Discussion questions for community groups and family worship:
1. What was one thing that stood out to you from the sermon?
2. Which of the four soils do you tend to identify with most?
3. If Mark’s definition of a disciple is one who “hears the word, accept it, and bear fruit,” then what are ways do you need to grow in hearing the word? Accepting it? Bearing fruit?
4. If there was a “thorn” that fought for primacy in your heart over God’s Word, what would that be?
5. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, what does it look like to be one who hears God’s Word, accepts it, and bears fruit?
Jesus, standing on a boat facing a large crowd on the shore, begins to preach through one of His most well-known parables, the four soils. This parable illustrates what has happened thus far in Mark’s narrative: there has been a wide array of responses to Jesus. Some people have been enthusiastic, some skeptical, some committed, and some furious. Jesus is a polarizing figure. And He tells a short parable to illustrate that fact. In the first half of the text we get the telling of the parable, and then in the second half we get the explanation of the parable. Right in the middle is the text we considered last week: the purpose of Jesus’ use of parables. The fact that this is situated in the middle of the parable tells us that the parable and its explanation are immediately connected with Jesus’ teaching that His parables are meant to reveal mysteries to His disciples, but conceal truth from those opposed to Jesus. The connection between them will become readily apparent as we walk through the text.
First, we are told that a, “sower went out to sow,” casting seed indiscriminately wherever he went, Mark 4:3-8. Later, in Mark 4:14 we are told that the “seed” here refers to the “word,” (cf. Mark 4:33). By this Jesus likely refers to the same “word” He is preaching and proclaiming, the message of the gospel: the kingdom of God is at hand, thus we must repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15; cf. Mark 2:2). So as we see the “seed” fall onto these four different soils, we are seeing four different ways to respond to the proclamation of the gospel: Jesus is King; He has come to offer forgiveness of sins and adoption into His family to all who will bow the knee and submit to His Lordship. Maybe you are thinking: Why would someone have a hard time accepting that message? I’ve experienced the benefits of the gospel and it is such good news! Well, it could have to do with admitting that you need your sins forgiven; that requires a certain kind of self-awareness and humility. Or, on the other hand, maybe someone thinks their sins are too bad to be forgiven. Or maybe it is the fear that if you come to Jesus for your forgiveness, you must come and submit all of you to Him.
And there is the nub of the issue: submit. That fear in particular is the fear that underlies all the others. What causes these various responses to Jesus’ message and His work? A willingness or unwillingness to submit. Remember, this parable flows right out of the statement Jesus made about identifying who really are His family: “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother,” Mark 3:35. Whoever surrenders their will to do God’s will, these are Jesus’ disciples, His family. In the parable, Jesus identifies those who have submitted to God, those who are His family members by their listening. The command to listen is repeated over and over throughout chapter four, and the entire parable of the sower is about receiving (read: listening) the word.
The first soil Jesus speaks about isn’t really “soil” in the technical sense. It is rather described as a “path” or “road” (Mark 4:4). Of course, roads back then would have likely been dirt roads, compacted from frequent foot traffic—not something conducive to growing crops. Because the dirt is so tightly compacted, the seeds lie on top of the path, making it easy for birds to swoop down and steal them away. Jesus explains, “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,” Mark 4:15. What is Jesus saying here? That those whose hearts’ are hardest to the gospel are actively having supernatural forces work to aid and abet their stony hearts. C.S. Lewis’ wonderfully creative work The Screwtape Letters fictitiously reports instructive letters from a senior demon writing to a junior demon on the various methods used to blind and harden humans away from God. Here is how Paul describes it when discussing why some do not respond to his preaching of the gospel, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” 2 Corinthians 4:3-4. This should also influence our perspective in our evangelism. I don’t know if you have ever been frustrated by someone just “not getting it” as you are explaining the gospel. I certainly have. It is helpful to remember that there is a supernatural enemy who is constantly at work to steal away God’s Word from people’s hearts. Let’s resist the temptation to just think that people are just too stupid, or too far gone. They are blind. So pray to the Lord who can heal blindness and ask Him to do for them what He has done for you (2 Cor 4:6).
If we were to attempt to identify a group of people in Mark’s gospel thus far who would fit this description, I think this would serve as a good description of the scribes and the Pharisees. Back in chapter three, the scribes from Jerusalem believe that Jesus is empowered by Satan, which leads Jesus to proclaim that they are utterly lost (Mark 3:22-30; cf. John 9:39-41). In their accusation that Jesus is under the power of Satan they, ironically, reveal themselves to be under the influence of Satan themselves; the birds are taking away the seed. This is sobering for us to hear because it reminds us that someone can look very, very religious, but be very far away from Jesus. Very few of Jesus’ contemporaries would have looked at the scribes from Jerusalem and thought, They are under the influence of Satan. They looked like respectable, good, religious people! But their response to Jesus’ message reveals their heart. Every few years or so we hear about these bombshell stories where some pastor or prominent Christian is found out to have been using their power and influence for wicked, selfish, sinful purposes. Having the appearance of godliness is not the same thing as being godly.
