Last week we noticed that Mark, without taking leave of Jesus, begins to highlight some aspects of discipleship. In Mark 3.7-35, we observed what Christ has done for us in order that we might be His disciples—He has bound the strong man and, as the Son of God, set us free from our slavery to sin and to the will of the devil. He has done this in order that we might endure in doing the will of God. And in our passage tonight, I believe we’ll see Jesus focus in on a particular and indispensable aspect of discipleship–what makes disciples and what marks disciples–specifically, having ears upon the heart to hear the Word of Christ and to accept it and bear fruit by it, producing a supernatural and Spiritual harvest for God. So let’s read our passage together.
Text: Mark 4.1-25
The most obvious thing to set before you tonight is that Jesus is speaking in parables. It is not the first time in Mark, nor will it be the last. But practically all of Mark 4 is devoted to the parabolic teaching of Jesus.
Now what is a parable?
What is a Parable?
A parable is the revelatory way that the sovereign God conceals the mysteries of the kingdom of God from everyone who will not come to Jesus Christ. Let’s break that down:
1] A parable is divine revelation. When Jesus exclaims “Listen! A sower went out to sow,” and proceeds with his parable, He is revealing divine truth.
2] But without its interpretation, it is revelation concealed. We need to feel this. For example, “And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it” (4.4). If you didn’t already know or hadn’t already heard me read the interpretation of Jesus, you would know intuitively that He is speaking of something other than literal seed, literal path and literal birds. But you probably wouldn’t have taken away, “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” (4.15). Apart from Christ, you wouldn’t have understood: “right now as I’m speaking the Word of God to you, it is aiming at your heart but your heart is impenetrably hard and under intense spiritual warfare so that you do not receive and keep my Word.” So it is revelation, but it is revelation concealed.
3] Now one of the most difficult questions that we have to deal with is: “why conceal the mysteries of the kingdom in parables? What is the purpose of parables?” Jesus gives us an answer in 4.10-13, quoting Isaiah 6.10—
I think the answer is twofold: to manifest His sovereign justice and to magnify His sovereign grace in Jesus Christ.
a] To manifest His sovereign justice—”To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’” (4.11-12). Jesus is saying that the purpose of parables is to hold sinners at bay so that they do not repent or find forgiveness. I understand the difficulty of this teaching, so let’s wade our way through it.
i] It is true that God desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2.4). He just doesn’t always will what He desires. Or as one pastor has put it, there are desires in God that do not reach the level of volition. So God can desire the salvation of every sinner and, yet, will the hardening of their hearts without doing any harm to His justice.
ii] We might add to this that the salvation of any sinner is owing to nothing but God’s free mercy in Jesus Christ; and to withhold mercy is not unjust. It is only divine justice that a sinner should be given over to their sin and that God should withhold softening and saving influences.
iii] We must realize also that God has been gracious to sinners and that Christ has spoken openly, honestly and simply with them, and they have yet rejected Him. They have known God’s common graces, life, breath, provision, sun, rain, etc. They have had the Scriptures of God in the Old Testament. They have had the prophets of old, including the Isaiah whom Christ quotes in our passage. They have had John the Baptist. Now they have had the Christ, the Son of God in the flesh. And He has healed their diseases. He has relieved some of unclean spirits. And He has plainly preached, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (1.15). And yet they have refused to repent and believe. They have come for material benefit but abandoned ship at His preaching. Hiding truth in Christ from those who have been rejecting truth and resisting grace in hardened unbelief is a matter of sovereign justice. In other words, the hardening effect of Christ’s parables are evidence against the hardness of their hearts already.
This is a good part of what Jesus is saying, and He is right in line with Isaiah. In Mark 4.12, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6.10 to say that His parables are a fulfillment of God’s commission to Isaiah. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah, himself, sees a vision of the Lord in the temple, to which Isaiah properly responds–he repents and his sin is atoned for. Then the Lord gives this commission: “Go, and say to this people: Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (6.9-10).
Now what does Isaiah do with this commission? He goes and preaches the gospel! No Old Testament prophet preached the gospel like Isaiah! But nearing the end of his ministry, what does he say (53.1), “Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” In other words, Isaiah’s commission was not to stop preaching the gospel. It was to preach the gospel to an terribly unbelieving people knowing that it would have a hardening effect. The same fire that melts wax hardens clay. So the Word that melts the heart of some was, in God’s sovereign justice, appointed to harden the hearts of others. And Jesus sees His teaching in parables as the fulfillment of that divine will.
b] Now in God’s wisdom, this magnifies God’s sovereign grace in Jesus Christ. How? Because while Jesus is teaching in parables, the divine illumination of those parables lies with Him. We can’t miss this! “And when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parables. And He said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’’ And He said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?’”—and what follows? Jesus interprets the parable for them!
