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Bible Commentaries
Mark 4

Smith's WritingsSmith's Writings

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Verses 1-41


In the fourth chapter of Mark we have four parables, and the incident of the storm on the lake, giving a complete picture of the Lord's service on earth at His first coming, with the result of that service when left to the responsibility of men during the time of His absence.

(Vv. 1-20). The rejection of Christ by the Jewish leaders, and the consequent breaking of all links with Israel according to the flesh, on the part of Christ, as set forth in Mark 3 , gives occasion to reveal the true character of the Lord's service. Up to this moment, in His ministry of grace, it might appear that He was seeking fruit from Israel; it now becomes manifest, by the parable of the Sower, that, actually, He was doing a work to produce fruit. His ministry was, indeed, a test for Israel proving that there is no fruit for God from fallen man, as such. If there is to be any fruit it can only be through God's own work in the souls of men set forth in figure by the sowing of the seed.

Moreover, if a work of God is necessary, it cannot be confined to one nation. It proves that the Jew is as needy as the Gentile, and that both alike are helpless to secure their own blessing. Thus the Lord's service Of grace has in view all the world. This truth may be indicated by the fact that the Lord "began again to teach by the sea side."

In the strict interpretation of the parable we must all recognise that the Lord is the Sower, and the seed is the word of God. Therefore the Sower was perfect, the sowing was faultless, and the seed good. Nevertheless, owing to the character of the soil, in three cases out of four no lasting result is produced. The parable indicates that when the gospel is preached, it may be listened to by four different characters of hearers. To use the language of the parable, there are "way side" hearers; "stony ground" hearers; some likened to "thorny ground," and, lastly, some "good ground" hearers.

The "way side" hearers are those who hear without the conscience being reached. It is like seed that falls on the hard road, but does not penetrate beneath the surface. The birds of the air can easily devour such seed, and Satan can take away that which is of only passing interest to the mind without touching the conscience.

The seed that falls on stony ground springs up and makes a certain amount of show, but before the heat of the sun it fades away because there is no depth of earth. The Lord explains that this represents those who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness, but there is no work of God in their souls. It is not a good sign when a soul, without previous exercise, receives the word with joy. If God is working with a soul, He deals with the conscience, awakening a sense of sins and guilt. Thus the first effect of the word is not joy but trouble. This leads to self-judgment and repentance towards God. Following upon self-judgment the darkness passes and the light of God penetrates the dark heart producing exercise which is met by the love of God inspiring confidence, when the light has done its work.

The third case is that of one who hears the good news, but the word is choked and produces no lasting result. In each case the Lord is speaking of those who have heard the word, not of those who have never heard the gospel. Hearing the word would denote some kind of profession that would lead to the hope that there is true conversion until proved to be otherwise. The thorny ground hearers represent those who are so overwhelmed by anxiety as to present things, or so active in the pursuit of worldly things, that their profession fades away. The lust of other things chokes the one thing needful. The poor may be crushed by cares; the rich by the deceitfulness of riches. How solemn for the soul to be ruined by cares or lost by riches! What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

The last case is the good ground hearer. Good ground is always prepared ground. The conscience has been reached, and as a result fruit is produced, but, even so, it is in different degrees, some thirty, some sixty, and some an hundredfold. The things which are fatal to the unbeliever may grievously hinder the fruitfulness of the true believer.

(V. 21). In the second parable we learn that the one who has received the good seed of the word into the heart is fitted, and responsible, to be a witness before men. That which is fruit for God becomes light to man. The shining of the light is not a question of gift, nor the exercise of gift in preaching and teaching, but rather the new life expressing something of Christ as being like Christ, "blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom ye shine as lights in the world" ( Php_2:15 ).

The Lord warns us that, as there are hindrances to the seed becoming effectual, so, when the word has truly wrought in the heart, there may be hindrances to the light shining out to others. Even as the seed may be choked by the cares of this world, or the deceitfulness of riches, so the light may be dimmed, on the one hand, by our lives being absorbed in the business of life, represented by the bushel; or, on the other hand, by seeking to take our ease, as set forth by the bed. The Christian is viewed not as the light, but as the light-holder. Christ is the light, the Christian is the candlestick, or light-bearer.

(V. 22). How far we have been faithful, or unfaithful, in bearing witness for Christ, will at last be made manifest. The secret for shining for Christ is having Christ in the heart. "Unless the heart be full of Christ, the truth will not be manifested: if the heart be full of other things, of itself, Christ cannot be manifested" (J.N.D.).

