done in your life.

Conclusion

At the beginning of this message, I shared how clueless I was to what my cheerleader cousin was doing. But there came a time when I understood what she was doing. Then and only then was I able to appreciate her mysterious cheerleading. I still look back and smile at what happened so many years ago. Do you notice what happened today? At the beginning of our study, you heard a parable that didn’t make sense. But then God gave you the opportunity to understand what it meant. This should be comforting to you in light of what happened to some of the hard-hearted crowd Jesus had spoken to. Now that you understand what Jesus meant by the parable, it is your opportunity to respond. How will you respond today? Will you allow God’s truth to take root in your heart or will you allow the seed of God’s words to have no effect?

Footnotes

1 Grassmick 118.
2 Grassmick 119.
3 Grassmick 120.
4 Hiebert 106-07.
5 Hiebert 107.

Bibliography

Grassmick, John D., “Mark” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983.

Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Gospel of Mark, Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1994.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew through Romans, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.