The Gospel of Mark: The Way the Word Works

Sermon by David Strain on August 12, 2018

Mark 4:1-20

Take your Bibles out please and turn with me to Mark’s gospel chapter 4; Mark’s gospel chapter 4. You’ll find that on page 839 in the church Bibles. Before we read it, let me remind you a little bit about the portrait of Jesus’ ministry Mark has been painting for us so far. It’s surprising ministry, actually, because the people we expect will respond to Christ don’t seem to want to know Him at all. And the people we have every reason to believe will have nothing to do with Jesus are flocking to His ministry. So you’ve got Jesus in the synagogue for worship and there’s chaos. The Pharisees, who are the religious elites, really serious ones about following the law of Moses, they’re horribly offended at Jesus for what they consider to be His rejection of the Sabbath Day. The scribes, the theologians, the experts in the law sent down from Jerusalem to examine Jesus’ ministry and report back, they conclude that He is demon-possessed. Even His own family, His mother and His brothers, they decide – they’re closest to Him of all people on earth – and they decide that He is insane. The people that ought to have responded to Him, that we have every reason to expect, humanly speaking, will immediately understand and respond well to Jesus’ ministry, don’t seem to understand or respond well at all.


Meanwhile, lepers and the outcasts, they flock to Christ; the demon-possessed. Levi – you remember Levi – a tax collector, so he’s hated; collaborator with the Roman oppressor. Simon; he’s a zealot, a sort of nationalist, plotting to foment insurrection against the Romans, a sort of foaming-at-the-mouth radical, these guys are the ones that follow Jesus. So it’s an interesting picture, isn’t it, that Mark has been painting. You’ve got the weird and the wicked and they can’t get enough of Christ. They understand the message, they’re responding from the heart, they’re flocking to Him. And you’ve got the great and the good and they want nothing to do with Jesus. Now how do you account for that? How do you account for these two radically different responses to the same message, even from the lips of Christ Himself?


Mark chapter 4, verses 1 through 20, is Jesus’ answer to that question. Or let’s make it a little more personal. Two people come to church this morning. They come from the same background; let’s say they’re the same age. Let’s say they are roommates here in Jackson. And they come in, they take their seat in the same pew, reading the same Bible, listening to the same message. One girl, her life is utterly changed. It’s as though, as she listens to the exposition of the Word of God, Christ Himself met her. It’s as though someone were shining a flashlight on all the dark, sore, hard places of her heart, not to shame her but actually to bring mercy, grace, cleansing, forgiveness, renewal. She came in ashamed, guilty; she left pardoned and clean. She left burdened and afraid and uncertain and bewildered. She left with new hope. She met Christ Himself in the preaching of the Word while her roommate gets nothing – reading the same Bible, sitting in the same pew. She looks at her friend’s face, full of joy as she leaves the service, and she says, “You know, I really didn’t understand a word that Strain fellow said, not just because he talks funny! It didn’t make any sense to me.” How do you account for that? The same message, people of similar backgrounds, reading the same Bible in the same service, and two radically different responses. How do you account for that? That’s what Mark 4:1-20 is all about.


Before we read it together, let’s pause and pray and ask for God to give us grace to hear and understand His Word. Let’s pray together.


O Lord Jesus, You are the true Sower of the seed. We ask that You would be gracious to us to till up the soil of our hearts that as the seed of the Word is sown among us this morning, it may spring up and sink deep roots and bear much fruit to the glory of Your name. Amen.


Mark 1 at verse 4. This is the Word of God:


“Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching, he said to them: ‘Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’ And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.


And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that


‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’’


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 along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’”


Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.

D. James Kennedy was the last pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, the founder of Evangelism Explosion, the evangelistic ministry. One Sunday, a local dentist in the community, a man called Freeman Springer, and his wife, had attended the church. They filled out a card registering their presence there and during the following week, Dr. Kennedy and his wife, Anne, came to their door to follow up on their visit. And they explained why they were there – “You came to our church Sunday. You filled out a card.” “Yes, we were glad to be there,” said Dr. Springer. And as the conversation developed, Kennedy was able to share the Gospel with the Springers. “Yes, yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes,” they kept saying all the way through as Kennedy told them about Jesus. “Yes, yes.” At the end of it, I suppose a little frustrated, Kennedy said, “Well, would you like me to pray with you?” “Yes.” So they prayed. "Do you have any questions?" "No, thank you very much." And they left. And on the way back to the car, Kennedy turned to his wife, Anne, and said, "Well that's one couple we are never going to see again." And they were wrong. By all outward appearances, of course, Springer made no response. He seemed hard, cold, unresponsive. Springer's testimony, however, was that his life was completely changed by the Gospel that he heard that day. He was completely changed by the good news about Jesus.


