This chapter has the parable of the sower; the purpose of parables; parable of light under a container; the parable of the growing seed; the parable of the mustard seed; the use of parables; and the calming of the storm.
As I write in the introduction to every chapter:
This translation and commentary is offered for free, gratis, across the worldwide web to Christians in oppressive (persecuting) or developing countries, who cannot afford printed commentaries or Study Bibles, though everyone can use the commentary and entire website, of course.
The translation is mine. I add yet another translation for one purpose: to learn. The translation tends to be literal, but complete literalness and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
I ask Growth Application (GrowApp) questions after each section of Scripture, for discipleship.
I add some Greek word studies, in a nontechnical way. The Greek terms with brief definitions can also be looked up at biblehub.com.
Links are provided for further study.
Parable of the Sower Introduced (Mark 4:1-9)
1 Again he began to teach by the lake, and a massive crowd gathered around him, so that he got in a boat and sat down on it in the lake, while all the crowd was on the shore by the lake. 2 Then he began to teach them many things in parables and was speaking to them in his teaching. 3 “Listen! Pay attention! A sower went out to sow. 4 And it happened that, while he was sowing, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it. 5 Another batch fell on the rocky ground, where it did not have much soil and sprang up quickly because the soil was not deep. 6 And when the sun rose, it was burned up, and because it did not have roots, it withered. 7 Another batch fell among thorn bushes, and the thorn bushes grew up and choked it; it did not produce crops. 8 Others fell on the good soil and produced crops and grew up and increased, and some produced thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred.” 9 And he was saying, “The one who has ears to hear—let him hear!”
Wesel and Strauss say that the Parable of the Sower is the “most important for Mark and becomes a defining passage not only for Jesus’ teaching in parables but also for his teaching as a whole” (p. 750).
We’ll hold back on interpreting this parable until vv. 13-20, where Jesus explains it.
This parable has been called the Parable of the Soils and even the Parable of the Seeds. But I stayed with tradition, though the Parable of the Soils makes sense, while the third option does not (not to me, at least).
Jesus is still by the Lake of Galilee, but in Mark 3:7-8 people came from all over greater Palestine, and in 3:9 he had to get in a boat to teach. And yes, the word lake appears three times in the verse.
As I noted at 3:9, I have heard that water transmits the sound because the sound waves bounce off the water.
Mark is keen to show that Jesus could gather a crowd. This time he did not heal them but taught them. Teaching the kingdom of God is equal to or even better than healing through the power of the Spirit in the kingdom because eventually this physical body will wear out, but the teaching will last forever. His word will not pass away (Mark 13:31). Renewalists who like the sensational aspect of the kingdom of God, as it comes in full power and healing, need to remember the teaching part of ministry. They must reinforce their basic Bible knowledge and doctrine, so they can explain it to the people and so that the flashy ministers themselves won’t go astray.
“parable”: literally, the word parable (parabolē in Greek) combines para– (pronounced pah-rah and means “alongside”) and bolē (pronounced boh-lay and means “put” or even “throw”). Therefore, a parable puts two or more images or ideas alongside each other to produce a clear truth. It is a story or narrative or short comparison that reveals the kingdom of God and the right way to live in it and the Father’s ways of dealing with humanity and his divine plan expressed in his kingdom and life generally. The Shorter Lexicon says that the Greek word parabolē can sometimes be translated as “symbol,” “type,” “figure,” and “illustration,” the latter term being virtually synonymous with parable. Here you must see yourself in the parable.
“in his teaching”: As I noted at Mark 1:22, didachē (pronounced dee-dah-khay or dih-dah-khay) is the Greek noun here. Reading this verse and the formal noun makes me wonder whether the church in the U.S. and the world get adequate teaching. In America many of the TV guys do a lot of yelling and shouting and displays of personality and shrieking and freaking and dancing and prancing. I wonder whether Jesus did any of that. I don’t think so. Yet he amazed the people with his teaching.
Let’s explore this Greek noun more thoroughly.
It is, as noted, the word didachē. BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, and it defines the noun as follows: (1) “The activity of teaching, teaching, instruction”; (2) “the content of teaching, teaching.” Yes, the word is also used of Jesus’s teaching: Matt. 7:28; 22:33; Mark 1:22, 27; 4:2; 11:18; 12:38; Luke 4:32; John 7:16, 17; 18:19. And it is used of the apostolic teaching: Acts 2:42; 5:28; 13:12; 17:19; Rom. 6:17; 16:17; 1 Cor. 14:6, 26; 2 Tim. 4:2; Ti. 1:9; Heb. 6:2; 2 John 9 (twice), 10; Rev. 2:14, 15, 24.
Renewalists need much more instruction and doctrine than they are getting. Inspirational preaching about God fulfilling their hopes and dreams is insufficient. We need to discern the signs of the times or seasons (Matt. 16:3). We live in the time or season of the worldwide web. The people are getting bombarded with strange doctrines, on youtube (and other such platforms). These youtube “teachers” know how to edit things and put in clever colors and special effects, but they have not been appointed by God. They do not know how to do even basic research. They run roughshod over basic hermeneutical (interpretational) principles. These “teachers” do not seem to realize that they will be judged more severely (Jas. 3:1) and will have to render an account of their (self-appointed) “leadership” (Heb. 13:17). If they destroy God’s temple, God will (eventually) destroy them (1 Cor. 3:17).
Further, my impression is that the main platform speakers on TV whose budgets are big enough to put them on TV every day don’t even know the basics about doctrine. (I admit I’m still learning basic doctrine). Why not? They are too busy being corporate managers and even Chief Executive Officers over large churches. They are not turning over the practical side of church leadership to their elders and deacons. They do not spend hours a day—all day, every day—studying nothing but Scriptures, with good ol’ commentaries. (Maybe this one can help.) They do not spend hours a day reading up on theology and doctrine. (Maybe my website can help, a little.)