(V. 23). How then are our hearts to be filled with Christ? The Lord's exhortation indicates that if we are to enlighten others we must first hear for ourselves, "If any man have ears to hear, let him hear." The Lord Himself, can say through the prophet, "The Lord, Jehovah, hath given me the tongue of the instructed, that I should know how to succour by a word him that is weary. He wakeneth morning by morning, He wakeneth mine ear to hear as the instructed." ( Isa_50:4 N. Tr.). If we are to have the tongue of the instructed, we must first have the ear of the learner. If we are to know how to succour by a word him that is weary, we must first hear the word of One who is never weary. Like Mary of old, we must sit at His feet, to hear His word, before we can witness to others.

(Vv. 24, 25). Moreover, in witnessing to others we ourselves shall be blessed, for the Lord can say, "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you." The more we give to others, the more will be given to us. If the light we have is allowed to shine, we shall get more light. One has truly said that Heaven's law is 'Scattering for increase'. But let us also remember that if we do not use the light we have we shall lose it. It is not life, but light, that we lose.

(Vv. 26-29). The Lord uses a third parable to show that the time in which the believer's testimony is rendered, is during His absence. The Kingdom of God was about to take the form in which the King would be absent. It is as if a man, having cast the seed into the ground, does nothing further until the time of the harvest. The Lord had personally sown the seed at His first coming, and at the end of the age will personally return when the judgment of this world is ripe. Between His first and second coming the Lord is at the right hand of God, and though ever working in grace, on behalf of His people, He does not publicly and directly interfere in the affairs of this world. The seed, however, that the Lord has sown grows and brings forth fruit.

(Vv. 30-34). The last parable sets forth the result of the seed-sowing when left to the responsibility of man. Christianity, which in its beginning was very small in man's sight, even like a "grain of mustard seed," becomes in the hands of man a great power on the earth. But in its greatness, it becomes a shelter for evil. "The fowls of the air lodge under the shelter of it." That which at the beginning gathered souls out of this world around the Lord, in the end becomes a vast system which shelters every evil thing.

(Vv. 35-41). The incident of the storm on the lake, presents a picture that completes the teaching of the chapter. We have seen the Lord sowing the good seed, and then learnt that those in whose hearts the seed has become effectual, are left in this world to be a light for Christ. By the third parable we have been instructed that this witness would take place during the absence of Christ. In the last parable we learn that, during His absence, there would grow up a vast religious profession that would become a shelter for evil. Now we learn that, in such a world, the Lord's true people will meet with trials, but that the Lord Jesus, though absent to sight, is present to faith, and is supreme over all the storms His people have to meet.

The touching scene is opened with the Lord's words, "Let us pass over unto the other side." His last words to Peter, ere He left this world were, "Follow thou Me." Attracted to Himself by our need, and drawn by His grace, we follow Him in a path that leads to "the other side" - far into those depths of glory where He has gone. If, however, we are in company with Him, we may expect conflict, for the devil is ever opposed to Christ. Thus, in the picture, we read, "there arose a great storm of wind." Nevertheless, Jesus was with them, but He was "asleep on a pillow." As in the parable, having sown the seed, He was as one that slept (verse 27), so actually in the storm He was asleep, and thus apparently indifferent to the trials of His people. Such circumstances become a very real test to our faith, and, like the disciples, we may even begin to question whether, after all, He cares for us. But if such circumstances are allowed to prove our faith, they also become the occasion of manifesting His supremacy over all the trials we have to meet. As of old, He "arose and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still," so today, in His own time and way, He can still every storm and bring us into "a great calm". In the spirit of this striking picture, the apostle can write to the Thessalonian believers saying, "Now the Lord of peace Himself give you peace always by all means. The Lord be with you all" ( 2Th_3:16 ). Faith realises that whatever storms we may have to meet, the Lord is with us to give peace at all times and in all circumstances. Occupied with "a great storm of wind and the waves" that beat into our little ship, we may forget Christ and selfishly think only of ourselves, and then say, like the disciples, "We perish." But will any storm that the devil can raise ever frustrate the counsels of God for Christ and His people? Not one of His sheep will ever perish; all will be brought home at last. The trouble with the disciples, as too often with ourselves, is that we have but a feeble sense of the glory of the Person that is with us. They but little realised that the Man that was with them was also the Son of God.

Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on Mark 4". "Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/mark-4.html. 1832.
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