These are my notes from a sermon series I did through the gospel of Mark. It has not been proofed for spelling or grammatical errors. I present it to you as-is.
Have your Bibles open to Mark 4:1. The story you are about to hear is the most important story Jesus tells. In Mark 4:13 we are told, Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? (NLT). Jesus is about to tell us the parable of the farmer who goes and plants seeds in a field. All the other parables will not make sense if you don’t get this one. If you don’t understand this one, you will not understand the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32), the parable of the hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44), the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23-35), the parable of the workers in the vineyards (Matt. 20:1-16), the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14), the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), lost coin (15:8-10), the lost son (15:11-32) or the parable of the good shepherd (John 10:1-5, 11-18). So it is crucial for the Holy Spirit to open up the parable of the farmer to you. If you don’t understand this, a lot of what Jesus says will not make sense to you.
Let’s dive into this and see what God reveals to us this morning.
Mark tells us in verse 1, Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore.
- The place where Bible scholars believed Jesus taught some of His parables is now known as The Bay of Parables. It is a little cove on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The land around the bay creates a natural amphitheater with the land sloping gently up a hill. According to tests conducted by an archaeologist and a sound engineer, a single person standing in a boat anchored off shore could be heard clearly by an audience of several thousand. So this is a perfect place for Jesus to teach the massive crowd that had gathered.
In verse 2, Mark goes on to say, 2 He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables, such as this one…. What is a “parable”? The word “parable” (parabole) literally means to come along side or to place along side. The idea is to place two things side by side so you can compare them. This way you can examine them, evaluate them, and think about them more accurately. A parable is usually a story that is an object lesson. It’s takes something physical (like farming) and lays it beside something spiritual (God’s truth) so you can examine it, think about it, and understand it. Some people have said that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus is about to give us an object lesson that will help you see all the other object lessons He gives later much clearer.
- From this point on, “parables” would be Jesus’ primary means of teaching the crowds (cf. Matt. 13:34). The purpose of parables was to clarify truth to believers.
- This particular parable helped the disciples and us today understand why Jesus was not impressed by the large crowds that followed Him. He knew that most of them would never produce fruit from changed lives, because the Word He was teaching them was like seed falling onto poor ground.
Jesus begins the parable in verse 3 by saying, “Listen!” Up to this point this word (akouo) has appeared only four times. From here on out in the Gospel of Mark it will appear forty times. Obviously, listening and hearing to what Jesus is saying becomes a key concept. All the miracles that Jesus had done was for the purpose of proving who He was so we would listen what He says. Every time Jesus says “Listen!” He is about to say something very significant and He doesn’t want us to miss it. So, are you listening? The parable is about to begin.
In verse 3 Jesus says, A farmer went out to plant some seed.
This parable concerns a farmer planting seed for a crop. In those days, farmers didn’t plant wheat or other grain crops in rows like we see today.
- They broke the ground and softened the soil with a wooden plow and then scattered the seed by hand.
- Often they reversed the process, casting seed and then plowing it into the soil.
- The farmer would tie a bag to his waist and then sling the seed out with his hand.
- His field might be bordered on one side by a fence row covered with thickets and briar bushes and bordered on another side by a footpath into town. Even when he tried to conserve seed, some seed landed where it couldn’t grow.
Look at verse 3 again, A farmer went out to plant some seed. 4 As he scattered it across his field…. Then in verse 14 Jesus tells us, The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others. The “seed” represents the Word of God and the “farmer” represents anyone who shares God’s Word with others. This means if you are giving biblical counsel to someone you are the farmer planting God’s Word, if you are a parent talking to your child about God’s Word you are the farmer planting God’s truth, if you are a student talking to one of your friends about the Bible you are the farmer planting God’s Word, if you are a missionary or pastor and you are sharing or teaching God’s Word you are the farmer planting God’s Word.
Let’s move into the main point of this parable. Jesus wants His disciples and us to know that as we share the gospel and as we give Biblical counsel and as we talk to others about the Kingdom of God it will be received differently by different people. So, Jesus is preparing His disciples and us today expect four basic responses to God’s truth.
The Hard Heart
The first person and response Jesus mentions is in verse 4. Jesus says, As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it. In verse 15 Jesus explains, The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away.
At the time, a lot of the farm land was outside the villages and towns. There would be paths that went through the fields connecting one village with another. On these paths people and animals would walk or small wagons would be pulled on them. Over time this “footpath” would become compacted and very hard, like concrete or a sidewalk.
