Back in chapter 1 we saw how the Lord the Lord began his public ministry. Do you remember? First, he was baptised by John. When that happened, heaven was torn open; and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove; and the voice of God the Father said to him:
You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.
And then, after that, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness where he was tempted by the Devil for forty days. But then he came out of the wilderness and he began to preach. And the message he proclaimed was this:
The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!
That was his message: the time has come: the time you’ve been waiting for and longing for has arrived. And it’s arrived because he’s the Lord’s Anointed King and he has come to set up God’s kingdom on the earth and to rule over God’s people perfectly and for ever. And, of course, the way to enter his kingdom is through faith and repentance: turn from your sin in repentance and believe the good news that the King has come to bring salvation.
So, the Lord began to preach about the kingdom of God. And do you remember when he was in Capernaum and how he healed so many people? And then, the next morning, his disciples came looking for him, because so many more people had come to see him; presumably because they wanted to be healed. But he announced to his disciples that they needed to move on from Capernaum and go somewhere else. Why did he have to move on and go elsewhere? So that he could preach, because ‘that is why I have come’, he said. He came to preach the good news of God’s kingdom.
And so, he went about, preaching the good news. And crowds still followed him, wherever he went. However, we’ve seen — haven’t we? — that so many of those who heard what he said about the kingdom of God and who saw the things he did, did not believe in him and they did not believe what he said. Think of that series of stories, when the teachers of the law were complaining about the things he was doing. And that series of stories ended with the Pharisees plotting with the Herodians how they might kill him. And then there were the teachers of the law who came from Jerusalem; and they made up their mind about him and they decided that he was possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. In other words, they decided he was demon-possessed.
And then there was his family who came to take him away, because they thought he’d lost his mind. Many of those who heard him and who saw him did not believe in him. And, in fact, in John’s gospel, we read that even among those who followed him, and who seemed to believe in him, many soon turned away from him, because what he said was too hard for them to accept. So, the Lord went about, preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. But the response to him and to his message was so often disappointing, because many who heard him and who saw the things he did did not believe in him.
And it’s at this point in his gospel, that Mark records for us the Lord’s parable of the farmer who went out to sow his seed. You see, this parable is a kind of commentary or explanation for why the response of people to the Lord Jesus is so often disappointing. In telling this parable, it’s as if the Lord is saying to us:
Listen, you know the way so many people have not believed in me. Well, it’s like this.
What is it like? It’s like a farmer who went out to sow his seed. In those days, the farmer would walk through the field, with a sack of seed around his neck. And as he walked, he would put his hand into the sack, take out a handful of seed, and he’d cast it over the field. And as he was scattering his seed, some fell along the path. Well, the path was hard, not soft like the soil. And so the seed just lay on the surface, which meant the birds could come and pick the seed up and carry it away.
The farmer continued to cast his seed; and some of it fell on rocky places where there was a thin layer of soil, lying on top of a layer of hard, rocky ground. And the seed landed on the soil and it began to grow. In fact, it grew up quickly. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched and they withered and died, because the plants did not have long roots with which to draw water from the earth.
The farmer continued to cast his seed; and some fell among thorns, which grew up alongside the plants and choked the plants so that they did not bear fruit.
The farmer continued to cast his seed; and this time, the seed fell on good soil. So, it wasn’t the hard path this time; it wasn’t rocky ground this time; it wasn’t among the thorns this time; this time, it was good soil: soft, and deep, and thorn-free. And the seed grew up and produced a crop, an abundant crop: multiplying thirty, sixty, even a hundred times what was sown. —
That was the Lord’s parable. What does it mean? In verses 13 to 20 he explains the meaning of the parable. The farmer sows God’s word. In fact, the Lord Jesus is the farmer: the Lord Jesus Christ is the farmer, who went about, sowing the seed of God’s word, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. The Lord Jesus Christ is the farmer who sows the seed of God’s word: he sowed the word in person while he was on the earth; and he continues to sow the word today and to cast it throughout the world through the preachers he calls and sends out into the world.
But the response to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his message is so often disappointing. So, when he was on the earth, there were some who heard him, and they were like the seed that fell on the path, because as soon as they heard the good news of the kingdom, the Devil came along and took it away from them. It had no effect on them. So, think of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees who heard the Lord Jesus and who saw the things he did, but who never once believed in him.
