THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER ends with the Lord’s solemn declaration that the relationships He was now going to recognize were those that had a spiritual basis in obedience to the will of God. This statement of His must necessarily have raised in the minds of the disciples some questions as to how they might know what tile will of God is. As we open this chapter we find the answer. It is by His word, which conveys to us tidings of what He is, and of what He has done for us. Out of these things His will for us springs.
There were still great multitudes waiting upon Him, so that He taught them out of a ship; but it was at this point that He commenced speaking in parables. The reason for this is given in verses Mark 4:11-12. The leaders of the people had already rejected Him, as the last chapter has made manifest, and the people themselves were in the main unmoved, save by curiosity and the love of the sensational, and of “the loaves and fishes.” As time went on they would veer round, and support the leaders in their murderous hostility. The Lord knew this, so He began to cast His teaching in such a form as should reserve it for those who had ears to hear. He speaks in verse Mark 4:11 of “them that are without.”
This shows that already a breach was becoming manifest, and those “within” could be distinguished from those “without.” Those within could see and hear with perception and understanding, and so the “mystery” or “secret” of the kingdom of God became plain to them. The rest were blind and deaf, and the way of conversion and forgiveness was being closed to them. If people will not hear, a time comes when they cannot. The people wanted a Messiah who should bring them worldly prosperity and glory. They had no use, as events proved, for a Messiah who brought them the kingdom of God in the mysterious form of conversion and forgiveness of sins.
We have the kingdom of God today in just this mysterious form, and we enter it by conversion and forgiveness, for thus it is that the authority of God is established in our hearts. We are still waiting for the kingdom in its displayed glory and power.
The first parable of this chapter is that of the sower, the seed, and its effects. Having uttered it He closed with the solemn words, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The possession of hearing ears, or their absence, would indicate at once whether a man belonged to the “within” or to the “without.” The mass of His listeners evidently thought it was a pretty story and pleasant to the ear, but left it at that, showing they were without. Some others, along with the disciples, were not content with this. They wanted to arrive at its inner meaning, and pushed their enquiries further. They belonged to the within.
The Lord’s word in verse Mark 4:13 shows that this parable of the sower must be understood or His other parables will not be intelligible to us. It holds the key which unlocks the whole series. The Lord Jesus, when He came, brought in the first place a supreme test to Israel. Would they receive the well-beloved Son, and render to God the fruit that was due under the cultivation of the law? It was becoming evident that they would not. Well then, a second thing should be inaugurated. Instead of demanding anything from them He would sow the Word, which in due season, in some cases at least, would produce the fruit that was desired. This the parable indicates, and unless we grasp its significance we shall not understand that which subsequently He has to say to us.
The Lord Himself was the Sower, without a doubt, and the Word was the Divine testimony that He disseminated, for the “so great salvation... at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him” (Hebrews 2:3). In John’s Gospel we discover that Jesus is the Word. Here He sows the word. Who could sow it like He who was it? But even when He sowed the word, not every grain that He sowed fructified. In only one case out of the four was fruit produced.
It is equally certain that the parable applies in its principles to all those under-sowers who have gone forth with the word as sent by Him, from that day to this. Every sower of the seed therefore must expect to meet with all these varieties of experience, as indicated in the parable. The imperfect servants of today cannot expect better things than those which marked the sowing of the perfect Servant in His day. The seed was the same in each case. All the difference lay in the state of the ground on which the seed fell.
In the case of the wayside hearers the word got no entrance at all. Their hearts were like the footpath well trodden down. There was not even a surface impression made, and Satan by his many agents completely removed the word. Their case was one of complete indifference.
The stony ground hearers are the impressionable yet superficial folk. They respond to the word at once with gladness, but are quite insensible as to its real implications. It was said of true converts that they “received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). This affliction, which preceded their gladness, was the result of their being awakened to their sin under the convicting power of the word. The stony ground hearer skips over the affliction, because insensible of his real need, and lands himself into a merely superficial gladness, which fades in the presence of testing; and he fades with it.
