The Explanation of the Parable of the Soils – Mark 4:10-20 (pt. 1)

In these verses we see the two requirements for entering the Kingdom of God.

I. We must completely depend upon the sovereign grace of God in order to enter the Kingdom of God. (vv. 10-12)

At some point between verse 9 and verse 10, Jesus apparently dismissed the crowds because Mark tells us in v. 10 that Jesus found himself alone-that is without the large crowd being there.  This probably did not occur immediately after Jesus told the parable of the soils.  Most likely Jesus found himself alone after He told all the parables of Mark 4.  It wouldn’t make any sense for him to dismiss the crowds, and then start teaching again later.  Furthermore, when Jesus was approached after His teaching is was about the parables plural, not just this one parable.  But if this is the case, then why did Mark record this for us here?  Mark put this verse here because it is a model example of Jesus’ parables.  If we understand why Jesus told this parable, and what this parable means then we will be able to understand the rest of Jesus’ parables.  So, Mark is providing Jesus’ explanation to us here, even though it didn’t happen until the end of the day, to help us understand all of the parables.  This is beneficial because we need all the help that we can get, and we are not alone.

After being dismissed the crowds weren’t all that interested in sticking around.  If Jesus was going be on a boat telling these “riddle-like” parables instead of healing and casting out demons they weren’t all that interested in Him any more.  They weren’t sure what these parables meant, and they weren’t interested in figuring it out.   However, there was a small group of people that stayed around to learn more about what Jesus was teaching.  Mark tells us that “those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.”  These individuals, even though they didn’t completely understand the parables, knew that Jesus was teaching an important message about the kingdom of God.  This is why they stuck around to ask Jesus about these parables.

This small group of people included Jesus’ twelve disciples, but it was not limited to the twelve disciples.  This was a group of people larger than just the twelve, but much smaller than the crowds who had listened to Jesus on that day.  There is no way of knowing for certain who was a part of this group, but it seems likely that some of the same people who had been in the house with Jesus early on that day (3:32-35) were with Jesus again that evening.  There is no way to confirm this, but at the very least we can definitively say that at the very least the same kind of people stuck around with Jesus that evening (i.e. those who did the will of God).

This small group wanted more information from Jesus.  They wanted to understand the spiritual principles that Jesus was teaching in these parables.  That is why this group came to Jesus to ask him about these parables.  Matthew 13:10 helps us to fill out the details when it tells us that one of the things that they asked was why Jesus taught in parables.  This is a great question.  Why did Jesus chose to teach these spiritual principles in parables when he could have just come right out and plainly taught them?  The answer that Jesus provides for the disciples is very important, and it reveals to us that the first requirement for entering the kingdom of God is that we must completely depend upon the sovereign grace of God.  Look at what Jesus says: “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

In these verses Jesus makes it very clear that those who understand the spiritual truth of parables do so because God has given them understanding, and those who don’t understand do not because God has not revealed it to them.  In other words, it all depends upon of the sovereign grace of God.  God gives the ability to understand, and He veils the truth out of judgment.  These are hard things for our minds to comprehend, so let’s take a closer look at exactly what Jesus is saying.

First, let’s look at how God gives understanding.  At the beginning of verse 11 Jesus tells us that the secret (or mystery) of the kingdom of God had been given to this group of people.  So what does this mean?  Well, it is important to note that “in the New Testament [a mystery] denotes not something mysterious and inscrutable but something formerly hidden which cannot be known by man apart from divine revelation.”[1] So this secret is not something mysterious that only Sherlock Holmes is able to figure out.  Instead, this secret was something new that had not yet been revealed by God.  Additionally, it had to do with the Kingdom of God.  So what was this secret?  Well, Romans 16:25-27 explains it pretty well:

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 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- to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

The secret is that Jesus is the Savior who was prophesied of in the OT, who came to save men, and make them fruitful members of the kingdom.  Or to put it another way, the secret of the Kingdom is that Jesus is the King of the Kingdom.