And then there were some who heard him, and they were like the seed that fell on the rocky ground. What was their response? Well, at first glance it seemed like a terrific response, because they received the word with joy and they began to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. But they’re also the ones John was talking about in his gospel: those who followed the Lord for a time, but who soon turned away from him. And we see the same thing in every generation: those who hear the good news about the Lord Jesus and who receive it with joy. They make a profession of faith and say that they have decided to follow Christ. They join a church and join his people to worship him. But eventually they fall away; and the reason they fall away is because they’re like plants without any roots. So, there’s no substance to their profession, no depth to it. And whenever trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. You see, they’re not really rooted in Christ or united with him by faith. They quickly made a profession; and they just as quickly gave up their profession, because they discovered that following the Lord Jesus can be hard and difficult because it leads to trouble and persecution.
And then there were some who heard the Lord Jesus, and they were like the seed that fell among the thorns. And the thorns symbolise the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things. And these things — worry, wealth and other things — choke the word and prevent it from making a difference in their lives.
Why does the Lord refer to the deceitfulness of wealth? Well, money seems to offer so much, doesn’t it? Money seems to offer us joy and happiness and pleasures and plenty. But the person who desires money and not the Saviour will end up with nothing at all; he will even lose his soul; whereas the one who loves the Saviour will inherit eternal life.
And notice how good things and bad things are able to choke the word. The things that worry us and the things that delight us; both are able to choke the word. So, think of Judas, who for thirty pieces of silver, agreed to betray the Lord Jesus. He loved that money more than he loved the Saviour. Or think of that time when the Lord was teaching the people and a man interrupted him and asked him to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. God’s Anointed King had come to bring salvation; but all that man was thinking about was the dispute he was having with his brother. And so, instead of responding to the good news with faith, men and women are distracted by wealth and worries and other things.
So, some who heard the Lord Jesus were like the seed on the path and immediately Satan took the word away. Others were like the seed on the rocky ground, because though they received the word with joy, their profession did not last. Others were like the seed among the thorns, because though they heard the word, it was choked by their worries and their wealth.
It’s not looking very good, is it? The Lord Jesus went about from place to place, preaching the good news of the kingdom. And often the response of the people to what he said was really very poor. His preaching ministry looked pretty ineffective and it seemed like his work to set up God’s kingdom was going to come to nothing because when he sowed the seed of God’s word, so many who heard did not believe. And it’s the same today, because when the Lord Jesus raises up and sends out preachers into all the world to preach the good news of God’s kingdom, the response is just the same: some immediately disregard his word; some appear to believe, but their profession doesn’t last; and others are distracted by many others things. The response today to the preaching of the gospel is just the same; and we wonder how God’s kingdom will ever grow.
But, of course, that’s not the end of the parable, is it? We need to read on and see how the parable and its explanation ends, because in the rest of the parable the Lord teaches us that when the seed of God’s word falls on good soil it produces an amazing crop: thirty, sixty, even a hundred times what was sown. In other words, the preaching of the good news of the kingdom will eventually lead to an abundant harvest. Despite all the opposition of the Devil who snatches the word from many; and despite the fact that many who profess soon fall away because of trouble and persecution; and despite the fact that many who hear are distracted by wealth and worries and other things; nevertheless the fact remains that the seed of God’s word will ultimately be fruitful; and the kingdom of God will be extended throughout the world; and in the end, when the Lord Jesus comes again in all his glory and power, and he sends out his angels to the north and to the south and to the east and to the west, to harvest the crop, it will be an abundant harvest, because there will be a multitude of believers, a multitude of those who heard the word and who received and believed it. And they will be gathered together and brought in to enjoy everlasting life in the new creation. Despite all the opposition from the Devil, and despite the unbelief of sinful men and women, nevertheless a crop is being prepared and it’s growing through the preaching of God’s word; and in the end it will lead to an abundant harvest when the Lord Jesus Christ comes again.
This brings us to the middle of today’s passage. You see, this passage is like a sandwich: just as a sandwich is made up of two slices of bread with some filling in the middle, so this passage is made up of the parable at the beginning and end and a filling in the middle. And the filling is verses 10 to 13 where we read how the Twelve Disciples and the others who were with him asked him about the parables he was teaching. And listen again to his reply; he said:
The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that [and then he quotes from Isaiah 6]: they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!
The Lord refers to the secret of the kingdom; ‘mystery’ is perhaps a better translation of what he said, because a mystery in the Bible refers to something which cannot be known by natural means. We can’t work it out or come to know it by ourselves, no matter how bright or intelligent we are. It’s beyond our knowing, unless the Lord reveals it to us. And here’s the Lord saying that the mystery of the kingdom is given to some and not to others. Do you see that in verse 11? First he said to his disciples and the others who were with him that ‘to you’ has been given the mystery of the kingdom. And then in the second half of verse 11, he says ‘But to those on the outside’ everything is said in parables. In other words, all they hear from him are parables, which they cannot understand. So, the mystery of the kingdom is given to some and not to others.
What is the mystery of the kingdom? It’s not entirely clear and there are lots of interpretations and suggestions. But it seems to me that the best suggestion is that the mystery of the kingdom is that God’s Anointed King has come, because the Lord Jesus is God’s Anointed King.
Why is this the best interpretation? Because it fits the quotation from Isaiah 6 which we find in verse 12. When the Lord Jesus was on earth — preaching the good news of the kingdom and driving out demons and healing the sick– there were many who saw what he did, but who did not perceive that this is God’s Anointed King; and there were many who heard what he preached, but who did not understand that this is God’s Anointed King. From what they read in the Old Testament, they were perhaps expecting the kingdom to come in an obvious and dramatic way. They were expecting God’s Anointed King to come immediately in power and with glory to overthrow his enemies on the earth and to establish God’s kingdom. But the mystery of the kingdom is that Jesus Christ is God’s Anointed King and he has come. But he had come, not to destroy his enemies, but to preach the good news of the kingdom, calling on sinners to repent and to believe so that they might receive forgiveness. And so, many of those who saw him and who heard him did not believe; and therefore they did not turn to God in faith and repentance in order to receive forgiveness. When he taught them, all they heard were parables, which they could not understand.
But then there were others: like the Twelve Disciples and the others who were with the Lord. And the Lord revealed to them the mystery of the kingdom, because the Lord revealed to them that he is indeed God’s Anointed King who has come to set up God’s kingdom on the earth, a kingdom that will never end.
And so, this is why we can be confident that in the end the harvest of the Lord will be abundant. Despite all the opposition of the Devil who snatches the word from many; and despite the fact that many who profess soon fall away because of trouble and persecution; and despite the fact that many who hear are distracted by wealth and worries and other things; nevertheless the fact remains that the seed of God’s word will ultimately be fruitful, because in every generation there are those who receive from God the mystery of the kingdom, so that they see and perceive and hear and understand that the Lord Jesus Christ is God’s Anointed King, who is building his kingdom on the earth, a kingdom that will never end; and all who enter his kingdom through faith will live with him for ever.
This parable is given to encourage us. So often we worry that the preaching of God’s word is futile and a waste of time, because so often the response to his word is so small and insignificant. Nevertheless, we can be encouraged, because in the end, in the end, when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, there will be an abundant harvest, a multitude who have heard the word and who have received it and believed it and who will therefore live with the Lord for ever and for ever. Very often we’re discouraged because so few respond. And very often we’re tempted to try new methods to reach the lost, methods which the Lord has not commanded us to use; methods which therefore cannot succeed and which will one day be shown to be entirely worthless. But instead of being discouraged, and instead of being tempted to try new methods, we should believe what the Lord has said that he’s preparing a crop through the preaching of his word, which will become an abundant harvest: thirty, sixty, even a hundred times what was sown.
We should not be discouraged or worried, but encouraged. And we should pray. We should pray for the preaching of God’s word, asking the Lord to make it effective, so that those who hear will receive it and believe it and be added to his kingdom. And we should pray that he will send preachers out into all the world to sow the seed of his word in every nation of the world. We were hearing last Sunday morning about the great need in Europe for men and women and boys and girls to hear the good news of the gospel. We heard how few Bible-believing churches there are and whatever churches there are are very small. We heard about the great darkness there is in Europe. So, we should ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the fields, to sow the seed of his word in the hope and expectation that the result will be a great harvest; and that many, many will believe and be added to his kingdom and will live with him when he returns.