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The Anatomy of a Parable - The Disciple's Question

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Introduction

Good morning and welcome to Dishman Baptist Church. If you have your Bibles with you please take them and open them to Mark 4, Mark 4. It is always a privilege to stand up and to open the Word of God with you but there are some mornings that it is a great challenge to do so as well. I have said this many times but one of the great aspects or characteristics of expositionally looking at a book is that there is no way to avoid what comes next. And sometimes what comes next is a hard passage. Sometimes what comes next is considered by many commentators and scholars to be among the most difficult verses in all of the book - and it is that sort of passage that we come to today.
We’ve been working our way through the book of Mark since September and I was told this week that I made a misstep last Sunday when I said that we’ve been in this book for six months and we’ve only just cracked verse 4 - we’ve been taking it slow but not quite that slowly. But last week we started to look at this critical shift in Jesus teaching style, this critical passage in Mark that we could have been tempted to read through and cover all in one week. It is a story or parable that we are all familiar with and we’re just as familiar with the explanation as we are with the parable itself. But had we done that I think we would have done ourselves a great disservice and would have missed out on the true depth and meaning of this passage and what it has for each of us.
Just to refresh our minds I’m going to read the whole passage again - the parable, the interlude and the explanation - but we’re only going to be looking at the middle verses this week. We’ll focus in on verses 10-12. This passage is one of the clearest examples of what some scholars call a Markan sandwich - where he will start off on one thought or story, stop in the middle to introduce something else and then complete the story after completing his interrupted thought. This particular sandwich has some very satisfying meat in the middle so lets read the passage together and then dig in to see what the Spirit has for each of us today.
Mark 4:1–20 CSB
Again he began to teach by the sea, and a very large crowd gathered around him. So he got into a boat on the sea and sat down, while the whole crowd was by the sea on the shore. He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Consider the sower who went out to sow. As he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where it didn’t have much soil, and it grew up quickly, since the soil wasn’t deep. When the sun came up, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it didn’t produce fruit. Still other seed fell on good ground and it grew up, producing fruit that increased thirty, sixty, and a hundred times.” Then he said, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen.” When he was alone, those around him with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. He answered them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that they may indeed look, and yet not perceive; they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back and be forgiven.” Then he said to them: “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand all of the parables? The sower sows the word. Some are like the word sown on the path. When they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word sown in them. And others are like seed sown on rocky ground. When they hear the word, immediately they receive it with joy. But they have no root; they are short-lived. When distress or persecution comes because of the word, they immediately fall away. Others are like seed sown among thorns; these are the ones who hear the word, but the worries of this age, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. And those like seed sown on good ground hear the word, welcome it, and produce fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what was sown.”
As we approach this text it is important to recall that the rules that we commonly see in modern day biographies do not necessarily apply to the ancient biographies into which Mark’s Gospel falls. They were written for a purpose, the writer had an agenda, and the boundaries of chronological order didn’t always satisfy their need and so they would take license with events and how they presented events as they would write their accounts. The early church father Papias testified that Mark wrote accurately and endeavored to make no false statements but that he did not write entirely in chronological order.
So one of the challenges that this text has presented is when exactly did this side conversation between Jesus and His disciples take place? In Mark 4:1-2 we’re told that Jesus is on the seashore and he gets into a boat to sit down and start to teach the crowds. Then we have this little interlude that we’re going to be looking at today and later, after the explanation and a few more parables we’re told that Jesus is once again in a boat. And so there have been many questions as to when exactly this private moment happens between Jesus and those who were gathered around Him.
The other challenge, the more significant challenge for me today, is what does Jesus mean by what He says in this text. Of all the characteristics of the Christian faith that the world finds objectionable probably the most objectionable is the exclusivity of the Gospel. The idea that there are those who are in and those who are out. Really if Jesus had just said that He was a way rather than the way then everyone could just get along. And here in this passage today Jesus separates those who have been given the secret of the Kingdom of God from those who can’t grasp it. He continues to separate those who are on the inside from those who are outside.
As we look through these verses we’re going to learn specifically three things - that there are insiders, that there are outsiders and that we preach the Gospel indiscriminately to both because we never know which we might be speaking to at any given moment. And so we’re going to find that this passage has great importance for each of us as we examine both our own status with respect to Jesus but also in how we evangelize. And at the end the question we will each be left with is am I on the inside or the outside?

