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Sow What?

Notes & Transcripts

“Sow What?”

Mark 4.1-20

Many have had some experience with the understanding of our passage this morning in Mark. In our sharing the gospel with people, we have likely witnessed a variety of responses to its truth. In fact, if we have heard the gospel, we too have responded in one of these ways. There have been times where you have shared your testimony about the gospel and you have seen some people outright reject the message. Some may have responded favorably only to have them “disappear” from the faith for one of several possible reasons – suffering and trials or the pursuit of worldly pleasures. However, you may have also had the privilege and joy of leading someone to Jesus Christ whose life has been changed dramatically for all of eternity. And if you have trusted in Jesus and continue to grow in your knowledge and love for him, you are one of those who too have responded favorably to the Gospel.

Today in our text we will see that the declaration of Jesus Christ begins with Jesus himself. And he does so in a parable. Please turn to Mark 4 in your Bibles.

            We begin by looking at parables. And we will see that they have different implications depending on whether you are on the “inside” or “outside.” And that is the first point – Insiders and Outsiders. We see first that Jesus once again begins to teach beside the sea. And again, a very large crowd gathered. Remember that they already had a boat ready from the previous chapter because they were already threatening to crush him. Largely, they were there for the healing show. Their curiosity had overtaken them. Jesus now gets into the boat out on the sea and he taught from there. It has been documented by Israeli scientists that a human voice can transmit effortlessly to several thousand people on shore because of the acoustics in this area. This spot serves him well for teaching the crowds.

             So in thinking of terms of insiders and outsiders, it’s probably safe to say that the crowd consisted of both. As a collective unit, they were often an obstacle to the mission of God. But it is likely that at least some of them believed in Jesus.

            So Jesus begins to teach in parables. Basically, a parable is a way of speaking of a spiritual truth using the language and communication of everyday life. They require no special knowledge or vocabulary to understand. In the case of Jesus’ parables, they do require divine revelation. They are not simple or easy to understand. In fact, the parables of Jesus have “shock value” and force listeners to see things in a new light. They are a bit different than allegories in that allegories can be understood from the “outside” whereas parables only from within. The one who would understand a parable allows himself to be taken into the story and hear who God is and what humans may become. One commentator likens parables to stained glass windows in a cathedral. They are dull and lifeless from the outside but brilliant and radiant from within. The parable draws the listener into the story, elicits an evaluation, and demands a response. And so it is with the parable in Mark 4 this morning. Jesus will frequently teach in parables. But this one is unique.           

Let’s jump down to verses 9-13 because this sheds some more light on the purpose of parables and deals further with the concept of insiders and outsiders. Concluding the telling of the parable, Jesus adds a command. He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The force of the last section could better be rendered, “had better listen.” But this is our first clue. Because the fact that there is a command to hear suggests that some do not hear nor understand parables.

In fact, the text continues with a more intimate group that has gathered around Jesus – when he was alone. It seems as though the crowd has either disbanded or he has again retreated from them in order to teach the select few gathered around. These are those who appear to be the insiders. And what has qualified them to be present here? Here’s the way I see it. These are the ones who pursued Jesus. They just heard this parable that, on the surface, was pretty simple to follow. It is the underlying spiritual truth that needs to be discerned. And I think that they pursued Jesus to know more. It was “those around him with the twelve” who asked him about the parable. They had to know more. These were the ones who had “ears to hear.”

Jesus responds with a very interesting statement. He says “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God.” The “secret” is the same word as the word “mystery” used elsewhere in the Bible. The Greek word “musterion” does not refer to something that cannot be known. Rather, it refers to something that was once hidden that is now revealed. It is the same word used in Romans 16.25-27 which reads, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!”

In our context, I believe the secret, or the “revealed truth,” is that the kingdom of God has drawn near in Jesus Christ. Remember Mark 1.14-15? “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” In addition, it also pertains to the understanding of the parable which is an explanation of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. And we will see this in just a bit.

Notice that all of this is insider information. It does not say that they achieved or interpreted the secret of the kingdom of God. It was given to them! They are passive recipients of this divine revelation. And somehow it is relates to their pursuit of Jesus. I think that this strikes at the heart of the biblical tension we often feel between a divine calling and human responsibility. There is an overwhelming amount of Scripture passages that describe salvation as a work of God alone based on his divine election and foreknowledge before the foundation of the world. And yet somehow we have a responsibility to trust in Jesus. I don’t think that they are opposed to one another. And I am not here to provide the solution that will clearly harmonize them and will set all your minds at ease on this subject. Theologians have tried to systematize this for thousands of years. And so I can’t hope to solve it in the moments we have this morning.

