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Bible Commentaries

MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Mark 4

Verses 10-20



Mar_4:10 - Mar_4:20 .

Dean Stanley and others have pointed out how the natural features of the land round the lake of Gennesaret are reflected in the parable of the sower. But we must go deeper than that to find its occasion. It was not because Jesus may have seen a sower in a field which had these three varieties of soil that He spoke, but because He saw the frivolous crowd gathered to hear His words. The sad, grave description of the threefold kinds of vainly-sown ground is the transcript of His clear and sorrowful insight into the real worth of the enthusiasm of the eager listeners on the beach. He was under no illusions about it; and, in this parable, He seeks to warn His disciples against expecting much from it, and to bring its subjects to a soberer estimate of what His word required of them. The full force and pathos of the parable is felt only when it is regarded as the expression of our Lord’s keen consciousness of His wasted words. This passage falls into two parts-Christ’s explanation of the reasons for His use of parables, and His interpretation of the parable itself.

I. Christ was the centre of three circles:

The outermost consisting of the fluctuating masses of merely curious hearers; the second, of true but somewhat loosely attached disciples, whom Mark here calls ‘they that were about Him’; and the innermost, the twelve. The two latter appear, in our first verse, as asking further instruction as to ‘the parable,’ a phrase which includes both parts of Christ’s answer. The statement of His reason for the use of parables is startling. It sounds as if those who needed light most were to get least of it, and as if the parabolic form was deliberately adopted for the express purpose of hiding the truth. No wonder that men have shrunk from such a thought, and tried to soften down the terrible words. Inasmuch as a parable is the presentation of some spiritual truth under the guise of an incident belonging to the material sphere, it follows, from its very nature, that it may either reveal or hide the truth, and that it will do the former to susceptible, and the latter to unsusceptible, souls. The eye may either dwell upon the coloured glass or on the light that streams through it; and, as is the case with all revelations of spiritual realities through sensuous mediums, gross and earthly hearts will not rise above the medium, which to them, by their own fault, becomes a medium of obscuration, not of revelation. This double aspect belongs to all revelation, which is both a ‘savour of life unto life and of death unto death.’ It is most conspicuous in the parable, which careless listeners may take for a mere story, and which those who feel and see more deeply will apprehend in its depth. These twofold effects are certain, and must therefore be embraced in Christ’s purpose; for we cannot suppose that issues of His teaching escaped His foresight; and all must be regarded as part of His design. But may we not draw a distinction between design and desire? The primary purpose of all revelation is to reveal. If the only intention were to hide, silence would secure that, and the parable were needless. But if the twofold operation is intended, we can understand how mercy and righteous retribution both preside over the use of parables; how the thin veil hides that it may reveal, and how the very obscurity may draw some grosser souls to a longer gaze, and so may lead to a perception of the truth, which, in its purer form, they are neither worthy nor capable of receiving. No doubt, our Lord here announces a very solemn law, which runs through all the divine dealings, ‘To him that hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath.’

II. We turn to the exposition of the parable of the sower, or rather of the fourfold soils in which he sows the seed.

A sentence at the beginning disposes of the personality of the sower, which in Mark’s version does not refer exclusively to Christ, but includes all who carry the word to men. The likening of ‘the word’ to seed needs no explanation. The tiny, living nucleus of force, which is thrown broadcast, and must sink underground in order to grow, which does grow, and comes to light again in a form which fills the whole field where it is sown, and nourishes life as well as supplies material for another sowing, is the truest symbol of the truth in its working on the spirit. The threefold causes of failure are arranged in progressive order. At every stage of growth there are enemies. The first sowing never gets into the ground at all; the second grows a little, but its greenness soon withers; the third has a longer life, and a yet sadder failure, because a nearer approach to fertility. The types of character represented are unreceptive carelessness, emotional facility of acceptance, and earthly-mindedness, scotched, but not killed, by the word. The dangers which assault, but too successfully, the seed are the personal activity of Satan, opposition from without, and conflicting desires within. On all the soils the seed has been sown by hand; for drills are modern inventions; and sowing broadcast is the only right husbandry in Christ’s field with Christ’s seed. He is a poor workman, and an unfaithful one, who wants to pick his ground. Sow everywhere; ‘Thou canst not tell which shall prosper, whether this or that.’ The character of the soil is not irrevocably fixed; but the trodden path may be broken up to softness, and the stony heart changed, and the soul filled with cares and lusts be cleared, and any soil may become good ground. So the seed is to be flung out broadcast; and prayer for seed and soil will often turn the weeping sower into the joyous reaper.

The seed sown on the trodden footpath running across the field never sinks below the surface. It lies there, and has no real contact, nor any chance of growth. It must be in, not on, the ground, if its mysterious power is to be put forth. A pebble is as likely to grow as a seed, if both lie side by side, on the surface. Is not this the description of a mournfully large proportion of hearers of God’s truth? It never gets deeper than their ears, or, at the most, effects a shallow lodgment on the surface of their minds. So many feet pass along the path, and beat it into hardness, that the truth has no chance to take root. Habitual indifference to the gospel, masked by an utterly unmeaning and unreal acceptance of it, and by equally habitual decorous attendance on its preaching, is the condition of a dreadfully large proportion of church-goers. Their very familiarity with the truth robs it of all penetrating power. They know all about it, as they suppose; and so they listen to it as they would to the clank of a mill-wheel to which they were accustomed, missing its noise if it stops, and liking to be sent to sleep by its hum. Familiar truth often lies ‘bedridden in the dormitory of the soul, beside exploded errors.’

And what comes of this idle hearing, without acceptance or obedience? Truth which is common, and which a man supposes himself to believe, without having ever reflected on it, or let it influence conduct, is sure to die out. If we do not turn our beliefs into practice they will not long be our beliefs. Neglected impressions fade; the seed is only safe when it is buried. There are flocks of hungry, sharp-eyed, quick-flying thieves ready to pounce down on every exposed grain. So Mark uses here again his favourite ‘straightway’ to express the swift disappearance of the seed. As soon as the preacher’s voice is silent, or the book closed, the words are forgotten. The impression of a gliding keel on a smooth lake is not more evanescent.