An alternative and probably better translation of Eph. 4:11 reads: “Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teaching pastors,” not pastors and teachers. Do we have teaching pastors or management or corporate pastors who specialize in organizational leadership? Or do we have psychology pastors? These areas should be turned over to a team. The teaching pastors should do nothing but study Scripture and should have the bulk of the teaching time on Sunday morning and in other services.
We need to change our ways and follow Scripture, or else much of the church will spiritually diminish and be swept away by strange teachings. Yes, good ol’ fashioned theology and even a little apologetics about difficult passages is what the global Church needs. They need the basics—even on Sunday morning, delivered by teaching pastors, not corporate, inspirational pastors.
Jesus issues two commands. Listen! Pay attention! He is about to teach something solemn which we are to apply to our lives.
A sower made a pouch with a robe, slung it around his shoulder, full of seed, and reached into it, grabbed a handful, and threw it, sweeping his hand back and forth. After his hand emptied out, he reached in his bag and grabbed another handful.
In Luke’s parallel version, professional grammarians teach us that the Greek verb tenses indicate that while he was speaking his parable to a large crowd, so his voice had to be raised for them to hear; he was shouting the quoted words even louder at intervals. Mark uses the exact same verb and verb tense.
You can go to Luke 8:4-8 to see an alternative, expanded translation. It is very interesting.
There is a logical progression in the development of the see: the seed never germinates; the second sprouts and dies; the third becomes a plant but is chocked by thorn bushes (Wessel and Strauss (p. 752).
As for the thirty, sixty, hundred, it is entirely possible for an individual plant to produce that many kernels (Wessel and Strauss, pp. 752-53).
GrowApp for Mark 4:1-7
A.. Do you have ears to hear the meaning of parables? Are you hungry enough to break your dull thinking? How do you do this?
The Purpose of Parables (Mark 4:10-12)
10 And when he was alone, those with him and the twelve asked about parables. 11 He said to them: “To you the mysteries of the kingdom of God have been granted; to those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that:
‘They see intently and do not perceive;
They listen with the act of hearing and do not understand,
In case they turn and it is forgiven them.’” [Is. 6:9-10]
See v. 2 for a definition of parable.
For those interested in a literary feature of this story, the placement of this pericope (pronounced puh-RIH-koh-pea) or section of Scripture between the introduction of the parable and its explanation is called intercalation (“sandwiching”). (Other scholars just see this pericope to be a continuation of the use of parables.) If this pericope is an intercalation, it communicates that if you don’t work hard to understand it right now, then you may be a victim of irony (you think you know and you should, but you don’t actually know). You should see yourself in this mild rebuke about the purpose of parables. They are for the hungry who dig deeper. See just below for a more thorough explanation of irony.
Apparently, Jesus had more than just the twelve with him. Remember: he sent out seventy (or seventy-two) (Luke 10:1-12; 17-20). And a large contingent of women followed him too (Luke 8:2-3). Whoever it was who asked, they were more than just the twelve.
After two introductory points about a Hebrew idiom and the granting to know spiritual truths, let’s tackle this entire pericope as a whole.
First, yes, there is a Hebrew idiom “hear with hearing” = “hear intently,” but I like what BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, says: they hear with “the act of hearing.” So I kept it. I put some key words in quotations because there is irony. They seem to hear and hear, but in in reality they do not.
“mystery”: modern translations say “secret.” The Greek noun is mystērion (pronounced moo-stay-ree-on or mee-stay-ree-on), and yes, we get our word mystery directly from it. It is used 28 times. Now let’s define the term.
BDAG says: In the Greco-Roman world, a mystērion is about mystery religions, “with their secrets teachings, religious and political in nature, concealed with many strange customs and ceremonies. The principal rites remain unknown because of a reluctance in antiquity to divulge things.” In other words, Greco-Roman mysteries were about concealment.
In contrast, in the NT, it will be about disclosure of God’s plan, revealed only in part in Bible prophecies, and now these mysteries were fulfilled and completely revealed in Christ. As God’s plan moves from one age to the next, this is called eschatology (the study or science of last things or a shift in ages that God ordains).
Commentator Strauss on 4:11-12 and mystery:
Its primary sense in the NT is not something strange or mysterious, but rather something formerly secret that God has now revealed to his people. In the context of Jesus’s ministry in Mark, the secret to which the disciples are privy is that the power and presence of the kingdom of God breaking into human history through the words and deeds of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus’s healings, exorcisms, and offer of forgiveness to sinners are all sure signs of the kingdom of God.
Next, Jesus says that the disciples have been “granted” to know. What does that mean? Some sort of predestination to know, while others sit in ignorance by God’s plan, so that he would not heal them if they really did have hungry hearts (v. 15)? Not quite. This grant or gift to know is predicated or built on the condition of their heart. Originally, God predicted that the majority of Israel would reject Isaiah’s ministry (Is. 6:8-13). Why? They were being corrupted by their environment; they did not drive out bad influences—the Canaanites and the surrounding cultures and their religions—in their lives, so their hearts were becoming dull and sinful. There is a certain class of people who just don’t get it. Do they have hope, or are they doomed by their own thick heads and broken moral compass? Whatever your answer to that double-sided question, God was reaching out to them, so it is not likely that he caused their hearts to become wicked. Instead, their hearts were shutting down because of bad human (and demonic) influences, and then God was letting them go to figure things out—all the while sending Isaiah and many other prophets to speak the truth to their self-deceived hearts. No, God is not the author of corrupt or sinful hearts, but they can get that way on their own. Then God takes them as they are.
With those two acknowledgements, let’s move on to the significance of the brief statement in the whole pericope. This statement is about knowledge and ignorance and hunger and complacency, two sets of opposites. What do you know and not know? When does your hunger for God propel you out of your complacency or self-satisfaction?
The issue of knowledge and ignorance boils down to irony. Let’s illustrate it. First there is comic irony. I have used the illustration of Hogan’s Heroes, the sitcom of the 1960’s and early 1970s. Col. Klink boasted that there has never been a successful escape from Stalag 13, but the inmates could come and go as they pleased. He was a victim of his self-deception and “self-ignorance” and absence of knowledge. He was a vain man.
