The Seed That Grows

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Mark 4:1-20 (The Parable of the Sower)

INTRODUCTION: The gospel of Mark focuses more on the actions of Jesus than his teachings. But here in chapter 4, Mark gives us a sample of Jesus’ teaching ministry, as he pulls together a series of Jesus’ parables. And the first parable he shares is the Parable of the Sower. This is one of Jesus’ most famous parables. It appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Like most parables it is a simple story, and yet it contains essential teaching about God’s kingdom – both for Mark’s readers and for us today.

Why is it that some people respond to the gospel while others do not? Why is it that you can talk about Jesus with a bunch of your friends, and some will respond positively while others will shut you down? Why is it that a preacher or evangelist can share the same message with a whole group of people all at the same time, and some will accept the message while for others it seems to fall on deaf ears? That is the question that Jesus raises and then answers in this parable.

I believe that studying this parable and the truths it teaches will make you more effective in your witness for Christ and more effective in praying for people who do not know Christ. Both witness and prayer are essential to the effective sharing of the gospel, for as we will see, it all comes down to how a person receives the message.

I. Jesus tells the parable of the sower (verses 1-9)

    A. Jesus teaches in parables (1-2)

So let’s begin with the first section where Jesus tells the parable of the sower. Look at verse 1:

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. (Mark 4:1)

Mark sets the scene for us here. Jesus is teaching by the Sea of Galilee. Once again a great crowd gathers around him so that he is forced to use a boat for his pulpit. Picture Jesus sitting in the boat a little ways out from shore, and all the people gathered along the shore at the water’s edge to hear him. The shores along the Sea of Galilee slope upward creating an amphitheater effect, and so the people may have been sitting along the banks listening to Jesus as he taught.

Mark tells us in verse 2 that:

He taught them many things by parables. (Mark 4:2)

We said last week that a parable in the Bible is any type of saying or story that contains a comparison or a parallel. The word parable itself means “a comparing together,” or “laying one thing aside another.” For example, Hebrews 9:9 says that the tabernacle system in the Old Testament was a “parable” pointing toward Jesus’ death on the cross. And so a parable is simply a way of teaching a spiritual truth using a commonplace, down-to-earth story or illustration.

    B. Jesus describes four places where the seed fell

We have seen some shorter parables in the gospel of Mark already, but the parable of the sower is the first example of what we call a “story parable,” that is, a longer, drawn-out comparison or analogy. And in this parable Jesus describes a farmer sowing seed and four places where the seed fell.

        1) “along the path” (3-4)

The first place where the seed fell was along the path. Look at verses 3-4:

Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. (Mark 4:3-4)

The fields in Jesus’ day were set out in long narrow strips, and the farmers would use the ground between the strips for pathways. These paths would eventually get beaten down from all the walking. It reminds me of when I was a kid there was a path that led through a field on the way to school. No one ever consciously made that path. It was formed over time from the constant walking of the children back and forth to school each day. The ground in that path was hard as rock, and no grass would grow there. That’s what this path in the parable was like. The seeds just lay on top of the path, and so the birds swooped down and ate them up.

        2) “on rocky places” (5-6)

The second place where the seed fell was on rocky places. Look at verses 5-6:

Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. (Mark 4:5-6)

We sometimes think of these rocky places as soil that just had a lot of rocks in it, but Mark is describing something different here. The rocky places where those areas that just had a thin skin of earth resting on top of an underlying shelf of limestone rock. The dirt might be several inches deep at the most. The sun would warm this soil rapidly, the seed would germinate and spring up, but the roots stopped dead at the rock, and the plant would literally starve to death from lack of moisture. That’s what happened to these seeds that fell on the rocky places.

        3) “among thorns” (7)

The third place where the seed fell was among thorns. Look at verse 7:

Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. (Mark 4:7)

This looked like good soil, but it also contained roots of the weeds that were natural to that area. And so the dormant weeds and thorns would grow up together along with the plants and then choke them out before they could bear any fruit.

        4) “on good soil” (8)

And then the fourth place where the seed fell was on good soil. Look at verse 8:

Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times. (Mark 4:8)

The seed that fell on the good soil grew up and produced a crop. And the thirty, sixty, hundred-fold yield here – this was a very good crop. Most farmers would have been happy with a ten-fold increase, so this represented an exceptionally abundant harvest.

