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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Mark 4

 

 

Verse 1-2

‘And again he began to teach by the seaside. And there is gathered to him a huge crowd so that he boarded a boat and sat in the sea. And all the crowd were by the sea on the land. And he taught them many things in parables, and said to them in his teaching.’

‘And again he began to teach by the seaside.’ The ‘again’ refers back to Mark 3:7. The seaside was a favourite venue of Jesus and the use of a boat for this purpose seems to have been a regular feature of His ministry at this time. It acted as both a speaking platform, and as a means of avoiding being hemmed in by the crowds. This was very necessary as clearly the large open space meant that larger crowds could gather.

‘Parables.’ ‘Parable’ has a wide meaning based on the meaning of Hebrew ‘mashal’ (which it translates in LXX) meaning a saying, a word picture, a proverb, a riddle, an ethical maxim, a comparison, and so on. Here it refers to the use of stories and mysterious sayings to make the people think. We are told that He used many such (Mark 4:33).

‘All the crowd were by the sea.’ Note the emphasis on the fact that Jesus is again surrounded by crowds, but this time they are by the seashore. This is mainly a crowd of interested hearers similar to that in Mark 3:7 although no doubt including many of those in Mark 3:32.

‘And said to them in His teaching.’ Note the inference here that He taught much more than we have a record of. These are to be seen as but examples.


Verses 1-34

The Message of the Kingly Rule of God Will Now Be Spread Widely and Will Produce Abundant Fruit (4:1-34).

As we have already seen the Gospel began with Jesus Christ as God’s beloved Son and has gradually built up to the idea of the new community of believers who hear His words and do the will of His Father who are His brothers and sisters (Mark 3:34-35). These are the first proclaimed members of the newly established Kingly Rule of God. Now that is to be expanded on. That is why Jesus will now be revealed as proclaiming that Kingly Rule of God in parables. His words are an indication of what has already been happening to bring things to this stage, and will go on happening throughout the Gospel. They are an elucidation of what Jesus is proclaiming.

In the chiastic structure of the Gospel this passage parallels Mark 13 as being a discourse passage of Jesus (see introduction). Initially here we will see the Kingly Rule of God advancing because the King has come, and it is seen as growing through the spreading of God’s word,resulting in the gathering in of the final harvest. In Mark 13 we will be reminded further of its advance as it advances in the face of every difficulty, with the good news being proclaimed among all nations, and resulting in His coming again in glory in order to finally bring the Kingly Rule of God to its triumphant consummation by the gathering in of His elect. There is therefore a clear parallel picture. But here it is presented in terms of the promising and glowing prospects that lie before His disciples. In Matthew 13 it is clear that those prospects still continue, but they are then set in the context of suffering, persecution and tribulation, as well as of judgement on Jerusalm. The advance will still continue, but the way will not be easy.

Here, however, having established that Jesus’ kingship is not of Satan but of God through the Holy Spirit, and that a new ‘family’ has been established under the Kingly Rule of God and the ministry of Jesus, we are now introduced to Jesus’ use of ‘parables’, that is of metaphors, pictures and riddles, which are presented in order to explain how the Kingly Rule of God will be further established. We need not necessarily assume that all these parables were related at the same time. They were rather examples of His ministry, brought together to give an overall impression of the forward movement of God’s Kingly Rule. But the impression is certainly given of a continuing process in His preaching in parables (Mark 4:33-34). The message was now being constantly proclaimed and spread by this means, and a careful differentiation is made between those who hear and understand and those who fail to hear.

The passage begins with Jesus, ‘as His custom was’ (compare Mark 3:9), preaching to the crowds from a boat. It was to the crowds that He preached in parables. And many of them would not ‘hear’. But to His true followers He explained the parables, for they sought an explanation for them and their hearts were open to the truth. They had already partly ‘seen’ the Kingly Rule of God (John 3:3). They were willing to ‘hear’.

His method is interesting. He tells folksy stories which have a deeper meaning, so that some will simply enjoy the story and carry on as usual because they are spiritually ‘blind’ and there is no response from their hearts, others will respond more generally and be stirred within, but will eventually let what they have learned slip away, or gain some part truth from it to help them in their daily lives, while still others will ponder it more deeply and respond fully. They will seek further clarification and the whole truth will dawn in their hearts. They will come under the Kingly Rule of God. These last are how Jesus wanted all to be.

It is possible that we may see in this parabolic approach Jesus’ reaction to His past experience. He had been preaching the Kingly Rule of God openly, but all the crowds had been interested in were miracles. His words had passed over their heads, and possibly He had begun to realise how easily they could thus be hardened against His message. So we may see Him as determined that from now on He will deliberately veil His message in order to stir them into thought, while not making the truths He is proclaiming become stale in their minds. That is one view of the matter. It is, however, equally possible that He had been preaching in this way right from the beginning. (Note how even in the Sermon on the Mount which was for the inner group of disciples much of His teaching is parabolic, although not in quite the distinctive way found here. This may suggest that He preached on two levels right from the commencement of His ministry).

The major parable in this chapter is the parable of the sower, with its emphasis on different responses people make to the word, having in view the final harvest. The parables that follow that of the sower, quite possibly preached at different times, are then added to illustrate further this message. It is probable that it was Peter who vividly remembered the connection of the parable of the sower with the gathering by the seashore.

The suggestion that such parables had only one main point and did not have secondary points cannot be sustained. The parable of the sower positively demands to be seen as an ‘allegory’ (meaning by this an illustration with more than one point) in that it clearly contains a number of ideas based on Scriptural truth which the hearers could be expected to recognise. There is no good reason why Jesus should not have used allegories, and besides they were a favourite method of Rabbinical teaching, so that we should not be at all surprised at Jesus using them. And this is so even though the final main point of the allegory was indeed of the harvest that would result.

But before looking at the parable of the sower in more depth we will first consider an analysis of the whole passage which is carefully built up in chiastic form.

Analysis of 4:1-34.

a Jesus teaches in parables (Mark 4:1-2).

b The parable of the sower and the growing seeds (Mark 4:3-9).

c He who has ears to hear let him hear (Mark 4:9).

d Parables divide those who see and hear from those who do not see and hear (Mark 4:10-12).

e Explanation of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:13-20).

d The parable of the lamp illustrates those who see and who do not see (Mark 4:21-22).

c He who has ears to hear let him hear for men will receive accordingly (Mark 4:23-25).

b The twin parables of the growing grain and the growing mustard seed (Mark 4:26-32).

a Jesus teaches in parables (Mark 4:33-34).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus teaches in parables, and in the parallel the similar fact is emphasised. In ‘b’ we have the parable of the growing seeds, and in the parallel the parables of the growing grain and the growing mustard seed. In ‘c’ those who have ears to hear, are to hear, and the same applies in the parallel. In ‘d’ we learn that the parables separate between those who hear and those who fail to hear, and in the parallel the parable of the lamp illustrates those who see and those who do not see. Centrally in ‘e’ we have the explanation of the parable of the sower.


Verse 3

“Listen. Behold a sower went out to sow.”

‘Listen.’ Jesus stresses, both here at the beginning of the parable, and at the end (Mark 4:9), that men must listen carefully. He wants them to be aware that the story has hidden meaning. This dual exhortation emphasised that He saw this parable as of special significance. It was a parable about the life transforming power of His words and of His message, and their response to it was all important for it would determine their whole future.

The use of parable and allegory was well known among Jewish teachers, for it was a powerful way to grip and illuminate the mind once the parable was understood, (although none, apart possibly from John the Baptiser, spoke to the huge crowds that Jesus did) and like John, Jesus used every day illustrations familiar to all. Both men, in the light of Isaiah’s teachings (Isaiah 32:15-18; Isaiah 44:1-5; Isaiah 55:10-11), saw the coming of the Kingly Rule of God in terms of God’s activity in nature, and of the activity of the Holy Spirit pictured in terms of rain being poured from Heaven. But Jesus wanted the people to give the illustrations deeper thought. All were familiar with the problems attendant on growing food. The hard and stony ground which their primitive tools often made little impression on, the precious seed that could so easily be wasted or lost. And all grieved over the birds who ate the seed before it could take root, the grain that grew too quickly without being deeply rooted, the weeds that choked the seed. They were an everyday experience of life and a burden for many. They were a part of their struggle to survive. But Jesus’ question was, did they realise that they were illustrative of what could hinder them receiving His all important message? They should have known it, for the use of such pictures were a continuation of the methods of the prophets (Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:4; Jeremiah 4:3; Jeremiah 12:13; Ezekiel 2:6).

He also wanted them to recognise that for those who did listen and absorb His message there would be spiritual fruitfulness and a wonderful harvest. To these people harvest represented their hope for the future, and they recognised that no harvest was quite as important as the final Harvest in the last day. It pointed to the glorious future that could be theirs under the blessing of God. Jesus wanted them to realise that this time of harvest was approaching, and that He wanted them to partake in it fully. Those who had listened to the preaching of John the Baptiser were aware of his stress on spiritual fruitfulness, and on barrenness, in the face of the judgment, and of the coming work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:8-12; Luke 3:7-9). Now Jesus reinforces that message and expands on it. All that they hoped and longed for was dependent on their willingness to receive and absorb His teaching.

This parable compares those who hear the word, and in three ways fail to receive it successfully, with those who do receive the word, and produce fruit at three levels. It is another presentation of the two ways (Matthew 7:13-14). It will be noted that the emphasis is not so much on the harvest as on what is, or is not, produced. It is a brilliantly simple analysis of men’s hearts. With some there was no interest. With some there was interest but no depth of thought or understanding. With some what interest there was, was choked by other things than the word of truth, by cares, anxieties and a desire for wealth. Notice also the fate of the seed which has failed to yield fruit. Some was devoured, some withered in the sun, and some was choked. The failures thus came for a variety of reasons but the end result was the same, there was no fruitfulness. Each listener was left to think for himself what it was that might be the hindrance in his own life. And then the glorious goal was set before him that he could, if he truly responded to Jesus and His words, produce one hundredfold.

