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B. The increasing rejection of Jesus and its result 3:20-4:34
As Jesus’ ministry expanded, so did rejection of Him as God’s anointed servant. Mark documented the increasing rejection that Jesus experienced (Mark 3:20-35) and then explained that Jesus taught the multitudes in parables as a result (Mark 4:1-34).
The setting 4:1-2 (cf. Matthew 13:1-3a; Luke 8:4)
Jesus may have taught these parables shortly after the incident Mark just finished recording (Mark 3:20-35; cf. Matthew 13:1). If so, this was a very busy day in Jesus’ ministry. It may have included all the events in Mark 3:19 to Mark 4:41 (cf. Mat_12:22 to Mat_13:53; Luke 8:4-25). "Again" looks back to Mark 3:7 and perhaps to Mark 2:13. The boat (Gr. ploion) in which Jesus sat was a vessel larger than a rowboat (cf. Mark 3:7), perhaps a fishing boat.
Matthew recorded Jesus giving two groups of parables on this occasion: four to the multitudes (Matthew 13:3-35), and four to the disciples (Matthew 13:36-52). Mark recorded only Jesus’ parables to the multitudes. Both evangelists recorded Jesus’ explanations to His disciples, though what they recorded Him saying is not identical.
2. Jesus’ teaching in parables 4:1-34
This is the first of three extended teaching sessions that Mark recorded (cf. Mark 7:1-23; Mark 13:3-37). Jesus’ three parables in this section describe the character of the messianic kingdom.
Parables are illustrations that teach truth by comparisons (Gr. parabole, lit. "something thrown alongside," similitudes). Some are long stories, but others are short similes, metaphors, analogies, or proverbial sayings (cf. Mark 2:19-22; Mark 3:24-25; Mark 3:27). The popular definition that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning is essentially accurate as far as it goes. The use of parables for teaching was a common rabbinic device that Jesus adopted and used with great skill.
"A parable begins innocently as a picture that arrests our attention and arouses our interest. But as we study the picture, it becomes a mirror in which we suddenly see ourselves. If we continue to look by faith, the mirror becomes a window through which we see God and His truth. How we respond to that truth will determine what further truth God will teach us." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:121.]
The parable of the soils 4:3-9 (cf. Matthew 13:3b-9; Luke 8:5-8)
Jesus introduced and concluded this parable with instructions that His hearers should give it careful consideration (Mark 4:3; Mark 4:9, cf. Mark 4:23). Mark’s account of this parable is almost identical to Matthew’s. It is the only parable that Jesus spoke this day that all three synoptic evangelists recorded. Probably Jesus taught this parable many times during His ministry as an itinerant preacher, and the disciples were familiar with it. It is also a key parable because it introduced elements that recur in the other parables Jesus taught that day, such as the seed.
Rhoads and Michie suggested that "the interpretation of the seed falling on ’rocky’ ground suggests an opposite and ironic meaning of that name [i.e., Peter, "Rock"], unmistakably depicting Peter and the other disciples." [Note: Rhoads and Michie, p. 128.]
Mark alone noted that those who asked Jesus to explain the parables included the Twelve plus other disciples (Mark 4:10). Evidently their question concerned why Jesus was using parables to teach as well as what they meant. He could have been clearer.
The purpose of the parables 4:10-12 (cf. Matthew 13:10-17; Luke 8:9-10)
Jesus’ explanations to His disciples 4:10-29
This section of Mark’s account records Jesus’ words to His disciples that the multitudes did not hear.
Jesus drew a distinction between those who accepted His teaching, such as the Twelve, and those who rejected it, such as the scribes and Pharisees. Those "outside" were those outside the circle of discipleship. God was giving those who welcomed Jesus’ teaching new revelation about the coming messianic kingdom. He was withholding that revelation from those who rejected Him. The parables were the vehicle of that revelation. The Holy Spirit enabled the receptive to understand this enigmatic revelation, but He made it incomprehensible to the unbelieving. The parabolic method acted as a filter to separate those two types of people. The religious teachers of Jesus’ day used parables extensively, so Jesus’ hearers were familiar with them. By the rabbis used them only to illustrate and clarify, not to conceal. [Note: Edersheim, 1:580-81.]
". . . the three seed parables illustrate various aspects of the Kingdom of God by depicting God’s sovereign rule at work in the present but in a way unexpected in Judaism (cf. Jeremias, Parables, 146-53)." [Note: Guelich, p. 206.]
God was doing through Jesus what He had done through Isaiah centuries earlier. Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 drew this comparison. One writer believed Jesus meant that most of the Jews were still in exile spiritually. [Note: Douglas S. McComiskey, "Exile and the Purpose of Jesus’ Parables (Mark 4:10-12; Matthew 13:10-17; Luke 8:9-10)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:1 (March 2008):59-85.] We might add that this is always the double effect of revelation (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). God uses it to enlighten the receptive, but He also uses it to befuddle the unreceptive. Their inability to comprehend is a divine judgment for their unbelief (cf. Romans 11:25-32). Further enlightenment requires positive reception of present revelation. This knowledge is very helpful for Jesus’ disciples. It would have been an encouragement to Mark’s original readers as they shared the gospel with others and noted the two responses, as it is to modern readers.
"The judgment is a merciful one. The parable which the cold-hearted multitudes hear without understanding they remember, because of its penetrating and impressive form; and when their hearts become able to receive its meaning, the meaning will become clear to them. Meanwhile they are saved from the guilt of rejecting plain truth." [Note: Alfred Plummer, "The Gospel According to St. Mark," in The Cambridge Greek Testament, p. 124.]
Jesus believed that the disciples should have understood the parable of the soils. It is, after all, one of the easier ones to understand.
"The blindness of men is so universal that even the disciples are not exempt from it." [Note: Cranfield, p. 97.]
The explanation of the parable of the soils 4:13-20 (cf. Matthew 13:18-23; Luke 8:11-15)
Jesus did not give His disciples several hermeneutical principles by which they could understand the parables. He gave them a sample interpretation as a pattern that they could apply in understanding other parables.
The seed represents the word or message of God that the sower proclaims. People make a negative or a positive response when they hear this message. They may make a negative response for any one of three reasons. Regardless of the reason, a negative response proves unproductive in their lives. A positive response, however, will produce spiritual fruit, but the fruit will be in varying amounts depending on various factors.
"Each of the three fruitless hearts is influenced by a different enemy: the hard heart-the devil himself snatches the seed; the shallow heart-the flesh counterfeits religious feelings; the crowded heart-the things of the world smother the growth and prevent a harvest. These are the three great enemies of the Christian: the world, the flesh, and the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3)." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:123.]
Some interpreters want to know which soils represent believers and which unbelievers. This was not Jesus’ point in the parable. Both believers and unbelievers need to welcome the word gladly rather than allowing its enemies to make it unfruitful.
The word that Jesus was sowing was the good news concerning the coming messianic kingdom. The people He addressed gave these characteristic responses. However these are typical responses that have marked the proclamation of God’s Word throughout history, among believers and unbelievers alike. Mark’s original readers would have found encouragement in this parable to receive the Word of God as good soil and to beware of the enemies that limit Christians’ fruitfulness.
"Words may be sound and lively enough, but it is up to each hearer to let them sink in and become fruitful. If he only hears without responding-without doing something about it and committing himself to their meaning-then the words are in danger of being lost, or of never coming to anything. The whole story thus becomes a parable about the learner’s responsibility, and about the importance of learning with one’s whole will and obedience, and not merely with one’s head." [Note: Moule, p. 36.]
Jesus continued his address to the inquiring disciples (cf. Mark 4:10-20). The lamp would have been a small clay dish with the edges pinched up to form a spout. A small piece of fabric typically hung over the spout from the body of the lamp serving as a wick. These household lamps usually held only a few teaspoons of oil and rested on pieces of wood or plaster protruding from a wall. The basket was a common container that held about a peck (one-quarter bushel).
The lamp seems to represent the illumination that Jesus had just given about the purpose of the parables and the meaning of the parable of the soils. He did not want His disciples to conceal what He had just told them but to broadcast it. In His day this involved revelation about the impending kingdom particularly. In the wider sphere of application it would include all that God has revealed (cf. Psalms 119:105).
Another interpretation sees Jesus as the light that His disciples were not to conceal. [Note: E.g., Wessel, p. 652.] Jesus elsewhere spoke of Himself as the light of the world (John 8:12). Nevertheless in this context the light seems to represent revelation. Light has both metaphorical meanings in Scripture.
The parable of the lamp 4:21-25 (cf. Luke 8:16-18)
Jesus’ statements in this pericope appear scattered throughout the other Gospels. Mark 4:21 occurs in Matthew 5:15 and in Luke 11:33. Mark 4:22 is in Matthew 10:26 and in Luke 12:2. Mark 4:24 appears in Matthew 7:2 and in Luke 6:38. Mark 4:25 is also in Matthew 13:12; Matthew 25:29 as well as in Luke 19:26. This phenomenon does not mean that this pericope lacks authenticity. It means that Jesus frequently used these expressions at other times during His teaching ministry as well as here. He was an itinerant preacher, and itinerant preachers often use the same messages with the same or similar words with different audiences.
The former verse expressed a parable. This one explained a literal reality. As a principle, people do not hide precious things forever. They only conceal them temporarily, and then they bring them out into view. If they remain hidden forever, they are virtually lost. People conceal them to protect them from others who would abuse and take them. For example, people who own expensive jewelry or art treasures may keep them locked up for safe keeping part of the time, but they display them publicly at other times. Keeping them locked up privately all the time is a misuse of their purpose.
The disciples should not conclude that because God had previously hidden the characteristics about the kingdom that Jesus was revealing He wanted them to remain unknown. The time had come to proclaim them publicly.
"The kingdom of God, as embodied in Jesus’ Person and ministry, was now a veiled revelation to those without, but He intended that later it should receive a glorious manifestation through the ministry of His followers." [Note: Hiebert, p. 107.]
What Jesus had told the multitudes (Mark 4:9) He now repeated specifically for His disciples. They could hear. They needed to use that ability by paying attention to what Jesus had just said.
The disciples needed to consider carefully what Jesus was telling them. The degree to which they gave heed to what He said would be the degree to which they would profit from it. God would graciously bless attentive disciples with even greater benefit than the effort they expended in heeding His words. Their blessing would be disproportionately large.
If a person works hard to obtain something good, he or she normally receives other good things in addition. If a disciple pays attention to and assimilates the revelation God has given, God will increase his or her capacity to understand and appropriate more revelation. However this principle works the other way too. The person who does not use his or her ability to understand and respond to God’s revelation appropriately loses that ability. The disciples needed to use their understanding of Jesus and the kingdom by proclaiming the gospel or they would lose their ability and their understanding. This is a call for disciples to continue growing (cf. 2 Peter 3:18, the key verse of that epistle, I believe).
The parable of the seed growing by itself 4:26-29
Since this parable supplements the parable of the soils, it appears that Jesus addressed it to the multitudes (cf. Mark 4:1-9). Mark is the only evangelist who recorded this part of the discourse. Each parable to the multitudes illuminated something about the messianic kingdom.
The identity of the man in the parable is secondary, though in view of the former parable he represents Jesus and His disciples. The significant element is how the seed grows. In the former parable the seed represented the good news about the kingdom, and it means the same thing here. The primary motif of the parable is the seed. [Note: Guelich, p. 240.]
The seed enters into the ground and grows mysteriously, without the continuing work of the sower. God causes it to grow. Farmers know the conditions that help or hinder plant growth, but they do not fully understand the growth process nor can they cause growth. Only God can do that. The earth itself appears to cause plants to grow automatically as they move through the various stages from germination to maturity. Jesus stressed this fact by putting the Greek word automate ("by itself") in the emphatic first position in the sentence. Finally the sower, who had played no visible role in the growth of the crop, returned to the field as its reaper. The same divine person who sows also reaps.
This parable would have encouraged the disciples to realize that the preaching of Jesus and their own preaching in anticipation of the kingdom would bear fruit in time. God would cause the seed that they planted in the ears and minds of many to germinate into new life and to grow. Growth of the believing community would increase, though no one could really explain why it was growing except that God was responsible for it (cf. Matthew 16:18). Eventually there would be a harvest of the crop when God, the ultimate sower, saw that the time was right. Probably this refers to the end of the messianic kingdom. The parable bridges history from the initial time of sowing in Jesus’ day culminating in the harvest at the end of the messianic (millennial) kingdom.
Another interpretation of this parable views it as describing growth within individual believers. [Note: E.g., R. A. Cole, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 151.] The problem with this view is the identity of the kingdom of God. Other interpreters see it as picturing the mysterious appearing of the messianic kingdom at the time of harvest. [Note: E.g., Cranfield, p. 168; J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, pp. 152-53; and Wessel, pp. 652-53.] However the emphasis in the parable is on the growth of the seed, not the harvest of the crop. A third view takes the period of growth to be the inter-advent age with the harvest occurring when Jesus returns to establish His kingdom on earth. [Note: E.g., J. Dwight Pentecost, The Parables of Jesus, pp. 49, 53; and Grassmick, p. 121.] This view limits the parable to the "mystery form" of the kingdom. I find nothing in the text to justify interpreting the kingdom as the Old Testament predicted it as the mystery form of the kingdom. I believe that when Jesus said the kingdom of heaven (or God) was similar to something, what He described included the messianic (millennial) kingdom. It did not just represent the inter-advent age leading up to its beginning.
The parable of the mustard seed 4:30-32 (cf. Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19)
The third and last parable that Mark recorded Jesus giving to the multitudes stressed the contrast between the kingdom’s insignificant beginnings and its final impressively large size. When Jesus came declaring that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, He began preparations for the inauguration of the kingdom. He planted the seed. That beginning was a very inauspicious one. Even though Jesus had a popular following, He had few disciples who followed Him faithfully. Nonetheless this parable assured the multitudes that the kingdom would one day be impressively large. The Old Testament predicted that it would cover the earth and incorporate Gentiles as well as Jews (Psalms 2; Ezekiel 17:22-24; Ezekiel 31:6; Daniel 4:12; et al.). The final form of the kingdom is at the end of the kingdom, not at its beginning when Jesus comes at His second coming to begin it. The parable describes the kingdom, not the church (all genuine Christians) and not Christendom (all professing Christians).
The beginnings of the kingdom were small and discouraging. Jesus experienced rejection and left this world as an apparent failure. Nevertheless God will eventually establish the kingdom that the Old Testament prophets and Jesus predicted as a worldwide organization that will dominate all aspects of life. This hope encourages believers, especially believers who are suffering for their faith. We can press on knowing that our labor in spreading the gospel is not in vain.
"The example of the mustard seed should prevent us from judging the significance of results by the size of the beginnings." [Note: Nineham, p. 144.]
The summary conclusion 4:33-34 (cf. Matthew 13:34-35)
Some of the other parables Jesus taught included the following that Matthew recorded. He taught the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43), and the parable of the yeast hidden in the meal (Matthew 13:33) to the multitudes. He also taught the parables of the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44), the pearl (Matthew 13:45-46), the dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50), and the householder (Matthew 13:52) to the disciples.
Mark concluded his account of Jesus’ kingdom parables by explaining Jesus’ purpose and approach in teaching this way. These were only a few of the parables Jesus used to correct popular erroneous ideas about the kingdom. The parables were similar to bait for the multitudes. They kept them seeking what Jesus had to offer, which included revelation of Himself as the God-man. When seekers came to follow Jesus as disciples, He explained the true characteristics of His kingdom more clearly to prepare them for it.
The three parables Mark chose to record reveal three important facts about the kingdom. The parable of the soils shows that there will be a variety of responses to the good news about the kingdom. The parable of the seed growing by itself teaches that the good news will bring forth fruit by itself. The parable of the mustard seed reveals that though the word is small it will eventually produce something very large and beneficial.
When we proclaim the gospel today, we are announcing good news about the kingdom. I do not mean that the gospel of the kingdom that John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus’ first disciples preached is the same as the gospel of God’s grace that we preach. They focused specifically on the Messiah’s kingdom as imminent. We focus on trusting in the Messiah. Nevertheless, just as their gospel included the importance of trusting in the Messiah so ours includes the importance of preparing for the messianic kingdom. At least it should. The coming messianic kingdom should be an important factor in the thinking, motivation, and proclamation of modern disciples of Jesus (cf. Matthew 6:10).
C. Jesus’ demonstrations of power and the Nazarenes’ rejection 4:35-6:6a
In spite of demonstrations of supernatural power, the multitudes continued to miss seeing who Jesus really was. Why? Because enlightenment comes only as a gift from God (Matthew 16:17). This section presents more evidence of Jesus’ identity (Mark 4:35 to Mark 5:43) and the failure of those who knew Him best to understand who He really was (Mark 6:1-6 a).
Jesus and the disciples would have been crossing from the west to the east side of the lake (cf. Mark 5:1). Fewer people lived on the east side. Evidently Jesus wanted to get away from the multitudes that had given Him no rest all that day (Mark 3:20 to Mark 4:34) and before. Mark normally did not give precise time designations. Probably he did so here to impress the reader with Jesus’ extreme busyness that moved Him to withdraw temporarily.
The stilling of a storm 4:35-41 (cf. Matthew 8:18, 23-27; Luke 8:22-25)
Many unique features of Mark’s narrative indicate that it came from an eyewitness account, probably Peter. These include mention of "that day" (Mark 4:35), "as He [Jesus] was" and the other boats (Mark 4:36), the stern and the cushion (Mark 4:38), and the rebuke, terror, and bewilderment of the disciples (Mark 4:38; Mark 4:41).
1. The demonstrations of Jesus’ power 4:35-5:43
There are four miracles in this section. Jesus authenticated His words (Mark 4:1-34) with His works (Mark 4:35 to Mark 5:43). He demonstrated power over nature, demons, illness, and death. The purpose of these miracles was to demonstrate Jesus’ ability to vanquish all powers that are hostile to God. [Note: Lane, p. 173.]
The Sea of Galilee was susceptible to sudden violent storms because of its geography.
"The atmosphere, for the most part, hangs still and heavy, but the cold currents, as they pass from the west, are sucked down in vortices of air, or by the narrow gorges that break upon the lake. Then arise those sudden storms for which the region is notorious." [Note: G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, pp. 441-42.]
Jesus was probably sleeping on a seat at the stern of the boat that had a cushion on it. The fact that Jesus could sleep in such a storm reflects His physical exhaustion, another indication of His full humanity. This is the only place where Matthew, Mark, and Luke recorded Jesus sleeping, though He slept at other times, of course.
Mark alone recorded the disciples’ rebuke. It was inappropriate because of who Jesus was. However the disciples did not fully appreciate who He was yet. They did not like the fact that Jesus appeared to be unconcerned about their safety. Note the contrast between the disciples’ anxiety and Jesus’ lack of concern.
"It was a cry of distrust, but one often matched by believers today in difficult circumstances when they feel that the Lord has forsaken them." [Note: Hiebert, p. 115.]
The disciples should not have been fearful. Jesus had told them that they were going to the other side; He promised they would arrive there (Mark 4:35). Second, He was with them; they would not die because He would not die before His time. Third, Jesus was sleeping peacefully and was not afraid of the storm. Fourth, He had demonstrated compassion for them and the multitudes many times.
Mark is the only evangelist who recorded the words Jesus spoke. Jesus addressed His creation as His child, and it responded accordingly. The wind ceased and the waves calmed down.
"In the calming of the storm (Mark 4:35-41) his ’rebuke’ of the wind and ’muzzling’ of the waves are phrased in the language of exorcism, recalling the power of God over chaos at creation. Both episodes are effected solely by the word." [Note: Edwards, p. 223.]
"In Mark’s story the sea is a place of chaos and destruction as well as of instruction and fellowship." [Note: Ellenburg, p. 175.]
Jesus expressed disappointment that the disciples had not demonstrated more mature faith (cf. Mark 7:18; Mark 8:17-18; Mark 8:21; Mark 8:32-33; Mark 9:19). "Timid" (NASB, Gr. deiloi) means fearful. "No faith" meant no trust in Him on this occasion. They did not yet realize that Jesus was God who controls nature (cf. Psalms 89:8-9; Psalms 104:5-9; Psalms 106:8-9; Psalms 107:23-32).
". . . Jesus anticipates comprehension on the part of the disciples and they exhibit a profound lack thereof. The upshot is that conflict erupts between Jesus and the disciples, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a series of three boat scenes and two feeding miracles, with the miracles interspersed among the boat scenes." [Note: Kingsbury, p. 97.]
The disciples now became more fearful than they had been when the wind and waves were swamping their boat. The Greek words Mark used, ephobethesan phobon, describe respectful awe that people feel in the presence of supernatural power (cf. Mark 16:8). They had seen Jesus perform many healings and exorcisms, but this was a new revelation of the extent of His authority. Still they did not understand who He really was, as is clear from their question.
This story should encourage all Jesus’ disciples with the knowledge that He can control the natural circumstances of life, including its storms, and keep them safe. This would have been an especially comforting revelation to Mark’s original readers in their persecutions.
"It is not surprising that in early Christian art the Church was depicted as a boat driven upon a perilous sea; with Jesus in the midst, there was nothing to fear." [Note: Lane, p. 178.]
"Assuredly, no narrative could be more consistent with the fundamental assumption that He is the God-Man." [Note: Edersheim, 1:600.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Mark 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26