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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 4

Verses 1-34

Reactions to Jesus’ Word (4:1-34)

As we read the first of the parables and its explanation (Mark 4:1-20) we note the various circles of listeners. The Twelve form the smallest circle. A bit larger is the circle of the Twelve with "those who were about him" (vs. 10). This circle represents all the disciples of Jesus, which in Mark’s own day would be the members of the churches. The largest circle included these groups plus all who heard his preaching without making a decision about it (vs. 1 ) . Again we may suppose that Mark had his eye on the Roman situation, with its combination of listeners, believers, and leaders.

The parable was given to all (vss. 1-9); the explanation was given only to those who had chosen to follow, for only they would have experienced the hazards (vss. 14-20). We should therefore read these two sections as if they were placed in parallel columns. "The sower sows the word" (vss. 3, 14). This farmer is quite obviously Jesus, whose word is the message of God’s Kingdom with his power to heal and to bless, and with his call for pilgrims. (For other appearances of "the word" with this inclusive reference, see Mark 4:33; Mark 2:2; Mark 8:38.) We should remember of course that in Mark’s day it was the Apostles (Mark 3:14) who sowed the word, that is, preached the gospel.

"Some seed fell along the path . . . when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word" (vss. 4, 15). Now in addition to Jesus and his message, our minds are forced to deal with certain believers (symbolized by the type of soil) and with Satan (the birds). Thus the window opens into the hearts of disciples in every generation. And this window is not very different from the glimpse into Jesus’ heart at the time when he had received the word, that is, when he had been baptized. He had been called, had joined the company of penitents, had received the Spirit, had been declared God’s Son, had been assigned a task. Satan had immediately come and had tried to snatch the word from Jesus’ heart. But he had failed. Jesus had repelled him by his determination to live by God’s will alone (Matthew 4:4). But with Jesus’ disciples the story often had a different ending. Although they had shared in the same call, the same baptism, they almost immediately succumbed to Satan’s taunts and wiles. From the first the prospect of discipleship had filled them with dread, not joy. The first sign of opposition unnerved them. They were quite unable to relay the word to others, for Satan’s word proved more persuasive.

The message of the Kingdom had also fallen on rocky ground (vss. 5-6, 16-17). Here the drama lasts longer, but it is no less tragic. It has three acts: I. The response of joy because of the exhilarating sense of peace and freedom; II. Momentary endurance with deceptive signs of strength and growth; III. Defeat because of persecution. Men had accepted the gospel, but the external pressures combined with inner weakness have resulted in apostasy. Christians needed no further elaboration of this picture (Mark 13:9-13).

Then there was the brier patch (vss. 7, 18-19). Here the Enemy employed subversive tactics: division within the heart of the believers. Joy over forgiveness competed with anxieties over earthly security. Desire for the Kingdom competed with "delight in riches." Contrary ambitions choked the word. How could a believer relay Jesus’ news to others while he was worried at every step over the unavoidable risks? In his work the seed would produce no grain for a new sowing. In this case the defeat might be very subtle, in fact, so subtle that a disciple might be quite unaware that his faith was fruitless, but the defeat was genuine nonetheless. A disciple cannot preach the Kingdom while he is inwardly loath to make sacrifices.

The parable, however, reaches its climax in its fourth stage: the good soil (vss. 8, 20). Here the accent falls on the assurance that the gospel achieves its purpose in those disciples, however few, who "hear . . . accept . . . and bear fruit." The harvest is abundant, despite the failures of much of the sowing. This harvest, in turn, takes the form of new seed for sowing. The mission which Jesus had received from God would thus be continued successfully by the mission which the Twelve received from Jesus. There was little in the parable, thus explained, to baffle the mind of Roman disciples, if we recall the situation in which they lived.

Nevertheless those disciples were often baffled, if not by the meaning of the parable, at least by the situation which they faced. Considering the obstacles to preaching the gospel in Rome, their responsibility to relay the word was not easily discharged. In the other parables of Jesus, Mark spoke to them in this bafflement. Why, for example, should there be such deafness to the word when it was spoken to "those outside"? The answer was contained in a tiny riddle (vss. 10-12). This riddle speaks of two groups, the outsiders and the insiders. What determines their location? Their response to the announcement of God’s invitation. The outsiders "hear but [do] not understand." They have ears but no comprehension (vs. 9). Such deafness to God’s voice cannot be taken as proof that the word itself is false or that the messenger is a fraud. The ultimate reason for the deafness is hidden in the mystery of God’s purpose. Men can never explain why some believe and others are deaf, but they can trust in God, nevertheless.

But this fact in turn raised problems for the messengers. If outsiders are so deaf, is it not the part of wisdom to stop sowing the word so widely? Should they not limit the news to those who are eager to receive it? To such a protest Jesus applied several pithy proverbs. Do you light a lamp and then cover it with a box? No more should you restrict your work of delivering God’s message. It is intended for all. If some prove to be blind, that is God’s business, not yours. If they do not have hearing ears, you never will know it except by speaking to them. And you, you disciples who have received the message, the measure of your hearing depends upon the measure of your giving (vs. 24). Unless you relay the news, you yourselves will lose what has been given to you. Your own powers of hearing will grow to the degree that you boldly set the light of the Kingdom on its proper stand (vss. 21-25).

Another question often mounted to the minds of those disciples who proclaimed the message as fearlessly as Paul, and who yet found only a scanty harvest, far less than even the thirtyfold of the parable. How should they respond to such discouragement? Two parables were relevant to this dilemma. The first (vss. 26-29) was a reminder that not even the best farmer can control the growth of the grain. "The earth produces of itself" while the farmer goes about his work, confident that the grain will grow and that there will be a harvest. Men should not fret over a disappointing prospect. God takes responsibility for that.

The final parable in this cluster (vss. 30-32) taught disciples that just as the largest shrubs grow from the tiniest seeds, so the final results of sowing the word should not be judged by the initial size of the seed. Disciples will be fooled completely if they judge by the inconspicuous beginnings of their sowing. God has already assured ample harvest. (Similar attitudes toward the work of sowing the message of the Kingdom were expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9.)

To Mark, this manner of teaching was typical of Jesus. Some parables by their nature would convey no meaning to non-disciples. But they had profound meanings for disciples who had ears for detecting their explanation (vss. 33-34).

Verses 35-41

The Response of the Twelve (4:35-41)

Even the Twelve, however, were hard of hearing, and Mark may have found some consolation in that fact. They had been close to Jesus. He had named them the patriarchs of the New Israel (Mark 3:13-19). They had heard him explain why and how the word fell so often on thorny or rocky ground. Yet they themselves proved to be soil as hard and unyielding as that. When tribulation and persecution had struck (vss. 16-17), their own joy had evaporated and their endurance had failed. Panic had quickly driven peace from their hearts.

Such a situation is reflected vividly in the story of how the disciples reacted to sudden storms. This story had no doubt been told and retold on many occasions before Mark embodied it in writing as a sequel to the parables. By the time it reached him, the story had itself become something of a parable. The central characters are of course Jesus and his disciples, the disciples of a.d. 70 in Rome as much as those of a.d. 28 in Galilee. Jesus’ rebuke and assurance were as real to the former as to the latter, for his presence was as real now as then. Various items in the story reveal these parabolic overtones. The boat, for example, had become one of the symbols suggestive of the Church. The sea also had its conventional meaning as the realm of evil, under the control of the Devil, and therefore the source of hostility to the Church. The storm expressed all the conflicts which can befall the Church, especially those involving violent persecution, as under Nero in the Rome of a.d. 64. We should notice that the decisive moments in the story are provided by the dialogue. "Do you not care if we perish?" Such a wail may well have been the cry of dereliction of many (Revelation 6:9-11). Disciples were often less concerned about Jesus’ work than about their own fate. They expected him to care for them because their danger had resulted from their association with him. "Peace! Be still! . . . Why are you afraid?" If we think of the command as addressed to the wind and the waves, then it recalls the way in which Jesus had ordered the demons to silence, for demons were believed to be active in the sea. But the command did not ignore the disciples. The demons working in their hearts had replaced trust with frenzy. Jesus’ control over wind and sea (the hostile world) simultaneously exerted control over the disciples’ fears of death.

Told with such accents in mind, the story evoked in each disciple’s mind the hazards of his own life and the fact of his own dependence on Jesus for courage. To have Jesus "on board" did not enable him to escape storms; it carried him to the eye of the hurricanes. Literal shipwreck was not, of course, excluded (Acts 27). But more common were such storms as public ridicule, social ostracism, economic boycott, lynching parties, judicial trials (for a sample list see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28). To know that Jesus had power over this kind of storm was more urgent than to know that he was fully able to quiet other kinds. But this knowledge could not be secured in advance. Storms must be faced by his followers on their own. They must be subjected to the terror of helplessness. Only then would they appeal to Jesus, but even then his first word would be a stern rebuke: "Cowards all." Even so, his rebuke would help to quell their hysteria. He had power which they could appreciate only at their wits’ end. The Messiah who thus spoke through this story to the Christians of Rome was a Lord who had conquered death and who could therefore deliver men from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). In reading this story they might be led to say: "We can now face death unafraid because he has triumphed over it."

A story like this indicates that Christians had come to view Jesus’ salvation in figures taken from the Old Testament, where the same salvation had been granted by the same God. The story about Jesus fulfilled the word of God to Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you . . . When you pass through the waters I will be with you ... I love you ... I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior" (Isaiah 43). The same theme has been captured by numerous hymns, and these hymns are often simply modern versions of the ancient Psalms with which Jesus and Mark had praised God (Psalms 65:7; Psalms 107:23-32).

Such a line of exposition will not completely satisfy the reader. Various details in the story resist reduction to symbolic images. Why, for example, are the other boats with him? (vs. 36). Why did they take him "just as he was"? Why should the cushion on the stern seat be mentioned? Is it significant that it was evening? Perhaps no single explanation can explain all these items equally well. Some readers may feel that to interpret the story as a "parable" is too easy a way of escaping a hard problem: Could Jesus thus command the wind and the sea? This protest may be justified. Yet which is a harder problem: the intellectual problem of believing in Jesus’ control over nature, or the personal problem of risking death in line of duty? For the Roman Christian, the latter problem was primary. Can I face death on account of Christ and accept it unafraid? The story in effect says, "Yes, if Christ is with you in the boat, meeting the eye of the same hurricane." But the story also says that even the Apostles at first failed to trust his power.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 4". "Layman's Bible Commentary".