It has sometimes been argued that Jesus original intention in this parable was simply to build up to the idea of the Harvest, with that as the sole emphasis of the parable, but a moments thought will reveal that this really cannot be so unless Jesus was talking to half-wits. And He was not. He was speaking to people steeped in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition, and inevitably when they heard of the birds swooping down to seize the seed their ears would prick up and they would think in terms of powers of evil and of demons, and even of Satan himself, in the light of Jewish tradition where birds were commonly seen in that way (compare also Genesis 15:11; Genesis 40:17; Genesis 40:19; Isaiah 18:5-6; Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 12:9; Ezekiel 39:4; Ezekiel 39:17 where the descent of birds is something that fills men with foreboding). We can compare here Revelation 18:2, which echoes those traditions, where devils, unclean spirits and unclean birds are seen to be operating in parallel (compare Isaiah 13:21; Isaiah 34:11; Isaiah 34:14-15).

But even more so when they heard of sowing among thorns their minds would immediately call to mind the words of Jeremiah, ‘Do not sow among thorns’ (Jeremiah 4:3), and ‘they have sown wheat and have reaped thorns’ (Jeremiah 12:13). It was inevitable. They could hardly have failed to do so. And thus alert minds would already be looking into the details of the parable and asking themselves what it meant. And it can hardly be doubted in the light of this that Jesus intended them to do so.

‘Behold a sower went out to sow.’ This was an everyday sight in season, and crucial to their existence., and they would see in their mind’s eye the sower with his bag over his shoulder, walking along distributing the seed as he went. And in view of Who was telling the story they would be reminded of the words of Proverbs 11:18, ‘he who sows righteousness has a sure reward,’ and, somewhat guiltily (because they had not done it), of Hosea 10:12, ‘Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap according to mercy, break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the LORD, until he come and rain righteousness upon you.’ They would recognise that this sower was therefore somehow connected with this call to repentance, and for them to become prepared ground so that righteousness might flourish in their hearts. That Jesus was therefore issuing such a call for repentance and a turning to righteousness, in the light of the presence in Him of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

And what would He sow? They would find their answer in Isaiah 55:10. In that passage the seed for the sower resulted from God’s rain falling on God’s earth, producing ‘seed for the sower’, a seed which would then through God’s provision of rain and sun be sent forth to fulfil His will, accomplishing what He pleased and prospering in the way in which He sent it. And there it was seen in terms of the word of God going forth to accomplish God’s will of salvation and deliverance. Jesus wanted them to know that John the Baptiser had been a sower (John 4:36-38), and that He Himself was now at that moment sowing seed among them declaring that the Kingly rule of God had drawn near (Mark 1:15). He wanted them to recognise that the fulfilling of God’s promises humanly speaking depended on their responsiveness to what He said. The discerning among them would recognise that it was so. Indeed those who had responded to the teaching of John the Baptiser would instantly be reminded of it.

While the description ‘a sower’ was general, Jesus was not philosophising. He was not just saying, ‘have you thought about this? Isn’t it interesting?’ He was too aware of the newness and uniqueness of His message that the time for response to the Kingly Rule of God was here. No. His message was that God sent sowers out to sow and now something new was being sown. And the question was, did they realise it? Would they respond? The prophets had been sowers, as had John the Baptiser (John 4:36-38). Now He wanted them to recognise that the Sower Supreme was here and that others too would sow as He did, who would be sent out by Him. And they must be ready to receive their words.

It is not accidental that this parable follows immediately on Mark 3:35. There we have the lesson of what Jesus was calling men to do in His teaching. He was calling them to respond to and obey the will of God. It was in that way that the Kingly Rule of God would be established. And that will was especially revealed in His own teaching. The question was, therefore, were they ready to do the will of God, or was His word to be choked by events of this life? Mark certainly intends us to see that the preaching of the Kingly Rule of God is in mind (Mark 4:11; Mark 4:26; Mark 4:30).

Some have sought to deny that this is to some extent allegorical and that the individual parts of the parable have a deeper meaning, but it is only necessary to notice the emphasis of the story to recognise that that suggestion is too restrictive. There can really be no doubt that one emphasis is specifically on reasons why the seed is not fruitful, as with the prophets before Him. This must therefore be a main lesson of the parable. And another equally important emphasis is on the final fruitful harvest.


Verses 3-9

The Parable of the Four Kinds of Ground (4:3-9).

Jesus now tells a story which contains within it a number of lessons, and is thus a kind of allegory. It is based on a scene well known to His hearers, that of a sower sowing seed. Those who knew their Scriptures well would remember that in Hosea 12:10 and Jeremiah 4:3 the sowing of seed was connected with the idea of a true response to God resulting from their becoming ‘good ground’. In Hosea 12:10 His people were called on to break up their fallow ground, sowing in it in righteousness and reaping in mercy. In Jeremiah 4:3 they were to break up their fallow ground so that the words of their teachers might not be sown among thorns. The same idea of needing to be fruitful ground is found in the parable.

Analysis.

a “Listen” (Mark 4:3 a).

b “Behold a sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:3 b).

c “And it happened that, as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and the birds came and devoured it” (Mark 4:4).

d “And other fell on rocky ground where it did not have much earth, and it sprang up immediately because it had no depth of earth. And when the sun was risen it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered” (Mark 4:5-6).

c “And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it yielded no fruit” (Mark 4:7).

b “And others fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing. And it produced thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8).

a And he said, “whoever has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).

Note that in ‘a’ they are called on to listen, and in the parallel they are to be those who have ears to hear. In ‘b’ The sower sows, and in the parallel it results in a harvest. In ‘c’ the seed is devoured and in the parallel it is choked. Centrally in ‘d’ the seed is scorched in the sun because it has no depth of earth.


Verse 4

“And it happened that, as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and the birds came and devoured it.”

In Palestine the fields were in narrow strips with pathways in between the strips, and these pathways would be hardened and trampled. They were rights of way (when the Apostles had walked through the cornfields in Mark 2:23 they had used such paths). As the sower took seed from his pouch and scattered it some would inevitably fall on such ground and be wasted, for there it could not take root and the birds were ever on the watch for such seed. The sight of them pecking away at the precious seed was a familiar one to His hearers. And as we have seen above it would be a reminder, to a people steeped in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition, of the way in which birds could be seen as swooping down to seize the seed in a way that was reminiscent of the activities of the powers of evil and of demons, and even of Satan himself, especially in view of Jewish tradition where birds were commonly seen in that way (compare also Genesis 15:11; Genesis 40:17; Genesis 40:19; Isaiah 18:5-6; Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 12:9; Ezekiel 39:4; Ezekiel 39:17). We can especially compare here Revelation 18:2, which echoes those traditions, where devils, unclean spirits and unclean birds are seen to be operating in parallel (compare Isaiah 13:21; Isaiah 34:11; Isaiah 34:14-15).


Verse 5-6

“And other fell on rocky ground where it did not have much earth, and it sprang up immediately because it had no depth of earth. And when the sun was risen it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered.”

Ancient ploughs could not plough up the ground like their modern equivalent. In comparison they but scratched the surface, and in many places there was little earth and the ground beneath was hard rock. The plough could do nothing about it. Thus there was nothing to give root to the seed. The result was that once there was a little rain it sprang up quickly, (all its energy went into quick growth), and it equally quickly died in the burning sun because it had no roots with which to draw on hidden supplies of water. This was a grief of heart to the farmer. The shoots showed so much promise and produced such little result. And the discerning ones among Jesus’ listeners would remember the words of the prophets, ‘break up your fallow ground, do not sow among thorns’ (Jeremiah 4:3), and ‘break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord until He comes to rain righteousness on you’ (Hosea 10:12), and would ensure that their hearts were not set like stone.


Verse 7

“And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it yielded no fruit.”

The farmer could pull up the thorns before sowing but he could not remove the roots of the thorns. Thus both seed and thorns grew together and where there was an abundance of thorn roots the good seed had no chance. As it sought to grow it would be choked. That is why the prophet had warned his listeners, ‘do not sow among thorns’ (Jeremiah 4:3). Thus Jesus’ hearers already had good grounds for recognising what was intended by His words.


Verse 8

“And others fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing. And it produced thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

The change to the plural ‘others’ stresses the individuality of those who respond and that there are many who would so respond. In spite of all the problems that he faced the farmer could be sure that some seed would grow and flourish because the ground was good, and when it did it would produce in abundance. So in the end the message is positive. A harvest is guaranteed. The seed will bear fruit in receptive hearers, even though not in others. Those who had heard John the Baptiser’s preaching would not fail to connect this with his words about the coming of the Holy Spirit, the wheat and the chaff, and the resulting harvest (Matthew 3:10-12; Luke 3:16-17).

‘It produced thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’ This threefoldness parallels the threefoldness of the different types of barren ground. Not all seed sown in good ground produces at the same level, but all produces abundantly. The reference is possibly to the number of grains per plant, although the figures may simply be indications of fruitfulness indicating completeness, double completeness and full completeness.


Verse 9

‘And he said, “whoever has ears to hear, let him hear”.’

The need to take note is repeated, stressing the importance of the parable and its significance. Like the good ground men need to be ready recipients of the sown seed. This warning is repeated twice underlining its importance (see Mark 4:23). It echoes Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 12:2.


Verse 10

‘And when he was alone those who were about him with the twelve asked him what the parables meant.’

Notice that this was not just the twelve, it was a wider number of His followers ‘who were about Him’ (compare Mark 3:34). They recognised that there was a lesson to be learned and came to Him seeking more truth. They were not satisfied just with a story.

