Mark 4:1-20 | The Parable of the Sower
1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 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. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 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, 12 so that
“ ‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 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. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 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. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 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. 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.”
So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus bringing God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. The lame walk, the sick are well, the blind see, the tax collector and the sinner are righteous. The promise stretching way back to the Garden of Eden is being fulfilled. Jesus is undoing the effects of sin and making all things new.
Part of that newness comes through his teaching. And in chapter 4, we begin a section of teaching called the parables. A parable is a story that makes a point. What’s the point of this one? Simply this: how we listen to God really matters.
This is not a new reality for God’s people. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden with a command to listen. God’s law required careful listening. In the Old Testament, the daily prayers of God’s people began with the words of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years due to their failure to listen. They endured 400 years of God’s silence before Christ came because they would not listen to his word.
So it should come as no surprise that Jesus opens his teaching in verse 3 with a command to listen. It’s a very strong word. It’s an imperative. It’s a command. Our attention is mandatory. And our response to the command makes all the difference. Will we pay attention?
Jesus knew not everyone gathered on that beach would really hear his message. He knew some had already made up their mind about who he was—or wasn’t. They were listening without listening, hearing without hearing. The words went in one ear, through the predetermined filter, and landed on the rock-hard surface of their heart. For others, the hearing wasn’t as dull. Life appeared to take root. But what began couldn’t last. For yet others, the message bore fruit. What made the difference? To find the answer, we must look at this parable in two major parts. First, we must consider the sower who sows the seed. Second, we must understand the types of soil.
The Sower Sows the Seed
A sower went out to sow. What does he sow? Jesus says in verse 14 the sower sows the Word of God.
Who is the sower? Well, the sower is anyone who sows the word of God. The sower is you and me, the preacher on Sunday morning, the missionary in the third-world country, the employee at lunch with co-workers, the parent telling the bedtime story. The sower is anyone who shares God’s word, spreading the seed as he goes.
But at the most foundational level, Jesus is the Sower, fulfilling and encompassing the totality of the role. He is, in the Apostle John’s language, “The Word,” God himself made manifest to us (John 1:1). He spreads the seed of the word, calling all to repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
How does the sower sow the seed? Well, we see in the opening verses that Jesus taught this parable on the shore for all to hear, sowing the seed of the word on all kinds of soil. The seed is spread indiscriminately, far and wide on all kinds of ground. Some falls on the hard path; some falls into good soil. But the field is covered. In the ancient world, a farmer sowed, then plowed. Some seed went to unproductive places. That’s just how it was. Some seed fell on the path. Some fell among rocks and thorns. A farmer couldn’t make his field perfect before spreading. Sometimes what appeared to be good soil turned out to be useless. But he spread his seed throughout his field, doing what he could to prepare for an abundant harvest. Then he waited to see what the seed would yield.
Simple enough, right? But that doesn’t mean everyone understood. In fact, for some, the parables only complicated matters. Look at verses 10-12.
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 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, 12 so that “‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
What is Jesus saying? Is he saying he speaks in parables to make sure that some people won’t hear the truth of the kingdom? Yes.
Now to some degree, we all understand that, don’t we? The Bible often talks of having ears to hear. Not everyone who hears the gospel will really hear the gospel. The Apostle Paul says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Only those who have ears to hear will be able to understand the power of the story.
But that doesn’t make this statement easier to accept. We may think it unfair. Why would Jesus say things in such a way as to hide it from those who really needed it?
We see in verse 12 that Jesus quotes something. What is it? It’s a quote from Isaiah 6. What’s going on there? Isaiah 6 is that great passage where Isaiah is caught up in a vision, and God forgives his sin and sends him out to preach to the hard-hearted people of Israel. Isaiah’s prophetic mission is to tell his generation that they won’t listen to God because they haven’t been listening to him. And since they won’t listen, their window into God’s kingdom is closing. It’s going to get harder for them to understand what God is saying. God will still speak of what’s to come. He’ll still prophecy about Jesus. But they won’t understand it because they don’t want to. They’ve made themselves sermon-proof.
