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Bible Commentaries
Mark 4

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

Mark 4:1. And again he began. ‘Began’ may refer either to this new mode of instruction, or to His beginning with the gathering of the crowd. ‘Again’ may point to a similar occasion (chap. Mark 3:7).

A very great multitude; lit., ‘greatest.’ There is every reason to believe that this was the greatest. It was the turning point in His public teaching; since the parabolic instruction now begins.

A boat. Probably the one provided for this purpose (see chap. Mark 3:9). It is doubtful whether the definite article is here used in the Greek.

In the sea. The boat was small, and His position was near the surface of the water, the audience being slightly elevated above Him. This is the best way of arranging an audience, but the world seems to have discovered it quicker than the church.

Verses 1-34

ON PARABLES, see the note on Matthew 13:1-52. In his report of the discourse in parables, Mark gives but three, one of them not mentioned elsewhere. Each independently chose these out of the many uttered. In Matthew we find the chronological development of the kingdom of heaven brought out; here, all three parables are drawn from familiar agricultural pursuits, presenting the one idea of the growth or development of the kingdom of God: the first, as respects the soil, or the difficulty of its beginnings; the second, illustrating the relative independence of this development; the last, its wonderful extension. Mark here introduces (Mark 4:21-25) what Matthew records as uttered on other occasions. Our Lord was in the habit of repeating striking figures, proverbs, and aphorisms. This discourse took place the ‘same day’ (Matthew 13:1) with the occurrences just mentioned (chap. Mark 3:20-35). The hostility of the Pharisees called for the teaching by parables in its purpose of concealing the truth, which is most strongly expressed by Mark (Mark 4:12), while the choice of the Twelve (chap. Mark 3:14) formed the nucleus of a band of followers (comp. Mark 4:10) in whom the other purpose of revealing the truth could be fulfilled.

Verse 2

Mark 4:2. And he taught them. The reference is to His habit of teaching.

Many things. Out of these Mark selects what follows.

In his teaching, perhaps, with a reference to this particular kind of teaching. Christ’s teaching was authoritative, and in this as in most cases, doctrinal. He presents new truth here, not mere exhortation (see Mark 4:11).

Verse 3

Mark 4:3. Hearken . This, inserted by Mark only, seems to introduce the whole discourse, as deserving great attention.

Verses 3-9

Mark 4:3-9. THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER. See on Matthew 13:3-9. The similarity between the two accounts is very great, as might be expected in the case of such a striking parable. Matthew was present; Mark probably heard it from Peter, who was also present. Luke’s account ( Luke 8:5-8) is briefer, and he does not describe the position of the Teacher and His audience.

Verse 7

Mark 4:7. And it yielded no fruit. This Mark adds, showing that his account is not an abridgment. The same result is of course implied in the other narrative.

Verse 8

Mark 4:8. Growing up and increasing . The words are peculiar to Mark. This is spoken of the ‘fruit,’ but in the wider sense of the whole progress of the plant, since all this is necessary to the real fruit or grain, which was brought forth. This verse puts the smallest proportion first; in Matthew’s account it is put last. Other verbal differences attesting the independence of the Evangelists, are indicated as far as possible in the foot-notes to the text.

Verse 10

Mark 4:10. Alone. This refers to a temporary withdrawal, when His disciples ‘came’ to Him (Matthew), for He evidently spoke further to the multitude (Matthew 13:24-35).

They that were about him with the twelve. Matthew and Luke say less definitely: ‘the disciples.’ What follows was spoken neither to the multitude nor to the Twelve alone.

Asked of him the parables The plural is the more correct form. Matthew says more definitely: ‘Why speakest thou unto them in parables?’ and Luke: ‘What might this parable be?’ The answer in all three accounts is: first, a reason why He thus taught, and, secondly, the exposition of this particular parable. Both questions must have been asked, as is implied in the indefinite statement of this verse. This was precisely the purpose: that those who would seek might know ‘the mystery,’ and those who would not put forth this effort, might not.

