10 Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant.
11 He replied, "You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, 12 so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled: 'When they see what I do,
they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say,
they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me
and be forgiven.'" 13 Then Jesus said to them, "If you can't understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? 14 The farmer plants seed by taking God's word to others. 15 The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. 16 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 17 But since they don't have deep roots, they don't last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God's word. 18 The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God's word, 19 but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. 20 And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God's word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!" Parable of the Lamp 21 Then Jesus asked them, "Would anyone light a lamp and then put it under a basket or under a bed? Of course not! A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light will shine. 22 For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light. 23 Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand."
24 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 crowd has dispersed and Jesus is alone with only a few of his more committed followers. He explains the relationship between a person's heart and how he or she responds to the message of God's kingdom. For those willing to accept Jesus' teaching, the kingdom is an open secret, and their faith will grow and will cause God's kingdom to be multiplied. For those who reject Jesus' teaching, however, the door to God's kingdom remains closed because they do not have the faith that unlocks it.
Secret (Mark 4:11)
Jesus referred to a "secret" (or "mystery") associated with God's kingdom. As one source explains: "'The mystery of the kingdom of God' is the sum of the blessed realities of the divine rule of grace and of glory" - the knowledge and experience of which cannot be achieved naturally but, rather, must be imparted supernaturally by God.262As another source notes: "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."263 The prevailing belief at that time was that God's kingdom would be an earthly, political rule centered in Israel. Jesus challenged this view by showing that the kingdom is not about power politics or military might. God's kingdom begins in and centers on the human heart; its growth and advancement is unseen but constant. (To be sure, one day Jesus will return to set up God's literal rule over the entire earth. For now, however, we experience God's kingdom in a spiritual sense that nonetheless dramatically impacts the world around us.)
Learn nothing ... Not understand (Mark 4:12)
Jesus prefaced his explanation of the parable of the soils with a few words regarding his use of parables in general, from which we learn that "what may be a clarifying illustration to one (i.e., an insider) may be a confusing riddle to another (i.e., an outsider)."264 In general, a "parable" can be thought of 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 usually expresses a single important truth, though occasionally a subordinate feature expands its total meaning. A parable draws its hearers to take part in a situation, evaluate it, and apply its truth to themselves."265 For those who refused to believe and receive the Gospel, the kingdom remained a mystery and Jesus spoke to them only in parables.266Jesus appears to be saying that his intention is "to befuddle and prevent people from being forgiven."267 There is a two-fold sense in which this is indeed the case. First, the Gospel is a stumbling block for most people. Why? Because as stubborn creatures in rebellion against our Creator we operate under the delusion that we are in charge of our own (eternal) destiny. In which case the Gospel designed for our salvation guarantees our destruction. Second, the person who stubbornly refuses to accept Jesus' message eventually reaches a point of no return in which God's saving grace is no longer offered to him/her. In which case all that remains is God's wrath - a terrifying prospect268 That said, we should be quick to remind ourselves that Jesus' mission was/is to save, not destroy. Hence many people see in Jesus' words "an attempt to explain why it is that some people hear[d] Jesus' teaching and chose either to ignore it or to misinterpret it."269 This view finds support in Matthew's more detailed parallel account (Matthew 13:10-17) and, most importantly, in Jesus' total mission and ministry, including his clear and repeated calls to repentance and faith in God. Like all of the Bible's revelations regarding our natural sinful state, Jesus' parable of the soils "aims at the conscience and repentance, thus opening the soul for the gospel."270Thus it is fair to say that "Jesus intended that his teaching and miracles would bring people to a point of decision. Those who chose to reject him passed judgment on themselves."271 Of course, not to be overlooked in all this is God's role as the initiator of salvation: God must grant a person spiritual eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand. Until that happens, God's "spiritual truth will remain a riddle (cf. Deuteronomy 29:2-4)."272 Along these lines, parables actually helped to maintain the balance between human freedom and God's sovereignty: "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. Yet even the parables, which veiled the truth, were meant to provoke thought, enlighten, and ultimately reveal it. They uniquely preserved people's freedom to believe, while demonstrating that such a decision is effected by God's enabling."273 In like manner, John Calvin noted: "[T]he doctrine is not, strictly speaking, or by itself, or in its own nature, but by accident, the cause of blindness. When persons of a weak sight come out into sunshine, their eyes become dimmer than before, and that defect is in no way attributed to the sun, but to their eyes. In like manner, when the word of God blinds and hardens the reprobate, as this takes place through their own depravity, it belongs truly and naturally to themselves, but is accidental, as respects the word."274 Think of it like this: the sun, which is absolutely essential to plant growth, causes the plant in the rocky soil to wither and die. Is this the sun's fault? Not in the least.
