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CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Mark 4:1. For a description of the surrounding scenery, which doubtless furnished many of the illustrations used in the following parables, see Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine, pp. 425–427; Thomson’s Land and the Book, p. 402; Tristram’s Land of Israel, p. 431.
Mark 4:11. Unto you, who possess the hearing ear and inquiring heart, is given the mystery or inner secret of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, who listen only from curiosity or some even less worthy motive, all the things concerning that kingdom are done in (i.e. take the form of) parables.
Mark 4:12. This veiling of spiritual truth is in mercy to those at present unable to receive it. The time may come when, with softened hearts, they will recall the teaching unheeded now; and then by the help of the parables embedded in their memory, they may rise to an appreciation of the things of the kingdom.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Mark 4:1-20
Popular teaching of Jesus Christ.—Good teaching is always seasonable. It is the first step to the attainment of larger blessing. Real knowledge enlarges the soul’s capacity, and awakens new desire.
I. The particular occasion.—The multitude was great: universal eagerness was aroused to hear the wisdom of this strange Teacher. No private dwelling sufficed to accommodate the crowd. By common instinct they withdrew to the shore of the lake.
1. Outward circumstances are made tributary to the wise designs of Jesus. If the artificial temples reared by men are too narrow for the Divine purpose, material nature will provide a temple of the sublimest kind. Nor is this all. There is no reason why we should not conclude that, at the creation of Gennesaret’s blue lake, this event was foreseen. That shelving, sandy beach had been, for long ages, intended as an auditorium for that human assemblage; and never had its capacity been put to its noblest use till then. Still, human art is not flung away in contempt. The Gracious King deigns to employ human helpers, and to work through human agencies, so far as He Song of Song of Solomon 2:0. Initial stages of Divine illumination. “He began to teach.” As a human parent, dealing with children, begins with pictures and object-lessons, so deals Jesus Christ with men. He began with parables. To speak of things in the heavenly world as they really are would be to speak a language unintelligible to human auditors. In nature God’s thoughts are projected before human eyes in material objects, and these the Son of God makes His starting-point.
3. A renewed endeavour to do men good. “Again He began.” Full well He knew the dulness of men to apprehend spiritual truth. If He had depended upon immediate and visible results for inspiration of energy to continue His undertaking, hope would soon have expired. But His Divine patience is inexhaustible. “Line upon line, precept upon precept,” is His sketch-plan. No apparent miscarriage daunts Him.
II. The form of the Saviour’s teaching.—“In parables.”
1. This form of teaching readily impresses the imagination. Interest is awakened. Attention is excited. It becomes evident that spiritual truth has vital connexion with visible things. This life is seen to be the groundwork of a nobler.
2. This form of teaching serves as a test of men’s honesty. Some men will yield to the momentary gratification of hearing the parable, but will take no pains to solve its meaning. Or, as soon as they get a glimpse that it implies an unpleasant duty, they dismiss the matter unceremoniously. Herein is a test of their honesty and earnestness. If they will not take the pains to thrash the straw, grind the grain, they must starve. The sweet kernel of truth lies within, but the hard shell must first be broken.
3. Infinite issues hang on receiving aright parabolical teaching. Light comes to men in this form—a from the most suitable: if they reject the light, their darkness becomes their chosen doom. The Emancipator comes in a shape and dress they do not recognise: refusing his offices, their bondage becomes confirmed. A moment of heavenly opportunity occurs, which, if improved, leads on to spiritual fortune; unimproved, ends in curse.
III. The revelation provided for the many: exoteric doctrine.—The destiny of the seed was various.
1. One portion fell on the beaten track, and was at once doomed to fruitlessness. In Palestine pasture and corn-lands are unenclosed. Camels and pedestrians soon make a beaten path from village to village. The greatest expert could not prevent some seeds from falling on this camel track, which lay right across his field. Wild birds soon learnt from experience where to find unburied seed, and were always on the alert to find a meal. In prospect of a harvest such seeds were lost.
2. A second portion fell on stony ground, i.e. on shallow soil. Only the thinnest crust of earth covered the rock. In the first stage of growth all seed finds its nutriment within itself; therefore the first aspect of the young crop is quite as promising in a poor soil as in fattest loam. But the test of a scorching sun soon brings to light good rootage, or slender. The moisture exuding through the pores of the leaf found no continuous supply from the root-source. Hence the green blades soon became languid, faint, shrivelled, sere.
3. A third portion fell among the old roots of former wild growths. As soon as spring, with its revivifying influence, appeared, the old stumps of thorns broke forth into new life. Vigorous shoots and branches from these old roots monopolised space and air and light,—the young blades of corn were attenuated and sickly. The power to appropriate the nutritious elements of the soil was lacking; the young corn could not even stand erect. The processes of life were checked. The force needed for kernelling was spent. The hostility was too severe; life could not survive.
4. The fortunes of the fourth portion of the seed were prosperous. The seed fell into good ground. Nursed in the warm bosom of mother earth, it soon gave signs of life. The hidden germ swelled, burst the swathing bands of hard membrane, and sent its living rootlets in search of proper food. Day by day it obtained a larger hold on life. Duly the green stalks pierced the surface, and found nutrition from dew and air and sunlight. They grew, acquired strength, flowered, kernelled into grain, and when the stalks at length fell before the sickle, they yielded large increase. Yet the fruitfulness was not uniform. In part, proportionate to the fatness of the soil; in part, proportionate to the skill of the sower: thirty grains were found where one had been sown—a hundred for one in some instances were gained.
IV. The higher revelation for the few: esoteric doctrine.—Comparatively few in every age care for spiritual enlightenment. The many are absorbed in the care for bread, or in the care for riches. To them the visible is everything; the invisible, nothing. Yet a few everywhere—the true elect—examine, ponder, and reverently ask. To such the deeper meanings of the parable appear.
1. There is failure in a man’s life through an unprepared condition of the soil. Secular traffic hardens all the better feelings of the heart. A man’s soul, which should be penetrable, plastic, accessible to the light and love from heaven, becomes callous, repellent, indurated—until it has reached the final stage—“past feeling.” In the proper condition of the mind, it is exquisitely suited to the reception of living seed; it is the seed’s home and rest. Inquiry after truth is natural. But if the emotional nature become hardened by worldly pursuits, the seed is lost; it remains on the surface, and our sleepless foe removes it at once from the memory. The man wantonly allows himself to be despoiled of his choicest treasure. In harvest time he reaps confusion and shame.
2. There is failure also in man’s best life through shallow feeling. To have sin pardoned is a joyous sensation—to be received as an adopted child is a rich privilege—to be assured of heaven is rapture. But presently the sun’s face suffers eclipse—clouds gather. Friends scowl and load us with opprobrium. The cold sleet of the world’s hatred is showered upon us. Snares are laid for our feet. Our occupation is gone. Poverty and shame have to be faced. We cannot tread this rugged path. What? give up comfort, and riches, and prospects, and friends, and health for the sake of a slender hope of future joy? It is too much to ask. Men stumble at the terms; they go back to animal enjoyments. Alas! the seed is unfruitful.
3. Failure, too, may come about through attempted compromise of the earthly and the heavenly. The convictions of truth have taken a deeper hold than in the foregoing case. The man cannot afford to forego religion—that would be ruinous! But he will relegate it to a corner. His feverish pursuit of riches need not destroy his faith. He will, he must, be rich. But his riches shall not extinguish his piety. So he reasons; and all the while the green withes of evil habit are becoming tough as steel. Still dreaming of freedom, he is suddenly cast out of the kingdom as the veriest slave of mammon. Again the seed is fruitless.
4. Success comes only through acting in concert with God. The honest mind says, “Let the truth come in! Welcome light, come from what quarter it may!” He can afford to wait for blessed fruit till harvest time. Truth cannot injure a man: error or indolence must. “He receives the Word.” He reflects on what he hears, until it has an abiding-place in the understanding. From the understanding it passes into the conscience, and becomes conviction of duty. Thence it goes down into the affections—roots itself there—and becomes new and holy experience.—J. D. Davies.
The parable of the sower.—Unlike all other teachers, this Divine Teacher, in this His first parable, displays the same perfection of method, the same mastery of this life in its highest relations to spiritual truth, as in His latest utterances. Very notable, also, is the framework of this parable, in its adaptation to the Master’s mission and that of all His followers. Seed-sowing was His work—first for its own immediate usefulness, then for our imitation.
I. The spiritual husbandman’s chief work is to sow the Word.—He is to multiply what God hath revealed, not human speculations, not current news, not scientific discoveries, however true or helpful in their sphere, not ingenious theories about the Word. That Word finds illustration in every phase of the universe; but fatal the error that abandons the spirit and work of reverent interpretation for that of substitution.
II. He who sows the true seed may count upon a sure and large harvest—A single sentence, often only a word, implanted within the soul, reconstructs the whole life, and builds the world anew and for all the future.
III. Every one, of moderate intelligence even, is a sower of seed in the world’s broad field of spiritual harvests.—Every life, however circumstanced, repeats itself, or in some way enters into other lives, with a multiplying power for good or evil, of which the world’s grain-harvests are a fit and vivid, though inadequate, illustration.
IV. The emphasis of our Lord’s teaching refers to the seed’s fruitfulness according to the condition of the hearts receiving it.—Unlike the ground, hearts are under self-control. Not passively inert, they can take condition favourable to the Word, and become fruitful beyond any chance or doubt.
1. It is safe to say that our care in hearing the Word is not proportioned to its importance. All religious life is antagonised by the adversary, but his best energies are centred upon keeping the truth from finding lodgment. It easily sets its roots if it have opportunity, but no seed will fruit if at once caught away. Wayside hearers leave the Word, however faithfully presented, to such speedy destruction. Jesus describes such as those who hearing the Word understand it not. In epitome this includes every condition of mind and heart barred against the truth. The vital truth is the helplessness of seed in hearts so preoccupied as to be steeled against its lodgment. This truth is reinforced by the revealed agency of Satan. He catches away the Word by coinciding with the heart’s pre-existing hostility. To the sensualist he heightens the promise of forbidden pleasures, lest a better life may get his attention and choice. The worldling he points to heights of power or gain or fame not yet reached, and with which nothing must be permitted to interfere. To the scoffing sceptic he paints the conquests of controversy, the sweets of destructive onslaught upon received and time-honoured doctrines.
2. The next part of the figure refers to an underlying rock formation covered with a light layer of soil. This is a fitting type of natures quick to respond in feelings warm and sympathetic, but lacking in the underlying virtues of reason, will, and conscience. With these a man has “root in himself”; without them he is carried about by the enthusiasm of the hour or moment. The quick sensibilities have their uses. Any soul devoid of them is seriously lacking in equipment for life’s best enjoyment and work. But with them there should be fixed convictions of one’s own, the combined product of clear reason, a sensitive conscience, and persistent will. This is the sub-soil into which the roots of principles thrust themselves, as do those of the wind-beaten oak, under all the blasts of tribulation or persecution.
3. Here we are to think not so much of a visible growth of thorns as of a root-infested soil, the roots long and deeply planted and holding their places with stubborn thoroughness. The soil is deep enough and of ample strength; but its resources are absorbed by these preoccupying thorns, whose roots hold the field and promptly spring up, starving the good seed. Worldly anxieties, the deceitful promises of wealth, mere self-indulgence, called pleasure, have a firm anchorage in the natural heart. The renewed heart must enthrone service of the Lord Jesus in the building of His universal kingdom. This may be only in germ, but if genuine it will have a growing mastery and final supremacy, the thorn-roots all eradicated. The best eradication, because easiest and quickest, is a transformation of “cares, riches, and pleasures” into reinforcements of the Lord’s work. These pre-existing roots become fertilisers and feeders of good soil. The Queen’s broad arrow marks and secures England’s possessions. The soul converted to Christ may put the Cross upon all riches or proper pursuits and pleasures, the Master’s kingdom supreme in its rounded life.
4. Two points of profitable inquiry concerning the good-ground hearers: How can any unrenewed heart be called “good ground,” and what determines the differing degrees of fruitage? While no natural heart is holy, it may have moral qualities favourable to receiving good seed and for an easy incorporation of its life. A heart tender and true, a knowledge of truth broad and deep, a conscience sensitive and controlling, pursuits honourable and useful—these furnish conditions of ready and vigorous growth when the seed finds lodgment. Great the encouragement to persistent effort in the moral training of children and youth! When conversion occurs a rich fruitage follows, because of the good ground thus carefully and continuously prepared. The fruitage is measured by such antecedent preparation. Towering corn and wheat cover the prairie once burdened with flowers and waving grass. We must not omit, in closing, some thought of the momentous responsibility of hearing the Word. How vital its relation to present life and future destiny! And yet what is done with less deliberation or thoroughness?—S. L. B. Speare.
The Sower and the seed.—This parable may be regarded as introductory to all the rest, and preparatory to that method of teaching which Christ in His Divine wisdom saw fit to adopt. Unless the drift of this, the first and plainest of the parables, be understood, it is useless to proceed to more difficult ones, which presuppose an acquaintance with the ordinary rules of parabolic instruction. In the parables afterwards delivered that was actually done which is here only described: the Sower sowed the Word, with the different results that He Himself foretells in this parable. Or we may say that this very parable is a portion of that Divine seed which then began to be sown. This doctrine of the preparation of the heart to receive the gospel may itself be as variously received as any other portion of evangelical truth.
I. The free grace of God, which is the corner-stone of the whole fabric of revealed truth, is the foundation on which this parable is constructed.—
1. Moved by His own infinite goodness—the same goodness which originally prompted Him to call man into existence—God “went forth,” as it were, came out of His place, to sow the seed of Divine truth in the hearts of His creatures. Whatever revelations of Himself He has been pleased to make, from the time when He talked with our first parents until the present day, the Sower has never ceased to scatter over the wide field of the human family the seeds of that knowledge which “maketh wise unto salvation.”
2. This grand operation of sowing the Word, as it proceeded from unbounded goodness, so has it always been conducted with unerring wisdom—with that wisdom which looks to the end, which contemplates great results, comprehensive benefits (Luke 2:14).
3. As we survey the world’s history, we see the Great Sower marking out, and as it were enclosing, certain portions of the common field to be cultivated with particular care, while the rest was to all appearance left in a state of nature. So it was, avowedly, under the Jewish dispensation; so it is now, actually at least, under the Christian. Actually, but not designedly. The design of the dispensation of grace is, to make known the glad tidings of salvation to all nations for the obedience of faith (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47).
4. The Sower still goes forth, by His agents and ministers, to sow the Word of Life (Ephesians 4:11-13). The commission is unlimited, the supply of grace and strength unbounded; the deficiency is in the human instruments alone.
II. The various receptions which are accorded by men to the free grace of God.—
1. Here are three descriptions of persons whom “the Word preached does not profit,” etc. (Hebrews 4:2). Their characters are exactly discriminated in Mark 4:15-19. Any hearer who desires to know the cause of his own unprofitableness may sit down before this faithful mirror, and in one or other of the three reflexions presented by it he will be sure to find his own.
2. Note the points of agreement between the three classes of unprofitable hearers.
(1) They all hear the Word. This is partly the gracious provision of the Sower, who sows plentifully (James 1:5). But, besides, there is a natural disposition in men to “hear the Word,” independent of the reception they may eventually give it.
(2) They all, in a certain sense, receive the Word. So it is with hearers in general. They “receive the Word with joy.” They like to hear. They go away with the intention of coming again. They do come again. They become regular hearers. Hearing the Word becomes a habit with them. They feel a certain gratification in the mere act of hearing, and so they fancy they have derived benefit from it. Vain delusion!
(3) They all “bring no fruit to perfection.” The first sort never believe the Word at all; the second have faith, but such faith as will not abide the test of tribulation or persecution because of the Word; the third might endure afflictions, but yield to temptations of a different kind (Mark 4:19). Thus the end of all is the same. Some may advance further towards maturity than others; some may exhibit the blade, others the ear, but none “the full corn in the ear.” At the best they are “double-minded men,” “halting between two opinions,” “unstable in all their ways.”
3. There is yet another class of hearers, standing entirely by itself. It consists of those who “hear the Word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit.” The seed that is sown here, finding a soil congenial to it—“an honest and good heart”—and watered by the dews of heaven, “takes root downward, and bears fruit upward.” Such an one, “nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine,” “grows in grace,” etc. (2 Peter 3:18). The “fruit of the Spirit” manifests itself in his words and deeds. By the grace of God, he “keepeth himself; and that wicked one,” who is always at hand to catch away the Word sown in the heart, “toucheth him not.” Afflictions and temptations however they may unsettle him for a time, “nevertheless afterward yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness.” Even “the cares of this world, and the lusts of other things,” from which no one is altogether exempt, although they may check the growth of the good seed in the heart, do not choke it; they may make it less fruitful, but not “barren or unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Mark 4:1. Christ teaching in the ship a parable itself of the kingdom of heaven.
1. A figure of its form.
(1) The evangelical ministry.
(2) The Church.
2. A figure of its condition.
(1) Small beginnings.
(4) Freedom.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
An imperfect Church, an unworthy pulpit, and poor hearers may nevertheless form a true Church, accepted of God.—P. Quesnel.
Mark 4:2. Why Christ spoke in parables.—
1. That the Scripture might be fulfilled (Psalms 78:2).
2. That we might know that Christ spake with the same spirit with which all God’s prophets in the old time spake, whose writings are full of parables.
3. That He might descend to the capacity of the most simple, who best understand and remember homely illustrations.
4. That His auditors might take occasion to ask questions (Mark 4:10).
5. That the mysteries of God’s heavenly kingdom might be hidden from the scornful (Mark 4:11-12).
6. That every man, in his occupation and ordinary vocation, might be taught those things which concern his soul’s health: as this parable may be termed the ploughman’s gospel; he that meditates on it, when he ploughs his ground, may have a sermon always before him, every furrow being a line, every grain of corn a lesson bringing forth some fruit.
Rules for the interpretation of parables.—
1. Careful attention to the occasion of them.
2. Close adherence to the one truth or duty meant to be enforced. It is much the same here as in considering a fine painting; a comprehensive view of the whole will have a happy and striking effect, but that effect will not be felt if the eye is held to detached parts of the picture without regarding the relation they bear to the rest.
3. Great care in reasoning from the parables to the peculiar doctrines of Christianity.
(1) An intemperate use of figures tends to sensualise the mind and deprave the taste.
(2) By the misapplication of figures false ideas are given to the hearer of the things they stand for.
(3) The reasoning injudiciously from types and figures begets a kind of faith that is precarious and ineffectual. An enthusiast, struck with appearances, hastily yields his assent to a proposition, without considering the evidence carefully. But as soon as his passions cool, and the false glare upon his imagination subsides, his faith dies away, and the fruit expected from it proves utterly abortive. “Parables are more ancient than arguments,” says Lord Bacon: and it is not difficult to see why. A parable is winning and attractive, because it is a narrative or story: it is easy to be understood, since it deals with familiar events and actions, with sayings and doings of common life, which are well known to all its hearers: lastly, it is acceptable and effective, because it does not arouse antagonism and opposition in the mind of the hearer, as argument frequently does.
Christ’s thought for the multitude.—It is easy to have tender regard and helpful disposition towards the few kindred spirits, but Jesus thought of the needs of any and all of His fellow-men to which He could minister. But this spirit of beneficence was always guided by unerring wisdom as to methods. We may blindly yield to benevolent impulses in ways self-defeating and often harmful. He thoroughly measured the situation of His opening ministry, and taught by parable which should both reveal and conceal. Idle curiosity, much less personal prejudice or selfish scheming, is never the condition of helpful hearing. Concealment by parable was a favour to all who would have wrested the truth to their own hurt.—S. L. B. Speare.
Mark 4:3. The sower is now any and every one who rehearses and enforces the same doctrines as our Lord. It matters little who or what he is, so long as he has full store of the good seed and is faithful in scattering it. The harvest tells nothing as to the husbandman—whether a master or slave—save his wise and trustful labour. Results are the same in either case, and these are the objects in all sowing.
1. Between the sowing of seed and the teaching of truth.
2. Between the earth’s reception of the seed and man’s reception of the truth.
3. Between the earth’s response to the seed sown and man’s response to the truth taught. So too it is the same God—
1. Who gives man seed to sow and truth to learn.
2. Who prepares the earth for the reception of the seed and the heart of man for the reception of the truth.
3. Who causes the seed to grow and bring forth fruit, and who guides and helps man to carry into practice the truth which he learns.