2 Corinthians 4:6 “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We do not shine the light in order to see his glory. God shines the light so we can see. In Colossians 1, Paul indicates that the mystery hidden for ages and generations is now revealed to the saints. He adds, To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of the mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Paul also elaborates on the nature of spiritual truth and how only those who are given revelation can understand. We find this in 1 Corinthians 2:6–15 “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

So Paul makes a distinction between the spiritual and natural man. And Jesus makes a distinction between insiders and outsiders. He goes on to say in verse 11 that for those outside everything is in parables. Well, all hear the parables, but only those on the inside understand them. Those on the outside cannot see the spiritual truth being communicated in them. And we know that those on the outside are those who do not know Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 5:12–13, Paul writes to the church in Corinth commanding them to purge the evil from among them. He writes, “ 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Paul tells the church in Colossae to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders.” To the church in Thessalonica, he tells them to “walk properly before outsiders.” And in his letter to Timothy regarding qualifications of elders, he indicates that elders must be well thought of by outsiders. So it is clear that Paul and Jesus are referring to those who are not believers in Christ. They remain outside.

Now, it gets a bit stickier. Verse 12 has caused people a bit of trouble. What are the first two words of verse 12? “So that.” “12 so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” See the problem? On the surface it may appear as though it is the purpose of the parables to keep people from perceiving, understanding, and being forgiven. And it may indeed be so. Scripture speaks of God hardening the heart of Pharaoh (though he is also responsible in some passages). Romans 11 quotes Isaiah 29 and speaks of God giving Israel a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear.

Our text here is a quote from Isaiah 6.9-10. This text has been use largely as an appeal for foreign missions. And I don’t think that the context is often dealt with properly. The context is God sending Isaiah to pronounce judgment on Israel – not salvation.  Once commentator notes, “God told the prophet to deliver his message even though it would be rejected. The seeing without perceiving, the hearing without understanding, and the failure to turn and be forgiven (Isaiah wrote “be healed”) were the result, not the purpose, of his message.” Ok. So this is another way to interpret those two words – as a result, not purpose.

I like what James Edwards has to say about these verses. He states, “The sense of 4:11–12 is that Jesus’ parables confirm the states of people’s hearts: insiders who are with Jesus will be given the understanding of the mystery, and outsiders who are not with Jesus will be confirmed in their disbelief.” Perhaps there is an indictment and a statement of reality contained in this concept.

Notice which section verse 9 falls into. In most Bibles it is in the section before the gathering around Jesus. It has been indicated that any command to listen is located within the context of crowds or those outside. Those inside are already willing and eager to hear from Jesus. These are the ones who have ears to hear.

So Jesus will continue with the insiders and explain the parable to them. Verse 13 is interesting because it seems to indicate that somehow the understanding of this parable unlocks the meaning of all the parables. Failure to understand this parable means failure to understand parables in general. So that is a brief undertaking of the concept of insiders and outsiders of the Kingdom of God.

Let’s move now to the second point – Spreading the Gospel. We find this in verses 3-8. Jesus was teaching from the boat and he tells everyone to “listen.” In fact, it is a command. This really serves to underscore the urgency and importance of this lesson. A sower went out to sow. Jesus is here telling a parable of a sower when in fact, he is the sower. He is the preeminent sower and the example for all believers to emulate. Notice that the first thing he exemplifies and expects us to copy is obedience. Jesus went out on his mission. He was about establishing his reign and he recognized his responsibility to go out and sow the seed.

Largely, we are not an agricultural society. And so we need a bit of background to know what sowing seed would look like. One commentator helps us by adding, “The background for this well-known parable, drawn from a typical scene in the Palestinian countryside, is a field through which a well worn path runs. Sowing would occur in late fall or early winter (October to December) in the rainy season, looking for sprouting in April or May and a June harvest. This typifies the austere farming conditions prevalent in the rocky terrain and scrub vegetation of Galilee. Farming in Palestine was a hardscrabble affair , and the farmer sows unsparingly. And Justin Martyr (only a century after the parable) states, “So intent is the farmer on a harvest that he sows in every corner of the field “in hopes that good soil might somewhere be found,”

The sower would have the seed in a pouch and as he walked along the path, he would broadcast it over many different soils. The parable indicates that some of it fell along the path. Now the path was hardened because of its being continually trampled upon. And so the seed would merely sit on the top. This was easy pickins for the birds. It was visible and accessible.