In other words, God is revealing His kingdom to particular persons in Christ! Sovereign regenerating, faith-producing, illuminating grace is being magnified in those who are coming to Christ! If you want to know the kingdom of God, you go to Christ, you inquire of Christ! Jesus is the secret of the kingdom of God that God, in sovereign, ear-of-the-heart giving grace, has given to some. This is how Jesus puts it in Matthew 13.16 [over against those whom His Word hardens] “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” If you are in with Christ, a disciple of Jesus, it is because God has been unbelievably gracious to you. He has given you a new heart with ears that love the Word of Christ!
More than that, He has given you a heart to love the parable of all parables, Christ crucified, the wisdom and power of God! The irony of the parables, Christ concealing truth apart from faith, is that by this concealment Jesus is revealed to be the Messiah. Because His Word hardens hearts, He is rejected and crucified. And because His Word melts hearts, ears are given to hear His cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” as “My God, My God, He was forsaken for me!”
Now let’s turn our attention to the parable and Christ’s interpretation of it, 4.14-20.
I think we should take ___4___ truths from our Lord’s interpretation.
1] Most centrally, this parable is about the grace and the fruitfulness that marks the hearing of the Word in all true disciples of Jesus. While it is true that the sower and His sowing of the Word are prominent–and we’ll get to this–the whole parable is taken up with how we hear that Word. And the importance of this cannot be overstated! This parable is inseparably connected to the passage that we ended with last week, Mark 3.31-35. Remember, there, that the crowd said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” To which Jesus responds, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” So enduring in doing God’s will evidences that you are related to Jesus. And our parable goes one step prior and says that true hearing of Christ’s Word, giving rise to a continuance in doing God’s will, bearing fruit, evidences that you are related to Jesus. So this parable teaches us that the people of God are those who hear the Word of Jesus and accept it and bear fruit. We are marked by grace-besotted, fruit-producing hearing of the Word.
2] The sower sows the Word. The seed that Christ is sowing, the seed that we are to sow is the Word of God. In God’s grace, He has revealed Himself to us in a Book, the Bible. In His wisdom, this Word is the instrument of the new birth. It must be heard in order for there to be faith in Christ. It is what He is pleased to attend with His saving influences. And there are, therefore, a few things that we need to be mindful of—
a] There is but one thing amongst the many things that we do as a church that we must do and cannot survive without—the sowing of the Word of Christ! Fundamentally, Jesus views Himself as a Sower of the Word. Are we to be more crafty than Christ? That would be a foolish craftiness. Christ has called us to preach the Word, 3.14!
The sower does not have different kinds of seed–warmth of welcome seed, style of music seed, hospitality seed, lifestyle seed, art of persuasion seed, facility seed, program seed, the regurgitation of our favorite preacher seed, etc. He has one and only one seed to sow. One that he invests in and puts out. One that gives life and faith and salvation. It is the Word of God. All else is fine, but it all finds its value insofar as it waters the Word. So we must give right priority to the Word.
b] While some throughout church history have wrongly understood the sovereignty of God in salvation to negate our efforts in sowing, we should notice that the sovereignty of God already prominent in our text is no–zero–hindrance to the liberal sowing of the Word of God. In fact, it is the only hope of sowing, as Paul has said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3.6). The sower is not reserving the seed for good soil when he finds it. Upon every inch of earth, he is casting seed in the hope of God’s sovereign grace. And we ought to sow the Word of God like this also!
c] One more thing, here: while Christ has emphasized the sovereignty of God in the melting and hardening effects of the Word, the parable emphasizes our responsibility to hear the Word of God truly. While our brains can’t always immediately handle this, the sovereignty of God is no excuse for the ultimate rejection of the Word of God. These two things–God’s sovereignty in the effects of the Word and our responsibility to have ears to hear–go together. They are not mutually exclusive but compatible! So don’t let the truth of God’s sovereignty give you false justification for letting yourself off the hook for how you hear the Word right now! So how are we hearing? How do sinners hear the Word of Christ?
