1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” 13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Have you ever wondered why it is that a large group of people can sit in a sanctuary, hear the same scripture read, hear the same sermon preached, and some will be offended, some will be indifferent, and some will be changed forever? It is because each and ever person has a different spiritual soil constitution. That is, people are at different points in terms of their spiritual receptivity to truth.
Jesus acknowledged this in Mark 4 in what must be considered one of His most famous parables. In the first twenty verses of this chapter, we are privileged to hear not only the parable but also Jesus’ direct explanation of the meaning of it. It is a crucially important parable that calls us all to consider the condition of our own spiritual soil. Furthermore, it is a picture of God’s desire for the lives of His children.
The challenge of quick, ruthless, Satanic attack.
Jesus begins by painting a picture that would have been very familiar to His audience.
3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.
First century Palestine was an agrarian society and farming parables would have needed very little setup or explanation. There were different ways that a farmer might sow seed at that time. One way was to fill two large sacks with seed, place these sacks on an animal so that they hung on either side, make smalls incisions in the bottoms of the sacks so that a certain amount of seed fell out, and then walk the animal up and down the field sowing as you go. The other way was for an individual sower to fill an apron up with seed and walk along the way casting handfuls of seed out to his left and right. This latter image appears to be the image to which Jesus was appealing.
4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
We come now to the first type of seed. The text says “some seed fell along the path.” This would be the footpath on which people walked. Thus, it would have been hard compacted soil. “And the birds,” Jesus tells us, “came and devoured it.” Note that the seed that is devoured is singular. In Greek, this is speaking of one seed.
We have here a picture of seed that is never given the chance to penetrate the soil before it is plucked up by hungry birds. In verses 14-15, we hear the interpretation.
14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.
The first thing we should consider is the identity of the sower. The sower is the one who “sows the word.” In context, this is Jesus. We have seen in the first three chapters of Mark that Jesus has been sowing and that the seed He has sown has fallen on different kinds of soil with differing results.
The seed that is sown is, Jesus tells us, “the word.” This is the word of God. We have seen that Jesus’ ministry consisted primarily of two great acts: Kingdom proclamation and Kingdom demonstration (i.e., miracles and exorcisms). Jesus walked through the world sowing the seed of God’s word both in word and deed.
It is telling that the first challenge Jesus mentions concerning the reception of His word is the challenge of quick and ruthless Satanic attack. “Satan,” He says, “immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”
“Be sober-minded; be watchful,” writes Peter in 1 Peter 5:8. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” One thing we know about lions is that they creep, then crouch, then pounce. The picture that Jesus is painting here is one of a pouncing Satanic attack and the catalyst for it is the sowing of God’s word in the hearts and minds of people.
The devil hates few things more than he hates the idea of God’s word being implanted in the hearts and minds of people. He will oppose it and will pounce when he sees it happen. He pounces so quickly that sometimes we do not even see the victory he has over us. Think of the myriad and immediate ways that the devil attacks you whenever you begin to draw close to God and to His word. Think of his crafty attacks and his pernicious assaults on your mind, heart, and soul.
To choose but one example, we might think about how the devil has so undermined the very notion of truth in our culture. He has so inundated us in this faulty assumption that we now have something like an instinctive trigger as modern people fully immersed in the zeitgeist against the very notion of truth. Present the gospel to a thoroughly secularized modern person who is steeped in the conceits of modernity, who believes that the only truth is there is no such thing as truth, who has been taught in a thousand different ways at school and on TV and on social media and through popular music that there is no “Truth” with a capital “T,” that there are only “truths,” and that these are culturally conditioned by power structures bent on controlling us, and they will not even hear what you say. They will not be offended primarily by the particularities of the gospel but by the assumption that truth exists and that you have it to present to them!
Here is one way the devil snatches away the seed of the God’s word. There are numerous other ways, many of them tied to the particular constitution of particular people. This is why we must know where our own weak spots are.
The challenge of persecution
Another challenge faced by those in whom the seed of the word is sown is the challenge of persecution.
5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away
Once again, Jesus offers the interpretation.
16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
Persecution is depicted as (a) hitting believers when they are not fully grounded in the faith, (b) coming “on account of the word,” and (c) being like a blistering sun that scorches and withers. Some seed falls on soil that has not yet fully counted the cost of receiving the seed of the word or that is not prepared to withstand the trials that come.