Notice the connection between the sun, the hardships and difficulties that are part and parcel of the Christian life, and spiritual maturity:
After grain is sown, the sun presently becomes hot, which, however, only helps the seed that has proper roots. This pictures the thlipsis ["trouble involving direct suffering"275] or diogmos ["a systematically organized program of oppression and harassment"276] that always comes in this wicked world "on account of the Word." ... Then the trouble begins for all who lack good, healthy roots in the soil of their hearts. The remarkable thing is that the shining sun is here used to picture tribulation and persecution. The seed in the good soil must have the sun to grow as it should. That is what makes it bear fruit. Just as little as grain grows properly without sunshine, so little the Word thrives in us without our suffering "on account of the Word."277 There may well be something to the fact that Jesus used two different words for "understand" in v. 13 (according to the Greek manuscripts used for modern English Bibles). The first means "intuitively comprehend," while the second means "comprehend by experience."278 It is the difference between academic knowledge and applied knowledge (some would say "book sense" versus "common sense"). The parable of the soils depicts a foundational truth that lays the groundwork for applying all of Jesus' teachings.
Seed ... God's word (Mark 4:14)
In Jesus' explanation, we learn that "[w]hat the farmer is spreading is really the message about the kingdom" (CEV). "The association of seed and sowing with words and teaching" is found throughout the Bible and was, in fact, proverbial among both the Jews and the Greeks.279 And fruit and fruit bearing were often used proverbially to describe a person's character and/or spiritual condition. For example:
"Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do." (Psalms 1:1-3)
"'Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can't produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can't produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.'" (Matthew 7:15-20)
"'I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn't produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. ... '" (John 15:1-2)
"So, my dear brothers and sisters, this is the point: You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ. And now you are united with the one who was raised from the dead. As a result, we can produce a harvest of good deeds for God. (Romans 7:4, 22)
"But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!" (Galatians 5:22-23)
"For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God's discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening - it's painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. (Hebrews 12:10-11)
"And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness." (James 3:18) (all NLT)280
Who hear (Mark 4:15, 16, 18, 20)
Jesus explained that the different types of soil represent the different ways in which people respond to his message. Which, in turn, corresponds to different heart conditions: unresponsive, impulsive, preoccupied, and well-prepared.281 And thus "[t]he character of the hearer determines the effect of the word upon him."282 Condition
"The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away."
[This heart] resists the Word of God and makes it easy for Satan (the birds) to snatch it away. Soil becomes hard when too many feet tread on it. Those who recklessly "open their hearts" to all kinds of people and influences are in danger of developing hard hearts (see Proverbs 4:23). Hard hearts must be "plowed up" before they can receive the seed, and this can be a painful experience (Jeremiah 4:3; Hosea 10:12).
Ill-will toward the messenger.
Hostility with respect to this particular message.
They do not wish to be inconvenienced.
[A] spirit of indifference.
"The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don't have deep roots, they don't last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God's word."
This heart ... represents the "emotional hearer" who joyfully accepts God's Word but does not really understand the price that must be paid to become a genuine Christian. There may be great enthusiasm for several days or weeks; but when persecution and difficulties begin, the enthusiasm wanes and the joy disappears. It is easy for fallen human nature to counterfeit "religious feelings" and give a professed Christian a feeling of false confidence.
[They] failed to consider that true discipleship implies self-surrender, self-denial, sacrifice, service, and suffering.
"The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God's word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced."
This heart pictures the person who receives the Word but does not truly repent and remove the "weeds" out of his or her heart. This hearer has too many different kinds of "seeds" growing in the soil - worldly cares, a desire for riches, a lust for things - and the good seed of the Word has no room in which to grow. To change the image, this person wants to walk the "broad way" and the "narrow way" at the same time (Matthew 7:13–14); and it cannot be done.
"And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God's word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!"
This heart pictures the true believer, because fruit - a changed life - is the evidence of true salvation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:19–23). ... Not all true believers are equally as productive; but from every genuine Christian's life, there will be some evidence of spiritual fruit.
These people hear because they want to hear. They reflect on what they hear, for they have faith in the speaker. So they reach a measure of true understanding. They put the message into practice and bear fruit: conversion, faith, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc.
In explaining what it is that prevents someone from entering into God's kingdom, Jesus shows us the three greatest enemies of our soul:
The shallow heart is tempted by the flesh/self.
The crowded heart is tempted by the world/society.