And now Jesus is in the same situation. Some won’t understand even when they hear. Some won’t perceive even when they see. Why? Because they won’t accept him. We’ve seen it throughout Mark’s gospel. Everywhere Jesus goes, he runs into opposition. And if they’re going to question everything he says, he’s not going to let them complicate his message for everyone who wants to hear. He’ll speak in a way that the spiritually-abled can hear.
It doesn’t mean those outside are denied belief. It just means that they are denied further insight into the kingdom as long as unbelief continues. As long as they’re alive, there’s an opportunity to repent and believe. That’s why Jesus came! But until they do, Jesus will go to the ones who draw near.
Think of the parables like a filter. Some people are really interested in Jesus, some are pretending to be, and some aren’t at all. And the parables sort them out. How do you know what kind of person you are? Well, we need to keep going. The answer lies in the different kinds of soil.
The Four Types of Soil
For all the questions we ask of the Bible, the Bible also asks questions of us. And it is the questions the Bible asks of us that should claim our attention before anything else. Yes, we can ask God whatever we need to, but our questions don’t come first. Until we’ve placed ourselves under God’s microscope, we’ve failed to take him seriously. Until we’ve allowed God to question us, we have no right to question him. After all, it was not Adam who after sinning littered God with questions. It was God who came looking for Adam asking, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). It was not Job’s insistence that God answer him that changed his heart during his suffering. It was God’s question of him that turned the tide (Job 38:3). This parable, then, is not merely a story of a sower sowing seed. It is a question from God to us all. When the sower sows his seed, what will the seed find to rest on? What kind of soil is our heart made of?
Jesus presents four types of soil, but there are ultimately only two kinds. There is the soil of unfaith and the soil of faith. The first three are bad. The last one is good.
So present four types? Because whenever the seed of the Word is sown, all four types are present. In fact, we’ve seen all four in the first three chapters of Mark, as we will see in a moment. Whenever the gospel is preached, nothing never happens. There is no neutral response to God’s word. There is only a negative or positive response. This truth is evident in this parable. That’s why we have four types of soil—because there are different ways to respond to God’s word, and we’re all responding in some way.
So, here are the four types, from Jesus’ explanation of the parable in verses 15-20.
Hard and Dry (v. 15)
Shallow and Rocky (vv. 16-17)
Crowded and Anxious (vv. 18-19)
Soft and Open (v. 20)
Let’s briefly consider each.
First, the hard and dry heart.
Look at verse 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.”
Who have we seen so far in Mark’s gospel with this kind of heart? The Pharisees. They don’t accept Jesus as their Lord. They oppose him as their enemy. The more Jesus speaks, the more he heals, the more he teaches, the harder their heart gets.
It’s the scariest heart of all. It’s completely closed to Jesus. It’s uninterested in hearing him and therefore unable to hear him. This is the natural man Paul speaks of, and it doesn’t matter how religious they appear on the outside. Their heart tells the truth.
What happens to this kind of heart? When they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes the word away. He snatches it up before it sinks in. C.S. Lewis picks up on this in his great fictional book The Screwtape Letters. It’s a series of letters of counsel from one senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior demon, Wormwood. Wormwood has been assigned a man to keep from coming to faith in Christ. In one letter, Screwtape says, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
In context, Screwtape is talking about prayer. “Do all you can, dear Wormwood, to keep our man from praying! Take out the desire!” Satan wants to take away your desires for God, no matter how small they may be. One prayer can do him in! That’s why Peter tells us to “be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
Satan has a million methods of taking the seed away. He’s really good at distracting us from God. Think about it. Doesn’t the bed always feel better than the Bible? Isn’t the conversation on social media more interesting than prayer? Doesn’t self-justification feel better than repentance? Isn’t Netflix better than nightly meditation on God’s word? Aren’t you tempted right now to check your phone, to plan your week, to make your grocery list, to check out for a little while? Where do you think that comes from? He’s seeking someone to devour! Don’t let him! Be watchful!