Verses 10-12

Mark 4:10-12 give the reason for speaking in parables; see on Matthew 13:10-17. Matthew’s account is fuller, but Mark’s is, in some respects, more specific and stronger.

Verse 11

Mark 4:11. The mystery. Matthew and Luke: ‘the mysteries.’ All the mysteries of the gospel form but one mystery, namely, the mystery of Christ for and in His people. And to them ‘is given the mystery of the kingdom of God’. The omission of ‘to know’ renders the declaration even more forcible. These parables are to reveal, not good moral advice, but truth otherwise unknown, the peculiar doctrines of the gospel, which can be fully received only by those to whom spiritual discernment is given. Christ did not come merely to teach the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount.

Unto them that are without. Matthew: ‘to them.’ Luke: ‘to others.’ A separation between the disciples and others had begun. (Afterwards, ‘those without’ meant those not Christians; 1 Corinthians 5:12.) ‘Those without’ did not receive this gift of God necessary for the understanding of these truths, were without its influences. But their position was according to their own choice; Christ forbade none, and the disciples in this case were not merely the Twelve chosen by Him, but all who would come.

Verse 12

Mark 4:12. That, in order that. ‘When God transacts a matter, it is idle to say that the result is not the purpose’ (Alford). This purpose is indicated here even more strongly than in Matthew. The object of the parable is Doth to conceal and to reveal the truth, according to the moral state of the hearers. Mark only uses the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:9-10), without citing it directly as Matthew does. It was already partially fulfilled when the Jews hardened their hearts against the preaching of Isaiah, the Evangelist among the prophets; it was completely fulfilled, when they rejected the gospel itself as proclaimed by the Son of God. Their moral unwillingness preceded their moral inability, and the latter was a divine judgment on the former. So Pharaoh first hardened his heart before God judicially hardened him. Here, where a separation between Christ’s followers, and those without, is first plainly marked, the point of discrimination is spiritual knowledge. This shows the importance of Christian truth, which implies doctrine.

Verse 13

Mark 4:13. Know ye not this parable! An answer to the second question, implied in Mark 4:10. It is not a reproof, but means: ‘You find you cannot understand this without assistance.’ The next question: and how then will ye know all parables? extends the thought to all parables, but intimates further: ‘The first parable of the kingdom is the basis of all the rest. If they understand not this, they could not understand any that followed. If they had the explanation of this, they had the key for the understanding of all others.’ Hence our Lord gives, not rules of interpretation, but examples, one of which is here preserved, to be our guide in interpretation. To understand the parables, God must help us (Mark 4:11). Wrong interpretations are those which do not tend to conversion and forgiveness (Mark 4:12).

Verses 13-20

Mark 4:13-20. EXPLANATION OF THE PARABLE . See on Matthew 13:18-23. The agreement with Matthew is striking, but Mark’s independence is evident.

Verse 14

Mark 4:14. Peculiar to Mark, though involved in the other accounts.

Verse 15

Mark 4:15. Satan. Matthew: ‘the wicked one;’ Luke: ‘the devil.’ Being spoken of in the explanation of the parable, or in a didactic way, Satan must be a real personal being, and not merely the symbol of evil.

Verse 16

Mark 4:16. Likewise, or, ‘in like manner.’ ‘After the same analogy carrying on a like principle of interpretation’ (Alford).

Verse 17

Mark 4:17. This verse, as emended, presents the case more vividly: they have no root, but on the contrary are temporary, transient: then, as might be expected, when, etc.

Tribulation. The Greek word is usually so translated.

Verse 19

Mark 4:19. The lusts of other things. This includes all other worldly distractions. The desires become ‘lusts,’ because the objects interfere with spiritual growth. What is in itself innocent may become a snare.

Verse 20

Mark 4:20. The closing words of the parable (Mark 4:8) are repeated in the last clause of this verse, as in Matthew, and the same difference in order is preserved.

Verse 21

Mark 4:21. See on Matthew 5:15. The application here is to teaching in parables: Although thus spoken in secret, they were not to remain mysteries, confined to a few; the purpose, as in case of a lamp, was to give light. Hence they should take care to learn their meaning, ‘not hiding them under a blunted understanding, nor when they did understand them, neglecting the teaching of them to others’ (Alford).

Verses 21-25

Mark 4:21-25. Comp. Luke 8:16-18. The same thoughts are found in different places in Matthew. They were doubtless repeated.

Verse 22

Mark 4:22. For there is nothing hid, etc. See on Matthew 10:26. Here these words are a literal statement of what was figuratively expressed in Mark 4:21.

But that it should come to light. This is the purpose of the temporary secrecy, a thought implied throughout, but more strongly expressed here. Even the concealing is for the purpose of revealing. Only by such a process could Christian truth be ultimately spread. The concealing, hiding purpose, mentioned in Mark 4:12, is not without this gracious use of revealing the truth more fully to those who see the evil effect of rejecting it.

Verse 23

Mark 4:23. This occurs in a different place and slightly different form in Matthew’s account (Mark 13:9), but was probably repeated.

Verse 24

Mark 4:24. Take heed what ye hear. Luke: ‘how ye hear.’ The latter is implied in the former, for what we hear really depends on how we hear. The reference is to a proper improvement of the opportunities now graciously afforded them, as appears from what follows.

With what measure ye mete, etc. See on Matthew 7:2. The principle is the same in both cases; but there the application is to censorious judgments, here to our Lord’s mode of instruction and the way it was received. Giving and receiving are reciprocal. As you treat me as your Instructor (giving attention), you will be treated (in receiving profit).

And more shall be given, lit., ‘added,’ i.e., in case you hear properly. ‘That hear,’ omitted in the best authorities, was probably inserted to express this obvious sense. The reference may possibly be to teaching as well as to giving attention; Mark 4:21-22, allude to this, and ‘mete’ is more appropriately applied to giving out to others. The promise of increased knowledge is certainly given to those who faithfully teach in God’s kingdom; but here the other application is the primary one, as appears from the more immediate connection.

Verse 25

Mark 4:25. For he that hath, etc. See on Matthew 13:12, where this thought precedes the explanation of the parable of the sower. It was possibly repeated, since it is equally apt in both cases. There as well as here the application is to spiritual knowledge. (In Matthew 25:29, the application is more general.) There is nothing arbitrary in this rule; it is a law of God’s dealing in the kingdom of nature as well as of grace.

Verse 26

Mark 4:26. And he said. The instruction to the people is resumed, or ‘to them ‘would probably be added.

As if a man, i.e., any one. It is not necessary to interpret this; the main point is the seed, the agent being in the back-ground throughout. Besides, it is difficult to apply it either to Christ (except on one theory suggested below) or to His ministers; for the language of Mark 4:27 seems ‘inappropriate in the case of our Lord, and the putting in the sickle inapplicable to His ministers.’ Human agency in general may be referred to.

Should cast seed upon the earth, literally, shall have cast seed upon the earth. A single past act of sowing, not involving great care, as the expression plainly intimates.

Verses 26-29

Mark 4:26-29. THE PARABLE OF THE SEED GROWING, WE KNOW NOT HOW. Found here only.

Verse 27

Mark 4:27. And should sleep, etc., i.e., live as usual without further care of the seed sown.

He knoweth not how. The emphasis rests on the word ‘he; ‘he who sows does not know how that takes place which he expects to occur, and to occur for his benefit. A true picture, since such knowledge is not permitted to the wisest of men, and what is known helps the growth very little.

Verse 28

Mark 4:28. This verse presents the main points of the parable, first: The earth beareth fruit of herself, as if from a self-acting power. The growth in nature is according to certain laws which act independently of man’s agency, though the agency of God who established these laws and acts through them, is not denied. The same is true in the kingdom of grace; spiritual growth is independent of human agency. That God’s power is involved, appears from the whole tenor of Scripture. While, therefore, the main lesson of the parable is about spiritual things, that lesson rests on an analogy of nature, assuming that in nature God operates through the laws He has established. The growth of the kingdom of God, in general and in individuals, is according to a development which is natural, i.e., in accordance with certain laws in the realm of grace, which are analogous to what are called natural laws, and like them acting with a certain spontaneousness; though God’s constant energy is present in both. The mistakes opposed by this truth are: first, expecting growth without any seed; secondly, taking up the seed to see how it grows, i.e., perpetually exacting a certain kind of experience, and testing discipleship by unwise and premature measures; thirdly and chiefly, trying to make the growth according to our notions, instead of according to God’s law of development, and thinking our care and anxiety can accomplish this. A particular form of this error is met by the next clause: first the blade, then, the ear, then the full corn in the ear. The maturity of the Church or of individual Christians does not come at once. The repeated ‘then ‘marks the gradual progress better than ‘after that’ The same word is used in the Greek in both clauses. The lesson is therefore one of patience. While we are not to press a particular meaning upon these three stages, the parable plainly implies that we must be careful not to mistake the blade from the seed of grace for ordinary grass, still less to think the immature ear will never be ripe grain. Indeed, as there is germination, we know not how (Mark 4:27), before the blade appear, we should not be discouraged if we notice no results, still less expect that we can tell how or when the germ begins to develop.

Verse 29

Mark 4:29. But when the fruit is ripe. The Greek means either: ‘when the fruit shall have yielded itself,’ or, according to the more usual sense, of the word used, ‘when the fruit alloweth,’ i.e., when it is ripe. In either case the thought of independence of human agency is kept up.

Straightway he sendeth forth the sickle, because the harvest is come. The agency which sowed enters again. If it means human agency, the conclusion is simply: this development and fruitfulness is for man’s benefit, though independent of his care. We reap in spiritual things, though God alone (by His laws of grace) gives the increase. If it refers to Christ, it is hinted that when the grain is ripe He harvests it, takes matured Christians to Himself. The parable possibly has a historical application: The sowing referring to Christ’s instituting the Church; the intervening period to his absence, during which the growth continues according to the laws of the Spirit’s influence; and the harvest to His return. Such a view suits the position of the parable between that of the sower (the beginnings of Christianity) and that of the mustard-seed (its wonderful extension). But this is not to be insisted on, since the agent is not brought into prominence. The main lesson is: that of spiritual growth independent of our agency, even though we sow the good seed and reap the harvest. Hence, patience with immature Christians, and patience with an immature Church. Both cautions are constantly needed to prevent our becoming uncharitable and schismatic.

Verse 30

Mark 4:30. How shall we liken? Opening a discussion with a question seems to have been a usual mode with Jewish teachers. Here our Lord graciously includes His disciples (‘we’) who were also to teach about the kingdom of God, a hint that Christ’s way of teaching is still to be followed.

Verses 30-34

Mark 4:30-34. THE PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD-SEED. See on Matthew 13:31-35; comp. Luke 13:18-19.

Verse 31

Mark 4:31. In the earth. Mark is fond of repeating the same expressions; an evidence that his Gospel is not an abridgment.

Verse 32

Mark 4:32. Shooteth out great branches. Lit, ‘maketh.’ Peculiar to Mark. This parable, setting forth the wonderful extension of the kingdom of God, is an appropriate close to the selections made by our Evangelist. After the difficulties in the beginning (the sower) and the slow growth independently of human agency have been emphasized, the successful result is foretold. The lesson of patience is again enforced, but hope is more directly encouraged.

Verse 33

Mark 4:33. With many such parables. The many such expressions in the Gospels should put an end to the foolish assumption that each Evangelist intended to tell all he knew.

As they were able to hear. Not merely as they had opportunity of listening to His instructions, but ‘according to their capacity of receiving,’ the ability being a moral as well as mental. A wise Teacher! It is taken for granted that He intuitively knew their capacity, a point in which well-meaning instructors may fail.

Verse 34

Mark 4:34. And, not ‘but.’ The contrast begins with the next clause.