As the farmer would be throwing the seed some of it would land on these “footpaths.” Birds looking for an easy meal would simply follow the farmer and eat the seeds that fell on these hard paths.
Jesus is saying that is what some people are like this when they hear God’s word or the gospel or receive Biblical counsel. They are so hard to it and resistant to it that it doesn’t penetrate them at all. They could be hostile toward or very polite and respectful toward God’s Word. For them God’s truth bounces off of them.
What caused them to become so hard could be a number of things. They let life beat them down, their own pride, disappointments in life and with God and with others. Could be a host of things, but the bottom line is they have no interest in the things of God.
Because of this they are easy prey for Satan’s kingdom. He comes along and takes the seed away. In other words, as soon as they hear it they ignore it or forget it and go on their way.
In summary, the “footpath” represents a hard heart: those who have heard God’s word but resist it, ignore it, and have no interest in it. God’s truth has no relevancy for them.
The Shallow Heart
A second type of person or response to God’s word is the shallow heart. Jesus says in verse 5, Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. In verse 16 Jesus explains, The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 17 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word.
The “rocky” ground Jesus is talking about is similar to the hard ground except it has a small layer of soft dirt on top of it. It looks like good ground until you get underneath the surface. Right underneath the surface is a layer or rock. Since there is no depth, whatever is planted cannot last because it can’t grow roots. When the “hot sun” hits it, it will dry up and die. At first it will grow, might even grow quickly and it looks good at first. But it appearance is false. There is no root and its only a matter of time before it withers away.
Jesus is saying that some people are like that when it comes to God’s word. Jesus says they “hear the message,” the Biblical advice, or the gospel of salvation and they get excited about it and “immediately receive it with joy.” They have a positive response to it. Everything looks good and sounds good on the surface. They start reading the Bible, going to church, join a Life Group, and asking good questions.
But then the “hot sun” of life starts beating down them. Jesus says, They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word.
- As soon as “they have problems” at home, at work, with their finances, or with their health. They forget about what they heard and “fall away.”
- It may be they were trying to live for Jesus and do things right but were “persecuted for believing God’s word.” People started mocking them, making fun of them, rejecting them, embarrassing them because they started going to church, were baptized, started reading their Bible or praying. But as soon as they were “persecuted” they “fall away.”
This “fall away” does not mean they lose their salvation, because they didn’t have it to begin with. Their response to God’s truth was purely emotional. They received it with “joy” because it is good news, but it did not penetrate to their heart and will. Underneath the emotional excitement and appearance of commitment is a hard surface that blocks God’s word from getting to the heart where real transformation takes place.
This “falling away” may take days, weeks, months, or even years. This “rocky” person will eventually fall away due to the pressures, stress, test, and problems of life.
In summary, the “rocky” ground represents a shallow heart: those who have heard God’s word responded emotionally but their hearts were not transformed. In spite of their initial excitement, they ultimately will reject the gospel. Their hard-heartedness is not initially apparent, being buried beneath the surface. It will take time, but their joy for God’s Word will be replaced by rejection of God’s Word.
The Divided Heart
The third person or response Jesus mentions is the divided heart. Jesus says in verse 7, Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. Jesus explains in verse 18, The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, 19 but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced.
The thorny ground Jesus is talking about can mean two things.
- The thorny ground that grows along the edges of the field. These thorns would grow along the fences or hedges separating one filed from another. When the farmer cast seed near the edge, some fell among these thorns.
- The thorny ground left after a burning. They would burn the surface of the ground and then till it up, but some of the thorns and weeds would still remain in the ground. The farmer would cast seed and the thorns and weeds and seed would grow up together, but the thorns and weeds would choke out the good seed. Though this ground looked good after it had been tilled, it was actually infested with thorns.
Jesus is saying that some people are like this thorny ground when it comes to God’s Word. Jesus says they “hear God’s Word” but then it gets “crowded out” or choked out or pushed out by three things.
- God’s word gets “crowded out by the worries of this life.” As they worry about their health, finances, job, their country, their family, and kids these “worries” begin to pull them away from God. Instead of being controlled and driven by Jesus, they are control and driven by whatever they are worried about. They serve their worries, rather than serving the Lord. “The worries of this life” has become a thorn and weed that does allow room for Jesus.
- God’s word gets “crowded out by… the lure of wealth.” The love of money and wealth begins to crowd out God from their life. The deceitfulness of riches tricks them into thinking true joy and meaning are found in having more money. As a result they would rather make more money than make disciples. Over time their interest in money outgrows their interest in the Master. They start making decisions on what makes them more money rather than what makes them more like Christ. Their love for money squeezes their love for God out of their life. “The lure for wealth” has become a thorn and weed that has no interest in Jesus.
- God’s word gets “crowded out by… the desire for other things.” This could be anything like working more, fishing, golfing, working in the yard, hanging out with family, reading books, and just doing something else besides listening and hearing God’s Word. Can you do those things? Absolutely. The problem is when those “other things” begin to replace God’s Word and they become more important that God in your life. “The desire for other things” becomes a thorn and weed that causes you to take God’s Word lightly, ignore, or not listen to it at all.
The reason why we call this person the divided heart is because they are divided between Jesus and the “worries of this life,” divided between Jesus and “the lure of wealth,” or divided between Jesus and “other things.” They are a double-minded person. According to Matthew 7 they are trying to walk the “broad way” that leads to destruction and the “narrow way” that leads to life at the same time (Matthew 7:13-14). You cannot do that. You must choose. Jesus addressed this dividedness in loyalties in Matthew 6:24 when He said, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other.” (NLT). As a result “no fruit is produced.”
- In summary, the ground of “thorns” represents a divided heart; those who are double minded. Rather than possessing a singular love for Christ, their hearts remain captivated by a love for the earthly, worldly, and temporary things of life. They will appear to embrace God’s truth but eventually their desire for this world again consumes them.
The Fruitful Heart
This brings us to the last person and response to God’s Word. Jesus says in verse 8, Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” Jesus explains in verse 20, And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”
The difference between these people and the rest is when they heard God’s word they “accepted” it, the others did not. The others may have had an appearance of accepting it and believing it, but they didn’t it. This person actually accepted it.
Paul put it this way in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “This is why we constantly thank God, because when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you welcomed it not as a human message, but as it truly is, the word of God, which also works effectively in you who believe” (CSB).
When the “good” ground person hears the word of God it impacts how they live, how they think, and how they feel.
- When it comes to the worries of life God’s Word guides them through it.
- When it comes to the lure of wealth God’s Word helps them manage their money rather than their money managing them.
- When it comes to the desires for other things, God’s Word aligns their desires with God’s desires.
- The good ground person is “accepting” the Word of God. They are embracing it, receiving it, believing it, agreeing with it, and applying it. They don’t just hear the word, they are transformed by it.
Jesus says this person will “produce a harvest” or bear fruit. Producing a harvest from your life and bearing fruit is the ultimate marker of those who genuinely believe (John 8:31; 14:15). Having been made alive by the Spirit of God (cf. Eph. 2:4-5)…
- They produce “fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8)
- They produce “the fruit of righteousness” (Philippians 1:11; Col. 1:16)
- They produce “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23).
- They produce the fruit of obedience (Eph. 2:10; Matt. 7:16-20; 2 Cor. 5:17).
Jesus goes on to say these believers will produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Not all believers will be equally productive, but all believers will be productive. They will produce God’s fruit in their life. If God’s fruit is not coming from their life, then God is not in their life. If they are not producing God’s fruit, then they have not been accepting God’s Word.
In summary, the “good” ground represents a fruitful heart; those who hear God’s Word, accept it, and are transformed by it producing fruit that proves they believed God’s truth.
Jesus began this parable in verse 3 by saying, “Listen.” He ended it in verse 9 by saying, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” So, let me ask you a question, “What have you heard today? What have you understood today? What is God saying to you today from this parable?”
Where do you find yourself in this parable? He gave this illustration to help people determine what kind of soil they represent and then to decide what kind of soil they will be.
They are to faithfully cast the gospel message. As they do, they can expect the responses they receive to fall into one of these categories. Some will reject outright, due to hard-heartedness. Others will demonstrate a superficial interest, only to fall away when hardship comes. Still others will profess a love for Christ while simultaneously nurturing a deadly affection for the world. Finally, there will be some who genuinely receive the gospel. They will humbly turn from their sins and wholeheartedly embrace the Lord Jesus as their Savior and King. The genuineness of their profession will be demonstrated by the abundant fruit of their transformed lives, as they walk in obedience and faith.
All sinners are born with hearts that are hard, shallow, and worldly. Speaking of their preconversion state, Paul told the Ephesians, “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world.[a] He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.” (Eph. 2:1-3, NLT).
 B.C. Crisler, “The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 39, no. 4 (December 1976): 128-141