    C. Jesus exhorts the crowd to hear (9)

So that’s the parable. Jesus tells a simple story about a farmer sowing his seed The seed fell on four different types of soil with four corresponding results. Then Jesus closes out the parable with an exhortation for the crowd to hear. Look at verse 9:

Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

Jesus uses these words several times in the gospels, and they seem to imply that just hearing the word is not enough. You must not only hear the word, but also understand and obey for the word to bring you any benefit.

II. The disciples ask him about the parables (verses 10-12)

Now Jesus went on to teach the crowd a number of other parables that we will get to in the coming weeks. But Mark interrupts the flow here for a moment and jumps ahead to a later time when Jesus is alone with a smaller group of people. Look at verse 10:

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. (Mark 4:10)

Remember, we said that a parable was a way of laying a spiritual truth alongside a commonplace, down-to-earth story or illustration. So the disciples are asking Jesus, “Take these stories you have been telling us and lay them out alongside the spiritual truth. We want to know what it all means.” But before explaining the parable to them, Jesus says something very interesting, perhaps even a little disturbing.

He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, `they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” (Mark 4:11-12)

Before explaining the parable to them, he gives them some insight into why he teaches with parables. And part of the reason is so that the truths he is teaching will remain hidden to those “on the outside.” Those on the outside, those who do not have “ears to hear,” remain ignorant of the parable’s true meaning. They see Jesus teaching, and they hear his words, but they do not really understand or believe.

Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 6:9-10 here, where God spoke words of judgment against Israel because they refused to hear the truth of God’s word. And so Jesus is saying that he uses parables as a teaching vehicle both to conceal and reveal. The parables are meant to conceal truth from those whose hearts are hardened towards God, and they are meant to reveal truth to those who listen with an open heart and a willing mind.

III. Jesus explains the parable of the sower (verses 13-20)

Finally, Jesus goes on to explain the parable of the sower. His begins with a rebuke that shows that he expected his disciples to understand it on their own.

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? (Mark 4:13)

In other words, “This was an easy one! I told you to listen carefully! If you don’t get this one, how are you going to get any of the others?”

    A. The farmer sows the word (13-14)

But then he goes ahead and explains the parable to them. He begins:

The farmer sows the word. (Mark 4:14)

And so the seed stands for the word of God. Sowing the word means sharing God’s word with others, especially the gospel, the good news that God sent his Son Jesus into the world to be our Savior. Some people try to equate the farmer with Jesus, but we should probably keep it more general than that, so the sower is anyone who shares God’s word with others.

    B. Three hindrances to the gospel

Jesus goes on to warn about three obstacles, three hindrances that keep people from receiving the word of God as it is sown.

        1) Satan (15)

The first hindrance is Satan. Look at verse 15:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Mark 4:15)

Mark says, “As soon as they hear the word, Satan comes and takes it away.” This means that Satan has the power to take away seeds that we plant. I remember sharing the gospel with a friend in high school. I shared about God and sin and Jesus and the cross, but every time I would get to the point of trusting Christ for salvation, he would say, “I don’t get that part. I just don’t understand it.” What was happening? As soon as the seed was being planted, Satan was taking it away, before he had time to understand or believe.

2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us that Satan blinds unbelievers so that they cannot see the truth of the gospel. They are seeing but not perceiving. The book of 1 Peter describes Satan as an adversary, an enemy, a roaring lion prowling around looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8-9 ) So what are we supposed to do? God says we are to resist him! We must stand in prayer against the enemy stealing the seeds sown in people’s hearts.

Whenever you are witnessing to someone, whenever you are listening to a sermon, whenever an invitation is given, whenever God’s word is preached – pray! Pray for people to hear and receive God’s word, and pray against Satan taking that word away. Don’t wait until later. Pray right then and there. Why pray right away? Because Satan comes immediately to take God’s word away. He doesn’t waste any time, and neither should we.

        2) False profession of faith (16-17)

So that’s the first obstacle or hindrance to the gospel – Satan. The second hindrance is a false profession of faith. Look at verses 16-17:

Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Mark 4:16-17)

In this scenario the person professes faith with gladness but then falls away. I have seen this happen a number of times. Someone receives the gospel gladly, they are excited about being a Christian, they start coming to church or Bible study, and then all of a sudden something comes up, and they stop.