The thorny ground hearers are the pre-occupied people. The world fills their thoughts. If poor, they are swamped in its cares: if rich, in its riches and the pleasures that riches bring. If neither poor nor rich, there are the lusts of other things. They have climbed out of poverty, and they lust for more of the good things of the world that seem to be coming within their reach. Engrossed by the world, the word is choked.
The good ground hearers are such as not only hear the word but receive it and bring forth fruit. The ground has come under the action of plough and harrow. Thus it has been prepared. Even so, however, all good ground is not equally fertile. There may not be the same amount of fruit; but fruit there is.
There was great instruction for the disciples in all this, and for us also. Presently He was going to send them forth to preach, and then they too would become sowers. They must know that it was the word they had to sow, and also what to expect when they sowed it. Then they would not be unduly affected when much of the seed sown appeared to be lost; or when, some result appearing, it faded away after a time; or even when, fruit appearing, there was not as much fruit as they had hoped for. If we know what is being aimed at on the one hand, and what to expect on the other, we are greatly fortified and strengthened in our service.
We must remember that this parable applies just as much to the sowing of the seed of the word in the hearts of saints as in the hearts of sinners. So let us meditate upon it with hearts very much exercised as to HOW we ourselves receive the word that we may hear, as well as to how others may receive the word that we present to them.
In verses Mark 4:21-22 there follows the brief parable of the candle, and then in verse Mark 4:23 another warning word as to having ears to hear. At first sight the transition from seed sown in the field to a candle lit in a house may seem incongruous and disconnected, but, if indeed we have ears to hear, we shall soon see that in their spiritual significance both parables are congruous and connected. When the word of God is received into an exercised and prepared heart it brings forth fruit that God appreciates, and also light that is to be seen and appreciated of men.
No candle is lit in order to be hid under a bushel or a bed. It is to shed its beams abroad from the candlestick. The second part of verse Mark 4:22 is rather striking in the New Translation, “nor does any secret thing take place but that it should come to light.” The work of God in the heart by His word does take place secretly, and the eye of God discerns the fruit as it begins to appear. But in due season the secret thing that has taken place must come to light. Every true conversion is like the lighting of a fresh candle.
The bushel may symbolize the business of life, and the bed the ease and pleasure of life. Neither must be permitted to hide the light, just as the cares and the riches and the “other things” should not be permitted to choke the seed that is sown. Have we ears to hear this? Are we letting the light of our little candle to shine? There is nothing hidden which shall not be made manifest, so it is quite certain that if a light has been lit it is bound to shine out. If nothing is manifested, it is because there is nothing to manifest.
This parable is followed by the warning as to what we hear. The dealings of God in His government of men enter into this matter. As we measure things out, so things will be measured out to us. If we really do hear the word in such a way as to enter into possession of it, we shall gain more. If we do not, we shall begin to lose even that which we had. In Luke 8:18, we get similar sayings connected with “how” we hear. Here they stand connected with “what” we hear.
How we hear is emphasized in the parable of the sower, but what we hear is at least of equal importance. Not a few have had taken from them even that which they had by lending their ears to error. They heard, and heard very attentively, but, alas! what they heard was not the truth, and it perverted them. If through our ears error is sown in our hearts, it will bring forth its disastrous crop, and the government of God will permit it, and not prevent it.
Verses Mark 4:26-29 are occupied with the parable concerning God’s secret work. A man sows the seed, and when the harvest is ripe he gets again to work, putting in the sickle to reap. But as to the actual growth of the seed from its earliest stages to the full fruition, he can do nothing. For many a week he sleeps and rises, night and day, and the processes of nature, which God has ordained, silently do the work though he does not understand them. “He knoweth not how,” is true today. Men have pushed their investigations very far, but the real how of the wonderful processes, carried on in God’s great workshop of nature, still eludes them.
So it is in what we may term God’s spiritual workshop, and it is just as well for us to remember it. Some of us are very anxious to analyze and describe the exact processes of the Spirit’s work in souls. These hidden things sometimes exert a great fascination over our minds, and we wish to master the whole process. It cannot be done. It is our happy privilege to sow the seed, and also in due season to put in the sickle and reap. The workings of the word in the hearts of men are secretly accomplished by the Holy Spirit. His work of course is perfect.