The next soil Jesus describes is the rocky soil. “Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away,” Mark 4:5-6. Jesus explains, “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 or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away,” Mark 4:16-17. These people are those who happily receive Jesus’ message: You’re the king? Hooray! We’ve been waiting for you! The crowds were almost always thrilled to have Jesus around. He healed the sick, cast out demons, gave them free food, and taught in such a way that left them all amazed. However, once it became costly to follow Jesus, their enthusiasm dimmed. Eventually, the scribes and Pharisees begin making it publicly known that anyone who supports Jesus will be kicked out of the synagogue (John 9:22). Whoa, I might lose some friends over this? I might become a social pariah? I don’t know, maybe we should take a step back… What happened? The text tells us that when the sun rose (as it inevitably will), it scorched the plant and died; and, when persecutions come (as they inevitably will) these “followers” will fall away. Which, of course, is just another way to say that they never really were disciples of Jesus. Notice that this isn’t referring to trials in general that lead to them falling away; this refers to persecutions “on account of the word.”
Life is hard and everyone will experience trouble. But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here; He is talking about the very specific trouble we encounter on account of the word, that is, on account of the gospel. If I said, “Hey I’m your friend…but as soon as people begin to criticize me for spending time with you, I can’t really be your friend anymore. Cool?” Am I really your friend? No, of course not. A friend is someone who sticks with you through thick and thin, when you are popular or the outcast. And we are no disciples of Jesus if we only stand by Him when it is popular to do so. Elsewhere Jesus explains, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” Matthew 5:11-12. That is remarkable. Not only does Jesus teach us to expect His disciples to receive persecutions for following Him, but He expects them to rejoice in it! I just got made fun of for following Jesus, yes! Lost my job for Jesus, woohoo! Thrown in jail for Jesus, high five! Why on earth would we be happy about that!? Well, look at the apostles’ response to the attacks that came from the religious authorities: “and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name,” Acts 5:40-41. I think the apostles are rejoicing here because they know that they are walking the same path their Savior walked and are greatly comforted. The night that Jesus was arrested, they all fled in fear. But now, they are willing to risk everything for Jesus, even their own lives. What changed? They know that they love Jesus so greatly and believe in His resurrection so firmly, that they are willing suffer blows for it. They are filled with the joy of seeing the genuineness of their faith—they know they aren’t fake. You only suffer for what you truly believe in.
But that isn’t true of the rocky soil. Why? Well, apparently there are “rocks” sitting just below the surface of the soil that prevent the roots from going down deep enough. Roots have to go down deep enough to pull the nutrients up out of the soil to survive the extreme heat of the sun. But these individuals, though they initially receive Jesus with joy, it ultimately proves to have no real life—a plant that can’t survive in the sunlight will never bear fruit. The word that they initially received has now brought on the heat of persecution, so they wind up rejecting it altogether. They don’t really believe it.
What went wrong? Well, what happens when roots dig down deep into the dirt? They push the dirt around, reorienting and re-shaping as it penetrates deeper and deeper. This is what a disciple of Jesus let’s God’s Word do them—it presses into you, takes hold of you, reorients your heart. In the parable, the rocks prevented this from happening. Thus, these are the people who will say I will let God’s Word go this far, but no further—certainly not enough to let it drive me to sacrifice or suffer. The genuineness of your faith will be revealed by the heat of persecution.
The Thorny Soil
“Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain,” Mark 4:7. This soil appears to be, in a way, fertile for growth. However, soil only has so many nutrients to give. The plant here has a semblance of life, but ultimately is useless. A farmer doesn’t get much benefit from crops that yield no harvest. What does this illustrate? Jesus explains, “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,” Mark 4:18-19. Thus, the thorny soil reveals a divided heart. I don’t know about you, but I have a perennial problem of overcommitting to things. I, like most people, don’t like disappointing people and really like making people happy. Add on top of that that I am a fairly optimistic person and am a poor administrator and the result is that I wind up saying “yes” to too many things. So I either do a lot of things really poorly, or I wind up having to let someone know that I won’t be able to do such and such thing I committed to. You see, I only have so much time and energy to give. And friends, your heart works much the same way—you only have so much affection, love, and worship to give. But, the analogy breaks down here: with my time, I can allot it to lots of different tasks. With our hearts, we have two options: we devote them to the Lord, or we devote them to something else. That’s it.
