Mark 4:1–20

All that God wants to accomplish through the preaching of His Word will come to pass without fail. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Mark’s gospel by exploring a challenging parable from Jesus that is often misunderstood.


We continue this morning with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. This morning I will read from Mark 4:1–20. This lengthy passage gives us the famous parable of the sower. I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

And again He began to teach by the sea. And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea. Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it. Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away. And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”

And He said to them, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that

‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them.’”

And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”

He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we look now to this parable our Lord taught, we pray that we may be numbered among those who understand it, take it to heart, and be productive bearing fruit that is well pleasing to Thee. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hyper Hearing

Mark gives us the story of this parable found in the Synoptic Gospels. Some call it the parable of the sower, others refer to it as the parable of the seed, and still others refer to it as the parable of the soil. Any one of these can be extrapolated from the parable as the point of major importance and emphasis.

This parable differs from most of Jesus’ parables because generally when we come to a parable of Jesus, we look for one single, central point or meaning. We typically do not interpret parables as allegories to find significance in each part of the story. But in this case, when Jesus gives His interpretation of the parable He taught, He gives it allegorically. So, we have a strange parable, the meaning of which is not always agreed upon, even among those who have contemplated its significance for many years.

Let us look at the beginning of the parable in verse 3, where Jesus begins with an imperative, a very strong word. In the Greek it is the word akouete. In Latin it is audite. In both cases, the form of the word is imperative. It is a command, and it is translated here into the English in this manner: Jesus says, “Listen!” He gives a strong exhortation to those around Him who are listening to His teaching, and He says, “I want you really to listen.”

There is an unusual twist to the Greek language where the verb “to hear” is the verb akouein and the verb “to obey” is the word hypakouein, which simply adds the prefix we would translate as “hyper” onto the verb “to hear.”

So, obedience in biblical terms is “hyper-hearing. ”There is hearing, and there is hyper-hearing, and Jesus is calling for the latter kind of hearing, where the ear does not just have sounds bouncing against the ear drum, but what is heard goes beyond the ear and penetrates the heart of the one hearing it. With that in mind, Jesus says, “I want you to listen to this.”

God Sows His Word

With the command to listen, Jesus tells His story: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it,” and so on. Some of the seed fell upon the wayside, some upon the rocky grounds, and then some upon the good soil.

The first thing we must understand about this parable is the identity of the sower. The sower here is God. The seed refers to God’s Word. It is God who, in the final analysis, distributes His Word into the world. You may wonder about the efficiency of God as a sower when He presumably distributes the seeds haphazardly so that some of the seed is falling on the stones and some by the wayside, where the birds come and eat it. Other times it is among the hard ground, until finally some of the seed falls on the good soil.

You might be thinking: “What’s wrong with God that He’s so inaccurate in the planting of His seed?” What farmer would go out today and waste his seed by throwing it on the rocks, the road, or among thorns? We see that farmers are very careful how they use their seed. They plow the ground, till the ground, prepare the soil, then very carefully plant each seed in the kind of soil that at least potentially can bring forth a harvest. But this sower throws His seed in the rocks, in the thorns, on the highway. What kind of farming is that? It is the kind of farming that Israelites did in the ancient world.

The practice of farming took place not where the land was plowed and cleared of stones and then the seed was planted. The common way of planting at that time was to throw the seed first and then plow. The term “plow” is a euphemism because the plow utilized in these days was basically little more than a pointed stick that dug up the soil a little bit so that some seed would sink into it.

One scholar tells of going to Galilee, the site where this parable was originally given. He saw a place where the roads were packed down with mud hardened on the surface, where people had trod, ridden donkeys, and so on. Alongside these pathways were thorns and bushes, then a very stony section, and then just beyond the stony section, the scholar reported seeing a lush, verdant field filled with fruit. He stopped and said: “I’ve just lived the parable of the sower. I’ve just walked in the very ground where Jesus spoke of these things.”

The point is that when God sows His seed, which is His Word, it is spread about indiscriminately, in a sense. He does display pearls before swine. God gives His Word to people who have no interest in it whatsoever, who have no use for it, who are so hostile to it that it seems as though God’s Word, or His seed in this case, is being wasted. We also remember that it was God’s choice to use His Word as the means to save His people. He has empowered that Word that carries with it salvation. We know that God, the sower, promises that His Word will not return unto Him void. So, one of the main points of this parable is that when God sends His Word, in the final analysis, what God wants to accomplish with the preaching of His Word is accomplished.

In the ancient world, a good harvest happened when the land produced the fruit tenfold beyond the seed that was planted. But when God is the sower of His seed, the harvest He brings is thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. So, we cannot look at the sower as operating haphazardly such that His plan is completely destroyed by the obstacles that rise up to thwart His Word. God’s sowing is sovereign, and it brings to pass what He intends for it to bring to pass.