3] There are two hearts that hear four ways, and only one of those ways is good–and by good, I mean to imply grace.
a] Step back with me for a moment to verse 9. After telling the parable, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In other words, there is a hearing with the ears on our head that does not breach the heart. More provocatively, we can hear with our physical ears and be deaf in our hearts. But it is precisely that hearing of the heart that is necessary.
b] This parable is an illustrative explanation of those words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” You see, the problem in the parable is not that the Word is not heard. Everyone is hearing the Word. Trodden path, rocky ground, thorny ground, good soil–they are all hearing the Word! So if the problem is not that some are not hearing the Word, what is the problem? The problem is that there is no heart for the Word. So in the same way that, last week, we said there are 7 billion people in the world but only two families, this week, I’m saying that there are 4 prominent things that happen when one hears the Word but only two sorts of hearts–one that has ears to hear and one that does not, the unregenerate heart and the regenerate heart, the unbelieving heart and the believing heart. And that means that the first three soils are hearts that have no ears to hear and that only the last, the good soil, those that “hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” represents a hearing, believing heart.
So let’s look briefly at the three soils, the hearts, the people who hear the Word but have no ears to hear and see what happens when the Word is sown in them.
i] Along the path, [4.4] 4.15. “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” (4.15).
So the seed is cast but there is no crack in the soil. The heart is impenetrably hard so that the Word just sits atop the soil. And the devil, by inattentiveness–by distraction–by contradiction–by the cultivation of pride or sloth or carelessness in eternal things–by the desensitizing, degrading and deafening effect of the practice of sin, comes and, as the Lord says, “takes away the word that is sown in them.” We need not be ignorant of spiritual warfare in the hearing of the Word of Christ.
ii] On rocky ground, [4.5-6] 4.16-17. “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 arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (4.16-17).
So the seed is cast and it finds a crack in the soil. But a slab of rock is just beneath the surface, deep enough for the seed to give a pretense of germination. It has the look of life–until the hot sun arises and scorches it because, ultimately, there is no root, there is no life beneath the surface to support it in the heat of the day.
Jesus likens the sun to persecution on account of the Word. He is drawing out the fact that this heart ultimately rejects the Word because it has continued to prize comfort, popularity, the ease of life, the ease of sin, the smile of the world more than the rock-solid truth of Christ’s Word. This heart has turned a deaf ear to the glory of Word-saturated conviction. As immediately as the Word was received, it was released because the Word had not taken hold of them. That is the business of the new birth, for the gospel to come in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thes 1.5) The disciple of Jesus is not a wish-washy person. The Christian is not spineless. Where this one runs from the Word in the day of adversity, the child of God stands in the Word.
iii] Among thorns, [4.7] 4.18-19. “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” (4.18-19).
If the seed spread on rocky ground is the heart that prizes personal preservation over persevering in the Word, the seed spread on thorny ground is the heart that prizes the world over the Word.
There are three main things that the unbelieving heart will attach itself to and so choke out the Word. Jesus says, “the cares of the world”—little exerts more strangulation upon the Word than the busyness of life: the heart is satiated with taxes, mortgage payments, college tuition, exams, worry over physical illnesses, doctors visits, runny noses, getting groceries, what you need to do yesterday, and things like these–the noise of the world– makes the heart deaf to the Word.
Jesus also mentions, “the deceitfulness of riches”—the love and false promises of money and wealth will choke out the Word. One pastor [Samuel Rutherford] has said, “I consider it the wisdom of God to feed us with hunger and satisfy us with wants.” Part of truly hearing the Word is hungering for the God and Christ of the Word. But where there is the perception of fullness in this life, there is a damnable dumbness to need and deafness to the Word that testifies to the only true, eternal satisfaction of it.
Christ also mentions, “the desires for other things”—Charles Spurgeon once said that the heart is deaf to the Word because it is so full of earth. So here Christ says that where the desires of the heart are oriented towards possessions, lusting after other things, a worldliness, there will be no desire to take in and keep the Word.
These things, the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, the desires of other things are thorns that exist to put a blanket over the fire of God’s Word in the heart.
So we have three different manifestations or ways in which the unbelieving heart turns a deaf ear to the Word of Christ. But all three have two things in common: they are not deaf to other things as we’ve just seen—the heart is taking in and welcoming all sorts of things—, just not the most necessary thing, the Word of Christ.
The second thing they all have in common is John 8.47, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” In other words, you must be born of God in order to have ears to hear His Word. The good soil, then, is the business of the new birth. The good soil is good by sovereign grace. So let’s take a look at it and be mindful that this is the how the disciple of Jesus hears the Word.
iv] On The Good Soil. [4.8] 4.20. “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.”
Brothers and sisters, this is what it is to have ears to hear. This is what it is to be given the secret of the kingdom of God in Christ Jesus. This is Christ performing for us inwardly what he did for Malchus outwardly. You’ll remember how Peter cut off his ear and the Lord took of the earth and touched his head and healed him. So the good soil is that heart to which Christ has restored a Spiritual ear. This is the effect of the new birth, of being “of God.”