The distinct reference to Satan as the agent in removing the seed is not to be passed by lightly. Christ’s words about demons have been emptied of meaning by the allegation that He was only accommodating Himself to the superstition of the times, but no explanation of that sort will do in this case. He surely commits Himself here to the assertion of the existence and agency of Satan; and surely those who profess to receive His words as the truth ought not to make light of them, in reference to so solemn and awe-inspiring a revelation.

The seed gets rather farther on the road to fruit in the second case. A thin surface of mould above a shelf of rock is like a forcing-house in hot countries. The stone keeps the heat and stimulates growth. The very thing that prevents deep rooting facilitates rapid shooting. The green spikelets will be above ground there long before they show in deeper soil. There would be many such hearers in the ‘very great multitude’ on the shore, who were attracted, they scarcely knew why, and were the more enthusiastic the less they understood the real scope of Christ’s teaching. The disciple who pressed forward with his excited and unasked ‘Master, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest!’ was one of such-well-meaning, perfectly sincere, warmly affected, and completely unreliable. Lightly come is lightly go. When such people forsake their fervent purposes, and turn their backs on what they have been so eagerly pursuing, they are quite consistent; for they are obeying the uppermost impulse in both cases, and, as they were easily drawn to follow without consideration, they are easily driven back with as little. The first taste of supposed good secured their giddy-pated adhesion; the first taste of trouble ensures their desertion. They are the same men acting in the same fashion at both times. Two things are marked by our Lord as suspicious in such easily won discipleship-its suddenness and its joyfulness. Feelings which are so easily stirred are superficial. A puff of wind sets a shallow pond in wavelets. Quick maturity means brief life and swift decay, as every ‘revival’ shows. The more earnestly we believe in the possibility of sudden conversions, the more we should remember this warning, and make sure that, if they are sudden, they shall be thorough, which they may be. The swiftness is not so suspicious if it be not accompanied with the other doubtful characteristic-namely, immediate joy. Joy is the result of true acceptance of the gospel; but not the first result. Without consciousness of sin and apprehension of judgment there is no conversion. We lay down no rules as to depth or duration of the ‘godly sorrow’ which precedes all well-grounded ‘joy in the Lord’; but the Christianity which has taken a flying leap over the valley of humiliation will scarcely reach a firm standing on the rock. He who ‘straightway with joy’ receives the word, will straightway, with equal precipitation, cast it away when the difficulties and oppositions which meet all true discipleship begin to develop themselves. Fair-weather crews will desert when storms begin to blow.

The third sort of soil brings things still farther on before failure comes. The seed is not only covered and germinating, but has actually begun to be fruitful. The thorns are supposed to have been cut down, but their roots have been left, and they grow faster than the wheat. They take the ‘goodness’ out of the ground, and block out sun and air; and so the stalks, which promised well, begin to get pale and droop, and the half-formed ear comes to nothing, or, as the other version of the parable has it, brings ‘forth no fruit to perfection.’ There are two crops fighting for the upper hand on the one ground, and the earlier possessor wins. The ‘struggle for existence’ ends with the ‘survival of the fittest’; that is, of the worst, to which the natural bent of the desires and inclinations of the unrenewed man is more congenial. The ‘cares of this world’ and the ‘deceitfulness of riches’ are but two sides of one thing. The poor man has cares; the rich man has the illusions of his wealth. Both men agree in thinking that this world’s good is most desirable. The one is anxious because he has not enough of it, or fears to lose what he has; the other man is full of foolish confidence because he has much. Eager desires after creatural good are common to both; and, what with the anxiety lest they lose, and the self-satisfaction because they have, and the mouths watering for the world’s good, there is no force of will, nor warmth of love, nor clearness of vision, left for better things. That is the history of the fall of many a professing Christian, who never apostatises, and keeps up a reputable appearance of godliness to the end; but the old worldliness, which was cut down for a while, has sprung again in his heart, and, by slow degrees, the word is ‘choked’-a most expressive picture of the silent, gradual dying-out of its power for want of sun and air-and ‘he’ or ‘it’ ‘becometh unfruitful,’ relapsing from a previous condition of fruit-bearing into sterility. No heart can mature two crops. We must choose between God and Mammon-between the word and the world.

There is nothing fixed or necessary in the faults of these three classes, and they are not so much the characteristics of separate types of men as evils common to all hearers, against which all have to guard. They depend upon the will and affections much more than on anything in temperament fixed and not to be got rid of. So there is no reason why any one of the three should not become ‘good soil’: and it is to be noted that the characteristic of that soil is simply that it receives and grows the seed. Any heart that will, can do that; and that is all that is needed. But to do it, there will have to be diligent care, lest we fall into any of the evils pointed at in the preceding parts of the parable, which are ever waiting to entrap us. The true ‘accepting’ of the word requires that we shall not let it lie on the surface of our minds, as in the case of the first; nor be satisfied with its penetrating a little deeper and striking root in our emotions, like the second, of whom it is said with such profound truth, that they ‘have no root in themselves,’ their roots being only in the superficial part of their being, and never going down to the true central self; nor let competing desires grow up unchecked, like the third; but cherish the ‘word of the truth of the gospel’ in our deepest hearts, guard it against foes, let it rule there, and mould all our conduct in conformity with its blessed principles. The true Christian is he who can truly say, ‘Thy word have I hid in mine heart.’ If we do, we shall be fruitful, because it will bear fruit in us. No man is obliged, by temperament or circumstances, to be ‘wayside,’ or ‘stony,’ or ‘thorny’ ground. Wherever a heart opens to receive the gospel, and keeps it fast, there the increase will be realised-not in equal measure in all, but in each according to faithfulness and diligence. Mark arranges the various yields in ascending scale, as if to teach our hopes and aims a growing largeness, while Matthew orders them in the opposite fashion, as if to teach that, while the hundredfold, which is possible for all, is best, the smaller yield is accepted by the great Lord of the harvest, who Himself not only sows the seed, but gives it its vitality, blesses its springing, and rejoices to gather the wheat into His barn.

Verse 21



Mar_4:21 .

The furniture of a very humble Eastern home is brought before us in this saying. In the original, each of the nouns has the definite article attached to it, and so suggests that in the house there was but one of each article; one lamp, a flat saucer with a wick swimming in oil; one measure for corn and the like; one bed, raised slightly, but sufficiently to admit of a flat vessel being put under it without danger, if for any reason it were desired to shade the light; and one lampstand.