Seed Snatched Away

As the parable continues, Jesus talks about that seed that the birds come and eat before anybody has a chance to watch it try to plant itself. The birds are likened here to Satan, who snatches that Word away before it ever even hits the earth at all. Of course, this likens itself to what happens to farmers who plant seed.

I will never forget the time I planted a huge, vast expanse of a yard. When we started our study center in western Pennsylvania, I was the cook, chief bottle washer, and all the rest in that enterprise, and I had to install the yard. I raked it, removed all the stones, turned over the soil, and then scattered the seed, covered it with straw, and watered it meticulously.

I was going crazy watching the birds gather on the yard to eat the seed because every one of those seeds the birds ate was one less blade of grass I was going to get from my labor. Anybody who has ever planted a garden knows the damage that the birds can do to it, not to mention the rabbits and other forms of junior-grade demons that Jesus talks about in this text.

Seed of Spurious Conversion

Listen to what Jesus says about seed that falls on the stony ground: the seed sown on stony ground are those who, when they hear the Word, immediately receive it with gladness, but they have no root and endure only for a time. What I see here theologically is a vivid description of the spurious conversion.

We see this regularly when an evangelist gives his altar call, and the people rush to the front of the church to sign a commitment card. They raise their hands. They make the profession of faith. They are all excited. They are filled with momentary joy, but the next day it is business as usual.

I know of one famous person, whose name you would recognize, who went to the altar so many times that when the preacher called for those who wanted to be filled by the Holy Ghost, this man came down the aisle for probably the tenth time. When he came down, a lady in the audience said, “Don’t fill him Lord, he leaks.” You might know someone like that.

I will never forget the night I was converted to Christ. My best friend and I were together, and before we went to bed later that night, we both sat down and wrote to our girlfriends about our conversion. When we woke up in the morning, my friend had completely repudiated what he embraced with joy the night before, whereas my life changed forever. That has always haunted me. I see people initially respond to the gospel, but it does not take root. It does not last. Jesus says, “Immediately, the seed withers and dies because it has no place to take root.”

Seed of False Profession

Next, Jesus says that some seed fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. Once again, we see an example of a spurious conversion, of somebody who makes a profession of faith but is immediately intoxicated by the enticements of this world—the quest for money, fame, lust, or whatever it is. What they professed is choked out, never taking root again.

Beloved, this is why, until you are tired of hearing it, I keep warning and telling you that no one has ever been justified by a profession of faith. We must possess that faith in order to be justified. That seed must take root in our hearts if we are to enter the kingdom of God. A superficial profession of faith is no sign of true redemption.

One of the ghastliest doctrines that has made its way through the evangelical church today is this idea of the carnal Christian. The carnal Christian is described as a person who is truly redeemed but whose life never brings forth fruit. Even though they are saved, they are still altogether carnal. Do not confuse this with what the New Testament teaches about the truly converted person who fights against his flesh all his life; there is no such thing as a Christian who is totally carnal. It is a contradiction in terms.

Why did the doctrine of the carnal Christian emerge? It came from evangelists who could not stand to admit the idea that they were dealing with false professions all the time. They saw people who made a profession, but with no change in their lives, and said: “We’ll still count them as converts. They’re just carnal Christians.” This gives confidence to people who are not converted that, in fact, they are converted.

If the parable is going to be called the parable of the soil, then we must understand that the only ones who bring forth fruit, the harvest of thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold, are those where the seed falls upon good soil.

Soil Must Be Transformed

This is where we must be very careful. A person might say: “The good soil means that the seed will not take root unless the one who receives that seed, who hears that Word, is a good person. I’m a Christian because I believe the Word, and the reason I believe the Word is because I’m good.” If that is how one thinks, that person never received the Word at all. That is not the point of this parable.

What makes the soil good soil? It drives us back to a question we hear all the time in theology: Why does one person receive the Word of God in his heart and another person does not? Is it because there is something more righteous in the person who receives it than the person who rejects it?

That is the majority view, believe it or not. Some people think that the reason they are Christians is because, out of their own will, they made the right decision and embraced Christ where their friends hardened their hearts and did not use their will to embrace the gospel. They, therefore, have something of which to boast eternally because they said, “Yes.”

The Scriptures and Jesus, however, tell us clearly that unless a man is born again, he cannot even see the kingdom of God. He cannot enter the kingdom of God. Jesus told His disciples in John 6 that nobody can come to Him unless it is given to Him by the Father. Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Ephesians when he says: “You hath He quickened when you were dead in trespasses and sin. But by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”

What makes soil good is the immediate, supernatural work on the soul by the God the Holy Spirit. The only people who ever embrace the Word of God are those who have first been changed by the Holy Ghost to receive the Word of God.

What I am saying is that regeneration comes before faith. The Holy Spirit must change your heart before you will ever say yes to Jesus. That is the power of the sower, because the sower prepares the soil to receive the seed. That is why we say salvation is of the Lord, and to Him and Him alone belongs the glory. This is hard to understand, but if you have ears to hear, you will hear it.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.