- The Historical Setting
- The Biblical Scholar Eidersheim pictures the scene of Jesus sitting in the boat just off the Sea of Galilee shore on a beautiful spring morning, and he reminds us that barley harvest commenced with the Passover. Jesus' agricultural parables of our text were spoken, then, against this background where germination and fulfillment of life was evident all around. Use of parables was a much-accepted method of teaching among the Jews. It brought divine things within reach of those who stood on earth.
- Opposition to Jesus has continued to mount. In our previous study (Jesus Forgives Sin, Mark 2:1-12) we saw how it first showed itself in His adopted Capernaum home when He forgave sin. Later at Levi's house He was criticized for fraternizing with sinners and allowing His disciples to be lax regarding ceremonial obligations. Then there was the contest over the Sabbath Day issue. In the preceding chapter we find also that His own kin accused Him of being out of His mind and the scribes said He was possessed by Beelzebub. Jesus, therefore, adjusts His teaching ministry and though He uses the familiar tool of the parable, His simplest story is strangely mystifying.
- To get the doctrinal setting for all this, we must recall that men were originally created by God as capable of fulfilling functions of prophet, priest and king; that is, we were intended to be reflectors of His likeness and glory, to praise and minister before Him in holiness, and to rule the world in authority. Because of failure in sin all of these official functions were lost to us and must be restored through Jesus Christ our Savior and Representative Man. Our text shows Jesus in His prophetic ministry carefully revealing Kingdom truths to His followers. In this vital function, Jesus represents God to man and sets forth spiritual mysteries in His teaching. Our text then is a section of the Lord's teaching about His ministry and how the Word, when received, issues in Kingdom life.
B. Contemporary Setting
1. Opposition still exists today to the pure doctrine of Jesus Christ, Who is the supreme revealer of truth. There is, of course, the quasi-acceptance of Jesus' teachings by liberal theologians. They are prone to emphasize our Lord's teaching ministry while much neglecting His offices as priest and king. Thus, they fail to notice how many of His teachings implicate His priestly and kingly functions.
2. Much ignorance also prevails today. Perhaps there is a sense in which modern religious audiences may consider themselves more sophisticated than that gathering which lined Galilee's shore. Yet men are still benighted and without much Biblical knowledge. In that day the Scriptures were largely held in the hands of official teachers and the populous had to reach through the vast clutter of tradition for any kernel of truth. Today men's attention is much distracted by materialism and overactive interest in entertainment. Scriptures may be more available but are not more understood.
3. Dispensationally the prophetic, teaching ministry of Christ is continued today through the church and its life -- preeminently through preachers of the Gospel. Jesus, therefore, stood before His congregation as the first and great Sower of the seed. Now, every Christian is involved in the larger broadcast of the Word. (John 14:12) Jesus is still the world's light, employing believers as His bearers.
TEXT: Mark 4: 1-34
THEME: Jesus Christ presents Himself as our great teacher.
I. HOW JESUS TEACHES
A. Introductory: Principles Underlie the Method
- Religious parables for the most part presuppose a kindred relationship between things on earth and those of heaven. The physical has it spiritual counterpart. Jesus is that ladder reaching from earth to heaven. He promises to show ever "greater things." (John 1:50, 51) to those who enter into the secrets of His teachings.
- Jesus' method of teaching is indeed marvelous. Word pictures of utter simplicity flow out but leave the hearers wrestling with truths of the great mysteries of God's kingdom. Here in our text's account of the Sower we come to His first, full parable. It soon has even His followers groping for an interpretation. His principles of pedagogy are profound. The lessons are intended to give only "as much as they could understand," (v. 33) and He rigidly limits Himself in this instance to parables because of underlying principles which guard God's kingdom truth.
B. The Principle of Right Relationship
- To His faithful disciples He explains the principles governing His teaching ministry. Kingdom secrets belong to them by God's own gift, and when alone He is free to explain all to them. (vv. 10, 11, 34) Outsiders, however, are to be stunned and stopped by uninterpreted parables. This brings us to the first principle of His revelatory ministry. Spiritual revelation depends upon relationship with Jesus Christ. Only His own enter into the truth.