Then there is tragic irony. Oedipus the king was considered wise, and he was to a certain degree. And now a plague was attacking the city-state of Thebes. Thebans were dying. He thought that he could figure out the cause and threatened anyone who may be it. He learned at the end that he was the cause. He gouged out his eyes. He was the victim of irony because he thought the cause was someone else and he huffed and puffed as king, but he caused his own downfall. He abdicated and left the city. His ignorance was left behind, and his knowledge grew. Therefore, he was no longer the victim of irony—in the end. He reached true knowledge.
A biblical example: Job and his friends were very eloquent about matters that were far above them. They were wise to a certain and spoke great poetry, so let’s give them partial credit, but when God came on the scene, they had to repent. They did not know as much as they had first believed. What little knowledge they had misled them to miscalculate their level of knowledge.
So now the simple of heart—the disciples—could (seemingly) understand, after an explanation—the parables. But not the crowds. Jesus knew that he was on his way to Jerusalem, to be rejected by the religious establishment and the people as a whole, so he intended that he withhold the mystery of the kingdom—himself and his teaching—from them, because their hearts were dull and heavy. They were oppressed by the Romans, so this too distracted their knowledge away from the truth; they fell victim of their own conceit. They insisted on the Messiah being a conquering hero, but he was a mystery, revealed gradually. They were ignorant of God’s plan of a Savior who would save people from their own sins and not the Romans.
So, who qualifies to break the irony? How? The complacent or self-pleased do not qualify. They are happy with the status quo or they are hungry for the wrong thing—the conquering hero, again. They were living in irony because they were hungry for external deliverance, and not an inward work of God. This is ironical, because many of them went out to seek John’s baptism and the forgiveness of sins, and maybe many received it. However, Jesus was different. He worked miracles. He could deliver the people from the Romans. No, sorry. They were self-deceived.
So who qualifies to understand the ways of God? They humble and hungry. They allow God’s plan to unfold as he wants, not as they want. The disciples would eventually catch on, but some not even until the resurrection, and some not even until after Pentecost. Then their knowledge grew by leaps and bounds, because by faith they allowed God to unfold his plan, and they submitted to it, even when they did not understand it entirely. Eventually they understood the mystery and came to know the truth and leave their irony behind.
God speaks to them in parables instead of plain teaching because they are stubborn and dull. Parables do not promote stubbornness and dullness, but parables make it easier to remain in that condition. What little alertness they have will be taken away or certainly not fostered and watered.
Finally, let’s go for a general consideration of the kingdom of God. As noted in other verses that mention the kingdom in this commentary, the kingdom is God’s power, authority, rule, reign and sovereignty. He exerts all those things over all the universe but more specifically over the lives of people. It is his invisible realm, and throughout the Gospels Jesus is explaining and demonstrating what it looks like before their very eyes and ears. It is gradually being manifested from the realm of faith to the visible realm, but it is not political in the human sense. It is a secret kingdom because it does not enter humanity with trumpets blaring and full power and glory. This grand display will happen when Jesus comes back. In his first coming, it woos people to surrender to it. We can enter God’s kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), by repenting (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:5), by having the faith of children (Matt. 18:4; Mark 10:14-15), by being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom God loves (Col. 1:13), and by seeing their own poverty and need for the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; Jas. 2:5). The kingdom has already come in part at his First Coming, but not yet with full manifestation and glory and power until his Second Coming.
1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)
Isaiah is the background, and in his ministry he was commanded to preach, even though it would do no good. God had already pronounced his judgment on ancient Israel (Wessel and Strauss, p. 756). And so it is with Jesus’s ministry. He was called to proclaim the good news, but judgment is coming, for Jesus was destined to be rejected by the Jerusalem establishment and then judgement would fall.
I add: Only those who were hungry and perceptive would escape judgment. Many people followed him during his ministry, but would they be insightful and perceptive enough to grasp the gospel told through parables? We know that thousands converted to the Messiah after Pentecost (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20). They were the insightful and perceptive ones.
GrowApp for Mark 4:10-12
A.. Are you spiritually dull? If so, how do you get out of the lethargy and complacency? If not, how do you keep yourself spiritually astute, alert, and open?
The Parable of the Sower Explained (Mark 4:13-20)
13 He said to them: “You don’t understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The one sowing sows the word. 15 These are the ones along the path, where the word was sown. When they heard, immediately Satan also takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 And these are the ones that were sown on the rocky ground, which are those when they heard the word immediately received it joyfully 17 and had no root in themselves; instead, they were transitory. Then trouble and persecution occurred because of the word, and they soon fell away. 18 The others were those sown into the thorn bushes. They heard the word 19 and the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the craving for other things came in and choked the word. And there was no crop. 20 Those are the ones who are sown in the good soil and hear the word and accept it and produce crops, some thirty, some sixty, and some hundred.
The Greek here is certainly understandable, but it is a little awkward. Mark is famous for writing like that! But never mind. Let’s move on from such technicalities.
A.. First soil / heart: Packed down as hard as a footpath.
B.. Second soil / heart: rocky ground so roots don’t go down deep.
C.. Third soil / heart: thorn bushes can grow there, which choke out good growth.
D.. Fourth soil / heart: Good heart so the word can grow and produce mature fruit.
“parable”: see v. 2 for more comment.
Jesus expresses surprise and frustration that this clear parable was not entirely understood by his disciples and the twelve.
“word”: It is the noun logos (pronounced lo-goss), and it is rich in meaning. It is the same noun for word in all the verses in this section (vv. 11-15). It is used 330 times in the NT. Since it is so important, let’s explore the noun more deeply, as I do in this entire commentary series.
The noun is rich and full of meaning. It always has built into it rationality and reason. It has spawned all sorts of English words that end in –log-, like theology or biology, or have the log– stem in them, like logic.
Though certain Renewalists may not like to hear it, there is a rational side to the Word of God, and a moment’s thought proves it. The words you’re reading right now are placed in meaningful and logical and rational order. The Bible is also written in that way. If it weren’t, then it would be nonsense and confusing, and we couldn’t understand the gibberish. (Even your prophecies have to make logical and rational sense on some level!) Your Bible studies and Sunday morning sermons have to make sense, also. Matthew’s Gospel has logic and rational argumentation built into it. People need to be ministered to in this way. God gave us minds and brains and expects us to use them. Your preaching cannot always be flashy and shrieky and so outlandishly entertaining that people are not fed in the long term. Movements like that don’t last over the years without the Word. I have observed this from firsthand experience in certain sectors of the Renewal Movement.
People have the deepest need to receive solid teaching. Never become so outlandishly supernatural and entertaining that you neglect the reasonable and rational and logical side of preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible.
On the other side of the word logos, people get so intellectual that they build up an exclusive Christian caste of intelligentsia that believe they alone can teach and understand the Word. Not true.
Bottom line: Just study Scripture with Bible helps and walk in the Spirit, as they did in Acts. Combining Word and Spirit is the balanced life.
In any case, we now know the seed is the word or message of the kingdom in the parable. This word explains the kingdom of God and its power to transform people’s hearts, if their hearts are receptive. There is no “done deal,” except for those who persevere (endure or hang in there).
It is the same word logos throughout these verses, which can be translated as “message.”
So the sower sows the word. He (or she) is the proclaimer, the preacher. Right now, that’s Jesus in real terms. After Pentecost, that’s you and me.
First soil / heart: the packed-down path or road. The seeds never even got a chance to put down roots before people trampled on them and birds ate them.
“the evil one”: the devil is the (collective) birds. He can read people’s heart well enough that he can steal the word from it. No, his reading hearts does not make him omniscient; it just means he can read hearts! He can certainly read it well enough to snatch the word from your heart.
Don’t let the devil rob you of the good word planted in you. “Is this really real? Is the word true?” You can ask those questions but go to someone who is more mature than you to get answers.
See my posts about Satan in the area of systematic theology:
Second soil / heart: rocky ground. People can receive the word with joy when they hear it. But the rocky soil prevents the roots from going deep enough for them to soak up the moisture.
Scorching sunlight (= trials and temptations) is implied in this verse.
“temporary” is proskairos (pronounced pross-ky-ross), and it can be transitory. In the time of testing or temptation they fall away. “Fall away” could be translated more literally as a stumbling block. It is easy to imagine that the hearers, receivers and believers walk away or stand away from the word after they go through temptation or testing.
Be prepared for trials and temptations.
Third soil / heart: the thorn plants grow there. The thorn bushes (another translation) grow with the seed and choke it. Here the thorn bushes are explained as the anxieties and deceitfulness of riches—and these things choke the word. No, money and certain pleasure are not bad in themselves, but too often they do choke out our relationship with God.
“no crop”: It could be translated as “fruitless” or “cropless.” The verb is in the present tense, implying that if the word had not been choked out, the fruit would have grown to maturity; one has to keep going to maturity. So the picture is that the hearer produces some fruit, but then the entire plant gets choked out by the anxieties and deceitfulness of riches.
Fourth soil / heart: This person produces a lot of grain.
“produce crops”: it is one verb karpophoreō (pronounced kahr-poh-foh-reh-oh), and it is in the present tense—you keep producing fruit.
For the quarrel between professional theologians over “once save, always saved” and the possibility of walking away from salvation, see my posts:
Also see how the parable might apply to this question:
GrowApp for Mark 4:13-20
A.. Which soil and walk with God best describes your heart and commitment? Why? How do you become good soil (if you are not already)?
A Light under Container and Capacity to Receive (Mark 4:21-25)
21 He said to them, “A lamp does not arrive so that it is placed under a container or under a bed, is it? No, but to be placed on a lampstand. 22 For there is nothing secret but that it will be revealed, nor is it hidden but instead it is brought in to be open. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.
24 Watch what you hear. By the measure you measure, it will be measured to you and added even more to you. 25 For whoever has, it will be given to him, and whoever does not have even what he has will be taken from him.”
This is a parable or illustration, and as usual we are supposed to see ourselves in it. See v. 2 for a formal definition of a parable.
This style of illustration is designed to startle the reader with the obvious truths—no one does absurd those things. We must use objects for their right purpose. In our case, redeemed humanity who has come to the light lets it shine out for those who have not seen the light. How? Just talking? That may be the last method to shine the light. In the day of social media, writing comments is a dime a dozen. Anyone can blurt. It is best to earn the right to be heard or read. You earn the right by being consistent in your deeds and (few) words. Do good to people. Then when they trust you, you can share your faith. They may even ask you why you are so friendly and caring. Then it’s your turn to speak.
“lamp”: it is probably an oil lamp that is stuck in a small ledge built into a wall or on a holder stuck to the wall—or anywhere, like a table, that it can shine the light
“container”: it could be translated as “basket” or “bowl” or “box.” It holds about eight liters (two gallons), holding dry material, like grain.
Here is a deep truth. Beware that your good deeds and your bad deeds will be made manifest. There are two sides of life—your public self and your private self. (Some add a third side, a secret self). If they do not match up, your private self will eventually be made known. If your private self is unfriendly and unkind, then that will be advertised for the public. They won’t like what they see. Then whatever good and honored reputation you thought you had will be taken from you. Appearances can be deceiving to you. You thought one way (all good), but then reality clobbered you over the head. People saw the real you. On the positive side, if your private self and public self match up, and both are virtuous, then your private self will be made manifest, and what every you have—you will be given more. You have developed a good and virtuous private life, and you shall receive more of it.
The last clause is a warning. We are called to look into ourselves and give ourselves a checkup, by God’s grace. If you find that you are always hard on yourself or condemning yourself, then that is not healthy. But if you find yourself always the right one, then you have lost your perspective. You are not always right and not always wrong. Seek hard after truth.
