Contextual Background: Mark 4 contains four parables of Jesus: the parable of the sower and its interpretation (vv. 1-20), the parable of the lamp (44.21-25), the parable of the secretly growing seed (vv.26-29), and the parable of the mustard seed (vv.30-32). Parables are widely used in both Old Testament and the writings of the rabbis, but it’s the first time that Jesus teaches in parables. Of the four parables in this chapter, the parable of sower is the most important not because it’s the longest, but because Jesus privately explains to his disciples the reason he speaks in parables and he also interpreted the parable. The key theme throughout the chapter is the need to hear and respond to the truth. The repeated command of “Listen!” and “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” is used several times. Before this chapter, the narrative has described the initial proclamation of the Kingdom of God through miracles and teachings. The responses have been surprisingly varied. There are enthusiastic followers (3:13-19) and enemies (3:20-22). We can also notice that not all people who follow and listen to Jesus are faithful followers. This might be the reason for preaching in parables (4:10-12)
Cultural Background: it has been widely claimed that in first century Palestine sowing preceded plowing. The farmer sows seed randomly in broadcast fashion and expecting to return to plow it into the soil later. Jesus in this case might be implying that the good news is being sown far and wide (regardless of the motivation and intention of the audience) in the hopes of drawing a harvest from every possible corner (Wessel and Strauss, 752).
Structure: The parable is structured around two sets of three. Three typical seeds fail to produce fruits because they fall to different soils. Other seeds fall on good soil and produce thirty-, sixty- and one hundredfold respectively.
Original Language Observations: a keyword of this chapter is the verb ἀκούω. The parable is started with the ἀκούετε, echoing verse 9. Though everyone is asked to hear, there are those whose hearing is ineffective. The focus of the parable is the consequence of effective hearing and ineffective hearing. The division between insiders and outsiders is connected with how they “hear the word”. Mark also used βλέπω in vv.24 indicating the effective hearing is to see something physical. Another important phrase that Jesus uses about his parables is “τὸ μυστήριον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ Θεοῦ”. In the gospel μυστήριος occurs only here and in synoptic parallels. Paul uses this word frequently. It is not something mysterious or strange, but God’s disclosure to his people of what was previously unknown (e.g. The mystery of the gospel in Romans 16:25-27). The focus is not the past hiddenness, but the present openness.
The second type of response is initially very promising and enthusiastic but proves to be “fall away” (σκανδαλίζονται). Σκανδαλίζω is often translated as “cause to sin”, but is used more generallyfor anything that drives people out. It also appears in 14:27/29 for the disciples’ desertion of Jesus under pressure. Since the seed “withered away” (ζηραίνω) in the parable, Mark might not suggest a temporal failure but the death. For the third type of soil, Mark uses a vice list. The last item in the vice list, αἱ περὶ τὰ λοιπὰ ἐπιθυμίαι, can be understood as a conclusion to the list as a sort of “et cetera”. However it is also suggested (France, 206) that τὰ λοιπὰ can represent the Hebrew yeter, which means not only “remainder” but also “superfluity” or “excess”. Under this light, the last item can be translated as “the constant desire for more”, implying a disloyalty caused by materialism in the believer.
Other Observations: (1) The parable is not focus on the sower but the soil. In another word, the focus of the teaching is not Jesus who sows, but how the audience listens; (2) there is both external threats (devil, persecution) and internal temptations (lusts) that cause the failure; (3) the evaluation of the effectiveness is whether it bears fruit, it can connect to the parable of fig tree in Luke 13.