‘When He was alone.’ That is, when the crowds had dispersed and He was no longer in demand. This explanation need not necessarily have been given immediately. Indeed this comment suggests that it may well not have been, for Mark 4:35 suggests connection back to Mark 4:1 indicating a day of preaching, and some of these enquirers would not have been in the boat with Him. It awaited a suitable time and place. Mark puts it here so that the application immediately follows the giving of the parable and brings out Jesus’ purpose in the use of parables.

‘What the parables meant.’ Notice the plural for ‘parables’. This may indicate that Jesus had taught a number of parables at this juncture, to which they required explanation. However it may be that it rather indicates that they had recognised the fact that His story of the sower contained a number of ‘parables’, i.e. riddles to be explained. We may translate, ‘what the illustrations meant’. (Compare Mark 3:23. The meaning of the word ‘parable’ is more fixed for us than it was for them). We need not assume that they were completely in the dark about its meaning, but rather that they wanted to make sure that they had the message right.


Verses 10-20

The Explanation of the Parable and the Mystery of God’s Rule (4:10-20).

Once the parable had been given those desirous of knowing more crowded round Jesus for an explanation. This was what distinguished the true disciples from the hangers on.

Analysis.

a And when he was alone those who were about him with the twelve asked him what the parables meant (Mark 4:10).

b And he said to them, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingly Rule of God, but to those who are without all things are done in parables, that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest it should happen that they turn again and it should be forgiven them” (Mark 4:11-12).

a And he says to them, “Do you not know this parable? And how shall you know all parables?” (Mark 4:13).

Note that in ‘a’ the twelve, along with others who were about Him asked Him about the meaning of the parables, and in the parallel Jesus is concerned because they do not know. Centrally He explains why He teaches in parables.


Verse 11-12

‘And he said to them, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingly Rule of God, but to those who are without all things are done in parables, in order that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest it should happen that they turn again and it should be forgiven them”.’

‘To you is given.’ This is a way of saying ‘God has given you’ without using the name of God (compare His use of the passive tense in such a way in Matthew 5:3-9 and often). ‘To you is given’ compares with Jesus’ words in John 6:65, ‘no man can come to me except it were given to him of my Father’. It is saying that by nature man is blinded to spiritual truth, and that it is only as God’s undeserved love acts on a man that he comprehends and responds to the truth (compare Matthew 11:25).

‘The mystery of the Kingly Rule of God.’ In the New Testament a ‘mystery’ was something previously hidden but now revealed. It was an ‘opened secret’, and because these disciples sought, it was to be opened to them. For this idea of the secret things of God compare Deuteronomy 29:9; Amos 3:7; Psalms 25:14; Proverbs 3:32; Job 15:8. The LXX uses the word ‘musterion’ of the secret God reveals to Daniel (e.g. Daniel 2:19). Thus God’s secret was now being revealed, the secret that the Kingly Rule of God was now present and spreading. Compare Matthew 13:35.

‘To those who are outside.’ Compare Mark 3:31. All who hear His words, but do not seek their deeper meaning, are spiritually ‘outside’, just as His mother and brothers were ‘outside’ earlier, so that they were not welcomed as His ‘brother, sister and mother’ (Mark 3:31).

Jesus is aware of how easily men could become like the hard ground on which seed could not grow. If they were told the significance of the parable before their hearts were opened they would just become hardened. They would see and not perceive, they would hear and not understand, and His fear was that they may then prematurely ‘turn again’ and receive a transient ‘forgiveness’ (see Mark 4:16) which was not real and lasting, a spurious experience. That has been the lot of many a man. It was the lot of Judas. But Jesus wanted true seekers, not those with a mere casual interest. Thus it was necessary to preach a partly hidden message which would lead those who wanted to know the truth to seek further, while leaving the remainder untouched but unhardened.

‘Done in parables.’ That is as hidden sayings, riddles (compare Psalms 49:4; Psalms 78:2; Proverbs 1:6; Ezekiel 17:2), something to entice thought without being too openly apparent.

‘In order that (hina) seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest (mepote) it should happen that they turn again and it should be forgiven them” The quotation is taken from Isaiah 6:9-10. Its being quoted in the third person instead of the second, and the use of ‘forgive’ instead of ‘heal’, is paralleled in the Targum (Jewish commentary) of Isaiah (Matthew 13:14 onwards reproduces the LXX). The New Testament writers used different sources for their quotations in Greek (just as we may quote Scripture from different versions).

At face value this appears to be declaring that God’s purpose is that they might not see or hear in case they should turn again and thus find forgiveness, that is, that God is specifically acting in them and blinding their minds and their thoughts in order to prevent them from finding forgiveness.

Taken in this way it must be seen as being an example of God being seen as the final cause of all that happens. We can compare how in 2 Samuel 24:1 ‘the Lord’ (YHWH) causes David to number Israel, whereas in 1 Chronicles 21:1 it is Satan who does so. The idea behind the first statement is that God is the great First Cause and that it is God Who is in the end sovereign over all that happens so that He is even seen as responsible for allowing Satan to do what he does. And who can deny that that is true? If this is accepted it can thus be argued that in the same way God is here taking the responsibility for what men do, even though it is not directly His doing. In other words it is then saying that if men and women close their eyes and their ears lest they be converted, then in the end it is God Who has done it, for He made man as he is.

However, other suggestions have also been made. These mainly depend on taking hina (in order that’) and mepote (‘lest’) and not accepting them at face value. For example it has been suggested that ‘mepote’ may possibly translate an Aramaic word used by Jesus (dilema) which means ‘unless’. This would then mean that turning again and being forgiven was to be seen as a possible alternative to not hearing and not perceiving. But it is not what mepote usually means.

In the Hebrew of Isaiah the word certainly means ‘lest’ and may thus be seen as signifying that in God’s purposes only the few are chosen (Matthew 22:14), and the same applies to mepote in the Greek.

An alternative is to see Jesus as speaking ironically. He may be saying that if God did not prevent it they might superficially ‘turn again and be forgiven’, but that it would be in a way that was transient and passing, and not real. That is then to be seen as the ‘turning again’ that He is trying to prevent. It is saying that He does not want superficial repentance. It would have in mind, for example, what happened with Israel at Sinai. There too there was a turning again and a receiving of a kind of forgiveness, but in many it was not genuine so that they soon turned back to their own ways and in the end perished in the wilderness. And the same happened again and again throughout their history (consider Isaiah 58:1-8). The point here then is that He did not want that to happen again. If there was to be repentance He wanted it to be genuine and true, and thus He acted to prevent them coming to a position of false repentance. This way of looking at it actually fits well with the idea of Jesus’ use of parables in order to prevent men becoming case hardened.

For the truth is that men have an infinite capacity for discovering methods by which they can be put in the right with God without the actual need of a true submission to Jesus Christ, through, for example, making gifts of money to the church, by means of a stereotyped confessional, or by signing a decision card. In Jesus’ day it may well have been through offering the appropriate sacrifices without considering the need for genuine repentance, giving money to the Temple or the observance of certain feasts (see Isaiah 1:11-15).

Another alternative is again to see it as ironic and as suggesting that the emphasis must be put on the last phrase each time, thus ‘in order that seeing they may seeand not perceive’, and hearing they may hearand not understand, with the words in italics indicating the position that they deliberately take up. Then the subsequent ‘lest’ is put at their door. They have deliberately not perceived and not understood because the last thing that they want is to have to turn again and be forgiven.


Verse 13

‘And he says to them, “Do you not know this parable? And how shall you know all parables?” ’

‘Do you not know this parable?’ Strictly He means ‘do you not know what this parable means, do you not understand it?’ There is a slight rebuke implied in Jesus’ words. These eager hearers have revealed their inability to grasp truth and to link it up with what they have heard before in the ministry of John the Baptiser. Yet He feels that they should have done so. John had himself clearly used ‘parabolic’ forms of expression illustrating the going forth of the word of God and its impact, in terms of agriculture and nature, and of abundant grain (Matthew 3:6-12; Luke 3:7-9; Luke 3:17). Why then did they still not see?

But the descriptions in the parable had been commonplace ones and without that first clue the parable is not as clear as it would be once the clue was given. We are so used to it that it seems obvious, but we are not hearing it for the first time without an explanation. It was not so obvious to the first hearers. They only knew that it had a spiritual message to convey that they had, at least partly, missed. Had we been in the same situation we too may not have fully understood.

‘How then shall you know all the parables?’ Perhaps His words here were intended to dampen down any feeling of superiority they may have been developing because they saw themselves as His true followers. But it also warns them that they must put more effort into their interpretation. If they cannot understand this one which is so clear, how will they get on with the more problematic ones?

Such a rebuke is not likely to have been invented at a later time when the Apostles and those who had directly followed Jesus, and were eyewitnesses, had great prestige. None but Jesus could have given it. And this helps to confirm that what follows are His words as well. The idea that Jesus could not have intended a number of lessons to be contained in His parable has little foundation in fact. Mark 12:1-9, for example, is clearly intended as an allegory. And there is nothing forced about the applications, either in that parable there, or the one here.


Verse 14

“The sower sows the word.”

This is the clue that makes the meaning of the parable clear. What is sown is God’s word to man. This includes the message that ‘the Kingly Rule of God is at hand’, and that by faith they can repent and come under His Kingly Rule. The initiator is in the first place God. It is He Who in the Old Testament sends forth His word to bring about His purpose. But He sends out and provides seed for the sower (Isaiah 55:10). Thus the sower is the One to Whom He has given His word, and who is to follow in His steps. Here it is especially Jesus by implication, but as well includes John the Baptiser, together with Jesus’ own followers, for once He has trained them they too will be given the seed and will sow the word. Compare how the work of Jesus as the Servant of God is to be continued in His followers (Acts 13:47). But the main emphasis is certainly on the fact that it is God’s word that is being sown. It is on the fact that God’s word is now among them as never before. The message is all the more poignant in that it could already be seen as having occurred in the ministry of John, and to some extent as having failed to some degree. True there had been great response in many, but in many more the early enthusiasm resulting from his ministry had already died down.