So what happened? Jesus says they had no root. It was a false profession. They only had faith on the surface. Colossians 2:6-7 says that we need to be rooted in Christ, and so a person with no root is a person without Christ. Their belief or faith was shallow and superficial; it was not truly in their heart. Rom 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” A surface faith is not a saving faith.

So how do you prevent a false profession of faith in Christ? I don’t believe we can eliminate false professions completely, but there are things we can do to make them less common. First of all, we can help people count the cost of following Jesus. We don’t just present the gospel as a “get out of hell free” card, but we help people understand repentance from sin and the cost of discipleship. Secondly, we present not just a message but a person. The basic Christian confession is not “I believe the Bible,” but “Jesus is Lord.” We are winning people to Jesus, not to a church or religion. And then thirdly we can pray for true understanding. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The things that come from the Spirit of God … are spiritually discerned.” We need to pray that God would open their hearts to truly understand the gospel and not just repeat a prayer.

I saw a cartoon once. There was a man in the pastor’s office, his head on the desk, obviously troubled, and the pastor had his hand on his shoulder and was saying to him, “Why of course you’re saved, Bill. I prayed the prayer with you myself!” Simply saying a prayer does not make you a Christian. Confessing Jesus as Lord and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead does.

        3) Worldly focus (18-19)

And then the third hindrance to the gospel is a worldly focus. Look at verses 18-19:

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mark 4:18-19)

Jesus points out three things in this verse that can choke the word out of a person’s life, and they all have to do with a worldly focus rather than a focus on God. First of all there are the worries and cares of this life. Some people say, “Well, I would receive Christ, but this is a bad time. I have so many problems at home, with the kids, with the car, etc. Once I get everything all straightened out, then I’ll come to Christ.” And so the word gets choked out, because the person gets distracted by other things.

The second thing is the deceitfulness of wealth. Think of the rich, young ruler who walked away from Jesus because he could not part with his wealth. That seed got choked out fast! But you don’t have to be wealthy to get tripped up by this one. The Bible says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) You don’t have to have a lot of money to have your heart set on it. How do we handle this distraction? We need to expose worldly wealth for what it is. The Bible calls it a trap and a snare. (1 Timothy 6:9-10) I’ve always liked the attitude of Agur son of Jakeh in the book of Proverbs who said: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8-9)

And then Jesus talks about the desires for other things. When I read this part of the parable, I always think about my friend Mike in college who listened intently as I shared the gospel with him, and then told me plainly that he was not ready to accept Jesus because, in his words, “I just love my corruption too much.” At least he was honest and understood the cost of discipleship. But he passed on Jesus because of his desires for other things. Jesus is not necessarily talking about wrong things here, just other things. Desiring anything over Jesus Christ is idolatry and will keep the word of God from being planted in your heart.

So how do we fight against this hindrance? The strategy here is exposure once again. We must expose the worthlessness of all things next to knowing Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul said he counted all things as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:8) Thomas a Kempis wrote, “Love all things for Jesus’ sake; love Jesus for himself.” Jesus is the pearl of great price. There is no truer friend, no closer companion, none so faithful, loving and kind as the Lord Jesus.

    C. The seed that grows (20)

And then finally we come to the seed that grows in verse 20:

Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop — thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown. (Mark 4:20)

Now that’s what we’re looking for! We want to see God’s word take root in people’s hearts and people growing in Christ. This last part of the parable would have been especially encouraging for the disciples as they prepared to go forth and preach.

CONCLUSION:

We have covered a lot of application throughout the message today, but let me close with three overall application points from the parable:

    1) First of all, be careful how you hear. That is really the main point of the parable. The seed that grows is no different from the seed that lands on the path, or on rocky ground, or among thorns. It’s all the same seed, it’s all the same message, but you need to receive it with an open heart and a willing mind. Be careful how you hear the word of God.

    2) Secondly, sow God’s word wisely. Be a witness for Christ. Share God’s word with people whenever you can. But do it wisely. Know the three hindrances to the gospel from this parable and guard against them accordingly. Most of all pray that God would prepare people’s hearts for his word.

    3) And then thirdly, be assured of the harvest. When you share the gospel with others, yes, some of the seed will land along the path. Some will fall on rocky soil or among the thorns. But some will also fall on good soil, and so you may expect that there will indeed be a harvest. Share the gospel, pray for people, and then watch as God does his work.

© Ray Fowler

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