And, as Jesus says, this is evidenced by our welcoming the Word and a continuance, an endurance in bearing fruit according to that Word. And I want us to understand, lest we get caught up in the thirtyfold, sixtyfold, hundredfold bit–Am I only a thirtyfold Christian, Well I don’t like to brag but, you know, I’m a hundredfold producer–the intent of Jesus is to say that every Christian is going to yield a supernatural harvest. Most believe that the average crop size was between 3 and 7 fold, but here, Jesus starts at thirtyfold. So every Christian has an incredible impact upon the world as we walk according to Christ’s Word–which brings us to the exhortation of Christ to us in verse 24.
4] If, as is so, hearing the Word rightly is indispensable to the making of disciples, to the marking of disciples, then we must “pay attention to what we hear.”
This is a passage about hearing the Word. Verse 3, Christ exhorts us, “Listen!” Verse 9, Christ exhorts us, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Christ speaks in parables to magnify God’s justice and grace in whether we hear or not. The parable itself is given to emphasize our responsibility in hearing the Word. And, to all of this, I would add—
that while we do not have unbelieving hearts, we are yet prone to slumbering hearts. The good soil is surrounded on every side by the trodden path, the rocky ground, the thorny earth. The devil certainly tries to take away the Word from our hearts. Ease of life and the allurements of the world continue to exact in influence and temptation upon us.
So Christ exhorts us once more, “Pay attention to what you hear!” So I want to lay down some instructions for paying attention to what we hear—
a] Hear to prize. Get, as one pastor put it, an ardent love for the Word. The heart gives an ear to what it delights to it. Ladies, the ear of your heart is attentive to that word “sale” because you prize it. Brothers, we hang on every play of a sporting event, and can often recall particular moments of the game, because our heart was awake to it. Christ’s Word should have this place in our hearts.
In the Word, you commune with God, He reveals Himself to you as a Father to a child, you commune with Christ, you enter the library of the Holy Spirit, the will of God, the mind of Christ, you discover the truth, you uncover pearls, precious gems, and divine diamonds, you entertain the Lord of hosts, you converse with the One who spoke the world into being, you find grace, mercy, strength, words for every season of life, wisdom in every trial, weaponry against every temptation, the Way of Holiness that leads to life eternal, you discover new worlds of gospel depths, you wade in the infinite fountain of Christ’s cross, you bask in the prospects of eternality, you exercise in the immeasurable power of Christ’s resurrection, you lean upon His care, His provision, His love, His intercession, you live by every Word that comes from the mouth of God! And so we ought to highly prize it!
b] Hear to practice. It is evident that the authenticity of our faith is at stake in whether or not we practice what we hear from the Word of God. I love what Jonathan Edwards resolved to this point and I’ll leave it with you to consider—”Resolved, to strive to my utmost every week to be brought higher in Christianity, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.”
c] Hear with thoughtfulness and thanksgiving. I include these two here I am so prone, as I imagine some of us are, to being super critical of those who preach the Word to us. Rather than consider what good was said and rejoice with thanksgiving in that Christ was preached, I am often stayed upon what was missed, what might have been said better, how it was said, did they read the Greek, and things like this—and it drowns out the Word. So let us hear the Word with more thoughtfulness and thanksgiving.
d] Hear with prayer. I think it is evident that while the Word is paramount in our sanctification and progress, and in the progress of God’s kingdom, it is not so without the divine influence of the Holy Spirit, and this necessitates our hearing with prayer. What Charles Bridges says concerning the lack of success in the ministry, can be said of the lack of progress in the Christian life, “There is a manifest want of spiritual influence in the Ministry of the present day. I feel it in my own case, and I see it in that of others . . . For not more needful are the influences of heaven to fertilize the soil, and promote vegetation, than is this heavenly influence to give quickening power to the Word.” If we would see the seed of the Word bear fruit in our lives, we must water it with prayer.
e] Hear to proclaim. Christ has called us to preach, brothers and sisters. What will we preach? What content are we to absorb? What is to fill our hearts and erupt in life-giving words but the Word of Christ. It is the order of things, generally, that we must hear the Word, get it into our hearts, and then it will flow out of us to others. Most of you have expressed to me a great desire to proclaim the Word. I would suggest to you, as to myself, that we get a greater desire to hear the Word.
These things in mind, I’ll close with an anecdote about John Bunyan, that what was said of him might be said of you and of us, “Bunyan’s blood was bibline. He was so full of the Word that, if you pricked him, he bled Bible.” May we be a people who pay attention to what we hear.