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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible
Mark 4

 

 

Introduction

Mark 4:1-34. Teaching by Parables.—This section illustrates the method of teaching which the evangelist regards as characteristic of this period of the ministry. In it he combines some general observations about the use of parables, with what was originally a brief account of teaching delivered on one day. A comparison of Mark 4:1 and Mark 4:35 represents Jesus as entering a boat in which He stays all day and in which He crosses at night to the other side. Yet in Mark 4:10 He is supposed to effect an escape from the people, whom He is again addressing in Mark 4:26, as if no interruption had occurred. The original narrative must then have consisted of a group of parables. Into this have been inserted some general comments and an interpretation of the parable of the Sower. Mk. regards the parables as obscure enigmas designed to hide the truth from the common people (see especially Mark 4:10-12, Mark 4:34). But the original purpose can only have been to make the message of Jesus clearer. Each parable illustrates some aspect of the kingdom. Though doubtless Wellhausen is right in warning us against excluding allegory too rigidly, and against supposing that parables must all be interpreted in the same way, yet as a rule the point of comparison is to be sought in the whole situation or action described in the parable. The story of the Sower may have been originally intended to illustrate the differing receptions given to the appeal of Jesus, and its main purpose was probably to impress a sense of responsibility on His hearers (Mark 4:9). The general discussion of parabolic teaching (Mark 4:10-12) form an awkward interruption of the address to the crowd, and is also difficult in itself. Can Jesus have made use of parables in order that men might not be converted and forgiven? Such a view conflicts with the nature of the parables themselves and with express statements in Mark 4:21 f. and Mark 4:33. Consequently it is suggested, e.g. by Loisy, that this is later reflection due to the fact that apostolic Christians no longer understood the parables, and concluded from this that they must have been still more obscure to the Jews, whose unbelief must be attributed to the counsel of God (see Romans 9 f. and especially Mark 11:8-10). But though the saying attributed to Jesus in Mark 4:11 f. cannot give the explanation of His use of parables, it may stiff rest on a genuine utterance misapplied by the evangelist, e.g. "I speak to them in parables because their heart is fat" (so Merx). In view of Matthew 11:20-27; Matthew 12:38 ff. we know that Jesus reflected on His failure to convert His people, and He may have felt that His mission to Israel was strangely similar to that of Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:9 ff.)


Verses 1-20

Mark 4:1-34. Teaching by Parables.—This section illustrates the method of teaching which the evangelist regards as characteristic of this period of the ministry. In it he combines some general observations about the use of parables, with what was originally a brief account of teaching delivered on one day. A comparison of Mark 4:1 and Mark 4:35 represents Jesus as entering a boat in which He stays all day and in which He crosses at night to the other side. Yet in Mark 4:10 He is supposed to effect an escape from the people, whom He is again addressing in Mark 4:26, as if no interruption had occurred. The original narrative must then have consisted of a group of parables. Into this have been inserted some general comments and an interpretation of the parable of the Sower. Mk. regards the parables as obscure enigmas designed to hide the truth from the common people (see especially Mark 4:10-12, Mark 4:34). But the original purpose can only have been to make the message of Jesus clearer. Each parable illustrates some aspect of the kingdom. Though doubtless Wellhausen is right in warning us against excluding allegory too rigidly, and against supposing that parables must all be interpreted in the same way, yet as a rule the point of comparison is to be sought in the whole situation or action described in the parable. The story of the Sower may have been originally intended to illustrate the differing receptions given to the appeal of Jesus, and its main purpose was probably to impress a sense of responsibility on His hearers (Mark 4:9). The general discussion of parabolic teaching (Mark 4:10-12) forme an awkward interruption of the address to the crowd, and is also difficult in itself. Can Jesus have made use of parables in order that men might not be converted and forgiven? Such a view conflicts with the nature of the parables themselves and with express statements in Mark 4:21 f. and Mark 4:33. Consequently it is suggested, e.g. by Loisy, that this is later reflection due to the fact that apostolic Christians no longer understood the parables, and concluded from this that they must have been still more obscure to the Jews, whose unbelief must be attributed to the counsel of God (see Romans 9 f. and especially Mark 11:8-10). But though the saying attributed to Jesus in Mark 4:11 f. cannot give the explanation of His use of parables, it may stiff rest on a genuine utterance misapplied by the evangelist, e.g. "I speak to them in parables because their heart is fat" (so Merx). In view of Matthew 11:20-27; Matthew 12:38 ff. we know that Jesus reflected on His failure to convert His people, and He may have felt that His mission to Israel was strangely similar to that of Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:9 ff.)

Mark 4:13-20. The interpretation of the Sower is introduced by a question which implies the astonishment of Jesus at the disciples' failure to understand the parable. Mk. records a number of rebukes to the disciples for want of faith or of understanding, e.g. Mark 4:40, Mark 7:18, Mark 8:17. The gospel dwells on the obtuseness of the Twelve. Is this an attempt to give effect to a dogmatic assumption that Jesus called exceptionally wicked and foolish men to follow Him? (so Wrede), or is it partisanship anxious to depreciate the Twelve in order to elevate Paul? (so Loisy, p. 133). That some of the contexts of these passages are of doubtful historicity favours some such hypothesis; but the earliest tradition, if genuinely apostolic, would dwell on the failings of the first disciples. These passages are best understood as reflecting and sometimes extending what must have been a prominent feature of the apostles' account of their fellowship with their Lord. He constantly surprised them. The interpretation that follows has been attributed to the later apostolic Church rather than to the Master, on the grounds that it allegorises and so misses the main point of the parable, and further that some phrases refer not to the historical circumstances of the work of Jesus but to general features of the later Christian mission. The first argument is inconclusive, and while the influence of later conditions may be traced in the vague and general character of the interpretation, it may still rest on genuine reflections of Jesus as to the causes which led men to reject His message. We know that fear of persecution and love of wealth were among the chief obstacles to discipleship which He recognised on other occasions.


Verses 21-25

Mark 4:21-25 seems still to be addressed to the disciples. Mk. has collected some isolated sayings, and inserted them here, for the purpose of denying that the Christian mystery mentioned in Mark 4:11 was an esoteric doctrine. Secrets are given to the disciples in trust for the world, and a man's advance in the knowledge of the kingdom is in proportion to his loyalty to what has previously been entrusted to him. Somewhat similarly, after the cursing of the fig-tree, Mk. adds a saying about forgiveness (Mark 11:25), to hint that only a forgiving spirit may expect miracles. (Loisy thinks Mk. tore these sayings from their context in a document like Q. It is more probable that they came to him as fragments of floating tradition which he pieced together as best he could. See a careful study by H. A. A. Kennedy in ET, xxv. 301f.)


Verses 26-32

Mark 4:26-32. The teaching in parables to the multitude is now resumed, and two further examples are given, those of "the seed growing secretly" and "the mustard seed." The first is peculiar to Mk. Loisy interprets it thus: "The kingdom of God is also a sowing whose inevitable growth is independent of men's will and even of the will of the sower. Like the labourer, Jesus sows the kingdom by preaching the gospel: it is not His work to bring the harvest, i.e. the complete coming of the kingdom, and one must not grow impatient if its coming does not follow at once: that is God's business. . . . It is none the less certain that the harvest will come without delay." This is the right line of interpretation; the emphasis falls, not on the gradual character of growth, but on its independence of human willing and desiring when once man has done his part. In the mustard-seed, attention is directed to the immense difference between the beginnings of the kingdom and its consummation. We should note that all these parables imply that the kingdom is already present in germ through the activity of Jesus Himself. They are also characteristic of the simplicity and naturalness of the illustrations used by Jesus.


Verse 33

Mark 4:33 f. These verses seem to apply to the general practice of Jesus at this period rather than to the events of one day. Mark 4:33 gives the true purpose of parabolic teaching; Mark 4:34 embodies the evangelist's later theory, which leads him to regard such a saying as Mark 7:15 as a parable.


Verse 35

Mark 4:35 to Mark 5:43. Four Wonder-Stories.—The stilling of the tempest, the healing of the demoniac and of the woman, and the raising of Jairus' daughter form one of the most graphic sections of Mk.'s narrative. These stories have clearly been often told, and the evangelist delights to tell them. They seem to rest on unmistakable history. Thus the reference to the other little boats (Mark 4:36) reproduces an insignificant detail that naturally remained in the memory of an eye-witness (cf. Wellhausen). Other details, such as "asleep on the cushion" (Mark 4:38), or the command to give the little girl something to eat (Mark 5:43), while not beyond the writer's power of invention, are still so artless as to point back to genuine tradition. The early character of Mk.'s version is apparent from the changes adopted in Mt. and Lk. The suggestion of complaint in the disciples' question, "carest thou not that we perish?" is toned down in Mt. and Lk., while the disciples' fear (Mark 4:41) is turned into wonder in the parallels. Similarly, Mk.'s story of the raising of Jairus's daughter is incomparably more dramatic and more convincing in its claim to be primitive and historic than Mt.'s. In atmosphere and style these stories are undeniably popular. The apparent personification of wind and sea, the description of the demoniac, his association with tombs (demons are recruited from the spirits of the dead), the request of the demon that Jesus should not torture him, which is paralleled in a similar appeal of a vampire to Apollonius of Tyana (see Philostratus, iv. 25), the demand of Jesus to know the demon's name (a piece of information necessary for successful exorcism, in the popular view, cf. Genesis 32:29*), the evasive answer of the demons, and their supposed transference into the herd of swine—all these are elements of beliefs about demons widely held among the common people. How far Jesus shared these beliefs, it is difficult to say. But He did not deny them, and in so far as He adopted them, His attitude cannot safely be explained as due to conscious accommodation on His part. It should be noted that these beliefs determine the way in which such a story as the healing of the demoniac is told. If a sudden movement of the lunatic in the course of healing frightened the pigs, onlookers with such beliefs (and the man himself) would conclude that the demons had taken up a fresh residence and would describe the event accordingly. The Huxley-Gladstone controversy as to our Lord's destruction of property would not have been raised on a more critical appreciation of the material offered for discussion (see Gould). Again, the account of the woman (for legends, see Swete) who had suffered much of many physicians and had only grown worse (details omitted by Mt. and softened in Lk.), and the description of her healing by the transference of some mysterious power through physical contact, belong to the circle of ideas current among peasants and humble folk. Perhaps the retention of the original Aramaic words in Mark 5:41 is also in keeping with popular custom. Some of Mk.'s phrases, which Lk. avoids, point the same way. Thus, of the expression in Mark 5:23, eschatôs echei, "at the point of death," the grammarian Phrynichus says only the canaille use it. These stories come from men who were neither wise nor noble. They are a tribute to Jesus from lowly minds. Their dramatic power and popular appeal do but emphasize their central interest—the impression they convey of the spirit of Jesus. Particularly in the first and third stories, everything turns on faith. The confidence of Jesus is contrasted with the fearfulness of the disciples. The disciples' want of faith is rebuked, the synagogue-ruler's sorely-tried faith is encouraged, the woman's exercise of faith is rewarded and publicly praised. The memorable acts and utterances of Jesus which make these stories unique, are all concerned with the maintenance of simple trust in God—a trust that triumphs over natural dangers, demonic powers, disease, and even death.

Mark 4:35 f. The connexion which Mk. makes in these verses with the story of the day's preaching is disregarded by Mt. and Lk., perhaps rightly.

 


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Bibliography Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Mark 4:4". "Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pfc/mark-4.html. 1919.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, June 25th, 2019
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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