- The merely curious were left wondering without answers. It was even worse with His opponents. The parables had a judgmental effect on them, completing the hardening of their obstinate hearts. (12)
C. The Principle of Right Attitude
- Another principle of spiritual teaching and understanding is that the Savior unlocks further mysteries only as there is an attitude of interest and hunger. Just as the unsaved are shut out, so the uninterested lose out. (vv. 21-25) Truth, like light, is not intended to be hidden, however. The lampstand is to elevate the lamp so darkness can be expelled. That is God's ideal. Nonetheless, this principle of withholding teaching from the unprepared is very evident in Scripture. See John 16:12. Apart from the inner assistance of the Holy Spirit, spiritual things are foolishness to man. (I Corinthians 2:9, 10) Those who are growing into maturity are able to receive more. (I Corinthians 2:6)
- Some have erroneously supposed the brief parable in verse 24 is out of place in this setting. Such Bible interpreters overlook the fact that Jesus sometimes repeated His teachings and in some cases, such as this one, the same proverb is used with a different application. Here He is saying that the hearer's attention to the Word will determine how much profit he receives from it. (v. 24) Nor, is verse 25 really difficult to grasp in that He is simply saying God will treat you like you treat His Word. Just as one gift of truth, if received and assimilated, is promise of another, so conversely incapacity and unpreparedness to hear leads to loss of that which is already received. Ultimately, God will treat a man as that one treats God's Word.
- This harkens back to the entire thrust of the first parable of the sower. Notice that the oft-repeated issue there is how the Word is received. Because of their hardened or shallow conditions, some are shown as vulnerable to Satan or opposition, while others are infested with worldly worry, wealth and wrong desire. Fruit comes only from soil prepared for the seed. Jesus' plea in verse 9 is recorded in each Synoptic account, and it is clear that this was a public word, bearing on the entire parable and spoken before retiring with His disciples for private discussion. The expression also repeated in verse 23 means more than, "Listen!" Rather, it is an effective admonition to use properly all the capacity and opportunity God has given for gaining truth. If you have "ears," use them! (Hebrews 2:1) The thrust then is to show the importance of openness to God's living Word. Hearing this story should lead each listener to identify with one of the various soil types.
II. WHAT JESUS TEACHES
- Much of Jesus' teaching involves the concept of God's kingdom. This means God's rule over His Redeemed Community. The Savior's opening Gospel salvo was, "Repent, the kingdom is at hand." In other words, He was calling men to return to the rule of God and proclaiming a merciful reprieve allowing rebels to come back freely.
- As already stated, Jesus is instructing us in His first parable about the ministry of teaching and its vital place in the life of the kingdom. Indeed, the redeemed come into their new life in the kingdom through reception of the seed of truth. We turn now to examination of important samplings of kingdom secrets shared by Jesus. These mysteries are made plain to His disciples in private. It is clear that the very essence of life in God's kingdom involves hearing and heeding the Word. Responding to truth. Walking in the light.
B. Parable of the Seed's Germination and Growth (26-29)
- Mystery and an unexplainable element pertains to seed life and growth. Not only is Jesus' method of teaching fraught with parabolic difficulties for unhearing ears, the very essence of the Kingdom itself involves a principle of concealment. To His contemporaries who expected and longed for a kingdom of pomp and worldly power, Jesus' kind of a kingdom proved a great offense. Even when interpreted to His disciples, the parable before us shows God's kingdom growing as secretly as seed in the ground. The emphasis is on divine involvement, not human exertion.
- The results are likewise divine. The farmer is shown a large stand of plants, which presently open into a full harvest. This stands in striking contrast with man's exertion or mechanical input into a project. The divine results of God's Word planted in lives is happily disproportionate to any human involvement. God's kingdom moves along surely from seeding to harvesting.
C. Parable of the Mustard Seed (30-32)
- Height of the mustard in Palestine is said to be sufficient to hide a man on horseback -- somewhat resembling a stand of trees. Jesus fastens our attention first upon the small size of the seed. When this is compared to the magnitude of the matured, common mustard plants, His point stands out. God's community might appear insignificant, tiny and weak but ultimately it will become a "tree."
- These ample sized garden plants offer a favorite haven to birds in that section of the East. So it is that men of all nations find their place in the shadow and protection of God's redeemed family. What began in apparent weakness now offers hope to an entire world. This applies also to individuals who need protection and rest from God.
- "Consider carefully what you hear." (24) Whenever you are exposed to truths from God's Word, pray for a receptive heart that hungers after truth. Make special note of lessons in any particular sermon which the Spirit especially applies to your heart. Go over them again later and pray them into your life. In the same manner, be faithful as you read Scripture privately. Always pray over what you read.
- Keep ever in mind the promise of verse 25. Continue claiming and clammering for more insight into God's secrets. It is His plan to make continuing disclosures to you (verse 22).
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- What effect does opposition have on Jesus' teaching ministry?
- How is Jesus' teaching ministry continued today?
- What purposes were served by Jesus' couching His lessons in parables?
- How are the principles underlying Jesus' teaching method still evident today?
- Which soil type in the parable of the seed and the sower do you think is most common today?
- How does our very large expenditure of evangelistic and missionary effort relate to Jesus' parable of the growing seed?
- What are ways in which each Christian can better prepare himself to be receptive soil for the seed of God's Word?