The discerning listener would have been reminded of Isaiah 55:10. ‘For as the rain comes down, and the snow, from heaven, and does not return there, but waters the earth and makes it bring forth and bud and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth, it shall not return to me void, but it will accomplish that which I please and prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.’ In these words Isaiah depicts the whole process of the growth of grain, the rain and snow from heaven, the watering of the earth, the bringing forth of grain and fruit, the sower who receives and sows the seed in order to continue the process, and the eater who eats what is produced from it. By comparison with Isaiah 44:2-5 this could then be related to God’s activity in sending forth His Spirit to change the hearts of men. God’s word is the prime source and the prime emphasis is on the fruitfulness produced by the activity of God, and the sower sows as a result and continues the work. Then He likens it to the going forth of His word which directly accomplishes His purposes. Thus the sower is one provided with seed to assist in the carrying forward of the purposes of God.

The discerning among Jesus’ hearers were well aware that a great work of God was going on in Jesus. That is why they had come to listen to Him. And they did not need to be reminded of the need for heavenly rain to water the seed. The need for rain to produce fruitfulness was to them a constant fact of life and had been illustrated spiritually in John’s baptism. But there was also need for a sower, and Jesus is now saying that the time for the sower to go forth to continue the work of God has come, a sower taking forth the word of God.

‘The word.’ Compare Mark 2:2; Mark 7:13. To Jesus ‘the word (logos)’ refers to the true message of God, both to His own message of the nearness of the expected Kingly Rule of God (Mark 2:2 with Mark 1:15) and to ‘the word of God’ as found in the Scriptures (Mark 7:13). Indeed to Him they were both one word. However, the stress in the parable (as in Isaiah) is not on the sower but on the going forth of the word, and that the word that is going forth is the word of God (Isaiah 55:11). And then the stress is on the hindrances to its reception because of the condition of the ground, which represents the condition of the hearts of men, and what results for those who truly receive it. The sower, though necessary, was secondary. The going forth of the word and the condition of the ground that received it were primary.


Verses 14-20

The Explanation of the Parable.

Jesus now provides the explanation for the parable. It should be noted how smoothly it fits in without there being anything of a mechanical nature in the interpretation which would be the hallmark of later allegorical interpretation. This method of parable followed by explanation follows Old Testament precedence. See for example Ezekiel 17:1-24; Zechariah 4:2-14. It was also a feature of the Rabbis. It was thus typically Jewish.

Analysis.

a “The sower sows the word” (Mark 4:14).

b “And these are they by the wayside, where the word is sown. And when they have heard Satan comes immediately and takes away the word which has been sown in them” (Mark 4:15).

c “And in the same way these are they who are sown on the rocky places who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with joy. Yet they have no root in themselves but endure for a while. Then when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they stumble” (Mark 4:16-17).

b “And others are those who were sown among the thorns. These are those who have heard the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things, entering in, choke the word and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).

a “And those are they that were sown on the good ground, such as hear the word and firmly receive it, and bear fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20).

Note that in ‘a’ the sower sows the word, and in the parallel it produces abundance of good grain. In ‘b’ Satan snatches the word away and in the parallel the word is choked. Centrally in ‘c’ we have the example of the false confession that does not stand the test of time, the ‘easy belief’ that does not result in any real change. Compare John 6:66.


Verse 15

‘And these are they by the wayside, where the word is sown. And when they have heard Satan comes immediately and takes away the word which has been sown in them.’

Here the seed is the word, and the hearers are like the beaten down path, for they do not absorb the word so that Satan is able to take it away ‘immediately’. They are totally unmoved and go on to other things, not even aware of what they have lost. Matthew tells us that it is ‘the word of the kingly rule’ and that it is ‘the Evil one’ who snatches away ‘what has been sown in his heart’. Matthew then adds, ‘this is he that was sown by the wayside’. Thus ‘to be sown’ is an abbreviation for someone receiving the sown seed.

Note that the explanation does not specifically apply the detail of the parable as if it were fully an allegory. The interpretation is not mechanical but living. For example no attempt is made to relate the plural birds to the singular Satan. As the explanation continues the hearers might be thought to be revealed as the seed itself, but as we see from Matthew that is to apply the language too pedantically. What they are is the soil and the resultant grain that results from the action of the word on the ‘soil’. They are thus the result of the sowing of the seed combined with their response to it. Jesus is depicting the general consequences of what happens. He is not applying every detail. This supports the idea that the interpretation follows closely on the giving of the parable. A later mechanical application by the church as an allegory would have been more particular and specific.

We should notice that the idea of the activity of Satan is prominent in the surrounding context (Mark 3:11; Mark 3:22-30; Mark 5:1-20). We should not therefore be surprised to find a reference to him here. Jesus is quietly emphasising that He and Satan are not on the same side, and that Satan is in fact rather seeking to hinder His teaching.

We have already seen how the descent of birds in Scripture is regularly seen as something that should fill men with foreboding (e.g. Genesis 15:11; Genesis 40:17; Genesis 40:19; Isaiah 18:5-6; Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 12:9; Ezekiel 39:4; Ezekiel 39:17) and that we can compare Jesus’ words here with Revelation 18:2, which echoes Jewish traditions where devils, unclean spirits and unclean birds were seen to be operating in parallel (compare Isaiah 13:21; Isaiah 34:11; Isaiah 34:14-15). Thus their very background should have given them an inkling of the significance of the birds.


Verse 16-17

‘And in the same way these are they who are sown on the rocky places who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with joy. Yet they have no root in themselves but endure for a while. Then when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they stumble.’

Some hear the word and receive it with joy. But they are in fact in contrast with those who are described for example in 1 Thessalonians 2:13-15 who receive the word with joyin truth, for they are like sprouting of the seed sown on the rocky places, instead of prepared ground. The seed begins to grow enthusiastically as the result of a little rain, but as no root is established they quickly wither and die. The work is superficial. No true spiritual work has taken place in their hearts. They have been swayed by the magnetism of some great preacher, or the enthusiasm of someone whom they admire. But it has not touched their hearts. There have always been many such. And persecutions and troubles soon filter them out. Tribulation and persecution in one way or another has always been the lot of the one who seeks to follow God’s word. And it separates the true from the false, the genuine from the fake. If only they had broken up their fallow ground. Then God would have come and rained righteousness upon them (Hosea 10:12).

‘They who are sown.’ That is, the word of God is sown in them. They hear the word and receive it with joy and sprout up. We should note again here that all the people spoken of in the parable are both the ground that receives the seed (which is basically at this point Israel) and the grain that results. The seed is sown and produces differing responses within the people, and in those who respond, different behaviour which results from a changed nature (Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 5:17). The word unites with responsive people in producing (or not producing) a new life, which is the basis of Jesus’ teaching on the new birth (‘born of water’) (John 3:1-8).

These, and those choked by thorns and thistles, are like the people spoken of in Hebrews 6 (note Hebrews 6:8). They have been enlightened and have experienced the heavenly gift (compare the temporary ‘forgiveness’ which was mentioned in Mark 3:12 which God did not want men to receive), they have gone along with the Holy Spirit in His revealing work and tasted the good word of God, they have witnessed, and even possibly experienced, the miracles of the coming age. Judas was certainly one such. He had cast out evil spirits and done miracles in Christ’s name along with the other Apostles. But Jesus knew from the beginning his true state (John 6:64). And like him, many fall away because they have no root (and He knew who they were as well (John 6:64)). They bear thorns and thistles. They are not receptive and fruit producing ground.

Jesus, and John the Baptiser as a sower before Him, were both well aware that some who would at first seem eager would be disappointed and cease to follow because what resulted did not come within their expectations (John 2:23-25; John 6:66; John 12:43), and because they did not want the truth as it was revealed (John 6:60). They would appear to have accepted forgiveness but did not want it on God’s terms.

‘Endure for a while’ or ‘are temporary’. The word proskairoi occurs only here in the Gospels (and in the parallel Matthew 13:31) and twice more in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 4:18; Hebrews 11:25) indicating that which is temporary, that which only lasts for a while.

‘Tribulation or persecution arises.’ Jesus constantly warned that those who followed Him must expect tribulation and persecution (Mark 8:34; Mark 8:38; Mark 10:30; Matthew 5:10-12; Matthew 10:17; Matthew 10:21-23; Luke 6:22; John 15:20-21; John 16:2; John 16:33). He knew it Himself as an everyday fact of life (Luke 4:28-29; Mark 3:6).

‘They stumble.’ The verb skandalizein only occurs in Biblical Greek and literature influenced by it. The skandalon (or skandalethron) is the stick which is baited to operate a trap, thus a bait or snare, or even in LXX a stumblingblock. The verb is only used metaphorically and means ‘to ensnare into sin’ or ‘to take offence at’, also ‘to give offence to’, ‘to anger’. Thus here they are ensnared into sin, and they therefore find the word a stumblingblock.


Verse 18-19

‘And others are those who were sown among the thorns. These are those who have heard the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things, entering in, choke the word and it becomes unfruitful.’

Some seed was sown among thorns. This represents those who allow other distractions to choke the effect of the word in their lives. The succint summing up of such distractions (‘the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things’), bears the stamp of the Master. They affect both poor and rich alike. The problems and difficulties that men face, the longing for greater and greater wealth, the lusts and desires of the flesh, how these sum up men’s lives. But when they prevent reception of the word they have become a curse indeed. And when the harvest comes and the sickle reaps, where are they then?

‘Those who have heard the word.’ There has been some response but it fails to attain its object. They have not sown to themselves in righteousness and broken up their fallow ground.

‘The cares (‘anxieties’) of this world (or ‘age’)’. ‘Anxieties’ (merimna) - compare its use in Luke 21:34 where it is used in parallel with surfeiting and drunkenness. But surfeiting and drunkenness often do result from the fact that men are burdened down with care, so we may see merimna here as referring to all the cares and anxieties that burden men down in this present age. ‘Of this age.’ There is possibly a contrast with the fact that the new Kingly Rule has drawn near and the new age is about to begin. And they are in danger of missing it!

