The parable of the sower in Mark 4:1–9, 13–20 is an agricultural story, whose symbols of vegetation – from the farmer to the seeds and its various growth processes – have much to say about the kind of people both in and outside of the Kingdom of God. In this passage, we will look at four different types of seeds as a reflection of four different types of people groups, and how only one of them is allowed to enter God’s Kingdom.
The context of Mark 4:3 is the daily duties of a farmer, who, having risen early in the morning, has gone out with a bag of seeds, and as he begins to sow, he throws his seeds generously across the whole field. From this context alone we gain great insight into the nature of the parable, namely that what we are about to learn regarding the Kingdom of God will be directly linked to the planting of seeds, both the process and its results. Now here is our first key in unlocking this parable: If we look ahead to verse 14, we understand that the planting of seeds is a representation of the Word of God being preached and, implicitly, that the people are the types of grounds or soils upon which the Word falls. Let this lens shape how we read the rest of the text.
In verse 4 we immediately begin to see what happens to these various seeds; and all of their growth cycles are related to us in a cause-and-effect fashion. In this first instance, we see “some seeds fell on the path” and the direct result is that “the birds came and devoured it.” There is an obvious problem in this scenario, an astounding one really: in a story about sowing seeds, the first seeds never even make it to the soil! Now, jumping ahead, we see in Mark 4:15 that these “birds” are a symbol of Satan and his minions, who are actively seeking to prevent God’s Word from being preached by finding some way to take it away and destroy it. So what kind of person can the devil so easily snatch God’s Word away from? It is one who does not even have the capacity to receive such a gospel (i.e., they do not possess any form of fertile soil). Instead, the hard path upon which the seeds fall is a metaphor for their hard hearts. They do not want to receive this truth and so it is taken away from them. This is, undoubtedly, a sad and sobering first action in the story.
Now, in verse 5, some seeds do make it to the ground, but it is not the right type of soil, namely it is “rocky ground.” The result is that these seeds also die before long since there is no room to put down roots and grow. At the first sign of tough weather, e.g., a scorching sun (verse 6), they are burned up. “Scorched” is the perfect word for these seeds as their short roots prevent them from accessing any water supplies. They are thus destined to dry up and “wither away” (verse 6). Have you guessed who this ground represents? Mark 4:16–17 tells us that they are “the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy…then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” These are the superficial Christians in every sense of the word – they say they have received God’s Word, but their life proves otherwise. The short roots without access to a water supply certainly is representative of the Christian who remains unplugged and uncommitted from both personal disciplines in the faith (such as prayer and the study of Scripture) and the fellowship of other believers (specifically the church).
Finally, in Mark 4:7, there are seeds that seem to find good soil. Their problem, however, comes from a different source entirely: they try to grow up alongside thorns; and seeds simply cannot compete with thorns because thorns will always and inevitably “choke” and kill them. Thus here the problem is not having the proper source of nutrients, but rather growing beside poisonous competition. The comparison here is quite simple: these are those believers who lie to themselves, thinking that they can live in the world and like the world and still maintain a healthy faith. It is perhaps one of the greatest lies a believer can think; for the world, slowly and methodically, will crush both their beliefs and their convictions until, finally, the individual finds that he or she has been swept away by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (verse 19). The result is that they cannot be “fruitful” (verse 19) for God and for His kingdom.
We want to linger on these first three grounds before turning tomorrow to the successful soil in Mark 4:8–9 and 20. For in each of these first three plants/persons that fail, each has serious reasons behind why they do not grow and produce fruit, be it due to unbelief in the first instance or issues of superficiality and worldliness in the other two. But no matter the reason, the end result is all the same: death. The staggering harshness in this story should make each of us pause and reflect on our own lives, especially if we call ourselves Christians. Do we fall into one of these categories, or are we in danger of falling into one of them? The way we answer this question is by asking ourselves whether we are producing kingdom-fruit. This fruit is the fruit of discipleship, gospel-proclamation, perseverance, and service. Are we more concerned with the things of the world (i.e., pursuit of wealth, comfort, fame, pleasure) or the things of the kingdom? Let this parable and these questions spur you on to prayer, repentance and a renewed desire to let God’s Word dwell fully and richly within you this day. For your very life, i.e., your entrance into the Kingdom of God, depends upon it.