Hi I’m Josh Hawkins and this is Episode 69 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last episode we found ourselves among the crowds in Capernaum with Jesus’ mother and brothers outside. I talked about how Jesus was profoundly misunderstood by those closest to Him. Many of those who were close to him thought that he was out of his mind, and the pain of rejection He felt was a very different type of pain from the pain we often feel when we are rejected. Yet He knows all too well what it means to be rejected, and we can find fellowship with Him there. Well, in this episode I want to continue looking at the events of the Middle Galilean ministry from Mark 4 and Luke 8. I want to talk a little bit about some of the famous parables that Jesus speaks. Before we get into them, let’s take a quick look at our timeline to remember where we are at. We’ve been looking at the period of time just before the second Passover of Jesus’ ministry. The events of the past few episodes seem to happen within a relatively short window, perhaps only a month or two. So a few episodes back, we looked at:
- The sinful woman at Jesus’ feet
- And in the last episode we looked at Jesus’ return to Capernaum and the encounter with Jesus’ mother and brothers in this episode
- And now in this episode, Jesus’ teaching in parables
- Followed by Jesus calming the storm
Well, let’s jump in to the text. I’m going to read today from Mark 4, but the parallel passages are in Matthew 13 and Luke 8:
"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.”"
(Mark 4:1–12 ESV)
So we see Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, perhaps near where He lived in Capernaum. He begins teaching but when the crowd gets too large, he gets in a boat and floats out to sea so that He wouldn’t be crushed by the crowds and could teach the people from there. Mark says Jesus was teaching many things in parables, and one of the major ones he chooses to record in his gospel is what we just read - the parable of the sower. Now remember, it wasn’t like Jesus just showed up for a few minutes to say this parable and then leave. There’s so much He said that we don’t have recorded in the Gospels. But Mark highlights this one for us because Jesus explains it. I’ll talk about that more in a minute, but we know the story - the sower’s seed falls on several different types of soils. Some of the seed falls on the path and the birds come and eat it. Other seed falls on rocky ground where there was no depth, so the plant sprung up quickly but withered away when the sun came out. Still more seed falls on thorns where the plant gets choked out. And still other seeds fall on good soil and produce a good crop. The sower’s seeds seem to be falling in all sorts of places.
The parables Jesus speaks have been preached on, written about, and their meaning debated for a long time. I think one of the reasons why there’s so much confusion is because we've lost sight of some of the things that we’ve already looked at a lot in this whole series so far. Specifically, we have to remember the broader theme of division that is like a banner over Jesus’ ministry. We saw that right from the start with the message of John the Baptist to the people of Israel. Remember how He said that Jesus would come to divide the wheat and the chaff? Remember how Simeon said that Jesus would cause many in Israel to rise and fall? Jesus has been calling Israel to repentance and appealing to them to turn from the heart, because their ethnic descent from Abraham would not guarantee them their inheritance in God’s promises. Go back and watch Episodes 36, 37, and 38 if you missed them, it’s where I develop this point much more. I’ve said this a lot already, and I’m saying it again here because it’s critical to understand why Jesus is speaking in parables, and gives us a better perspective on how to interpret them. Now with that in mind, let’s look again at what Jesus said right after He spoke the parable of the sower:
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.”"
(Mark 4:9–12 ESV)
There are some very significant things Mark records and Jesus says here, so let’s take a look at them. First, Mark says that when Jesus was no longer with the crowds but only with the Twelve and perhaps a handful of others, He spoke of two categories of people. The first group was the twelve and the others around them - those were the ones who had been given the secret of the kingdom of God. And the second group was "those outside”, and Jesus said that for them, everything was in parables. Now what Jesus quotes right after saying that is so significant. He says “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” Jesus is quoting Isaiah chapter 6 here. And Isaiah 6 is a passage we looked at extensively back in episode 36, it’s the famous passage when Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus and was commanded to prophesy judgment upon Israel. Remember, this is the passage John the Baptist referenced too when he said that the axe was laid to the root of the tree. So with that in mind, why is Jesus quoting this passage as the reason for his speaking to the masses in parables? Get this - this is so important. He is saying that Israel’s heart has grown dull, their eyes have grown dim, and He is speaking to them in parables as judgment upon the hardness of their heart. They think they will inherit the kingdom and the land and be raised from the dead and get the Spirit but they actually won’t unless they turn and bear the fruits of repentance. Just a few verses later in Mark 4, Jesus says:
"With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything."
(Mark 4:33–34 ESV)
So the crowds who were just superficially excited about Jesus’ miracles heard His teaching in parables only, but Jesus explained every single parable and the meaning behind it to the disciples. They were the hungry ones who were genuine and sincere in their hearts. Now that’s a really important point - the disciples weren’t clueless about the meaning of the parables. I’ll talk about that point more in a second but does this make sense? The point of the parables is to clarify who actually inherits the promises and who doesn’t. Just like with John the Baptist, the question that we should be asking is “who is the seed of Abraham?" It’s through this lens that we should look if we want to interpret the parables rightly.
Now often times the parables are so grossly misunderstood and are seen as Jesus redefining what the kingdom of God is. I want to make this clear - Jesus never redefines the fundamental hope of the kingdom - that kingdom promised to David’s son that would reign forever in Jerusalem. Jesus is not saying “hey, you guys thought the messiah would come to dwell in Jerusalem and reign over the earth in glory with Israel as the chief of the nations. But you were wrong… That’s not what the kingdom is. It’s actually like a field. That’s what the kingdom is. It’s like things that grow in a field.” Jesus is not saying that at all. He never says that they were wrong to expect a real geopolitical kingdom in the age to come. What he is doing is clarifying the people of Israel's expectations of how they will get in and participate in that kingdom. Jesus is not spiritualizing the kingdom, he’s not reworking or redefining it around Himself and His ministry, He’s not bringing God’s rule or God’s reign and manifesting it. To think that way really misses the whole point of the parables. If there’s one thing you get from this episode, I hope it would be the point that Jesus is not reworking, redefining, or spiritualizing what the kingdom is through His parables.
Let’s keep reading in Mark 4:
"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.”"
(Mark 4:13–20 ESV)
Here Jesus is explaining the parable of the sower to the Twelve. He says that the seed that’s sown is “the word of the kingdom”. And the place that this word is sown is inside of people. In other words, when people hear the message that Jesus has been preaching - the way that an Israelite obtains the inheritance - not through ethnic descent from Abraham but from a repentant heart that turns back to God, there’s a pretty good chance that most of the hearers will not bear the fruits of repentance. Do you see how this parable makes so much more sense with the theme of division in mind? The other parables are very similar too - take the parable of the mustard seed, for instance. Jesus says:
"And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”"
(Mark 4:30–32 ESV)
Here we have another seed again - and just as Jesus said before, the seed is “the word”, the message that John preached and Jesus is now also preaching to Israel. The picture of the full grown mustard plant is clearly a reference to Ezekiel 17:23 and the kingdom of the Messiah. So what’s Jesus saying here? He’s not at all saying the kingdom is now a spiritual reality that grows slowly in their midst, he’s saying that the word will be sown, and that the word, that seed, must die in the ground before the kingdom actually comes. Though Jesus’ words will be rejected and His ministry will not seem successful even to the point where He will die as a condemned criminal, He is indeed the Christ and will be the one to reign forever from Jerusalem.
I hope this makes sense to you. The rest of the parables are similar, and I’m not going to go through them, but the biggest thing I hope you can see is that Jesus is not redefining or reworking the kingdom as a spiritual reality, but is just continuing in the same mission and theme of division of Israel. He’s seeking the fruits of repentance, and sadly He is not finding it among many.
Well in the next episode we’re going to look at the story of Jesus calming the storm. It’s one of my favorite scenes from the gospels. Be sure to come back next time, and if you’ve missed any episode in this series, you can find them all on my website at www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless.