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The foregoing chapter acquainted us with the blasphemous slander which the scribes and Pharisees cast upon our blessed Saviour, accusing him of casting out devils by the help of the devil. This they did, no doubt, to discredit his person, and hinder his ministry; yet for all this the people follow him in great multitudes, more than ever, to hear him and be instructed by him.
Thence learn, 1. That all the power and malice of Satan and wicked men shall not be able to suppress the gospel, or hinder the free course of it; yea, the more it is opposed, the more it shall prevail: the more the scribes and Pharisees disgraced our Saviour, and vilified his doctrine, the more the people followed him in troops, to be partakers of his ministry.
Observe, 2. The place where our Lord now preached; in a ship. Not that he declined the temple, or the synagogue, when he had the opportunity; but in the want of them Christ thought an house, a mountain, a ship, no unmeet place to preach in. It is not the place that sanctifies the ordinance, but the ordinance that sanctifies the place.
Observe, 3. Our Saviour's gestures in preaching; he sat, it being the custom of the Jewish church so to do, The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' chair, Matthew 23:2
Learn thence, That in indifferent rites and orders, touching the outward worship of God, we are to conform ourselves to the laudable custom and practice of the church in which we live, and whereof we are members. This did our Saviour, and so ought we.
Observe, 4. The manner of our Lord's preaching, it was by parables and similitudes, which was an ancient way of instructing among the Jews, and a very convincing way; working upon men's minds, memories, and affections, all at once, making the mind attentive, the memory retentive, and the auditors inquisitive after the interpretation of the parable. Some are of opinion our Saviour's parables were suited to his hearers' employments: and accordingly many of his hearers being husbandmen, he resembles his doctrine to seed sown in the field. For thus he speaks: See Mark 4:3
1. Several things are to be observable; as,
1. How Christ begins and ends the parable with an admonition to diligent and serious attention. Hearken, says Christ, verse 3. and he that hath ears to hear, let him hear, verse 9. This shows us at once the people's backwardness and negligence in applying their minds to hear and receive the word of God, and also shows the minister's duty to excite and stir up their people's diligence and attention in hearing God's word.
Observe, 2. What is the general scope and design of this parable; namely, to show that there are four several sorts of hearers of God's word, and but one good one, but one sort only who hear to saving advantage.
Now as to the matter of the parable.
Note, 1. The sower is Christ and his apostles; he the principal sower, they the subordinate seedsmen. Christ sows his own field, his ministers sow his field. He sows his own seed, they his seed. Woe unto us if we sow our own seed, not Christ's.
Note, 2. The seed sown, the word of God: fabulous legends and unwritten traditions, which the seedsmen of the church of Rome sow, these are not seed, but chaff, or their own seed, and not Christ's. Our Lord's field must be all sown with his own seed, with no mixt grain.
Learn, 1. That the word preached is like seed sown in the furrows of the field. As seed has a fructifying virtue in it, by which it increases and brings forth more of its own kind, so has the word of God a quickening power to regenerate and make alive dead souls.
Learn, 2. From this parable, that the seed of the word, where it is most plentifully sown, is not alike fruitful. Seed doth not thrive in all ground alike, neither doth the word fructify alike in the souls of men. There is a difference both from the nature of the soil and from the influence of the Spirit. For though no ground be naturally good, yet some is worse than other.
Learn, 3. That the cause of the word's unfruitfulness is very different; not the same in all. In some it is an hard heart to unbelief, in others the distracting cares of the world choke the word: like thorns which hinder the corn's growth, by overshadowing it, by drawing away the moisture and heart of the earth from it, and by hindering the influence of the sun from cherishing it. Unto which may be added the policy of Satan, that bird of prey, which follows God's plough, and steals away the precious seed of the word out of the furrows of their souls.
Learn, 4. That the best ground doth not bring forth increase alike. Some good ground brings forth more, others less; some thirty, some sixty, some an hundred-fold. In like manner, a person may be a profitable hearer of the word, although he doth not bring forth so great a proportion of fruit as others, provided he brings forth as much as he can.
Observe here, The disciples' question, and our Saviour's reply. Their question is about the sense and meaning of the parable. They own their ignorance, and desire better information. It is no shame, for the best of ministers, yea, the best of men, to acknowledge their own ignorance in the mysteries of religion, and to attend upon the means of instruction, in order to their further information. In our Saviour's answer, To you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, &c.
Observe, 1. That the doctrines of the gospel are great mysteries.
2. That it is a matchless and invaluable privilege practically to understand gospel-mysteries.
3. That this privilege all are not sharers in, and partakers of, but only those to whom it is given.
4. That it is a righteous thing with God, to give such persons over to farther blindness and ignorance in spiritual things, who wilfully reject the truth, and shut their eyes against the light and evidence of it.
The Pharisees had all along shut their eyes, and said they would not see: and now Christ closes their eyes judicially, and says they shall not see. Seeing ye shall see, and not perceive; and hearing ye shall hear, and not understand.
Here our Saviour applies himself to interpret and explain the foregoing parable: the seed is the word, the sower is the preacher, the soil is the heart and soul of man.
Some hearers Christ compares to the highway ground, in which the seed lies uncovered for the want of the harrow of meditation.
Others to stony ground, in which the word has no root. No root in their understandings, in their memories, wills, and affections: but they are instantly offended, either at the depth and profoundness of the word, or at the sanctity and strictness of the word, or else at the plainness and simplicity of it.
Again, some hearers our Lord compares to thorny ground: worldly and covetous desires are as thorns choking the good seed: they shadow the blade when sprung up, keep off the influences of the sun, and draw away the fatness of the soil from the seed.
All these mischievous effects have thorns among the seed. And the like ill effects have worldly affections and covetous desires in the soul of man, rendering the seed of the word unfruitful and unprofitable. But the good Christian hears the word attentively, keeps it retentively, believes it steadfastly, applies it particularly, practises it universally, and brings forth fruit perseveringly.
Learn, 1. That no hearers are in Christ's account good hearers of the word, but such as bring forth fruit answerable to their hearing.
2. That a person may be a good hearer of the word in Christ's account, if he bring forth the best fruit he can, though it be not in so great a proportion as others do.
As some grounds bring forth thirty, some sixty and some an hundred-fold; in like manner do all sincere hearers of the word. They all bring forth fruit, though not all alike; all in sincerity, though not all equally, and none to perfection.
It is Theophylact's note on the place: "How small is the number of good men, and how few are saved! For only the fourth part of the seed fell upon good ground and was preserved."
Others observe a gradation here: the seed sown in the highway comes not up at all; that on stony ground comes up, but increaseth not; that among thorns increaseth, but bears no fruit; only that seed which fell on good ground brings forth fruit unto perfection.
Observe here, 1. The end and design of Christ in revealing his word and will to his disciples, and in communicating to them the light of spiritual knowledge; namely that they may communicate it to others, and not keep it close unto themselves. Even as the candle in a house diffuses and disperses its light to all that come within the reach of it; in like manner ought all Christians, and particularly Christ's ministers, by the light of life and doctrine, to direct persons in their way towards heaven. Such as are enlightened by God in any measure, with the knowledge and understanding of his word, ought not to conceal and hide this knowledge within themselves, but communicate it to others, and employ it for the good and benefit of others.
Observe, 2. The cautionary direction given by Christ to his disciples, to take heed how they hear the word. Such as would profit by hearing of the word must diligently attend to the matter of the doctrine which they hear, and also to the manner how they hear. Such is the majesty and authority of the Person that speaks to us in the word, such is the sublimity and spirituality of the matter, and so great is our danger, if we miscarry under the word, that it nearly concerns us to take heed, both what we hear, and how we hear.
Observe, 3. The argument which our Saviour makes use of to quicken his disciples to communicate the knowledge, and improve the grace they had received for the good and benefit of others. To him that hath shall be given. That is, such as improve their spiritual gifts shall have them increased; such as improve them not shall have them blasted.
Learn hence, That the best course we can take to increase and thrive in grace is to exercise and improve it. He that hides his talent doth not only forfeit it, but is in danger of being punished severely for the non-improvement of it.
This parable of our Saviour's is an instructive lesson to the ministers of the gospel, faithfully to do their parts in sowing the seed of the word amongst their people, and then not to be over-solicitous about the event, but to leave the issue to God; not to be discouraged, though the fruit of their labour doth not presently appear.
Accordingly Christ propounds the laborious husbandman to his ministers' imitation. As the husbandman, when he has prudently and painfully cast his seed into the ground, is not anxiously disquieted, but goes to bed, and rests in hope, and at length the corn springs up; first the blade, then the ear, then the grain.
In like manner let the ministers of God do their duty without discouragement; in the morning sow their seed, and in the evening not withhold their hand. And although the seed sown doth not appear presently, (it may be in in our days,) but seems rotting among the clods; yet may it appear afterwards with a plentiful increase, when our own heads are laid among the clods; verifying that saying of our Saviour, One soweth, and another reapeth.
Learn hence, 1. That the ministry of the word is the ordinary, the necessary and the principal means which God has appointed for sowing the seed of grace in the hearts of his people: So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground.
2. That the virtue and efficacy of the word preached doth not depend upon the parts of a man, but upon the power of God; The seed springeth up, he knoweth not how.
Learn, 3. That the word of God sincerely preached may be successful, though it be not presently successful; the seed sown in one minister's days, may spring up in another's.
Happy we, if as God's husbandmen we be employed in plowing, sowing, or reaping; our Lord will reward us secundum laborem, non fructum; not according to our success, but according to our endeavours. The care and endeavour is ours, but the blessing and success is God's.
The design of our Saviour in this parable is to show how the gospel-church, from small and little, from unlikely and contemptible beginnings, should spread and increase, fructify and grow up, like as mustard-seed, one of the smallest of grains, grows up to a considerable tallness; even so Christ foretells that the gospel should spread and increase, nations and countries becoming Christians.
Hence learn, That how small beginnings so ever the gospel had in its first plantation, yet by the fructifying blessing of God it has had, and shall have a wonderful increase.
Observe here, 1. Our Saviour and his disciples no sooner put forth to see, but dangers attend and difficulties do accompany them; a tempest arose, and the ship was covered with waves, which Christ himself was in, with his disciples.
Learn hence, That the presence of Christ himself does not exempt his disciples and followers from trouble and danger. Here is a great tempest about the disciples' ears, though Christ himself was in their company.
Observe, 2. The posture our Saviour was in when this tempest arose: he being wearied with the labours of the day, was laid down upon a pillow to sleep at night, thereby showing himself to be truly and really man, and that as he took upon him human nature, so he assumed the infirmities of our nature also, as weariness and pain, hunger and thirst.
Observe, 3. The disciples' application made to Christ; they awake him with a sad outcry, Master, carest thou not that we perish? here was faith mixed with human frailty. They believed that he could save them; but being asleep, they concluded he must be awaked before they can be saved by him: whereas, though his human nature was asleep, yet his divine nature neither slumbered nor slept.
Learn hence, That the prevalence of fear in a time of great and imminent danger, though it may argue weakness of faith, yet is no evidence of a total want of faith; in the midst of the disciples' fears they believed Christ's power.
Observe, 4. A double rebuke given by our Saviour, first to the winds, next to the fears of his disciples: He rebukes the winds, and instantly they are calm. When the sea was as furious as a madman, Christ with a single word calms it.
Learn hence, That the most raging winds, and outrageous seas, cannot stand before the rebukes of Christ. Christ, as God, lays a law upon the most lawless creatures, even when they seem to act most lawlessly.
Observe farther, Christ rebukes his disciples' fears, Why are ye fearful? No sooner was the storm up, but their fears were up? they forgot that the Lord High Admiral of the Ocean was on board the ship; and were as much overset with their boisterous passion as the vessel was with the tempestuous winds; and accordingly Christ rebukes the tempest within, before the storm without.
First he calms their hearts, then he quiets the seas. From this instance of the disciples we may gather, that great faith in the habit may appear little in act and exercise: the disciples' faith in forsaking all and following Christ, was great faith; but in this present act their faith was weak, through the prevalency of their fears.
O, the imperfect composition of the best of saints! Faith and fear will take their turns, and act their parts, whilst we are upon the stage of this world; ere long our fear will be vanquished, and our faith swallowed up in vision. Lord, set our souls a longing for that joyful hour.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Mark 4". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18