Mark 4:5-6. No depth of earth.—At first, when the wheat sprouts, the blade which it sends up to the surface is green and beautiful. But after a while the field of emerald loveliness looks suddenly sere and yellow; the blades seem to droop and languish as if a worm were at the root. This remarkable change is caused by what the farmers call the “spearin’ brash” (Scotch for “weaning brash”). The corn is weaned from its mother’s milk, as it were; for the supply of food which was stored up for it in the seed is now exhausted, and it has to seek food for itself in the soil and air. It has not yet strength to do so, and therefore fades and becomes sickly. It falls off, just as a human child falls off when weaned. If, in such circumstances, there is soil enough, it soon recovers; if, however, there is no room beneath and fierce sun above, then because it has no root it withers.—H. Macmillan, D.D.
Mark 4:9. Eloquent hearing is indispensable to effective preaching: it is as necessary that listeners should be taught how to hear, as it is that preachers should be taught what or how to speak.—W. M. Taylor, D.D.
Qualities to be cultivated by gospel hearers.—
1. Attention. The good hearer stirs himself up to listen. He trains himself to follow the speaker. His hearing is an opportunity, and he takes care to make the most of it.
2. Meditation. What he “hears” he “keeps” by reflecting upon it, and assimilating it for his own edification and growth in grace. Says Willmott: “Proportion an hour’s reflexion to an hour’s reading, and so dispirit the book into the student.” So I would say: Let every time of hearing be followed by a time of meditation, that the seed which has fallen on the soil may, as it were, be “harrowed” into it by the process.
3. Obedience. To hear without obeying is to harden the heart; for, as Bishop Butler says, “passive impressions grow weaker by being repeated.” But the acting on what we hear prepares us for being better hearers next time, and quickens the receptivity of the soul. Even among good hearers, however, there will be differences; some will make more of their opportunities than others.—Ibid.
Divine truth needs attention.—Perhaps our Saviour used so frequently to conclude His Divine discourses with, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear,” to teach us that there is no employment of our faculties, that more deserves their utmost attention, than the scrutiny of Divine truths (Isaiah 4:3; Romans 10:17).—R. Boyle.
Mark 4:10-12. Parables necessary for outsiders.—Parables are, so to speak, forced upon the Lord. They are His only method of dealing with this loose mob that is following Him. He cannot venture to confide to them His full mind, for it would but confuse and repel them. So long as it was His disciples He could address them openly, as in the Sermon on the Mount, with plain, strong directions. So it had been, apparently, at the first; but now that His fame had spread—now that a mixed multitude is swarming around Him—He is driven to protect His doctrine from degradation, misunderstanding, confusion. It is not enough that He has in His hands pearls to give; He must see to it, also, that He distributes them aright to those that will profit by them. So the parables express the guarded caution with which the great revelation of the Father must be made. It is not enough that God should reveal His love for fallen man; but more than that, He must do it in a way of condescension to all the gradations of darkness into which men have fallen. Here is the irony of the terrible passage quoted by our Lord from Isaiah in answer to the wondering question of the disciples why He should speak in parables. Why in parables? Because so many, though they willingly listen, are in such a state that, hearing they hear not, and seeing they see not; it is because “this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes are closed, lest at any time, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, they should understand with their hearts, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” “Lest they should be converted, and I should heal them.” That is the dreadful thing that would happen; that is the dreadful thing that they are bent on postponing. That is the irony of love picturing the postponement of the good it brings; and since the facts are so, since men have determined that the process of their salvation shall be slow, and difficult and gradual, therefore Christ has conformed to their ways; He has qualified the blinding light, He has shadowed it down to the dusk in which men abide, He has divided His teaching into stages, so as to protect these obstinate hearts against their own prejudices, He has fallen back on these parables. Even those who most vehemently repudiate the more emphatic message, even those who might in indignation take up stones to kill Him if they heard the full claim, will stand and listen to these parables; and if they listen and are pleased to walk away without further question no irremediable harm will be done, only they will be much as they were before, only they will postpone the day of possibility, they will not have been brought up near enough to the fire to be scorched by it, they will have been saved the uppermost disaster. But, on the other hand, if there are any there who have ears to hear and eyes to see, then the parable will work its perfect work upon them, they will never be satisfied by its mere beauty, they will feel the prickings of a Diviner secret, the parables will quicken and animate them into more eager expectation; something in them will provoke them, they will be restless until they have gone further, they will press in with the other disciples into the house with the Master, they will insist on being told what it all means. And it is these persistent, clamouring questioners to whom it is given to know the mysteries of heaven. These will ask and knock, and asking will receive, and knocking it will be opened unto them.—Canon Scott Holland.
Double aspect of parables.—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.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
The veil of allegory.—The ideas of the Christ of God are thinly veiled in parables, so as to conceal them from idle and corrupt minds, who hate the Cross, and do not think truth worth their steady attention. But this slight veil of allegory enhances their beauty for those who are worthy of initiation into the “mysteries of the kingdom,” just as the sun and moon appear more beautiful for the thin luminous mists through which they rise above the horizon, as they turn the vapours into gold.—E. White.
Mark 4:10. Explanation of difficulties to be sought.—As in the schools of human knowledge, so soon as the lecture is read, it is the scholars’ duty to question among themselves how to parse and construe it, and when they doubt to have recourse to their grammar rules, by which all construction is examined; and when they do not understand a hard rule to come for a resolution unto their master, who is as it were a living grammar and a walking book,—so likewise in God’s academy, in the divinity school, when either the lecture of the law is read, or sermon on the gospel ended, it is your part to reason among yourselves, as you walk abroad in the fields or talk at home in your house, how this and that may be construed; and when you cannot resolve one another, with the men of Berea, to search the Scripture daily, whether those things are so, to try the spirits of men by the Spirit of God, for the Bible is our divinity grammar, according to which all our lessons ought to be parsed and construed. And if ye meet with a difficult place, repair to God’s usher, the priest, whose lips should preserve knowledge; demand of your pastor, as the disciples of Christ here.—Dean Boys.
Mark 4:11. “The mystery of the kingdom of God.”—Religious knowledge, and especially that Christian and saving knowledge which the gospel brought to light, is what our Lord means by “the mystery of the kingdom of God.” A “mystery” is something dark and incomprehensible; which may happen in two ways—either through the want of a clear revelation, or through the natural and incurable imperfection of our faculties. “The kingdom” contains mysteries of both kinds: some sublime secrets which are altogether too high for us, which no revelation could impart to us, and which are therefore properly said to “belong unto the Lord our God”; others, again, which in former ages were not made known unto the sons of men, as they are now revealed unto the holy apostles and prophets, and through them to mankind in general, by the Spirit. In the latter there is no mystery as soon as the revelation is made, no difficulty which may not be removed by the instructions and explanations of a discreet, patient, and condescending teacher. Such a teacher was our Blessed Lord. He had to teach things, not unintelligible in their nature, but yet strange and hard sayings to His poor, ignorant, carnal-minded hearers; such as required to be helped out by comparisons and illustrations from things which they did understand. He did not attempt to show to such persons what the kingdom of God was, but only what it was like; that by the help of these patterns and representations of things in the heavens He might at last lead up their minds to the heavenly things themselves.
Mark 4:14. The emblem of seed for God’s Word 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.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Sowing broadcast is the only right husbandry in Christ’s field with Christ’s seed. “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.—Ibid.
The seed must be genuine: wheat, not bastard wheat; the wheat that makes bread and sustains life—the seed of the Word of God. Not all seed sown in Sunday schools, just as not all seed scattered from Christian pulpits, is unadulterated truth of God. While there must always be the human element in the teaching of the inspired Word, it must not be all the human element, which it is too often found to be, whereby much of the teaching given is, for all higher and Divine purposes, not bread, but sawdust.—Bishop Thorold.
Twofold sowing.—According to Jewish authorities there was twofold sowing, as the seed was either cast by the hand or by means of cattle. In the latter case a sack with holes was filled with corn, and laid on the back of the animal, so that, as it moved, onwards the seed was thickly scattered. Thus it might well be that it would fall indiscriminately on beaten roadway, or on stony places but thinly covered with soil, or where the thorns had not been cleared away, or undergrowth from this thorn hedge crept into the field, as well as on good ground.—A. Edersheim, D.D.
The sowing of the seed of goodness, even among the rank growths of evil, will do in the spiritual world what the growth of the wild flowers of England is doing at this moment among the rank vegetation of New Zealand, and what the fire and hoe of the settler have failed to do. We are told that the common clover of our fields, tender as it looks, is actually rooting out the formidable New Zealand flax, with its fibrous leaves and strong woody roots. By the law of natural selection, as it were, in the spiritual world, the stronger growth of heaven will extirpate the feebler growth of earth.—H. Macmillan, D.D.
Mark 4:15. By the wayside.—These are they who, when the Baptist came with austere severity, said he was mad; and when Christ conversed and taught with mild condescension, said He was a drunkard, a glutton, and a keeper of bad company. They hated the doctrines, and so found fault with the teachers. Such are those who have entered betimes, and continued long, in the service of the devil; who are slaves to vices and bad habits; who have extinguished all reason, reflexion, and natural conscience, and whom no ordinary methods can reclaim. The Word is preached to them, and they trample it underfoot, and ridicule those who offer them good advice. They lie out of the reach of persuasion and instruction, and nothing short of some grievous calamity can rouse them. But from their deplorable condition others may take due warning, lest, by departing from their duty and neglecting a timely reformation, they should, through the deceitfulness of sin, arrive at such a hardened state. And this seems to be the only use these incorrigible offenders serve in this world: they stand forth, not as marks and friendly lights to guide and direct the passenger, but as signals of danger and death to be avoided.—J. Jortin, D.D.
The devil’s activity.—“Wherever there is a preacher in the pulpit, there is a devil in the pew,” to carry off the good seed if it be neglected.
Satan hinders men in sundry ways from profiting by the Word.
1. By keeping them from hearing it, stirring up occasions of worldly business or some other impediments on the Lord’s Day to keep them away from church. 2. By keeping them from attending to it when they do hear it.
3. By blinding their minds, that they may not understand it.
4. By labouring to hold them in infidelity, that they may not believe and apply the Word to themselves.
5. By using means to thrust the Word heard out of their minds, that they may not remember it.
6. By keeping them from yielding obedience to the Word.—G. Petter.
Mark 4:16-17. No root.—These are persons who have conscience, reason, and reflexion; who can discern the amiable and profitable nature of religion, and the folly and danger of vice; who can sometimes give attention to the Word of God, approve it as right and fit, speak and think honourably of it, and of those who practise it, and even entertain purposes of acting suitably to it: but they have no steadiness, resolution, and perseverance; and so are not proof against trials and temptations. They are such as are described in Ezekiel 33:31-32. Moral precepts and religious arguments appear fair and lovely in idea, but are found grievous in practice and execution; and the paths of righteousness, which make a fine landscape in description, are rough, steep, and tedious to ascend. Such is the effect of religion upon those who have some taste and natural discernment, but no steady love of goodness.—J. Jortin, D.D.
Many mistake feeling for faith, admiration of Christ for attachment to Him, the appreciation of the beauty of holiness for the use and practice of it, the power of emotion for depth of piety. Such are as quickly offended as they are impressed.
Quick maturity means brief life and speedy decay. “Gladness,” although certainly a result of true conversion, is not the immediate result, but sorrow for sin and repentance in dust and ashes.
A forgotten truth.—Much more of true religion consists in deep humility, brokenness of heart, and an abasing sense of barrenness, and want of grace, and holiness, than most who are called Christians imagine; especially those who have been esteemed the converts of the late day, many of whom seem to know of no other religion but elevated joys and affections, arising only from some flights of imagination, or some suggestion made to their mind of Christ’s being theirs, God’s loving them, and the like (John 5:35; Mark 6:20; Luke 4:23; Luke 4:29).—D. Brainerd.
Revival converts.—The short and pathetic history of some who are called revival converts. They are charmed, but not changed; much excited, but not truly converted. Their root is in the crowd, the fine music, the lively stir, the hearty companionships of the gospel meeting. The Moravians every Sabbath offer up this prayer: “From light-minded swarming deliver us, good God.”
Mark 4:18-19, The Word choked.—To this class of people religion is presented and propounded; and they assent to it and receive it, and call themselves Christians; but many things arise between them and their duty, many avocations and impediments which prevent the Word from having a due effect upon their hearts.
1. “The cares of this world,” when admitted and nourished and encouraged, seize upon the whole man, and so fill the head and occupy the hours that the attention is entirely fixed on worldly affairs, and no leisure is allowed for spiritual concerns. And as no person can bear the toil and fatigue of being always contriving, projecting, labouring, plodding, and some amusement must intervene, the times for recreation are, for such persons, the times when other Christians are attending the public worship of God, or meditating on things sacred and serious at home. Thus religious considerations are totally banished; and the man may be said to be dead to God and Christ, and alive only to the world.
2. “The deceitfulness of riches” has the same bad effect. When the love of wealth is predominant and engrosses the affections, it produces an eagerness to acquire it; a proud trust and confidence in it; a settled resolution to preserve and increase it by any methods, and in defiance of honesty and humanity; and an esteem or contempt of other persons, according as they are rich or poor: and then mammon alone is worshipped, and the love of God is expelled from the heart.
3. “The lusts of other things”—viz. desires of magnificence and splendour, of flattery and popular applause, of power and pre-eminence, and, in a word, immoderate affections for anything that is temporal and transitory.—J. Jortin, D.D.
Disheartening influences.—The ridicule of companions, the polite surprise or cold sneer of former friends at their earnestness, the tyranny of fashion, the seductions of pleasure, the force of habit and inclination, unexpected sorrows and difficulties, which would drive an earnest spirit nearer to God, dishearten those whose religion is founded on emotion rather than on principle.
Mark 4:20. Ground which disappointeth not the sower, and bringeth forth fruit in its season, is naturally good, and is improved by culture. The heart of every well-disposed person is such. God has given to all of us abilities, and power to exert them; He has also given to us Christians superadded His revealed will in the gospel; and what aid is necessary He is ever ready to bestow: but a man must put forth his own strength, and seek out and work out his own salvation. The persons, therefore, here described act like rational creatures; they have a love of knowledge and goodness, and a desire to make improvements in both. Thence they are disposed to inquire into themselves and their duty; and opportunities for this are never wanting: morality and revealed religion lie within their reach, and they may read or hear what God requires from them. “They hear the Word, and receive it”; they lay it to heart, and call it to mind; they meditate upon the benefits arising from it, the danger of neglecting it, the reasonable and lovable nature of it, the dangers, inconveniences, and temptations which may arise and assault them, the proper methods of shunning or resisting them, and the wisdom of preferring eternal life to all other considerations.—J. Jortin, D.D.
Varying yields.—Every one has observed the difference between those who may be called good Christians, in the matter of their good works—how some seem to produce twice or thrice the fruit that others do. Some are, compared with others, three times more careful in all the trifling matters which make up so much of life; three times more self-denying, three times more liberal, three times more humble, subdued, and thankful. Does not the Lord recognise this difference in the parable of the pounds, when the nobleman, in leaving, gives a pound to each of his servants; and one servant makes it ten pounds, and another five; and he commends both, but gives to the more industrious worker twice the reward?—M. F. Sadler.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Mark 4:2. Christ’s parables differ from all others in this, that in their application they seem inexhaustible. Just as one may, from Geneva, watch the sun setting on Mont Blanc, and while the sunny peak in its gigantic outlines remains ever the same, yet the rays of the sun, as they fall upon it at different angles, so change its marvellous tints that at one moment it sparkles like burnished gold, at another it is bathed in roseate hues, and then again, as the sun sinks beneath the western hills, it stands out in cold, grey tones, in grand relief against the glories of the azure sky,—so with our Lord’s parables, while the outline of the familiar story remains always the same, yet every time we come to its contemplation in the light of the Holy Spirit, not only do we see new beauties, but new lessons, I had almost said new truths!—A. G. Mortimer, D.D.
The parables of Jesus are simple in structure and for the most part easily understood. And yet they are deep as His Divine Spirit. Their inimitable perfections appear as often as any one tries to parallel them. Meeting with Dr. Robert Breckinridge, “Tom” Marshall, the Kentucky orator, asked, “Why do you not imitate your Model, and preach in parables?” “Because I cannot make them.” “Why,” said the politician, “they are perfectly simple; I could write parables.” “Then,” answered Dr. Breckinridge, “bring one of your own at our next meeting.” When next they met, and Mr. Marshall was reminded of the parable, he said, “I am beaten. No man can make a parable any more than he can make a speech like Jesus.”
The spirit in which to study nature.—By studying nature in the spirit of meek devotion and solemn love, a good man may indeed “walk up and down the world as in a garden of spices, and draw a Divine sweetness out of every flower.”—J. Keble.
What we can see in nature.—There is in nature just as much, or as little, as the soul of each beholder can see in her.—J. G. Shairp, LL. D.
Nature leads to God.—Nature represents the Soul from which all souls come, and by its beautifulness helps us to delight ourselves in God. He leads us to no dead museum or stony cathedral, but under the dome of the sky. He says, “The whole is alive, full of God’s life.”—John Pulsford.
Nature a mirror.—To a man under the influence of emotion, nature is ever a great mirror full of emotions. To the satiated and quiescent alone, she is a cold, dead window for the outward world.—J. P. Richter.
Nature a print of God.—The heavens are a print from the pen of God’s perfection; the world is a bud from the flower of His beauty; the sun is a spark from the light of His wisdom, and the ocean is a bubble on the sea of His power.—From the Persian.
A story helps the truth.—“The story,” as Dr. Guthrie says, “like a float, keeps the truth from sinking; like a nail, fastens it in the mind; like the feathers of an arrow, makes it strike; and, like the barb, makes it stick.”
Parable a mode of conveying truth.—A parable is Christ’s mode of conveying His mind into ours—the waggon in which He puts deep thoughts, not apparent or necessary at the time, but useful for the Christian Church when out of its infancy.
Mark 4:9. Ears to hear.—All men for the most part have both their ears, but not to hear. The man sick of the gout hath both his feet, but not to walk. He that is purblind hath both his eyes, but not to see clearly. He that is manacled by the magistrate for some fault hath both his hands; but so long as they are bound they cannot do their office. So most men have ears; but few men have ears to hear—namely, to hear that which is good, and to hear that which is good well.—Dean Boys.
Best to have no left ear.—In listening to God it is as well that we have no left ear. True, we are commanded to use both ears—“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”; but this takes it for granted that both ears are right ones. Now, morally speaking, there is a right ear and there is a left ear; and he has both who, in listening to the gospel, takes it in by the one ear and lets it out again by the other. It is right to admit the sound, but it is left, or wrong, to allow it to escape so soon. In this sense it is best to have no left ear. The most profitable way is to put the right ear to the gospel trumpet, and, as the joyful sound enters, to let it drop at once down into the heart, from whence it will not arise to depart. This right ear is just faith in the Word; and he who believes what God says, not only hears rightly, but never loses what is heard. In such an one the Word of the Lord abideth for ever.
The gospel to be heard.—In the reign of James II. that king commanded an Act of Parliament, called the “Liberty of Conscience Act,” to be read in all the churches. The clergy were very unwilling to read it, and some of their congregations did not wish to hear it. One Sunday a clergyman, when the time came for reading the document, said to his congregation: “Though I am compelled to read this, you are not compelled to hear it,” upon which the people rose up and left the church, and the clergyman read the Act of Parliament to the pews, hassocks, and walls. But we may not thus treat the gospel. This is God’s message to our souls; and while true ministers are indeed compelled by the Spirit of God to speak the Word to us, we too should feel that we are compelled to listen to it with reverence and attention because it is a message from God.
Worthless hearing.—One day a very clever countryman, named Jedediah Buxton, who could multiply nine figures by nine figures without a slate or paper, went to see Garrick, a famous actor, perform upon the stage of a theatre. When he went home from London to his native village, and was asked what he thought of the acting of Garrick, he replied, “Oh, I don’t know; I only saw a little man strut about the stage and repeat seven thousand nine hundred and fifty-six words.” Instead of listening to what was said, he had been counting the speaker’s words. More foolish is it for us to come to hear the Word of God and then amuse ourselves by noticing something that is beside the mark.