The saying appeals to common-sense. A man does not light a lamp and then smother it. The act of lighting implies the purpose of illumination, and, with everybody who acts logically, its sequel is to put the lamp on a stand, where it may be visible. All is part of the nightly routine of every Jewish household. Jesus had often watched it; and, commonplace as it is, it had mirrored to Him large truths. If our eyes were opened to the suggestions of common life, we should find in them many parables and reminders of high matters.

Now this saying is a favourite and familiar one of our Lord, occurring four times in the Gospels. It is interesting to notice that He, too, like other teachers, had His favourite maxims, which He turned round in all sorts of ways, and presented as reflecting light at different angles and suggesting different thoughts. The four occurrences of the saying are these. In my text, and in the parallel in Luke’s Gospel, it is appended to the Parable of the Sower, and forms the basis of the exhortation, ‘Take heed how ye hear.’ In another place in Luke’s Gospel it is appended to our Lord’s words about ‘the sign of the prophet Jonah,’ which is explained to be the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it forms the basis of the exhortation to cultivate the single eye which is receptive of the light. In the Sermon on the Mount it is appended to the declaration that the disciples are the lights of the world, and forms the basis of the exhortation, ‘Let your light so shine before men.’ I have thought that it may be interesting and instructive if in this sermon we throw together these three applications of this one saying, and try to study the threefold lessons which it yields, and the weighty duties which it enforces.

I. So, then, I have to ask you, first, to consider that we have a lesson as to the apparent obscurities of revelation and of our duty concerning them.

That is the connection in which the words occur in our text, and in the other place in Luke’s Gospel, to which I have referred. Our Lord has just been speaking the Parable of the Sower. The disciples’ curiosity has been excited as to its significance. They ask Him for an explanation, which He gives minutely point by point. Then he passes to this general lesson of the purpose of the apparent veil which He had cast round the truth, by throwing it into a parabolic form. In effect He says: If I had meant to hide My teaching by the form into which I cast it, I should have been acting as absurdly and as contradictorily as a man would do who should light a lamp and immediately obscure it.’ True, there is the veil of parable, but the purpose of that relative concealment is not hiding, but revelation. ‘There is nothing covered but that it should be made known.’ The veil sharpens attention, stimulates curiosity, quickens effort, and so becomes positively subsidiary to the great purpose of revelation for which the parable is spoken. The existence of this veil of sensuous representation carries with it the obligation, ‘Take heed how ye hear.’

Now all these thoughts have a far wider application than in reference to our Lord’s parables. And I may suggest one or two of the considerations that flow from the wider reference of the words before us.

‘Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed and not upon a candlestick?’ There are no gratuitous and dark places in anything that God says to us. His revelation is absolutely clear. We may be sure of that if we consider the purpose for which He spoke at all. True, there are dark places; true, there are great gaps; true, we sometimes think, ‘Oh! it would have been so easy for Him to have said one word more; and the one word more would have been so infinitely precious to bleeding hearts or wounded consciences or puzzled understandings.’ But ‘is a candle brought to be set under a bushel?’ Do you think that if He took the trouble to light it He would immediately smother it, or arbitrarily conceal anything that the very fact of the revelation declares His intention to make known? His own great word remains true, ‘I have never spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth.’ If there be, as there are, obscurities, there are none there that would have been better away.

For the intention of all God’s hiding-which hiding is an integral part of his revealing-is not to conceal, but to reveal. Sometimes the best way of making a thing known to men is to veil it in a measure, in order that the very obscurity, like the morning mists which prophesy a blazing sun in a clear sky by noonday, may demand search and quicken curiosity and spur to effort. He is not a wise teacher who makes things too easy. It is good that there should be difficulties; for difficulties are like the veins of quartz in the soil, which may turn the edge of the ploughshare or the spade, but prophesy that there is gold there for the man who comes with fitting tools. Wherever, in the broad land of God’s word to us, there lie dark places, there are assurances of future illumination. God’s hiding is in order to revelation, even as the prophet of old, when he was describing the great Theophany which flashed in light from the one side of the heaven to the other, exclaimed, ‘There was the hiding of His power.’

‘He hides the purpose of His grace

To make it better known.’

And the end of all the concealments, and apparent and real obscurities, that hang about His word, is that for many of them patient and diligent attention and docile obedience should unfold them here, and for the rest, ‘the day shall declare them.’ The lamp is the light for the night-time, and it leaves many a corner in dark shadow; but, when ‘night’s candles are burnt out, and day sits jocund on the misty mountain-tops,’ much will be plain that cannot be made plain now.

Therefore, for us the lesson from this assurance that God will not stultify Himself by giving to us a revelation that does not reveal, is, ‘Take heed how ye hear.’ The effort will not be in vain. Patient attention will ever be rewarded. The desire to learn will not be frustrated. In this school truth lightly won is truth loosely held; and only the attentive scholar is the receptive and retaining disciple. A great man once said, and said, too, presumptuously and proudly, that he had rather have the search after truth than truth. But yet there is a sense in which the saying may be modifiedly accepted; for, precious as is all the revelation of God, not the least precious effect that it is meant to produce upon us is the consciousness that in it there are unscaled heights above, and unplumbed depths beneath, and untraversed spaces all around it; and that for us that Word is like the pillar of cloud and fire that moved before Israel, blends light and darkness with the single office of guidance, and gleams ever before us to draw desires and feet after it. The lamp is set upon a stand. ‘Take heed how ye hear.’

II. Secondly, the saying, in another application on our Lord’s lips, gives us a lesson as to Himself and our attitude to Him.

I have already pointed out the other instance in Luke’s Gospel in which this saying occurs, in the 11th chapter, where it is brought into immediate connection with our Lord’s declaration that the sign to be given to His generation was ‘the sign of the prophet Jonah,’ which sign He explains as being reproduced in His own case in His Resurrection. And then he adds the word of our text, and immediately passes on to speak about the light in us which perceives the lamp, and the need of cultivating the single eye.

