And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Mark 4:13-20 ESV
Our present passage piggybacks directly onto verses 1-12 from last week. As we noted, Mark 4 is largely set at the Sea of Galilee where Jesus taught a large crowd from a boat, and His teaching to them was now in the form of parables, which both reveal and conceal the kingdom of God. Verse 13 picks up where Jesus’ explanation to His disciples of why He used parables finished, and now He explains to them the parable that He gave in verses 3-8:
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.
SOWING THE WORD // VERSE 14
Jesus’ explanation of the parable begins simply: the sower sows the word. This is, of course, the very thing that Jesus came to do. As the embodied and eternal Word of God, everything word Jesus said and every action that He did sowed the seed of God’s Word. Jesus is the great Sower, God’s Word made manifest.
The gift of His Word is one of God’s greatest blessings that He can give. For example, Moses is the great prophet of the Old Testament because of His twofold association with God’s Word. First, “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11), and second, God delivered His Word through Moses. And it was God’s Word delivered through Moses that established Israel as God’s chosen people.
To the converse, Martin Luther once said, “There is no more terrible disaster with which the wrath of God can afflict men than a famine of the hearing of His Word.” In Amos 8:11-12, that is exactly the famine that God pledged to bring upon His people:
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,
“when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it.
Thankfully, as the parable suggests, most of the time God happily scatters His Word abroad. R. C. Sproul makes the following comment:
The point, of course, is that when God sows His seed, which is His Word, it is spread about, in a sense, indiscriminately. God does display His pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6). He does give His Word to people who have no interest in it whatsoever, who are basically so hostile to it that it seems as though God’s Word, His seed, is being wasted.
But is it? In the ancient world, a harvest was considered successful if it produced a tenfold increase over the amount of seed that was planted. But when God sows His seed, the harvest that He brings in is “thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundredfold” (v. 8b). So we simply cannot conclude that the sower is operating in a willy-nilly fashion and that his planting is thwarted by the poor quality of the soils on which his seed falls.
God says as much in Isaiah 55:10-11:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Although it may appear to us at times as though God’s Word returns empty, the reality is that it always does what God purposes for it to do.
HEARING THE WORD // VERSES 15-20
We now come to the four types of soil, which Jesus explains as such:
And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
These four kinds of soil represent four kinds of hearers of God’s Word. The seed is scattered across each of them, just as God’s Word falls upon many people’s ears. But while the seed is the same, three of the soils fail to bear fruit. Because you are reading this, God’s Word has fallen upon your ears; therefore, you will fall under one of these four categories. Let us consider them individually.
The first kind of soil is a hard, well-worn path. Whenever the seed lands upon the path, it cannot sink into the soil, so birds quickly eat up the seed that was scattered. For these hearers, the Word does not penetrate their hardened hearts because Satan is quick to sweep the Word away from them. Biblical persons who might exemplify this type of soil are Pharaoh, Balaam, and Pontius Pilate. Each of these men encountered God’s Word, yet they remained wholly unaffected. Pharaoh heard the proclamation of Moses and saw the wonders of God that followed, but he only further hardened his heart with each plague. God used Balaam to actually declare His Word, yet 2 Peter 2:18 and Jude 11 warn about false teachers who will proclaim God’s Word for profit as he did. Finally, Pontius Pilate looked the Word in the face and then gave the Son of God over to crucifixion. Although they each heard God’s Word, Satan snatched it away from their hard hearts.
The second kind of soil is rocky ground. The seed sprouts shallow roots that cannot endure the scorching sun. So do some joyfully receive God’s Word, yet without deep roots, tribulation and persecution cause them to abandon the faith. J. C. Ryle says of these hearers: “Their religion has no more life in it than the cut flower. It has not root, and soon withers away.” We may rightly call this kind of hearer admirers of Christ rather than followers of Christ. Followers humbly endure the affliction that comes for the sake of God’s Word, while mere admirers quickly fall away.
In Mark 6:19-20, we will find King Herod gladly hearing the preaching of John the Baptist, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man.” Yet when he made a rash vow to his niece/stepdaughter, he executed John in order to save face before his nobles. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to warn them that they were heading down a similarly slippery slope away from the true gospel: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). They were faltering under the pressure of a group of false teachers called the Judaizers into treating circumcision as necessary for salvation. Paul wrote to warn them against withering away in the face of pressure.