I tell that story because I think it helps us understand something about the way the Word of God works. There is some mystery to it. Sometimes, the people we expect will readily receive the good news about Jesus, don't respond at all. And the ones we think will never respond, are the ones who receive it with gladness. Jesus is explaining why that is in the parable before us. He is, Mark tells us, once again because of the scale of the crowds, back on His floating pulpit. He's on a boat in the Sea of Galilee. The crowds are on the shore listening to Him preach. And in verses 3 to 9, He tells us the famous parable of the sower. The sower indiscriminately casts his seed so that some falls on the path – the birds eat that seed. Some fall on rocky ground – it springs up immediately but because the soil is too shallow there's no root and the sun scorches the plants and they wither and die. Some seed falls amongst the thorns – the weeds that choke it, choke the life from it. But some falls on good soil and it bears a remarkable harvest. That’s the familiar parable.


Likely everyone who was listening to Him that day would certainly at least have seen a sower sowing seed; maybe they'd even done it themselves. But what does it mean? Clearly, the opening invitation in verse 3 to "listen," the concluding exhortation in verse 9, "let him who has ears to hear, let him hear," clues us in that more is going on than the mundane recitation of the farmer's daily task. There's a hidden layer of meaning to this. And so when the disciples get Jesus alone, they ask Him to, “Cut to the chase and tell us what in the world You’re talking about, Jesus!” And so in verses 11 and 12, by way of preface to His explanation, He tells them about the nature of parables and actually about the nature of Word ministry. What is going on as the Word of God is being communicated? And then in verses 13 to the end, He explains the parable itself, which is simply another way for Him to drive home the same point He’s made in verses 11 and 12 in a bit more detail.


Two Groups of People

So let’s look at verses 11 and 12 first of all. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those who are outside, everything is in parables so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” Okay? So there are two groups of people in the world, Jesus is saying. There are two groups of people in this room this morning and every one of us falls into one or other of those groups. There are those to whom the secret of the kingdom of God has been given and there are those outside. Both hear the same message, but to those who have the secret of the kingdom, that message is transformative. To those outside, however, it is an instrument of judgment. They hear it, but they react negatively to it. They don’t get it; they don’t care to get it. They dismiss it.


So you imagine two people talking about their weekend. Jim says to Bob, “You know, you’ll never guess what I did the other day. I went out to hear what all the fuss was about. I listened to Jesus preaching on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.” “Oh really, Jim? What did He say?” “You know, I’m really not sure. He spent some time talking about seed, and you know some seed produced a harvest and some didn’t. I mean, tell me something I don’t know, Captain Obvious! Next you’ll tell me rain is wet, sun is hot, cheese is tasty! I mean, so what? I didn’t understand. I went all that way, it was hot, and He talked about seed and that was it. It seemed like a waste of time to me.”


What’s happening in Jim’s heart? He’s hearing the message, but it’s not bearing fruit. Actually, his heart is being hardened. In his rejection of Jesus Christ, his eternal destiny is being worked out. Something enormously solemn is happening in the preaching of the Word of God. Eternity is pressing in. Eternity pivots on how we respond. Humanity is being divided through the preaching of the Word into two groups – sheep and goats, insiders and outsiders, the lost and the found. The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14 puts it this way. He says, “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one, a fragrance from death to death, and to the other a fragrance from life to life.” You see what he’s saying. “I’m preaching, and some people hear the message and it’s life-giving! And some hear the same message and it leads to their destruction as they reject that message.”


Do you see, the stakes could not be higher; they could not be higher. As we hear the preaching of the Word of God, eternity hinges on how you respond, on what you do with the Word that is proclaimed. It is a matter of life and death.


A Master Parable

And then in verses 13 to 20, Jesus explains the parable of the sower itself. And as I’ve said, his explanation is really only teasing out the same point in a little more detail. So verse 13 tells us the parable of the sower is sort of the master parable; it’s a key to understanding Jesus’ preaching ministry. “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” The parable of the sower helps us understand how the Word works. That’s its function.


The Sower Sows the Word

First, I want you to notice in verse 14, very quickly, the sower sows the Word. That’s what we’re talking about. The seed is the Word. The Word of the Gospel. And he sows it indiscriminately. Doesn’t he? He scatters the good news about Jesus everywhere. He’s not looking at the particular soils into which the seed is sown. He scatters the seed everywhere. The good news is for all people in all places. Our business is not to decide who gets to hear based on whether or not we think they’re likely to respond well. We don’t say, “You know, there’s no point witnessing to crazy Uncle Frank. He’s such a blockhead! He’ll never respond to the Gospel. He’s an atheist and he just closes me down and so there’s no point.” We don’t get to say that. That’s not our job. No, our job is to sow the seed indiscriminately on all types of soil, on all types of hearers. So Jesus wants us to understand the explanation for the different responses to the Gospel does not rest with the sower who sows the seed.


He also wants us to understand that the problem is not with the seed itself. So it's neither a problem for the sower nor a problem for the seed. The explanation for different responses has nothing to do with the seed. It's the same message for all people. We're to resist the temptation to tweak our message in order to out-flank the objections of those around us. You know, make it a little more palatable for the latest batch of Christianity’s cultured despisers. No, it’s the same message, the same Jesus. I have a Savior for you. Turn and believe in Him. Repent of your sin. He can be your Rescuer. We have one message for all people and we’re to tell everyone everywhere without distinction or without discrimination.


So what makes the difference? It's not the sower; it's not the seed. No, the difference Jesus explains has to do with the soil. It has to do with the different type of hearer, with the hearts that receive and respond to the Word. That's what makes the difference between those who believe and bear fruit and those who do not. That's what marks out the two groups into which all humanity is being divided – those who receive and bear fruit, receive the seed of the Word and bear fruit and those who do not. 


The Heard Heart

Let’s quickly look at the different types of soil and we’re done. That was my introduction, by the way! Are you ready for point one? Verse 15 – the hard heart. The hard heart. The seed is sown on the pathway where tired feet have caused the soil to become hard-packed and so the seed doesn’t penetrate. It just sits there on the surface and the birds of the air come and devour it. It’s an unreceptive heart. To be sure, if you were to ask them after the service about the message, they could maybe give you a pretty accurate outline of everything that was said. It’s not that they haven’t heard it all, it’s just that it hasn’t sunk in; not at all. And so Jesus says Satan immediately snatches the Gospel away.


So news flash – the devil really doesn’t like it when you come to church. He really doesn’t like it when you listen to the Word of God preached. He really doesn’t like it when you open your Bible. And he is going to throw almost any kind of distraction in front of you to stop you from dwelling on it, receiving it, and causing it to bear fruit. So he has a vested interest on the fight with your spouse in the fight with your spouse in the car on the way home after the service. He doesn’t want you thinking about your heart in the light of Christ’s invitation to follow Him. He doesn’t want you repenting and believing. He doesn’t want you facing yourself and facing your Savior. He wants you worried about the challenges of Monday morning in the office. He wants you preoccupied with the distractions that are all around you to snatch the seed of the Word away. He does not want you responding to Jesus. If your heart is pavement-hard, that’s what will happen. Please don’t let the Word of God bounce off. Don’t let it bounce off. Take it in. Respond to it. Let it penetrate. Don’t let yours be a hard heart, an unreceptive heart. The hard heart.


The Superficial Heart

Then verse 16, the seed that was sown on rocky ground. Here’s a superficial heart. You may know that a lot of the land in the region was limestone with a few inches of topsoil, so it looked at first glance like deep, rich, fertile farmland. But under the surface, things are very different. That’s the situation here. You couldn’t tell by looking at it, but the seed is sown into that kind of soil. And immediately, it sprouts up and it seems to be a marvelous, beautiful, young plant. Haven’t you known people like this who, they hear the Gospel and they respond to it immediately with great gladness and there seems to be vibrancy, enthusiasm. They love being in church. They love being with God’s people. There’s so much promise in their lives. But there’s no depth to their response to the Word; it’s a superficial response to the Word. Jesus says they have no root in themselves. And so, when the going gets tough, when peer pressure begins to mount – “Why aren’t you partying with us the way you once did?” When the unbelieving spouse gets increasingly frustrated at your desire to be with God’s people on the Lord’s Day in worship living a different kind of life with different priorities. When the pressure mounts. When persecution comes because of the Word, opposition comes – it will come if you seek to follow Jesus, and when it comes, if you don’t have a root, if it doesn’t sink deeply under the blazing heat of opposition and trials of many kinds, the promising flower of your initial response to the Word will wither and die.


Isn’t the temptation for “Jesus Light” very real? Isn’t it? Just enough Jesus to solve our conscience, to take the relevant box of duty – went to church Sunday; just enough Jesus to keep up appearances. “Jesus Light” – superficial Christianity. It will not weather, it will not endure when trials come. It must go deep. There must be a root. Don’t settle for “Jesus Light,” will you. No, sink deep roots down into the Word so that whenever the trials come you will endure. The hard heart. The shallow heart.


The Strangled Heart

Look at verses 18 and 19 – the seed sown among the thorns. Here’s a strangled heart. Jesus highlights three thorns in particular worth thinking about. If we let them grow up unchecked, they will choke the Word in our heart so that it bears no fruit, He says. First He says there’s the cares of the world. That’s the first thorn; the first weed. You remember the words of our Savior. “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or what you will wear. Your Father in heaven knows that you need these things before you ask Him. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you also.” Or the words of the apostle Paul, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Don’t let the cares of the world begin to choke out your response to the good news about Jesus. Don’t let the cares of the world overwhelm. They are weeds. You know, you drive down the highway and you see kudzu just covering everything, just choking out the life of everything else that grows. The cares of the world. No, you can really trust Christ to keep and guard and provide. You need to learn to fight the cares of the world by faith in the Savior that the Word, the seed of the Word may bear much fruit in your heart. The cares of the world.


Another thistle, another thorn, another weed is the deceitfulness of riches. Riches, money lies to us. Doesn’t it? “Oh sure, you can have Jesus, but wouldn’t a little more of me really help you out?” And no matter how much more of it you have, the more it seems to want. The more demands it makes upon us. The more we find ourselves living for it, pursuing it, pouring our lives out that we may acquire more and more of it.


Kent Hughes tells the story of a young man professing his love for the woman of his dreams. “Darling, I want you to know that I love you more than anything else in the world and I want you to marry me. I’m not rich, I don’t have a yacht or a Rolls-Royce like Johnny Brown but I do love you with all my heart.” And she thought for a moment and she said, “You know, I love you too, with all my heart, but could you tell me more about Johnny Brown?”


You may profess to love the Savior with all your heart, but let’s not kid ourselves. The love of money is a deceptive liar and it will choke out your allegiance to the Savior. Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” The cares of the world. The deceitfulness of riches.


Then the third thorn, the third weed that will choke the Word is desire for other things. You know, advertisers they don’t sell you product. Do you? What are they selling? They’re selling a life, a whole new you. “Look at this shiny, beautiful family in their shiny, beautiful SUV! That could be you!” That’s what they’re selling; not just an SUV but a life. If you get the commodity, you’ll get the life. “Buy my car. Buy into the life.” Do not think of the Gospel as a way to get the life you always wanted. If you see Jesus as a commodity among commodities, desire for other things will always trump allegiance to Christ in the end. Don’t make Jesus compete with the stuff of the world. The stuff of the world will choke the Gospel to death every time. Jesus is not a commodity among commodities offering you the life you always wanted. That’s not the Gospel. No, Christ came to show you He is a sufficient Savior for the deepest need of your heart – the need to be forgiven of your sin and reconciled to God. And so there are thorns to watch out for. We have some yard work to do in the garden of our hearts. Don't we? We have some weeding to perform, weeds to pull up.


The Receptive Heart

There is one more kind of soil, however; a fourth type of hearer. There’s the seed sown on good soil. Do you see it in verse 20? The hard heart, the superficial heart, the strangled heart. Now there’s lastly the receptive heart. Those that were sown on the good soil are the ones that hear the Word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold. Do you notice the marks of a receptive heart? They hear the Word, they accept the Word, and they bear fruit from the Word. So let it go deep, Jesus is saying. Let it sink lasting roots. And then begin to live out the life of the implanted seed of the Word created within you.


Do I have a receptive heart? That’s to be our question this morning. What will you do with the Gospel seed? Has your heart been crowded and choked by the weeds of worry or the thorns of materialism? Or is your heart shallow, so that however pretty the first flower of your faith might appear, when it gets tough, when trials come, you just don’t last. Maybe yours is an impenetrable heart and the Word just seems to bounce off and the devil keeps you distracted, snatching the seed away. Here’s how you know if you’re a good soil hearer. You’re busy pulling up the weeds. You’ve stopped with the cares of the world. You’re turning with all your fears to the only One who can answer them – the Lord omnipotent who reigns. You’re pleading with God to plow up the soil of your heart so that as you hear and read and study His Word it sinks deep roots and it bears much fruit. And Jesus says, “Come and follow Me.” You run to Him. You run to Him. Will you run to Him? Will you put your trust in Him? Will you resolve to follow His voice, His call, and no other?


There really are, you see, only two groups of people. There are those to whom the secret of the kingdom is revealed and there are those whose destruction is being worked out as they reject the Word. Eternity pivots on your response to the Word. How do you respond to the Word today? Into which of the two groups will you fall? Will you be a good soil hearer and produce a mighty harvest – thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold to the glory of God – a life transformed by His grace? May the Lord make it so. Let’s pray together.


Lord Jesus, the truth is, there is work to be done in the garden of our hearts. There are weeds to pull up. Some of us, for too long now, we’ve let the seed of the Word sit just on the surface like seed sown along the path, and the distractions of the world, the work of the evil one, has snatched the seed away. Some of us, in the past, we’ve responded joyfully and it seemed to be going so well for a little while, and then under the blazing heat of hard times we’ve wandered away. But here now before You, Lord Jesus, would You till up the soil of our hearts that we, each of us, all of us, might be good soil hearers? Sink Your Word deeply into our lives and cause it to bear much fruit, for the glory of Your name. Amen.

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