There are so many details in this parable that I thought that it might be helpful to post some notes on it for you to use as you study through the passage.
-Jesus, through the pen of Mark, has provided some help for us on this issue. In Mark 3:20-35 we learned that in order to receive the benefits of the work of Christ we must accept Jesus on his terms rather than on our terms. In that passage Mark gave us three terms which we must submit to in order to truly accept Jesus and receive the benefits He has accomplished. First, our affection for Jesus must be informed by the truth (vv.20-21). Second, our knowledge of Jesus must recognize His authority (vv. 22-30). Finally, our relationship with Jesus must result in obedience (vv. 31-35).
-In Mark 4 Jesus will continue with a similar theme. Except in this passage Jesus will add an extra wrinkle into His teaching. Here Jesus will begin to speak more about the Kingdom of God. In chapter three it was about having the right kind of relationship with Jesus, but now in chapter four it will be about getting into the kingdom of God. This is will be a very important theme for the rest of Jesus ministry.
-Since it is such an important theme we need to understand what the bible is talking about when it speaks of the kingdom of God.
– We could say that there are two aspects of the kingdom of God; there is the “already” and the “not yet.” Or, you could call it the universal kingdom and spiritual kingdom.
– The universal kingdom already exists in its complete form. This kingdom describes the way that God rules over all creation. Psalm 29:10 puts it this way, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.” Everyone is a part of this kingdom; there is no requirement for being a part of this kingdom. Some of the authority for ruling this kingdom has been delegated to human beings (i.e. Adam, government officials, etc.).
– The spiritual kingdom has not been completely fulfilled. This is the Kingdom that Jesus is speaking about here in this passage. This kingdom has only been initiated and it awaiting it final fulfillment at the return of Christ. At that time Christ will rule over his people directly. This kingdom cannot be completely realized until God has called all of His sheep around the world (including Israel). It has been initiated already because many have been saved, but it will not be complete until all of God’s elect have been saved. It is at that time that Christ will return and his sheep will have fellowship with their shepherd. During this time Christ will sit on a literal throne and visibly reign as king for one thousand years (Zechariah 14:9-16; Revelation 20:1-7; & 22:5). Then, after that, He will reign over the new heavens and the new earth for all of creation.
– The question that we are dealing with in Mark 4:1-20 is, how does one get into this kingdom?
What we will see as we look at 4:1-20 is that:
This passage further defines who has a saving relationship with Jesus, and who does not. It teaches that those whom God has enabled and those who accept the word are the ones who will enter the kingdom of God. This means that are two requirements for entering the Kingdom of God. First, we must completely depend upon the sovereign grace of God. Second, we must completely accept the word of God.
-The scene picks up in v.1. Mark tells us, “Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.”
-Here we find Jesus teaching by the Sea of Galilee again, this time the crowds were just as big as ever. In fact, the crowds on this day were massive. Jesus was forced to use a boat as a pulpit, and safe place for him to teach (cf. 3:9). Some have stipulated that the crowds on this day were largest up to this point in Jesus’ ministry (On this day Jesus had to use the boat; he didn’t have to use in the boat in 3:9).
–Matthew 13:1 helps us to fill out some of the details by explaining that this was on the same day as Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes (3:20-35). It was probably later in the afternoon that Jesus went back out by the shore of the Sea of Galilee to minister. Most of the people who had been with Jesus earlier in the day were probably still with Him by the sea.
– Apparently the smear campaign of the scribes was having little to no effect on Jesus’ popularity (at least not yet). He continued to draw massive crowds, and He continued to use these opportunities to teach His message. This day was no different.
-Mark tells us that Jesus sat on the boat to teach which was His normal posture for formal teaching (13:3; Mt. 5:1; Lk 4:20). The crowds remained close on the shore as Jesus began His teaching. Can you imagine this scene? Jesus and all of his disciples were sitting on the boat while the crowds listened intently on the shore. This was such an amazing scene that some have tried to figure out exactly where on the Sea of Galilee this could have occurred.
– “Exactly where Jesus taught cannot be said for sure, but a possible location is a natural amphitheater situated halfway between Capernaum and Tabgha to the south where the land slopes gently down to a lovely bay. Israeli scientists have verified that the ‘Bay of Parables’ can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.”
-In v. 2 Mark tells us that Jesus “was teaching them many things in parables….”
– Mark adds this because it marked a new phase in Jesus teaching ministry. Up to this point Jesus had taught a pretty straight forward message: “repent and believe for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
– Jesus began to widen the scope of His teaching ministry by teaching on the Kingdom of God. This is when He began to consistently use these parables.
– The Gospels record approximately 60 parables.
– Simply put, a parable is an analogy or metaphor used to teach a message. You have probably heard the phrase “an earthly story to illustrate and heavenly meaning.” This phrase is somewhat helpful, but it does not give justice to the full definition of a parable.
– For the 1st century Jew the term parable would have had a very liquid definition with a close connection to the Hebrew mashal.
– Definitions for parable would have included: ethical principles, proverbs, oracles, riddles, short stories, short pithy sayings, as well as what we might think of as a parable (the earthly story…).
– It might be helpful to think of a parable as a vivid and memorable way of indirectly teaching a truth.
– In the case of Jesus, “Christ’s parables always teach some moral and spiritual truth by illustrations drawn from familiar occurrences in human experience.”
-Mark does not just tell us that Jesus was teaching in parables. Mark gives us an example of the kind of parables that Jesus used. He begins in v. 3 with a strong command to hear, or listen to, what this parable is teaching. He then begins the parable itself by drawing our attention to a sower.
– This scene would have been very familiar to the crowds. The surrounding area was very fertile, and used extensively for farming. In fact, the farms would have been so close that the crowds may have even been able to see a sower just like this one off in the distance.
– The focus, however, is not really on the sower.
-The focus of this parable is really on the seed, and where the seed lands. The seed is sown and it falls on four different types of soil:
1. The Path v.4
– Fields were sectioned off with paths, or road, amongst the field (cf. 2:23).
– The ground here would have been beaten down, and impossible to penetrate.
– The farmer would sow right up to the edge of the path to make the best use of his land.
– The seed just sat there on the path; it was a prime target for every farmer’s worst nightmare–hungry birds. This is why scarecrows were invented.
2. The Rocky Ground vv. 5-6
– The rocky ground is not areas of the field filled with pebbles and rocks. It describes areas of the field with thin layers of soil that cover a hard limestone rock just below the surface.
– At first, this seed fared a little bit better than the seed that fell on the path. Quickly this seed sprouted out of the ground, and it looked as if it would grow into a healthy plant. However, in spite of how good things looked on the outside there were some serious problems with this plant.
– Because there was no depth of soil this growing seed did not have an adequate root system. Consequently, when heat from the sun became intense it was unable to survive. It simply could not draw sufficient moisture or nutrients out the ground.
– Even though this seed looked more promising it failed just like the last seed.
3. The Thorns v. 7
– The third type of soil that this seed fell upon was the thorny soil.
– Farmers in Jesus’ day would often times burn their fields after the harvest to kill off any unwanted weeds. This was effective because they could take care of large areas of land in a short period of time. However, it didn’t always kill all of the weeds. Sometimes the roots of the weeds would survive underground. This is what Jesus is talking about here. This thorny soil wasn’t full of thorn bushes (the sower wouldn’t have sown it there it that had been the case). It was full of “thorny roots.”
– As this seed began to grow the thorns, or weeds, grew with it. And, as anyone who has ever worked in a garden knows, the weeds overpowered the good plant.
– In this case, the weeds literally choked out the good plant. The weeds stole the water and nutrients from the soil, and probably stole needed sunlight from the good plant by shading it from the sun.
– In the end this seed produced no grain whatsoever.
– “There has thus been a progression in the three failed seeds, which is probably intended to be noticed in drawing out the symbolism: the first never started, the second started but died, the third survived but could not produce grain. But in the end none is of any value to the farmer, since he is looking for grain, not mere survival.”
4. Good Soil v. 8
– The fourth, and final, type of soil that the seed fell upon was the good soil.
– This seed fell right where it was supposed to fall. The soil here was rich, and full of moisture and nutrients. It was the perfect place for seed to grow.
– Up to this point the seed has failed to produce any grain, but this is not because something is wrong with the seed. It was the soil’s fault that the seed did not grow. But now, the seed has fallen on good soil. Here it grows and increases. You can almost picture it popping out of the ground and sprouting up right in front of us. It is healthy and strong, and most importantly it produces grain.
– Jesus tells us that this seed had an unbelievable yield! To have a yield of 10 fold would have been a great year for a farmer. 30, 60, and 100 fold was unheard of. This demonstrates just how powerful this seed is when it falls on the right soil.
-As Jesus finishes this parable He adds one final exhortation. He says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
– This final exhortation serves as a warning. This parable contains eternal truth that is necessary for being a part of God’s Kingdom. Those who reject this message will be excluded from the Kingdom. In fact, persistent rejection of this message will result in the same kind of eternal sin that we read about in 3:29.
– This is a message with eternal significance, and whoever has the ears to hear the spiritual principle of this parable must listen. We must hear was this truth is and accept. We must submit to Jesus’ teaching in order to have a relationship with Him, and be a part of the Kingdom of God.
-The question is, what is the spiritual truth of this parable? Furthermore, why did Jesus use a parable to communicate such an important spiritual message? These are good questions, and in vv. 10-20 Jesus provides the answers to these questions. In these verses we see the two requirements for entering the Kingdom of God. We will look at these requirements later this week.
James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002), 126.
 D. Edmond Hiebert, The Gospel of Mark: An Expositional Commentary (Greenvile, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 106.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 191.