And again he began to teach by the seaside. This return to the seaside is mentioned by St. Mark only. From this time our Lord's teaching began to be more public. The room and the little courtyard no longer sufficed for the multitudes that came to him. The Authorized Version says that "a great multitude was gathered unto him." The Greek adjective, according to the most approved reading, is πλεῖστος the superlative of πολὺς, and should be rendered "a very great" multitude. They bad probably been waiting for him in the neighborhood of Capernaum. He entered into a boat—probably the boat mentioned at Mark 3:9—and sat in the sea, i.e. in the boat afloat on the water, so as to be relieved of the pressure of the vast multitude ( πλεῖστος ὄχλος) gathered on the shore.
He taught them many things in parables. This was a new system of teaching. For some months he had taught directly. But as he found that this direct teaching was met in some quarters with unbelief and scorn, he abandoned it for the less direct method of the parable. The parable ( παραβολή) is etymologically the setting forth of one thing by the side of another, so that the one may be compared with the other. The parable is the truth presented by a similitude. It differs from the proverb inasmuch as it is necessarily figurative. The proverb may be figurative, but it need not of necessity be figurative. The parable is often an expanded proverb, and the proverb a condensed parable. There is but one Hebrew word for the two English words "parable" and "proverb," which may account for their being frequently interchanged. The proverb (Latin) is a common sentiment generally accepted. The parable (Greek) is something put by the side of something else. Theologically, it is something in the world of nature which finds its counterpart in the world of spirit. The parable attracts attention, and so becomes valuable as a test of character. It reveals the seekers after truth, those who love the light. It withdraws the light from those who love darkness. And said unto them in his doctrine ( ἐν τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ); literally, in his teaching, namely, that particular mode of teaching which he bad just introduced; "he taught them" ( ἐδίδασκεν). He said, "in his teaching" ( ἐν τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ).
Hearken ( ακούετε). This word is introduced in St. Mark's narrative only; and it is very suitable to the warning at verse 9, "he hath ears to hear, let him hear. The sower went forth to sow. The scope of this beautiful parable is this: Christ teaches us that he is the Sower, that is, the great Preacher of the gospel among men.
1. But not all who hear the gospel believe it and receive it; just as some of the seed sown fell by the wayside, on the hard footpath, where it could not penetrate the ground, but lay upon the surface, and so was picked up by the birds.
2. Again, not all who hear and believe persevere in the faith; some fall away; like the seed sown on rocky ground, which springs up indeed, but for want of depth of soil puts forth no root, and is soon scorched by the rising sun, and, being without root, withers away.
3. But further, not all who show faith bring forth the fruit of good works; like the seed sown among the thorns, which, growing up together with it, choked it ( συνέπνιξαν αὐτὸ); such is the meaning. St. Luke has the words ( συμφυεῖσαι αἱ ἄκανθαι ἀπέπνιξαν), "the thorns grew up with it and choked it."
4. But, lastly, there are those who receive the gospel in the love of it, and bring forth fruit, not, however, in equal measures, but some thirtyfold, some sixty, some a hundred; and this on account of the greater influences of grace, or on account of the more ready co-operation of the free-will of man with the sovereign grace of God. The whole parable marks a gradation. In the first case the seed produces nothing; in the second it produces only the blade; in the third it is near the point of producing fruit, but fails to bring forth to perfection; in the fourth it yields fruit, but in different measures.
And he said, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. St. Luke (Luke 8:8) bus a stronger word than ( ἔλεγεν) "he said." He (Luke 8:8) has ( ἐφώνει) "he cried." Our Lord uses this expression, "he that hath ears to hear," etc, when the subject-matter is figurative or obscure, as though to rouse the attention of his hearers. He has "ears to hear" who diligently attends to the words of Christ, that he may ponder and obey them. Many heard him out of curiosity, that they might bear something new, or learned, or brilliant; not that they might lay to heart the things which they heard, and endeavor to practice them in their lives. And so it is with those who go to hear sermons on account of the fame of the preacher, and not that they may learn to amend their lives; and thus the words of Jehovah to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:32) are fulfilled, "And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not."
When he was alone. These words do not appear in St. Matthew's account. He simply says that " the disciples came and said unto him." This must have been upon some other occasion. It could not have been when be was preaching from the boat; for St. Mark says, they that were about him with the twelve. He is the only evangelist who notices this. We must not forget that, besides the twelve, there were seventy other disciples. They asked of him the parables ( τὰς παραβολάς), according to the best reading. The inquiry was a general one, although St. Mark here gives the explanation of one only.
Mark 4:11, Mark 4:12
To know the mystery. The Greek verb γνῶναι, to know, is not found in the best manuscripts, in which the words are ( ὑμῖν τὸ μυστὴριον δέδοται), unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God. Our Lord here explains why he spake to the mixed multitude in parables; namely, because most of them were as yet incapable of receiving the gospel: some would not believe it, others reviled it. Therefore our Lord here encourages his own disciples to search out his words spoken in parables, and humbly to inquire into their full meaning, that so they might become able ministers and efficient preachers of the gospel. Moreover, by this he shows that this efficiency cannot be obtained by our own strength, but must be humbly sought for from God. For it is his own gift which he bestows on the disciples of Christ, and denies to others, whom he leaves to the blindness of their own hearts. It is as though he said, "To you, my disciples, my apostles, it is given, since you believe in me as the Messiah, to have continually more clear revelations from me of the mysteries of God and of heaven, by which you shall day by day increase in the knowledge and love of him. But from the scribes and others, because they will not believe in me as their own Messiah, God will take away even that small knowledge which they have of him and of his kingdom. Yea, he will deprive them of all the special privileges which they have hitherto possessed." But the words are not limited in their application to those who were living on the earth when Christ sojourned here. He says to all in every age who come within the reach of his gospel, "Those who come to me with a sincere heart and a simple desire to know the truth, as you, my apostles, are doing, to them I will reveal the mysteries of my kingdom, and I will help them onwards in the path of holiness, by which they may at length attain to the heavenly kingdom. But they who have not this pure desire of truth, but indulge their own lusts and errors, from them that little knowledge of God and of Divine things will by degrees be taken away, and they will become altogether blind." Observe the expression ( ἐκείνοις δὲ τοῖς ἔξω), but unto them that are without. There were then, just as there are now, those who were outside the realm of spiritual things; not caring for, not understanding, not desirous of spiritual truth. Lest at any time they should be converted ( μήποτε ἐπιστρέψωσι)—lest haply they should turn again (the verb is active) and their sins should be forgiven them. According to the best reading, τὰ ἁμαρτήματα is omitted; so it runs, and it should be forgiven them. The use of the active verb brings out the sinner's responsibility with respect to his own conversion.
Know ye not this parable? and how shall ye know all the parables? that is, "How, then, can you expect to understand all parables, as they ought to do who are instructed unto the kingdom of heaven?" It is St. Mark alone who recalls and records these words. They are striking and vivid, as illustrating the condition of mind of the disciples at this time—slow of apprehension, and yet desirous to learn.
The sower soweth the word. St. Matthew (Matthew 13:19) calls it "the word of the kingdom"—an expression equivalent to "the gospel of the kingdom," not merely moral truth, but spiritual and eternal.
Straightway cometh Satan. St. Matthew (Matthew 13:19) says, "then cometh ( ὁ πονηρὸς) the evil one;" the same expression which our Lord uses in the Lord's Prayer, and which helps to justify the English rendering in the Revised Version there. As the seed failing by the wayside is refused by the hard and well-trodden ground, and so is readily picked up by the birds; in like manner, the seed of God's Word, falling upon a heart rendered callous by the custom of sinning, is straightway snatched away by "the evil one," urging the heart again to its accustomed sins. Well may we pray to be delivered from this "evil one."
Mark 4:16, Mark 4:17
And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground. This sentence would be better rendered, And these in like manner are they that are sown upon the rocky places, where the words "likewise," or "in like manner," mean "by a similar mode of interpretation." This is the second condition of soil on which the seed is sown—a better condition than the former; for the former plainly refused the seed, but this, having some soil layout. able to the germination of the seed, receives it, and the seed springs up, though but for a little while. So the rocky ground is like the heart of that hearer who hears the Word of God, and receives it with joy. He is delighted with its beauty, its justice, its purity; and he breaks forth with holy affections. But alas he has more of the rock than of the good soil in his heart. Hence the Word of God cannot strike a deep root into his soul. He is not constant in the faith. He endures but for a time, and in the hour of temptation he falls away.
And these are they which are sown among thorns. According to the best authorities, the words are ( καὶ ἄλλοι εἰσιν), and others are they, etc. This marks a considerable difference between the two classes. This is the third condition of soft; and it is so much better than the former, inasmuch as the thorns present less obstacles to the growth of the seed than the rocky ground does. This similitude indicates the heart of that hearer who is beset with the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches and the lusts of other things.
The cares of the world ( τοῦ αἰῶνος); literally, of the age; that is, temporal and secular cares, incident to the age in which our lot is cast, and which are common to all. These, like thorns, distress and trouble, and often wound the soul; while, on the other hand, the care of the soul and the thought of heavenly things compose and establish the mind. The deceitfulness of riches. Riches are aptly compared to thorns, because, like thorns, they pierce the soul. St. Paul (1 Timothy 6:10) speaks of some who, through the love of riches, "have pierced themselves through with many sorrows." Riches are deceitful, because they often seduce the soul from God and from salvation, and are the cause of many sins. "How hardly," says our Lord, "shall a rich man enter into the kingdom of God I" They have a tendency to choke the Word of God, and to weaken the power of religion. "Those are the only true riches," says St. Gregory, "which make us rich in virtue."
Those are they that were sown upon the good ground. The good ground represents the heart which receives the Word of God with joy and desire, and true devotion of spirit, and which steadfastly retains it, whether in prosperity or in adversity; and so yields fruit, "sows thirty, some sixty, and some a hundredfold." St. Jerome remarks that, as of the bad ground there were three different kinds—the way, side, the rocky, and the thorny ground; so of the good ground there is a threefold gradation indicated in the amount of its productiveness. There are differences of conditions in the hearts both of those who believe and of these who do not believe.
Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, etc.? The Greek is ὁ λύχνος, and is better rendered the lamp. The figure is recorded by St. Matthew (Matthew 5:15) as used by our Lord in his sermon on the mount. It is evident that he repeated his sayings, and used them sometimes in a different connection. The lamp is here the light of Divine truth, shining in the person of Christ. Is the lamp brought to be put under the bushel? It comes to us. The light in our souls is not of our own kindling; it comes to us from God, that we may manifest it for his glory. "The bushel" ( μόδιος), from the Latin medias, a measure containing flour, was the flour-bin, a part of the furniture of every house, as was the tall lampstand with its single light. St, Luke (Luke 8:16) calls it "a vessel" ( καλύπτει αὐτὸν σκεύει). The light is to be set on "a lamp-stand," and in like manner the light which we have received is to shine before men. As Christians, we are Christ's light-bearers. By this illustration our Lord teaches that he was unwilling that the mysteries of this great parable of the sower and of other parables should be concealed, but that his disciples should unfold these things to others as he had to them, although at present they might not be able to receive them.
For there is nothing hid which shall not be manifested. The Greek of the latter part of this sentence, according to the best authorities, runs thus: ἐὰν μὴ ἵνα φανερωθῇ; so the true rendering of the words is, there is nothing hid save that it should be manifested; that is, there is nothing now hid, but in order that it may be made known. There is a great principle of the Divine operations here announced by our Lord. Much, very much, is now hidden from us, in nature, in providence, and in grace. But it will not always be hidden. In natural things more and more is revealed as science advances, and in providence and in grace the mysteries of the kingdom will one day, and at the fitting time, be laid open to all. "What I tell you in the darkness, speak ye in the light" (Matthew 10:27).
Take heed what ye hear. Attend, that is, to these words which ye hear from me, that ye may understand them, and commit them to memory, and so be able to communicate them effectually to others. Let none of my words escape you. Our Lord bids us to pay the greatest attention to his words, and so to digest them that we may be able to teach them to others. With what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you: and more shall be given unto you. Our Lord's meaning is clearly this: If you freely and plentifully communicate and preach my doctrine to others, you shall receive a corresponding reward. Nay, you shall have a return in far more abundant measure. For thus the fountains, the more water they pour out below, so much the more do they receive from above. Here, then, is great encouragement to all faithful teachers of the Word, of whatever kind; that by how much they give to others in teaching them, by so much the more shall they receive of wisdom and grace from Christ; according to those words of the apostle, "He that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" (2 Corinthians 9:6).
For he that hath, to him shall be given. He that uses his gifts, whether of intellect or of goodness, bestowed upon him by God, to him shall be granted an increase of those gifts. But from him who uses them not, God will gradually take them away. Christ here encourages his apostles and disciples to diligent and earnest preaching of his gospel, by promising them in return yet greater influxes of his wisdom and grace.
This parable is recorded by St. Mark alone. It differs greatly from the parable of the sower, although both of them are founded upon the imagery of the seed cast into the ground. In both cases the seed represents the doctrine of the gospel; the field represents the hearers; the harvest the end of the world, or perhaps the death of each individual hearer. So is the kingdom of God, in its progress from its establishment to its completion. The sower casts seed upon the earth, not without careful preparation of the soil, but without further sowing. And then he pursues his ordinary business. He sleeps by night; he rises by day; he has leisure for other employment; his work as a sower is finished. Meanwhile the seed germinates and grows by its own hidden virtues, assisted by the earth, the sun, and the air, the sower knowing nothing of the mysterious process. First comes the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. Such is the preaching of the gospel. Here, therefore, the sower represents human responsibility in the work. The vitality of the seed is independent of his labour. The earth develops the plant from the seed by those natural but mysterious processes through which the Creator is ever working. So in spiritual things, the sower commences the work, and the grace of God perfects it in the heart which receives these influences. The earth beareth fruit of herself. In like manner, by degrees, the faith of Christ increases through the preaching of the gospel; and the Church grows and expands. And what is true of the Church collectively is true also of each individual member of the Church. For the heart of each faithful Christian produces first the blade, when it conceives good desires and begins to put them into action; then the ear, when it brings them to good effect; and lastly the full corn in the ear, when it brings them to their full maturity and perfection. Hence our Lord in this parable intimates that they who labour for the conversion of souls ought, with much patience, to wait for the fruit of 'their labour, as the husbandman waits with much patience for the precious fruits of the earth.
But when the fruit is ripe ( ὅταν δὲ παραδῷ ὁ καρπὸς). The verb here is active; it might be rendered delivereth up, or alloweth. It is a peculiar expression, though evidently meaning "when the fruit is ready." He putteth forth the sickle, because the harvest is come. As soon as Christ's work is completed, whether in the Church or in the individual, "immediately" the sickle is sent forth. As soon as a Christian is ready for heaven, God calls him away; and therefore we may infer that it is unwise, if not sinful, for a Christian, pressed it may be with sickness or trouble, to be eager in wishing to leave this world. "It is one thing to be willing to go when God pleases; it is another thing to speak as though we wished to hasten our departure." "When the fruit is ripe, immediately he putteth forth the sickle." If therefore, the sickle is not yet sent forth, it is because the fruit is not yet fully ripe. The afflictions of the faithful are God's means to ripen them for heaven. They are the dressing which the Lord of the vineyard employs to make the tree more fruitful, to make the Christian more fruitful in grace, and more ripe for glory.
Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it! In the first clause of this verse the best authorities give πῶς for τίνι, How shall we liken the kingdom of God? and in the second clause, instead of the Greek of which the Authorized Version is the rendering, the best-approved reading is ( τίνι αὐτὴν παραβολῇ θῶμεν), in what parable shall we set it forth? Our Lord thus stimulates the intellect of his hearers, by making them his associates, as it were, in the search for appropriate similitudes (see Dr. Morison, in loc.). The kingdom of God, that is, his Church on earth, is like a grain of mustard seed. By this image our Lord shows the great power, fertility, and extension of the Church; inasmuch as it started from a very small and apparently insignificant beginning, and spread itself over the whole world. It is not literally and absolutely true that the grain of mustard seed is less than all seeds. There are other seeds which are less than it. But the expression may readily be allowed when we compare the smallness of the seed with the greatness of the results produced by it. It is one of the least of all seeds. And so the preaching of the Gospel and the establishment of the Church was one of the smallest of beginnings. Perhaps the well-known pungency of the seed of the mustard plant may suggest the quickening, stimulating power of the Gospel when it takes root in the heart. The mustard plant shoots out large branches, which are used as fuel in some countries, quite large enough for shadow for the birds. A traveler in South America says that it grows to so large a tree upon the slopes of the mountains of Chili that he could ride under its branches.
Mark 4:33, Mark 4:34
With many such parables; such, that is, as he had just been delivering—plain and simple illustrations which all might understand; not abstruse and difficult similitudes, but sufficiently plain for them to perceive that there was heavenly and Divine truth lying hidden beneath them, so that they might be drawn onwards through that which they did understand, to search into something hidden beneath it, which at present they did not know. But privately to his own disciples he expounded ( ἐπέλυε) all things. This word ( ἐπιλύω) occurs nowhere else in the Gospels. But it does occur in St. Peter's second Epistle (2 Peter 1:20), "No Scripture is of any private ( ἐπιλύσεως) exposition, or interpretation." This suggests a connection between St. Mark's Gospel and that Epistle, and may be accepted as an auxiliary evidence, however small, as to the genuineness of the Epistle.
Mark 4:35, Mark 4:36
And on that day,—the day, that is, on which the parables were delivered, at least those recorded by St. Mark—when even was come, he saith unto them, Let us go over unto the other side. And leaving the multitude, they take him with them, even as he was, in the boat. It was the boat from which he had been preaching. They made no special preparation. They did not land first to obtain provisions. It would have been inconvenient to go ashore in the midst of the crowd. They made at once, as he told them to do, for the other side. And other boats were with him. This is another interesting circumstance. Probably those who were in these boats had availed themselves of them to get nearer to the great Prophet, the boatmen themselves having seen the vast crowd that was gathered on the shore, and so having been attracted thither. Thus he had a large audience on the sea as well as on the land. And not it was so ordered that he was surrounded by a fleet and by a multitude of witnesses when he stilled the tempest.
And there arose a great storm of wind; literally, there ariseth ( γίνεται λαίλαψ). St. Mark often uses the historical present, which gives vigor and point to his narrative. And the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling ( ἤδη γεμίζεσθαι). St. Matthew says (Matthew 8:24), "the boat was covered with the waves." St. Luke (Luke 8:23), "they were filling with water, and were in jeopardy." Bede and ethers have thought that the boat in which Christ was the only boat that was tossed by this storm; in order that Christ might show his power in limiting the area of the tempest. But it is far more probable that the ether boats were subject to it; for they were very near to the boat in which Christ was. There must have been some reason for the allusion to these boats; and the wider the reach of the tempest, the greater would appear the Divine power of Christ in stilling it, and the greater the amount of testimony to the reality of the miracle. The miracle was wrought to show his power over all creation, the sea as well as the dry land; and that they, his disciples, and all who were with him might believe in him as the Omnipotent God. But further, this tempest on the sea of Galilee was a type and symbol of the trials and temptations which should come on the Church. For the Church of God is as a ship in a storm, ever tossed upon "the waves of this troublesome world." And then, moreover, as the rude storm urges the ship onwards, so that it more quickly reaches the desired haven, so afflictions and temptations quicken Christ's disciples to the greater desire of holiness, by which they are borne onwards more speedily to "the haven where they would be."
And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow; more literally, he himself was in the stern ( ἦν αὐτὸς ἐπὶ τῇ πρύμνῃ) asleep on the cushion ( ἐπὶ τὸ προσκεφάλαιον καθεύδων). He had changed his posture. He was weary with the labour of addressing the great multitude. He had sought the momentary rest which the crossing of the lake offered to him. He was resting his head upon the low bench which served both for a seat and for a pillow. But while he slept as man, he was watchful as God. "Behold, he that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." Master, carest thou not that we perish? This question savours of impatience, if not of irreverence. Who so likely to have put it as St. Peter? Nor would he be likely afterwards to forget that he had put it. Hence, probably, its appearance in St. Mark's Gospel.
And he arose—literally, he awoke ( διεγερθεὶς)—and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still ( σιώπα πεφίμωσο); literally, Be silent! be muzzled! The Greek perfect implies that before the word was uttered, the thing was done by the simple fiat of his will preceding the word. The combined descriptions of the synoptists show that the storm was very violent, such as no human power could have composed or stilled. So that these words indicate the supreme authority of Christ as God, ruling the sea with his mighty power. Thus Christ shows himself to be God. In like manner, Christ is able to overrule and control the persecutions of the Church and the temptations of the soul. St. Augustine says that "when we allow temptations to overcome us, Christ sleeps in us. We forget Christ at such times. Let us, then, remember him. Let us awake him. He will speak. He will rebuke the tempest in the soul, and there will be a great calm." There was a great calm. For all creation perceives its Creator. He never speaks in vain. It is observable that, as in his miracles of healing, the subjects of them usually passed at once to perfect soundness, so here, there was no gradual subsiding of the storm, as in the ordinary operations of nature, but almost before the word had escaped his lips there was a perfect calm.
And he said unto them, Why are ye fearful! have ye not yet faith? Not πῶς οὐκ ἔχετε, but οὔπω ἔχετε. If they had faith, they would have known that, though asleep, he could preserve them.
And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? This would seem to have been said by the sailors, though it was doubtless assented to by all.
It is a picturesque and memorable sight. Multitudes of people, of all classes and from every part of the land, have assembled on the western shore of the Galilean lake, where Jesus is daily occupied in teaching and in healing. To protect himself from the pressure of the crowd, and the better to command his audience, Jesus steps into a boat, and pushes off a few yards from the beach. There, with the fair landscape before him, corn-fields covering the slopes, the birds of the air above, winging their flight over the still waters,—the great Teacher addresses the people. His language is figurative, drawn from the processes of nature and the employments of husbandry, probably at the very moment apparent to his eye. How natural that, at this moment and in this scene, our Lord should introduce a new style of teaching, should enter upon a new phase of ministry! The parable, as a vehicle for spiritual truth, had indeed been employed by Jewish teachers and prophets; but it was our Lord himself who carried this style of spiritual instruction to perfection.
I. THE sower. Every man, and especially every teacher, is a sower—intellectual, moral, or both. Christ is emphatically the Sower. He was such in his ministry on earth; in his death, when the corn of wheat fell into the ground and died, he was both the Sower and the Seed; in the gospel dispensation he continues to be the Divine Sower. His apostles and all his ministers have been sowing through the long centuries, or rather he has been sowing by their hands. How wise, liberal, diligent, unwearied, is Christ in this beneficent work!
II. THE SEED. This is the Word of God. All truth is spiritual seed; the truth relating to God—his will and grace—is "the seed of the kingdom." Like the seed, the gospel is comparatively small and insignificant; it has within it inherent vitality, a living germ; it is seemingly thrown away and hidden; its nature is to grow and to increase and multiply; it is tender and depends upon the treatment it meets with whether it lives or dies.
III. THE sore. The human heart is adapted to receive and to cherish the spiritual seed. But as on the surface of the earth some ground is fertile and some is barren, some ground is adapted to one crop and other ground to a crop of different kind, so it is in the spiritual husbandry. Whilst all hearts are created to receive the heavenly seed, and only fulfill their end when they bear spiritual fruit, we cannot but recognize the marvellous diversity of soil into which the gospel is deposited. Yet we must not so interpret the parable as to countenance the doctrine of fatalism.
IV. THE sowing. Was the sower in the parable guided, in the manner and measure of his sowing, by the likelihood or otherwise that the land would prove fruitful? No; neither should the gospel sower reckon probabilities: his Master did not. The sower should be liberal and indiscriminate, should "sow beside all waters," should remember that he "knows not which shall prosper, this or that." It is for him to do his work diligently and faithfully, and leave results to God; e.g. the mother and the child, the teacher and the class, the master and the pupil or apprentice, the preacher and the congregation, the author and the reader.
V. THE GROWTH. This is not universal; for, as the parable reminds us, it comes to pass, both in the natural and the spiritual sowing, that in some cases the seed disappears and comes to nought. Yet the redemption of Christ proclaimed, and the grace of the Holy Spirit vouchsafed, co-operate oftentimes to most blessed results, even as in nature seed and soil, showers and sunshine, produce a vigorous growth.
VI. THE HARVEST. What is the end of sowing and tilling, of culture and toil? It is fruit. And, in the spiritual kingdom, what is the aim and recompense of the Divine and of all human sowers? It is fruit—of holiness, obedience, love, joy, peace, eternal life. It shall not be wanting. "My word shall not return unto me void;" "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy;" "They shall bring their sheaves with them;" it may be "after many days." There is a harvest in time, and a richer, riper harvest in eternity.
1. One of encouragement for all gospel sowers; they are doing the Master's work, they are following the Master's example, they are assured of the Master's support.
2. One of admonition to all to whom the Word is preached. Take heed what and how you hear. The seed is heavenly; is the soil kindly, prepared, grateful, fruitful?
Mark 4:4, Mark 4:15
The Word stolen from the heart.
Young preachers, in the strength of their convictions and the ardor of their benevolence, are often inspired with enthusiastic expectations concerning the results of the preaching of the gospel. It seems to them that the Word has only to be addressed to men's minds in order to meet with an eager, grateful, and immediate acceptance. As their experience enlarges, and as they learn in how many cases reason and conscience are silenced by the clamor of passion and interest, or disregarded through the power of sinful habit or the influence of sinful society, they turn to this parable, and learn how just was the view and how tempered the expectations of the Divine Teacher and Saviour, as to the acceptance with which his gospel should meet.
I. THE HEART HARDENED BY WORLDLINESS AND SIN IS NOT RECEPTIVE OF THE WORD.
1. Wordly thoughts and cares preoccupy the mind, so that there is no response to the appeals of the gospel. When the attention is absorbed by things seen and temporal, spiritual realities appear imaginary and uninteresting. As there was no room for the babe Jesus at the inn, so the nature which welcomes every passing guest finds no place for the King and for his Word.
2. Sin shuts out the truth. There is no fellowship between light and darkness. The sinner's heart is closed against the heavenly rays. What preacher could not, from his own observation, offer many a living illustration of the saying, "Men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil" ? To revert to the figure of the text, sin loved and unrepented of treads down the heart into a hard, impenetrable pathway, where no glebe breaks up, in frost, in shower, or in sunshine, to give a welcome, a home, a cradle, to the germ of spiritual life.
3. Familiarity with truth unheeded hardens any nature against the gospel. Who are the least hopeful in our congregations? Surely they are those who have, from habit or through influence, been attending the "means of grace" for many years, to whom every statement, every appeal, every remonstrance, every warning, is an old familiar sound, "a twice-told tale." The nature becomes not only indifferent, but callous; there is no real heed, no living susceptibility, no response of faith and joy.
II. THE ENEMY OF SOULS SNATCHES THE WORD FROM THE HARDENED HEART. The condition of the sinner's soul is such as offers to Satan an occasion for frustrating the benevolent designs of the Divine Sower. Had the seed fallen into good ground and been covered over, there would have been no invitation or opportunity for the birds to snatch it away. So it is only the worldly, sensual, or unbelieving nature that, so to speak, tempts the tempter himself. By the birds it is usually understood that the great Teacher intends to represent evil thoughts and imaginations and desires, such as possess the unspiritual and unthinking. How true to the life is this account! How many careless and unbelieving hearers of the gospel no sooner leave the church in which they have listened to the Word, than common, foolish, selfish, sinful thoughts take possession of their mind, and the Word is snatched away—is as though it had not been! The necessary result is that there is no fruit. How can there be fruit when the Word has not been mixed with faith in the heater's heart? "Do you take care that it falls not on, but in, your souls." "Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord."
Mark 4:5, Mark 4:6, Mark 4:16, Mark 4:17
The Word starved in the heart.
The Christian preacher sometimes reason to exclaim, "Who hath believed our report?" But sometimes he has occasion to lament over those who apparently have believed but whose goodness proves, as time passes, "as the morning cloud and as the early dew, which goeth away." Our Lord warns us that we shall meet with such cases, which first excite hope and expectation, and then cloud the soul of the Christian labourer with disappointment and sorrow. Such are compared to the rocky soil, with just a scattering of earth upon the surface, where the seed may grow, but where it will never live to produce a crop.
I. GROWTH EXCITES HOPE. In the cases symbolized by this part of the parable there is much to please and encourage the inexperienced sower of the Divine Word. We observe:
1. Sensibility and susceptibility. How different from the wayside hearer is this! Here we behold the truth obtaining at once a lodgment and welcome in the heart. An impressible nature is affected by the glad tidings which Christ brings from heaven. The conscience is aroused, the judgment is convinced, the heart is captivated. The first contact of the truth with the soul is of the most hopeful character.
2. Gladness follows the reception of the Word; for this is an emotional nature, responsive to the joyful tidings. This is indeed what ought to be expected; yet its occurrence is so rare as to occasion surprise and enkindle the most glowing expectations. It is especially in times of "revival" that such instances abound. A general excitement heightens the emotion of joy which springs up in the heart of the impressible hearer; it is joy as of one who finds a great treasure.
3. Precocity of growth is the natural consequence. The soil is of a "forcing" character, and yields speedy and surprising, if temporary, results. Very different from the slow, steady, gradual growth, which is most, on the whole, to be desired, is the rapid development of the religious life in the superficial convert of the apparent "revival." Extreme views, extravagant expectations, thoughtless but ardent resolves,—all testify to the quick, unhealthy growth.
II. WITHERING BRINGS DISAPPOINTMENT.
1. After a while a season of trial comes. Time tries all, and affliction and persecution arise. This is the providential appointment; it is discipline which Divine wisdom deems necessary. In the early days of Christianity this was a common test, and in some form and in some measure it continues and will long continue to be so.
2. Before the scorching sun the feeble growth is withered and destroyed. The furnace which refines the gold consumes the straw. The effect at first produced was owing to novelty, excitement, company, enthusiasm. Only the surface was reached, below was nothing. The transitory joy is followed by depression, carelessness, stolidity, obduracy. Perhaps there is a hope of the renewal of excitement, which never comes. It is seen that belief is not faith, feeling is not principle, joy is not life. To endure that test there is needed an inward, hidden life, hidden with Christ in God. There is needed a soil watered continually by heavenly dews and showers. "Blessed is he that endureth!"
1. Let sanguine preachers and teachers take a sober and scriptural view of their work, and guard against being misled by enthusiasm and extravagant expectations.
2. Let hearers of the gospel seek grace that the truth may not only touch but may penetrate their heart; let them seek the Holy Spirit's aid that they may hear the Word of God, and keep it!
Mark 4:7, Mark 4:18, Mark 4:19
The Word choked in the heart.
Thorns make a good hedge but a bad crop. The soil here described was in itself rich, good soil. But it could not grow both thorns and wheat, and, when occupied by the one, failed to yield the other.
I. WHAT ARE THE THORNS THAT OVERGROW THE SOIL? Thorns, thistles, brambles, briers, are signs of neglect. They are the emblems of the primeval curse, for the garden was by our first parents exchanged for the thorny wilderness. In our parable the thorns are explained to represent:
1. "The cares of this world." Cares, whether of State or business, of letters or science, of family or calling, may occupy the mind which has received the truth of God, to such an extent as to hinder that truth from growing up.
"Care, when it once hath entered in the breast,
Will have the whole possession ere it rest."
Cares are distractions, and, even when concerning lawful things, if unchecked, are detrimental and disastrous. This is the special temptation of the poor and hardworking. Well are we directed to be "careful for nothing," etc., and "to take no thought for the morrow," etc.
2. "The deceitfulness of riches" is depicted under the figure of the thorns. The possession of wealth may be a curse to the rich, and the search—the race—after riches may be a curse to the avaricious and worldly. The unwary are deceived; for riches promise what they cannot give, and they sometimes draw away the heart from the treasure in heaven, which alone can truly enrich and satisfy for ever. How many, trusting in riches, have failed of the kingdom!
3. "The lusts of other things" have much of mischief laid to their charge. Pleasure is a fair and fragrant flower, but it may hide a thorn. It may be manifestly sinful, it may be doubtful, it may be innocent but unduly absorbing,—and in any such case it may choke the Word. How many are the things which men put in the place of religion ! They are left unnamed, that we may supply them from our own knowledge of our own hearts and their manifold and varied snares. To desire aught earthly overmuch is to desire things heavenly too little.
II. HOW DO THESE THORNS CHOKE THE SEED? In two ways:
1. By taking up the room which the Word requires. They occupy the short and fleeting period of time allotted for our probation. The leisure for pondering and practically obeying the truth never comes. Time flies: the soul dies. They absorb attention and engage the heart. The words of the world must be listened to, and Christ must wait until "a more convenient season"—which never comes. But if the world must have our ears, must claim our hands, Christ should have our heart. Alas! men plan and toil, prosper and grow rich, respected, powerful, famous; and in doing so neglect the Word. Little know they of the mind of Paul, "To me to live is Christ."
2. By counteracting the influence of the truth. In the former case (the rocky ground) it was persecution; in this case it is the allurements of the world which prove injurious to the soul. Cares and lusts are thorns which must be choked or they choke. So thorn and corn grow side by side with a fair show. But gradually the evil gains the victory, and goodness perishes. What experienced sower has not seen and mourned over the process? Warnings are in vain. The thorns grow apace; the soul becomes insensible to all the claims of Christ, to all the appeals of the gospel. So the Word is unfruitful as before.
"Stones mar the root;
Thorns spoil the fruit."
What poor produce there is comes to no maturity, no perfection. Labour is wasted, promise is blasted, hope is clouded, all is lost!
APPLICATION. None who receive the Word of life are free from the danger here described. Search and find out the hindrances to vigor and fruitfulness in the spiritual life. Root them all up, that the Word may live and grow and yield abundance. Look for fruit; God looks for it as the only proof of life. Else, when the Lord comes and finds no fruit, the thorns will indeed be burned, but the ground will be exposed as fruitless and worthless, and "nigh unto cursing."
Mark 4:8, Mark 4:20
The Word fruitful in the heart.
Most varied results attend the preaching of the gospel. Look at our Lord's own ministry. On the one hand, we are told, "He did there no mighty works because of their unbelief;" "yet they believed not upon him; 'and we find him exclaiming, "Woe unto you, cities!" etc. On the other hand, "the multitude heard him gladly;" of the Samaritans, "many more believed because of his word," and sometimes, in their eagerness, "they pressed upon him to hear," etc. Nor was this fact peculiar to Christ's ministry; the apostles confessed that they were to some a savor of life, to others of death; and the historian records, as a matter of fact, that "some believed, and some believed not." So is it with Christian preachers in every age; there are instances which rejoice and recompense them, and others which disappoint and depress them. The great Teacher foretells in this part of the parable that there shall ever be cases in which the Lord's Word "shall not return unto him void."
I. THE PREPARED SOIL. The good ground was in contrast with the several varieties of poor and bad soil. It was soft and yielding, as distinguished from the trodden earth of the wayside. It was deep, as distinguished from the shallow sprinkling of earth upon the rock beneath. It was clean as distinguished from the foul, weedy, thorny land. So with the honest and good heart, prepared by Divine influences and responsive to Divine culture and care. There is in this figurative language no countenance given to fatalism. We meet with good ground sometimes amongst those brought up in the Christian family and Church, as in Timothy; sometimes amongst those not specially privileged, but candid and guileless, as in Nathanael; sometimes even among the outwardly wicked, who yet may not be hardened, but may be ready to welcome deliverance from their evil ways, as in some of the publicans and sinners. Similar instances are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
II. THE VITAL PROCESS. In the other cases, the seed sooner or later perishes; in this case it lives. It is neither stolen, nor starved, nor choked. The reason is that the soil accepts and retains the seed. So with the heart that not only receives but holds fast the Word of life, that cherishes and matures it, that gives it a resting-place, and welcomes all heavenly influences which can quicken and strengthen and prosper it. That nature will develop into Divine life and immortal fruitfulness which ponders the truth of God, assimilates it, keeps for it the place of honor, pre-eminence, and power, gives it room and scope and play, watches over it and prays for its vitality, energy, and increase. In such a nature the seed germinates and lives and grows, for it finds there congenial soil and cordial welcome and sustenance. The power of this life is that of the Holy Spirit: "God giveth the increase."
III. THE FRUITFUL HARVEST. What is meant by "fruit" ? Spiritual result for spiritual toil and agency and culture. In the case of the sinner, the first and most welcome fruit is that of conversion unto God. But the rich fruits expected are these: obedience, righteousness, holiness, Christlikeness, consecration, self-denial, usefulness. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace," etc. Such fruit is the only proof of life and growth. "By their fruits ye shall know them;" i.e. by the quality, the flavour, and fragrance of the moral produce. "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit;" i.e. by abundance alone can the husbandman be satisfied and recompensed. The multiplication of the seed is one of the many points of resemblance between the physical and the spiritual life. Who has not seen a heart changed by one sermon, a life made anew by one utterance or by one lesson of Divine providence? Seemingly an insignificant seed, yet a crop of glorious ripeness and luxuriance. And as for variety, every congregation of Christians is a living witness to this. Either because the same opportunities have been, in some eases, more diligently used, or because different advantages have been employed with equal assiduity; it results that some yield fruit thirty, some sixty, and others a hundredfold.
1. The responsibility of hearing the Word. God provides the seed; but the preparation of the soil is largely in our hands.
2. The expectation of the Sower is great in proportion to the greatness of our advantages. Nothing less than much fruit can satisfy him from you.
Mark 4:10-13, Mark 4:21-25
The lamp of parabolic teaching.
Probably the opposition, malignity, and misrepresentation of the scribes and Pharisees were the occasion of the commencement by our Lord of a new style of public teaching. He did not wish at present to excite so much turmoil and violence as should lead to the interruption of his ministry. His design was to introduce into men's minds new ideas of the spiritual reign of God—ideas altogether in contradiction to their own carnal notions and hopes. He knew, however, the importance of considering the character and the mental position of the learner, in order that the mature might be thoroughly enlightened and instructed, in order that the immature might be encouraged to inquiry and to thought, in order that, for a season, the doctrine might remain concealed from the unspiritual and the unsympathetic.
I. THE LAMP OF DIVINE TEACHING IS INTENDED TO GIVE LIGHT. The Galilean cottage had its lampstand, its bed, its corn-measure; and every peasant could see the absurdity of first kindling the lamp and then hiding it under the meal-box or the couch. Let it be put upon the lofty stand, and it will give light to all. So when Christ came, the great Teacher, the great Saviour, he came a light into the world, to be the light, of men. His words, his character, his deeds, his whole life, were an illumination from heaven. When he taught he taught for all humanity and for all time.
II. THE PARABOLIC FORM OF TEACHING WAS NO EXCEPTION. The parable hid the truth, made a secret of it, enclosed it like a jewel in a casket. But it was never intended that the truth should remain concealed; the intention was that it should be manifested, that it should come to light (Mark 4:22). And, as a matter of fact, the figurative and pictorial form has served to display and illumine rather than to hide the great truths of Christianity. To how many simple, childlike minds have the parables of our Lord Jesus brought home lessons of wisdom, grace, hope, and consolation! And what materials for reflection, what profound spiritual help and illumination, have they afforded to the thoughtful student of the Word! And what themes for the teacher, the preacher, the expositor, have these parables ever been found! They are "a mystery;" but a mystery is a truth once hidden but now made clear and published abroad.
III. IN FACT, PARABOLIC TEACHING IS DARKNESS TO THE UNSPIRITUAL AND LIGHT TO THE SPIRITUAL. Like all good things, it may be used and it may be abused. When Christ speaks, there are those who do not perceive, who do not understand. Is this the fault of the Word? No, it is the fault of their own inattentive, unreceptive, unsympathizing nature. It is they, the hearers, who are to blame; not the truth which they will not appreciate (Mark 4:12). Yet are there those "who have ears to hear;" and these hear. To them the Word is as music, satisfying their souls, bringing to them the thoughts of the Divine mind, the love of the Divine heart, the secret of the Divine purposes. To them it is said, "Happy are your ears, for they hear!"
IV. CHRISTIANS LEARN