‘The deceitfulness of riches’ (or possibly ‘the pleasantness of riches’). When men are wealthy they are deceived into thinking that wealth is all. Diversions are open to them, and the very pleasantness of wealth itself is a snare (1 Timothy 6:9-10). It shields men from response to God (compare 1 Corinthians 1:26), and promises what it cannot give, true heart satisfaction. It becomes a god in itself, that rules men’s lives. When men are not wealthy they see it as something greatly to be desired and for which all else can be forfeited (Proverbs 15:27). It lures them on with its false promises and destroys lives (Proverbs 1:19; Proverbs 28:20). When they are wealthy their wealth takes possession of them and they become neglectful of spiritual things. We can compare here the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22).

‘The desires for other things.’ Here epithumia means ‘lusts’, desires that grip men’s lives, driving them on thoughtlessly without regard for God. In later terminology they are described as the lusts of the flesh (see Galatians 5:16 with 19-21) and of the mind (Ephesians 2:3). It covers all that men desire which stops them thinking about God.

So human cares and anxieties, wealth and the desire for it, and the longings of men for other things, all combine to choke the word, making them unresponsive to the Kingly Rule of God.


Verse 20

‘And those are they that were sown on the good ground, such as hear the word and firmly receive it, and bear fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’

This is the climax of the parable to which all else has been leading. There are those in whom the seed sown will bear fruit, and that in abundant measure, because they firmly receive it. The magnificence of the yield draws attention to its importance in the parable. As every farmer knew, some seed sown would produce a harvest. And that was why he went on sowing. Thus there were those who would hear the word, and would take it to their hearts so that it could give them new life and mould their lives, and there would be fruit in abundance.

We should note here again Isaiah 55:10-13, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth,making it bring to birth(the Hebrew is yalad in the hiphil, almost exclusively used of the birth of living creatures) and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be -- ’. Jesus does not mention rain in the parable but it would be everywhere assumed by his hearers, and it brings to new life those who receive it. To Isaiah the life-giver was the rain of the word of God and only secondarily the seed, to the Spirit empowered Jesus it was the seed sown in the power of the Spirit that was the word of God, but both represent the word going forth to fulfil God’s purposes.


Verses 21-23

‘And he said to them, “Does the lamp come to be put under the corn measure, or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand? For there is nothing hidden except for the purpose of it being openly revealed, neither was anything made secret but that it should come to light. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.” ’

The picture is a straightforward one. It is growing dark and the small house is therefore in growing darkness, and then the master of the house takes and trims the lamp and brings it in. And what does he do with it? Hide it under the bed - dim light? Put it under the corn measure - no light? Or put it on the lampstand - light for all? He could do any of these but the real purpose is to lighten the house. (There could of course be a time when it was prudent to hide the light or make it dim).

The point of these words is that God does not want His truth to remain a secret. He want all to know and understand it. It is not due to His failure that the truth is not known, it is because of what men do with it when they receive it. Some put it under a bucket, others put it under the bed, but the wise put it where all may see it, and where they can benefit from the light. In two cases it may as well not have been there, but in the third case it is life transforming. The point therefore is that when His word comes to us we must use it wisely and not hide it away where it is ineffective.

An interesting question here is as to whether these words are spoken to those who have sought Him out to find out the significance of the parable, or to the crowds at large. The former situation makes more sense and makes clear why there is no contradiction between this statement and the fact that parables were a veiled form of teaching. The words ‘to them’ support this suggestion. Contrast Mark 4:26; Mark 4:30. Matthew and Luke have the words in a different context (Matthew 5:15; Luke 11:33) and Luke in the same context (Luke 8:16-18).

The truth was that parables were both intended to require thought and be puzzling and yet at the same time to be illuminating to those who solved the puzzle, and the latter was finally their purpose. The lamp was intended to shine out, not to be hidden under a corn measure. The hiding may be necessary to prevent superficial response, but it was not the final purpose. Things were hidden so that at the right time they might be openly revealed. God’s secrets were intended eventually to come to light. By this Jesus was encouraging these seekers not to be deterred but to go on seeking. God did want them to know the truth in full. He wanted the light to shine.

‘Does the lamp come --?’ ‘Come’ is an unusual verb for a lamp. This suggests that Jesus wanted them to see that He had ‘come’ as a lamp (compare John 8:12) and wanted to make Himself known, but only to the discerning viewer and with great care. Like the parables He was a mystery, being made known to those who responded.

‘For there is nothing hidden except that it should be openly revealed.’ This stresses that indeed for a time the lamp is hidden, but only so that it might be openly revealed to those willing to see at the right time. This was a time of spiritual enlightenment. Here the shining of the lamp may have in mind the word of the Kingly Rule of God which was now here and was slowly being revealed to men and women as their eyes and ears were opened, or it may have in mind the truth about Jesus Himself as His self-revelation continues. Both are, of course, simply aspects of the same wonderful truth.

‘If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Compare Mark 4:9. Again Jesus stresses the need for men to listen and consider carefully. There are those open to hear. There are sadly those who will not hear. They do not ‘have ears to hear’. The lamp is shining, but men love darkness rather than light (thus they want the lamp to be kept under a corn measure) because their deeds are evil (John 3:19).


Verse 24-25

‘And he said to them, “Be careful what you hear. With what measure you measure it will be measured to you, and more shall be given to you. For to him who has, to him will be given, and he who has not, from him will be taken away even that which he has.” ’

‘Be careful what you hear.’ Luke 8:18 has ‘be careful how you hear’. But the meaning is much the same. What Jesus is saying in Mark is that they must be discerning, they must ensure that they listen and respond only to the truth, that they must be careful what they hear, and to do this they will have to be careful how they hear.

‘With what measure you measure it will be measured to you, and more shall be given to you.’ If they measure the words of Jesus genuinely and sincerely, receiving them, understanding them, appreciating them and fully responding to them, God will respond equally genuinely and sincerely. Indeed they will receive more than full measure. God will respond abundantly. To him who has will more be given. But if they do not receive and understand and fully respond they will lose even what they have, for it will be taken away from them. God is not satisfied with half measures and half response.


Verses 26-29

‘And he said, “So is the Kingly Rule of God, as if a man should cast seed on the earth, and should sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he does not know how. The earth bears fruit of herself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is ripe (literally, ‘when the fruit allows’), he puts forth the sickle because the harvest is come.” ’

Here the parable is said to specifically apply to the Kingly Rule of God. Here He is saying that the effect of the Kingly Rule of God over men will occur, not in some cataclysmic way, but secretly over time, (secretly in the sense that although we see the consequence we do not understand or observe the process), brought about by God once man has sown the seed. The time may not be too long, for the period between sowing and reaping is not long, but it will be sufficient for God to do His work quietly and secretly. The point is that what is now happening is very much of God. The seed is sown by ‘a man’, who responds to the time of opportunity, but then the rest remains in the hands of God. The man carries on with his life in the normal manner (‘night and day’ reflects the Jewish day as beginning in the evening) leaving the seed to be established, and then the seed springs up and grows, and the man does not know how. It grows little by little, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. And then finally the corn is fully grown ready for harvest and the man takes the sickle and harvests the grain.

The parable brings out man’s limited responsibility, which is to sow the seed, and God’s major responsibility, which is to do the rest. As with seeding, once the man has planted the word of God his task is over. It is God Who will cause the gradual growth until the grain is ready for harvest. And because it is God Who ensures the growth the harvest is guaranteed. By their fruits they will be known.

As with many of Jesus’ parables this is midway between simple parable and allegory. It brings out that man is responsible to sow the seed, that God in His own ways causes slow and gradual growth, and that there will be a reaping of a great harvest. The description of the harvest must surely have in mind Joel 3:13, ‘Put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe.’ The sickle is to be put in because the time of harvest has come. Thus salvation is seen to be the sovereign work of the sovereign God ending in this case in fullness of blessing.

But there is another important thought here, and that is that the Rule of God is not to be brought about by force. Man is to proclaim the word but God will work in His own time and in His own way to make it effective. Thus the Kingly Rule of God is not to be established by force of arms. It is not something that happens abruptly. ‘He who believes will not be in a hurry’ (Isaiah 28:16). The struggle is to be God’s not man’s. Our part in it is to trust Him.

It is, however, possible that Jesus has in mind in this parable Himself as the representative man (which is part of the significance of Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’). Then it is He Who is to be seen as initially sowing the word of God and the truth that the Kingly Rule of God is drawing near. The consequence of this is that He will sleep, in death, and rise again. Darkness will be followed by light, night by day ( for this concept of night see John 9:4; John 13:30). Compare Isaiah 53:11 (as found in LXX of Isaiah supported by Hebrew texts 1QIsa and 1QIsb at Qumran) which says, ‘From the travail of his soul he shall see light and shall be satisfied’ . Then when the harvest is ready, He will, as the Great Reaper, reap the harvest. This may be so because Jesus has a tendency to drop these hints about His future which are not clear at the time but become clear later (compare Mark 2:20). The one thing that tells against this is the suggestion ‘he knows not how’. This could not really be said about Jesus in the spiritual realm. But it may be that that there is intended to be a combined meaning and that we are to see in the ‘man’ both Jesus and His followers.


Verses 26-32

Two Parables Emphasising New Birth and Growth (4:26-32).

Jesus follow up the parable of the sower with two parables about new birth and growth. In these the seed of the word is sown, and it produces new life and steady growth as God’s rain falls on it (Isaiah 55:10 where it is literally ‘bring to birth and sprout/grow’). The first parable emphasises the secrecy but certainty of the result because it is God Who is at work, and the second parable the rapidly expanding nature of the outstanding result that will be achieved.


