Mark 4: Normal loss, astounding yield


Have you ever met one of those people who, no matter what you do for them, they simply refuse to change for the better? For someone who takes seriously the biblical mandate to serve others in the hopes that their lives would be revolutionized by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, there can be virtually nothing that is more frustrating. And yet, as we open Mark 4, we discover Jesus in the middle of this very situation. For weeks now, even months, Jesus has had no problems attracting a crowd. All sorts of people, eager to experience Jesus’ healing power or just be there for the next big thing, have been clamoring to him. And yet, for three chapters now, the vast majority have neglected to grasp and apply what he said.

Jesus takes most of chapter 4 to address this very subject. Not because he’s frustrated himself, I think; his tone doesn’t really seem frustrated nearly as much as it does sad. But for the benefit of the disciples that he’s called to carry on the message and ministry in the near future.

It’s an interesting thing to talk about with them because, so far, there had been no problem drawing a crowd and being popular. Who needed to worry about whether the soil of the heart was rocky or trampled or infested with sin: everyone would want to be on board with a guy who could heal the sick and, as they would discover at the end of the chapter, calm the storm!

Yet here, at essentially the very beginning of their tutelage under Jesus, he spoke at length about the challenges of sowing the gospel among people who were real.

Indeed, as the parable of the sower describes in vss 1-1-8, and again in vss 13-20, the receptivity of real people to the gospel message will vary dramatically from person to person. Some, like the path, will look like they’re ready to listen, but as soon as the seed is sewn the enemy will whisk it away or people will trample it down so that it never has a chance to take root. Others will be quick to embrace the gospel, but they will never be willing to go deep in the faith. When trouble or persecution or even just plain challenges come (after all, it’s not always easy to be obedient!), their fledgling faith will shrivel up and die. And then there are those who will be receptive to the gospel but unwilling to root out the temptation and sin of their lives, which will ultimately choke out their faith.

These things will be frustrating, Jesus wanted his apostles, the people he had just called to convey the gospel message, to know. They will be irritating, and you will feel from time to time like giving up because there seems to be just no way you can win. All of these things, Jesus readily acknowledged right here at the outset of his relationship with these disciples. But notice that he doesn’t stop there.

Indeed, as Jesus explained in the parable of the sower, while a significant portion of the seed is lost to the various circumstances in the field, some of it will take root. And even if it’s only one fourth of the seed that was planted, it will produce a crop which yields far in excess of the original investment.

Then, keeping with the image of a farmer, Jesus goes on to explain that, when that viable seed actually takes root and springs forth, the farmer’s job changes from sowing to watering and tending as necessary, but in the end, the farmer is not responsible for the growth of that seed and the production of that crop. Yes, he contributes. Imagine what would happen if he didn’t water or weed, etc. But he himself can’t compel the seed to germinate, grow, and eventually produce fruit. Only God can do that.

And what a relief that is! Because I know that there are times when I could do better on a message, confronting sin that I see in people’s lives, or even just listening to them and being a pastor. I know that there are only so many hours in the day that I can help people, and I can only be in so many places in a day. I know that I am limited in so very many ways that, if it were left entirely up to me, there is no way the gospel would ever yield a crop! But making the field grow and produce the crop, ultimately, isn’t my job. My job is just to water, fertilize and weed. And then get out of the way so God can do His thing.

And do His thing He will. Just as the single tiny mustard seed can yield an impressive bush, each tiny seed of the gospel which I spread has the capacity to take root and sprout into a spectacular believer who will grow into far more than my efforts could ever warrant.

Talk about encouraging! Suddenly, the fact that much of the time we’ll be spreading the gospel in vain doesn’t seem so bad anymore. Suddenly, the idea that so many things could go wrong to preclude the development of a mature and effective believer doesn’t seem so appalling anymore. Suddenly, the job of ministry doesn’t seem so hopeless anymore.