I have a former atheist friend who is reading the Bible for the first time. In sharing this parable with him, he said something really insightful. He said, “I know what that hard heart is like. But once I began exploring Christianity, I realized that there is a point of no return. The heart can get so hardened that it doesn’t want to hear from God. Thankfully, I heard before I reached that point. But not everyone does. That place of no return is terrifying, and one day it will be too late to listen.”
Please, don’t let your heart get to that place.
And if you sense a hardness now, please consider that perhaps the reason you’re here today is for Christ to grind that stone away. Since the parables come from the mouth of Jesus, they contain the power to open ears. The Bible says “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Second, the shallow and rocky heart.
Look at verses 16 and 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 or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.”
We see this kind of heart in the crowds that follow Jesus. Like Twitter followers that see he’s trending, they jump on the bandwagon. They love him for his miracles but leave him for his exclusive claims. They don’t stick with him because their heart just isn’t open enough. They say they believe but don’t endure, proving they don’t really believe. They’re merely interested in the hot thing. When following him gets uncomfortable, inconvenient, discouraging, risky, they leave. They didn’t sign up for hardship.
This is the kind of heart that treats Jesus not as the savior he really is, but as the spiritual pixie dust we want. This is the kind of heart that treats Jesus as a guru to give us life tips, as the genius bar to fix our broken toys, as spiritual co-pilot to bless our not-so-bad life. It happens when we treat him only as the positive and encouraging Jesus who never steps on our toes, never calls us to commitment, never asks us to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow him.
With this heart, things are good for a while but because we’ve never considered his word, we’ve never chewed on it, we’ve never really thought it through, we’ve kept it shallow like so many spring gardens set in the hot sun, and it dies. When things get tough, we leave him for something else. When we treat Jesus in mere pragmatic terms, as soon as he no longer “works” for us, we look for someone else that will. This is the heart that’s tried Jesus and found he’s just alright, but not alright enough.
Third, the crowded and anxious heart.
Look at verses 18 and 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.”
If I were to caution us from one of these first three kinds of heart, this is the one I would highlight today. I think it is the bad soil we in our context and culture are most prone to.
This kind of heart is just too crowded. It has too many things at the same level of importance. It upholds social status, comfort and security, and personal desires alongside the things of God. It’s the heart of anxiety, worried about things out of our control because we’ve let so many things control us.
Now, let me say that I’m not trying to discourage any who struggle with anxiety. I struggle with it myself. Some of you have walked with me through those anxious days. Some of us need to get help. Some of us need to take some medicine. Some of us need to talk to a professional. And some of us just need to realize that the cause of our anxiety isn’t merely mental; it’s a problem of the heart. We have too many competing loves inside, and as Shakespeare said, “These lovers seek a place to fight.”
Ray Ortlund illustrates this reality with a profound image of our heart as a boardroom.
Big table. Leather chairs. Coffee. Bottled water. Whiteboard. A committee sits around the table. There is the social self, the private self, the work self, the sexual self, the recreational self, the religious self, the childhood memories self, and others. The committee is arguing and debating and voting. Constantly agitated. Divided. Upset. Rarely can the committee within come to a unanimous, wholehearted decision.
One way we might falsely “accept Jesus” is just to invite him onto our committee. Give Jesus a seat at the table. Give him a vote too. Let him make his case, and then the rest of “us” will decide for or against. But, if this is how we accept Jesus, then he is just one influence among others, easily offset by the other voices, which yell and demand and threaten.
We see this kind of heart in Jesus’ family. They worry about the scene he makes. Their reputation matters. They grow anxious about what he says, what he does, what might happen to them if he doesn’t shut up. No wonder that leads to anxiety! How can we ever please so many competing selves?
Here’s what we need. We need Jesus to come in and fire all the board members. We need Jesus as the sole ruler of our heart. And in his grace, all it takes to receive that freedom is openness to him. But it means total openness. It means we hold nothing back. It means we hand over all of our life to him. No hidden corners. No locked doors.