Verses 30-32

‘And he said, “How shall we liken the Kingly Rule of God, or in what picture (parabolos) shall we set it forth? It is like a grain of mustard seed which, when it is sown on the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out sizeable branches so that the birds of the air can shelter under their shadow.” ’

The contrast here is one of size. The commencement seems very small but the growth is rapid so that it quickly becomes a place of shelter and even a nesting place (birds have incredible abilities to nest in what may seem to us unlikely places). And that is what will happen to the Kingly Rule of God. From small beginnings it will grow to a huge size and become a shelter to the nations. The emphasis is not on the process of growing but on the great contrast between the tiny seed and the large bush. There may well be in mind here, in the fully grown bush, the idea of the parousia, the final coming of Christ to receive His own, when all the elect will be gathered from the four winds, from the uttermost part of earth to the uttermost part of Heaven (Mark 13:27) and the Kingly Rule of God in its final phase will be established.

The picture of birds in a tree is familiar from the Old Testament. See for example, Ezekiel 17:22-24; Ezekiel 31:1-14; Daniel 4:10; Daniel 4:21. There the tree illustrates a great empire in which the nations (the birds) find shelter. So this may be declaring that the Kingly Rule of God will become the equivalent of a great empire sheltering many peoples within it, and they will all be one people as the Old Testament prophets had themselves declared (Isaiah 27:12-13). It is this fact above all that points us to our seeing it as finally speaking of the end of the ages when the Rule of God is consummated.

‘Less than all the seeds that are on the earth.’ It would seem that the mustard seed was proverbially so in Palestine. This was not intended as a scientific statement. The point was that it was the smallest as compared with the others with which they were familiar. It is deliberate exaggeration. And indeed while it was not necessarily so in size, it was in significance. It seemed tiny and unimportant. But what a contrast with the huge bush which was a favourite of the birds of the air.

‘Sown on the earth --- the birds of the air.’ An alternative possibility is that there is a hint here that what was earthly was coming in contact with the heavenly and coming under heavenly protection in the same way as with the birds that fed Elijah. But the fact that the birds take shelter under the branches is against this.

We should note that these parables are often seen as pictures of the growth of the church. But this is not strictly their idea if we mean by the church a human organisation. The idea is rather of the word of God which produces life within many peoples in many individual hearts, bringing them under His shelter and making them one together, resulting in the final gathering of His own at the coming of Christ. It is the living church, the true Israel, that it pictures.


Verse 33-34

‘And with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. And he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he expounded all things.’

It is clear from these words that Jesus taught many parables of which we have no record. These were but a selection. And it seems from what Mark says here that they were used by Jesus to stir men’s interest without intending to enlighten them overmuch unless they responded. He wanted to stir their thoughts and He wanted them to think more deeply and then to come to learn more. In accordance with His own parables He was willing to sow the seed and allow God to work secretly on it. But He did not want to teach too plainly to the crowds for He was deeply aware that such teaching could produce a false reaction and response which would then fade away, and could result in the hardening of hearts.

There is a great deal of difference between an illustration which is accompanied by an explanation, and parables as Jesus used them To the crowds Jesus gave no explanations. They could view His parables as generally indicating the success of God’s activities or could select an interpretation that fitted in with their own ideas or could dismiss them without any thought at all. But it was only when hunger was aroused in their hearts that He was ready to speak plainly. To us with our wide background and teaching from childhood their meaning may seem obvious, but they were not so to many in the crowds. And because of our familiarity we have almost lost their impact. So Jesus deliberately went so far and no further. His teaching was deliberately veiled. But He was hoping that as some thought about the significance of His parables they would come to Him, and would ask Him their meaning at a time when their hearts were responsive.

‘As they were able to hear it.’ He knew that the majority in the crowds were steeped in the teaching of the Pharisees and in such a state would reinterpret His own teaching in that light. People, even educated people, have an amazing capacity to interpret what they hear in the light of their own background and ideas. Most are lazy thinkers. Many a preacher today is regularly misrepresented by those who hear him. And Jesus knew this. Thus He gave them only such as would stir their appetites and be easily remembered and could only be misrepresented with difficulty. And He gave them no more. He did not want them saying, ‘His teaching is such and such’, and by their description giving a totally false impression. What He had brought was incredibly new and He did not want it to be misrepresented and misunderstood. Thus until He felt that men were actually ready for it He restricted Himself to parables.

The only ones to whom He actually spoke plainly were the ones who showed their deeper interest and concern for the truth by following Him. To them He revealed the truth in clear words. ‘To His own disciples He privately explained all things’. And sometimes this meant that some left Him (John 6:66), but at least it meant that they had been given a full opportunity to understand.

‘To His own disciples.’ In the light of Mark 4:10 this must mean more than the twelve. Sometimes in Mark ‘the twelve’ and ‘the disciples’ may be synonymous, but this blurring of the distinction occurs in all the Gospels. We are in fact probably to see a distinction between ‘the twelve’, ‘the disciples’ (which includes all who follow Him regularly) and ‘the crowd’ of believers (Mark 3:32-35).

‘He did not speak to them without a parable.’ That does not mean that He only told stories, it means that His message was always veiled. Always He spoke enigmatically. He spoke in mysteries in order to stir the heart and awaken the mind

Exegetical note. It should perhaps be pointed out here that to relate Jesus’ words at this stage directly to the church as we think of it is misleading (that is if we think of the church as being something that was over against Israel). Jesus saw Himself as come ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10:6; Matthew 15:24), that is to those of Israel whose hearts were longing for truth and were thus open to it. At this stage it was establishing the Kingly Rule of God over those of His own people who would respond that was primarily His aim, and this is what He has been speaking of in the parables, although He did know from the Old Testament that this must finally result in its being extended to the whole world (e.g. Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6). Gentile converts would always be welcomed, but at this stage it would be on the right basis, a turning to the true ‘Law of Moses’ as revealed in His teaching (e.g. Matthew 5-7), not by their coming as Gentiles as such. He did reach out to the men of Samaria as an exception (John 4), but we must remember that they too followed the Law of Moses. It was only later that He seems to have acknowledged that the intransigence of Israel meant a turning to the Gentiles earlier than He had expected, a change of mind possibly connected with His encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30) which in Matthew especially is a clear turning point. For from then on He preached more in territory that was more closely connected with the Gentiles. Consider the feeding of the five thousand before that incident (five is the number of the covenant), which was on Jewish territory (Mark 6:34-44), and the feeding of the four thousand after that incident (four is the number of the nations, the four ‘corners’ of the earth), which appears to have been on Gentile territory (Mark 8:1-10), although we must recognise that large numbers of Jews would also have been there. But even there He was taking of the children’s bread and giving it to ‘the dogs’ (Mark 7:27-29).

In the same way in Matthew 16:18-19 the ekklesia is the new ‘congregation’ of Israel rather than the church as later revealed, although the one melts into the other. And in fact when the Gentiles are welcomed, it is in order to be engrafted into the olive tree (Romans 11:24-32, so that they may become true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:29) and the new Israel (Galatians 6:15-16; Ephesians 2:11-22). Salvation was thus seen to be for the Israel of God, even if it was a new enlarged Israel. Thus the true church is not to be seen as something over against Israel. In Jesus’ eyes it is rather the true Israel, as He makes clear in John 15:1-6.


Verse 35

Jesus’ Divine Power and Glory Is Revealed While His Own Townsfolk Are Blinded To The Truth About Him (4:35-6:6a).

In the first part of this new section Jesus power and glory will now be revealed in four ways:

· As the One Who can tame the sea with a word - power over nature (Mark 4:35-41).

· As the One with supreme power over even a multitude of evil spirits - power over the other world (Mark 5:1-20).

· As the One from Whom power could flow out to cleanse the unclean - power over all uncleanness (Mark 5:24-35).

· And as the One with power to raise of the dead - power over death itself (Mark 5:21-41).

Each incident revealed something of Who He was, and revealed His power over nature, over the spirit world, over uncleanness and over life itself. And the three main examples of His power are seen as brought about by His word. He is such that His word controls nature, is authoritative over the spirit world and defeats death itself (note the growth in concept, moving from nature, through the ‘other world’, to life and death itself). He ‘upholds all things by His powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). He is seen as the Lord of Creation, both of Heaven and earth. And all this is then followed by an indication that, even so, many would not believe in Him because of their prejudice.

Analysis of 4:35-6:6a.

In this subsection Jesus passes over the Sea of Galilee to the other side, and then finally returns and comes back to ‘His own region’. It can be analysed as follows:

a Sailing across the sea of Galilee Jesus stills a mighty storm with His powerful word, while His disciples reveal their unbelief and ask, ‘Who is this?’ (Mark 4:35-41).

b He reveals His power over unclean spirits by healing a demoniac and commands the healed man to ‘go and tell’ (Mark 5:1-20).

c He reveals His power over uncleanness by healing a woman who is constantly losing life sustaining blood, thus making her ritually ‘unclean’ (Mark 5:25-34).

b He reveals His power over death by raising Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43).

a He reveals His powerful words and mighty works, while His own townsfolk reveal their unbelief and ask ‘Where did this man get all this?’ (Mark 6:1-6 a).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus reveals His mighty word of power, and the disciples reveal their unbelief and ask ‘Who is He?’, while in the parallel His own townsfolk wonder at His mighty words and, revealing their unbelief, ask ‘from whence has He these things?’ In ‘b’ Jesus reveals His power over supernatural spirits, and in the parallel He reveals His power over death. Centrally in ‘c’ He heals an unclean woman who represents the uncleanness of Israel.


Verse 35

SECTION 3. Jesus’ Ministry Throughout Galilee and In The Surrounding Regions (4:35-9:32).