Other seed fell on rocky ground. There was not much soil for the seed to take root. And though there was a quick sprout, the sun came and scorched it and it withered. This would have been readily understood by the crowd because Palestine contained rocky ground which had a limestone base right under the soil in some parts.

The next area where seed was spread consisted of thorns which choked the plants so that it did not yield grain at all. The thorns crowded out the good plants. Lastly, there was seed that fell into good soil and produced grain. By contrast, it yielded a decent crop – thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

For now, let’s just look at a couple of things worth mentioning. First, as we already noted, the sower is faithful to his task. If his occupation was sowing seed, he has followed through on his responsibility. Second, if I was a farmer, this approach might seem a bit inefficient. I mean, why wouldn’t the sower test the soils to see which was conducive for a good harvest?

The point we take from this is significant. The sower was not stingy in his spread of the seed. He did not seem concerned with waste.  As we will see, and you may already know, this is a parable about the spread of the Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ. The sower is not preoccupied with soil testing. He sees his responsibility as broadcasting the seed and then will see where the good soil was by the harvest. Think about this. And then think about your experience of sharing Jesus Christ with people. Don’t we sometimes hold back because we think that some are too far from the kingdom? Or do we sometimes think people are closer to accepting the Gospel and may be more like the Pharisees who turn out not to be the good soil at all! The application from this is clear. When we share the good news of Jesus with people, we do not know the soil on which the seed falls. The results will determine which it was. And we know that in Romans 1, Paul says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. The word of God will carry out its purposes. Recall with me Isaiah 55:10–11, “10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Now this refers to both those who receive the message and those who reject it. So for those who remain on the outside, it serves as an indictment against them. And thus serves that purpose as well. And it depends very little on the sower it would seem.

Thirdly, when the word is spread, there are negative and positive results. Understanding the implications of the good soil is not crystal clear. Many suggest that this is a miraculous harvest when the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold are mentioned. However, one commentator noted that this is really an average to good harvest likened to the one mentioned in Genesis 26.12. It is mentioned here that Isaac sowed in the land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him. Craig Keener states, “the harvest yield of thirty, sixty, and one hundred hardly represents the bulk yield of a single field. The yield represents the fruit produced by the individual plants. By contrast, Jesus' parable gives remarkable attention to describing the failure of the seed and the reasons for it. The harvest is therefore not the sole focus of the parable, because the parable places more emphasis on the utter waste of seed in most places than on the plentiful success in one. Jesus implies in the parable that he fully expects to meet with failure and success, but he fastens more on the reasons for the failure than the reasons for success.”

 Honestly, I can see both success and failure being communicated here. It is true that the majority of the seed would seem to be wasted if equal amounts were cast on to the preceding soils. If equally applied, 75 percent would have been lost in that particular harvest. And perhaps this is consistent with the biblical concept of the narrow gate and the narrow way. Matthew 7:13–14, 13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

            Or perhaps we can look it as the abundant harvest throughout all of history. Throughout the ages, multitudes will come to embrace Jesus and participate in his kingdom. I know both to be true. Maybe the interpretation would allow for both.

            Let’s look now to the last point – Fruit of Discipleship. And we find this in verses 14-20. And we know from verse 13 that the following will be the interpretation of the parable. The sower sows the word. The word is the seed which Isaiah indicated will not return void. It will accomplish. This actually becomes a parable about the soil and not the sower.

            The word is sown along the path but does not take root at all. The Lord Jesus has an Adversary, the devil. And he is constantly at work and opposing the spread of the gospel. In the same way that the seed that falls on the path is visible and accessible, so Satan is quickly and easily able to snatch the seed that is sown before it takes any root. The seed is unable to germinate. 2 Corinthians 4:4 “4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

            The ones sown on rocky ground hear the word and receive it with joy. However, there is no root. As many of you know, when you give your life over to Christ you have died to self and have enlisted in his army. You participate in the sufferings of Jesus if you identify with him. Often times people are not aware of this when they sign on. Many people when they share about Jesus like to suggest that he will come and give you a happy life, peaceful marriage, prosperity and good health, a get-out-of-hell-free card and many other things. And some of these things may be true. But if there is no talk of repentance from sin, persecution and suffering for the name of Jesus Christ, it is not the gospel! Who wouldn’t say the name of Jesus if he exists to give us what we want, or keep us from eternal torment? Especially if we can just add him to all of our other belief systems which is so prevalent today? In fact if these things were true, I might receive them with great joy as our text indicates. I would endure for a while. But when I am mocked and persecuted for this Jesus, on account of the word, I’m outta here… if this is what I signed up for.