The third kind of soil is already full of thorns, so that whenever the seed begins to sprout, the thorns choke out any fruit that might be produced. The thorns that render hinder fruit are the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things. Demas, whom Paul mentions as his companion in Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24, apparently belongs to this category since Paul wrote of him in his second letter to Timothy, saying, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10). We can also consider the case of the rich, young ruler. He was obviously intrigued by Jesus’ teaching and wanted to know how to enter eternal life. Mark 10:21-22 records their final interaction:
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
The fourth and final soil is the only one to be called good soil because it is the only one that produces fruit. The seed of God’s Word began to grow in both the stony and thorny soils; however, the stones and the thorns prevented any fruit from forming. For examples of good soil, we can look at how many of God’s people throughout the Scriptures bore fruit in response to hearing God’s Word. Noah heard the Word and built the ark. Abraham heard the Word and laid his promised son upon the altar for sacrifice. Moses heard the Word and stood against Pharaoh. David heard the Word and melted in repentance before God. Daniel heard the Word and set his toward Jerusalem three times daily in prayer. Paul heard the Word and immediately began to proclaim the very message that he formerly sought to destroy. All of these were, as James 1:22 says, “doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
And so must our response to God’s Word always be. In Galatians 5:16-24, Paul makes it clear that all people will produce fruit of some kind, either of the Spirit or of the flesh.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Because of our inherited, sinful hearts as children of Adam, we accomplish the works of the flesh by default, whereas the fruits of the Spirit must be given and grown. Sensuality and sexual immorality, for examples, come naturally, but faithfulness must be fostered. Fits of anger and strife take far less effort than gentleness. Like the most stubborn of weeds, the works of the flesh will pop up through the smallest of cracks in pavement, while the fruits of the Spirit must be cultivated with care under the loving hand of our Father. All of this should cause us to carefully consider which kind of soil, which kind of hearer, are we. Ryle states:
And now let us ask ourselves, What are we? Under which class of hearers ought we to be ranked? With what kind of hearts do we hear the Word?—Never, never may we forget that there are three ways of hearing without profit, and only one way of hearing aright! Never, never may we forget that there is only one infallible mark of being a right-hearted hearer! That mark is to bear fruit. To be without fruit, is to be in the way to hell.
DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THIS PARABLE? // VERSE 13
To conclude this study, let us return to the verse that we bypassed at the very beginning. In verse 13 Jesus prefaced His explanation of the parable with two interesting questions: Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
Since Jesus previously told His disciples that they have “been given the secret of the kingdom” (v. 11), it would be natural to expect that Jesus’ followers understood the parable’s meaning. Yet they did not. They heard Jesus’ teaching but did not understand. They beheld His illustrations of the wisdom of the kingdom but did not perceive. Although Jesus made a distinction between those who could understand the parables and those who could not and although He explicitly told His disciples that the parables were for teaching them about God’s kingdom, the disciples presently did not perceive or understand any better than the crowds. Or, at least, their understanding was no better than the crowds until Jesus explained everything to them.
This should serve as a reminder that no one is naturally good soil. After all, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11). Left to our own devices and to our own morality, each of us will fall soundly within one of the first three types of soil. Only by God’s grace is anyone able to understand God’s Word at all. It is grace to read Scripture as the Spirit enlightens the eyes of the heart, and it is grace that the Word became flesh revealing to us the image of the invisible God.
The fruit of hearing is also grace, for Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The disciples did not have greater wisdom and understanding than the crowds; instead, they had Wisdom Himself standing next to them.
All of this is to exclude any boasting in ourselves. We must certainly pay attention to what we hear, but only the Lord gives understanding. We must certainly bear the fruit of obedience, being doers of the Word as well as hearers, but such fruit is only possible as long as we are firmly attached to Christ. Thus, if you belong to the good soil, give thanks to God that He is growing in you the fruits of the Spirit as you continue to hear His Word. If, however, you believe that you belong to one of the three other types of soil, you are hearing the Word once again today (with no guarantee of tomorrow); therefore, “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Cast yourself upon the mercy and love of Christ. Abide in Him who is the way, the truth, and the life. Only in Him will anyone bear fruit.
 Indeed Deuteronomy 18:18 points to the coming Christ as being a prophet like Moses.
 R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 67.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 51.