Mark 4.1-20: The Parable of the Sower

Title: The Parable of the Sower

Text: Mark 4.1-20; Isaiah 6.1-13

Introduction: Note – there are two chapters; bookmark them both; Mark 4.1-20; Isaiah 6.1-13

  • Mark introduced us to the subject of his book in the 1st 15 verses of chapter 1. There, we meet Jesus, the Son of God, the promised Messiah.
  • Mark then tells us that Jesus calls his first 4 disciples and of his early ministry and the great success he has. By the end of chapter one, Jesus is so popular he can’t even go into a town or village because of the crowds, but his forced out into the desolate areas.
  • In chapter two, he calls his 5th disciple, Levi, and continues his ministry. However, the opposition begins to rear its ugly head by asking questions that imply their disapproval. By chapter 3.6, these religious leaders conspire with their political enemies to destroy Jesus.
  • In Chapter three, the opposition becomes public as the religious leaders, and his family members, accuse him falsely. They say he is demon possessed and out of his right mind. His family comes to ‘seize’ him and take him away. But Jesus clarifies for us just who his family is.
  • Mark tells us at this stage that Jesus begins to teach in parables. We see this in 3.22f: 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables… Our story picks up in Mark 4.1 with the parable of the sower. Jesus is in a boat by the shore – a natural amphitheater. Rd 4.1-2.

If you look out in the crowd you see all kinds of people. I picture too many to draw. However, if you follow closely the Davidic Picture presented in 1 Samuel 22.1-2, there would be about 400 men. Double that for women and children and there are probably 800-1000 people there. But that’s just a guess and totally added in on my part.

So, you see all these people. The religious leaders are there. You can see how they stick out because of their religious garb. They stick out to me because of the look on their faces. In the crowd are the rich and the poor, young and old. They represent all in society who are in need. Money can’t buy what the rich need – so they’ve come, too. They understand the phrase: if money can fix it, it ain’t a problem. There are young men and old; children, teens, young adults, older adults, married, single… They’re all there on the shore. 1 Samuel 22.And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.

So, there is this crowd and Jesus tells them The Parable of the Sower. Mark has told us that Jesus taught the people with many parables (3.23). We get the idea that there are many more that we don’t know about. Most of you this morning could have volunteered to retell this story for us without using your bible. It is one of the most popular parables in Scripture. Maybe it is so well known because Jesus explains it for us. It is like a key to understanding all parables.

Now, Jesus isn’t just a great storyteller and he is so much more than just another great teacher. He is different than any teacher these people have ever encountered. His stories are not just lessons to amplify a particular moral or ethic. Kim Riddlebarger says: Rather, in Jesus’ parables there are two critical perspectives. On one level (the surface), Jesus speaks of the natural order of things and of daily life in terms quite familiar to the people of that age and that culture. That is why the parables are so effective as a means of communication. We can all understand and relate to what is going on in the story. But on another level (a deeper, spiritual level), Jesus speaks of God’s redemptive purposes in these same parables. Because God is the author of both nature and redemption, these two things fit very easily together. Thus when Jesus calls attention to the one (a certain man . . .), this can easily illumine the other (the kingdom of God). This is why parables are such a profound and powerful way to teach and why those who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ have trouble grasping our Lord’s deeper meaning.

I’ve divided this passage up into its natural sections:

  • The Parable of the Sower in 3-9
  • The Purpose of Parables in 10-12
  • The Explanation of this Parable in 13-20

Transition: let’s begin with a look at the parable itself… rd v 3-9;

I. The Parable of the Sower (3-9)

exp.: Let me highlight a couple of important features of this parable and this section:

  1. The parable begins and ends w/ the same wordἀκούω: Hear ye, Hear ye; Listen! And, Listen!The difference? When he says Listen! He is addressing everyone (2nd per. Pl.). And when he finishes with hear, he is speaking to individuals (3rd per. sg.). Remember this…More on this in a moment… BTW: ‘hear’ is repeated throughout this passage (vv. 3, 9, 15, 16, 18, 20, 23, 24, 33).
  2. The same Sower sows the seed. There aren’t different sowers in this story. There is only one. And, as he sows, some seed fell here, some seed fell there, here a seed, there a seed, everywhere a seed, seed.
  3. The parable is designed with two sets of three. This isn’t apparent in the English as well as it is in the Greek. This comes out in the fact that the word seed doesn’t really even appear. It is understood in the words: some, other and other. These represent the fruitless soil. What draws our attention to this is the fact that all three of these are singular, not plural. However, in v 8, the word other is plural (hence, other seeds) – which draws our attention to the 2nd set of three’s: thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold.