Imperfection always marks the work of men. If permitted, as we are, to have a hand in the work of God, we bring imperfection into that which we do. The next parable, occupying verses Mark 4:30-32, shows this. The kingdom of God today exists vitally and really in the souls of those who by conversion have come under God’s authority and control. But it may also be viewed as a more external thing, to be found wherever men profess to acknowledge Him. The one is the kingdom as established by the Spirit. The other the kingdom as established by men. This latter has become a great and imposing thing in the earth, extending its protection to many “fowls of the air;” and what they signify we have just seen—in verses Mark 4:4; Mark 4:15—agents of Satan.
This closing parable of the series was full of warning for the disciples, as the others were full of instruction. They were with Him and being educated before being sent forth on their mission. We have seen at least seven things:—
1. That the present work of the disciple is in its nature, sowing.
2. That what is to be sown is, the word.
3. That the results of the sowing are to be classified under four heads; in only one case is there fruit, and that in varying degrees.
4. That the word produces light as well as fruit, and that light is to be manifested publicly.
5. That the disciple is himself a hearer of the word as well as a sower of the word, and in that connection must take care what he hears.
6. That the working of the word in souls is God’s work and not ours. Our work is the sowing and the reaping.
7. That as man’s work does enter into the present work of extending the kingdom of God, evil will gain an entrance. The kingdom, viewed as man’s handiwork, will result in something imposing yet corrupt. This is the solemn warning, which we have to take to heart.
There were many other parables spoken by the Lord, yet not put on record for us. The others, spoken to the disciples and expounded to them, were doubtless very important for them in their peculiar circumstances, but not of the same importance for us. Those that were of importance for us are recorded in Matthew 13:1-58.
With verse Mark 4:34 His teachings end, and from verse Mark 4:35 to the end of Mark 5:1-43 we resume the record of His wonderful acts. The disciples needed to observe closely what He did and His way of acting, as well as to hear the teachings of His lips. And so do we.
The crowd, who had listened to these sayings of His but without understanding them, was now dismissed, and they crossed to the other side of the lake. It was evening and He was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The lake was noted for the sudden and violent storms that disturbed it, and one of special violence arose, threatening to swamp the boat. Satan is “the prince of the power of the air,” and therefore we believe that his power lay behind the raging forces of nature. At once therefore the disciples were confronted with a test and a challenge. Who was this Person who lay asleep in the stern?
Could Satan wield the forces of nature in such a way as to sink a boat in which was reposing the Son of God? But the Son of God is found in Manhood, and He sleeps! Well, what does that matter?—seeing He is the Son of God. The action of the adversary, raising the storm while He slept, was indeed a challenge. As yet, however, the disciples realized these things very dimly, if at all. Hence they were filled with fear as the resources of their seamanship were exhausted: and they roused Him with an unbelieving cry, which cast a slur upon His kindness and love, though showing some faith in His power.
He arose at once in the majesty of His power. He rebuked the wind, which was the more direct instrument of Satan. He told the sea to be quiet and still, and it obeyed. Like a boisterous hound which lies down humbly at its master’s voice, so the sea lay down at His feet. He was the complete Master of the situation.
Having thus rebuked the forces of nature, and the power that lay behind them, He turned to administer gentle rebuke to His disciples. Faith is spiritual sight, and as yet their eyes were hardly opened to discern who He was. Had they but realized a little of His proper glory they would not have been so fearful. And having witnessed this display of His power they were still fearful, and still questioning as to what manner of man He was. A Man who can command winds and sea, and they do His will, is obviously no ordinary Man. But, who is He?—that is the question.
No disciple can go forth to serve Him until that question is answered and thoroughly settled in his soul. Hence before He sends them forth there must be further exhibitions of His power and grace before their eyes, as recorded for us in chapter 5.
We too, in our day, must be fully assured who He is, before we attempt to serve Him. The question, What manner of Man is this? is a very insistent one. Until we can answer it very rightly and very clearly we must be still.
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Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Mark 4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany