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. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “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.’”
Mark 4:1-12 ESV
When God came to Ezekiel in exile, the sight and call left the prophet overwhelmed for seven days. Before he beheld God’s throne, he saw four living creatures, each with four wings and four faces. Whenever they raised their wings to fly, Ezekiel compared to the sound to many waters, to a rushing army, to the voice of God. Yet he then glimpsed the sapphire-like throne of God, and it radiated out bright colors.
Before such a sight, Ezekiel could no longer hold himself upright, but the Spirit entered the prophet and stood him to his feet. The LORD then gave Ezekiel his task: “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me” (2:3). He continued to warn Ezekiel that he must proclaim God’s Word whether the people of Israel listened or not. In fact, He said, “the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me” (3:7). Thus, Ezekiel was told to be unconcerned with his proclamation’s reception; instead, he was simply to be unwaveringly faithful in speaking the Word of God.
In our present passage, Jesus, as God incarnate, who did not say “thus says the LORD” but “Truly, I say to you”, begins to take the same ministerial philosophy as Ezekiel: “He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house” (3:27).
TEACHING IN PARABLES
Entering into chapter 4, we find Jesus once again beside the sea, ready to teach the gathered crowd: 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 again we can note Jesus’ flexible single-mindedness. The crowds will continue to come to Him, yet He will continue seeking to teach them. By going out into the water on a boat, we might wonder whether this crowd was truly so large that He was in danger of being crushed (see 3:9). Yet we can also consider the practical benefits of teaching the crowd upon the shore while Jesus Himself was in the water on a boat. Such a set up would have certainly kept the crowd from pressing in upon Jesus to touch Him; however, it also would have acted as a kind of natural amphitheater, enabling more of the people to clearly hear what Christ said.
With this setup established, He taught them many things in parables. Indeed, almost all of Mark’s fourth chapter is devoted to sampling the parables of Jesus, and it is one of two large teaching sections within the Gospel (chapter 13 being the other). It is crucial, therefore, that we understand the nature of parables as well as why Jesus so famously used them.
When trying to understand what exactly a parable is, Jared Wilson warns that we must not fall into two errors of extremes.
The first error is to believe that the parables are simplistic religious illustrations, almost like spiritual folktales. In this erroneous reading, the parables are read superficially, as moral lessons… On the other hand, there is another school of thought, equally erroneous, that would have readers poring over the parables as if they were some kind of Magic Eye hidden-picture painting. It is definitely possible to overthink the parables, by which I mean to read them with too much speculative scrutiny, ransacking every point and detail for every possible meaning it may have locked up, squeezing symbols out of symbols, bypassing the primary intent of the story for some imaginative concoction of biblical connections.
My favorite example of the latter error comes from Origen, an early church theologian, who interpreted the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) allegorically. For Origen, the man going to Jericho was Adam, Jerusalem represented paradise, Jericho is the world, the robbers are hostile powers, the priest is the Law, the Levite represents the Prophets, the Samaritan is Christ, the man’s wounds are sin, the animal is the Lord’s body (which bears our sins away), the inn is the church, the two denarii symbolize the knowledge of the Father and the Son, the innkeeper is the head of the church, and the Samaritan’s promised return is Jesus’ Second Coming. While such interpretations are certainly impressive for the thought that was obviously given to them, it misses the explicit intention of the parable: to teach what it means to be a neighbor and fulfill the command “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The reality is that Jesus’ parables are both simple and complex, in their own way, and like all of Scriptures, the parables deserve a lifetime of meditation. We should not, however, go probing for secret meanings. Indeed, the purpose of most of the parables is found by simply observing the context in which Jesus said them.
Of course, we still haven’t really established what a parable is. Although the commonly held statement that they are “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning” is certainly true, Robert Plummer (taking his cue from Robert Stein) argues that “the most fundamental component of a parable is that there must be a comparison” (40 Questions, 265). A survey of Jesus’ parables quickly indicates the validity of this statement. Some of these comparisons are brief (i.e. a mustard seed), while others are more detailed (i.e. a wedding feast). Some may even focus upon certain aspects of the kingdom, while others may apply to the whole. Or perhaps we can call them illustrations of the kingdom’s wisdom.
THE PURPOSE OF PARABLES
After telling His first parable, Jesus is asked about it later by His disciples, and He 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.’”
Jesus told parables in order to give the secrets of God’s kingdom to His followers. This is fitting since Mark summarized Jesus’ teaching as being “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). I think that the best way of defining God’s kingdom is as Graeme Goldsworthy does: “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.” Its theme is found throughout Scripture.
The first glimpse of the God’s kingdom is in the garden of Eden (place) where Adam and Eve (people) exercised dominion under God’s rule (power). Then with the calling of Abraham we see God’s command and blessing (power) to Abraham and his family (people) as he sojourned in the land of Canaan (place). Once the Israelites conquered the Promised Land, we observe God’s rule through first judges then kings in the land of promise over God’s people. For us under the new covenant in Christ, Jesus is our King, and we are His people. But we are sojourners in a land not yet our own. One day the place of the God’s kingdom will be upon the new earth, but for now, the kingdom is spiritually infiltrating the physical kingdoms of the earth. Thus, God’s kingdom is both here and growing and still come.
The parables of Jesus communicate to us the wisdom of this kingdom to which we belong in Christ. They help us understand what is true about God’s sovereign rule over His people. “Basically,” writes Wilson, “the parables show us what ‘your kingdom come, you will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10) looks like.”
Yet Jesus’ parables do not only reveal the secrets of God’s kingdom; they also conceal them. Consider the first parable that Jesus told and, particularly, how He concluded it:
Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
To the eager crowds, star-struck by His meteoric rise to celebrity status, Jesus was no longer teaching them plainly as He did in the Sermon on the Mount. In that teaching, He told the crowds blatantly what life as a citizen of the God’s kingdom looks like. But even though He poured Himself out the crowds that only wanted to take, this shift to teaching in parables marks just that: a shift. As we see in verses 10-11, although Jesus is still teaching the crowds, His focus now moves onto His disciples, at least as far as teaching is concerned. Jesus will certainly continue to work miracles (we will see three mighty ones in the next chapter!), but when it comes to explaining the kingdom that He was bringing to earth, Jesus would now largely devote Himself to His devoted followers.
As we have already discussed, we can largely assume that most in the crowds wanted the miracles that Jesus performed, not to know and follow Jesus Himself. They were in no better place than the Israelites of Ezekiel’s day. They wanted God to deliver them without ever resolving to actually obey Him. Jesus, as the embodied Word of God, was declaring the verbal Word of God, but they were not interested in hearing. Therefore, Jesus concluded with a statement quite similar to what God told Ezekiel: He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
This is essentially an anti-altar call. Jesus is not looking to rouse the emotions of the crowd, although He easily could have done so. Instead, Jesus presents them with the secrets of the God’s kingdom and says, “If you’re able to hear it, you’ll hear it.” Like the parable that He told (which we will study fully next week), Jesus was content with knowing that much of His words would not fall upon good soil and hearing ears. As God warned Ezekiel, the people did not listen to God’s prophets because they would not listen to God Himself. As God, Jesus showed this to be true.
It is fitting that Jesus cites Isaiah 6:10. In the context of Isaiah 6, the prophet was freshly called by God after viewing His heavenly throne room, and after accepting his role as God’s messenger, the LORD gave Isaiah this word for His people:
And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie wasteIsaiah 6:9–13
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
and the LORD removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
In other words, as Isaiah proclaimed God’s Word, the people’s hearts would only be hardened further. God was preparing to prune His people until only a stump of them remained, a remnant that would be faithful to Him. Jesus, therefore, is acknowledging that the same is true of His ministry. Many who heard His teaching would only find their hearts more dulled, their ears more deaf, and their eyes more blind, than they were before. Thus, He gathered about Him His disciples, a holy seed, which He would cultivate into the mighty tree of God’s kingdom.
With this overview of the nature and purpose of parables no before us, how are we to respond to them as we study them over the next few weeks? For that answer, we must return to verse 3 where Jesus introduced the parable of the sower with two words: Listen! Behold.
Tune your ears to hear what is about to be said.
Steady your eyes upon the illustration of the kingdom that is being given.
These two commands, of course, parallel with His citation of Isaiah 6:10. The reality is that not all seeing is perceiving and not all hearing is understanding. So, behold! Listen! Don’t let your eyes fail to behold the wondrous things set before them (Psalm 119:18), and don’t let your ears fail to hear the words that are more to be desired that gold, even much find gold (Psalm 19:10)!
Familiarity with the parables, like all of Scripture, does not give life. Indeed, again like all of Scripture, they “are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15). To those with ears to hear and eyes to see, they unveil the secrets of the kingdom of God in Christ, but to others they are a word of judgment, further hardening the hearer’s heart.
But these commands to see and to hear are also the primary application that Mark makes throughout the rest of the first half of his Gospel. So, while I thought of different ways to conclude this sermon, such the necessity of hearing and obeying in the Sermon on the Mount or in James or the difference between hearing and listening in Hebrews 3-4, I finally decided to remain firmly planted on what Jesus is doing here in this text: summoning us to pay attention to Him. Notice that the problem here is not a total lack of hearing or seeing. Indeed, as Ecclesiastes 1:8 notes, “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Our eyes and hears cannot get enough sights and sounds, and today screens and speakers are happy to provide.
The big question, therefore, is: What are seeing and hearing? To what are we giving our attention and focus? As we read last week, the world, especially on social media, is filled with foolishness that disguises itself as wisdom. As the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir stated last week in their song, A Message from the Gay Community,
You think we’ll corrupt your kids,
if our agenda goes unchecked.
Funny, just this once,
We’ll convert your children.
Happens bit by bit.
Quietly and subtly,
and you will barely notice it.
Although they have maintained that the song is purely satire, I honestly appreciate the blatant honesty, for those words apply to far more than just the LGBT movement. Instead, they apply to worldliness as a whole, which corrodes bit by bit. Psalm 1 warns us of spending our time in the counsel of the wicked, in the way of sinners, and in the seat of scoffers; rather, we are to devote ourselves day and night to God’s law, making it our highest delight. The prayer of the psalmist should be ours as well: “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:37).
What then are you listening to? What are you beholding? Do not be content to simply hear God’s Word proclaimed on Sunday and in a devotional in the morning or evening. Listen intently to what the Creator says. Do not be satisfied with having seen me declare the Scriptures and with your eyes scanning the Bible’s pages. Through the lens of His Word, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8)! Bind the Scriptures to your heart and mind. Listen to the truth and behold the goodness within them!
 Jared Wilson, The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables, 25-26.
 See Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, 268.
 Wilson, The Storytelling God, 28.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, The Son of God and the New Creation, 60.
 Wilson, The Storytelling God, 30.
 Mark will give us plenty more opportunities to explore those connections as we go onward.