This is obviously an important truth, but it is not the main point that Jesus making here in verse 11.  Jesus’ main point is that the only way that a person can understand this secret and accept Jesus is if it has been given by God.  God is the only One who can enable a person to understand the secret of the Kingdom.  In fact, God’s enablement was the only reason why this small group of people stuck around after the crowds had left.  Apart from the sovereign grace of God this small group of people would have been no different than the rest of the crowd.  In Ephesians 1:3-14 (esp. v. 8 ) the apostle Paul makes it clear that this is true for us as well.  Apart from the sovereign grace of God we would have never accepted Jesus.  This is why Jesus said in John 6:65 “that no one can come to me unless it is granted from the Father.”  This is the same point that Jesus is making here in Mark 4:11. The only reason that this group came to Jesus was because it had been granted by the Father.  But this is not all that Jesus said.

In addition to giving understanding, Jesus tells us that God also hardens some so that they cannot believe.  This is what Jesus meant when He said: “but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”  Here Jesus is getting right to the point.  Jesus spoke in parables so that the truth about the Kingdom would only be understandable to those who had been given the secret, and hidden from everyone else.  Jesus quotes from Isa 6:9-10 to make this point clear.

In the book of Isaiah God was using the prophet to judge the people who had rejected Him.  God told Isaiah that he would preach but no one would listen; here Jesus is saying the same thing.  He used parables so that those who had rejected him could not understand the true meaning of his teaching.  Only those who had been enabled by God would be able to understand these parables.  To everyone else these parables were more like riddles.

Jesus had clearly proclaimed the message of the Gospel, and the masses had rejected it.  As a result, Jesus intentionally veiled the message of the Gospel.  Jesus spoke in parables to hide the true nature of his message from those who had rejected Him.  He did this for three primary reasons:

1.      Judgment – Because of their sin Jesus condemned them so that they could not be forgiven.  He purposely hid the truth from them. cf. Rom 1:18-25; Jer 5:21-29.

“Those who receive truth and act upon it receive more. Those who reject truth will ultimately lose the bit they have. The parables were full of truth, but for truth-rejecting people, they were inscrutable.  This principle is paralleled in other areas of life. Physically, if we fail to exercise a muscle, we will one day lose its use. It is the same with our intellectual powers. If we fail to use them, there will come a time when we will not be able to summon their full power. God confronts us with his truth, but if we do not positively respond to it, we will lose it. What a solemn reality for those who sit under the teaching of God’s Word week after week and do not respond to it. The writer to the Hebrews must have had these matters in mind when he said: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left” (Hebrews 10:26). If we repeatedly hear God’s Word and refuse to respond time and time again, there will come a time when we become so hardened that we not only will not, but cannot respond.”[2]

2.      Mercy – Rom 9:1-23 explains that the judgment unbelievers receive reveals the glory of the salvation that true believers have received.  We must not forget that God has every right to do this.

3.      Sift out impostors – Jesus was veiling His message to judge those who had rejected His plain teaching.  At the same time, however, these parables revealed the truth about the kingdom to those who followed Jesus. Just as the same seed produced different results in the parable, so too the parables produced two different results.  These parables sifted out the true followers of Jesus from the imposters.  They revealed who was really a part of the kingdom and who was on the outside.  Imagine how difficult it would be to distinguish between true believers and false believers if Jesus had not done this.

From these verses it is clear that entrance into the Kingdom of God depends completely upon God’s sovereign grace.  There is nothing that we can do to earn our way in.  If we want to be a part of God’s kingdom then we must completely depend on the sovereign grace of God. This sounds a lot easier than it really is.  We are prideful, and deep down inside of us we don’t like to admit that our salvation depends upon the sovereign grace of God.  But the fact remains that we are totally unable to God on our own.  In 1 Cor 1:26-31 the apostle Paul explains this very thing, and he even describes what our response should be:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

What are you boasting in?  Are you depending upon the grace of God completely?  If not, then you cannot be a part of the kingdom of God.  Because the first requirement for entrance into the kingdom is that we must completely depend upon the sovereign grace of God.

[1] D. Edmond Hiebert, The Gospel of Mark: An Expositional Commentary (Greenvile, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 109.

[2]R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, Preaching the Word (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989), 105.



  1. Good post…well done.

    I had come to the same conclusion but was looking for more information. It seems that even commentators put some spin on these verses because they point to a Jesus that’s not popular these days.


  2. I love this explanation is shows the dept of this chapter and Jesus knows us
    in our hearts. He tells these parables to the true believers leaving the unbelievers in question because they can’t understand it.

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