These verses are about provision, but not in a material sense. This is not about accumulating money. God will give you more, when you measure things properly. When you shine your light, he will give you more light. When you are generous, he will give you more generosity. And so on. The less you have of the light or a good work, like generosity, even what you think you have will dim or diminish. So be careful! Pay attention! Ask God for more light.
Here’s an applicable passage from Matthew:
14 You are the light of the world. A town sitting above on a mountain cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do they light a lamp and place it under a container, but on a lampstand, and it shines on everyone in the house. 16 In this way, let your light shine before people, so that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)
“Watch what you hear”: It is the standard verb for seeing. But then it says “what you hear.” Jesus wanted the seeing and hearing combination. Or it is an idiom for “pay attention!” You can decide which is best. I like the idea of being watchful of what you listen to. Too many ratty songs and words chip away at the soul. Keep a guard over your ears and eyes.
These verbs are written in the passive voice (“it will be revealed”; “it will be measured to you”; “it will be given to him”). Scholars say that this is the divine passive; that is, it is an understated way of saying that God is behind the scenes doing those things.
Strauss’s comments on v. 25:
Here in Mark (cf. Matt. 13:12), the proverb refers to the reception of divine revelation. Those who hear and respond to the message of the kingdom of God shall receive even greater revelation, while those who reject what they have heard will be blinded even further. The sayings thus parallel Jesus’ explanation for why he teaches in parables in 4:11-12. To those responsive to Jesus’ kingdom teaching, the parables provide even greater spiritual insight. But for the hard-hearted “outsiders” who reject the message, they will look and look but not perceive, and hear and hear but not understand” (4:12). Their spiritual blindness will only increase.
GrowApp for Mark 4:21-25
A.. God is your light source. You let his light shine through you as you do good works and behave yourself–act righteously. How are you doing in this area of your life in the kingdom? Any improvements needed?
Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
26 And he said, “In this way the kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed on the ground 27 and then sleeps and arises night and day, and the seed sprouts and gets taller and he does not know how. 28 On its own, the soil produces crops, first a blade of grass, then a head of grain, then a full crop in the head. 29 When the crop is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest is fully grown.”
See v. 2 for a definition of a parable.
Let’s take this parable as a whole.
It is about a limited perspective and trust. The farmer does not know the science behind the soil producing the crop. He follows the rhythms of nature—or the kingdom of God. He does his part: he casts or sows the seed on the soil. From what we learned from vv. 13-20, the seed is the word of the kingdom and the good news. He preaches. Then he patiently waits for nature—the kingdom—to do its thing on its own. He does not need to stand out in the field anxiously calling forth the seed with his hands raised. “Crop, come forth!” The kingdom does it for him. He can rest and do his other chores. He sleeps by night and works by day, waiting patiently for the seed to grow by the kingdom’s power.
Another element is the gradual growth. First the seed (word) sprouts; then a blade of wheat grass gets taller. He does not know how. The wheat stalk gets taller and taller and then the grains of wheat appear on the top. Finally, the head of grains bends down from the weight. The harvest is ready, so he sends in the sickle and the harvest can begin. He understands how to harvest. He now has to work. But God gave the increase.
As I understand this parable, the kingdom of God endorses and empowers the word of God when the preacher proclaims it. He does not strive or struggle but relaxes or rests when he proclaims it. The kingdom does the work behind the scenes, out of view, and in him and through him.
Application: preachers don’t need to strive so much and work so hard on the platform. They don’t need to shriek and freak and dance and prance. Just talk. Yes, get animated once in a while, but the excitement does not need to be gingered up and on a perpetually high volume.
Talking fast and loud ≠ the anointing.
Preachers have the Spirit of God in them. Let him do all the work.
Wessel and Strauss point to Joel 2:12-13 and say that this short parable speaks of judgment at the end of the age. Maybe so, but I believe the parable relates to the present age and the work of the kingdom.
France writes the point (which is obvious):
The kingdom of God, then, does not depend on human effort to achieve it, and human insight will not be able to explain it. This aspect of the parable, focused in the farmer’s inactivity, could suggest a quietistic theology which allows disciples to disclaim any responsibility in the establishment of God’s kingdom. … But if the focus is on the dynamic of the kingdom of God, the farmer’s inactivity functions merely as a foil to this main theme. Here, unlike the parable of the sower, the structure of the story does not suggest a multiple purpose which would require this subsidiary aspect of the imagery to be given a message of its own. …
The first parable, then, is a message about rightly interpreting and responding to the period of the apparent inaction of the kingdom of God. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is growing, and the harvest will come. But it will come in God’s time and in God’s way, and humans have to step up and advance the kingdom, but nothing is accomplished by human effort alone or in accordance with human logic alone.
GrowApp for Mark 4:26-29
A.. Do you trust God to let the word of God grow by his power (not yours)? How does the word grow in your life when you first heard it?
B.. How have you seen the word grow in someone else’s life?
Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32)
30 He said: “How will we compare the kingdom of God or put it in a parable? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when it sown on the ground, is smaller than all the other seeds on the ground. 32 When it is sown, it grows up and become bigger than all the garden vegetables and produces big branches, so that birds of the sky can settle under its shade.”
See v. 3 for further comment on the meaning of parable.
See v. 10 for a definition of the kingdom of God.
This short parable is a simile, which means “like” or “similar.” This is like that. He is about to compare the kingdom to an ordinary item in everyday life in first-century Israel.
The kingdom is compared to a mustard seed, which in his culture, was the smallest seed. Then a person takes it and sows it in his garden. It grows into a tree-like plant. It is not a literal tree, so here it is rhetoric, but the mustard plant could grow to a height of 10-25 ft (3-7.5m). So what is the point of the short parable? It is that the kingdom has a small beginning and is seemingly insignificant to the undiscerning. The mustard seed is a symbol for what is tiny; it was the smallest seed.