So, then, we have, in the figure thus applied, the thought that the earthly life of Jesus Christ necessarily implies a subsequent elevation from which He shines down upon all the world. God lit that lamp, and it is not going to be quenched in the darkness of the grave. He is not going to stultify Himself by sending the Light of the World, and then letting the endless shades of death muffle and obscure it. But, just as the conclusion of the process which is begun in the kindling of the light is setting it on high on the stand, that it may beam over all the chamber, so the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, His exaltation to the supremacy from which He shall draw all men unto Him, are the necessary and, if I may so say, the logical result of the facts of His incarnation and death.

Then from this there follows what our Lord dwells upon at greater length. Having declared that the beginning of His course involved the completion of it in His exaltation to glory, He then goes on to say to us, ‘You have an organ that corresponds to Me. I am the kindled lamp; you have the seeing eye.’ ‘If the eye were not sunlike,’ says the great German thinker, ‘how could it see the sun?’ If there were not in me that which corresponds to Jesus Christ, He would be no Light of the World, and no light to me. My reason, my affection, my conscience, my will, the whole of my spiritual being, answer to Him, as the eye does to the light, and for everything that is in Christ there is in humanity something that is receptive of, and that needs, Him.

So, then, that being so, He being our light, just because He fits our needs, answers our desires, satisfies our cravings, fills the clefts of our hearts, and brings the response to all the questions of our understandings-that being the case, if the lamp is lit and blazing on the lampstand, and you and I have eyes to behold it, let us take heed that we cultivate the single eye which apprehends Christ. Concentration of purpose, simplicity and sincerity of aim, a heart centred upon Him, a mind drawn to contemplate unfalteringly and without distraction of crosslights His beauty, His supremacy, His completeness, and a soul utterly devoted to Him-these are the conditions to which that light will ever manifest itself, and illumine the whole man. But if we come with divided hearts, with distracted aims, giving Him fragments of ourselves, and seeking Him by spasms and at intervals, and having a dozen other deities in our Pantheon, beside the calm form of the Christ of Nazareth, what wonder is there that we see in Him ‘no beauty that we should desire Him’? ‘Unite my heart to fear Thy name.’ Oh I if that were our prayer, and if the effort to secure its answer were honestly the effort of our lives, all His loveliness, His sweetness, His adaptation to our whole being, would manifest themselves to us. The eye must be ‘single,’ directed to Him, if the heart is to rejoice in His light.

I need not do more than remind you of the blessed consequence which our Lord represents as flowing from this union of the seeing heart and the revealing light-viz., ‘Thy whole body shall be full of light.’ In every eye that beholds the flame of the lamp there is a little lamp-flame mirrored and manifested. And just as what we see makes its image on the seeing organ of the body, so the Christ beheld is a Christ embodied in us; and we, gazing upon Him, are ‘changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit.’ Light that remains without us does not illuminate; light that passes into us is the light by which we see, and the Christ beheld is the Christ ensphered in our hearts.

III. So, lastly, this great saying gives us a lesson as to the duties of Christian men as lights in the world.

I pointed out that another instance of the occurrence of the saying is in the Sermon on the Mount, where it is transferred from the revelation of God in His written word, and in His Incarnate Word, to the relation of Christian men to the world in which they dwell. I need not remind you how frequently that same metaphor occurs in Scripture; how in the early Jewish ritual the great seven-branched lampstand which stood at first in the Tabernacle was the emblem of Israel’s office in the whole world, as it rayed out its light through the curtains of the Tabernacle into the darkness of the desert. Nor need I remind you how our Lord bare witness to His forerunner by the praise that ‘He was a burning and a shining light,’ nor how He commanded His disciples to have their ‘loins girt and their lamps burning,’ nor how He spoke the Parable of the Ten Virgins with their lamps.

From all these there follows the same general thought that Christian men, not so much by specific effort, nor by words, nor by definite proclamation, as by the raying out from them in life and conduct of a Christlike spirit, are set for the illumination of the world. The bearing of our text in reference to that subject is just this-our obligation as Christians to show forth the glories of Him who hath ‘called us out of darkness into His marvellous light’ is rested upon His very purpose in drawing us to Himself, and receiving us into the number of his people. If God in Christ, by communicating to us ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ,’ has made us lights of the world, it is not done in order that the light may be smothered incontinently, but His act of lighting indicates His purpose of illumination. What are you a Christian for? That you may go to Heaven? Certainly. That your sins may be forgiven? No doubt. But is that the only end? Are you such a very great being as that your happiness and well-being can legitimately be the ultimate purpose of God’s dealings with you? Are you so isolated from all mankind as that any gift which He bestows on you is to be treated by you as a morsel that you can take into your corner and devour, like a grudging dog, by yourselves? By no means. ‘God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined into our hearts in order that’ we might impart the light to others. Or, as Shakespeare has it, in words perhaps suggested by the Scripture metaphor,

‘Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,

Not light them for themselves.’

He gave you His Son that you may give the gospel to others, and you stultify His purpose in your salvation unless you become ministers of His grace and manifesters of His light.

Then take from this emblem, too, a homely suggestion as to the hindrances that stand in the way of our fulfilling the Divine intention in our salvation. It is, perhaps, a piece of fancy, but still it may point a lesson. The lamp is not hid ‘under a bushel,’ which is the emblem of commerce or business, and is meant for the measurement of material wealth and sustenance, or ‘under a bed’-the place where people take their ease and repose. These two loves-the undue love of the bushel and the corn that is in it, and the undue love of the bed and the leisurely ease that you may enjoy there-are large factors in preventing Christian men from fulfilling God’s purpose in their salvation.

Then take a hint as to the means by which such a purpose can be fulfilled by Christian souls. They are suggested in the two of the other uses of this emblem by our Lord Himself. The first is when He said, ‘Let your loins be girded’-they are not so, when you are in bed-’and your lamps burning.’ Your light will not shine in a naughty world without your strenuous effort, and ungirt loins will very shortly lead to extinguished lamps. The other means to this manifestation of visible Christlikeness lies in that tragical story of the foolish virgins who took no oil in their vessels. If light expresses the outward Christian life, oil, in accordance with the whole tenor of Scripture symbolism, expresses the inward gift of the Divine Spirit. And where that gift is neglected, where it is not earnestly sought and carefully treasured, there may be a kind of smoky illuminations, which, in the dark, may pass for bright lights, but, when the Lord comes, shudder into extinction, and, to the astonishment of the witless five who carried them, are found to be ‘going out.’ Brethren, only He who does not quench the smoking flax but tends it to a flame, will help us to keep our lamps bright.