The hard heart is tempted by the Devil/Satan (note: Matthew = "the evil one"; Mark = "Satan"; Luke = "the devil"285)286
A lamp (Mark 4:21)
Jesus' parable of the lamp may be intended to reinforce the idea of faithful discipleship: as believers allow God to produce fruit through them, their lives will broadcast the Gospel light into a spiritually darkened world. "[M]an himself ought to be, not the bushel, but the candlestick."287 Which, sadly, is the exact opposite of what the religious leaders were doing as they hid God's word "under an elaborate load of human traditions and hypocritical actions."288 Of course, faithful discipleship begins with proper priorities: the word must be sown; the light must be placed where it can shine; the mystery of God's kingdom must be revealed, not concealed.289 Only thus can the Gospel both show evil for what it is and reveal the extent of God's goodness.290 What's more, at Jesus' second coming, both the light of God and each person's response to it will be finally and fully revealed.291
Pay close attention (Mark 4:24)
Jesus issues a call to "pay close attention" to his teaching - to let his words soak in, as it were. Several points are worth noting:
The committed disciple is like the fourth type of soil: "If he accepts Jesus' word, meditates on it and does not permit it to be choked out because of the cares of the world, his understanding of it will grow."292 (Notice the NLT's more versus less "understanding" [vv. 24-25].) As one source puts it: "The light of Jesus' truth is revealed to us, not hidden. But we may not be able to see or to use all of that truth right now. Only as we put God's teachings into practice will we understand and see more of the truth. The truth is clear, but our ability to understand is imperfect. As we obey, we will sharpen our vision and increase our understanding."293
On the other hand, "for the one who rejects Jesus' words, the opportunity that that person presently possesses with respect to the kingdom will someday be taken away forever."294
While it is true that in the present age "the kingdom is largely veiled in the face of satanic opposition and human unbelief," nonetheless "God's rule takes hold in those who accept Jesus' message and His rule manifests itself in spiritual fruitfulness."295 We might also note that this is infinitely more than a one-time event: literally, Jesus said that the good soil represents those who "go on hearing," "go on receiving/accepting," and "go on bearing fruit."296
Jesus' teaching that "blessing begets blessing" stems from, and testifies to, God's generous nature: God not only blesses, he blesses abundantly. Why? So that we can share his blessings with others. On the other hand, the person who hordes what little he has will find his possessions - not to mention his attitude - growing ever smaller. Somewhat like the novice pianist who stops practicing - and soon finds what little talent he/she had has vanished entirely.297
One's heart condition determines what effect the Gospel has in a person's life. If you or someone you know has a hard, shallow, or crowded heart, the proper place to start is with earnest and fervent prayer that God will change that heart into one that is "honest and good," "clinge[s]" to the Gospel, and "bear[s] fruit with steadfast endurance" (see Luke 8:15, NET).
God gets the glory, as it is his Gospel seed that grows and produces a bountiful harvest. As one source puts it: "[O]ne seed of the Word produces 30, one 60, one 100 others. It is not the man but the Word that multiplies. The Word is a fixed entity and as such neither to be increased or decreased. Its multiplication consists in its spread in one heart and from one heart to other hearts. It is thus that the hearers bear fruit. When the Word remains and flourishes in a heart, repentance, faith, Christian virtues and works result, whereby the Word spreads."298
Bearing Fruit: A Sign of Maturity
The founder of The Navigators, Jerry White, once observed that "fruit-bearing" is the hallmark of maturity.
Human beings, plants, and animals all evidence maturity as they bear fruit. That is, as they reproduce after their kind.
The same holds true, said White, in the spiritual realm, as well. The mature believer bears two types of fruit. First of all there is Christian character and a holy life. Secondly, there is the privilege of aiding and abetting spiritual growth in others through sharing the Gospel and discipling new believers.299 Those whose hearts are like "fertile/good soil" (vv. 8, 20) "accept or welcome" the Word. Literally, they hold it close to their side.300 Bearing fruit is outward proof that we have truly welcomed and accepted the Gospel into our hearts.
??? Jesus spread the seed of the Gospel liberally, knowing that much of it would never take root and grow. How can that fact encourage us in our own efforts at sharing the Gospel?
This parable can also be viewed from the perspective of the need to grow and mature in our Christian walk and witness. For example, we "may be open to God about [our] future but closed concerning how [we] spend [our] money. [We] may respond like good soil to God's demand for worship but respond like rocky soil to his demand to give to people in need." Along those lines, what can this parable teach us about our need "to be like good soil in every area of [our] life at all times"?301