The Insiders

We sit in a privileged position. As we examine this book we are witnesses to many turning points and high points in the ministry of Jesus. We were witnesses to His baptism and the beginnings of His ministry. We were witnesses on the mountain as He chose the twelve men who would be entrusted to lead the birth and growth of the church in the days following Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. Here in this passage Mark is allowing us a view into another, although slightly different, turning point in Jesus ministry. Up until this moment much of Jesus teaching ministry has taken place within the Synagogues. As a Jewish rabbi Jesus had confined much of His teaching opportunities to the Jewish Synagogues in Galilee. He started His public ministry in the Synagogue in Capernaum. He then went on from there to teach through Galilee
Mark 1:39 CSB
He went into all of Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
When He returned to Capernaum He was again to be found in the Synagogue teaching in the beginning of Mark 3. It was the encounter that took place there, following the healing of the man with the withered hand, that drove the Pharisees to begin conspiring with the Herodians to kill Christ. Only one time in the rest of the book will Mark tell of Christ ministering in a Synagogue and it would seem that even this story is relayed to emphasize the idea that the religious entities of Israel missed entirely who Christ was -
Mark 6:1–3 CSB
He left there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. “Where did this man get these things?” they said. “What is this wisdom that has been given to him, and how are these miracles performed by his hands? Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?” So they were offended by him.
Anytime Jesus taught in the Synagogue there were two outcomes - astonishment at His teaching and offense. And so what we’re going to find is that Mark is going to begin presenting to us Jesus ministry in places outside of the Jewish Synagogues and in addition to that His teaching will primarily be delivered to the people through the medium of parables. The first of these parables - at least in the way that Mark has chosen to present them - has just been delivered from a boat in a cove just south of Capernaum.
It isn’t the first parable that Jesus has told in the book of Mark. There was the parable about the strong man that Jesus used to deflect the criticism of the Pharisees that He cast out demons by the power of demons. But the parable would now take a significant shift. The parable about the strong man wasn’t particularly spiritual in nature - this parable was more to expose the ludicrous accusation that someone working by the power of Satan would actually use that power to cast agents of Satan out of helpless victims.
Starting with the Parable of the Soils the tenor of Jesus parables change. These stories are not meant to illustrate a logical absurdity but these do take on a spiritual meaning meant to illuminate the Kingdom of God or aspects of either the Kingdom or those who are a part of the Kingdom to those with the ears to hear. In the fourth chapter of Mark we will see the parable of the lamp, the parable of growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed - all meant to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom of God.
Mark tells us that some time after Jesus relates the parable of the soils that those around Him with the twelve ask him about the parables. Stop there for a second. Mark is drawing our minds back to the end of chapter three where Jesus discussed those who made up His family. The same people who are around Him now are the same who were sitting around Him then. They are those who are truly seeking to be near Him and to understand His teaching.
The crowds on the hill as He taught the parable were content to go to their homes and determine for themselves what Christ meant by this story - but those who were really seeking Him came to Him and asked the question. They were bothered by the fact that they couldn’t understand what He meant. Here we see an important characteristic of those who are either on the inside or are destined to be there - they are bothered or concerned by spiritual things that are beyond their current comprehension. Something has awakened in their spirit and they desire to know more of the truth - and they aren’t satisfied until they get the answers they’re looking for. And so these disciples sought Jesus out and asked Him about the parables. Incidentally it is this statement that leads many to believe that this is a story that was inserted and not in chronological order - because up until this moment in Mark’s rendering Christ has only told one parable and yet their request is for an explanation of parables - plural.
Christ tells them that the secret - now stop there for a moment because we need to take a few moments and dig into the idea of what a secret is. The Greek word for mystery or secret is μυστηριον and it carried various meanings in the first century depending on who was speaking. There were the cultic or mystery religions for whom the idea of mystery encompassed their secret initiatory rites by which an initiate would become a part of the cult. These rites were viewed as the path to salvation through various actions taken to effect union with the gods which would lead to a change and insure future salvation. The initiates would be sworn to secrecy regarding the rites and these secrets would be protected by all members. A modern day illustration of this would be the freemasons and their secretive initiatory practices.
Then there were the philosophical mysteries that are hidden teachings that can only be revealed by access to special or revelatory knowledge. This view of mysteries would be carried over into the Gnostic religious practices. It is this concept of mystery that most closely associates itself with our modern understanding of a mystery being something that it hidden from sight or knowledge until the one piece of information or clue is found to unlock the meaning or the situation that solves the mystery.
These definitions for mystery would have been the most prevalent understandings among the original recipients of Mark’s Gospel. Mark was writing to predominantly Gentile believers in Rome and so it is interesting that he would choose to relate this truth in the concept of mysterion.
The Jewish understanding of this word and the way that it is used in the Septuagint - the Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures - particularly in Daniel where it comes to mean “the concealed intimation of future events that will be disclosed or interpreted only by God or by those whom He inspires”. By the time that Mark is writing his Gospel in the late 60’s Paul’s writings have circulated and the meaning of mysterion has come to be the eternal counsel of God which was hidden from the world has been fulfilled at the cross through Christ and the salvation that was provided through that act. Writing to the Colossian church Paul expands the concept of mystery explaining
Colossians 1:26–27 CSB
the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
And in Ephesians 1:9-10
Ephesians 1:9–10 CSB
He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ as a plan for the right time—to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him.
And here Mark uses the term mysterion to refer to the Kingdom of God - a lesson for us in contextualization. Mark uses a word that could very well have been misunderstood by his readers as something that was hidden, that needed to be found out through some sort of initiation or intellectual pursuit and he does so without qualification or equivocation. When we present the Gospel we shouldn’t shy away or seek ways to contextualize so much for our audience that we stand the risk of losing the majesty of the truth.
And the truth is the mystery of the Kingdom of God has been revealed. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God right from the very beginning of His ministry. His first words recorded for us in the book of Mark
Mark 1:14–15 CSB
After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
In this context Christ is referring to the reality that salvation had come through Him and that the gates of Heaven, of God’s Kingdom have been thrown open to those who would place their faith in Christ and trust in Him for salvation. This is very different from what the Jewish populace had in mind when they thought of the Kingdom of God. They were expecting a Messiah who would throw off the shackles of Roman oppression and restore the kingdom to its former prominence. They were not expecting the King who would rescue His people
Colossians 1:13–14 CSB
He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Those who put their faith in Christ and seek Him are no longer beholden to the Republican or Democratic party but instead they are citizens of Heaven. This is the Kingdom that has been promised and it is the secret that has been given to you. Two beautiful observations about the final part of Jesus statement to these disciples who sought out the interpretation of the parables - it has been given to you. The first is that this phrase is in the perfect tense - meaning that it has been given to you has been accomplished. This is not a promise of future action but an acknowledgement of an action that has been completed. If you have trusted in Christ or if you will ever trust in Christ you have already been given the secret of the Kingdom. It is a finished act of the Spirit. Paul would later say
1 Corinthians 2:10 CSB
Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, since the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
These truths are already given to us, the capability to understand them is worked in us by the Spirit’s work in us at regeneration.
The second beautiful observation regarding this phrase is that something being given implies a giver. This phrase is what is known as a divine passive meaning that the giver of this knowledge, the deliverer of this secret is God Himself. It is He who grants us the ability to understand and to grasp the mystery of the Kingdom of God. It is He who calls for the adoption of sons and daughters. Charles Spurgeon put it this way

372Who is to have authority in the matter of gracious adoption? The children of wrath? Surely not; and yet all men are such! No, it stands to reason, to common sense, that none but the parent can have the discretion to adopt.

There are insiders and, if there are insiders that implies that there are outsiders as well.

The Outsiders

Now we come to the harder part of the sermon - it is the part of the truth that Christ is positing here that we really don’t like. You see the truth of this passage is that there are some who are in and there are some who are out. And we would be okay with that if we got to choose. We’re certainly in favor of a subjective election that allows us to choose who would be in and who would be out. We want aunt Mabel and our parents, brothers, sisters, children and those who are our dearest friends to be in. But we don’t want people who hurt us or that mean kid at school or the boss that treats us unfairly or the neighbor who constantly puts us down because we’re Christians or any number of other people. An objective election that allows for them to be saved while our kids are not doesn’t sit well with us. And yet here is Jesus telling us that there are those who are outside and to them everything comes in parables.
The vast majority of the crowd on the seashore that day who heard this parable in its original issuance were not present for this conversation. They had gone back to their lives, to fishing or farming thinking what a nice story. Maybe some of them scoffed like I said last week or complained to their spouse who had drug them out to that hillside to hear this story. They weren’t particularly interested in the meaning, if in fact there was meaning behind the story. Even those who were mildly curious about what was happening - about the crowds and the furor surrounding this teacher in Galilee that spoke with so much authority - even they had heard enough and we returning to the daily grind. The news cycle in Israel would move on - there were crops to plant, festivals to keep. This man clearly wasn’t the Messiah and so while His riddles might puzzle them for a while they wouldn’t trouble themselves over them for too long.
See they hadn’t been given the key, they hadn’t received the secret to understanding the meaning behind the parables. This implies something more than cognitive knowledge. Any Israelite worth his salt could understand the different types of soil and how the sower sows and crops grow. If it was just cognitive knowledge that Jesus was looking for everyone could understand that parable. There are also parables that Jesus tells that cognitively the Pharisees know very well that He is speaking directly about them. The parable of the vine dressers is one such example. But to grasp the spiritual connotations, the spiritual meanings of these stories was beyond their ability.
Jesus says that “everything” comes in parables - and this is a direct reference to the Kingdom of God and Jesus teaching concerning not only the Kingdom, but how to gain entrance into it and the entirety of the salvific plan that His coming had inaugurated in earnest. These truths would be presented to the people in riddles that they may be able to grasp intellectually but spiritually they would judge them to be foolishness. In the same passage we just looked at in 1 Corinthians Paul will go on to say
1 Corinthians 2:14 CSB
But the person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually.
And Jesus here says essentially the same thing as He quotes from Isaiah saying so that. Stop there for a moment. This particular phrase has caused much difficulty for Bible teachers as they approach this passage. So that. It would seem to imply that Jesus is purposely teaching these things this way - through the use of parables - to purposely keep these people from believing. As if it is some sort of cruel joke on Jesus part that even though He is telling them these stories they still wont believe. But we must never assign ill intentions to Christ.
The truth is found within the quote from Isaiah. Isaiah had been commissioned by God to deliver a message to the people even though He knew they would not listen. In fact their hearts had been hardened so far that they were incapable of hearing the truth and incapable of turning back to God. God, respecting their free will decisions, gave them the freedom and latitude to harden their hearts against Him until they only could receive judgement. And they did in the form of the Babylonian armies descending on their nation and taking many of them off captive.
Jesus teaching up until this point clearly pointed to His position as the promised Messiah that John the Baptist had proclaimed. He had proven His authority in teaching. He had demonstrated His power over the physical realm through His healings. He had proven His power over the spiritual realm through the casting out of unclean spirits. He had pronounced and demonstrated that He was Lord of the Sabbath and that the Sabbath was made for Him. And yet at every turn the religious leaders and the people rejected these truths and had hardened their hearts. Unable to hear the truth they were guilty of worse sin than even their ancestors because they had the Messiah right in front of them, physically present with them and they rejected Him. And so now God had given them over to a depraved, closed and confused mind incapable of understanding the spiritual truths that Christ was speaking.
And the sad thing is this is where the responsibility of man enters the picture most vividly. Spurgeon told the story this way

387Some say, “It is unfair for God to choose some and leave others.”

Now, I will ask you one question: Is there any of you here who wishes to be holy, who wishes to be regenerate, to leave off sin and walk in holiness?

“Yes, there is,” says someone. “I do!”

Then God has elected you.

But another says, “No, I don’t want to be holy; I don’t want to give up my lusts and my vices.”

Why should you grumble, then, that God has not elected you? For if you were elected, you would not like it, according to your own confession.

The religious leaders of Israel had determined that their way was the best way and that if salvation meant submission to Jesus then they weren’t going to do it. The people of Israel had determined for themselves that Jesus was a nice curiosity but little more and they missed the truths of what He had to teach them. Our world today is much the same. Men have become so hardened in their sin that they are incapable of hearing the truth even when it is clearly presented to them.
There are those, and maybe some of you know people like this, that have become so enamored with the prosperity gospel or the self-esteem gospel or the self-help gospel that to speak to them of sin and repentance only earns you scoffing and ridicule. There are those who are so committed to a false religion that they mistakenly think that “we share more in common than we have in different.” Let me ask you - if I had two glasses of water, both looking clear and clean, and I told you that one was 100% spring water and the other was 98% spring water and 2% arsenic would you say that both glasses shared enough in common that you could drink either and be okay?

What’s the Point?

Now a sermon like this on the truth that Jesus teaches here, the truth of election, might tempt some of you to become fatalistic in your faith. Well if it isn’t up to me then I don’t have to do anything. If it is all up to God then we don’t have to evangelize, we don’t need to preach, Chris you can just sit down. But here’s the thing - we don’t know who’s who in the zoo. And the both beautiful and unsettling truth is that some who are outsiders now are actually insiders and some who are insiders now may one day prove themselves to be outsiders. You see if the outsiders that Mark has in mind in this passage includes those who were outsiders in the earlier passage then this would include James and Jude two of Jesus brothers. These two men, after His death and resurrection, went on to become leaders in the church in Jerusalem and writers of two of the epistles in the New Testament. And one of the insiders standing there around Jesus was named Judas and we know how he turned out.
We truthfully don’t know. Charles Spurgeon has a beautiful comment on this - and we’ll close with this

381Our Savior has bidden us to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). He has not said, “Preach it only to the elect,” and though that might seem to be the most logical thing for us to do, yet since he has not been pleased to stamp the elect in their foreheads or put any distinctive mark upon them, it would be an impossible task for us to perform. When we preach the gospel to every creature, the gospel makes its own division, and Christ’s sheep hear his voice, and follow him.

Conclusion

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