Mark 4 contains the gospel’s largest unbroken section of Jesus’ teaching outside of Mark 13. The author devotes this section to Jesus’ parables, which Mark describes as the predominant mode of Jesus’ teaching. In the opening parable of the sower, Jesus addresses the ever-growing tension his ministry brings: why do some recognize him as the Messiah while others, including the religious leaders, deny him as a blasphemer? At the same time, the parable of the sower gives Jesus a platform to explain why he teaches in parables in the first place. Is he intentionally veiling himself? If so, why?
Jesus has become a polarizing figure. People either love or hate him. In the face of that, Jesus is not making his message more digestible for a broader audience. He himself is drawing sharper lines. Teaching in parables is the next development in that separation. None of Jesus’ ministry makes sense to those who do not believe, who have not been given eyes to see or ears to hear — the whole thing is a parable, a mystery. Jesus is not intentionally teaching in a way that will confuse all who hear him. Rather, those who are confused cannot understand what he says because they do not recognize who he is. Both his teaching and his identity have been veiled by the hardness of their sinful hearts. Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit — who deny that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God — will remain blind and deaf so long as they remain in their unbelief.
The parable acknowledges this in the distinction between fertile soil and the rest, but it also illustrates a greater reality which is causing many to stumble. Jesus explains a new movement in redemptive history. The arrival of the Messiah and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth will not happen simultaneously (as a simple reading of Old Testament prophecy might suggest), but progressively. The emphasis lies on the very first declaration: “A sower went out to sow.” This focuses the intent of the parable on Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. Jesus’ earthly ministry lays the groundwork for a coming superabundant harvest. He has now come in humility and weakness, as a lamb led to the slaughter. His second coming will bring the harvest — the judgment of all people either to redemption or destruction, and the consummation of the kingdom. Only those in whom his word has taken root and grown to stock will be gathered at the harvest.
This is the nature of Jesus’ teaching — his whole ministry is parabolic. Thus, it is appropriate to use parables when teaching about the kingdom of God. The rest of the parables listed in Mark 4 elaborate on different themes within the parable of the sower.
The first two, the parable of the lamp and the parable of measurements, exhort the audience to “hear the word and accept it” (Mark 4:20). As the light of the world, Christ has come to shine. News of the kingdom of God is not meant to be hidden beneath the veil of a hard heart. Those who understand that Jesus the Sower is one and the same as Christ the Harvester already see the reality which will be made plain to all creation at his second coming. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, some in loving delight and others in abject horror. Jesus’ disciples have been given ears to hear. He charges them to put those ears to use.
The measure of which Jesus speaks was an assessment of value. Measures of various sizes were used to weigh out portions of grain, gold, or other goods. Valuing Christ’s word highly will result in Christ pouring his word out richly, offering even greater insight into who he is and ultimately eternal union with him. Devaluing Christ’s word will result in Christ withdrawing his word, ultimately ending in eternal separation from him.
The last two parables, the parable of the seed growing and the parable of the mustard seed, clarify the nature of the kingdom’s growth. These two parables return the scene to Jesus teaching from the boat in Mark 4:1–20. In the same way that the progressive nature of redemptive history was a mystery, Jesus now states that the process of the kingdom’s growth is also a mystery. The Spirit’s work in bringing seeds to full stock is beyond the wisdom of man. As Jesus explains in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Rather than attempting to discern the movement of the Spirit, Christ calls his followers to look for the evidence of growth. Wherever the grain is ripe, there the Spirit has come.
The parable of the mustard seed reiterates the progressive nature of the coming of the kingdom, but with emphasis on the kingdom’s immensity. Lest one feared that only a fourth of the seed sown by Christ would grow to full stock, Jesus asserts that the kingdom of God will not remain as small as it starts. His audience likely felt the full force of that tension as they stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee—a motley host of “nobodies,” rejected by their religious leaders and despised by their oppressors. How would they become the kingdom of God? Jesus’ parable points them toward the answer: he himself is the mustard seed, rejected and despised most of all, sown in death, yet destined to grow to the greatest kingdom under which all the world will take shade.
Mark closes with an authorial note summarizing his selection of these parables. The rest of Jesus’ teaching in the book of Mark ought to be understood according to this framework. The kingdom was being revealed to those who were given eyes to see and ears to hear. Slowly, Jesus’ audience was understanding who he was. Mark, then, extends the same question to his readers. Do you understand? “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
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Underneath these parables lies the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. On the one hand, these parables teach that the growth of the kingdom is monergistic — that is, it is solely an act of God. Christ is the one who sows the seeds. God is the one who causes the seeds to grow. Through God’s work, his kingdom shall expand to encompass all of creation. None can hear, see, or understand unless God gives ears, eyes, and insight into his mysteries. On the other hand, Jesus’ teaching contains a clear call to action: Hear! Bear fruit! Pay attention! Measure my word with great weight!
Is there a contradiction here? No. God’s sovereignty does not deny, violate, or undermine human freedom. Instead, it is God’s sovereignty which grounds and upholds human freedom. The whole of Scripture affirms this compatibility. Though Israel conquered the pagan nations when entering into the promised land, Joshua recognizes it was the Lord who gave their enemies into their hands. David praises God for delivering him from his enemies and retells his own victory in battle all in one song (2 Samuel 22). Paul presents the doctrine of predestination as the foundation of evangelism, not its foil (Romans 9–10). Ephesians opens with an explanation of the riches of God’s grace — his sovereign choice to love undeserving people even while they are dead in sin — and rather than closing with a call to passivity, Paul urges his readers action, “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 2:1, 4:1). Revelation explains the great lengths to which Christ will go to bring down the kingdom of God, and yet John’s response is not to silently wait — he cries out “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)
Christ calls us to embrace the mystery of this compatibility. Affirming only one or the other leads as quickly to false religion as stopping up one’s ears to Christ’s call. Affirming divine sovereignty but denying human freedom leads to stoic fatalism — a faith which sees God offer all but takes nothing. Affirming human freedom but denying divine sovereignty leads to some form of pharisaical religion — a faith which sees God offer nothing but aims to take all by sheer force of will. Against both, Christ offers the parable of the sower. He is the one who simultaneously sows seed and calls all to hear and follow.