The history of the Church is filled with awe-inspiring stories of those who were able to withstand persecution, even if they lost their lives in the process. There are, of course, the great martyr stories of the past, but persecution comes in many different ways even and perhaps especially in our own day.
When my brother Condy was in college he presented the gospel to a young man from Sri Lanka. That young man accepted Christ and then became a frequent presence at our house. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him, though I recall that he could eat like nobody I had ever seen! I recall when our home church baptized him. It was a beautiful thing to see! I also recall when my brother informed me that this young’s man family had pronounced him dead when he converted to Christ. They even had a funeral for him in his absence. Yet he held on and clung to Christ. What amazing courage and resolve this young man showed in the loss of his family for the sake of Christ!
Recently, however, I was speaking to a man in our own church about another young person. This man and his wife have been presenting the gospel to a person who lives overseas for some time. They feel that progress is being made. The other day this person shared with the couple that she thought she would indeed accept Christ “if I lived in America.” It was a telling statement and one that says a great deal about her own situation and how she views America. What she was acknowledging was that trusting Christ, in her mind, was easier to do in America than in her home country. Regardless of whether or not that is true (and it may be), she seemed to realize that she was not prepared to pay the cost she would have to pay.
5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away
The scorching sun of persecution can come for any of us. This is, of course, very much linked to the first seed’s experience with Satanic attack. Persecution is Satanic attack, and it is one of his greatest weapons against the people of God.
Perhaps persecution will come for all of us. Who knows? Jesus warns that this is a real danger and that many are unable to withstand it. Have you considered whether or not you are willing to suffer and die for the gospel? Many today face that question every morning they wake up!
The challenge of distraction
Perhaps more apropos for our immediate context is the third challenge, the challenge of distraction.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
Jesus paints a picture of the grain being chocked by thorns. This may sound more like persecution, but Jesus’ explanation says otherwise.
18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
Specifically, Jesus says that the thorns that choke us are (a) the cares of the world, (b) the deceitfulness of riches, and (c) the desire for other things. These are the things that keep the seed of the word from taking root, growing, and bearing fruit. William Barclay has offered some helpful background information on this image.
The Palestinian farmer was lazy. He cut off the top of the fibrous rooted weeds; he even burned off the top; and the filed might look clean; but in below the surface the roots were still there; and in due time the weeds revived in all their strength. The weeds grew with such rapidity and such virulence that they choked the life out of the seed. It is easy to pack life with such a multiplicity of interests that there is no time left for Christ.
Perhaps this is an apt picture of many of our lives in Christ: we deal with those things that distract us…but not really. At the end of the day, many of us are not willing to separate ourselves radically from the distractions that choke out our vitality. We burn them away on the surface, but that does not really matter if we fail to uproot them!
It is telling that the first thing Jesus mentions is “the cares of the world.” How pertinent that we are hearing these words in the midst of a presidential election! One cannot help but feel that presidential elections can cause anxieties that choke and hinder our fruitfulness! I sometimes think that these seasons make us all a little bit crazy! If you are there – if, that is, this election season is becoming an unhealthy distraction for you – perhaps you should consider taking a week or two or three off from constant immersion in the twenty-four hour political commentary on all of this that we find everywhere we turn. Turn off the radio. Turn off the TV. Turn off the computer. Put down your phone. If the thorns of distraction are causing your walk with Christ to suffer, rid yourselves of them!
Or perhaps the thorns in your life are good things. Perhaps even your service to God is choking out your actual relationship with God. Busyness, after all, is not vitality. Remember the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Martha was being working for Jesus, but “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” That wording is intriguing in light of our parable of the seeds, is it not? So many of our efforts are just so much empty busyness. In the end, they do not matter. But your relationship with Jesus cannot be taken away!
“We are so busy in the work of the Lord,” write Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, “we have little time for the Lord of the work.” That is well said. Henri Nouwen wrote that nothing “conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ.”
Beware the thorny distractions of life that keep you from actually advancing in your walk with Christ! What is it for you: money, a relationship, an iPhone, the internet, your job? If you were to identify the thorns in your life, what would they be? Jesus warned about the thorns that keep us from growing. Are you willing to rid yourselves of whatever it is that is choking you?
The blessing of growth with Jesus
After listing the three seeds that did not survive to fruitfulness, Jesus mentions three that do.
8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
Here is Jesus’ explanation:
20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
Here we see the Christian life as it should be: hearing the word, accepting the word, allowing the word to take root, and seeing fruitfulness as the word has its effect. It is interesting that Jesus mentions the seeds having different degrees of fruitfulness: thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. New Testament scholar R.T. France points out that “the first three scenes describe the seed in the singular…(so that each scene describes the fate of a single [typical] seed), while in the fourth, where three individual seeds…producing different yields are mentioned in a single sentence, the plural…is used.” While France concedes that “it is possible that the three levels of fruitfulness are merely a narrative device to balance the three types of failure” it is nonetheless “tempting to detect here also a recognition that the product of effective discipleship will not necessarily be uniform.”
In other words, it very well might be the case that Jesus is pointing to the reality that growth among Christians oftentimes proceeds at differing rates of speed and to different heights. That is true, but note that they are all bearing fruit, they are all truly born again.
Note as well that the results of the seeds sown in this parable are two and only two: death or fruitfulness. Either the seeds are ultimately thwarted and destroyed or they take root and bear fruit. What is not present is a middle option: mere, neutral survival as a self-contained seed. That is not an option. Either it bears fruit or it is destroyed.
This reality of the absence of a neutral ground of mere static existence may be inconvenient to our church age in which it would seem this is exactly what is wanted: a place simply to exist as seeds, undisturbed by deadly birds or the scorching sun or terroristic thorns on the one hand or the need to grow and be fruitful on the other hand. What we seem to want in American Christianity is to be and to remain seeds. We would like to gather periodically with other safe seeds and talk about the greatness of the sower. We call this “church.” We would even like to celebrate those very odd and rare seeds that die and rise again, bearing fruit. But we ourselves would like to be pretty much left alone.
Ronald Kernaghan tells an interesting story about a friend of his who had to lose a lot of weight and something that happened to him on that journey.
Following a series of heart problems, a friend of mine, whose name also happens to be Mark, decided that he needed to lose a lot of weight. In consultation with a doctor and weight-loss counselor, Mark set himself the goal of losing 150 pounds. When he had shed about 80 pounds, he was able to wear several well-tailored suits that had hung unused in his closet for some time. It gave him a lot of pleasure to wear those suits again, but his counselor did not share his enthusiasm. She told him to throw them all away. He was appalled at the idea. Those suits were worth a great deal of money, and he felt that he deserved a reward for his hard work. His counselor refused to explain or justify her instruction. In response to Mark’s repeated complaints, she had only one thing to say: “Get rid of those clothes.”
The counselor had given him a parable. It was not obscure or packed with difficult symbolism. It was very simply stated, yet it made no sense to my friend initially. It just made him angry. It took Mark several days to get past his anger, and then he realized that the counselor was right. His only argument was with himself. Losing the next 70 pounds would be more difficult than losing the first 80, and those suits represented a temptation to be satisfied with what he had already accomplished. If the counselor had allowed herself to be drawn into an argument, my friend would have been fighting with the wrong person, and he might never have faced the decision he needed to make. So, gritting his teeth, Mark threw the clothes away.
Here is the truth of the matter: we get too comfortable with our “halfway there” clothes. We like to celebrate before we are through. We forget that we were designed for fruitfulness, for growth, for completing the task. We are too often like the seed that falls on the soil, springs up for a time, then gets distracted or falls away. The motto of the Christian life is en Christo, “in Christ.” To be “in Christ” is to grow ever and always Christward, toward the sun of all righteousness.
Somebody once asked the great missionary David Livingstone about his plans for the future. After amazing and long years of missionary service, he was asked, “Well, Dr. Livingstone, where are you ready to go now?” Livingstone answered, “I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”
Yes. Forward. Upward. Growing. Bearing fruit.
How is the soil of your heart? Has the seed of the word taken root within you? Is it growing or is it being plucked, scorched, or choked by Satanic attack, by persecution, by distractions? If it is being so hindered, run now to the Sower of the seed and plead for help! He is good. He will not turn away from you.
Call to the Sower of the seed and you will find in Him a Savior!
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1971), p.93.
 Stetzer, Ed; Dodson, Mike (2010-07-19). Comeback Churches (p. 15). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 94.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Gen. Eds., I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p.190-191,207.
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.85.
 Quoted in James Montgomery Boice, Philippians. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p.196-197.