Surely the grand theme of the Bible is the glory of God through the advancement and establishment of His kingdom. This undergirds every book in your Bible, with many implications, aspects, nuances, arguments, exultations, exhortations, commands, and responsibilities tied to it. Of great importance is the progress and development of this doctrine once our Lord became incarnate at His First Advent. For in His teaching—both from His own mouth as well as what He moved upon His apostles to leave in their letters to the churches—He makes very clear that the glorious eschatological kingdom promised in the Old Testament has become an inaugurated, partial, but actual reality in and through Him. God’s people are to go throughout the world proclaiming the rule of that kingdom and its King to all (how little does the kingdom feature in our preaching and teaching!) and the epistles give the inspired interpretation, implications, and application to the whole of our lives in discipleship.
As His men and women proclaim the King and His kingdom to the world (for He is soon going to return and fulfill all His promises, and judge all men and women who have ever lived), they will face many different responses. These responses will be exacerbated by the differing depravity of different cultures, the level of exposure to and rejection of the gospel, the kinds and duration of sin committed, but fundamentally all of them are responses of the heart. Our Lord assures His people that in the face of this sometimes harsh and intractable opposition, they are not to question or change the message, nor doubt its ultimate Messenger. Rather, they are to be all the more faithful in proclaiming “the word of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:19) to the whole world, knowing that God can take the hardest of hearts and turn it into soft, rich soil where the seed may go and bear much fruit.
A. The Setting (v. 1)
Note that the text tells us Jesus is teaching “again.” As Messiah, He is anointed to be Prophet, Priest, and King, and He is authoritatively and passionately proclaiming the truth of God to people out of deep conviction and love for them. Surely this was the great concern and burden of His life—to get the fullness of the truth to as many as would hear it.
Should this not mark our proclamation—whether in formal preaching on Sunday, teaching a Sunday School class, discipling a new believer, or evangelizing the lost? Ought we not have a greater vision of the glory of God in His plan for the world and in the truth He has revealed about Himself? Ought this not captivate us as we connect everything in our lives and every person we know or will ever see to its grand realities? I believe no human did this better than the Lord Jesus. Granted, His sinlessness and deity gave Him a clarity and consistency we do not have, but we are still called to emulate Him by His Spirit—and He will empower us if we would but seek Him.
The crowds are here, as they always are in Mark, and today there are so many that many commentators believe this is the largest group to which the Lord preached at one time. He must push out to shore in a large fishing boat as a floating pulpit. He is on a corner of the Sea of Galilee, and it seems that the large group was spread around the beach upon the grassy elevation, behind which were rocky hills—not unlike a natural amphitheater. His voice would have carried well to the farthest points of the crowd, and He is sharing the gospel and the truth of God with them.
B. The Story (vv. 2-8)
As He is teaching, the text says He was telling them many things in parables (v. 2). “Parable” comes from a Greek word that means “to cast alongside.” The idea is to place a story next to some truth or concept you wish to teach to explain it. (Of course, our Lord used parables for more than just explaining, as the text will make clear later.) However, most of the people listening will only get the story, nothing more—they will not have insight into its truths or its application to them. Only the disciples, by which we are to understand the whole group of the Lord’s followers along with the twelve, will get the meaning explained to them by the Lord. This is because God gives His truth to humble, open hearts.
The story goes like this: A sower goes out to sow seed; he leaves his little village and begins to widely cast seed across the fields from a leather shoulder bag. Though all of this will be explained later, it’s not exactly hard to see what the Lord is talking about: He is the sower, and the seed is the gospel. And He—and we, in His stead once His earthly work was completed—is quite liberal and generous with the seed, casting it far and wide. One might wonder how this fits with His explicit instructions to only proclaim the gospel to Israel in the earlier part of His ministry (e.g., Matthew 10:6, 15:24). First, this was never the end game of the Lord’s ministry, but His responsibility to them as Jewish Messiah and because it was through Israel that the rest of the world would hear (why do you think the earliest believers were all Jews?). Second, Jesus liberally proclaimed the gospel to everyone within Israel; He willingly warned even the recalcitrant Jewish leadership on multiple occasions.
We are to do the same, only now we are to go to all the nations. As we do, we are to be indiscriminate in our sharing of the gospel with all people. We are not to judge hearts, thinking that someone is too hard to reach, but we are to lovingly proclaim to the world and leave the results to God.
Jesus gives us an overview of the different kinds of people we will encounter as we share the gospel, under the imagery of soils.
Hardened Soil (v. 4)
This soil has been packed down under foot by travelers. The seed cannot penetrate the ground, so it just rests on the top and is quickly eaten by birds.
Shallow Soil (vv. 5-6)
There are rocky ledges of limestone just beneath the surface of this dirt, so the seed has no depth in which to put down roots. Since there is some soil, there is immediate, lush growth, but no rooted depth, so there are no nutrients and no ability to take in water. The roots are exposed quickly and the sun scorches the plant, killing it.
Thorny Soil (v. 7)
A complex, knotty root structure of thorns and weeds resides in this soil, and as the seed is planted and attempts to put down roots, it encounters the already-existing network of plants. Of course, the nature of thorns and weeds is that unless they are removed, they siphon life from the new, good plants, aborting any fruit.
Good Soil (v. 8)
This soil, however, is different from all the others. When the same seed from the same sower falls on this soil, it produces a sustained, habitual, progressive growth over time (“grew up and increased”) and bears different degrees of fruit. There is life here and it stays, and grows, and provides both beauty and nourishment.
This agricultural people would have been able to quickly relate to this imagery. But would we get the point? It is to that we now turn.
C. The Secret (vv. 10-12)
As soon as the crowds are gone, the disciples and the twelve ask the Lord what He means by His parables. He prefaces His explanation by saying that to them, and them alone, has been given—by the free and sovereign grace of God—the mystery of the kingdom of God. Here we touch upon a glorious concept in the Scripture that undergirds much of your New Testament. Biblically, a “mystery” is truth that cannot be understood or known apart from the revelation of God. Sometimes, it refers to completely new truth (although this can be extended in ways that are unbiblical and divorce the New Testament church from the glorious promises and hope it has rooted in the Old Testament, of which it is an initial fulfillment), and more often it refers to new truth or clarity about something promised in the Old Testament that is now coming to fruition. In either case, the emphasis is on the truth’s unknowability apart from the revelation and grace of God Himself.
The “mystery” of the kingdom is not so much the revelation about the way different hearts will respond to its message (though that is included). It is rather the whole plan of God centered upon the advancement and establishment of His kingdom (especially that the one kingdom would come in a real and initial, partial way prior to its glorious establishment in the millennial empire). Christian, do you realize you have divine insight into the plan of God that no one else has? And because the insight is about the kingdom of God, which has implications for all of life, that you have the true, divine perspective on every part of life? That life, death, marriage, money, hope, fear, sexuality, music, art, bioethics, culture, entertainment, the sciences, the culinary arts, and all the rest have a divine glory to them and are to be subsumed under and shot through with the grand realities of where the whole inhabited earth will one day end up? O Christian! You have access to the mind and heart of God! And that includes commentary from the Sower Himself about why different souls He created will respond in different ways to the message of this comprehensive, heavenly-earthly glory.
How can we proclaim the message with freedom and authority to men if we fear it is defective, or tells us of a weak, passive Messiah? How can we have confidence to persevere if we do not understand why some respond while others reject (and why the rejection takes such different forms)? Our Lord is kind to assure His messengers, as they embark on the mission of proclaiming His kingdom and its foundational gospel message, that the only problem is what the problem has always been—fallen hearts that do not want the Lord to reign over them.
But there will be some, and one day the whole world will be filled with, those whom the Lord in His grace has prepared to receive the message of the kingdom, and who by His enablement alone will bear abundant fruit.