After the initial opening up of the story of Jesus with its continual emphasis on His unique authority, Who He was and what He had come to do (Mark 4:1-3), and the series of parables which have indicated how the Kingly Rule of God was to expand (Mark 4:1-34), Mark now indicates how this expansion continued to occur through the ministry of Jesus in Galilee and the surrounding regions. At the same time he continues to expand on the glory and authority of Jesus Christ Himself as revealed in His activities. This last which lead up to the disciples’ recognition that He is the Messiah (Mark 8:29-30), in His subsequently being revealed in glory on a mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John (Mark 9:2-8), and in Jesus reinterpretation of His Messiahship in terms of the suffering Son of Man (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:9; Mark 9:12; Mark 9:30-32).

The emphasis on the suffering Son of Man will be the final emphasis of this section (Mark 9:30-32), and must therefore be seen as one of its primary aims. In view of the power and authority that He constantly revealed, it must have seemed totally contradictory. But Mark makes quite clear that it was so. In the midst of His powerful activity Jesus constantly made clear that He had come to die.

Meanwhile Mark totally ignores any ministry of Jesus in Judaea, together with His regular visits to Jerusalem for the feasts (as described by John). These would undoubtedly have taken place. No pious Galilean Jew would have failed over a period of time to make regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the different feasts. But Mark rather wants the concentration on His ministry to be seen as taking place in Galilee, with Jerusalem seen as the place which will reject and crucify Him. He is thus concerned to present a full picture of the glory of Christ, while facing his readers and hearers up to the fact that it will finally result in suffering and death, although always as leading on to His resurrection.

Analysis of 4:35-9:32.

Jesus leaves the regions around Capernaum (Mark 4:35).

a Sailing across the sea of Galilee alone with His disciples Jesus stills a mighty storm with His powerful word, while His disciples reveal their unbelief and ask, ‘Who is this?’ (Mark 4:35-41).

b He reveals His power over unclean spirits by healing a demoniac and commands the healed man to ‘go and tell’ (Mark 5:1-20).

c He reveals His power over uncleanness by healing a woman who is constantly losing life sustaining blood, thus making her ritually ‘unclean’, but above all over death by raising Jairus’ daughter. It is a manifestation of His glory to the three who have come apart with him to witness His glory and there are also two other witnesses to His glory (the child’s father and mother) (Mark 5:21-43).

d His own townsfolk do not know Who He is. He reveals His powerful words and mighty works so that His own townsfolk reveal their unbelief and ask ‘Where did this man get all this?’ (Mark 6:1-6 a).

e He sends out His disciples to teach and with authority over unclean spirits, and they reveal their faith and are successful (Mark 6:6-13).

f Herod executes John the Baptist, and offers his head on a dish, revealing the ways and the type of ‘food’ of the kingly rule of man on earth, while fearing his resurrection (Mark 6:14-29).

g The disciples return from their mission telling Him of the signs that they have accomplished and are called aside to be alone with Jesus. They are fulfilling the ministry that should have been the Pharisees had they but believed (Mark 6:30-32).

h Jesus feeds five thousand with five loaves and two fish, revealing the provision of heavenly food in the Kingly Rule of God on earth (Mark 6:33-44).

i Jesus walks to His disciples on the water, and they cry out in their unbelief and reveal their failure to hear and speak clearly because their hearts are hardened and they do not understand. They are spiritually deaf (Mark 6:45-52).

j The people gather to Him and He heals all who come to Him (Mark 6:53-56).

k Jesus challenges the Pharisees and Scribes with the fact that they pay more heed to tradition than to the word of God, and points out to the crowds that it is not outward things that defile a man but what is within the inner man (Mark 7:1-22).

j The Syro-phoenician woman comes to Him and He heals her stricken son (Mark 7:24-30).

i He heals the deaf and speech impaired man, a picture of the need of the disciples, and of Israel (Mark 7:31-37).

h He feeds the four thousand in Gentile territory and gives them bread from God’s table (Mark 8:1-10).

g The Pharisees reveal what is within them by seeking a sign, upsetting Jesus deeply and He declares that no sign will be given, which reveals why their ministry is barren so that they can have no part in His work (Mark 8:11-13).

f Jesus tells His disciples to beware of the leavened bread (the teaching) of the Pharisees and of Herod (or of the Herodians), and to hear and understand (Mark 8:14-21).

e The blind man’s eyes are gradually opened (Mark 8:22-26).

d The disciples do recognise Who Jesus is and learn that He must suffer. (They have learned from where He had ‘got all this’) (Mark 8:27 to Mark 9:1).

c Jesus is transfigured in such a way that His glory is revealed before the chosen three. The three come apart with Jesus and two other witnesses (Moses and Elijah) bear witness to His glory (Mark 9:2-13).

b The demon possessed boy is remarkably healed (Mark 9:14-29).

a The disciples are alone with Jesus and learn that spiritual storms lay ahead for Him and for themselves, receiving the fuller revelation of Who He is (Mark 9:30-32).

Jesus returns to Capernaum (Mark 9:33 a).

Note firstly how this whole section is sandwiched within visits to Capernaum, which had become a kind of headquarters for Jesus and His disciples. All therefore that takes place in this section radiates out from Capernaum. The section begins in ‘a’ with Jesus’ power revealed over nature in the stilling of the storm, while in the parallel Jesus tells His disciples of the ‘storm’ that yet awaits Him in the future to which He must submit. Nature He can control, but man must be allowed to perform his evil will to the utmost if mankind are to be saved. In ‘b’ He heals the demoniac, and in the parallel He heals the demon possessed boy. Both are extreme cases of possession. In ‘c’ He takes Peter, James and John apart and, in the presence of two witnesses (the girl’s father and mother), raises a young girl from the dead, revealing that He is the Lord of life, and in the parallel He takes Peter, James and John apart and is transfigured before them in the presence of two witnesses, Moses and Elijah, revealing that He is the Lord of glory. In both cases what has been seen is not to be spread abroad. In ‘d’ Jesus’ own townsfolk fail to recognise Him and ask ‘Where did this man get all this?’. while in the parallel His disciples do recognise Him and recognise where His power does come from, it is of God. In ‘e’ He sends out His disciples to teach and to have authority over unclean spirits, and they reveal their faith and their growing awareness, and are successful, and in the parallel we have the picture of the blind man whose eyes are gradually opened, a picture of what is happening to the disciples (it comes before the incident where the eyes of the disciples are known to have been opened when they confess His Messiahship). In ‘f’ Herod executes John the Baptist, and offers his head on a dish, revealing the ways and the type of ‘food’ offered under the kingly rule of man on earth, while in the parallel Jesus warns His disciples to beware of the leaven of Herod. In ‘g’ the disciples return from their mission telling Jesus of the signs that they have accomplished and are called aside to be alone with Jesus, while in the parallel the Pharisees are vainly looking for signs and He leaves them. In ‘h’ Jesus feeds five thousand Jewish believers with five loaves and two fish, revealing the provision of heavenly food in the Kingly Rule of God on earth, and in the parallel He feeds four thousand Jewish and Gentile believers with seven loaves and some fish, revealing the same. In ‘i’ Jesus walks to His disciples on the water, and in their unbelief they cry out and reveal their failure to hear and speak clearly, a result of the fact that their hearts are hardened so that they do not understand. They are spiritually deaf. And in the parallel a man who is deaf and stammering in his speech is healed. In ‘j’ the people gather to Him and He heals all who come to Him, and in the parallel the Syro-phoenician, typical of the Gentiles, comes to Him and He heals her daughter. Centrally in ‘k’ Jesus challenges the Pharisees and Scribes with the fact that they pay more heed to tradition than to the word of God, and points out to the crowds that it is not outward things that defile a man. It is what is within the inner man.

This larger section is divided up into smaller subsections of which the first is Mark 4:35 to Mark 6:6 a.


Verse 35

‘And on that day when evening was come he says to them, “Let us go over to the other side.” ’

‘And on that day when evening was come.’ This connects back with Mark 4:1 giving the impression that we are dealing with one day in the life of Jesus. And in a sense we are. But we have already noticed that it is his method to deliberately bring together incidents of a similar kind, or which go together, to present a full picture. (Mark 1:1-45; Mark 2:1 to Mark 3:6; Mark 3:7-35 and so on). And it is quite clear that Mark does not see Him as having been sitting in the boat while all that is described in chapter 4 has been happening. For example Mark 4:10 indicates a period when He was alone with His followers. The introductions in Mark 4:21; Mark 4:26; Mark 4:30 also suggest stories told at different times deliberately introduced here (Mark clearly does not present it as a continuous sermon in contrast with Matthew 5-7), and Mark 4:33-34 summarise a practise over a period. So the connection between the sayings are loose ones. It seems therefore that he brings into the incident described in Mark 4:1-9, taken with Mark 4:35-36, other matters which can be connected with the events of that day in order to give them a readable context. (He is not writing a chronological biography but a Gospel biography).

‘When evening was come.’ Night was falling which would make what follows even more dramatic.

‘Let us go over to the other side.’ It is probable that this was because He was exhausted and needed to escape from the crowds to an area where nothing was expected of Him. He in fact did no preaching on the other side which was the area of the Ten Towns (Decapolis), although that may have been because of what happened. This was a mainly Gentile area which ruled itself under Rome, although there were many Jews living there.


Verses 35-41

Jesus Tames The Roaring Waves (4:35-41).

One supreme importance of incidents like this one was that in them the disciples themselves directly benefited from Jesus unique power. It was one thing to see others delivered, it was quite another when it happened to them. They had become somewhat anaesthetised against the miracles that happened to others, but in this instance their awareness what at its height. It made their eventual recognition of His Messiahship more personal. He was their deliverer too.

The account of this incident gives vivid indications of the recollections of an eyewitness - they take Him ‘even as He was’; ‘other boats were with Him’; ‘insomuch that the boat was now filling’; ‘asleep on the cushion’; and ‘do you not care?’ (the last words not likely to be invented by later Christians). And while Mark’s aim is to bring out Jesus’ power over the sea he is faithful to his source. He does not over-exaggerate. Yet he does want his readers to recognise that Jesus is the One Who ‘rules the power of the sea. When its waves rise you still them’ (Psalms 89:9), words previously spoken of God Himself. In other words that He has divine power and authority, even over nature itself.

Analysis.

a And on that day, when evening was come, He says to them, “Let us go over to the other side” (Mark 4:35).

b And leaving the crowd they take Him with them, even as He was, in the boat. And other boats were with Him, and there arises a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling (Mark 4:36-37).

c And He Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion, and they awake Him, and say to Him, “Master, do you not care that we perish?” (Mark 4:38).

d And He awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still.” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm (Mark 4:39).

c And He said to them, “Why are you fearful? Do you not yet have faith?”

b And they were greatly afraid, and said one to another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:40).

a And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes (Mark 4:41).

Note that in ‘a’ they set off for the other side, and in the parallel they arrive at the other side. In ‘b’ they are subjected to the fury of the wind and the sea, and in the parallel they wonder at the fact that the wind and the sea obey Him. In ‘c’ the disciples are fearful, while Jesus, full of faith, slepps in the stern and in the parallel He asks them why they are fearful and do not have faith. Centrally in ‘d’ He reveals His authority an power over nature in its fury.


Verse 36

‘And leaving the great crowd they take him with them, even as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him.’

The simple detail emphasises that we have here the words of an eyewitness. It would seem that the crowds were so great and pressed so close to the shore line to hear His words that landing would be difficult and uncomfortable, and Jesus was exhausted. So the disciples immediately set off across the lake without landing, taking Him ‘just as He was’ after the long day, enabling Him for His part to be able to sleep. (This takes up from Mark 4:1 when He entered the boat, the material included meanwhile (e.g. Mark 4:10) being ignored).

The fact that ‘other boats were with Him’ stresses the eagerness of His closest followers to stay near Him. His boat could only take so many and thus those of His followers who had not been invited into the boat because of shortage of space, had boarded other boats so as to be able to listen and follow Him wherever He went. It was thus quite an armada that set off across the lake. They too would be caught in the storm. That is possibly another reason why He stills it.


Verse 37-38

‘And there arises a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat insomuch that the boat was now filling. And He Himself was on the cushion in the stern, sleeping.’

The sudden arousal of strong winds to lash the lake up into a fury without warning was a common feature of the Lake of Galilee, surrounded as it was by mountains, and defiles through which the winds could be caught and compressed and then let loose on the lake. Whoever is describing this knew the lake well. But this was a storm of unusual ferocity even for this lake, for it terrified even these experienced sailors, and they were too familiar with the lake to be frightened by any normal storm.

The wind lashed around them in the darkness, the huge waves pounded into the small boat, and the more they tried to bale it out the more they saw that the boat was filling with water. They realised that the end was near. They knew that their boat could not last long and must soon go under. If this went on nothing could save it. They had seen exactly the same thing happen before to other boats (and the other boats of disciples were no doubt in a similar state). If this was a similar type of fishing boat to that discovered and housed at Ginosar in 1968 it would be roughly eight metres by two and a half metres (twenty five foot by eight foot) and have low sides, making it vulnerable to high waves.

This may well be seen as an attempt by Satan to end Jesus’ mission when it had only just begun, hoping to destroy the whole band at one go. Compare Job 1:19. The same agent was probably seen as at work. But it is not portrayed as the work of demons.

‘And He Himself was on the cushion in the stern, sleeping.’ What a sublime picture is presented here. He was totally unconcerned. Not because He did not care but because He knew that they were safe in the Father’s hands. In a boat such as this there would be a special seat at the stern which was the place of honour for any distinguished person aboard, where there would be a cushion and possibly a carpet. This was the place occupied by the exhausted Jesus.


Verse 38

‘And they awake Him and say to Him, “Master, do you not care that we are about to die?”

The wind was howling, and the huge waves were continuing endlessly to batter and overwhelm the boat, and the boat was flooded, and, clinging on to whatever they could hold on to, the drenched and frightened disciples gave up their efforts and waded their way through the swirling water in the boat, fighting their way through the wind and spray past the grim helmsman struggling to control the helm, and finally reaching the stern where they desperately shook Jesus to wake Him. They had tried all they knew but it was useless. They knew that any second now they would go under. And so, at the end of their tether, they had come to the One on Whom their lives had up until now depended. And He was their last resort, for the fact that they went to Him at all suggests that they did feel that He might be able to do something. (Why else should experienced sailors wake a novice?). But they seemingly could not understand why Jesus seemed so unconcerned.

‘Master, do you not care that we are about to die?’ There is possibly a rebuke in the words, although their aim might simply have been to shock Him into doing something. This was their last resort. The words bear the mark of the fear of brave men who have done all they could against the relentless wind and sea and are facing a certain end. Surely the Master (didaskalos - the authoritative master teacher) should know the situation, even if He was asleep? He instinctively knew so much. So why did He sleep on? Why did He not do something? It seemed that He did not mind whether they all died or not. Andtheydid mind! Everything they now had to live for was in that boat. For we must recognise that their ‘we’ included Jesus. They were not just thinking of themselves. With them was perishing the hope of Israel. When the storms of life arise how easy it is for us to assume that God does not care and is not in control.


Verse 39

‘And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still.” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.’

The picture is one of total control. Here was One Who could control Himself and could control the elements. He had no fear of the wind or the sea, batter as they would, for He knew that they would obey His will. This is not just a miracle, this is a portrayal of the One Who is Lord of all. Of One Who rules the power of the sea (Psalms 89:9). And we may surmise that Mark deliberately used ‘sea’ rather than ‘lake’ to make this connection.

‘He rebuked the wind and said to the sea.’ Compare Psalms 106:9, ‘He rebuked the Red Sea also and it was dried up’; Isaiah 50:2, ‘Behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea’; Nahum 1:4, ‘The Lord has His way in the whirlwind and the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry ---.’ Here in each case is the voice of the Creator speaking to His creation as in Genesis 1, rebuking it and bringing about His will. In none of these cases is there the suggestion of a demonic element. Even inanimate nature responded to His voice (compare Genesis 1:6-7). Now here in this boat is the Son of God, and the same thing occurs. The sea obeys His word.

On the whole, however, while we cannot justifiably introduce a demonic element, the story may certainly be seen as reflecting the defeat of another attempt by Satan to destroy his enemy.

‘Peace, be still (‘calm down and be quiet’).’ The verb rendered ‘be still’ meant literally ‘be muzzled’ and had been extended to mean ‘be silent’. He is telling the elements to come under control. To stop what they are doing. To cease their clamour and disturbance and be at peace. They have made their effort and now it is time to finish. To those who try to suggest that He saw Himself as talking to animate spirits we can only ask, what other verbs could Jesus have used to a raging sea when He wanted His disciples to know what He was doing?

‘Peace.’ He brought peace amid tumult. And He knew that this was what the world was also seeking both individually and as a whole. And if it would but listen to His voice it would be theirs.

‘And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.’ As Jesus spoke the wind ceased and the sea settled instantly. The creation obeyed His will. And the calm was so noticeable that it was seen as worthy of comment. One can almost hear Peter saying to his listeners afterwards with awe ‘and there was a great calm’. These were men who knew the Sea of Galilee and its ways, its essential placidity and the sudden storms that could develop, and their equally sudden cessation. But they had seen nothing like this. There can be no question that the disciples, some of them experienced sailors who, as we say, knew the Sea of Galilee well, saw this as a remarkable miracle (Mark 4:41).


Verse 40

‘And he said to them, “Why are you fearful? Do you not have faith?” ’

There was a gentle counter-rebuke in His words. He had a right to expect them not to be afraid. They knew to some extent Who He was and they should have realised that His ways were in the hands of God and that He had chosen them to work for Him and with Him. How then could they all perish? Did they not have faith in God and His promise that the Kingly Rule of God was here in Him? Did they not realise that He was immortal until His task was done?


Verse 41

‘And they were filled with great awe and said one to another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” ’

But this topped all they had ever seen. They had seen His miracles of healing on all who came to Him. They had seen His power over evil spirits. But to control the wind and the sea, both recognised as uncontrollable, before which men had to always to bend while doing their best to fight against them, this filled them with awe (Although it was not in fact a greater miracle, only more spectacular).

We should note that in a sense their whole experience had been recorded long before in the vivid description of men in a storm in Psalms 107:23-30, except that here it had been heightened. We cannot doubt that the fishermen among them had often meditated on this Psalm which so expressed something which was probably to them a fairly regular experience, and gave the welcome impression of God’s care for fishermen and other seamen;

‘Those who go down to the sea in ships,

Who do business in great waters,

These see the works of the LORD,

And His wonders in the deep.

For He commands, and raises the stormy wind,

Which lifts up the waves thereof.

They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths,

Their soul melts away because of trouble.

They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,

And are at their wits’ end.

Then they cry to the LORD in their trouble,

And He brings them out of their distresses.

He makes the storm a calm,

So that the waves thereof are still.

Then are they glad because they are quiet,

So He brings them to the haven where they would be.’

The point, however, here was that this storm went beyond anything that that has in mind. They had no doubt already cried to God, but things had got so bad that it left them nowhere to go but Jesus as their last hope.

It is probable that we are to see that Jesus acted in time to save, not only those in His own boat, but His followers in the other boats as well. For this would be included in Jesus’ word of faith.

In concluding the passage we should consider the fact that it is extremely unlikely that Mark failed to recognise the overwhelming message of the passage, that with Christ present all is right with His people, however extreme the storms. He is Lord of Wind and Wave and Storm, whether physical or spiritual. But the thought that would also have been carried away by them all was undoubtedly that Jesus was Lord of Creation, just as He was Lord of the Sabbath.

It should be noted that in the section chiasmus this parallels Jesus’ words concerning His suffering as the Son of Man, which will finally result in resurrection. That describes another Satanic storm through which He will have to go, from His point of view far worse than this one, and from which also He will emerge triumphant (Mark 9:30-32).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Mark 4:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/mark-4.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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