Difficult Text: Jesus’ answer to his disciples (vv.10-12) is the most difficult part in this section. The quotation of vv. 12 is from Isaiah 6:9-10, which in the original context is a command. The difficulty lays in (1) the semantic meaning of the ἵνα in verse 12; (2) the theological implication of the verses. NIV/ESV/NET translate ἵνα with “so that”, KJV “that”. Other explanations for ἵνα are: (i) the ἵνα here stands for a quotation formular; (ii) ἵνα is a mistranslation for the Aramaic relative de– which has a final sense; (iii) ἵνα may be used instead of ὤστε to express a result instead of purpose. The context of Isaiah suggests that the statement has a judicial function. Israel’s intransigence is both the reason and the means for judgment. Considering the fact in the Bible that God hardens some in order to carry out his sovereign purposes, Jesus therefore teaches in parables both to reveal the truth to those who accepts the truth and conceal it to those whose hearts are hardened. But it should also be noted that Isaiah is not commanded to cause his hearers to disbelieve. Jesus’ parables is not the cause for their “not understand”, but their heart is the cause.
Preaching Hints: (1) In the two congregations that I’m serving, this text might again lead to an endless debate of predestination and human responsibility. It’s important to clarify that though the parable is about the soil, God’s work in humans’ heart is also implied. Instead of treating it as a threat to God’s sovereignty, we’d rather emphasize the balance it archives. (2) Today’s Christians ignore the power of God’s word. We treat God’s word as powerless and forget that the effective hearing of God’s word can bear fruits. Modern development of business and technology ask us to “do” things instead of “hearing” to be fruitful. Christian’s ignorance of God’s word could be the Fallen Condition Focus of this sermon; (3) it’s necessary for modern Christians to shift our focus from “am I saved?” to “am I bearing fruit?” The center of the first question is still “me”, while the center of the second question is the creator. (4) Connect this parable to the gospel sharing in audiences’ daily life, it’s important to mention that (i) We must sow true seeds, (2)We must help and expect seed to grow and bear fruit, not just pray to receive Christ; (3)Our duty is to sow and pray that God will prepare the good soil. (4) the Bible does not say that a sower can only sow once.
Bibliography: Wessel, Walter and Strauss, Mark L. Mark. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. / France, R.T. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: EERDMANS, 2002 / Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Michigan, 2001. / Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni, Preaching the Gospel of Mark, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008 / BDAG / Boring, M. Eugene. Mark: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006 / Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8.New York: DoubleDay, 1999
Preaching Outline: Bearing Fruit! (Mark 4:1-20)
Introduction: In the year of 2005, I was the preacher of a Christmas evangelism event. At the end of the event, there are about 25 young people raise their hands to accept Christ. In the afterwards follow-up session, I read this parable to these 25 new believers and encourage them to be the good soil for the salvation. But today when I read this text again, I wish there’s a time machine that I can ride to year 2005 to correct what I said, because I realized that the expectation for the seeds is to bear fruit and multiply, not just grow up! A child cares only for “who is good” and “who is bad” in the movie, a baby Christian might also care about “am I saved” or “is he saved”. But theme of the Bible is not solely focused on individual salvation.
Proposition: God called us to bear fruit by preparing the heart to hear and receive of God’s word.
Organizational Sentence: In this parable, there is one sower who sows the same seeds on different soils, and it comes out with two different results: bearing fruit or not bearing fruit. We not only need to be aware of the external and internal threats that prevent us to bear fruit, but also learn to let the seed of life effectively grow in good soil.
I. Episode: Go through the parable, and introduce the background of the parable, especially:
- Contextual Background: why this parable at this time.
- Cultural Background: how near-east people do agriculture at that time.
- The evaluation of the outcome is not whether it’s alive or not, but it’s bearing fruit or not.
- The word of God is the seed to God’s people. (vv. 10-14)
- The bad soil let other threats take over control, thus not bear any fruit. (vv. 4-7, 15-19)
- The good soil let the life of the seed taking over, thus bearing fruit. (vv. 8-9, 20)
- Realize the power of the word of God. Don’t let other things – programs and activities to superior than word of God.
- To bear fruit, we need to be good soil by prayer, resisting threats from devil/world and self.
- To bear fruit, we need to be good soil by listening and receiving God’s word.