Hearing.—Give but interest in the theme, and the listener’s ear fulfils its natural function, that of hearing. “Mine ears hast Thou opened.” Intensify the interest, and the listener is all ears, all ear. Webster’s ill-starred Duchess of Malfi assures her brother, “I will plant my soul in my ears to hear you.” “Alarmed nature starts up in my heart, and opens a thousand ears to listen,” cries Colonel Talbot in an old play. Perplexed in the extreme, and cut to the heart, by a revelation of household treachery and wrong, an incredulous husband is described in a modern romance, with his hands clasped together, and with his head bent to catch every syllable of the harrowing news—listening “as if his whole being were resolved into that one sense of hearing.” It is with hearing as with seeing. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Mendelssohn, in one of his letters from abroad, rapturous with gazing on his favourite Titian, declares that “one might well wish for a dozen more eyes to look one’s fill at such a picture.” “Had I three ears I’d hear thee,” exclaims Macbeth, when summoned to attend by the apparition of an Armed Head, in the witches’ cave. D’Artagnan, in the ante-chamber of M. de Treville, is described as looking with all his eyes and listening with all his ears, stretching his five senses so as to lose nothing. The same author tells how Mazarin listened, dying as he was, to Anne of Austria, as ten living men could not have listened. “Will you listen?” asks a prince in the same story; and is answered, “Can you ask me? You speak of a matter of life or death to me, and then ask if I will listen!”
Mark 4:11-12. The door kept open.—In Mrs. Whitney’s story Odd or Even? she gives the following ingenious interpretation of a declaration which has puzzled many people (Matthew 13:13-16). It is given in a conversation between Mr. Kingsworth, her ideal minister, and Philip Merriweather, a young man of sceptical tendencies. “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.… Lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them,” quoted Mr. Kingsworth again. “That is the heart of the Healer, waiting for them that shall fall down from their mountain.” But Flip was still only climbing his mountain. He was pleased at every clutch and foothold he got, that seemed to lift him higher. “And yet the fog is put there on purpose! it says so.” The boy did not dare to say “He,”—“ ‘lest’ they should see, and understand—and the rest of it! That’s just the way. Why couldn’t it be plain, if it meant to be?” “Suppose you fasten the door, at night, ‘lest’ any unauthorised person should come in?” “Well, I do exactly that,” said Flip, wondering what it justified in respect of a door that he was contending should be freely open. “And suppose you leave it unlocked, ‘lest’ your brother should come home at midnight?” Whether he was puzzled, or whether he began to see, Flip made no answer. “Don’t you see there are two ‘lests’—a providing against, and a providing for?” asked the minister. “Take those words with the second ‘lest.’ ‘I speak these things to them in parables; I put them away, in their memory, as in My creation; so that they may see, even without perceiving, and hear, even if they cannot understand: in case that at any time they should see with their spiritual eyes, and hear with their spiritual ears, and understand with the very heart of them, and be converted, and I should heal them.’ Isn’t the waiting there, in those words?” “You have altered a good many of them.” “I have chosen between those two ‘lests,’ ” said Mr. Kingsworth. “That interpreted all the sentence, which I tried to translate, not change. Because, otherwise, how do they agree with those different words: ‘I am come unto you, that you might have life’; and, ‘I came to call the sinners’?”
No spiritual impression.—In a room glazed with yellow glass the photographer would get heat and light from the sunshine, but he could not produce a photograph, because yellow glass, while it lets in the light and heat of the sun, keeps out the chemical or actinic ray necessary to produce a portrait. And so it is true of many that, while they live in the free light and warmth of the gospel day, while the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world shines upon and all around them, they are not savingly changed, they are not transformed by the light into the image of God. And the reason of this is that they have a yellow spot in their spiritual eye, and live, as it were, in a house of yellow glass. They get the light and the heat of the gospel, but not its renewing power. Their eye is not single, and therefore their whole body is not full of light. The medium in which they live and move and have their being is unfavourable to spiritual impressions, and therefore they are not spiritually impressed.
Mark 4:12. Does God harden hearts?—Suppose two merchant vessels out on the same sea, sailing before the same wind, which comes prosperously on their quarter. Suddenly upon one of them a mutiny is organised; the captain is murdered, and the crew put in irons; then the captors turn on their course exactly, face in the opposite direction, and start for some desolate pirates’ isle, where they may beach their stolen cargo in safety. The same wind which drives the honest ship along now drives the wicked one too, and so it helps in the crime. But all it really does to help it is—to keep blowing on. God never does anything to harden a heart which would not soften it if properly received.
Mark 4:14. Sowing the Word.—Doubt not, but earnestly believe, that if “long sleeps the summer in the seed,” the summer is in the seed, if the seed sown by you is indeed the Word of God; and even now it may be shining and ripening in many a changed heart passed far out of your reach and ken. The sailor keeping watch on the midnight sea, praying as he watches; the miner toiling for gold in some Queensland gully, and thinking of the better treasure in the heavenly country towards which, by words of yours, his feet are moving; the shepherd among the wooded valleys of New Zealand, saying over to himself the Shepherd’s Psalm taught him by you; the settler’s wife in some rude cabin on the Pacific slope, training her children as you trained her, may, without your knowing it, have found the Pearl of great price, which, but for you, they would never have found; through you, also, may be helping others to find it.—Bishop Thorold.
Vitality of the Word.—The Word has all the hidden vitality of a seed. Take up a grain of wheat and examine it; ask yourself where its life lies. Certainly not on the surface; nor yet in its inner compartments, so far as our senses can detect. Chemistry will inform you as to every material element it contains, and leave you as far as ever from knowing or seeing the very thing that makes it a seed—that mysterious something we call its life. Within that little mass of matter there lies a force which sun, rain, and soil shall call forth with voices it will hear and obey. God hath given it a body, and to every seed a body of its own. The hidden life and unwearied force of the wheat-grain furnish analogies to the Word of God. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but the Word of the Lord endureth for ever. It is an eternal seed, to which God has given eternal form; but its vitality is not lodged where we can see and analyse it.
Mark 4:15-19. Three kinds of unprofitable hearers.—There are three different kinds of hearers of the Word,—those like a sponge, that suck up good and bad together, and let both run out immediately; those like a sandglass, that let what enters in at one ear pass out at the other, hearing without thinking; those like a strainer, letting go the good and retaining the bad.
Thought dissipated.—Have you ever seen grain scattered on the road? The sparrow from the housetop and the chickens from the barn rush in, and within a minute after it has been scattered not the shadow of a grain is left. This is the picture, not of thought crushed by degrees, but of thought dissipated, and no man can tell how or when it went. Swiftly do these winged thoughts come when we pray, or read, or listen; in our inattentive, sauntering, wayside hours; and, before we can be upon guard, the very trace of holier purposes has disappeared. In our purest moods, when we kneel to pray, or gather round the altar, down into the very Holy of Holies sweep these foul birds of the air, villain fancies, demon thoughts. The germ of life, the small seed of impression, is gone—where, you know not. But it is gone. Inattentiveness of spirit, produced by want of spiritual interest, is the first cause of disappointment.—F. W. Robertson.
The trodden heart.—There was an old legend of a goblin horseman that galloped over men’s fields at night; and wherever his foot struck, the soil was so blasted that nothing would ever grow on it again. So is it with the heart over which the beastly feet of lust, sensuality, greed, selfishness, passion, are allowed to tread. The heart is never the same again.
Hardened by evangelical teaching.—Speaking of a certain place in which he conducted a mission, the Rev. W. Haslam says: “It was certainly a very difficult place, for the congregation had been hardened with overmuch evangelical teaching of a general kind. Seed had been abundantly sown without any due preparation of the ground. It was amazing to witness the hardness of the people, and their unwillingness to yield.”
No refuge from the storm.—Some years ago two undergraduates went up one of the highest mountains in Switzerland. They would not have a guide. They said they had been there before, and they feared nothing. Their friends watched them with their telescopes, and saw them reach the top, and then came a storm of snow which lasted a week. Nobody could reach them, and they never came down alive. When found, they were close to a track by which, if they had had a guide, they could have come down in safety when the snow first fell. So it is that many a proud philosopher of our time, resting on reason and his own conceit, climbs the highest steeps of learning; then comes the storm, the icy hand of Death is on his shoulder, and he knows not where to turn, because he has forsaken the Guide of his youth, the Light and Life of men!
Unpromising, but not hopeless.—Many years ago my friend Colonel Boyd, of Wytheville, Virginia, gave to a Frenchman, by the name of Hartmann, a rocky hillside. Everywhere the hard, blue limestone protruded. A more unpromising garden could not be imagined. In the spring the warmth and moisture made the hillside green for a little while, but the first drought scorched it dry and brown. But Hartmann worked away, patiently, perseveringly, systematically. He dug out the rocks, he deepened the soil, he irrigated from the neighbouring brook. Years passed, and the “Frenchman’s Garden,” as everybody called it, was the most beautiful, the most picturesque, the most fruitful, the most profitable garden in all that part of Virginia. So, after all, that peculiar kind of human hearts which the Lord described as “stony places” are not absolutely hopeless. These shallow hearts may be deepened. This sentimental religion may be enriched. The Word of God may be cultivated until it grows to be a fruitful plant in even these unpromising lives. From being a mere enthusiasm, or a dead orthodoxy, religion may become a life, a deep-rooted life, a life hid with Christ in God.—R. S. Barrett.
Fugitive impressions.—When Daguerre was working at his sun-pictures his great difficulty was to fix them. The light came and imprinted the image; but when the tablet was drawn from the camera, the image had vanished. Our lamentation is like this; our want the same—a fixing solution which shall arrest and detain the fugitive impressions. He discovered the chemical power which turned the evanescent into the durable. There is a Divine agency at hand that can fix the truth upon the heart of man—God’s Holy Spirit.
Mark 4:17. Want of root.—Men have no root in themselves. That is the best account that I can give of the vast failure of our systems of general education. I am not thinking of elementary schools merely, but of all schools. They are able to produce a certain measure of success. In the fairly good schools boys and girls learn something, and sometimes a good deal. Eighty, ninety, and ninety-five per cent, of the scholars in our common schools, under energetic and able teachers, read fairly, write fairly, become fairly successful in arithmetic. In schools of a higher class they will learn something of Greek and Latin grammar, and they can make a fair show in arithmetic. But though the teaching may not be mechanical, there is something mechanical in the result, and in a few years after they have left school it is quite clear that the mind of an immense proportion of those who have been taught is dead; it does not grow. We discover that large numbers of those who have passed through the schools have never grasped for themselves, as the roots of a tree grasp the soil, any subject that sustains intellectual activity. The mischief is not merely that they have forgotten much that they learned; that cannot be helped. I am not sure that we ought to cherish any wish that it should be helped. I remember meeting an eminent man not long ago who was a high Wrangler at Cambridge, and he said he was thankful that he had forgotten most of the mathematics he knew when he took his degree. I do not complain that what was learned has been forgotten, but that there is nothing, no science, no history, no province of speculation or of art in which large numbers of those who have received an early education have a real, personal, enduring interest. One of the first objects of every wise teacher should be to get the mind of his pupils to strike root into something, it does not much matter what, but something that will stimulate and maintain intellectual activity. When once that miracle is wrought, and the mind has a root of its own, the great work of the educationist is done. Take another illustration. How many men succeed in maintaining a fairly excellent character, because they are sheltered from moral peril by the circumstances that environ them, and supported in well-doing by the general opinion of those with whom they are most intimately associated! Let the circumstances change, place them among men with a lower sense of honour, with less ideas of honesty and of truthfulness, place them in circumstances in which it will look safe to violate some of the laws which they now honour, and what will become of them then? If the moral opinion of society is to be sound, there must be men who give an ethical law to others, and do not merely receive it from others—men with an ethical idea of their own, to which they are loyal at all costs, men who have discovered eternal laws which they must obey whatever comes of their obedience. Such men have a root in themselves; they are not to be bribed into wrong-doing by the promise of wealth or of honour; they are not to be terrified into virtue by the penalties of law or by the fear of loss of property or of social position. They are faithful because the law that has been revealed to them is too august to be broken.—R. W. Dale, D. D.
Mark 4:18-19. The Word choked.—What an illustration of this the speech which a dying, despairing man addressed to one under whose ministry he had sat for twenty years! “I have never,” he cried, “heard a single sermon!” The minister, to whom his face was quite familiar, who had known him for years as a regular attendant at church, looked astonished, fancied he was raving under the delirium of his approaching end. No, not at all! The man was in his sad and sober senses. “I attended church,” he exclaimed, “but my habit was, so soon as you began the sermon, to begin a review of last week’s trade, and to anticipate and arrange the business of the next.” Now, in like manner, to a greater or less extent, Satan deals with thousands who occupy pews in the church.
Good impressions destroyed.—Robert Burns—who had times of serious reflexion, in one of which, as recorded by his own pen, he beautifully compares himself, in the review of his past life, to a lonely man walking amid the ruins of a noble temple, where pillars stand dismantled of their capitals, and elaborate works of purest marble lie on the ground, overgrown by tall, foul, rank weeds—was once brought, as I have heard, under deep convictions. He was in great alarm. The seed of the Word had begun to grow. He sought counsel from one called a minister of the gospel. Alas that in that crisis of his history he should have trusted the helm to the hands of such a pilot! This so-called minister laughed at the poet’s fears—bade him dance them away at balls, drown them in bowls of wine, fly from these phantoms to the arms of pleasure. Fatal, too pleasant advice! He followed it: and “the lusts of other things” entering in, choked the Word.
Strangled.—In the gardens of Hampton Court you will see many trees entirely vanquished and well-nigh strangled by huge coils of ivy, which are wound about them like the snakes around the unhappy Laocoon; there is no untwisting the folds, they are too giant-like, and fast fixed, and every hour the rootlets of the climber are sucking the life out of the unhappy tree. Yet there was a day when the ivy was a tiny aspirant, only asking a little aid in climbing; had it been denied then the tree had never become its victim; but by degrees the humble weakling grew in strength and arrogance, and at last it assumed the mastery, and the tall tree became the prey of the creeping, insinuating destroyer. The moral is too obvious. Sorrowfully do we remember many noble characters which have been ruined little by little by insinuating habits. Covetousness, drink, the love of pleasure, and pride, have often been the ivy that has wrought the ruin.
Blinded by self-interest.—Many a man of influence and position is blinded by the interests that absorb his thought. From the summit of East Rock in New Haven there is a magnificent view. The city has wisely taken the place as a public park, and now its paths are daily thronged with pilgrims to that shrine of beauty. But on that rock has been found a counterfeiter’s cave. The time was when those were on the hill who cared nothing for the wondrous view, but whose only desire was to hide themselves in the cave to pursue a nefarious business. So long as they were there the glories of the out-stretching valley and the distant sea were unseen by them. It is just such a difficulty that hinders men from seeing the loveliness of Christ. They are busy in caves of worldliness. They see nothing because they keep themselves where they cannot see.
Mark 4:20. Receptiveness.—“Receive” is the one word that describes the healthful conduct of human life. We receive being at birth; we do nothing but receive for the months that follow—receive mother-milk, clothing, warmth, care. The lad receives protection, advice, and wisdom, if indeed he does receive; for, rejecting these, he rejects his destiny, to find out his own way, which is death. We receive pickaxe and pen, and our place in the world. Old men smile, as they hear proud youth talk of “hewing a way” or “winning a way” through life to fortune, as if there could be any path discovered or cut out that was not hard-beaten like a Broadway by the thousands who have trodden it before us. In all honourable vocations the road is Patience, Industry, Frugality, Knowledge. And, if one go higher, Repentance, the New Heart through Christ, and the common gate to heaven. The youth makes his experiment. At times he seems to be hewing, winning, and inventing; but afterwards reviewing, he perceives he was but lifting up a hewing hand to cut away the obstacles to his receiving. As when one bursts a prison wall, or emerges toilfully from a wood, he has but to receive the down-pouring sun. Old age testifies, “All my battles have in fact been against Self, that I might not reject, against Others that I might not be defrauded of, the good which God meant me to receive.”—E. J. Haynes.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Mark 4:21. “We lose much of the significance, if we think of the modern candle and candlestick carried about in the hand. On the contrary, it is the lamp of the house put upon the lampstand, or candelabrum, which is so elevated that any lamp upon it can lighten up all the interior.”
Mark 4:22. Which shall not be manifested.—But that it should be manifested. To be read in close connexion with Mark 4:11-12, on which these words shed a flood of light. God’s purposes are always merciful; His hidings are revealings in disguise.
Mark 4:24. Take heed what ye hear.—There is a discipline of ear, as well as of tongue, hand, etc. Men are held responsible for the opportunities to hear good that they neglect, and for the voluntary exposure of their minds to evil influences. With what measure ye mete.—According to the attention bestowed in hearing the truth, and the diligence used in obeying its behests, will be the profit derived from it. Or there may be a special reference to the duty of handing on to others the spiritual knowledge we have acquired ourselves, and the clearer insight that the instructor himself gains while so doing. The last clause of the verse should probably read simply, And more shall be given to you: God is ever a liberal paymaster. “If ye diligently endeavour to do all the good you can, and teach it to others, the mercy of God will come in to give you both in the present life a sense to take in higher things and a will to do better things, and will add for the future an everlasting reward.”
Mark 4:25. The principle enunciated here is one that applies to every department of life. Nothing succeeds like success, or fails like failure. One thing leads the way to another of the same kind, whether it be triumph or defeat, gain or loss, etc. In the spiritual sphere, in particular, he who possesses the hearing ear and the understanding heart, will find them improve by use; while he who does not cultivate them is in danger of losing them altogether.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Mark 4:21-25
Mark 4:22. The manifestation of hidden things.—This is a proverbial saying, applied in various senses, according to the occasion. Before treating it in a general way, we may glance at it in connexion with the particular occasions on which we find it employed in Scripture.
1.Matthew 10:26; Matthew 10:26. Our Lord is there warning His apostles of the enmity and persecution which they must expect to encounter in the discharge of their duty. “My doctrine,” He seems to say, “must by all means, and in spite of all attempts to suppress it, be proclaimed abroad. There is nothing now hid which shall not be revealed; nor has there anything passed in secret between us which shall not be generally made known. Fear not, therefore, but proceed to execute the task assigned you, not by the method of private communication, which is suited only to the instruction of a few confidential disciples, but in whatever way may best serve to spread the gospel abroad.”
2.Luke 12:2; Luke 12:2. A warning against dissimulation. There will come a day when all hypocrisy will be laid bare, and every man will appear in his true character.
3. The text. As a candle is meant to be elevated on a candlestick, so Christians should not lead a life of seclusion and retirement, but rather let their light shine before men.
I. Perhaps the first case which occurs to one, on hearing this saying, is that of great and atrocious crimes, of which the perpetrators are unknown; acts of violence or wanton mischief, committed under cover of night or remote from observation. A short time usually brings to light the deed; but the author and the circumstances remain a mystery. Such is the case of “an uncertain murder,” for which the Mosaic Law made a remarkable provision (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). Even in this world it is wonderful how things come to light, often with the result of bringing the guilt home to the right door. But for the complete fulfilment of the text we must wait till the Day of Judgment, when no darkness will hide the evil-doer, and there will be no need of pursuers to track him to his hiding-place; “his own iniquities,” etc. (Proverbs 5:22). Then it will be useless for one of the party to come forward and betray his accomplices; for whatsoever the conspirators of mischief “have spoken in darkness,” etc. (Luke 12:3). A necessary consequence of the exposure of guilt will be the manifestation of innocence. Now, in our ignorance of the real offender, suspicions fall upon many innocent persons, who, if they cannot perfectly clear themselves, continue under a cloud all their lives. This is a sore trial; but the Day of Judgment will set it right. See Isaiah 58:8; Psalms 37:6.
II. Another great heap of hidden things, one day to be revealed, are the thoughts of men’s hearts, and the secret springs of their actions. At present everything connected with the inner working of the mind is a mystery. Of all covered things none is so close and impenetrable as the heart of man (Jeremiah 17:9). But, happily, “all things are naked,” etc. (Hebrews 4:13). God is able to unlock the doors of this cabinet, and expose all the secret drawers, recesses, and hiding-places contained in it. And when we see the multifarious furniture of a single heart—thoughts, desires, motives, passions, and affections—ransacked and sifted before the eyes of the universe, we shall perceive an additional propriety in the text. What a disclosure! Who could have imagined that those who preserved so amiable and sanctified an exterior should in their hearts be proud, covetous, sensual, devilish? But where gross hypocrisy is not chargeable, yet what a miserable figure will the very best and purest exertions of human virtue make, when manifested, with all their blemishes, in the searching light of God’s countenance! Which of us will then appear to have “walked before Him and been perfect”? to have loved Him “with all our heart,” etc.? to have set up no idols, no rebellious wills, no carnal affections?
Mark 4:24. How to hear sermons.—“Take heed what ye hear” really means “Take heed how ye hear,” in what spirit ye hear, with what attention, with what profit, as appears from the words which follow.
I. Ways in which men bring upon themselves spiritual hurt and loss by their manner of hearing God’s Word.—
1. If they hear without attention or feeling or desire, then they become so used to the words by hearing them often, they so harden their hearts by their careless, godless practice, that they become like the hard-beaten road from which the devil catches away the seed directly it has fallen. They have this of not attending, that they cannot attend; of closing their ears, that they lose the power of hearing even when they would listen; and often they go down to the grave deaf to God’s warnings, deaf to the sound of preacher or angel or the voice of Christ, to be awakened from that deafness by the voice of the archangel, and by the trump of God calling to judgment.
2. Men hear and pay attention; they are moved by what is said or by what they read: but they rise up and forget; or they begin to act and leave off with failing zeal and sinking interest; or their sins or the world choke the seed, and it becometh unfruitful.
3. God withdraws His Spirit from those who neglect His grace; and without that Spirit no man can draw near to Him.
II. The great danger of not heeding how we hear in respect to sermons.—
1. It will avail a man nothing to listen in a judging, criticising spirit. On the contrary, it will make the service an exercise of pride to him instead of humility: he will learn nothing, because he has not the spirit of a learner, but the feeling of a teacher, a judge, and a superior.
2. It will serve a man nothing if he listens to a sermon without applying it to himself.
3. If any person delights in the manner or words of a sermon, or in the preacher of it, rather than in the matter, the thing preached will profit him nothing. Such an one loses the kernel in admiring the shell.
4. A man who talks much about a sermon after it is over is not one most likely to profit by it. It has been well said that the best sermon is that which sends a congregation away not talking, but thinking. Those who feel most speak least. St. Augustine went to preach to some barbarous people in order to persuade them to abandon a cruel custom to which they were used. “I preached mightily,” he says, “to the best of my power to pluck out so cruel and unchristian a custom from their hearts and minds, and to banish it by my exhorting. I did not think, however, that I had accomplished anything when I heard them applauding, but when I saw them weeping. For they shewed by their applause that they were instructed and pleased, but by their tears that they were turned.”
5. Many people think that they require a sermon several times a week to keep them in the right way, and to fill them with heavenly thoughts. They are mistaken; they require no more preaching than they can hear upon the Lord’s Day, except at particular seasons and for particular instruction. But what they do require is thought. It is want of thought that makes sermons useless, and afflictions useless, and warnings useless.—W. E. Heygate,.
Mark 4:25. How progress is possible.—The law laid down is this: that when we use powers and faculties, we gain more power and more faculty; that when we neglect to use them, they decrease, and at last perish. Such is the case with bodily organs, but such is still more the case with mental organs. Practice makes perfect, it is said. But notice this: it is not undirected practice, or the random use of any power, but it is the carefully arranged practice which improves it. In other words, it is practice directed towards an end. Robert Houdon, the celebrated French juggler, tells us how he acquired one element of his power, an extreme quickness and accuracy of observation. His father took him through one of the boulevards of Paris, crowded with people, and led him slowly past a shop window, in which were exhibited a great multitude of different articles, and then made him tell how many he had been able to notice and recollect. This practice so strengthened and quickened the perceptive powers, that at last he became able to recollect every article in a large shop window by only walking past it a single time. The more he exercised the faculty, the easier it became. The more he had of this quickness of observation, the more was given to him. In the same way acrobats and gymnasts, by careful and systematic training, develop herculean strength of limb and power of equipoise. As one improves any power by careful training, he gets more. He has much, and more is given him. But if we neglect to exercise our powers, they degenerate, and at last disappear. The fishes in the Mammoth Cave have lost their eyes by not using them in that Egyptian darkness. So if men do not employ any power, they at last become incapable of using it. The gland which does not secrete diminishes in bulk; the nerve that does not transmit impressions wastes away; the muscle which does not contract withers. The intellectual and moral organs, like the physical, are liable to atrophy, from disease. If a person does not take pains to observe, and to remember what he observes, the power of seeing and remembering gradually decays. He who does not think seriously on anything will become frivolous, and not be able to apply his mind at all. To him who hath knowledge more shall be given, and he shall have abundance. Knowledge in the mind is such a vital and vitalising power, that it makes the intellect active to see, to learn, to remember. Whoever travels with an empty, untaught mind comes back nearly as ignorant as he went; but the geologist, the artist, the man who has read geography and history, or who knows well any industry or manufacture or art, is able to see something new wherever he goes. Just as the merchant must send out some freight in his vessel in order to bring back a cargo, the traveller must take some knowledge with him abroad if he wishes to bring any with him home. We have heard of persons who have stayed in their house and avoided society until it became impossible for them to leave their home or the room. We owe something to society; we all can be of use to others by some kindly, cheerful companion ship; but these people have buried their talent in the earth, until at last it is taken from them. Solitary confinement, when inflicted as a punishment, is considered a very severe one; but these persons inflict it on themselves—living for years alone, and at last unable to go out, even if they wish to do so. So people who do not give lose at last the power of giving. Let us never forget the epitaph on a tombstone, which teaches the true law on this subject: “What I spent, I had; what I kept, I lost; what I gave, I have still.” So likewise those who do not care to see the truth lose at last the power of seeing it. I have known lawyers to whom justice and truth were supreme—honourable, high-minded men, who never condescended to any low cunning, but only used those arguments to convince others which were convincing to themselves. Such men, as they grow older, grow wiser, stronger, greater. They love truth, and truth is given to them, and they have abundance. But we have known others, members of this same grand profession, whose only object was to win their cause, and that in any way. They said, not what they believed true, but what they thought they might make seem true to others. Their object was, not to convince; but to deceive, to confuse, to bewilder, to mislead, to win their cause by appeals to prejudice, to ignorance, to passion. And so at last they confuse their own sense, and lose the power of distinguishing between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. They have buried their talent in the earth, and it is taken from them. We may state the law thus: “Any habitual course of conduct changes voluntary actions into automatic or involuntary actions.” This can be illustrated by the physical constitution of man. Some of our bodily acts are voluntary, some involuntary; some, partly one and partly the other. The heart beats seventy or eighty times a minute all our life long, without any will of ours. The lungs, in the same way, perpetually inhale and exhale breath, whether we intend it or not; and if the lungs should suspend their action, we should die. But we can exercise a little volition over the action of the lungs; we can breathe voluntarily, taking long breaths. Thus the action of the lungs is partly automatic and partly voluntary, while the mechanical action of the heart is wholly automatic, and the chemical action of the digestive organs is the same. But some acts, voluntary at first, become, by habit, automatic. A child beginning to walk takes every single step by a separate act of will; beginning to read, he looks at every single letter. After a while he walks and reads by a habit, which has become involuntary. So also it is with man’s moral and spiritual nature. By practice he forms habits, and habitual action is automatic action, requiring no exercise of will except at the beginning of the series of acts. The law of association does the rest. So to him who hath shall be given. As voluntary acts are transformed into automatic, the will is set free to devote itself to higher efforts and larger attainments. If it were not for some such law of accumulation as this, the work of life would have to be begun for ever anew. Formation of character would be impossible. We should be incapable of progress, our whole strength being always employed in battling with our first enemies, learning evermore anew our earliest lessons. But, by our present constitution, he who has taken one step can take another, and life may become a perpetual advance from good to better. This is the one and sufficient reward of all virtue, the one sufficient punishment of all wrongdoing, that right actions and wrong actions gradually harden into character. The reward of the good man is, that having chosen truth and pursued it, it becomes at last a part of his own nature, a happy companion of all his life. The condemnation of the bad man is, that when light has come into the world he has chosen darkness, and so the light within him becomes darkness. Do not envy the bad man’s triumphs and worldly successes. Every one of them is a rivet fastening him to evil, making it more difficult for him to return to good, making it impossible but for the redeeming power of God, which has become incarnate in Christ, in order to seek and save the lost. The highest graces of all—faith, hope, and love—obey the same law. By trusting in God when we hardly see Him at all, we come at last to realise, as by another sense, His Divine presence in all things. Faith in God, at first an effort, at last becomes automatic and instinctive. Thus, too, faith in immortality solidifies into an instinct. As we live from and for infinite, Divine, eternal realities, these become a part of our knowledge. Socrates did not convince himself of his immortality much by his arguments. But by spending a long life in intimate converse with the highest truths and noblest ends, he at last reached the point where he could not help believing in immortality. The moral of all this is evident. Every man, every woman, every child, has some talent, some power, some opportunity, of getting good and doing good. Each day offers us some occasion of using this talent. As we use it, it gradually increases, improves, becomes native to the character. As we neglect it, it dwindles, withers, and disappears. This is the stern but benign law by which we live. This makes character real and enduring; this makes progress possible; this turns men into angels and virtue into goodness.—J. F. Clarke.
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Mark 4:21-22. Christian life.—
I. As a revelation.—
1. It is to be luminous.
2. It is to be properly placed in the midst of society. The gospel is a great revealing power. In all truth there is power of exposure and judgment; how much more in the highest truth of all!
II. As a responsibility.—
1. Stewardship in doctrine.
2. Stewardship in action.
III. As a law.—
1. Usefulness is productiveness.
2. Indolence is ruin. The kingdom of Christ is thus shewn to be founded on law. Man never becomes more than a subject: Christ never less than a king.—J. Parker, D.D.
Mark 4:21. Usefulness.—The duty which no one can disclaim, the test which no one may evade, and the praise which no one will despise are all included in the homely word “usefulness.”
I. The inevitableness of usefulness for every one who is in spirit, as well as profession, a true disciple of Christ. The use of light, as well as its function, is to shine. So a Christian is a Christian, not merely for the personal object of his individual salvation, but that he may glorify God in saving others. True, he must divest himself of self-consciousness. Also, he must be constantly on his guard against religious priggishness. But he is to shine as a light in the world, if he would not be missing one of the chief ends of his salvation.
II. The scope of a Christian’s usefulness is very wide. “Before men,” Christ said, His disciples were to make their light shine. But there are several spheres of usefulness, in their order of importance and necessity, more or less open to us all.
1. Wherever else we may or may not be useful, let us, above all things, endeavour to be useful at home. Our first duties are with those who are nearest and dearest to us.
2. In society we can be very useful, if we are only earnestly bent on it, and cultivate tact, modesty, and self-effacement.
III. The method of usefulness.—
1. All our usefulness, whatever it may be, must depend on our character. Christ in the heart must precede Christ on the lips.
2. The discharge of our daily duty will immensely affect our influence with others.
3. Friendship gives another scope for usefulness.
4. For each one, if he cares to trust it and to use it, Christ offers some special service, according to capacity, age, and gift.—Bishop Thorold.
Christ’s methods in revelation.—He is the person that lights the candle or the lamp; and in explanation of His teaching by parables He says in effect: “Do not think that I would be so foolish as to defeat and counterwork My own purpose, by bringing any arbitrary or needless obscurities into My teaching. I do not light My lamp of revelation, and then put it away under a bushel of dark sayings, which might have been made light and clear.” But the parable, which is a veiling of the light—which is, if not a putting it under a bushel, at least putting a bit of coloured glass between you and it—the parable is given for the distinct purpose, not that the light that streams through it may be hidden, but that the light may be manifested. If there is any darkness, be sure that it is darkness which is intended to help the spread of the light. And if there be obscurities, they are meant, by stimulating thought to search, by arresting attention, and by a hundred other effects on us to whom the revelation comes, to make us more vigorous in our pursuit after the truth; and on God’s side are adopted, not in order that He may ensnare us and give Himself excuses for punishing, but that He may temper the light to the weak eye, and so make it capable of becoming strong enough to bear more light.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
The guiding light.—What does a man light a candle for? That it may give light. What has God given me my conscience and my power of spiritual perception for, but in order that it may be the guiding light of my whole nature, not that it may be put under a bushel or under a bed? The light which is in us falls under the same laws as the light without us in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Nay, more, the light which is in the Christian soul is Christ. For it is the conscience illuminated by His indwelling, and the spirit made capable of perceiving the truth because it possesses Christ within, of which He is here speaking. And what He says is this: “I kindled the light in your heart and mind and conscience, not that it might be quenched and darkened, but that it might be your guiding star and perpetual inspiration.” And you falsify and contradict the very purpose for which Christ has come to you, unless you let the light of His will burning in your will, and the light of His truth flaming in your understanding, and the light of his righteousness illuminating your conscience, be your supreme and sovereign guides.—Ibid.
Hidden lights.—Some Christian men darken and obscure the light of Christ within them by their carefulness about earthly necessities, possessions, and treasures, which are represented by the bushel of commerce; and some of them do the same thing by sheer slothfulness and indifference in the religious life, which are represented by the bed on which men stretch themselves at ease for sleep.—Ibid.
Mark 4:22. The day of manifestation.—Though now it is often hard or impossible to distinguish between those in whom the good seed is springing up freely and healthfully, and those in whom its growth is checked and stunted, or trodden out; yet remember a time is coming when all shall be made plain and manifest, when man’s responsibility shall be fully acknowledged, and his shortcomings shall be fearfully avenged. Then shall the reckoning be. Then shall it be clearly seen and brought to light how the good seed has been plenteously and continually sown in many a heart, and scarcely sown before lost for ever, how opportunities and calls have been neglected, graces and mercies slighted, warnings and examples lightly put aside; in a word, the man’s struggle against grace through a whole lifetime shall be laid bare, step by step, and feature by feature, then, when the time of grace shall be no more.—Dean Butler.
Mark 4:24. “Take heed what ye hear.”—Never was this warning more needed than now. Men think themselves free to follow any teacher, especially if he be eloquent, to read any book, if only it be in demand, and to discuss any theory, provided it be fashionable, while perfectly well aware that they are neither earnest inquirers after truth, nor qualified champions against its assailants. For what, then, do they read and hear? For the pleasure of a rounded phrase, or to augment the prattle of conceited ignorance in a drawing-room. Do we wonder when these players with edged tools injure themselves, and become perverts or agnostics? A rash and uninstructed exposure of our intellects to evil influences is meting to God with an unjust measure, as really as a wilful plunge into any other temptation, since we are bidden to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the spirit as well as of the flesh.—Dean Chadwick.
Unprofitable hearers.—Some can be content to hear all pleasant things, as the promises and mercies of God; but judgments and reproofs, threats and checks, these they cannot brook; like unto those who, in medicine, care only for a pleasant smell or appearance in the remedy, as pills rolled in gold, but have no regard for the efficacy of the physic. Some can willingly hear that which concerns other men and their sins, their lives and manners, but nothing touching themselves or their own sins; as men can willingly abide to hear of other men’s deaths, but cannot abide to think of their own.—R. Stock.
“With what measure ye mete.”—His hearers would at once understand the allusion. When grain is brought in quantities, it is brought in bags which are always measured again by a person whose trade it is to do this. Squatting cross-legged on the ground, he fills the grain with his hands into a “tinneh,” which he shakes when it is full, to make the contents solid. He then refills it, twists it round scientifically, and makes a second settling of the grain, afterwards refilling it. He then presses down the whole with his hands, and at last, when he cannot make it hold more, raises as high a cone as possible on the top; only this being thought “good measure.”—C. Geikie, D.D.
The law of compensation.—At present you have, as men say, the law in your own hands. You can do nearly as you will. There is no compulsion laid upon you. You can measure out to God what measure you will. If you choose to profit, to let His words sink into your hearts, to bring forth fruit to His glory, it is, through His grace, in your power to do so. Under the influence of that life-giving Word the rocky soil may become deep, rich, staple; the roadside shall no more be trodden; the thorns shall be rooted out. Not even deep sin can hinder it. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose: it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” Such is its marvellous efficacy within the heart that gives itself to its control, that the publican becomes an apostle, the shameless sinner a deeply-loving penitent. Therefore you are now the meters. You may, as you will, refuse or accept, i.e. develop or utterly stifle the results of the heavenly sowing. Only remember, that as you deal now with God, in this measure will you be dealt with hereafter.—Dean Butler.
The nature of Christ’s teaching is such as that, if a man, with sharpened ear and attentive spirit, listens and takes into his heart what he does understand, and lives thereby, the amount of what he understands is sure to grow, and endless progress in the apprehension of the light that lives in the thickest apparent darkness will be his. Just as when we step out of a gaudily lighted room, and look up into the depths of the heavens above us, all seems obscured. But, as we gaze, the focus of the eye changes, and we see sparkling points which we shall one day know to be magnificent suns in the far-off vault, which at first seemed unrelieved darkness. So, because the lamp is not hid under the bushel, take heed what you hear, and recognise in the very form of the revelation of God’s love and will in Jesus Christ a provision for the certain progress in knowledge and perception of every faithful, listening soul, and a provision for the as certain darkening into unrelieved blackness and midnight obscurity of the glimmering light neglected.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Mark 4:25. Christian attainment.—According to the interest, the attention, the practical purpose, the sympathy with truth which you bring to the hearing will be the gifts which your Teacher will bestow, and the accessions which you will carry away; and every such accession will be itself a foundation for higher attainment, for “he that hath to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance.” What importance is thus added to every measure of Christian attainment! It is no longer to be estimated by itself, but in relation to ulterior progress, as a qualification for the further steps by which we may “grow up into Him in all things who is our Head, even Christ.” Valuable and blessed as every such attainment is in itself, that value and blessedness will be largely increased by what we may call the tendencies and potentialities which belong to it, and which show themselves as new opportunities arise. A man has a certain interest in the things of God: it is well; but we are chiefly thankful for it because it will dispose him to hear, to inquire, to consider, and so to profit by the teaching which the providence of God may present to him. He has certain convictions: we rejoice, but most because these convictions decide him to break with things that were hurtful, and to throw himself among things that are profitable to his salvation, taking his place among those who would learn of the heavenly wisdom, “watching daily at her gates, waiting at the posts of her doors.” He has a certain knowledge of Divine truth, and what he knows will interpret to him what he knows not, enabling him, when he hears a higher teaching, to apprehend and appreciate instructions which, to those less advanced, are “done in parables.” He has a certain experience in the spiritual life, and that experience qualifies him to pass with increasing profit through subsequent dispensations which might else have perplexed or offended or crushed him. Till the time shall come which will enlighten the obscure histories of human life, none can say to what a degree this system of sequence is maintained and administered in the kingdom of God. Enough of it is declared, and enough is visible, to solemnise our view of passing things, and to make us feel how neglect or refusal of what is offered us at one period may propagate its fatal influence through successive stages of spiritual loss, or how a firm hold laid upon some gift of grace may prove to have put us in possession of ever-accumulating treasures.—J. D. Burns.
The earnest find that they grow; the triflers find that their powers rust and fade.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
God’s benefits come not alone, but one is the pledge of another. The grant of a mite is the assignment of a talent. A drop of dew from heaven is a prognostic of a gracious shower, of a flood, which nothing can draw dry, but ingratitude (James 1:5; James 4:6).—A. Farindon, D.D.
God’s dealings.—This verse represents God’s dealings in a very encouraging light. Many who wish to be true Christians despair of ever reaching such a lofty attainment; the distance seems too great, the path too difficult. Let them remember, for their comfort, that, no matter how far, it is only one step at a time, and, no matter how difficult, “to him that hath” the will “shall be given” the power; he shall go from strength to strength, and from grace to grace, till before the God of gods he appears in Zion.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Mark 4:21-22. The Christian’s light.—This statement of Christ’s is well illustrated by the story of the Calais lighthouse keeper, who, when boasting of the brilliancy of his lamp, was asked what would happen if it were allowed to go out, or if the reflectors became dim. “Impossible,” he replied, “for yonder, where nothing can be seen by us, there are ships sailing to every harbour of the sea; if to-night I failed in my duty, some one might be shipwrecked. No; I like to think that the eyes of the whole world are fixed on my light.” This man could appreciate what Christ taught His disciples when He said that they were to be like Safed, the city set upon a hill which could not be hid, and to remember that, inasmuch as they were the light of the world, they must shine before men.
Influence.—A man once said, “I have no more influence than a farthing rushlight.” “Well,” was the reply, “a farthing rushlight can do a good deal: it can set a haystack on fire; it can burn down a house—yea, more, it will enable a poor creature to read a chapter out of God’s Book. Go your way, friend; let your farthing rushlight so shine before men, that others, seeing your good works, may glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
A good life.—Julius Drusus, a Roman tribune, had a house so situated that several of its apartments lay exposed to the view of the neighbourhood. A person came to him, and offered for five talents so to alter it as that it should not be liable to that inconvenience. “I will give thee ten talents,” said Drusus, “if thou canst make my house conspicuous in every room of it, so that all the city may behold in what manner I lead my life.”
Mark 4:22. Hidden, to be revealed.—Many things are concealed, both in nature and by art, though the concealment is by no means designed to be permanent. Look, e.g., at the almost measureless beds of coal, hidden for ages in the bowels of the earth, but designed by Providence to be revealed when necessity should arise. The precise time for the unveiling it is not always easy to decide, because man’s knowledge is finite, but we rest assured that it will coincide with the need for its use. It is a principle worth bearing in mind when human efforts fail; for it is encouraging to know that such a result may be due simply to the fact that we have tried unconsciously to anticipate the fore-appointed time.—Dean Luckock.
Mark 4:24. No loss by giving away.—During the summer a clergyman called on a lady who had a very fine collection of roses. She took him out to see them and began plucking right and left. Some bushes with but a single flower she despoiled. The clergyman remonstrated. “You are robbing yourself, dear madam.” “Ah,” she said, “do you not know that the way to make the rosebush bear is to pluck its flowers freely? I lose nothing by what I give away.” This is a universal law. We never lose anything by what we give away.
Influences of evil.—Sir Peter Lely made it a rule never to look at a bad picture, having found by experience that, whenever he did so, his pencil took a taint from it. “Apply this,” adds Bishop Horne, “to bad books and bad company.” Lord Collingwood, writing to a young friend, said, “Hold it as a maxim that you had better be alone than in mean company, for the worth of a man will always be ruled by that of his company.” The converse of course is only true, for nothing is of greater value than the influence of good surroundings and noble friends. The Persian poet Saadi has a lyric in which a clod of clay is asked how it has come to smell so sweet. The clay replies, “The sweetness is not in myself, but I have been lying in contact with a rose.”
Mark 4:25. The law of compensation.—We see in some office two or three young men. They seem to be of equal abilities, but one has a small fortune bequeathed him. On this account, when a partnership is vacant, the opening is offered to him. By-and-by some public appointment is vacant; because this man is possessed of some wealth he is thought to be a responsible man, and so is chosen. “To him that hath shall be given.” This is the ordinary way in which things work in the world around us. But observe that the same rule exhibits its sway in the spiritual world. Here is a man with a very little knowledge of religion, who has been, perhaps, much neglected in his youth, but he has some idea of God’s greatness and power, and that it is his duty to go to church. In the house of God he comes under good influences, and his conscience is enlightened. He becomes a regular attendant, and then a communicant. “To him that hath shall be given.” Or let the other part of the saying be taken up. There is a child who gets some slight knowledge of the facts of Christianity in a Sunday-school class, but that knowledge is very slight, for the child is restless and careless, and disinclined to listen to anything which requires attention. Soon the lad goes to work for his bread, and thinks himself too much of a man to go any longer to Sunday school. The little learning he received soon fades away, and from want of practice even the half-learnt art of reading is lost. He goes now and then to church, but is ashamed to be unable to read as others do around. And so at length, though living in a Christian land, he becomes as ignorant and indifferent as a heathen. “From him that hath not,” etc. A young man begins to feel, as he grows up, the Divine life stirring within him. He wants to do something to help in efforts for good around him, to take his share in bearing burdens. But he goes into business or enters a profession or devotes himself to society, and by degrees all the pulses of Divine life beat more slowly; he loses an aspiration here—he loses a scruple there—he makes an excuse about that; and his life begins to dwindle, and, after a bit, he becomes like a bicycle going downhill—the law of accelerated motion asserts itself, and in the day of trial or of opportunity he is found wanting and useless. “From him that hath not,” etc. If only he had taken up some little bit of self-denying work, if only he had given himself to one thing in which he could help others, if only he had had the self-forgetting element within him, then in him too the law “to him that bath shall be given” would have asserted itself—he would have been saved in the truest sense.—R. Eyton.
Service no loss.—An eminent merchant of St. Petersburg supported, at his own expense, a number of missionaries in India. Some one asked him how he could afford to do so, to which he replied, “Before my conversion, when I served the world and self, I did it on a grand scale and at the most lavish expense; and when Christ called me out of darkness, I resolved that He should have more than I had ever given the world. At my conversion I promised I would give a certain percent of what my business brought me. Since that time it yields double as much.” So it is in our service for Christ. God never allows any capital to lay idle, and, if we do not use the talent given us, He takes it, and gives it to him who will use it. How often do we see poor, lean Christians fretting and fuming and praying for more faith and more strength, when they sit still and will not use what they have!
The treasure only for the pure.—There is an old church in Germany with which a singular legend is connected. In this church, at certain times, a mighty treasure is said to become visible to mortal eyes. Gold and silver vessels, of great magnificence and in great abundance, are disclosed; but only he who is free from sin can hope to secure the precious vessels. This legend shadows a great truth. In the temple of God, in the Word of God, are riches beyond gem or gold; but only the sincere, the pure in purpose, can hope to realise the Divine treasure. There must be in the truth-seeker a moral susceptibility and passion for the light.
Moral increase.—There is an Eastern allegory which teaches the same lesson as this parable. A merchant, going abroad for a time, gave respectively to two of his friends two sacks of wheat each, to take care of against his return. Years passed; he came back, and applied for them again. The first took him into his storehouse, and shewed them to him; but they were mildewed and worthless. The other led him out into the open country, and pointed out field after field of waving corn, the produce of the two sacks given him. Said the merchant, “You have been a faithful friend; give me two sacks of that wheat; the rest shall be thine.”
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Mark 4:29. But as soon as the fruit is mature, straightway he putteth forth the sickle, etc. Cp. Joel 4:13 (LXX.). See also 1 Peter 1:23-25; Revelation 14:14-15.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Mark 4:26-29
The parable of the growing corn.—It is remarkable that St. Mark alone should report this parable, and it is more than remarkable because it is the only parable which he alone has reported. It is very brief, has no interpretation attached to it, and looks at first sight not unlike some of the other parables. Yet it appears to me to supply an essential link in the chain of parabolic teaching. The side or aspect of the kingdom of God to which it refers is one which could not be passed over. If I understand it aright, it forms a needful companion or counterpart to the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). Each of them lays stress upon a different part of the common process of husbandry. In the one the end operations of sowing and reaping, into which enters the personal action of the Son of Man, are made conspicuous and insisted on at length, while the intervening months of growth are referred to only to add that then the crop must be “let alone.” In the other the contrary occurs. The initial and terminal operations of the husbandman constitute no more than a frame to the picture. They are named merely to shew us the better how the farmer did nothing for the remainder of the time; while the process described at length is the slow, gradual growth and ripening of the plants under the spontaneous action of the fruit-bearing earth. Thus the two parables are seen to complete each other. The one in Matthew brings out how voluntary extra-natural agents act upon the kingdom of Christ from above or from beneath, but chiefly at the beginning and the end of its career. This one in Mark brings out the natural agencies whose unhindered action determines the advance of the kingdom from its beginning to its end. Let us now examine our parable in detail. Its central words form a key to the whole: “The earth bringeth forth fruit of herself.” In other words, what is here taught is not the vitality of the seed, nor the activity of the two sowers, but the productiveness of the soil. Only commit a seed to the earth, and “the earth will bring forth fruit of herself.” The growth of a wheat-field is a long and tedious process. Grain has its own laws, according to which it must germinate and shoot: you cannot make it grow otherwise than God appoints. It has its successive stages through which it is bound to pass: you cannot have an ear before its stalk is tall. It lies exposed to atmospheric influences, both bad and good: you cannot, with all your husbandry, hinder the wind from causing it to strike deeper root, or the frost from nipping its too tender shoots. In fact, the farmer can do very little in the matter. Only the great earth, stored by God with the chemical conditions of fruitfulness, and lying ever open by day and night to God’s atmospheric influences—to rain and dew, to sun and wind, to frost and electricity—only this wonderful earth carries on the process. In spite of so much that appears to war against the plant, damping the farmer’s hope, somehow the earth never fails after all to “bring forth fruit of herself.” In all this may be discerned, I think, three leading features of resemblance to the progress of Christ’s kingdom in the world.
I. The kingdom of Christ has had to pass through those stages of imperfect growth which are common to other systems existing in human society.—It need hardly be said that the Church did not burst upon the world a finished organisation—perfect when it was first set up. Our Lord did no more than sow a few men into Palestine society with a few religious truths in their hearts. These truths, being alive with a Divine force, made the men live. Life proved contagious, and spread. It sought expression through common forms, and the multitude became a community—a Church. It has been really growing on ever since. There has been progress. Christendom has not passed through so many changes in vain. Was it no progress when the seed Christ scattered in the early sowing-day struck its roots through the old dying Greco-Roman world, and out of it drew whatever it could find of nutriment in its philosophy, its law, or its literature? That fat soil of classic civilisation was the prepared ground in which, beneath the hot sun of ten persecutions, Christianity was designed to grow deep-rooted and full-bladed. Was it no further progress when out of this rich growth a new world shot up, and through the Middle Ages modern Europe was formed like a tall flowering stalk held aloft upon the base of the older world? Has there been no progress since then? The religion of the Anglo-Saxon race is the most promising ear on the Church Catholic, and it has been rapidly filling for the last three centuries. It has drunk in contributions from every quarter: from the growth of municipal and national freedom; from the resuscitation of letters; from the discovery of America and India; from modern widening of knowledge and stimulation of the inventive arts. Perhaps we are standing already on the border of the world’s ripening age—if not actually within it. Already we see enough to surmise that by-and-by the kingdom will have run its course and the harvest of the earth be ripe. These two will synchronise. This world cannot last a day longer nor end a day sooner than the close of the Church’s development. “When the fruit is brought forth, immediately He putteth in the sickle.”
II. Throughout all its stages the Christian community is affected by every secular influence at work beside it, just as anything else would be.—What is this but to say that “the field is the world”? Human society as it exists in the world forms the soil into which Christianity has been cast. The current modes of thought form the atmosphere it has to breathe. The forces which in each land or age have told on ordinary history have told upon the Church. At one time it has been crushed by violence, and at another fanned to slumber in the lap of luxury. False philosophies have tainted its doctrine, and lax manners affected its discipline. The passion or the pride that inflames rival parties has often rent its unity; often, too, have political alliances essayed to cement the fragments. It has borrowed much from other forces in social history, as well as lent much to others. Rude in rude ages; learned among the learned; it has become all things to all men. Yet in this common soil and atmosphere of earth the kingdom of Christ has, on the whole, thriven. Propagated by human hands, it has drunk of the rain of heaven. Wealth has served its ends, and literature fought its battles, and adventure run its errands. Civilisation has organised its strength, and commerce pioneered its way. Whatever good gifts God gave to earth have in some measure aided the advance of His kingdom; and the history of the nations has been at the same time in great part the history of Christianity. Thus on the whole the kingdom grows. It may be hard to see how at any given moment. Stand beside a field of springing corn on a blustery March morning; you fail to see how such tender sprouts are to be brought nearer harvest by the blasts that beat them. So at few moments of the Church’s progress could the saints of the day trace the tendency of all the forces at work upon the cause of Christ. Yet let the short-sighted and fainthearted Christian take courage. It is a fruitful earth after all. As surely as the weeks of spring and summer do on the whole ripen our fields, so surely will all the ages contribute to fill the garners of heaven.
III. The parable implies not merely that natural forces act on the kingdom of Christ, but that they are allowed to act themselves out freely without personal or supernatural interference on the part of the Great Husbandman. When it is said, “The kingdom is as if a man … should sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how,” it is just the ordinary life of the farmer as he goes about his other tasks which is described. The point is that that ordinary life of the farmer between sowing and reaping is, speaking roughly, one of entire cessation from all direct action upon the field. Sowing and reaping are human interferences with the processes of nature. As compared with the self-sown wilderness, where each seed is allowed to shell itself out upon the untilled ground, a field is an artificial thing. Now these two artificial interferences of man symbolise the supernatural acts of God which mark the opening and the close of the Christian history. He did interfere with the sterility of the world to clear a space and sow a new crop of spiritual men and women. The advent of Christ with all that He accomplished personally or through His messengers to found His Church constituted one stupendous miracle. Supernatural interposition of God to work in the human field is the true description of the life of Christ. What wonder if accessory miracles hung about His steps and lingered round the feet of His immediate ministers? By such signs and portents was he who had long ruled in open day with his possessions and sorceries and oracles driven to sow mimic seed secretly by night. But when that first great operation of the Sower from heaven was ended miracle ceased. The higher and the lower agents alike retired for a long while behind the screen of natural instrumentality. The field of Christian history was left to the sun and the wind and the rain. Henceforth—till we near the end, when again Divine hands interpose—everything in the development of the faith progresses in obedience to those orderly laws which regulate the progress of truth from mind to mind or from age to age. It may be said, “How can we speak of the Lord Jesus as quitting charge or activity within His field? Nay, as even asleep and ignorant how it grows? Is it not He who is always at work within every Christian heart, sustaining by His Spirit the life of His saints, and guiding to His own issues the destinies of His Church?” Unquestionably. Only He does so very much as He causes corn to grow in the field. He is as full of care and as rich in effort for His own cause as ever. Yet He never reaches a hand out of the cloud to dispel the tempest of persecution or kill the worm of heresy. He works, it is true; but it is along the lines of nature, and through the complex mechanism by which the world is guided. On the one hand, the informing Spirit of the Church operates through ordinary channels of intelligence and moral influence; on the other hand, the common providence of God overrules, but nowhere overrides, contingencies. And to these two factors He has left His Church. So far, therefore, as any direct or personal interposition to modify the action of natural forces is concerned, He is like the farmer who, from seedtime to harvest, lets his field alone. “Till harvest,” I say. For there is a second advent before us, when the order of the world is again to be broken through—this time with a view to be broken up. When the ripe fruit of the kingdom shall offer itself to the sickle, then will the Sower reappear.—J. O. Dykes, D.D.
Spiritual growth.—This parable is a brilliant example of the perfect naturalness of our Lord’s teachings and the way in which He shews the underlying connexion between the two worlds, natural and spiritual. At first sight it might seem as if there were but few points of comparison between these two—between the work going on, for example, in the corn-field and the work going on in the human soul; for while trees and shooting corns have power of growth, they have no power of will; whereas man has both. And it is this power of will which is the determining factor in character and destiny. And yet, though these worlds are so dissimilar, there is an underlying unity; and it is this unity our Lord brings out in this parable. The central thought seems to be that God’s Divine power is at work in God’s own kingdom. “The earth bringeth forth fruit of herself”—not of herself apart from God, but of herself apart from the man who sows the seed. He does his work, he sows the seed, and he goes on his way; and after he has done his part he sleeps by night and rises by day, and the seed springs up and grows, he knows not how.
I. The kingdom of God.—It is not that rule over the creatures which God as the Creator exercises, but that which is based on the mediatorial kingdom of Christ. It is the kingdom into which the poor in spirit enter, which is reserved for them who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; it is the kingdom which is for those who are pure in heart, who are born again of the Spirit of God; it is the kingdom which comes not by observation; it is a kingdom into which all men pass by repentance and faith; it is mysterious in its beginnings, silent in its growth, like the seed springing up from very small beginnings and growing to great things; and it is potent in its action, like the leaven in the meal. We are to pray for its coming, and yet it is always coming. Wherever there is a just thing taking the place of an unjust, wherever righteousness prevails over unrighteousness, wherever men are growing more kindly and true, wherever legislation is becoming more Christian, where commerce is baptised with the Spirit of Christ, where literature is guided by a Holy Spirit of God, when family life becomes ennobled and purified, when men come into holier and truer relations with one another and with their God in heaven, this kingdom is coming. We may well pray for its coming, for when it comes the old trouble and sorrow and conflict of the centuries will vanish like an idle dream. Then, what hope have we that this kingdom will come? What is our consolation in regard to it amidst all discouragements of the time? Our Lord says, The same hope and the same encouragement that the man has who casts his seed into the ground. Everywhere men are dependent upon a great power which is working behind them; every day God brings the succession of day and night, so that men may carry on the work of their life. Every year comes the stately march of the seasons, or else there would be no harvest for men. Why, there is a standing miracle which would overwhelm us if we were not used to it every year—of that shooting of life in field and forest which the spring-time brings! So even in regions nearer to ourselves. Your very children spring up and grow you know not how. So we are to take this thought into the activities of the Christian Church. In this day of material progress and triumph we are apt to look rather at the organisations than at the Spirit which breathes through them; at what men do rather than at what God does behind; and our Lord here puts to us this great central fact. John Wesley’s dying words are words of comfort for the Church in all the centuries: “The best of all is, God is with us. If He were not, our hope would be scant indeed.” But He is. He is, in history, bringing new and strange and wondrous movements, developing a nation’s life. He is in the Church of God convincing men of sin, carrying on the great work of building up men in the image of Jesus Christ.
II. The need of patience.—In carrying on this great work of bettering the world, elevating it higher, there is the element of time which must be taken into account. “The husbandman waiteth long and is patient.” The earth says to him, “Give me seed, give me time, and I will give you fruit.” And so it is in regard to the great things of the spiritual life. Everywhere we find that what is done is the result of long and complex forces. The more important a thing is, the longer time does it take. A man may be converted in a moment of time; but after he has turned right round the development of that life must needs take many long years of discipline before it reaches the height for which God intended it. Salvation means not merely delivering a man from sin, from every evil thing, but building him up to all nobleness; not merely the putting aside of what is weak and sinful, but the attainment of all that is noble and true; and is always the work of time. You can make a man a present of some material things in a moment, but you cannot give him patience, you cannot give him purity, you cannot give him humility, in a moment of time. Faith gets grip and strength through stress of suffering; wisdom is the child of experience.
III. Spiritual continuity.—Our Lord says there is a natural law of continuity in the spiritual life as there is in other things. “First the blade.” We can never do without any of the intervening stages—never expedite the processes of God either in nature or in grace. Men are coming to see that everywhere this law prevails; history is coming to be regarded not as a mere set of isolated facts chronicled together in the manner of annals, but that the thought and the life of the past generations are living in the present, and shaping its thought and purposes, that the growth of opinion and the influence of thought are felt over and over again in succeeding generations. So it is in regard to the spiritual life; perfectly natural, perfectly simple and beautiful in its action is the life of God in the soul.
1. There is the green blade trembling in the breeze, the type of spiritual life in the young disciple. There seems at first very little in the way of positive Christian life. It is but a green blade touched by the wandering breeze; it seems very little; but if God’s Spirit is in it, it will grow to greater things.
2. There is another stage, and it seems sometimes as if very little value could be attached to it except for what comes afterwards. Sometimes a man thinks he is losing ground, going back, when in point of fact God is training him for higher services and leading him to the heights of the Christian life. It is through the depths that we go to the heights.
3. There is another time yet. The time of the full ripe corn in the ear—the time which Bunyan sets before us in the picture of the land of Beulah, where the birds are for ever singing, the angels come and go, and you can see the city far away, its heights gleaming in the sunshine. There is a time when we think not so much of doctrines, though they have their importance, as we think of that which is behind the teaching—the living God; when we have not so much many motives as one motive—love to Christ; when we feel more and more that He has been with us leading and guiding us; when we come out of the struggle not merely talking of the trouble but of the mercy which has been shown to us while we passed through it; when some things have fallen off from us that we thought important for us, and we get more and more to the central verities of eternal truth; when Christ becomes to the trusting soul all in all!—John Brown, D.D.
Harvest lessons.—Our Lord was very fond of drawing His parallels and illustrations from the garden and the field. This will be found a great help to those whose occupations lead them to be much abroad, and to take notice of the various appearances of nature as she works out the processes of vegetation.
I. The harvest suggests grateful thoughts of the good providence of God.—
1. We almost see Him “opening His hand and filling all things living with plenteousness.” What a family has He to provide for! Not only mankind, but “all sheep and oxen,” etc. (Psalms 8:7-8). “These wait all upon Him,” etc. (Psalms 104:27). Nor wait in vain (Psalms 145:15-16). Well, therefore, does the psalmist call upon “beasts and all cattle,” etc., to “praise the name of the Lord” (Psalms 148:10; Psalms 148:13).
2. But the lower animals have neither understanding to know God, nor yet voice to praise Him. Man has both. Man is placed in this magnificent world, to be the interpreter of the whole creation. He is the priest of the temple, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable unto God.
3. Man is not only most capable of praising God, but he has also most cause to do so. Of all living things, he is maintained at the greatest cost.
II. The harvest reminds us of the faithfulness of God.—Once He brought a flood upon the earth; and for that year no sower went forth to sow, and no reaper put in his sickle. But after that He declared that it should never be so again (Genesis 9:9-17).
2. Such is God’s promise; and those who have little respect for anything else He has said place entire reliance on this. They plough and they sow in perfect confidence that God will send heat and cold, sun and rain, everything that is necessary to produce a harvest.
3. Some years may be less favourable than others; some countries may be visited with a partial or even entire failure of the fruits of the earth; but the promise never fails. After a year of scarcity comes a year of extraordinary abundance, or the deficiency of one country is supplied by the excess of another.
4. There is only just enough uncertainty in these things to make serious people sensible of their absolute dependence upon Him who giveth all (Jeremiah 5:24; Deuteronomy 11:17).
III. The harvest reminds us of the instability of man.—
1. “One generation passeth away,” etc. (Ecclesiastes 1:4). We know, indeed, that the earth itself has its appointed time, and that the end of one harvest will be, to be burned up by that fire which shall consume the earth and all that is therein (2 Peter 3:10). Still, as compared with the rapid succession of its inhabitants, the earth may be said to “abide for ever,” yielding its fruit to the different generations of men, which quickly come and as quickly disappear. What a mortifying reflexion—that the very ground we tread on, even the dust we shake off our feet, is in this respect better than ourselves!
2. Harvests measure our lives. Thousands will not live to see another harvest; nay, thousands are going out of the world, at this very season, while the provision of another year is being gathered in. They sowed, and others are reaping; or they reaped, and others have entered into the fruits of their labours.
IV. The harvest makes us think about death.—
1. Death is the great reaper. When he “putteth in his sickle,” all heads bow down. His harvest is confined to no particular season. His are the only crops that never fail.
2. To the Christian death is no longer the “king of terrors.” He is cut down because he is ripe. He has passed through all the stages of spiritual growth and godliness—“first the blade,” etc. Then, when God judges that the fruit is perfectly formed in him—“the fruit of the Spirit, which is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth”—immediately He Himself “putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.”
3. When the corn is fit to cut, it is a pity to let it stand any longer; and when a soul is ripe, it is equally desirable that it should be “taken away from the evil to come,” and lodged in a place of safety beyond the changes and chances of this mortal life.
V. The harvest speaks to us of the resurrection and judgment.—
1. The resurrection parallel is developed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49.
2. The judgment may be considered in two lights.
(1) It is God’s harvest (Matthew 13:30; Revelation 14:14-19).
(2) It is man’s harvest also (Galatians 6:7; 2 Corinthians 5:10). This life is the seed-time of our whole existence. “The harvest is the end of the world”; and then shall every man “eat of the fruit of his way,” etc. (Proverbs 1:31). “He that soweth to his flesh,” etc. (Galatians 6:8). Let the censorious and uncharitable hear this (Matthew 7:2). Let the unmerciful and unrelenting hear this (James 2:13). Let the covetous hear this (James 5:2-3). Let the despisers of the gospel hear this (Proverbs 1:24-28). But as to those who are sowing, not to the flesh, but to the spirit, all that they have need of is that which every sower must possess—patience; that, “after they have done the will of God, they may receive the promises.”
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Mark 4:26-29. Rise and progress of religion in the heart.—
1. Religious impressions sometimes take their rise in the heart from small and apparently accidental circumstances. An observation casually made in conversation, the perusal of a book, one of those occurrences which we call accidents, or some serious misfortune, may be the means of either giving a man the first instruction in practical piety, or of causing him seriously to feel the importance of religion.
2. By whatever means the good seed is first sown in the heart, if it there meets with a congenial soil, a very short time will elapse before its existence and power begin to be perceived. As the tendency of natural vegetation is upwards, so the first aspirations of the regenerate soul are directed towards heaven. Its hopes and wishes rise gradually above the earth: under the fostering warmth of Divine grace holy dispositions spring and grow up in the man’s heart, he knoweth not how: his leaf withereth not: it is protected against the storms and blight which might infest it in its tender condition, so that the sun shall not burn it by day, neither the moon by night.
3. There remains one final labour of the husbandman before he can enjoy the full reward of all his anxieties and toils. “When the fruit is brought forth,” and fully ripened, the stem which unites it to the earth must be severed before it can be laid up in his barns. “Immediately,” therefore, “he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.” Maturity in spiritual growth is not always measured by length of years. Whenever the truly religious man is cut off, apparently in the flower of his age, we must regard the event as one of the mysteries which we understand not, as a dispensation, afflicting indeed to those who are left to mourn his loss, but not so to him, to whom “to die is gain.” Conclusion:
1. This parable gives no excuse for slothfulness or negligence to the spiritual husbandman, but rather a season for constant exertion.
2. This parable instructs us all to be ready to receive religious instruction, as well as to impart it.—Prof. T. Chevallier.
The development of good and evil.—This parable is frequently explained of the silent and secret growth of grace in the individual character of God’s servants, and of the final storing up of the wheat of earth in the garner of heaven. But surely the parable embraces a far wider horizon of thought, and concerns the method of God’s procedure in the kingdom of Christ to the end of time—namely, the principle of allowing the full development of both evil and good until the hour strikes for judgment. In illustration of this our Lord sets forth the general laws of vegetable life on earth, which are analogous to the laws of spiritual development:
(1) the law of growth or full development from germs;
(2) the law of silent, gradual, unperceived increase; and
(3) the law of crisis or ripeness, followed by the sickle and the harvest, the cutting down, either for storage or burning. The practical use, then, of this parable is to meet men’s incredulity or doubt as to the reality of God’s government on earth; which may arise, and often does arise, in the minds of Christ’s followers from taking too short views, from looking at the world as already a finished thing, and therefore as an unintelligible chaos, a field where good and bad grow hopelessly together; to meet this incredulity and doubt by the assurance that the fixed method of the Divine government is not hasty and sudden harvesting and uprooting, but to allow all germs of both good and evil to develop and mature; and then, when the time of full ripeness arrives, to put in the sickle—to postpone the crisis till “iniquity is full,” and heroic righteousness in resistance is also at the full—and then to bring in sudden judgment and retribution.—E. White.
1. Though the sower sleep after his labour, yet the process of germination goes on night and day.
2. Simple beginnings and practical results may be connected by mysterious processes: “he knoweth not how.” There is a point in Christian work where knowledge must yield to mystery.
3. As the work of the sower is assisted by natural processes (“the earth bringeth forth of itself,” etc.), so the seed of truth is aided by the natural conscience and aspiration which God has given to all men.
4. The mysteriousness of processes ought not to deter from reaping the harvest. The spiritual labourer may learn from the husbandman.—J. Parker, D.D.
The Word of life in the figure of a grain of wheat.—
1. Its internal energy of life.
2. Its growth according to laws.
3. Its gradualness.
4. Its progressive stages.
5. The certainty of its development.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Divine surprises.—The little green growth, as it forces its way through the soil, is not prepared for the great surprises of its own development; it is not prepared for the beautiful verdure of the green field caused by its own shooting up, nor even then for a still further development; for now comes the ear with its promises of even farther development—with its promises of great usefulness, of some time furnishing food for the eater. And even then greater surprises are still in store; for the ear can scarcely guess—this little ear of wheat not yet developed, just heavy enough to bend the stem on which it is growing—it is scarcely prepared for the still further surprises of the full wheat, or corn, in the ear; and men and women, following this same thought, begin to realise that there is within them something of Divine, God-like possibility.—S. R. Fuller.
Growth.—If you, as an individual soul, are not bigger, fuller of Divine power and inspiration, than you were five or ten years ago, it is because this process of growth has been hindered or thwarted by your own rebellious interference—as if the farmer who has sown the seed should untimely scratch away the earth and hinder the germ’s expansion, or later on, heedless of law, should walk rough-shod over this early verdure and thwart its development.—Ibid.
Gradual progress towards perfection.—Like those wondrous insects of the branching coral, who, beneath the waters of the vast Southern Ocean, lay their slight foundation, ever adding a little, and still a little more, while, as years pass on, the work goes on increasing, till the little unperceived atom stands forth a fair island, bursting with tropical luxuriance of fruit and foliage—so should it be with us. The seed is sown within our hearts. The Heavenly Husbandman—the Builder also—is at work within. Leave Him who sowed to do His holy will. And it shall work mightily within you—moulding, leavening, forming, building, spreading, springing up and growing, as none “knoweth how,” till there loom forth within the chaos of the natural heart the glorious form and lineaments of “the Perfect Man, the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” Himself.—Dean Butler.
Mark 4:26. “The kingdom of God” is a phrase more easy to understand than to explain. It is God’s government over the world; the Church chosen out of the world; the authority exercised over each soul; the spiritual progress of the community, of the truth, of any special member. It is God’s dealings with men as seen from above. In it all outward things are included. But it is still an inward thing. Its hidden nature is illustrated here by comparisons taken from the growth of seeds. The grain is lost to our sight, and the growth is too gradual to be seen. But we need only fresh senses to which the earth shall be transparent, and the smallest increase visible, in order to see them. And so the effects of God’s Word and Providence are only invisible because of our infirmity. We know very little about the soil; one is good, another bad; one will grow such things, another such; and wise men know a little about its parts, and how they act. And just such a knowledge it is that we have of men. We distinguish them roughly, and know practically what to expect from them, and our philosophers have analysed characters and mental processes. It is upon such soil that the facts of the gospel are cast as seed out of which is to grow the plant of holiness. But God does not leave the soul alone. Just as Providence works in the natural soil, bringing it into a fit composition, providing vegetable and animal growths, and checking each when it has done its work, so that the soil when left alone grows more and more fertile, so is Providence working with the souls of men, and by the myriad accidents of life moulding and forming them. We cannot tell, when we speak, how our words may be taken. We cannot tell, from the way they are taken, what their ultimate effect may be. Now this may operate to discourage and chill. We all like to see how our work is getting on; we all strive to help on our own purposes. But this parable is meant to encourage us all. We must leave much to other powers, and cannot order all things as we would: other men will not obey us; we cannot make them listen; we cannot order our own circumstances or theirs; and yet they are ordered. We must leave them to Him that ordereth, i.e. God.—Bishop Steere.
Mark 4:28. Blade, ear, and full corn.—
1. “The blade” begins in a small shoot. That shoot is but the elongation or enlargement of the germ which is found at the rough end of a grain of wheat. This is elongated by the addition of fresh cells, which continues until the blade is fully formed. Now the idea of Jesus, sown in a suitable mind, develops in the same way by growing first into enlarged knowledge, idea after idea being added until a new form of thinking is unfolded. New ideas of God, of ourselves, of our fellowmen, arise. We think differently of life’s duties, experiences, and purposes.
2. “The ear” is the case in which the corn is formed; it is preparatory to the fruit, and determines it. The ear is thus the purposes of good in the will. The new thought and knowledge, under the warm love of the soul, begins to form purposes, to propose ends, which are but Christian thinking passing into Christian aims. At first these plans will give little promise of being realised; they will be rather suggestions of what might possibly be. But the sun of love in the soul shines upon them with glowing warmth, and the ear puts forth its modest blossom. That blossom is the joy that comes of such purposes; there is a pleasure in contemplating the possibility of bringing a practical result out of our new thoughts and plans. When the blossom, or joy, has fully developed, then is the time for the fruit to begin to form. The vital principle of good which is in the joy, as the pollen is in the blossom, finds its way into the will, and there it grows into action—the plans for mending our life and the world take practical shape—at first, however, only imperfectly.
3. “The full corn” is the reproduction of that which came to us as seed—that is, our lives yield a result which is the reproduction of the character of Jesus. This third stage is only partially reproduced in the best of men in this life; but it will be perfectly attained. There is no Christ-given thought which shall not also become Christ-like endeavour; and there is no Christ-like endeavour which shall fail to become an attained practical result.—R. Vaughan.
Encouragement for Christian workers.—
1. We should never be discouraged in Christian work, of whatever kind, by what seems a slow growth.
2. We should never be discouraged in our efforts for Christ’s kingdom by adverse circumstances; nor by any unexpected combination of them, and their prolonged operation.
3. Good influences are linked to good issues in this world, as the seed to its fruitage.
4. God is within and behind all forces that tend to enlarge and perfect His kingdom, as He is beneath the physical forces which bring harvest in its season, and set on the springing seed its coronal.
5. Finally, let us remember what the glory of the harvest shall be, when it is reached, in this developing kingdom of God; and in view of that let us constantly labour, with more than fidelity, with an eager enthusiasm that surpasses all obstacles, makes duty a privilege, and transmutes toil into joy.—R. S. Storrs, D.D.
Growth in the spiritual world, as in the natural, is spontaneous, in the sense that it is subject to definite laws of the spirit over which man’s will has small control. The fact is one to be recognised with humility and thankfulness. With humility, for it teaches dependence on God—a habit of mind which brings along with it prayerfulness, and which, as honouring to God, is more likely to ensure ultimate success than a self-reliant zeal. With thankfulness, for it relieves the heart of the too heavy burden of an undefined, unlimited responsibility, and makes it possible for the minister of the Word to do his work cheerfully, in the morning sowing the seed, in the evening withholding not his hand; then retiring to rest to enjoy the sound sleep of the labouring man, while the seed sown springs and grows apace, he knoweth not how. Growth in the spiritual world, as in the natural, is, further, a process, which demands time and gives ample occasion for the exercise of patience. Time must elapse even between the sowing and the brairding—a fact to be laid to heart by parents and teachers, lest they commit the folly of insisting on seeing the blade at once, to the probable spiritual hurt of the young intrusted to their care. Much longer time must elapse between the brairding and the ripening. That a speedy sanctification is impossible we do not affirm; but it is, we believe, so exceptional that it may be left altogether out of account in discussing the theory of Christian experience. Once more, growth in the spiritual world, as in the natural, is graduated; in that region as in this there is a blade, a green ear, and a ripe ear.—A. B. Bruce, D.D.
Order of growth.—Not only does the corn always go on growing, but it always observes the same order and succession in its growth—“first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” This is an order which is never reversed or altered; it is always the full corn in the ear which is the last to shew itself. And so it is with the heart. First, it is always repentance and sorrow for sin; then, faith in Jesus Christ; then, without losing these, any more than the grain loses the protection of the blade and the ear, it goes on to holiness of life, and a sure hope in God’s promises; and last of all to love—love the ripened corn, the fulfilling of the ear.—H. Harris.
The beauty of early piety.—How refreshing to the eye is the garb of green with which the field is clothed, when the tender blade has first sprung up! But a short time back all lay in a state of ruggedness and an unseemly mass of clods. And not less grateful to the eye of those interested in the spiritual welfare of others are the first dawnings and buddings of faith and love in the Christian’s heart, when the “good seed” puts forth its first increase in those around us. How pleasing to witness the young and tender plant of righteousness putting forth the buds and leaves of Christian advancement! How pleasing to observe the gradual increase of piety, of Christian feeling, of prayer, of love, and of joy, bursting forth and ripening into full experience for the coming harvest.—J. L. F. Russell.
Mark 4:29. God’s sickle.—The physical world contains evidence of such periods of catastrophe and new creation. The ages of universal fire and molten elements were ended by the creation of life on the globe, at some time in the past eternity, as Prof. Bonney demonstrates in his Hulsean Lecture. And many times since, locally if not universally, there have been epochs of change, of “new heavens and new earth,” of new forms of life, vegetable and animal, of vast destruction and wholly new formation of land and sea, with their inhabitants. The history of the world of mankind during the historic period furnishes many examples of this law of the kingdom of God. When the harvest is come, He putteth in the sickle. The old world grew up from a single pair, and developed its good and evil. At length evil prevailed, “and the flood came and took them all away.” Again the world started with a single family, and again evil and apostasy prevailed. Then God added a fresh element to human history in the family of Abraham. When evil increased judgment descended on them, as also on Egypt, Assyria, Edom, Babylon, Tyre, Persia, Greece, Rome. Jerusalem itself was destroyed, and the Jews were scattered. The Jewish vintage of evil was ripe for the wine-press. The same law has ruled in the Gentile modern world. The bloody vintage came for the Roman Empire in the fifth century, for Eastern Christendom in the seventh, by the hand of the Mohammedans, and later by the Turkish Power. It came later on for European wickedness in the French Revolution. And it is coming again in the great battles and tribulations of the last days, when the clusters of the Vine of the Earth shall “be cast into the wine-press of the wrath and fury of Almighty God.” Right-doing and Wrong-doing are ripening on every side. Every nation on earth, every soul on earth, is ripening as wheat for the harvest in the garner of God, or as a cluster of the vine of the earth for the wine-press of His wrath. This “sharp sickle” hovers in the sky suspended by an Almighty Hand. But it is there, and it is visible to the spiritual eye; often it takes a lifetime to demonstrate fully the real characters of men. The evolution requires space for development in relation to individual character. St. Paul sums up all these facts in 1 Timothy 5:24-25.—E. White.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Mark 4:26-27. Fruit in after-days.—An old man was once at work in the field, his mind occupied only with things of this world. Suddenly his thoughts wandered back to his early days, and he remembered how on one occasion the minister, before pronouncing the parting blessing, had paused, and reminded the ungodly that upon them no blessing would rest, but the wrath of God instead. The remembrance of that solemn warning—uttered seventy years before—filled the old man’s heart with terror, and led him to seek the Lord with all his heart. Thus the words disregarded at fifteen saved at eighty-five, long after the speaker had passed away from the ministry of earth.
Christian growth imperceptible.—It is the work of a long life to become a Christian. Many, oh! many a time are we tempted to say, “I make no progress at all. ’Tis only failure after failure; nothing grows.” Now look at the sea when the flood is coming in. Go and stand by the sea-beach, and you will think that the ceaseless flux and reflux is but retrogression equal to the advance. But look again in an hour’s time, and the whole ocean has advanced. Every advance has been beyond the last, and every retrograde movement has been an imperceptible trifle less than the last. This is progress, to be estimated at the end of hours, not minutes. And this is Christian progress. Many a fluctuation, many a backward motion, with a rush at times so vehement that all seems lost. But if the eternal work be real, every failure has been a real gain, and the next does not carry us so far back as we were before. Every advance is a real gain, and part of it is never lost. Both when we advance and when we fail, we gain. We are nearer to God than we were.
Mark 4:28. Slumbering seeds.—A gentleman tore down an outbuilding that had stood for many years in his yard. He smoothed over the ground, and left it. The warm spring rains fell upon it, and the sunshine flooded it; and soon there sprang up multitudes of little flowers, unlike any growing in the neighbourhood. Where the building had stood was once a garden, and the seeds had lain in the soil without moisture, light, or warmth all the years. So soon as the sunshine and the rain touched them, they sprang up into life and beauty. So ofttimes the seeds of truth lie long in a human heart, growing not, because the light and warmth of the Holy Spirit are shut away from them by sin and unbelief; but after long years the heart is opened in some way to the heavenly influences, and the seeds, living still, shoot up into beauty. The instructions of a pious mother may lie in a heart, fruitless, from childhood to old age, and yet at last be the means of saving the soul.
The law of gradual advance.—No nation comes to eminence in character, and to a corresponding supremacy in position, with out many and painful preparatory processes. There is “first the blade, then the ear; after that, the full corn in the ear.” First, naturally, come the means of subsistence; then, conveniences; then, elegancies; and only after long and still-advancing struggle the great achievement of a perfected civilisation. The cavern, or the cabin; then, the house; then, the village; and afterward the city, with palaces and piers, and consecrating temples. The spoken word, and the spontaneous song; then, literature in its permanence; and not till long afterward that literature in its various and copious departments, of eloquence, science, philosophy, poetry, and the history which includes and perpetuates all these. First, industry; then, art. First, hollow logs, and timorous barks; and afterward great ships, that spread their wings on every wind, or made the seas to pause and throb as the pulsating energy thunders above them. First, a tribe; and then—when years and generations have passed, when soldiers have fought, and statesmen have planned, when religions have diffused their spirit through society, and reciprocating industries have knit together, when homes have been established, and families have been organised, and parents have transmitted their qualities to their children—then a great, enlightened, and peaceful commonwealth, rich in all manhood, replete with resources, and inwardly compacted in vital union: this is the method of all civilisation; this is the history of nations.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Mark 4:30-34
(PARALLELS: Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19.)
The rise and progress of Christianity.—
I. Christianity is insignificant in its beginning.—
1. Its Founder assumed a humble form.
2. Its first advocates were obscure.
3. Its sphere of action was confined.
4. Its first converts were few.
5. Its mode of operation was unassuming.
6. Its reception was unpopular.
II. Christianity is gradual in its progress—
1. The difficulties with which it has to contend are tremendous.
2. The means which it adopts are moral.
3. The change which it attempts is radical.
4. The field in which it works is extensive.
5. The time at its disposal is long.
6. The results which it contemplates are eternal.
III. Christianity will be great in its consummation.—
1. It will be the mightiest display of God’s energy.
2. It will be the holiest manifestation of God’s character.
3. It will be the truest exhibition of God’s faithfulness.
4. It will be the wisest revelation of God’s intelligence.
5. It will be the most benevolent expression of God’s love.
6. It will be the sublimest source of God’s glory.
(1) It will be the acknowledged instrument of His complete overthrow of sin.
(2) It will be time’s sole surviving wonder for the admiration of the spiritual universe.
(3) It will be the redeemed’s theme of sweetest song of gratitude to God.
(4) It will be the climax of Christ. Then God will be all in all.
1. Despise not the day of small things.
2. Exercise patience.
3. Be active.
4. Draw upon the glorious future.—B. D. Johns.
I. The comparative insignificance of Christianity at the first.—
1. Contrast the gorgeous ritual of the Temple with the unostentatious worship inculcated by Christ.
2. Contrast the elaborate systems of philosophers with the simple teaching of our Lord.
3. Contrast the social position of the priests with that of the apostles.
4. Contrast the multitudes who followed priests and philosophers with the few who were the disciples of Jesus.
II. The careful implantation of Christianity.—
1. Not a handful, but a solitary seed (Acts 4:12).
2. Not accidentally but designedly sown. Christ personally performed the work.
3. In a chosen and appropriate spot.
III. The rapid growth of Christianity.—
1. In three or four centuries it had spread so far and wide that Christians were found in Rome, Asia Minor, Greece, Syria, Russia, Germany, Gaul, Persia, Armenia, Egypt, Arabia, Abyssinia, and indeed in almost every known land.
2. It became so great a tree, that persecution could not uproot or even injure it; so great, that the eyes of three continents looked on in amazement; so great, that the trees of idolatry and superstition had no room for growth.
3. Every obstacle malice could throw in its way had been employed. All classes laid their axe to its root. Philosophers brought their satire, priests their anathemas, kings their laws. All in vain. The tree not only resisted every blow, but shattered to atoms every axe which assailed it. Its devotees were nailed to crosses, and, dying, cried, “It must grow.” Thousands at the stake exulted as they said, “We burn, but it cannot wither.”
IV. The natural phenomenon resulting.—Mark 4:32 ult. Observe, the very same class of men who sought to destroy Christianity at its introduction afterward gladly espoused it for their own personal ends. The tree was planted by God to give shelter to the weary and sad; it was not designed for such birds of prey; and sooner or later all the mercenary ones shall be driven away by the power of Him who planted it.—R. A. Griffin.
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Mark 4:30-32. Christianity a living organism.—Hitherto the Christian kingdom has been represented by a crowd of distinct though similar cornplants—contiguous yet individual. Now the deeper truth is hinted at that all Christian men and women make up in some sense a single living organism, with its root deep hid in the earth, of whose fatness we all partake. It enters into the very idea of a tree that its various parts are the outcome of the same life-force, which originally was shut up in a tiny unpromising seed, which yet before it has spent itself creates that umbrageous fruitful whole, from gnarled root to topmost, outmost twig. The glories of midsummer leafage, on which the breezes play low airs, while the sunbeams dance a dance of green and gold; riches of autumn berry dropping to the gatherer’s hand; subtle harmony of curve as the boughs lean to balance one another; mystic new birth as often as the spring sends a reviving tide of sap through every branch; unwearied effort to put forth fresh lines of growth from each budding point; while the records of a hundred seasons of storm and contest and victorious life are graven on its furrowed sides and stubborn limbs,—how wonderful, how endless in delight and mystery, is the world of life to be found within a single tree; and yet its age-long growth and all its splendours come from the forces hid in one smooth brown rind over which a boy’s fingers could be clasped in sport! This beautiful figure for an organised community of men bound by a common life, sprung from small beginnings, and lasting through many generations—the figure of a tree—was not a new one in the hands of Jesus. He found it in the literature of His people. As far back as the age of the Captivity it had become usual with the great prophets to compare the kingdom of Judah to a vine, and the mighty empire which threatened it to a cedar tree. But the figure had disappeared from Hebrew literature till our Lord revived it in the words before us. With characteristic homeliness, He selects from the vegetable creation a plant whose lowly appearance contrasts strangely with the vine of Isaiah, the cedar of Ezekiel, or the olive of St. Paul. It was not for its homeliness, however, that He chose it, although conspicuously His emblems are all taken from the most familiar objects of common life. It was because, for another reason, it suited His purpose best. We measure roughly with the eye the power of growth which resides in a plant, by the disproportion we discover betwixt the smallness of the seed and the largeness of the perfect plant. When a comparatively minute seed develops into a comparatively big tree, you are much struck by the force of life there was in it. Now of this the mustard formed an excellent familiar instance. It was, in fact, the least of the seeds usually sown by people in Palestine, and therefore passed in the proverbial speech of the country-folk for the least thing in the world. Yet, strange to add, the full-grown mustard plant was “the largest of garden herbs”: nay, “greater than all herbs,” since sometimes it shot out branches so as to pass fairly beyond the rank of a “herb” and become quite a “tree,” under whose shadow the field birds could perch. Precisely so is it found growing wild to this day by the Lake of Galilee—a tall shrub, or dwarf tree, some ten feet in height. On this point of comparison rests the stress of the parable. Christianity is not only a creation of the Saviour’s own life; it is the work and monument of the most extraordinary spiritual force we know. The kingdoms of the world were round Him where He sat—relics of ancient empires, which, in their day, Ezekiel had likened to the grand mountain cedar, with a “shadowing shroud” and a lofty stature. Yet now these all lay “fallen” and “broken” and “left,” as Ezekiel had foretold; while over them towered one world-empire huger than any of its forerunners, whose very fragments constitute our modern empires. Rome filled the wide earth with its shade as He spoke. Tiny beside the mighty bulk of overshadowing Rome, as a very mustard seed, was this carpenter’s Son and the handful of followers He left behind Him. Yet who does not know how unexpectedly the little spiritual kingdom of Jesus grew up out of His own grave to develop the mightiest force which history has to tell of; how speedily it thrust out its branches into every land, and sent its roots along every water-course; how it reckons at this hour a larger census of citizens than the most populous of secular sovereignties? By its own inward force of Divine life did it grow so large. And still it grows, and sees the old poison plants of heathendom, beneath whose deadly boughs the people sat, droop and die around its feet, and welcomes to its grateful shade the wandering souls of men who crave for rest and for refreshing. It yields its fruit every month, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.—J. O. Dykes, D.D.
A parable of promise.—This is a parable of promise, speaking to the heart and to the community. It says, “Hope for much, but expect it only little by little.” When Livingstone had measured his work and his powers, he said this as his last word: “It is but little we can do, but we lodge a protest in the heart against a vile system, and time may ripen it.” And whenever we do our best, and trust and pray our best, though that best be but little, still we also may hope that God will favour it, and that time will ripen it. For the little of our day is often the seed of much in a day to come; and no one who works in his place can tell what his work will grow to, or how much God may make of it.—T. F. Crosse, D.C.L.
Mark 4:33-34. The duties of the Christian teacher.—
1. He must adapt himself to his hearers. Are they young? are they educated? are they courageous? are they surrounded by any peculiar circumstances?
2. He must consider his hearers rather than himself. This was Jesus Christ’s method. The question should be, not what pleases the preacher’s taste, but what is most required by the spiritual condition of the people.
3. He must increase his communication of truth and light according to the progress of his scholars. Reticence is power. In teaching children the teacher should not dazzle them by the splendour of his attainments; he adapts the light to the strength of their mental vision. The preacher should always know more of Divine truth than the hearer. Christ’s method of imparting knowledge is, so far as we can infer, unchanged. He has yet more light to shed upon His Word.—J. Parker, D.D.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Mark 4:31-32. Great things from small.—Many great histories of blessing may be traced back to a very small seed. A woman whose name is forgotten dropped a tract or little book in the way of a man named Richard Baxter. He picked it up and read it, and it led him to Christ. He became a man of saintly life, and wrote a book entitled A Call to the Unconverted, which brought many persons to the Saviour, and among others Philip Doddridge. Philip Doddridge in his turn wrote The Rise and Progress of Religion, which led many into the kingdom of God, among them the great Wilberforce. Wilberforce wrote A Practical View of Christianity, which was the means of saving a multitude, including Legh Richmond. In his turn Richmond wrote The Dairyman’s Daughter, which has been instrumental in the conversion of thousands. The dropping of that one little tract seemed a very small thing to do; but see what a wonderful, many-branched tree has sprung from it!
Faith in the power of truth.—When Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, did he believe it would be received by the scientific world? Most certainly he did. But the scientific world, with rare exceptions, received it with a storm of derision and opposition. To others it was the height of unreason. But to him it was not unreasonable. Where was the difference? He knew it best, saw its truth, and therefore had faith in its acceptance, and in some thirty years the scientific world has, in the main, come round to his belief. They who know Christianity best have most faith in its power to upheave the world. It still requires a great deal of faith to believe that the world will actually become a Christian world. This is partly because the world has always been a stiff soil for any kind of noble husbandry. It is slow to yield its produce, and there are some terribly tough roots to be stubbed up. It is partly because of imperfection in the means employed. But God works by imperfect means, or how would He use men at all? He wins His victories with maimed soldiers. The workmen have all manner of crotchets of their own, and all manner of ridiculous notions of the shape of the building, and a nice piece of architecture it would be if all their structures were to stand; but the Divine Architect has His plan matured in heavenly wisdom, and He will look to it with sleepless eye that the New Jerusalem keeps its symmetry. What one man with a crotchet has built awry or with perishable material, He sends another man with an opposite crotchet to pull down, and, as there is a little bit of right work in every worker, He takes that out of him too, and the fair structure rises in impregnable righteousness.—G. T. Candlin.
Seed served by the tempests.—Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, when obliged to quit the city in consequence of increasing persecutions, went with one of his disciples to a region in the vicinity. In the cool of the evening the bishop was walking under the shade of the magnificent trees which stood in front of his rural abode; here he found his disciple sitting under an oak tree, leaning his head upon his hand, and weeping. Then the old man said, “My son, why weepest thou?” The disciple replied, “Shall I not mourn and weep when I think of the kingdom of truth upon earth? Tempests are gathering round it, and will destroy it. Many of its adherents have become apostates, and have denied and abused the truth, proving that unworthy men may confess it with their lips, though their hearts are far from it. This fills my heart with sorrow and my eyes with tears.” Then Polycarp smiled and answered, “My son, the kingdom of Divine truth is like unto a tree which a man reared in his garden. He set the seed secretly and quietly in the ground and left it; the seed put forth leaves, and the young tree grew up among weeds and thorns. Soon the tree reared itself above them, and the weeds died, because the shadow of the branches overcame them. The tree grew, and the wind blew on it and shook it, but its roots clung firmer and firmer to the ground, taking hold of the rocks downward, and its branches reached unto heaven. Thus the tempest served to increase the firmness and strength of the tree. When it grew higher, and its shadow spread farther, then the thorns and weeds grew again round the tree, but it heeded them not in its loftiness. There it stood, in calm, peaceful grandeur—a tree of God!”
Triumph of the gospel.—Far out in the western main is a little island round which for nearly half the year the Atlantic clangs his angry billows, keeping the handful of inhabitants close prisoners. Most of it is bleak and barren; but there is one little bay rimmed round with silvery sand, and reflecting in its waters a slope of verdure. Towards this bay one autumn evening, thirteen hundred years ago, a rude vessel steered its course. It was a flimsy bark, no better than a huge basket of osiers covered over with the skins of beasts; but the tide was tranquil, and as the boatmen plied their oars they raised the voice of psalms. Skimming across the bay, they beached their coracle and stepped on shore—about thirteen in number. On the green slope they built a few hasty huts and a tiny Christian temple. The freight of that little ship was the gospel, and the errand of the saintly strangers was to tell benighted heathen about Jesus and His love. From the favoured soil of Ireland they had brought a grain of mustard seed, and now they sowed it in Iona. In the conservatory of their little church it throve, till it was fit to be planted out on the neighbouring mainland. To the Picts with their tattooed faces, to the Druids peeping and muttering in their dismal groves, the missionaries preached the gospel. That gospel triumphed. The groves were felled, and where once they stood rose the house of prayer. Planted out on the bleak moorland, the little seed became a mighty tree, so that the hills of Caledonia were covered with the shade; nor must Scotland ever forget the seedling of Iona, and the labours of Columba with his meek Culdees.
The Church’s expansion.—There is a fairy tale which speaks of a magic tent, no bigger than a walnut shell, whose powers were very wonderful. Placed in the king’s audience chamber, it expanded into a gorgeous canopy over his throne. Placed in the courtyard, it became a spacious tent, which provided accommodation for the royal household. Placed without the gates, it widened its borders until the plain was covered by a glistening encampment, beneath whose shelter a great army might find ample room. And so it was capable of infinite expansion according to the requirements of its owner. Well, that magic tent may serve as an emblem of the Church of Christ. At first it was only a little one, but with every year it has expanded, and widened its borders, and become more ample and majestic. Multitudes whom no man can number, from every nation under heaven, have sought its shelter. And it shall continue to grow until all the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Mark 4:39. Arose.—Awoke. Peace, be still.—Be silent! Be muzzled! Mark alone preserves these words, which were doubtless addressed to “the prince of the power of the air,” by whose agency the storm had arisen.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Mark 4:35-41
(PARALLELS: Matthew 8:18; Matthew 8:23-27; Luke 8:22-25.)
The storm on the lake.—How pleasant it is to stand upon the beach, when there is a glorious sunset, to look upon the vast expanse, to gaze upon the splendid colours of the clouds! Only a gentle ripple disturbs the surface of the water. All nature is preparing for its evening rest. But observe; a vessel is approaching, and others are following. A great Personage is about to embark: the Prophet of Galilee. He has brought consolation to many hearts during the day.; for He has been teaching in the neighbouring towns and healing the sick. And now, having dismissed the multitude, He desires to pass over to the other side of the sea or lake. But as we stand watching the departing ships a breeze springs up. And mark yonder clouds. Observe, Christ’s attendants are taking the necessary precautions, for they know how rapidly a storm gathers on the lake. It is the same to-day. Sir Charles Wilson, when in Galilee some time ago, encountered a violent storm. He says: “The morning was delightful. A gentle easterly breeze, and not a cloud in the sky to give warning of what was coming. Suddenly, about midday, there was a sound of distant thunder, and a small cloud, ‘no bigger than a man’s hand,’ was seen rising over the heights. The cloud appeared to spread, and heavy black masses came rolling down the hills. At the moment the breeze died away, there were a few minutes of perfect calm. But soon the thunder-gust, advancing across the lake, lifted the placid water into a bright sheet of foam. For more than an hour … peals of thunder and torrents of rain.” It was just such a storm as this that overwhelmed Christ’s ship, and yet we read that the Redeemer was asleep in the hinder part of the ship—asleep, tired, fatigued. I like to think of Christ sleeping. It shews that He had our nature. We have a Saviour who has ascended into the highest heaven, and yet who sympathises with our infirmities because He is man. “Without one sign of confusion, without one feeling of alarm, Jesus raised Himself from the dripping stern of the labouring and half-sinking vessel, and without further movement stilled the tempest of their souls by the quiet words, “Why so cowardly, O ye of little faith?’ ” And then rising up, standing in all the calm of a natural majesty, He gazed forth into the darkness, and His voice was heard amid the roaring of the troubled elements, saying, “Peace, be still!” and instantly the wind dropped, and there was a great calm.
I. To succeed and be safe in our passage through life we must have Christ with us.—There are men who commenced life, so to speak, in a very small ship, and they felt how helpless they would be if any storm should arise. Night after night, and day by day, they implored Christ to be with them, to give them health, prosperity, and success. Those men reached their harbour, sold their goods, built a large ship, Christ again with them. No storm ever overwhelmed them. To-day they give Him all the honour. But there are men who believe they can dispense with the Divine Presence. Have they not wealth? Have they not excellent investments? Why, they could get through any storm. And then they are put to the test. Slowly the clouds gather, the wind rises, and then secretly they begin to feel matters are getting serious. But still they hope to weather the storm. Something will happen; they must be more careful in future. I knew just such a man. He rose from a humble position to one of great wealth; but he refused to give God the honour. He boasted openly of his own good management, whereby he had succeeded so well; and first one loss came, and then another, until at last he was overwhelmed. No Christ in the ship. Oh, my brethren, if you desire lasting success, if you would have help in trouble, if you hope to reach the other side in safety, ask Christ to accompany you in the ship!
II. It was a difficult matter to follow Christ’s ship because of the boisterous waves.—The vessels that followed Christ’s ship must have encountered the same storm. No one ever yet found it an easy matter to follow Christ because of the forces against us. There is the flesh to contend with, the World and the Evil One to encounter. In your own strength you will not be able to follow Christ, to obey His commandments; so frail is human nature, what are you to do? Christ has promised to give you such help that you can always be victorious. This help is called grace. But if you do not ask Him for what He has promised to give, and as a result are unable to resist the storm of the flesh or the powers of darkness—if you lose paradise, it will be your own fault; you can blame no one but yourself.
III. Divine aid interposing when all human power has failed.—God permits “human affairs to proceed to a given point, and at the vital moment outstretches His arm.” Have you never seen Him do that? Have you never observed some illness suddenly take a favourable turn, or a perplexity vanish, or the prodigal repent, at the request of some praying one? Some time ago a vessel was sailing through Lake Erie. It was early in the season, and great blocks of ice were floating about. All at once the captain saw that the ice was closing the ship in on all sides. He summoned the passengers, and informed them of the position. He said nothing but the direct interference of Almighty God could save the ship. Immediately all knelt down and asked for help, and after a few minutes the man at the wheel shouted that it was all right now; the wind was changing, and blowing the ice out of the way. Divine aid comes when human power fails. Ah! there is a moment coming for us all when no earthly friend will be able to assist us, when the words are heard, “Pass over to the other side.” Then if we have not Divine aid, what shall we do? But if we have Christ with us, we shall possess His peace, we shall be safe for eternity.—E. R. Sill.
The Church in peril.—
I. The Church is like a ship.—Noah’s Ark was a type of Christ’s Church, in that as he and his family were saved in the ark from perishing by water, so we, by being admitted into the Church, are by baptismal water saved from perishing. So the Church tells us in her office of baptism, where she drives on the allegory throughout, praying that God would sanctify the child with the Holy Ghost, that he, being delivered from wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church, and, being steadfast in faith, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life. Nor is the ark alone so appropriate a resemblance of the Church, as that any ordinary ship may not, in some kind or other, represent it, whether it be for passage, for merchandise, or for war. Look we on the make and build of it; ’tis fitly compacted and framed together, both for strength and beauty. If we consider it in its furniture and tackle, it has its compass to sail by, the Word of God; its sails of devout affections, to be filled with the breathings of His Spirit; and its anchor of hope to stay itself upon, the merits of His Son. If we regard the design of a ship to go from port to port, ours is bound heavenward; for we seek a country, even the land of everlasting life, as ye heard before. The Church entertains passengers to waft them into the regions of bliss; it has her cargo of Divine truths; and as a man-of-war, too, she is all along throughout her whole voyage militant. As to her manage and conduct, she has Christ for her Pilot, and under Him the Chief Magistrate to steer the vessel and to govern the ship’s crew. But in no one thing is the Church more like to a ship than in those frequent dangers and jeopardies she is to undergo,—dangers from without; all the elements as it were conspiring her ruin; rocks and shelves to split her; flats and quicksands to founder her; tempests and storms of persecutions to overwhelm her; corsairs and pirates, all her ghostly foes, to attack her,—dangers from within, by leaks of schism and division, and many other casualties through negligence or ill government.
II. Distress is a very fit season for devotion.—The sense of present danger awakens the worst of men to the practice of this duty of prayer, and our earnest prayer awakens God to our relief. The psalmist tells us that at God’s word or command the stormy wind arises which lifteth up the waves. And probably for this very reason God sometimes causes, or at least most times permits, storms and troubles to arise upon His Church, that His people, who, when they are safe and see all things quiet about them, are too apt to forget God, and refuse to hearken to the still voice of His Word and to obey His commandments, may from such terrible dismal instances of danger learn to fear Him, to adore His majesty, to acknowledge His power, to implore His goodness, and in their great distress to cry unto Him for help: “Save, Lord, or else we perish.”
III. Our extremity is God’s opportunity.—I have read a dismal description of a shipwreck in a Greek romance—when all the passengers, and seamen too, with hands and eyes and hearts lifted up to heaven, fetched the last shriek, expecting with their tattered vessel immediately to go down quick to the bottom of the sea. And when men are in such a posture of danger, how is God’s mercy signalised at such a time in their preservation? This, I say, is business in ordinary providence; but when the ship, which Himself with His almighty care and skill has undertaken to steer and bring to her desired port, when the safety and interest of His Church and people, is reduced to extremity, how much more reason have we to expect the extraordinary effects of His power and goodness, who both can and will provide for His, when they are destitute of all other help? When a Church or nation is, to the eye of man, in all human probability, given up for lost, when all other helps and means fail, then is God’s time to come in at a dead lift, who is already help in the needful time of trouble. There is nothing so secret which He cannot bring to light, nothing so strong which can resist His power, nothing so cunningly contrived which He cannot disappoint.
IV. Christ, as He is the Founder of our religion, so He is the sole Author of our deliverances.—To Thee, O holy Jesu, who wast the Founder of our faith and holy profession, we fly in all our distresses, as to our only Deliverer. In Thy merits and satisfaction, in Thy mediation and intercessions, alone we fix the anchor of our hope. In Thy saving health we repose all our trust and ground our assurance. To Thee alone it is that we address our requests. Thy patronage alone is all-sufficient for our direction in life, for our protection in danger. Thou art the way and the truth and the life—the way in Thy holy example, the truth in Thy heavenly doctrine, and the life in the application of Thy merit.—Adam Littleton, D.D.
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Mark 4:35. “Unto the other side.”—
1. A watchword of faith, breaking through all narrow boundaries.
2. A watchword of love, overcoming all selfishness.
3. A watchword of courage, overcoming all dangers.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Christ is continually saying the same to us, though with varying meaning in His words. He is ever calling us to pass over some line into new fields, with their new experiences, privileges, duties, conflicts, joys.
1. He says it to the impenitent, when He graciously invites them to become His disciples. He wants them to cut loose from this world, from sin and all their old dead past, and rise up and go with Him to the better life which lies beyond.
2. He gives the same call and invitation to His people, when they reach the end of earthly life, and He comes to take them home. Before them rolls the sea of death, dark and full of terrors to the natural sense. But on “the other side” glory waits.—J. R. Miller, D.D.
Mark 4:36. Christ on board.—Christ will come on board your boat. Life has often been described as a voyage, and it is an appropriate description. He will come, I say, on board the barque in which your destiny is being carried forward. He will start with you if you want Him. He will identify Himself with the poorest if only you are a disciple, if you are willing to sit at His feet and learn of Him. Will you take Him then as He is? will you make common cause with Him? Evidently this manner of man will sail the seas of time with anybody who will simply be friends with Him, who will lie down and be at peace with Him. Are you of that disposition towards Him?—J. McNeill.
Where the Lord is there should His servants and apostles be,—in danger as well as in peace; as feeding the multitude, so sharing in His troubled and evening voyage: not only treading in His footsteps, but partaking in the holy confidence of their Master’s faith, who committed Himself with all confidence to the winds and waves.—W. Scott.
These “other little ships” doubtless enjoyed a share in the blessing of calm obtained by the ship that bare Jesus. I have sometimes thought that they picture vividly the fortunes of these societies, that, in these later ages, have moved in the wake of the ancient Apostolic Church, that with it are forced to endure the storms of a world impartially hostile to every form of religious effort, and that are not without participating in the blessings of the Holy Presence, abiding in that Church as long as in sincerity of heart they endeavour to keep up with the Master in His course (Mark 9:38; Exodus 12:38; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 6:24).—W. A. Butler.
Mark 4:37-40. Christ’s victory over feeble-minded unbelief.—
1. He leads little faith into danger.
2. He lets it wrestle with the peril to the utmost point.
3. He convicts, humbles, and heals it.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Here Christ exhibits Himself as—
1. The true and holy Man.
2. The wise and gracious Master.
3. The almighty and adorable Son of God.—Ibid.
An image of the Christian life.—
1. The threatening danger.
2. The growing anxiety.
3. The delivering might.
4. The rising thanks.—Ibid.
Trial and deliverance work together.—
1. To reveal the Lord.
2. To train His people.
3. To advance the coming of His kingdom.—Ibid.
The Sea of Galilee is an inland lake surrounded by hills, save at each of its extremities, where are narrow passages, affording an entrance and outlet to the Jordan. The river, flowing through the lake, creates a current, which is felt even to the very shores. Like all other inland seas surrounded by mountains, the lake, though usually placid, is subject to sudden gusts from the hollows of the mountains, and to violent eddies and storms, short in duration, but violent in their effects. Especially when the storm-gusts sweep down upon the lake from the south (the direction in which the boat was to proceed), the wind meeting and opposing the current of the Jordan, soon lashes the surface into fury.
Christ’s presence causes storms.—Until Christ was in the ship, there was no storm. While men have pillows sewn under their elbows, all is peace; but so soon as Christ rebukes the world of sin, the wicked are like the raging sea, that cannot rest, whose waters cast up dirt and mire.—Dean Boys.
Suddenness of life’s storms.—Thus many of life’s storms come. Temptations come when we are not looking for them. So disasters come. We are at peace in a happy home. At an hour when we think not, without warning, the darling child we love so much lies dead in our arms. The friend we trusted, and who we thought could never fail us, proves false. The hopes cherished for years wither in our hands in a night, like flowers when the frost comes. The storms of life are nearly all sudden surprises. They do not hang out danger-signals days before to warn us. The only way to be ready for them is to be always ready.—-J. R. Miller, D.D.
Mark 4:38. Christ asleep.—He who “never slumbereth nor sleepeth” is asleep! Not that He seemed to sleep, as has been said, but “He was asleep.” Now, as God, of course our Lord could not, did not, sleep, it was only in His humanity that “His eyes were heavy to sleep.” But more than this may be said. He slept, it may be, for a purpose, i.e. to shew the apostles that where He was there was no real danger, and to teach Christian souls calmly and faithfully to repose on Him, while all outward things seem most distressing.—W. Scott.
Asleep amid storms.—What are the world’s angry storms—the miserable uncertainties and chances of this mortal life—the malice of evil angels—the tossing about of mingled hopes and fears: nay, what is the nearness of death itself, what is danger, what is fear, to the faithful Christian? Like his Lord, he may sleep calmly through all the wild commotions of the world, in prayer it must have been, and converse with His and our Heavenly Father.—Ibid.
Salvation spiritual.—The spirit of Christ, not the body of Christ, must save the Church in all peril. The sleeping body was in the vessel, but it exercised no influence upon the storm. It is possible to have an embalmed Christ, and yet to have no Christianity. It is also possible to have the letter of Christ’s Word without the spirit and power of His truth.—J. Parker, D.D.
Unbelief.—I. Some of the circumstances in which this question of unbelief arises in the mind.—In relation to—
1. Temporal things: poverty, adversity, distress, sickness, bereavement, danger.
2. Spiritual things: darkness, loneliness, temptation.
3. Others: sunk in ignorance and sin.
II. How Christ rebukes our unbelief; and the proofs which God has given that He cares for us.—
1. The instincts which God has implanted in the human heart.
2. The ample provision He has made for all our necessities.
3. The fact that others care for us.
4. Even the storms through which we pass are often the result of God’s care for us: “Whom I love I rebuke and chasten.”
Conclusion.—If God so cares for us, we ought to—
1. Care for ourselves.
2. Care for those around us.
3. Cast all our cares upon Him.—A. Clark.
Signs of a weak faith.—
1. Fear in danger.
2. Doubt of the Lord’s power in danger.
3. Anxious solicitude about earthly things.
4. Impatience under trouble (Isaiah 28:16).
Fear and faith.—Though fear caused self-abandonment, faith provided guidance to the right person. Fear commanded, “Drop your oar.” Faith directed, “Go to Jesus.” Fear said, “Your case is hopeless.” Faith said, “Seek safety in Christ.” Fear made them ready to go. Faith led in the right way. Fear cried, “We perish! we perish!” Faith prayed, “Master, carest Thou not? Lord, save! save!”
A model prayer.—It was short, appropriate, fervent. The disciples knew what they wanted, and they asked for it. Our prayers often fail to gain us a blessing because they lack definiteness. In a long prayer we have sometimes been prayed into a good frame of mind and out of it. Dr. Talmage suggests that, in the case of most of our prayers, they would be better and more helpful if we were to cut off a bit from each end and set fire to the middle. The prayer of the disciples did what the storm had failed to do. There is an instinctive tendency in the human heart to pray when confronted suddenly by imminent peril, e. g. Jonah 1:13-14; Psalms 107:5-6; Psalms 107:11-13; Psalms 107:17-19; Psalms 107:28. “Some will never pray until they are half starved.”
Mark 4:39. Trials not always calamities.—Had the apostles been inquired of before the storm ceased, they would have replied that the tempest was a great misfortune, that they were much to be pitied, that they were in the very greatest peril. But was it so? Was the storm such a calamity? It was a trial, and for the time a bitter one; but it wrought good, unalloyed good, in the end. And is not this a parable of life?
1. The ancients were wont constantly to use the figure of a ship as a similitude of the Church of Christ; and our Baptismal Office preserves this ancient usage, when we pray that the newly baptised may be received into the Ark of Christ’s Church, and may so pass the waves of this troublesome world as finally to attain the land of life. The Church, then, is as a ship, often tossed by tempest, sometimes seeming to the eye of man as if it were now full of water, ready to sink, but yet never sinking, because Christ is in her. She has been in great danger, so that her crew have been compelled to cast out with their own hands the lading of the ship, her possessions and her dignities; but yet, at the hour of greatest need, has she been rescued by Him who never left her—who seemed to sleep, but yet who suffered the storm to arise—even by Him who never slumbers nor sleeps in His providential government. As the infant Church, represented by the apostles, was tossed upon the Sea of Galilee, so is the Christian Church by the waves of the world, the machinations of evil spirits, the pride and the passion of men; and as the apostles rose up after their trial stronger in the faith, so even now does tribulation better than prosperity develop that which is good. And herein all faithful members of the Church may thank God and take courage, even in troublous times. Her ministers may not fear, though it may seem as if Jesus was asleep, as if He hid His face and would not behold; they may take courage when they see the wicked in great prosperity, and Satan ruling over the hearts of many, and holding them in ignorance and sin. Yet still the storm has its lessons specially for them. It teaches them to be up and doing, to ply the oars, to trim the sails, to take good heed to the rudder, to cry aloud to the Captain of their salvation, and thus to do their part to make the vessel weather the storm. But when they have done all that they can, it teaches them to leave the result in the hands of God; it teaches them to expect a favourable issue—an issue which will make the glory of God apparent.
2. We, the members of the Church of Christ, are also sailing over the stormy main. We have our peculiar difficulties and trials, each one his own: sometimes secular trials, sometimes spiritual trials. In either case we find that the ocean of our life is not always calm: there are storms and tempests in it, there are fierce and sudden gusts, and sometimes we may almost have despaired and thought that our vessel was ready to sink. Have we in such a case been tempted to cry, “Lord, carest Thou not that we perish?” The earnest Christian will have ever found, sooner or later, an answer of peace.—W. S. Simpson, M.A.
Safety in Christ.—Whether sinner or saint, unbeliever or believer, we are alike voyaging upon the sea of life. Perils abound in shoal and reef. Dangers gather and threaten in tempest and billow. The storm is stronger, the sea is mightier, than we. Our open boat—a frail craft—will be crushed and sunken in the dark night and black waters, unless the Master speaks the word of peace and brings the calm. In Him is safety. In Him only is life. He cares for us with infinite mercy. We will go to Him reposing on His might and trusting in His love.
Christ yields to the cry of an imperfect faith, and so strengthens it. If He did not, what would become of any of us? He does not quench the dimly burning wick, but tends it and feeds it with oil—by His inward gifts and by His answers to prayer—till it burns up clear and smokeless, a faith without fear. Even smoke needs but a higher temperature to flame; and fear which is mingled with faith needs but a little more heat to be converted into radiance of trust.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Self-possession.—Well were it for men if, in life’s trials, larger measures of the mastery of self-possession were enjoyed. It can be cultivated. The conscious resting of the soul on God inspires and strengthens it. That helps it to possess and guide instead of being possessed and driven. It converts tyrants into useful servants. Self-possessed utterance and action nerve. The disjointed ones of despair spread paralysis. The former would thus greatly help people either to act more efficiently or endure more heroically.—W. M. Campbell.
The duty of resistance.—Some pious people resign themselves much too passively to the mischiefs of the material universe, supposing that troubles which are not of their own making must needs be a Divine infliction, calling only for submission. But God sends oppositions to be conquered as well as burdens to be borne; and even before the Fall the world had to be subdued. And our final mastery over the surrounding universe was expressed when Jesus our Head rebuked the winds and stilled the waves.—Dean Chadwick.
Christ in the storm.—St. Augustine, who knew as well as most men what the storms of temptation are, and better than most men what the deliverance is, and by whom the victory comes, often in his writings refers to this passage of the Evangelist, and those Psalms like the 46th and 93rd and 107th, where we almost seem to hear the roaring of the waters and the voice of God above them. In one of these he sums up the practical application of the miracle in language that cannot be bettered: “We are sailing in this life as through a sea, and the wind rises and storms of temptations are not wanting. Whence is this, save because Jesus is sleeping in thee? If He were not sleeping in thee thou wouldst have calm within. But what means this, that Jesus is sleeping in thee, save that thy faith, which is from Jesus, is slumbering in thine heart? What shalt thou do to be delivered? Arouse Him and say, Master, we perish. He will awaken—that is, thy faith will return to thee and abide with thee always. When Christ is awakened, though the tempest beat into yet it will not fill thy ship; thy faith will now command the winds and the waves, and the danger will be over.”
Mark 4:40. Responsible for faith.—Christ treats the disciples as responsible for the defectiveness of their faith. Christians may live on so low a level as to be affected by influences which depress their energies, and render them liable to many faults and shortcomings, which, although not fastening guilt upon the conscience, are in the aggregate a serious evil. The kindness of Christ does not degenerate into indulgence, by shielding His delinquent disciples from the reproof they merited. The reproach which they alleged against Him of not caring for them was groundless and irreverent. He reproaches them in return, but in a different spirit, not by way of retaliation, but because the necessities of the case required it. He chides them, not for disturbing His rest, but for harbouring fears that disturbed their own souls.—J. H. Morgan.
The faithless reproved.—Consider this reproof as addressed to—
1. Men commanded to receive Christ, which is the case of all who hear the gospel. If He had not told you to go over to the other side, away from this world, as your home and portion, then there might be ground of fear that attempting to do so you might fail and perish in the storm of this world’s opposition; but He has said, “Go over to the other side,” yea, “Come over,” for He will be with you, and hence to tremble and hesitate and doubt is wicked distrust of Him.
2. Those who shrink from Christian duty.
(1) They who withhold themselves from open profession.
(2) They who lag behind in the path of spiritual progress, and who, instead of stirring themselves up, groan and despond.
(3) They who take a dark view of the prospects of the Ark of God and of Christian work.
3. Such as are disposed to faint in time of trial.—D. Merson.
Mark 4:41. “What manner of man is this?”—This is the question for every individual, for every age, to consider. Christ is the great problem of history, of theology, of life. What is He? He is man; but what manner of man? He is more than mature, more than the sum-total of its powers. We do not exhaust Him when we say He is a man, nor when we say He is the man, standing at the head of the race by virtue of pre-eminent gifts. He is the God-man, who stands equal with God on the high level of Deity, and equal with man on the low level of humanity.—J. Hughes.
The Ruler of the storm.—Dr. Liddon, speaking of political opposition to Christianity, says: “During the first three centuries, and finally under Julian, the heathen state made repeated and desperate attempts to suppress it by force. Statesmen and philosophers undertook the task of eradicating it.… More than once they drove it from the army, from the professions, from the public thoroughfares, into secrecy; they pursued it into the vaults beneath the palaces of Rome, into the catacombs, into the deserts.… The hordes which shattered the work of the Cæsars learnt to repeat the Catholic creed, and a new order of things had formed itself when the tempest of Mohammedanism broke upon Christendom. Politically speaking, this was perhaps the most threatening storm through which the Christian Church passed.… The last trial of the Church was the first French Revolution … which for a while seemed to threaten its total suppression. Yet the men of the Terror have passed, as the Cæsars had passed before them; and, like the Cæsars, they have only proved to the world that the Church carries within her One who rules the fierce tempests in which human institutions are wont to perish.”
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
Mark 4:38. Christ sometimes seems to sleep in our hearts, as He did in the ship, when temptation assails. It is but to try our faith, for if He be there we are safe. It is recorded of St. Catherine of Siena that, on one occasion, after being subjected to most horrible temptation in thought for several days, during which God seemed to have hidden His face from her, when the temptation, to which she had never consented, had passed away, and she felt again her Lord’s presence within her, she said to Him, “O Lord, where wast Thou when I was so tempted?” “In thy heart, My child,” was the reply; “if I had not been there, thou wouldst have yielded.”
Safety where Christ is.—The greatest hero of antiquity, once exposed to the dangers of shipwreck, roused the sinking spirits of his crew by crying aloud amidst the din of the winds and waves, and exclaiming to the helmsman of the vessel, almost ready to desert his charge, “The vessel which carries Cæsar and his fortunes can never sink!” Might not the apostles of the Lord have learnt a lesson even from the heathen conqueror, and applied his words in their truest and highest form?—“The vessel that carries Jesus can never perish!”
The world in God’s hands.—In the Fiji Islands a man-of-war was overtaken by a storm. The commander, instead of trusting to the anchor, got up steam and plunged right into the hell of waters that seethed around him. The vessel, after moments of suspense, began to make headway, and soon rose and fell on the waves of the open sea. We, too, are going ahead. We have a tremendous propelling power, not the gates of hell will prevail against it. When a man gets into a moody state about the outlook in the world, he should go and take a night’s sleep, and let God look after His own world. What did these fishermen take our Lord for? They forgot; they should have remembered their sailing orders, which were bound to be carried out.
The minds in God’s hands.—A coasting vessel was caught in a trap on the east coast of Scotland. That is a bay, crescent-shaped, in which vessels, in the stress of a storm, take refuge, and are sometimes caught in it. This vessel was beating to get out of the trap. The chances were all against her. As the captain kicked off his sea-boots preparatory to doing battle with the waves, when the boat would founder on the rocks, he thought of his wife, in a neighbouring town, and his little girl. Before the vessel struck he thought of Him who stilled the waves on the Lake of Galilee. He went to his cabin, and he was heard to say, “O God, give us but two points, just two points!” He came on deck, and the wind had shifted just two points. They weathered that strip of land and escaped from the trap into the open sea. Do you believe that? Do you believe that it is God’s world, that He holds the winds in His fists, and the waters in the hollow of His hands?
Mark 4:41. “What manner of man?”—Be it legend or history, the story of royal Cnut on the seashore, forbidding, at his flatterers’ instigation, or by his own desire to rebuke their folly, forbidding the farther approach of the incoming tide, is pregnant with instruction. The royal Dane might be a man of men, but the surging waves were not obedient unto his voice. King though he was, the tide was responseless as the deaf adder to any charming of his, charmed he never so wisely, enjoined he never so sternly. What manner of man, then, but the Son of Man? What manner of king but the King of kings? An older king than Cnut, and not a wiser, not only lashed the winds that blew contrary to his will, but bound the sea with fetters, after a sort: “Ipsum compedibus qui vinxerat Ennosigæum.” Much good it did him: witness his return from his great expedition, in a poor skiff, wind-tossed across waves red with the blood of his slaughtered host. The stars in their courses once fought against Sisera, and the fettered waves were little more propitious to speed the fortunes of Xerxes. He might have spared his chains. At any rate he lost his army. Archdeacon Hare practically applied the extravagance of the Great King, as they of Persia were styled, in designating the present (or, rather, what was then the present) as an age when men will scoff at the madness of Xerxes, yet themselves try to fling their chains over the ever-rolling, irrepressible ocean of thought; nay, they will scoop out a mimic sea in their pleasure ground, he goes on to say, and make it ripple and bubble, and spout up prettily into the air, and then fancy they are taming the Atlantic, which, however, keeps advancing upon them, until it sweeps them away with their toys.—F. Jacox.
Mr. Carlyle made a picturesque application of the royal Dane’s injunction to the waves, in his survey of the advancing tide of the French Revolution—grim host marching on, the black-browed Marseillese in the van, with hum and murmur, far heard; like the ocean tide, “drawn up, as if by Luna and Influences, from the great deep of waters, they roll gleaming on; no king, Cnut or Louis, can bid them roll back.” To quite another effect is Judge Haliburton’s application of the incident, in his panegyric on the capabilities of the Southampton docks. It was here, he says, that Cnut sat in his armchair, to show his courtiers (after he gave up drinking and murder) that, though he was a mighty prince, he could not control the sea. “Well, what Cnut could not do, your dock company has accomplished. It has actually said to the sea, ‘Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther’; and the waves have obeyed the mandate.”—Ibid.
Some dream, says Cowper, that
… “they can silence when they will
The storm of passion, and say, ‘Peace, be still’:
But ‘Thus far and no farther,’ when addressed
To the wild wave, or wilder human breast,
Implies authority that never can,
That never ought to be the lot of man.”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Mark 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11