Without a parable spake he not. Our Lord did instruct in other ways, but now that the separation had begun, He taught a certain set of truths in this way alone, since this would carry out the purpose or mercy and judgment indicated in Mark 4:11-12. But this method was also necessary, in view of Jewish prejudice and misunderstanding, to prepare His disciples to extend the truth (Mark 4:21-22).

But privately to his own disciples. The correct reading and the Greek order alike emphasize the isolation of the disciples.

He expounded all things. That they needed this is evident from the Gospel accounts, and we have specimens of these expositions in this chapter and Matthew 13:0; Matthew 15:15. In other cases there are indications of such expositions. More are not given, because the subsequent teaching of the Apostles gives us the fruits of this training, revealing the truth more plainly than was possible then. A caution to those who underrate the Epistles, which embody what is not told us in the Gospels. Still the specimens recorded by the Evangelists are sufficient to guide us in interpretation.

Verse 35

Mark 4:35. And on that day, when evening was come. Mark is most definite.

Let us go over unto the other side. This vivid form of the command indicates a sudden departure. Comp. Luke 8:22. He would thus seek rest, which could be obtained more easily on a lake subject to storms than in a crowd already excited. Yet unbelief disturbed Him even on the sea.

Verses 35-41

THE TIME of the voyage across the lake is fixed by the account before us. It was the evening of the day (Mark 4:35) when the discourse in parables had been uttered. The other accounts (Matthew 8:18; Luke 8:22) can readily be harmonized on this view. The conversations with some who would follow Him (Matthew 8:19-22) seems to have taken place just before He crossed the sea. It had been a busy day; our Lord had first healed a demoniac (Matthew 12:22), then encountered the accusation of His family (Mark 3:20-21); afterwards the accusation of the Pharisees (chap. Mark 3:22-30; more fully in Matthew 12:24-45), when His mother and brethren sought Him (chap. Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50); then after some discourses narrated by Luke only (chap. Luke 10:37 to Luke 12:59), departing to the sea-side had given the long discourse, parts of which are recorded in Mark 4:0 and Matthew 13:0, then encountered halfhearted followers (Matthew 8:19-22), and in the evening crossed the lake. After such exhausting labors, it is not strange that He fell asleep, even amid the storm. Mark’s account is vivid, and in most respects more minute than that of Matthew, giving particulars omitted by both the other Evangelists.

Verse 36

Mark 4:36. And leaving the multitude. They did not send them away, but left them.

As he was; without preparation. He was already in the boat, and they set off at once.

Other boats. The best authorities do not give the diminutive form, ‘little ships.’ Mark alone tells of this. These other boats were probably separated from them during the subsequent gale.

Verse 37

Mark 4:37. All three accounts of this storm and its effects differ in form, but agree in substance. From Mark 4:35, we infer that it was already night when the storm arose. The lake was and is still subject to sudden storms, but very few boats are seen there now.

Verse 38

Mark 4:38. In the stern, asleep on the cushion. The ordinary cushion, at the stern of the boat, used for a seat, sometimes for the rowers. The position is mentioned by Mark only, but Matthew and Luke speak of the disciples’ coming to Him, which indicates the same thing. His weary body needed the rest, and this the disciples must have known; hence there is a tone of unkindness as well as unbelief in the language he recorded: Carest thou not that we perish? The various accounts indicate a variety of expressions, all of fear, though this includes a complaint. The same want of faith is still manifest in Christians in times of trial, even though not thus expressed.

Verse 39

Mark 4:39. Peace, be still. Mark alone preserves these words.

Verse 40

Mark 4:40. Have ye not yet faith. ‘Yet,’ in view of the late instruction, and His numerous miracles. Mark, in many instances, brings out the weakness of the disciples most prominently, a significant fact, if we remember that Peter was his authority.

Verse 41

Mark 4:41. Feared exceedingly, lit., ‘feared a great fear.’ And said one to another. This seems to have been the language of all in the boat.

Who then is this? Mark and Luke have a different expression from that given by Matthew: ‘What manner of man.’ ‘Who then,’ i.e., in view of all we have seen. This command over the wind and sea was a new revelation of Christ even to his disciples.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Mark 4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/mark-4.html. 1879-90.
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