So here’s the bottom line: we are called to minister, sowing the seeds of the gospel everywhere and among everyone we meet. Often, nothing will come of that seed. But when something does, it will be great! So like the farmer who doesn’t just throw his hands in the air and give up when the birds eat his seed or people trample it, it sprouts but never produces because it didn’t have enough soil for a strong root system, or it gets throttled by weeds that grow up with it, we must be resolved to press on, focusing not on the failure of the lost seed, the gospel spread in vain, but on the prospect of the good seed that will produce an astounding crop.

So go and spread seeds of the gospel wherever you go, whatever you do, and among whoever you meet today. Don’t worry about the people for whom it will never make a difference. Rather, remember always that there would be no astounding yield without the loss of that seed. And who knows but that maybe one of those seeds that you scatter today will spring up and become the great believer of tomorrow. After all, someone had to tell the John Wesley’s, Dwight Moody’s, and Billy Graham’s of this world. Spread the gospel seed!


  • (1) Interestingly, having grown up spending a lot of time on and near the Mississippi River, I can completely understand why Jesus would have done this. Sound carries incredibly well over water. And if there was a gentle slope to the shore, this would have created a natural amphitheater.
  • (3) “Listen!” or “Behold!” was designed to get people’s attention. What Jesus was about to say was really important, and they were going to have to think about it to understand what was going on.
  • (3-6, 13-20) In is interesting that the farmer here was not ignorant. He understood that some of this seed would go to waste, and yet he spread it anyway. In fact, average farmers in Jesus’ day would have scattered the seed even before they plowed the ground. We can’t reserve the gospel seeds for “the right time.” We must be sewing them constantly, with everyone we meet, regardless of whether they’re prepared to hear it, much less yield a crop. Yes, that will mean that we’re not 100% successful 100% of the time, but the seed that does bear fruit will be multiplied to offset the loss.
  • (10-12) Jesus explains the reason he uses parables. For those who are not searching for the deep truths he has to offer, they will simply be quaint or even amusing anecdotes. For someone listening to glean spiritual truth, though, they are laced with tremendous insight.
  • (21) Again, a lamp casts its light indiscriminately, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
  • (22) As a light reveals things that were unseen in the dark, the gospel reveals sin and brokenness, etc., that may have been completely unknown to everyone except the person who is finally illuminated.
  • (24-25) The point is that it’s not enough to simply know what Scripture says; you must put it to work. Don’t be a bulimic christian.
  • (26-29) This is a tremendously hopeful passage! Our job is to scatter the seed, living lives that plant tidbits of hope and good news wherever we go. Our job is NOT to make the seed grow. Yes, we may water it from time to time, throw fertilizer on it on schedule, etc., but the seed is ultimately responsible, with God’s help, to grow. How many pastors beat themselves up because people languish in their faith. As long as we are faithful to continue planting the gospel and providing the spiritual nourishment and guidance the hearer needs to grow (don’t underestimate those responsibilities!), we’ve done our job.
  • (30-32) Another interesting tidbit: the seed of the gospel which we plant may be merely the slightest of hints, but that hint could be enough to grow into a great faith. Maybe we shouldn’t be so concerned about cramming our complete plan of salvation down someone’s throat every time we meet them.
  • (35-41) Something that sticks out to me: again, for some reason, I had always imagined this scene as Jesus and his disciples out on the lake by themselves. In vs 30, though, we find that “there were also other boats with him.” Even on the water, Jesus couldn’t escape the crowd! And more importantly, there was actually a pile of people that saw this miracle.
  • (38) Faith = belief applied to life. Of course, Jesus had a slightly different situation than we do (i.e., He KNEW he was the Son of God.), but he believed that things were going to go away, so he applied that by taking a nap even as the storm raged. He must have been absolutely exhausted because, having been in a boat where waves are crashing over it, you will get wet and cold, and sleeping would have been impossible.
  • (39) I don’t know that I would have been so composed. At the very least, I would have been irritated that they woke me up. In all likelihood, I would have been a little scared we were going to sink.
  • (40) Once again, Jesus directs the disciples’ attention off of the miracle. Why didn’t they believe in him? Why hadn’t they connected the dots to know that he was the Messiah? With these simple questions, Jesus reminded them that it wasn’t about the miracles; it was about the message. They needed to believe that.

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