First of all, then, let us gaze upon the light in Him, until we become ‘light in the Lord.’ And then let us see to it that, by girt loins and continual reception of the illuminating principle of the Divine Spirit’s oil, we fill our lamps with ‘deeds of odorous light, and hopes that breed not shame.’ Then,

‘When the Bridegroom, with his feastful friends,

Passes to bliss on the mid-hour of night,’

we shall have ‘gained our entrance’ among the ‘virgins wise and pure.’

Verse 35



Mar_4:35 .

Mark seldom dates his incidents, but he takes pains to tell us that this run across the lake closed a day of labour, Jesus was wearied, and felt the need of rest, He had been pressed on all day by ‘a very great multitude,’ and felt the need of solitude. He could not land from the boat which had been His pulpit, for that would have plunged Him into the thick of the crowd, and so the only way to get away from the throng was to cross the lake. But even there He was followed; ‘other boats were with Him.’

I. The first point to note is the wearied sleeper.

The disciples ‘take Him, . . . even as He was,’ without preparation or delay, the object being simply to get away as quickly as might be, so great was His fatigue and longing for quiet. We almost see the hurried starting and the intrusive followers scrambling into the little skiffs on the beach and making after Him. The ‘multitude’ delights to push itself into the private hours of its heroes, and is devoured with rude curiosity. There was a leather, or perhaps wooden, movable seat in the stern for the steersman, on which a wearied-out man might lay his head, while his body was stretched in the bottom of the boat. A hard ‘pillow’ indeed, which only exhaustion could make comfortable! But it was soft enough for the worn-out Christ, who had apparently flung Himself down in sheer tiredness as soon as they set sail. How real such a small detail makes the transcendent mystery of the Incarnation! Jesus is our pattern in small common things as in great ones, and among the sublimities of character set forth in Him as our example, let us not forget that the homely virtue of hard work is also included. Jonah slept in a storm the sleep of a skulking sluggard, Jesus slept the sleep of a wearied labourer.

II. The next point is the terrified disciples.

The evening was coming on, and, as often on a lake set among hills, the wind rose as the sun sank behind the high land on the western shore astern. The fishermen disciples were used to such squalls, and, at first, would probably let their sail down, and pull so as to keep the boat’s head to the wind. But things grew worse, and when the crazy, undecked craft began to fill and get water-logged, they grew alarmed. The squall was fiercer than usual, and must have been pretty bad to have frightened such seasoned hands. They awoke Jesus, and there is a touch of petulant rebuke in their appeal, and of a sailor’s impatience at a landsman lying sound asleep while the sweat is running down their faces with their hard pulling. It is to Mark that we owe our knowledge of that accent of complaint in their words, for he alone gives their ‘Carest Thou not?’

But it is not for us to fling stones at them, seeing that we also often may catch ourselves thinking that Jesus has gone to sleep when storms come on the Church or on ourselves, and that He is ignorant of, or indifferent to, our plight. But though the disciples were wrong in their fright, and not altogether right in the tone of their appeal to Jesus, they were supremely right in that they did appeal to Him. Fear which drives us to Jesus is not all wrong. The cry to Him, even though it is the cry of unnecessary terror, brings Him to His feet for our help.

III. The next point is the word of power.

Again we have to thank Mark for the very words, so strangely, calmly authoritative. May we take ‘Peace!’ as spoken to the howling wind, bidding it to silence; and ‘Be still!’ as addressed to the tossing waves, smoothing them to a calm plain? At all events, the two things to lay to heart are that Jesus here exercises the divine prerogative of controlling matter by the bare expression of His will, and that this divine attribute was exercised by the wearied man, who, a moment before, had been sleeping the sleep of human exhaustion. The marvellous combination of apparent opposites, weakness, and divine omnipotence, which yet do not clash, nor produce an incredible monster of a being, but coalesce in perfect harmony, is a feat beyond the reach of the loftiest creative imagination. If the Evangelists are not simple biographers, telling what eyes have seen and hands have handled, they have beaten the greatest poets and dramatists at their own weapons, and have accomplished ‘things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.’

A word of loving rebuke and encouragement follows. Matthew puts it before the stilling of the storm, but Mark’s order seems the more exact. How often we too are taught the folly of our fears by experiencing some swift, easy deliverance! Blessed be God! He does not rebuke us first and help us afterwards, but rebukes by helping. What could the disciples say, as they sat there in the great calm, in answer to Christ’s question, ‘Why are ye fearful?’ Fear can give no reasonable account of itself, if Christ is in the boat. If our faith unites us to Jesus, there is nothing that need shake our courage. If He is ‘our fear and our dread,’ we shall not need to ‘fear their fear,’ who have not the all-conquering Christ to fight for them.

‘Well roars the storm to them who hear

A deeper voice across the storm.’

Jesus wondered at the slowness of the disciples to learn their lesson, and the wonder was reflected in the sad question, ‘Have ye not yet faith?’-not yet, after so many miracles, and living beside Me for so long? How much more keen the edge of that question is when addressed to us, who know Him so much better, and have centuries of His working for His servants to look back on. When, in the tempests that sweep over our own lives, we sometimes pass into a great calm as suddenly as if we had entered the centre of a typhoon, we wonder unbelievingly instead of saying, out of a faith nourished by experience, ‘It is just like Him.’

Verse 36




Mar_4:36 , Mar_4:38 .

Among the many loftier characteristics belonging to Christ’s life and work, there is a very homely one which is often lost sight of; and that is, the amount of hard physical exertion, prolonged even to fatigue and exhaustion, which He endured.

Christ is our pattern in a great many other things more impressive and more striking; and He is our pattern in this, that ‘in the sweat of His brow’ He did His work, and knew not only what it was to suffer, but what it was to toil for man’s salvation. And, perhaps, if we thought a little more than we do of such a prosaic characteristic of His life as that, it might invest it with some more reality for us, besides teaching us other large and important lessons.

I have thrown together these two clauses for our text now, simply for the sake of that one feature which they both portray so strikingly.

