Mark 4:1-3 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. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.”
The main point Jesus is making in this parable is one of hearing. When you read the entire chapter, you will see the main point Jesus is talking about is the importance of and means of us hearing the gospel. Now, the hearing He speaks of is not just a hearing with the ears. It is a hearing with the heart. The varying receptiveness and readiness of the heart is the issue as to whether or not the gospel will take! We are also going to see that it is God's authority that ultimately decides who hears and who doesn’t, which is fitting for how Mark is portraying Jesus in the first 8 chapters as the supreme King.
Look with me at verse 4 as we are introduced to the first heart condition.
1. Hardened Soil – Hard Heart
Mark 4:4 “And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.”
Mark 4:15 “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.”
This path represents a hard heart—a heart that is tight and solid and rigid and cold and not pliable. It is a person who, on the outside, looks alive and maybe fun and vibrant; but on the inside, his heart is closed off and rigid and cold and dead. If you are this person, then when you hear the gospel, it is with the ears on your head only, because your heart rejects its truth and is not ready to receive it. It is snatched away by the enemy before God changes your heart to reconsider.
Some practical examples of this for today:
You hear the words of the gospel, but your affections are so stirred for something else that the gospel of Jesus is just not THE GOOD NEWS to you. In other words, you hear the words, but someone else snatches them away.
So, you go to lunch after church, and it doesn’t take more than a meaningless conversation about last week’s favorite TV episode for the gospel truth you just heard in your ears to be completely out of mind before it even gets to the heart. Some people can even be regular attendees of church, but in the end, the good news has not scratched the surface. It doesn’t matter how good the preacher is if the sovereign God has not changed the heart from stone to flesh.
God says clearly how He moves upon those He will save through His prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:26: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
For those who are reading this who have a hard heart or for those who are witnessing to others who have a hard heart—the command is to listen.
Jesus opens the parable with the word “LISTEN!” This is super important! Keep listening. Keep watching the gospel lived out in others around you who are mature in Christ. If you are the one sharing it to the person with the hard heart, keep sharing it even though they are turned off, because we don’t know if or when God will regenerate a dead heart to flesh, thereby making it ready to receive the good news.
Now, there’s a second scenario, and this one can be troubling when we are honest with what Jesus is saying.
2. Rocky Soil - Shallow Heart
Mark 4:5-6 “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. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.”
Mark 4:16-17 “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 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.”
This seed lands in soil that is shallow due to all the other rocks and stuff in it. When seed lands in shallow soil, the person says, “Yes. Thank You,” but it never actually takes and produces growth.
Let's say it another way: The initial response to hearing the gospel is excitement, but when hardship or trials come—because the receiving is a more emotional receiving and there is no real ROOT--the seed withers and the plant never grows.
He is talking about men and women who can point back to an event and say, “I said the prayer, I walked down the aisle for an alter call, I heard the message, or I grew up in the church. I remember saying ‘yes’ to Jesus, but from that moment on I have had no objective evidences of regeneration and conversion at all.” At most, over the years, this person has been conformed to a moral pattern or church culture but has not been regenerated or transformed by the Holy Spirit of God. To this person, the gospel was a good “idea” or an emotional momentary “experience,” but it did not take root. It did not transform the way the gospel does when it truly is taken in.
What Jesus is saying here is that there are men and women who point back to this moment where they received a gospel message with joy, but they never developed roots; and when hard times blow through, their roots in faith in God prove to be non-existent. This is what the Bible commonly calls a “dullness of hearing.” The promises come to the ear, but there is no passion for the promises, no lover's embrace, no cherishing or treasuring, no real faith and therefore, no perseverance.
This is like hearing the Bible or the preaching of the Bible the way you hear the freeway noise near your house or the way you hear music in the dentist's office waiting room. You hear it, but you don't. You have grown dull to the sound. It does not awaken or produce anything.
There is a placebo effect when it comes to religion that is dangerous. It is an inoculation (baby shot)—a small dose of something so your body can adjust to it, so that you don’t fully get it. This placebo or inoculation for many people is their church attendance, prayer life, financial giving, routine confession from sin, or effort to do good things.
The problem is the placebo, inoculation, or routine religious experiences are not what save you or transform your heart. The real sickness is not addressed. Jesus is not really the Lord of your life. You said yes to the “idea of the seed growing in you,” but the actual seed never took ROOT. It never transformed your soil with sustaining plant growth.
If this is you, if your faith is much more about religion (obeying so I can get God’s acceptance) than it is about the gospel (recognizing I am accepted so I have the power to obey), what you need is to go back to the cross and discover what you missed the first time that has you longing after the world for identity and hope and not rooted in Jesus.
Let’s keep going. Soil number 3:
3. Thorny Soil - Preoccupied Heart
Mark 4:7 “Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.”
Mark 4:18-19 “And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 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.”
Preoccupied Heart: This kind of soil is the kind that is crowded with other affections. This person believes they have received the seed. They have said “yes” to the gospel and are taking real steps to grow in their walk with God, but it never produces true life change. WHY? Because the gospel to them is just religion. It is something they add to their life. It doesn’t radically change their life. The gospel cannot be just one plant of many you are trying to grow in your soil.
This is the person who says “yes” to Jesus, but also says “yes” to other functional saviors. This is the compartmentalized Christian life that just won’t produce fruit. This is what Jesus described when he said, “Who is your master? You cannot serve both God and money.” Your heart is trying to worship Jesus in principle, but you really have multiple idols that you worship. In the end, you have not truly made Jesus the Lord of your life. The passage says that you take the seed in, but you are also clinging to “cares of the world,” “riches,” and “desires.” All of these end up being thorns that choke out the one thing that can truly transform—the one thing that can truly bring lasting life and joy—the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Romans 1:21, we see this described:
Romans 1:21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him …
Romans 1:25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator ...
Let me define idolatry for you real quick as a substitute or counterfeit God—something in the creation that is inflated to function as God—something that has become more fundamental than God in your life for your identity, personal significance, sense of security, purpose for living, or finding in Him happiness and joy.
Do you see how some might claim to have Jesus, but these things are choking them out? The other idols of the heart are the roots that are truly deep in their life. It’s not the gospel that is deep.
This person has to see their idols are killing them. They cannot give us the salvation we believe they will give nor the joy we hope they will give. We have to expose them and then replace them. See, the third person, the thorny soil still has not given their life to Jesus. They are trying to add Him to the alter of the other idols of their lives. While there is some devotion to the things of God, there is not true and lasting transformation. They have not truly been born again by the gospel. They have added religion to their lives and are trying to balance God with everything else.
With that, let’s look at the final soil:
4. Good Soil -- Readied Heart
Mark 4:8 “And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Mark 4:20 “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.”
This is the picture of the readied heart. The question is, “How do we truly hear the Word and then cultivate the soil of the readied heart?”
First, we must understand God is ultimately in charge of who hears and who doesn’t. Now, this is not a popular way to look at how God works. But I’m much more concerned with being honest with God’s word than pleasing people. So, I must be faithful to what Jesus is saying here and not put my own twist on it for the sake of making everyone feel comfortable.
Look with me at the middle of our passage at verses 10-12, because we need to see what happens right after Jesus finishes preaching the parable to the crowd and not skip it.
Mark 4:10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.
Now Jesus answers, but listen to where Jesus takes them with His answer:
Mark 4:11-12 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, so that [and he quotes from Isaiah] 'they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.'”
In Isaiah 6:9-10, God tells Isaiah that his ministry to Israel will be saving for some, but hardening for others. The time had run out for Isaiah’s people and the word of God was, by God’s will, no longer going to be effective to save them. Instead it would render their hearts insensitive and their ears dull.
This is a very boggling reference Jesus uses at first glance. It is one that man gets hung up on because we want to box God in and believe that “God doesn’t cause some to not hear this gospel.” But Jesus is saying very clearly here that to those whom Jesus has chosen, they will hear. And to those God has not chosen, they might hear with their ears, but they will not hear with their hearts.
Some will twist this to say that this means the SAVED WILL UNDERSTAND AND THE UNSAVED WILL NOT.
The scriptures are clear, God is sovereign over salvation and therefore Jesus knows who will be saved and who will not. He knows who is a part of His elect and who are not. He is saying here in verses 11 and 12 that one of the reasons he uses parables is "so that" when some hear, they may not understand.
So, every time the Scriptures are taught, every time the word of God goes out, by God’s providence it has a softening effect on some and a hardening effect on others, because God’s going to display both His mercy and His justice. If you are wrestling with this, Paul is clear in Romans 9 that there is no injustice in God’s sovereign will to choose some and not others (specifically in Romans 9:11-23). We have to be careful not to do what Paul’s audience in Romans 9 is doing, which is to challenge why a good and holy God would not work this way. I will simply say who are we to tell Him what is holy and just and right? He is God and we are His creation.
In Isaiah 55:8-9, God affirms that His sovereign ways and thoughts are higher than ours. It is important when we come face to face with these kinds of workings of God that we humble ourselves before our mighty King rather than arrogantly think we know better.
So, how do we truly hear the word and then cultivate the soil of the readied heart?
God is ultimately in charge of who hears and who doesn’t.
Verse 20 shows us three things that go with cultivating the soil of the readied heart.
Mark 4:20 “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.”
“Hear the word”
We need to listen to the word—just as Jesus commanded His listeners to do as He began to teach this parable. We need to read the Scriptures ourselves and sit under good preaching and teaching of God's word if we are going to hear the WORD. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing. In other words, you will not ever have faith if you first do not listen and hear.
Make it personal for you today. Do you hunger for God’s word? Is this a regular practice for you? Are you spending time with people who get the gospel and reveal the gospel in their lives?
“Accept it” in the Greek is better translated to “take in” or to “delight in.” The ones who hear the word and delight in it, for them, it is GOOD NEWS to their soul. We need to savor and swallow and digest the gospel and be satisfied in it. This is the miraculous spiritual event of loving what once you hated.
Psalm 34:8 Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Are you feasting on the things of the world or on the things of God?
There are hundreds of big events and exciting things that are worth enjoying and celebrating in this life: the birth of a child, a meal at your favorite restaurant, vacation, a new bike, a clean bill of health, a bonus at work, a new job, an engagement, a wedding, a change in habits or lifestyle, sex with your spouse, a good report card at the end of a quarter, and on and on.
But here is the question: Is the GOOD NEWS of Jesus THE BEST NEWS in your life at any given time? Don’t just hear it and be done. The good soil, the readied heart, takes it in—delights in it!
In verse 8, Jesus says the good soil that takes in the gospel produces grain. In verse 20, He says the good soil bears fruit. Whether grain or fruit, they both represent the harvest of the plant. It is what the plant is designed to produce. When God takes hold of our heart and we delight in Him, He produces harvest in us. The fruit is the proof of the soil you're in. Lasting fruit is only produced by the one whom God gave ears to hear--“the readied soil.”
Matthew 7 says by one's fruit you will know who they really are! In other words, many will claim Jesus, go to church, carry a Bible in their hand, even quote Scripture, but their actions and transformation--their harvest—will be the evidence of a life deeply rooted in the rich soil. Because when you take the gospel into readied soil, it changes everything—transforming your heart and life from self-centered to other-centered.
Look at the transforming power of those that God saves. See the supernatural growth (30, 60, or 100-fold) that comes from just one person whom God saves.
Why is all this good news? When God opens our ears to hear and receive the gospel, we are a part of the kingdom of God where life and love blossom and where harvest in our lives glorifies God and blesses others with fruit to see and eat and enjoy. This is good news because, in the end, it is not our labor or work that produces a life of meaning and restoration of all things; it is God at work in and through us. He is the Sower. His gospel is the power, and we are the clay in His hands being molded and made ready in His perfect timing.
The image Jesus chooses for the gospel in this parable is not a bomb, not a hammer--it’s a seed. But a seed--something so gentle and so dainty. WHY? Jesus said it Himself in John chapter 12.
John 12:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
A seed only releases its power if it goes deep into the ground and dies. This is what Jesus did for you and me! He broke through our hard surface. He went deeper than the rocks and broke through the idols of our heart to transform us from the inside out. He died so that we might live and flourish and bless others with the fruit He produces out of us.
It is our great privilege to be pursued by God with the blood of His only son when we did not deserve it--to be given ears to hear and soil ready to receive the gospel--to be sanctified and transformed by our great God so that the gospel can move through us in WORD and DEED. We go out and preach the word boldly to unbelievers knowing that God will open dead hearts and make them ready as He perfectly has planned to. It is not up to us to press someone to say the prayer or to convince them to change. We just need to speak the gospel and call them to repentance and belief. For those whom God will save, He will in His perfect time!!!!
Soldiers for Jesus, you are saved and set free not because of you, but because of God. You are able to serve and lead others because of the purifying and sanctifying work of the KING. This is why we praise Him. Because as Romans 11 says, it is all “from him and through him and to him.” It is the name of KING JESUS who we celebrate and praise this day.
For He is the one who took our meaningless dirt and turned it into life-producing, eternal soil that springs forth a harvest for His glory and others' joy!