  1. There is a call for all to listen, but only some can actually hear what is being said.
  2. The sower represents one person, not a group of people. You don’t apply this to you and someone else and someone else. One sower.
  3. There is only one type of soil where fruit can be produced. The other types of soil are fruitless.

t.s.: v 35, let’s us know that he is still in the boat as he is teaching the other parables. But, v 10 let’s us in on the private world of the disciples that happens at a later time. So, let’s go to the time when they were alone. Rd v 10

II. The Parable’s Purpose (10-12)

exp.: rd v 10 tells us they asked; not just the 12, but the others who are with them; this is quite interesting to me because they appear to be a part of those of whom the mystery is concealed. But, Jesus says…to you. Rd v 11; secret is μυστήριον. The secret has been revealed to you; but, not so for the outsiders. And then something very interesting happens in v 12; Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6. This is a tremendous blessing to us because this gives us context to understand Mark 4. If you’re not familiar w/ Isaiah 6, let me just tell you that it is Isaiah’s calling. He comes to the Temple after the death of the King. I suppose, he is seeking a new king to take over. But what he finds is the one true King of Israel. It is a holy vision.

Look with me in Isaiah 6. He sees God on his throne… I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

       “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

       the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

Well, Isaiah is filled with woe – he is overwhelmed with his sin as he sees God in all of his…holiness: for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The Lord then atones for his sin by sending a seraph with tongs from the altar… And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

At this point, Isaiah volunteers to go to the people of Israel with a message from God. And the message is harsh. Rd Isaiah 6.8-10; Flip back to Mark; Rd v 12; 12 so that

       “they may indeed see but not perceive,

and may indeed hear but not understand,

       lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

This is harsh because in this OT text, God communicates very clearly that He is going to harden them in such a way that they will be blind to seeing and deaf to hearing what Isaiah is saying. The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom will be hardened to the message of God. Isaiah asks how long this will go on and God says until they’re destroyed.  

This is a hard passage for it doesn’t say that God knows this about them, but rather that God hardens their hearts. To be fair, Matthew and Luke soften the language. But do you remember I told you we don’t want to use those guys? I want you to feel Mark’s message. I want to get what Mark is teaching us without the filters of the other Gospels. I want us to look for Mark’s emphasis, his goal, his purpose. And Mark is pretty straight-forward here.

Do you see in v 12 the first two words are so that? In Gk this is called a ἵνα clause. It is a clause of causation. You heard that right: Mark is saying God causes the hardness of heart, the spiritual blindness, the spiritual deafness. And he is quoting Jesus here. This ἵνα clause makes this passage one of the most difficult in the NT, since Jesus is saying that he teaches in parables in order to blind the eyes of those on the outside. Many scholars jump through all kinds of linguistic hoops to soften this statement – to take away the harshness of God’s actions; to remove his sovereignty. This is a good question: why would a loving God intentionally blind the eyes of some people? In order to soften this doctrine, many say that God just allows people the right to choose not to follow or see or hear or obey. The hardness of their heart comes from their own choosing. Makes sense, doesn’t it. It becomes calloused through years of rejection. That’s great. But that isn’t what this verse says.

I wish it did! I wish we could put the blame squarely on the ones who reject the Lord. That’s so much easier to preach and teach!

But, to soften this because it makes me or you uncomfortable would be wrong. That would mean I’m going to see this verse and intentionally change a character trait described of God because I’m afraid of what you’ll think. That is why I want to be very careful here. So, I’m just going to lay this out as it is in Scripture: God is totally in charge here. He is the agent by which all things happen. He is the one creating all of the action. But that still leaves the question of why God would do this unanswered. Let me try to answer that…

I think the answer lies in understanding the context of Isaiah. You see, Isaiah 5 presents the context of a judicial and final pronouncement of coming judgment on Israel. In the story of the vineyard (5:1–7), God is presented as a farmer who has a vineyard. He loved and cared for that vineyard, but it was a fruitless vineyard. Israel, of course is the vineyard and their failure to produce fruit brings judgment from the owner. That judgment is to remove their protection. Hence, Assyria will come and destroy them. God tells Isaiah that he will go to them with this message, but he is also told that his warning to them will fall on deaf ears. They are never going to listen to him.

Jesus is quoting from Isaiah to say that his purpose for teaching in parables is to blind the eyes and make deaf the ears of those who are on the “outside” – those who are identified in chapter three as having rejected Christ. The negative function of this parable must be understood within the narrative context of Isaiah.

So, in keeping with the context of Mark and Isaiah, we see that Jesus is describing a judgment that is coming and these people’s hearts will be hardened. They will be like the Israelites who… seeing see, but never perceive and hearing hear but never understanding.  

app.: Do you remember I told you that the 1st and last word of the parable is ‘Hear’? And I told you that the 1st word hear is to the crowd, but the last word hear is to individuals? That’s where this comes into play. So, when you put this all together now, it makes more sense:

  • 1st and last word – to everyone, but only certain insiders will see and hear.
  • Insiders and outsiders, a clear delineation of the two groups.
  • A quote from Isaiah declaring this to be so.

t.s.: Now with this in mind, he explains the parable to the group.

III. The Parable Explained (13-20)

exp.: rd 13f; The Sower sows the Word of God – that’s Jesus. I think the Sower can only be Jesus in this context. In the previous chapters of Mark, he is the one who has been sowing the seed – the Word of God. And, there are various receptions to his teaching of God’s word. rd v 15; We’ve seen the work of Satan already in Mark. The Demons, who Jesus instructs to keep his identity quiet:

  • In 1.13 where he tempts Christ out in the wilderness;
  • in 3.23 where the religious leaders accuse Jesus of being one of Satan’s cohorts. I think this group is represented by the religious leaders – probably not them alone, but they are included here for sure.  

exp.: rd v 16-17; I would think that these are represented here (that is, at this place, too); these are the people who’ve come out to have a need met – to be healed or fed, and then, face persecution from the 1st group – the religious leaders; then, they fall away.

Rd v 18-19; this would be more of the same; people who come to Jesus and use him to meet a need, only to return to their life of lush when they get back to the real world and what they experienced gets chocked out.

This parable had me thinking this week: how many times have I used Jesus for my own needs? A healing; A need? How many times have I used Him selfishly – only to retreat back into the world once my selfishness had been slaked?

I’m guessing you’ve probably been taught to understand this parable with the following explanation:

  • The sower is an evangelist – you, a preacher, someone who shares Christ.
  • The Seed is the gospel
  • The different soils represent the different types of people:
    • Hard hearts represented by the heavily trodden path. It just never really takes root
    • Weak roots among the rocky soil represent people who accept Christ with words, but quickly fall away.
    • Those sown among the thorns are those who fall back with their old crowds and their faith gets chocked out.
    • The last group is the real Christian – and they produces fruit as evidence that they’ve been saved.

I think you’ll find this to be true: There are those who never accept the gospel because their hearts are hard. And, there are those who do accept Christ with their words, but quickly fall away. Others who start this journey but fall back into the world. But, I’m not so sure that is what Christ is saying to these disciples. Or, to us!

You have to be careful and not take your framework and place it over the Scripture/Teaching and draw out those things you know through experience. Are you following me, here? Every one of us has a framework and we have a tendency to place it over our text (whatever text we’re reading/studying) and draw our conclusions from there.

I think he’s telling them a parable about the current situation of Mark chapter 4, in light of chapters 1-3.


app.: In light of what is being taught here, I think this would be a great way to apply this message to us:

  • As a Christian, where is our heart hardened toward the word Christ speaks to us? Examples…
  • Where do we find our lives rooted in such a shallow way that we have no depth in Christ? The boulders of this world prevent us from digging our roots down deep. Ex.: I think of when I was younger and bold and loud. I remember being a John the Baptist personality, until persecution hit. Then I ran like Peter.
  • And what about those of us who allow so many things of the world to choke out the word of God – the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things? We boldly live for Jesus until tragedy strikes – then we blame God for the trouble in our lives. The pursuit of that raise, that promotion steals our time with him.
  • Maybe we need to do some work on our hearts – removing the rocks, pulling the weeds, tilling the soil and preparing ourselves to accept the Word of God. What a great illustration, because we all know how hard it is to do that work.

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Filed under Evangelism, Isaiah, Mark, Scripture

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