            The others are the ones sown among thorns. They too hear the word… but the cares of the world, deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in… choke the word… and it proves unfruitful. This one is a bit more disturbing to me. Let’s park here for just a moment.

            What in your life could be choking the word?? Let’s work backward just a bit. Turn in your Bibles to Hebrews 3:6–14 says, “6 but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. 7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ ” 12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. Do you feel the weight of this passage??

            What this text is saying is that our perseverance in the faith is a “community project.” The passage began by saying that we are his house if we persevere in the faith. Many of those represented by the soils looked “Christian,” – but did NOT persevere. You with me? They have not known my ways. They shall NOT enter my rest – heaven. TAKE CARE brothers, lest there be in ANY OF YOU an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. Has anybody here ever watched somebody walk away from Jesus Christ whom you thought was a Christian? Perhaps even a Sunday School teacher or a pastor?? What happened? According to this text, they never knew him. They were not his house. They did not know his ways. Because they did not hold fast their confidence firm to the end. How do we stop this tragedy from happening?? Verse 13… Exhort one another! How do we do this? We gather corporately each week and sing the praises of the Almighty God. We open his Word together to know him and our responsibilities to him. We share a meal together and talk of his wonders! We pray together. Then we go to people’s houses in our Growth Groups and we dig some more. We help each other apply the word. We intimately pray for each other. And we exhort one another every day so that no one may fall away!

            What’s choking you? What is it that may be crowding out your spiritual maturity? What’s keeping you from developing roots that run deep? Do any of these things in our text apply this morning? The cares of the world – the things that are temporary and have no eternal significance, the job that keeps you from community, the many many distractions that keep you from things that really matter, relationships that deter you from your relationship with Jesus, the deceitfulness of riches. How much do we have to work to get by? What are you sacrificing to have the bigger house, the newer car, or the extravagant vacations? I pray that it is not your relationship to Christ that is being pushed aside.

            Demas was a co-worker with Paul for the Gospel. Yet in 2 Timothy 4.10, he writes, “10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.” 1 Timothy 6:9 “9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”1 Timothy 6:10 “10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” Mark 10:23 “23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

            “The desires for other things” really sums it up. Anything that you desire more than Jesus enters in, chokes the word, and disqualifies for the kingdom. You are an outsider.

            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. Edwards notes, “The first three types of hearing — those from whom Satan steals the word (v. 15), those with no root who fall away in difficulty (v. 17), and those whose wealth and worldly desires choke the word (v. 18–19) — are described by Mark in the aorist tense in Greek. The Greek aorist connotes punctiliar action, something done simply and finally. The first three types of hearing thus imply a quick, superficial hearing, in one ear and out the other, without effort or heeding. But in v. 20 a different kind of hearing is implied. The aorist tense is suddenly replaced by the present tense of the verb, signifying a continual, ongoing hearing as opposed to a careless or inattentive hearing... Hearing, receiving, and bearing fruit are the marks of a disciple of Jesus. A responsive hearing produces a miraculous harvest — “thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown”!”

            The first section of the parable was regarding the Sower and the spread of the gospel. Craig Keener writes, “the parable mentions nothing about plowing, manuring, weeding the field, or even putting up a scarecrow to scare off the birds. The sower in this parable is not responsible for the soil on which he sows… the sower in the parable does not prejudge soil. He casts the seeds with abandon and does not decide in advance whether the soil has potential or not, whether it is a waste of time.” All the soils have heard the word. This is our task as sowers. Broadcast the seed and leave the results to God. The sowers are not called to be successful but faithful.

            The latter section was truly about discipleship. Because all of the soils have heard the word, we have a responsibility to grow roots together as a community of believers. We strive to exhort, encourage,  and rebuke in order that we may ensure that the people sitting next to us will hold their confidence firm to the end and spend eternity with Jesus. Ensure that you are indeed an Insider.

Let’s Pray.

1 Corinthians 3:5–9 (ESV) 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”                       

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