‘They took Him even as He was in the ship.’ Now many expositors suppose that in the very form of that phrase there is suggested the extreme of weariness and exhaustion which He suffered, after the hard day’s toil. Whether that be so or no, the swiftness of the move to the little boat, although there was nothing in the nature of danger or of imperative duty to hurry Him away, and His going on board without a moment’s preparation, leaving the crowd on the beach, seem most naturally accounted for by supposing that He had come to the last point of physical endurance, and that His frame, worn out by the hard day’s work, needed one thing-rest.

And so, the next that we see of Him is that, as soon as He gets into the ship He falls fast asleep on the wooden pillow-a hard bed for His head!-in the stern of the little fishing boat, and there He lies so tired-let us put it into plain prose and strip away the false veil of big words with which we invest that nature-so tired that the storm does not awake Him; and they have to come to Him, and lay their hands upon Him, and say to Him, ‘Master, carest Thou not that we perish?’ before compassion again beat back fatigue, and quickened Him for fresh exertions.

This, then, is the one lesson which I wish to consider now, and there are three points which I deal with in pursuance of my task. I wish to point out a little more in detail the signs that we have in the Gospels of this characteristic of Christ’s work-the toilsomeness of His service; then to consider, secondly, the motives which He Himself tells us impelled to such service; and then, finally, the worth which that toil bears for us.

I. First, then, let me point out some of the significant hints which the gospel records give us of the toilsomeness of Christ’s service.

Now we are principally indebted for these to this Gospel by Mark, which ancient tradition has set forth as being especially and eminently the ‘Gospel of the Servant of God,’ therein showing a very accurate conception of its distinguishing characteristics. Just as Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel of the King, regal in tone from beginning to end; just as Luke’s is the Gospel of the Man, human and universal in its tone; just as John’s is the Gospel of the Eternal Word, so Mark’s is the Gospel of the Servant. The inscription written over it all might be, ‘Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God.’ ‘Behold my Servant whom I uphold.’

And if you will take this briefest of all the Gospels, and read it over from that point of view, you will be surprised to discover what a multitude of minute traits make up the general impression, and what a unity is thereby breathed into the narrative.

For instance, did you ever observe the peculiar beginning of this Gospel? There are here none of the references to the prophecies of the King, no tracing of His birth through the royal stock to the great progenitor of the nation, no adoration by the Eastern sages, which we find in Matthew, no miraculous birth nor growing childhood as in Luke, no profound unveiling of the union of the Word with God before the world was, as in John; but the narrative begins with His baptism, and passes at once to the story of His work. The same ruling idea accounts for the uniform omission of the title ‘Lord’ which in Mark’s Gospel is never applied to Christ until after the resurrection. There is only one apparent exception, and there good authorities pronounce the word to be spurious. Even in reports of conversations which are also given in the other Gospels, and where ‘Lord’ occurs, Mark, of set purpose, omits it, as if its presence would disturb the unity of the impression which he desires to leave. You will find the investigation of the omissions in this Gospel full of interest, and remarkably tending to confirm the accuracy of the view which regards it as the Gospel of the Servant.

Notice then these traits of His service which it brings out.

The first of them I would suggest is-how distinctly it gives the impression of swift, strenuous work. The narrative is brief and condensed. We feel, all through these earlier chapters, at all events, the presence of the pressing crowd coming to Him and desiring to be healed, and but a word can be spared for each incident as the story hurries on, trying to keep pace with His rapid service of quick-springing compassion and undelaying help. There is one word which is reiterated over and over again in these earlier chapters, remarkably conveying this impression of haste and strenuous work; Mark’s favourite word is ‘straightway,’ ‘immediately,’ ‘forthwith,’ ‘anon,’ which are all translations of one expression. You will find, if you glance over the first, second, or third chapters at your leisure, that it comes in at every turn. Take these instances which strike one’s eye at the moment. ‘ Straightway they forsook their nets’; ‘ Straightway He entered into the synagogue’; ‘ Immediately His fame spread abroad throughout all the region’; ‘ Forthwith they entered into the house of Simon’s mother’; ‘ Anon , they tell Him of her’; ‘ Immediately the fever left her.’ And so it goes on through the whole story, a picture of a constant succession of rapid acts of mercy and love. The story seems, as it were, to pant with haste to keep up with Him as He moves among men, swift as a sunbeam, and continuous in the outflow of His love as are these unceasing rays.

Again, we see in Christ’s service, toil prolonged to the point of actual physical exhaustion. The narrative before us is the most striking instance of that which we meet with. It had been a long wearying day of work. According to this chapter, the whole of the profound parables concerning the kingdom of God had immediately preceded the embarkation. But even these, with their explanation, had been but a part of that day’s labours. For, in Matthew’s account of them, we are told that they were spoken on the same day as that on which His mother and brethren came desiring to speak with Him,-or, as we elsewhere read, with hostile intentions to lay hold on Him as mad and needing restraint. And that event, which we may well believe touched deep and painful chords of feeling in His human heart, and excited emotions more exhausting than much physical effort, occurred in the midst of an earnest and prolonged debate with emissaries from Jerusalem, in the course of which He spoke the solemn words concerning blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and Satan casting out Satan, and poured forth some of His most terrible warnings, and some of His most beseeching entreaties. No wonder that, after such a day, the hard pillow of the boat was a soft resting-place for His wearied head; no wonder that, as the evening quiet settled down on the mountain-girdled lake, and the purple shadows of the hills stretched athwart the water, He slept; no wonder that the storm which followed the sunset did not wake Him; and beautiful, that wearied as He was, the disciples’ cry at once rouses Him, and the fatigue which shows His manhood gives place to the divine energy which says unto the sea, ‘Peace! be still.’ The lips which, a moment before, had been parted in the soft breathing of wearied sleep, now open to utter the omnipotent word-so wonderfully does He blend the human and the divine, ‘the form of a servant’ and the nature of God.

We see, in Christ, toil that puts aside the claims of physical wants. Twice in this Gospel we read of this ‘The multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread.’ ‘There were many coming, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.’

We see in Christ’s service a love which is at every man’s beck and call, a toil cheerfully rendered at the most unreasonable and unseasonable times. As I said a moment or two ago, this Gospel makes one feel, as none other of these narratives do, the pressure of that ever-present multitude, the whirling excitement that eddied round the calm centre. It tells us, for instance, more than once, how Christ, wearied with His toil, feeling in body and in spirit the need of rest and still communion, withdrew Himself from the crowd. He once departed alone that He might seek God in prayer; once He went with His wearied disciples apart into a desert place to rest awhile. On both occasions the retirement is broken in upon before it is well begun. The sigh of relief in the momentary rest is scarcely drawn, and the burden laid down for an instant, when it has to be lifted again. His solitary prayer is interrupted by the disciples, with ‘All men seek for Thee,’ and, without a murmur or a pause, He buckles to His work again, and says, ‘Let us go into the next towns that I may preach there also; for therefore am I sent.’

When He would carry His wearied disciples with Him for a brief breathing time to the other side of the sea, and get away from the thronging crowd, ‘the people saw Him departing, and ran afoot out of all cities,’ and, making their way round the head of the lake, were all there at the landing place before Him. Instead of seclusion and repose He found the same throng and bustle. Here they were, most of them from mere curiosity, some of them no doubt with deeper feelings; here they were, with their diseased and their demoniacs, and as soon as His foot touches the shore He is in the midst of it all again. And He meets it, not with impatience at this rude intrusion on His privacy, not with refusals to help. Only one emotion filled His heart. He forgot all about weariness, and hunger, and retirement, and ‘He was moved with compassion towards them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd, and He began to teach them many things.’ Such a picture may well shame our languid, self-indulgent service, may stir us to imitation and to grateful praise.

There is only one other point which I touch upon for a moment, as showing the toil of Christ, and that is drawn from another Gospel. Did you ever notice the large space occupied in Matthew’s Gospel by the record of the last day of His public ministry, and how much of all that we know of His mission and message, and the future of the world and of all men, we owe to the teaching of these four-and-twenty hours? Let me put together, in a word, what happened on that day.

It included the conversation with the chief priests and elders about the baptism of John, the parable of the householder that planted a vineyard and digged a winepress, the parables of the kingdom of heaven, the controversy with the Herodians about the tribute money, the conversation with the Sadducees about the resurrection, with the Pharisee about the great commandment in the law, the silencing of the Pharisees by pointing to the 110th Psalm, the warning to the multitude against the scribes and Pharisees who were hypocrites, protracted and prolonged up to that wail of disappointed love, ‘Behold! your house is left unto you desolate.’ And, as though that had not been enough for one day, when He is going home from the Temple to find, for a night, in that quiet little home of Bethany, the rest that He wants, as He rests wearily on the slopes of Olivet, the disciples come to Him, ‘Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy coming?’ and there follows all that wonderful prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, the parable of the fig tree, the warning not to suffer the thief to come, and the promise of reward for the faithful and wise servant, the parable of the ten virgins, and in all probability the parable of the king with the five talents; and the words, that might be written in letters of fire, that tell us the final course of all things, and the judgment of life eternal and death everlasting! All this was the work of ‘one of the days of the Son of Man.’ Of Him it was prophesied long ago, ‘For Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest’; and His life on earth, as well as His life in heaven, fulfils the prediction-the one by the toilsomeness of His service, the other by the unceasing energy of His exalted power. He toiled unwearied here, He works unresting there.

II. In the second place, let me ask you to notice how we get from our Lord’s own words a glimpse into the springs of this wonderful activity.

There are three points which distinctly come out in various places in the Gospels as His motives for such unresting sedulousness and continuance of toil. The first is conveyed by such words as these: ‘I must work the works of Him that sent Me.’ ‘Let us preach to other cities, also: for therefore am I sent.’ ‘Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?’ ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work.’ All these express one thought. Christ lived and toiled, and bore weariness and exhaustion, and counted every moment as worthy to be garnered up and precious, as to be filled with deeds of love and kindness, because wherever He went, and to whatsoever He set His hand, He had the one consciousness of a great task laid upon Him by a loving Father whom He loved, and whom, therefore, it was His joy and His blessedness to serve.

And, remember that this motive made the life homogeneous-of a piece. In all the variety of service, one spirit was expressed, and, therefore, the service was one. No matter whether He were speaking words of grace or of rebuke, or working works of power and love, or simply looking a look of kindness on some outcast, or taking a little child in His arms, or stilling with the same arms outstretched the wild uproar of the storm-it was all the same. To Him life was all one. There was nothing great, nothing small; nothing so insignificant that it could be done negligently; nothing so hard that it surpassed His power. The one motive made all duties equal; obedience to the Father called forth His whole energy at every moment. To Him life was not divided into a set of tasks of varying importance, some of which could be accomplished with a finger’s touch, and some of which demanded a dead lift and strain of all the muscles. But whatsoever His hand found to do He did with His might and that because He felt, be it great or little, that it all came, if I may so say, into the day’s work, and all was equally great because the Father that sent Him had laid it upon Him.

There is one thing that makes life mighty in its veriest trifles, worthy in its smallest deeds, that delivers it from monotony, that delivers it from insignificance. All will be great, and nothing will be overpowering, when, living in communion with Jesus Christ, we say as He says, ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me.’

And then, still further, another of the secret springs that move His unwearied activity, His heroism of toil, is the thought expressed in such words as these:-’While I am in the world I am the light of the world.’ ‘I must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day; the night cometh when no man can work.’

Jesus Christ manifested on earth performs indeed a work-the mightiest which He came to do-which was done precisely then when the night did come-namely, the work of His death, which is the atonement and ‘propitiation for the sins of the world.’ And, further, the ‘night, when no man can work,’ was not the end of His activity for us; for He carries on His work of intercession and rule, His work of bestowing the gifts purchased by His blood, amidst the glories of heaven; and that perpetual application and dispensing of the blessed issues of His death He has Himself represented as greater than the works, to which His death put a period, in which He healed the bodies and spoke to the hearts of those who heard, and lived a perfect life here upon this sinful earth. But yet even He recognised the brief hour of sunny life as being an hour that must be filled with service, and recognised the fact that there was a task that He could only do when He lived the life of a man upon earth. And so, if I might so say, He was a miser of the moments, and carefully husbanding and garnering up every capacity and every opportunity. He toiled with the toil of a man who has a task before him, that must be done before the clock strikes six, and who sees the hands move over the dial, and by every glance that he casts at it is stimulated to intenser service and to harder toil. Christ felt that impulse to service which we all ought to feel-’The night cometh; let me fill the day with work.’

And then there is a final motive which I need barely touch. He was impelled to His sedulous service not only by loving, filial obedience to the divine law, and by the consciousness of a limited and defined period into which all the activity of one specific kind must be condensed, but also by the motive expressed in such words as these, in which this Gospel is remarkably rich, ‘And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth His hand and touched him.’ Thus, along with that supreme consecration, along with that swift ardour that will fill the brief hours ere nightfall with service, there was the constant pity of that beating heart that moved the diligent hand. Christ, if I may so say, could not help working as hard as He did, so long as there were so many men round about Him that needed His sympathy and His aid.

III. So much then for the motives; and now a word finally as to the worth of this toil for us.

I do not stay to elucidate one consideration that might be suggested, viz., how precious a proof it is of Christ’s humanity. We find it easier to bring home His true manhood to our thoughts, when we remember that He, like us, knew the pressure of physical fatigue. Not only was it a human spirit that wept and rejoiced, that was moved with compassion, and sometimes with indignation, but it was a human body, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, that, wearied with walking in the burning sun, sat on the margin of the well; that was worn out and needed to sleep; that knew hunger, as is testified by His sending the disciples to buy meat; that was thirsty, as is testified by His saying, ‘Give Me to drink.’ The true corporeal manhood of Jesus Christ, and the fact that that manhood is the tabernacle of God-without these two facts the morality and the teaching of Christianity swing loose in vacuo , and have no holdfast in history, nor any leverage by which they can move men’s hearts! But, when we know that the common necessities of fatigue, and hunger, and thirst belonged to Him, then we gratefully and reverently say, ‘Forasmuch as the children were partakers of flesh and blood, he also Himself took part of the same.’

This fact of Christ’s toil is of worth to us in other ways.

Is not that hard work of Jesus Christ a lesson for us, brethren, in our daily tasks and toils-a lesson which, if it were learnt and practised, would make a difference not only on the intensity but upon the spirit with which we labour? A great deal of fine talk is indulged in about the dignity of labour and the like. Labour is a curse until communion with God in it, which is possible through Jesus Christ, makes it a blessing and a joy. Christ, in the sweat of His brow, won our salvation; and our work only becomes great when it is work done in, and for, and by Him.

And what do we learn from His example? We learn these things: the plain lesson, first,-task all your capacity and use every minute in doing the duty that is plainly set before you to do. Christian virtues are sometimes thought to be unreal and unworldly things. I was going to say the root of them, certainly the indispensable accompaniment for them all, is the plain, prosaic, most unromantic virtue of hard work.

And beyond that, what do we learn? The lesson that most toilers in England want. There is no need to preach to the most of us to work any harder, in one department of work at any rate; but there is great need to remind us of what it was that at once stirred Jesus Christ into energy and kept Him calm in the midst of labour-and that was that everything was equally and directly referred to His Father’s will. People talk nowadays about ‘missions.’ The only thing worth giving that name to is the ‘mission’ which He gives us, who sends us into the world not to do our own will, but to do the will of Him that sent us. There is a fatal monotony in all our lives-a terrible amount of hard drudgery in them all. We have to set ourselves morning after morning to tasks that look to be utterly insignificant and disproportionate to the power that we bring to bear upon them, so that men are like elephants picking up pins with their trunks; and yet we may make all our commonplace drudgery great, and wondrous, and fair, and full of help and profit to our souls, if, over it all-our shops, our desks, our ledgers, our studies, our kitchens, and our nurseries-we write, ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me.’ We may bring the greatest principles to bear upon the smallest duties.

What more do we learn from Christ’s toil? The possible harmony of communion and service. His labour did not break His fellowship with God. He was ever in the ‘secret place of the Most High,’ even while He was in the midst of crowds. He has taught us that it is possible to be in the ‘house of the Lord’ all the days of our lives, and by His ensample, as by His granted Spirit, encourages us to aim at so serving that we shall never cease to behold, and so beholding that we shall never cease to serve our Father. The life of contemplation and the life of practice, so hard to harmonise in our experience, perfectly meet in Christ.

What more do we learn from our Lord’s toils? The cheerful constant postponement of our own ease, wishes, or pleasure to the call of the Father’s voice, or to the echo of it in the sighing of such as be sorrowful. I have already referred to the instances of His putting aside His need for rest, and His desire for still fellowship with God, at the call of whoever needed Him. It was the same always. If a Nicodemus comes by night, if a despairing father forces his way into the house of feasting, if another suppliant finds Him in a house, where He would have remained hid, if they come running to Him in the way, or drop down their sick before Him through the very roof-it is all the same. He never thinks of Himself, but gladly addresses Himself to heal and bless. How such an example followed would change our lives and amaze and shake the world!-’I come, not to do Mine own will.’ ‘Even Christ pleased not Himself.’

But that toil is not only a pattern for our lives; it is an appeal to our grateful hearts. Surely a toiling Christ is as marvellous as a dying Christ. And the immensity and the purity and the depth of His love are shown no less by this, that He labours to accomplish it, than by this, that He dies to complete it. He will not give blessings which depend upon mere will, and can be bestowed as a king might fling a largess to a beggar without effort, and with scarce a thought, but blessings which He Himself has to agonise and to energise, and to lead a life of obedience, and to die a death of shame, in order to procure. ‘I will not offer burnt-offering to God of that which doth cost me nothing,’ says the grateful heart. But in so saying it is but following in the track of the loving Christ, who will not give unto man that which cost Him nothing, and who works, as well as dies, in order that we may be saved.

And, O brethren! think of the contrast between what Christ has done to save us, and what we do to secure and appropriate that salvation! He toiled all His days, buying our peace with His life, going down into the mine and bringing up the jewels at the cost of His own precious blood. And you and I stand with folded arms, too apathetic to take the rich treasures that are freely given to us of God! He has done everything, that we may have nothing to do, and we will not even put out our slack hands to clasp the grace purchased by His blood, and commended by His toil! ‘Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.’

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Mark 4". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture.