Pastor David B. Curtis


The Parable of the Soils

Mark 4:1-20

Delivered 03/03/2006

How's your heart condition? Some of you may say, "Well, I'm getting along a little better." Others of you may say, "Heart condition? What heart condition? I didn't know I had a heart condition."

All of us have a heart condition, in the spiritual sense, if not the physical sense. In our text this morning Paul describes four different heart conditions. And if you are honest with yourself, you will see that one of them describes you.

This parable gives us insight to peoples' responses to the gospel, and in the end it is a very encouraging text. It assures us that if we are faithful to share the gospel of Jesus Christ that there will be those who receive and bear much fruit.

I tend to see this parable as Jesus summarizing the state of the nation of Israel as He'd found it in the previous months that He'd been ministering in the Galilee region, and the responses that the open declaration was getting.

As we look at our text, we must remember the hermeneutical principle that "context is king." The chapter and verse divisions were not in the original, so don't think that chapter four starts out of the blue. In our last study of the end of chapter three we saw that the religious leaders of Israel thought Jesus was of the devil. They couldn't deny the miraculous things that Jesus was doing, so they said He was doing them by the power of Satan. We also saw that Jesus' own family, His mother and brothers thought He was mad and needed to be committed.

So, both the religious leaders and His family have been watching Jesus for some time now. They had heard Him teach with authority and not like the scribes (Mark 1:22). They had seen or at least heard of His ministry of healing and casting out demons. They had seen Him heal the leper and the paralytic man (Mark 2:6). And with all they had seen and heard, they did not believe that He was who He said He was - the Messiah. Now with that in mind, we move into chapter 4:

Mark 4:1 (NASB) And He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very great multitude gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land.

So Jesus goes back to the sea and is out on a boat. From Matthews' account we learn that this was the same day as His confrontation with the religious leaders.

Matthew 12:50 (NASB) "For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother."
Matthew 13:1 (NASB) On that day Jesus went out of the house, and was sitting by the sea.

Jesus gets into the boat to escape being crushed by the crowd. These crowds were huge; probably in the tens of thousands. Being in the boat would also amplify His voice. Jesus is on the boat in the water, and the rest of the people are on the land, and He is teaching them.

Mark 4:2 (NASB) And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching,

This marks a change in Christ's ministry. Up to this time, He had been teaching openly to His disciples and the crowds. But suddenly, He changes His tactics. Instead of openly declaring the truth in plain language, He begins to teach the masses in parables:

Mark 4:34 (NASB) and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.

This is the first occasion Jesus ever made use of a parable. It was the parable of the soils, and all the Gospel writers agree that this was the first one He had ever told. The parable of the soils comes first in each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

A parable is: "a placing along side of" for the purpose of comparison. Dodd says, "A parable at its simplest is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to rouse it into active thought."

Mark 4:3-9 (NASB) "Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 and it came about that as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 "And other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 "And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 "And other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 "And other seeds fell into the good soil and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold." 9 And He was saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

The NASB has "Listen to this!" but the Greek is just "listen!" This is the key in Mark, chapter 4. It shows up 13 times - either "listen" or "hear." Jesus stresses both at the beginning of the parable and at the end (verse 9) that men must listen carefully.

Jesus' first century audience were all familiar with the problems attendant on growing food; the hard and stony ground which their primitive tools often made little impression on, the precious seed that could so easily be wasted; and all grieved over the birds who ate the seed before it could take root; the grain that grew too quickly without being deeply rooted, the weeds that choked the seed. They were an everyday experience of life for many. They were a part of their struggle to survive. But the question was, did they realize that they were illustrative of what could hinder them receiving His all important message?

To us today, this parable is not as familiar, because we have different and more efficient farming methods. But think with me, for a moment, of a picture of this early farmer. This farmer did not have a tractor to pull the plow, nor did he have an automatic planter to plant the seed in the earth. What he did, he did by hand or by beast. The method he used for planting his seed was to either cast it abroad by hand, or to cut a hole in a bag and carry it around himself. Sometimes he would place this bag on his beast and lead the beast around the field as the seed scattered.

Mark 4:10 (NASB) And as soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables.

Notice that this was not just the twelve, it was a wider number of His followers. They recognized that there was a lesson to be learned and came to Him seeking more truth. They begin to ask Him what the parable means.

Mark 4:11(NASB) And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables,

"To you has been given" - the "you" here are the followers of Jesus spoken of in verse 10. Jesus says to these followers, "to you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God." This compares with Jesus' words in:

John 6:65 (NASB) And He was saying, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father."

By nature man is blinded to spiritual truth. It is only as God's undeserved grace acts on him that he comprehends and responds to the truth. Jesus says they have been given the mystery - implying they have been given it by the revelation of God.

The word translated "mystery" is the Greek word musterion. Vines writes:
In the New Testament it denotes not the mysterious...but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by Divine revelation and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God and to those only who are illuminated by His Spirit. In the ordinary sense, a mystery implies knowledge withheld; its Scriptural significance is truth revealed.

The Greek word musterion occurs twenty-seven times in the New Testament, three of which are in the Gospels and four in Revelation. The remaining twenty occurrences are all in Paul's letters where it takes on the form of a descriptor for the Gospel.

The New Testament uses of this word is not to indicate a secret teaching, rite, or ceremony revealed only to some elite initiates (as in the mystery religions), but truth revealed to all believers in the New Testament. The mystery, according to Ephesians 3:1-6, is that Jew and Gentile are brought together now in one body called the church.

Mark 4:11(NASB) And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables,

Jesus makes reference to the fact that He's unveiling the mystery of the kingdom to them, but to those on the outside He's speaking in parables. Jesus' language here is very interesting. He's drawing a clear distinction between those on the inside and those on the outside. To those who are "in," He's revealing and unveiling the mystery.

The ones outside are the crowds who follow after Jesus for the miracles: the family who does not understand the mission, the religious leaders who attribute His power to Satan. For them everything is a parable, they understand the story of the parable but do not see through to its spiritual truth.


This verse is considered by many to be one of the most difficult verses in all of the Gospels to understand and interpret. There are lots of different views by a lot of different commentators.

Something I think we all struggle with is when we have our view of God clear in our minds, and we think we understand how God operates, then we run across a verse in the Bible that seems to be contrary to that. What we often do is try to rework the verse so it ends up agreeing with our preconceived theology rather than letting the verse cause us to rethink our theology. And that's what I see happening in verse 12.

What causes all the trouble with this verse has to do with the very first word in the Greek sentence that's translated "in order that" (which is a statement of purpose), and also at the end where it says "lest." Those are the two words that are argued about, because as the NASB reflects, it's basically saying that Jesus' purpose was to teach in parables so that people would not understand, lest they come and seek forgiveness. And we say, "Well, now that doesn't sound like Jesus - that He doesn't want people to understand; that He doesn't want people to come seek forgiveness."

So what do we do with that? If we change the "in order that" from a purpose statement to a result by using a word like "because," it would say: "So Jesus was teaching in parables because they were not listening." If we change the word "lest" to a word like "perhaps" it would say: "And He was hoping if He did that, maybe they would listen and perhaps come and seek forgiveness." Then we would say: "Well, now that feels better; that feels more consistent with what I understand about Jesus."

The only problem is that is not what the text says. So commentators come back and they say: "Well, you know, we think that's probably what it means, and Mark just used the wrong word by mistake. Or the copiers just copied the wrong word by mistake." But there's no evidence of that; there's no proof of that. That's just trying to reconstruct the verse to fit a theology we're more comfortable with. What we really have to do is wrestle with the text as it's written.

There's no question Jesus was saying that the purpose, the reason why He's teaching in parables, is so that they won't understand--because He doesn't want them coming and seeking forgiveness.

How do we deal with that? Well, first we have to understand this is an Old Testament quote from Isaiah, chapter 6. Isaiah had been commissioned by God to go forth and proclaim the Word of God (Isaiah 6:8), but it was not for the purpose of turning the nation back to God. It was rather to harden their hearts and to bring upon them the judgment of God:

Isaiah 6:9-10 (NASB) And He said, "Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.' 10 "Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Lest they see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed."

Just as Israel had turned from the Word of God in Isaiah's day, so they had in the days of Jesus. Jesus had claimed to be God's Messiah and Israel's Savior, but, as we have seen from chapters two and three of Mark's Gospel, this message was rejected by the leadership of the nation. They were already plotting to kill Him.

Our Lord saw His teaching ministry not as one which would result in hearing and heeding, but in hardening. He, like Isaiah, was to prepare the nation for judgment.

I understand these words of the Savior as best explained in the light of the preceding context. Jesus had presented Himself as the Messiah. The Jewish leaders had resisted this claim and rejected Jesus. They had purposed to kill Him. Finally, they went so far as to accuse Him of working as the servant of Satan. In the light of their committing "the unpardonable sin," Jesus now spoke in such a way as to conceal further revelation of His Kingdom from them. He would not cast His pearls before swine.

With that in mind, let's look at Jesus' interpretation of this parable:

Mark 4:13 (NASB) And He said^ to them, "Do you not understand this parable? And how will you understand all the parables?

Understanding this parable is critical to understanding all the parables.

Mark 4:14 (NASB) "The sower sows the word.

The "sower" is Jesus Christ. Matthew tells us this:

Matthew 13:37 (NASB) And He answered and said, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man,

Jesus was constantly sowing the message of the kingdom. But I don't think we need to limit the identity in this parable to Jesus. The sower can be any Christian proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.

The word being sown is the Gospel message, the Word of God:

Luke 8:11 (NASB) "Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God.

This parable then is about preaching the gospel. It shows us how people will respond to the Gospel.

This parable presumes the presence of communication, which demands a communicator. Paul elaborates on this need of a communicator in:

Romans 10:14 (NASB) How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?

The Word is the Word of God, and it is sown on all kinds of terrain or soil. There is no exclusivity in the sowing of the Word, it is to go out to all.

Who is responsible to sow the seed of the Word of God? All believers. Anyone who understands this glorious Gospel is responsible to share it.

I am aware of the fact that I am responsible to sow, and I am responsible to water, but I can't make the seed grow. Only God can do that.

1 Corinthians 3:6 (NASB) I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.

Keep this thought in mind "God causes the growth."

Hard Soil

Mark 4:15 (NASB) "And these are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them.

In Palestine the fields were in narrow strips with pathways in between the strips, and these would be hardened and trampled. They were rights of way (when the Apostles had walked through the cornfields in 2.23, they had used such paths). As the sower took seed from his pouch and scattered it, some would inevitably fall on such ground and be wasted for it could not take root, and the birds were ever on the watch for such seed. The sight of them pecking away at the precious seed was a familiar one to His hearers.

This kind of soil represented those with hardened hearts, such as the scribes and Pharisees. They did not really grasp the message of Jesus, nor did they care to give it any consideration. They don't process it. They don't hear it. They just immediately reject it.

As our Lord explains, this person hears the Gospel, just as clearly and accurately as any other, but he does not understand. Is there a problem with his level of intelligence? Does he have a mental denseness that precludes grasping the simplicity of the Gospel? This person may have just as much intelligence as anyone else, but his mind is darkened by sin. He may be able to grapple with weighty matters of physics and economics, but when it comes to understanding the darkness of his heart and his condemnation before God and the sufficiency of Christ to bring him into right relationship with God, he just cannot see it, because he is spiritually dead.

The text says, "Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them." - I believe that this is a reference to Satan using the Old Covenant law, pharisaic Judaism. This system had so blinded them that they could not see the truth. We know that Satan is no longer in the picture, but men are still dead in sin and have no ability to respond to the truth of the Gospel.

Have you met people like this? You attempt to share the Gospel with them, and they just have no interest, they could care less. Jesus taught us that the sharing of the Gospel would get this response.

Listen: this parable teaches us how people will respond to the Gospel. But we must understand that these soils can change. We were all at one time hard soil. So, we continue to cast the seed knowing that the result is up to God.

Most people see these next two soils as non-believers. They see only 1 out of the 4 as believing the Gospel. That's not how I see it. I see these last 3 soils as believers. So who is right? You'll have to study it for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Rocky Soil

Mark 4:16 (NASB) "And in a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy;

That part of the world has a massive limestone shelf that runs through the country. Many places have a thin layer of soil covering the limestone but not deep enough to sustain any kind of growth. When the sun comes up, it heats up the limestone. So any plant that manages to spring up gets the double blow of the beating sun above and the heat from the limestone below. Because roots cannot develop in that kind of soil, the plant withers away.

The word "receive" is present tense, and has the idea of "keep on receiving." And the word "joy" is from chara from the same root as grace, and it is a response to what God has given them. This person has believed the Gospel.

Luke 8:12-13 (NASB) "And those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 "And those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away.

Luke tells us that the hard soil does not believe, but the rocky soil does believe, but temptation causes them to fall away.

Mark 4:17 (NASB) and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away.

When affliction or persecution comes on account of the Word, because of their position as a believer, they fall apart. Affliction refers to the problems of life that come as test of the depth of doctrine. Persecution is opposition from others because of the Word in you. Both of these categories of problems can be great opportunities for the application of doctrine, but these rocky ground believers give up when the going gets rough.

The words "fall away" are from the Greek word skandalizo, which only occurs in Biblical Greek and literature influenced by it. The verb is only used metaphorically and means: "to ensnare into sin" or "to take offence at," also "to give offence to," "to anger." Thus here they are ensnared into sin, they find the word a stumbling block. This word is clearly used of a believe in:

1 Corinthians 8:13 (NASB) Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble [skandalizo], I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble [skandalizo].

In this case, the word of the Kingdom is immediately received with the joy that one would expect from a liberating declaration of the word of God where a sudden deliverance from bondage has taken place. But, because the message cannot become firmly rooted in the new believer's heart, when tribulation and persecution arises as a consequence of the message, the temptation becomes over-powering to forsake the way that they know for a way that begins to oppose it.

Because the message is simply received with joy and not developed, there becomes nothing that can be relied upon in a time of trouble that will cause the believer to remain steadfast. It's not that the trouble is too great for them to bear, but that the root has not been sufficiently developed for them to be able to withstand what comes upon them.

Therefore, the shallowness of Christian experience and teaching is probably best understood as being an attribute of this believer's life who has nothing to draw on in the day of trouble.

Although the message is received, it isn't developed - although it's accepted with open arms as being the liberating message of God, that's all it stops at and a measure of the fullness of the Gospel is not run after. Do you know believers like this?

Verse 17 describes the behavior of these disciples who abandon Jesus and flee when the guards come to arrest Him (14:50) even as He had predicted they all would (14:27).
Conversion is not the be-all-and-end-all as many would assert. Though it's the only way to come into a relationship with Christ and to be washed clean through the work of the cross, it has to be remembered that it's the first step of a long journey.

Weedy Soil

Mark 4:18-19 (NASB) "And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.

The sole point is that the life of the recipient of the message of the Gospel hasn't just the one seed growing in his life but others that are developing alongside them. In this soil, the word germinates and takes root and appears to initially flourish well because of the good soil that's here.
The cares of the world pull away from the things of God. Each of us has to be aware that in a very short time, we can find ourselves so taken up with what's temporal, we forget about those things which are eternal.
Here is the believer who doesn't have his priorities straight. Instead of having a passionate desire for the Word, his life lusts after other things. These are believers who never come to maturity. They don't apostatize, they continue in the faith, but their growth is stunted. They don't follow the words of Jesus in:

Matthew 6:33 (NASB) "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.

The kingdom is not first in their lives; they have many other interests that draw them away from fellowship with the Lord. One of our problems here in America is we are lured away by the "deceitfulness of riches."

1 Timothy 6:9-10 (NASB) But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang.

Riches promises what it cannot give; true heart satisfaction. It becomes a god in itself that rules men's lives. When men are not wealthy, they see it as something greatly to be desired and for which all else can be forfeited (Proverbs 15.27). It lures them on with its false promises and destroys lives (Proverbs 1.19; 28.20).

Do you know any believers like this? Does it describe you?

Good Soil

Mark 4:20 (NASB) "And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold."

Finally, there's the seed that falls on good soil free from hindrances. This is indicative of the person who hears the word of the Gospel and understands it, who allows it free development in his own life and forsakes those things that would hinder its growth. Finally, fruit will be born that is useful to the farmer who sowed it (this is why Jesus should be seen primarily as the sower).

The word "accept" is from the Greek word paradechomai. It means: "to accept near." The word is received or welcomed along side of you as a trusted companion. In the ancient world and even in the Near East today you never let someone you do not trust along side of you. So here the Word is trusted to come along side.

As every farmer knew, some seed sown would produce a harvest, and that was why he went on sowing. Thus there were those who would hear the word, and would take it to their hearts so that it could not only give them new life but mold their lives, and there would be fruit in abundance.

What is fruit? Fruit is the result the Spirit produces, which is Christlikeness. Fruit is not something that is attached to the branch, fastened on from without, but is the organic product of the inner life. Too often attention is directed to the outward services and actions, or the results of these services. Good fruit is a Christlike life produced by The Spirit through us as we abide in Christ:

John 15:4-5 (NASB) "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.

So, we see here that as we abide in Christ, the fruit is produced by Him through us.

In spite of all the problems that he faced, the farmer could be sure that some would grow and flourish, and when it did, it would produce in abundance. So in the end the message is positive. A harvest is guaranteed. The seed will bear fruit in receptive hearers.

Please remember what I said earlier, these soils can change. It is central to our Christian faith that change is possible. I know of hard soils that have trusted in Christ. I know of Rocky Soils and Weedy soils that have become fruitful. These soils are not necessarily permanent conditions. So, how's your heart condition?

Jesus is describing for us different responses to the Gospel. Be encouraged and remember the greater the sowing, the greater the harvest.

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