This is the mystery of the kingdom, for it will have a large ending. Jesus is one God-man, so the beginning of the kingdom at first seems small and even lonely, despite the large number of disciples following him. Now, thankfully, it is going around the globe. But this does not mean the parable teaches the kingdom’s political dominance, as Dan. 2:44 teaches, which wipes out all other kingdoms. Instead, the kingdom that Jesus taught enters quietly into the world, but more specifically into a person’s heart.
So does this power and influence mean that Christians should take over governments? Not necessarily. The kingdom does not so permeate the world’s political systems that outward righteousness is achieved. Rather, it is better, in my view, to preach the gospel, train the new converts to live righteously and lovingly in Christ, and together, in unity, their righteous lives and deeds will transform society.
Some Bible interpreters see an OT background here. The birds finding shade refers to Gentiles admitted into the kingdom of God, like a cedar tree (Ezek. 17:23; 31:6) and the growth of a great empire in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 4:10-12, 14, 21). All great nations seek refuge under the shade of the Assyrian empire (Ezek. 31:6) (Wessel and Strauss, p. 762). That OT background seems reasonable to me. It is judicial decision, built on facts of a nation’s heart.
“birds of the sky” mean “wild birds,” not tame ones. God’s kingdom specializes in providing relief for wild, untamed people. It quiets them down and tames them. They can settle down in the kingdom of God and find relief from the burning sun (= trials and troubles brought on by wild behavior).
GrowApp for Mark 4:30-32
A.. The kingdom of God begins small and then grows in your life. How have seen the kingdom expand in you and in your outreach to others?
The Use of Parables (Mark 4:33-34)
33 He was speaking the word to them in many such parables, as they were able to understand. 34 Without the parable form he did not speak to them, but privately he explained everything to his own disciples.
See v. 2 for a definition of parables.
“parable form”: the word form is implied, because the word parable is singular. So we could translate it literally: “Without the parable he did not speak to them.”
Sometimes the crowds did hear direct teaching. Thus, “without the parable form he did not speak to them” is a Semitic way of saying he emphasized parables over direct discourse.
Why, though, did Jesus use parables for the crowds? The answer is found in my comments at vv. 10-12. It is about knowledge and ignorance and hunger and complacency. Are they hungry enough to push through spiritual dullness and thick-headedness (ignorance) and learn about who God really is (true knowledge)? Many listeners of his message delivered by the church today will remain in ignorance. But they do not have stay that way.
Pray for your wayward sons and daughters and relatives. Pray for your co-workers. Ask God to change their hearts and save them. Never give up! Never stop praying!
GrowApp for Mark 4:33-34
A.. See my questions and challenges at vv. 10-12. Do you wish to add to or revise your earlier answers?
Jesus Calms the Storm (Mark 4:35-41)
35 Then he said to them at the hour when evening was coming, “Let’s go over to the other side.” 36 After dismissing the crowd, they brought him along, as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him. 37 Then a great squall of wind occurred and waves were hitting against the boat, so that the boat was almost getting swamped. 38 He was sleeping on a cushion in the stern. They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” 39 When he got up, he rebuked the wind and said to the lake, “Silence! Muzzle yourself!” The wind stopped and there was complete calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you cowardly? Do you still have no faith? 41 They feared greatly and said among themselves, “Who is this that even the wind and lake obey him?”
It was evening when they launched. By the time they got out to the middle of the lake, it was dark. So the darkness adds to the tension of the narrative.
Why does Jesus feel called to go to the other side? Probably because the Father by the Spirit informed him that one man really needed help. See the next pericope (5:1-20).
Once God calls you, nothing will stop you, except yourself. Always be obedient. There’s a blessing on the other side of the lake. The goal achieved will bless others by God’s love and grace.
He promised them that they would go to the opposite side. Once a promise from God comes, he won’t go back on it, if people follow his ways. Jesus was following God and doing his will, so the promise would be fulfilled. They would reach the other side. But apparently for the disciples his words were just casual. Of course he would say that. Regular guys did. But he was no regular guy. It was his mission. Do you have a mission—God’s mission—and must get there? Nothing will stop you, except yourself.
No doubt his disciples helped him spread the word that it was time for the crowd to leave. What is so interesting is that other boats formed a small fleet. Jesus had to protect more than himself and the twelve. If I take Peter to be the source of Mark’s Gospel, it looks like Peter remembered this tidbit of information, but the other boats don’t play a visible role in the story, but they too were impacted by the storm, and they too were delivered from danger.
You can google the so-called “Jesus boat” which was found recently. It was active around the time that Jesus was alive. It is impressive to see, for it gives a good idea what boats were like back then. However, this boat on which Jesus boarded seems to be bigger than that one. But who know? When he taught, he sometimes launched out on to a boat just offshore, and he could have used that very boat. On further reflection on the wording in v. 36, it looks like Jesus crossed the lake in the boat in which he had been teaching.
One gets the impression that the boat was big, but it wasn’t. He went to one end and put his head down and went to sleep. They approached him and woke him up. His faith was so deep and powerful that he slept during the storm and while the boat was being swamped! We don’t need fictional super-heroes when we have the real Jesus! Honestly!
A man at peace can go to sleep. It would have been something to observe him so peaceful that he can sleep during the watery ride even before the storm kicked up.
Then the burst of wind came down. The Lake of Galilee sits in a bowl, and a fierce gust or storm can swoop down and put sailing people in mortal danger.
“teacher”: this is equivalent to Rabbi. They are about to learn that he was more than a Rabbi, however. He is about to be revealed as the Lord of the wind and waves (Strauss). A revelation is coming for them.
“Don’t you care”: they misread who Jesus was. It is not that he didn’t care. It’s just that he had faith to get to the other side. They should have followed his example of faith and fearlessness.
“perishing”: some translations have “drowning,” but that is an interpretation. The word comes from the verb apollumi (pronounced ah-poh-loo-mee), and it means, depending on the context: (1) “to cause or experience destruction (active voice) ruin, destroy”; (middle voice) “perish, be ruined”; (2) “to fail to obtain what one expects or anticipates, lose out on, lose”; (3) “to lose something that one already has or be separated from a normal connection, lose, be lost” (BDAG). The Shorter Lexicon adds “die.” Here it can mean “perish,” or “die” works too.
“lake”: it is most often translated as “sea,” because of the Greek word, but the Shorter Lexicon offers the option of “lake.” And since the body of water in Galilee is a lake, I chose this term. The old traditional title, “The Sea of Galilee,” to modern readers, makes no sense when they see it on an online map; the term is inaccurate.
“rebuked”: it is the verb epitimaō (pronounced eh-pea-tee-mah-oh), and it means, depending on the context, “rebuke, censure, warn … punish” (see Jude 9 for the last term). Here it means that Jesus rebuked the wind. How did he word the rebuke exactly?
Mark says Jesus ordered the storm, “Silence! Muzzle yourself. If we move towards a paraphrase, we could translate it as “Shut up! Zip it!” And “Muzzle yourself!” could be loosely rendered: “Back off!” But more poetically and courteously, “Peace! Be still!”
Remember: he spoke to the wind. You too can rebuke the storms in your life. But whether God calms it or you have to go through it, he will see you through to the other side.
I really like the words “silence!” “Muzzle yourself!” Alternative translations: “Peace! Be still!” Maybe it’s the storm in our own soul need to be silenced and muzzled.
“cowardly”: The word really is that strong. Jesus meant business, in his rebuke.
“faith”: the noun is pistis (pronounced peace-teace or piss-tiss), and it is used 243 times. Its basic meaning is the “belief, trust, confidence,” and it can also mean “faithfulness” and “trustworthy” (Mounce p. 232). It is directional, and the best direction is faith in God (Mark 11:22; 1 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 1:21; Heb. 6:1) and faith in Jesus (Acts 3:16; 20:21; 24:24; Gal. 3:26; Eph. 1:15; Col. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:13). Believing (verb) and faith (noun) is very important to God. It is the language of heaven. We live on earth and by faith see the invisible world where God is. We must believe he exists; then we must exercise our faith to believe he loves us and intends to save us. We must have saving faith by trusting in Jesus and his finished work on the cross.
Forsaking All, I Trust Him
Let’s discuss the noun, faith, more deeply. These comments apply to the verb, as well: pisteuō (pronounced pea-stew-oh). It is the language of the kingdom of God. It is how God expects us to relate to him. It is the opposite of doubt, which is manifested in whining and complaining and fear. Instead, faith is, first, a gift that God has distributed to everyone (Rom. 12:3). Second, it is directional (Rom. 10:9-11; Acts 20:21). We cannot rightly have faith in faith. It must be faith in God through Christ. Third, faith in Christ is different from faith in one’s ability to follow God on one’s own. It is different from keeping hundreds of religious laws and rules. This is one of Luke’s main themes in Acts, culminating in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and Paul’s ministry for the rest of Acts. Faith in Jesus over faith in law keeping. Fourth, there is faith as a set of beliefs and doctrines, which are built on Scripture (Acts 6:7). Fifth, there is also a surge of faith that is poured out and transmitted through the Spirit when people need it most (1 Cor. 12:9). It is one of the nine charismata or manifestations of grace (1 Cor 12:7-11). Sixth, one can build faith and starve doubt by feasting on Scripture and the words about Christ (Rom. 10:17).
Armed with those data, now let’s look at the human side of the nature miracle.
When the wind and water stopped and a great calm happened, the disciples responded appropriately. They were frightened and stunned—terrified. Wouldn’t you be too, if you were there? I would.
“feared”: This is the standard Greek verb for fear (phobeomai, pronounced foh-beh-oh-my), and you can see phob– in it. It means a wide range of things, like “filled with awe,” but “afraid” is also correct. Mark says they literally “feared a great fear,” which works out to “greatly, doubly feared.”
Let’s be a little more definite. BDAG defines the verb as follows: (1) “to be in an apprehensive state, be afraid”; people can become “frightened.” “Fear something or someone.” (2) “to have a profound measure of respect for, (have) reverence, respect”; a person like God or a leader can command respect.
The Shorter Lexicon says adds nuances (1) “be afraid … become frightened … “fear something or someone” (2) “fear in the sense of reverence, respect.”
There is everything right with having a reverential fear of God. Don’t let the Happy Highlight teachers on TV or elsewhere tell you otherwise.
A pun is going on here in Greek. In v. 37 “great squall of wind” compared with a “great calm” in v. 39, and the disciples fearing a “great fear” in v. 41. Their fear matched the storm, but Jesus’s authority rebuked both the great squall and their great fear. From a great squall came a great calm with one command.
The issue of rebuking a storm brings up a systematic theology lesson for us today: Did Jesus work this miracle by his divine nature and the Father’s will, or by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Father’s will? If it was done only through his divine nature, then we cannot repeat this miracle. Yes, we partake of the divine nature (1 Pet. 1:4), but we are not true God. If he did this miracle by the power of the Spirit, then we can do the same, according to the Father’s will, because we too have the power of the Spirit. Some theologians say it was by his divine nature; other Bible interpreters say it was accomplished by the Spirit. The testimony of Scripture says that Jesus was anointed by the Spirit and worked all of his miracles by the Spirit (Acts 10:38; John 3:34). However, this nature miracle may be the exception. As his divine nature flashed out from behind his humanity, he spoke the command, and there was a great calm. You can choose which possibility you prefer.
But all of his prayers and commands were done by the Father’s will.
19 Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. (John 5:19-20, NIV)
So in those two verses, the Father and Son cooperate to do the works–the miracles. And the Father anointed the Son with the Spirit. Thus, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit performed the works or miracles in the Gospels. It is the Trinity working together who inaugurated the kingdom of God and confirmed it by the signs and wonders. We too, by the Father’s will, and in the name of Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, can do the works of God.
In the 1970s, during the Charismatic Renewal, people on TV were either very brave and faith-filled or very foolish. They prayed against storms.
Should we pray for a nature miracle, against hurricanes and tornados? Of course. Pray for your need. However, before anyone starts proclaiming a nature miracle or rebuking a storm before it happens, he better be clear that he got a word of knowledge that God wants to answer his prayer. The man who prays may be listening to his own “mighty thoughts of faith” which do not always equal God’s thoughts. And so if he prays “a prayer of faith” and broadcasts the nature miracle on TV before it happens, it might not come to pass, and so he will subject the church to mockery. One may object that a man of faith prayed against a hurricane coming to shore, and it did not come to shore. But the problem is that hurricanes often veer off from the shore and go due north (Hurricane Dorian), while others slam into cities and wreak damage despite the prayers (Hurricane Katrina). Be careful, Renewalists of the fiery and showy variety! Don’t be presumptuous and put the Lord to the test. We learned the opposite from Jesus, who said he would not jump off a building and force God’s hand (Matt. 4:5-7). Truly hear from God before you strut around in your own strength.
Remember, it was Jesus’s mission to go over to the opposite side of the lake. He was a perfect follower of his Father. He heard from his Father. You or I may not be such a perfect follower. We may be imperfect. And we may be speaking presumptuously, from our own thoughts, not God’s thoughts. And if you believe you can apply this storm-rebuking pericope to every literal storm is also presumptuous. Hear from God first, not your blanket interpretation of Scripture.
Now for those of us who are not fiery revivalists, yes, you can certainly pray that God will enable you to survive during a natural disaster. And you can even pray that a hurricane veers off into the Atlantic or a tornado lifts before it hits your house. But God answers this prayer; don’t be so self-centered that you believe you had anything to do with it.
Best of all, we regular people can prepare for storms. Jesus embarked in the boat with four experienced fishermen: Peter, his brother Andrew, and the other two brothers, James and John. They were experienced authorities. We should listen to the authorities when they tell us to evacuate before a hurricane hits or build an underground storm shelter in the backyard if tornadoes might come your way. Even a hole in the ground with proper support and storm doors can save your life. In California, authorities are retrofitting key buildings and other structures to prepare for earthquakes. That’s the right idea.
Don’t be caught off guard. Prepare and pray and run, if you have to!
Here are Scriptures about God rebuking the sea (all from the ESV):
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. (Ps. 18:15)
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. (Ps. 104:6-7)
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry,
and he led them through the deep as through a desert. (Ps. 106:9)
Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea,
I make the rivers a desert (Is. 50:2)
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
he dries up all the rivers (Nah. 1:4)
In light of those verses, you can certainly try to rebuke nature in Jesus’s name, but depend on the Father. It is by his will that this must be done. Be careful about arrogating too much power to yourself. And just because you string word together (“I give glory to God! This is his work!”) does not mean you are not concentrating too much power in yourself. In any case, when Jesus rebuked the winds and the lake of Galilee, he did so in his own Father-given authority. Jesus’s followers have to do so in his name. And he controls how his name is used and which prayers to answer.
One other systematic theological point: If Jesus rebuked the storm by his divine nature (as we discussed above), then this is one more indication that he was God in the flesh because in those OT verses, only God could rebuke storms.
William L. Lane writes it old school, and he’s excellent. He says of vv. 40-41:
Jesus rebuked the disciples for the lack of faith expressed in their terror and fear. This is the first in a series of rebukes (7:18; 8:17f; 21, 32f; 9:19) and its placement at this is important. It indicates that in spite of 4:11, 34, the difference is one of degree, not of kind, between the disciples who have received through revelation some insight into the secret of the Kingdom of God as having come near in the person of Jesus and the multitude who see only a riddle. The disciples themselves are still quite blind and filled with misunderstanding. When Jesus asks, “Do you not yet have faith,” he means specifically faith in God’s saving power as this is present and released through his own person. The failure of the disciples to understand this is expressed in their awe-inspired question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
… In the account of the subduing of the sea, we are told that Jesus is the living Lord. What is true of the God of Israel is true of him, At all times and in every sphere he exercises sovereign control over the situation. The subduing of the sea and wind was not merely a demonstration of power; it was an epiphany, through which Jesus was unveiled to his disciples as the Savior of the world in the midst of intense peril.
GrowApp for Mark 4:35-41
A.. Jesus told the storm to be silent and to muzzle itself. Do you often have storms in your own soul? Do you speak peace to your soul?
Summary and Conclusion
This chapter, up to the calming of the storm, is about parables. Jesus uses the common image of the seed, which, as far as I can tell, is the word of God in all the parables. The kingdom of God empowers the word, and God empowers the kingdom, and Jesus mediates between the God and the kingdom and ushers it in. It is called inauguration eschatology. Eschatology can mean both “end times” or a grand shift from one age to the next. Jesus is shifting into a new age, which, however, is not here yet.
The purpose and use of the parables is to expose the heart as either hard and complacent or hungry and seeking. The more Jesus uses small imagery to reveal big truths, the more the people either understand as they seek hard for the answer, or the more they do not understand it because their hearts are stubborn and dull. They still cannot figure out who Jesus is, the embodiment of the kingdom. He is not an ordinary Rabbi. This is confirmed when he calmed the storm. It must have been something to see him rebuke the dangerous weather and it calm down. “Who is this man?!” It was a man who was inaugurating the kingdom of God.
Jesus reveals the kingdom by his teaching, his healings, demon expulsions and now his authority over the weather. He has been doing this in Mark 1-3, and his teaching in Mark 4. Now he will keep on demonstrating the incoming kingdom in Mark 5 by a major demon expulsion and a healing and a resuscitation from the dead.
As a life-long learner, I refer to a community of Bible teachers. They are excellent. I trust, however, that I have simplified things for the average reader.
Decker, Rodney J. Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor UP, 2014).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdmans, 2002).
Garland, David E. Mark: The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1996).
Lane, William L. Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Eerdmans, 1974).
Strauss, Mark L. Mark: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2014).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 1993).
Wessel, Walter W. and Mark L. Strauss. Mark: The Bible’s Expositor’s Commentary, Vol. 9, Rev. ed. (Zondervan 2010).