Here’s how Jesus explains it in Matthew, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money,” Matthew 6:24. While Jesus is speaking about money in particular here, the principle holds true for anything else. God is not small enough to share His throne with anything or anyone else. He is so big, so glorious, so beautiful, so holy, that He requires all of you. You cannot stand before the God who made you, who owns you, who dwells in unapproachable light, who stands from age to age, and to whom every shining galaxy, every whirling quark, and every celestial being sings to in unceasing praise, and say, “Yea, sure, you and my financial portfolio. You and Netflix. You and my next vacation. That’s what my heart loves.” Friends, there is nothing in this world that you can place on the same level as God in your heart’s worship that does not shrink God. When your heart says that God is competing with your family, your status, your comfort, for primacy in its love, then what are you saying about God?
Now, remember, this soil does not bear fruit; that is, this is describing someone who is not a Christian. Jesus taught that unless you bear fruit, you are not one of His disciples (John 15:2). Christians are people who have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who walk in the Spirit, and thus bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). However, we are dichotomous people; we are people who possess both the Spirit and the flesh (Rom 8:12-13). Thus, while we are fundamentally not the thorny soil, we can at times be thorny-ish. Our careers, our families, our status can tempt us to crowd out devotion to the Lord, and choke out the word of God. Right now, given the pandemic that is looming at our doorstep, my guess is that many of us are tempted to let the “cares of the world” is a temptation for us. What are the cares of the world? They are the concerns and cares of those who live only for this life, those who have no hope of anything beyond this world. Pretend we are at an eye exam right now and I have just slid the “atheistic materialism” lenses in place. There is nothing but matter; there is no God, no heaven, no hell, nothing beyond the grave—you have this life, and that’s it. Take a look around the world right now; what would your concerns, cares, and fears look like? Now, remove those, and put the lenses of Christianity on. Our God is sitting on His throne in Heaven, sovereignly controlling all affairs and events, working them together for our good; He has sent His Son to suffer and die in our place to atone for our sins and grant us forgiveness so that those who believe in Him shall never die, but have everlasting life. Take a look around the world; what are your cares, concerns, and fears? Friends, don’t let the thorn of fear constrict your soul and sap your heart of joy. Our God is in the Heavens and He does all that He pleases (Ps 115:3)—He is ruling and reigning. Let’s love, serve, give, pray, act, sleep, and worship like that is true—because it is.
The Good Soil
“And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” Mark 4:8-9. What we see hear is preposterous amount of growth—thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold!? If I walked out onto our lawn and placed a single apple seed into the ground, and thirty, sixty, a hundred apple trees erupted out of the ground, we would think This is not normal! This is supernatural! This is what happens with the good soil. Jesus explains, “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,” Mark 4:20. Herein lies Mark’s most clear definition of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: you hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit.
The word of course is the word of the gospel: Jesus is the King who was crucified for you; trust in and submit to Him. Jesus is King—you’re not. He died for you to forgive your sins—regardless of what you think about your sins being forgivable or not. He now commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Now, you have the choice of whether or not you will accept, believe that (John 1:12-13). And if you truly believe, you will bear fruit—your life will change. The center of gravity of your heart will shift off of yourself and onto God and others. So, friends, whenever you read the Bible, let these words ring out in your mind: hear the word, accept it, bear fruit. As an aside, this presupposes that Jesus’ disciples are regularly hearing (or reading) God’s Word. God’s people are formed by God’s Word; faith is fueled by God’s Word. So, dear Christian, make time to read God’s Word, to listen to God’s Word preached, to hear God’s Word. Read it like your soul depends on it.
This is particularly true in our current crisis. We need to hear promises like: Isaiah 41:10: “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Do you believe that promise? Do you believe that God is with you? Do you believe that the same God who created this world, worked wonders at the Exodus, resurrected our Lord from the dead, and is sovereignly governing the universe is with little old you? Do you believe that He will strengthen you, help you, and hold you up with His righteous right hand? If you do, then that will radically change your life right now.
Similarly, we need to hear commands like: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Matt 22:39, or, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” James 2:14-17. Do you accept that? If so, that will change your life right now. You won’t hoard toilet paper and food selfishly, but will eagerly look how you can share with those who are in need. You won’t say, “This is ridiculous, I don’t need to inconvenience myself for this.” You will eagerly be looking to do whatever you can to love your neighbor as yourself and set aside your own preferences for their good (Phil 2:3-4).