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“The sower soweth the word.” (Mark 4:14)
THIS BEGINS the most-important parable Jesus spoke while living on earth. (Mk 4:13) It has formed many sermons, and rightly so. I’ll go even further and say I haven’t heard anyone preach it incorrectly.
There is danger in things becoming too familiar, though. It’s easy to quote verses, thoughtlessly, to say we’ve learned all there is to learn and stop studying. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, and so one morning as I read this parable, I was jolted by a download of the Holy Spirit’s revelation.
But first, let’s read the parable itself from Mark 4.
(3) Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow:
(4) And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up.
(5) And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth:
(6) But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.
(7) And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.
(8) And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.
(9) And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
First, we must know the characters in this drama. We have: the SOWER, the SEED, and the SOIL. Jesus tells us the SEED is the WORD (Greek word, logos). In John 1:1, we learn the WORD (same Greek word, logos) is Jesus.
Who, then, is the SOWER? Well, Jesus said in John 12:45, “And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me.” Who sent Him? If we keep reading the passage, we learn the Father did. The SOWER, therefore, is the FATHER.
Now, consider the SOIL. The SOIL is the human heart. You and I are the types of SOIL.
Jesus listed four types of SOIL: the WAY SIDE (hard, barren ground), STONY GROUND, THORNY GROUND, and GOOD GROUND.
Notice, the same SEED was sown onto each without favoritism. That SEED (the WORD) had the potential to grow to its fullest harvest capacity in each person’s heart. Yet here, we see four different stages of plant growth and four very different harvests.
Way side—no sprouting of seeds at all
Stony ground—seeds that sprout but have no roots and quickly die
Thorny ground—seeds that sprout and grow to a certain point but bear no fruit
Good ground—seeds that mature and bear fruit at different quantities of harvest
Now, every word in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is stated on purpose. Tossing out, for the moment, quibbling about translation errors, God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) never waste their words. I say this because we MUST read the parable in context. What is given above and below it is central to our understanding of its purpose, and that purpose begins with the very first word: HEARKEN. This word in the original Greek means “to hear.” (G191) Some translations use the word “listen.”
If we skip down to verse 9, we find Jesus mentions HEARING again. “And he said unto them, He that hath ears to HEAR, let him HEAR.”
If we keep reading, the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke in parables. (Mk 4:9) He replies with another statement about HEARING. He said that to them (the disciples) is given understanding of what they HEAR, but others who HEAR will have no understanding at all. (Mk 4:11-12)
Skipping down to Mark 4:23-24, Jesus mentions HEARING one more time, saying, “If any man have ears to HEAR, let him HEAR … Take heed what ye HEAR: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that HEAR shall more be given.” (Mk 4:23-24).
HEARING is the point of the parable. We confirm this by reading His interpretation of it, given in Mark 4:14-20.
(14) The sower soweth the word.
(15) And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but WHEN THEY HAVE HEARD, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.
(16) And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, WHEN THEY HAVE HEARD the word, immediately receive it with gladness;
(17) And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.
(18) And these are they which are sown among thorns; SUCH AS HEAR THE WORD,
(19) And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.
(20) And these are they which are sown on good ground; SUCH AS HEAR THE WORD, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.
All four types of soil (all four types of LISTENERS) HEARD the WORD. No one didn’t HEAR. Why then, did some not grow to maturity and produce a harvest? It had nothing to do with the potential of the WORD.
There is more than enough life in the SEED. Isaiah 55:11 says, “So shall MY WORD be that goeth forth out of my mouth: IT SHALL NOT RETURN UNTO ME VOID, BUT IT SHALL ACCOMPLISH THAT WHICH I PLEASE, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” This is affirmed in the words of the angel to Jesus’ mother, Mary, when he said, “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” (Lk 1:37) Word-study commentators all point out that, in the original Greek, this is better written, “No word of God shall be void of power.” (VWS)
If every WORD has the power it needs to grow and multiply, then we ask our question again. Why did some people HEAR but either wilt or not bear fruit? With each type of soil, a specific reason is given, and these are important, but we must see the pattern of them as a whole.
Romans 10:17 gives us the first steps. Here, we learn that HEARING comes from the WORD, and FAITH comes from HEARING. Or we could say, FAITH is the product of UNDERSTANDING what’s been HEARD. Because as Jesus stated in Mark 4, HEARING the story is, in itself, not enough. The crowd HEARD Him speaking but only a few UNDERSTOOD what He meant.
UNDERSTANDING brought by FAITH is necessary for proper growth. But FAITH and UNDERSTANDING alone will not produce a harvest. The second step is taken in Hebrews 6:12: “FAITH and PATIENCE inherit the promises.” FAITH must be mixed with PATIENCE, or the SEED will not sprout, will not grow to maturity, and will not produce fruit.
Stating this in reverse, we see a fuller picture of the types of soil:
HEARING without FAITH will keep the SEED from sprouting.
FAITH without PATIENCE will prevent the SPROUTS from obtaining a proper growth.
PATIENCE without FAITH will cause a lack of harvest.
Each type of soil either lacks HEARING, lacks FAITH, or lacks PATIENCE or some combination of the three.
The SOILS break down this way:
The WAY SIDE is soil without FAITH or PATIENCE. These HEARERS have no belief in the WORD and therefore give it no time for growth.
Why? What happens to the SEED? Because of circumstances, culture, or other environments, whatever the individual case, Jesus explains that the enemy steals the SEED from their hard hearts, and it never has the chance to even sink in.
The STONY GROUND is soil with an initial burst of FAITH but no PATIENCE. These HEARERS have a spurt of joy in what they’ve HEARD but never put down proper roots.
Why? Outside pressure proves to be too much for them. Plants require time to grow. No farmer plants the seed then digs it up a day later. The man with FAITH, who doesn’t give the seed time, is running on EMOTIONS. He withers in the heat. Emotions alone will never provide enough stability for growth.
The THORNY GROUND is soil with PATIENCE but no FAITH. This seems odd to say, but many people LISTEN to everything else around them. They give tons of time to thoughts about fear and anxiety. They spend hours complaining about everyone around them. They attend concerts or sporting events. They surf the web for hours. They have time for all of that, but no time at all to cast down their ungodly thoughts and meditate on the WORD. (2Co 10:5)
Their uncontrolled thoughts then choke the WORD. The word “choke” used in the parable means “to suffocate,” and it comes from a word meaning “to wheeze.” (G4846) How will we HEAR the WORD and UNDERSTAND it so that our FAITH will grow, if we allow our selfish cares and desires to take the breath out of it?
In all three cases, the choice is ours. It isn’t that the WORD does not have enough power. But will we HEAR, and WHAT will we do with what we’ve HEARD? Because only FAITH and PATIENCE working together bring growth and a harvest. We see this in Luke’s telling of the story. Luke 8:15 says, “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, HAVING HEARD the word, KEEP IT, and BRING FORTH FRUIT WITH PATIENCE.”
The GOOD GROUND is the man or woman who HEARS, exercises FAITH in the power of the SEED, and then allows PATIENCE to “have her perfect work.” (Jas 1:4) They choose to tend the soil and turn aside from the distractions which prevent growth and fruitfulness.
But we must ask before we move on—why do some with GOOD SOIL produce 30, or 60, or 100-fold? (Mk 4:8, 20) What makes the difference in the size of their harvests? One commentary pointed out that God can give a 3,000-fold harvest. Why does He seem to limit himself to only 100-fold?
The truth is, He doesn’t. He is the God of abundance. (Jn 10:10) He delights to do the impossible.
In short, these are not random numbers. God does not “do” random. Jesus said 30, 60, and 100-fold on purpose, and the reason involves the Hebraic language. All letters in Hebrew correspond to a number, and all numbers having meaning. First, remember, Jesus read the Torah out loud (in Hebrew) in the synagogue, which amazed those who knew Him. (Lk 4:17, 22) Now also remember, He spoke only the words of the Father. (Jn 12:49-50)
Knowing this, these numbers have 3 specific meanings: AGE (physical age or the age of an event), the CHARACTER OF GOD or a specific name of God, and they have A SACRIFICIAL meaning.
30 is the age Jesus began His ministry. 60 is the age of retirement. 100 is a number meaning completion. 30 signifies Kingship. 60 means “never-ending” and speaks of an infinite God. 100 is a multiple of 10, and 10 is the name YHVH. 30 means reconciliation. 60 means atonement (sacrifice). 100 means forgiveness.
Did the people realize this? I suspect the religious leaders did and maybe the disciples at a later date. I find the nuances fascinating, in that light, but they aren’t what we are meant to glean.
It’s important to know that Jesus saw all four types of people during His ministry. We tend to modernize it, but He was speaking to the crowd around Him. He had seen these types of listeners, and thinking prophetically, He would see these types of listeners. He came to plant the WORD-SEED in men’s hearts SO THAT IT WOULD GROW, and along the way, there would be people who would HEAR and people who would not. But the results of their HEARING all held the same potential.
All COULD HAVE HEARD and all COULD HAVE HARVESTED.
We must also know that no person is locked into being one particular type of SOIL. The man who was Type 1, the WAY SIDE, can grow in faith and become Type 2, STONY GROUND. He can continue to stretch his faith and become Type 4 one day.
In the gospels, we see several examples of this. Peter was Type 2, Type 3, and Type 4. He denied he knew Jesus when persecution became too hot for him to handle. (Jn 18:27) He stepped out of the boat during the height of a hurricane-like storm but got to thinking about the waves and began to sink. (Mt 14:30). Yet, he was the one who knew Jesus was the Christ, and he was the one who stood before the crowd at Pentecost and proclaimed the Holy Spirit had fallen. (Mk 8:29; Act 2:14).
There’s Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, too. She was worried about the meal she was serving and reprimanded for not LISTENING. (Luke 10:40-42) But later, with her brother dead and buried for four days, she had faith in Jesus to resurrect him, proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ. ((John 11:21-22, 27)
Just because you find yourself lacking FAITH or PATIENCE today does not mean you are stuck that way.
The book of Hebrews describes this perfect combo of FAITH and PATIENCE using the word REST. (Heb 4:9) One who is RESTING in God is no longer striving to accomplish things, a worthless effort anyway, but they have FAITH in God’s Word to do what He said it would do, and they are willing to give that WORD whatever time it needs to grow fruit.
Jesus shows us this example in the final portion of Mark 4. We’ve assumed this story was tacked on to fill space, but there, we find Jesus RESTING in the boat during the height of a storm. He’s sound asleep while the disciples are terrified. They shake Him awake, “Don’t you care we’re going to die?” (Mk 4:38)
Now, was He sleeping because He didn’t care? Of course not! Read His reply to them.
“And he arose, and rebuked the wind … And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have NO FAITH?” (Mark 4:39-40)
What did He expect to see? FAITH. What did He see instead? Fear. They allowed fear to choke the WORD planted in their heart. They had already seen great miracles in His ministry. At the same time, did the disciples stay that way? No. These became great men of faith who, all but the apostle John, died as martyrs for their beliefs in Jesus Christ.
Don’t limit your future because you stumbled. God’s love for you is as great in size today as it ever was. FAITH works by LOVE. (Gal 5:6) LOVE is the motivation for the SOWER to sow the SEED into your heart. God’s LOVE is contained in the SEED, and once planted, His LOVE will grow in us and produce a harvest of more LOVE. We must both believe we are LOVED, and we must LOVE others. The power contained in the SEED does both.
LOVE is one form of harvest, and when I received this parable’s revelation, I thought that was magnificent enough. The next night, however, I had a vision of a lamp atop a tall dresser being turned on directly in my gaze. I remembered, immediately after the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke in parables, He gave a parable about a candle or lamp being placed on a lampstand. (Mk 4:21-22)
This seems to be way out-of-place. What does a candle have to do with SEED?
Ask yourself this—What does the SEED produce? What is the harvest? Most sermons list things that involve our needs – clothing, food, jobs, and the like. Or they might list the FRUIT of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal 5:22-23) Still others make it about giving. As you give, you receive a multiplied amount in return.
These are good points. But remember, spending all your time to obtaining things choked the SEED. This parable is about HEARING and UNDERSTANDING. Consider, instead, Jesus is the LIGHT (Jn 1:4,9), and LIGHT REVEALS all that it shines upon.
As the LIGHT, what or who does He reveal?
In John 14:8, the disciple Phillip asked Jesus to show them the Father. “Show us the Father, and we’ll be satisfied,” he said.
Jesus replied, nonplussed. “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?” (Jn 14:9)
Every WORD Jesus spoke, every WORK He performed was so we would know the SOWER. (Jn 12:49-50) The SEED planted by the SOWER in men’s hearts is supposed to produce REVELATION of THE SOWER.
REVELATION is the fruit of the SEED, and REVELATION OF THE FATHER and of the power of the SEED (the Holy Spirit) will give us everything else. It is our REVELATION of our RELATIONSHIP with Him that is harvested as we hold fast to the SEED, and it is a RELATIONSHIP that will assure we obtain healing and freedom or financial blessings or whatever we desire because He LOVES us. (Act 10:38; Heb 11:1)
Jesus preached the gospel wherever He went. The GOOD NEWS that He shared was that the Father could be accessed. He was no longer hidden behind the rules and regulations of the Law, but He was personal and as close as a prayer. We’ve grown used to saying He’s our heavenly Father, but when Jesus spoke these words, they had no idea what He meant. God was distant and far away and slightly scary, not near and present and with them.
Jesus came to show them God is LOVE, great amazing incredible LOVE. He came to REVEAL the plan of salvation for all men, and there is no greater REVELATION than that. Instead of focusing on things we can acquire, instead of bowing under pressure and giving up, being up one day and down the next, we are meant to take heed what we HEAR and develop in our hearts FAITH in a wonderful, loving FATHER who gave His very best for us.
That is the REVELATION that will change our lives forever. Only God’s harvest of RELATIONSHIP will ever give us things that truly last, and with it, we can change the world.
Suzanne D. Williams, Author