If we will accept that, we will find the way into the only good type of heart Jesus presents in this parable—the soft and open heart—that Jesus alone can create.
Fourth, the soft and open heart.
Look at verse 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.”
This is the heart of Jesus’ disciples. They accept his word. They follow him when it’s hard. They stick with him when they don’t understand. They draw near. They lean in. They want Jesus. And to them are given the secrets of the kingdom of God. They get not only knowledge of his kingdom; they get his kingdom. They enter the experience.
The soft and open heart is the heart of every Christian. It is the heart that has accepted Christ and listened to his word.
What kind of soil is our heart? Hard and dry? Shallow and rocky? Crowded and anxious? Or soft and open? Do we have a heart of unfaith or a heart of faith?
Here’s how we can know: look at the fruit.
In the spring of 2010, my wife and I planted our first tomato plants. A few weeks later was the great Nashville flood. Our little plants were covered. As we rebuilt from the flood throughout the summer, we watched the tomato plants grow taller than we ever imagined. But they never produced tomatoes. They looked great, but the fruit wasn’t there.
Now, not everyone in Christ will yield a hundredfold. But all in Christ will yield something. It’s the way we know the seed has taken root in our life. The seed sown in good soil bears fruit. Three soils are bad. One soil is good. And even if it looks good on the surface, the fruit is all that matters.
So here’s the question. How do we get the good soil? Do we get it by being a good person? If so, good by what standard? Do we get it by removing the rocks underneath? If so, how can we see down far enough? Do we get it by pulling out the weeds in our life? If so, how can we be sure we got the root? Self-care won’t produce what we need. We can never be good enough. We can never remove all the rocks. We can never pull out enough weeds. We need another way.
Interestingly, the only gospel account that doesn’t include this parable is John’s. But the truth it proclaims is very present. As Jesus makes a turn toward Jerusalem and, ultimately, the cross, he tells his disciples about his upcoming death by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
What’s Jesus saying? Even agriculture points to the gospel! He’s saying the power of the gospel is in his death. The power of the gospel is the seed planted in the ground. Jesus is not only the Sower. He’s God’s seed. And the fruit we need grows out of his grave.
But is a seed really that powerful? Can it really break hard-hearted sinners? G. Campbell Morgan once told about a tomb in an Italian cemetery he visited. There was an enormous granite slab on top of a grave. But sometime between the burying of the man and the placement of the granite slab, an acorn fell into the ground between the two. The acorn grew, and it split the granite slab, and between the two pieces stood an oak tree.
Is a seed really that powerful? A seed is so weak you can crush it. And that’s what Satan thought he did to Jesus on the cross. But not one of his bones was broken. In his death, Jesus wasn’t a crushed seed; he was a planted seed. He fell into the earth and died, and three days later, his power was released.
Why did he do that? Why did Jesus become a seed? Tim Keller points out that if he came with a sword, he’d cut us to pieces. If he came with fire, he’d burn us to ashes. So he came as a seed to be planted for us. That’s the secret of the kingdom.
When you see that, something happens deep inside. Your heart of stone cracks open to Jesus. And once he’s inside, his word grows and grows. There is a power that comes into your life. It’s the power of the seed, the power of the word of God, the power of the Sower. And it has the power to transform the soil of your heart.
Let me close with this.
You know, we all start out the same way. We’re all born sinners separated from God. We can thank Adam for that. But God’s seed is more powerful than our unbelief. And perhaps this morning you’re considering Christ in a new way. If so, the seed of the gospel is being sown. Maybe you walked in here not wanting Christ, and you’re going to walk out wanting him. What happened? God broke the granite slab.
But it started way before today. When God planted the trees at creation, he had the cross in mind. When the first seed died, the resurrection was already planned. When your heart cracks open to Jesus, your salvation was already sealed in eternity past. That’s the kind of God we have—one who loves us enough to break us, who dies to save us, who rises to give us life.
If we won’t listen to that message, what will we listen to?