Mark’s gospel emphasizes Jesus as a man of action, one with an urgent mission to usher in the kingdom of God by conquering His enemies. Consequently, as we have seen, Mark spends less time on the teaching ministry of our Lord than the other gospel writers do. But Mark does not ignore Jesus’ instruction. In fact, he devotes most of chapter 4 to our Savior’s parables.
The first parable that we find in Mark 4 is the parable of the sower, which is perhaps more accurately titled the parable of the soils, since the emphasis of the teaching is on the different soils in which the sower’s seed falls. We will focus on the significance of the soils when we come to verses 13–20 and Jesus’ explanation of the parable; today’s passage is the parable itself. Our Savior delivers the parable on the shores of the Sea of Galilee—actually, He delivers it from the sea of Galilee, for we see in verse 1 that He has had to get on a boat and go out some distance from the shore because of the large crowd. By preaching from a boat, Jesus makes it easier for people to see Him, and there is also the advantage of His voice being amplified by the water so that more people can hear Him.
Jesus borrows an image from first-century Galilean agriculture in order to teach a spiritual lesson. In those days, farmers scattered seed far and wide before plowing, and that is what the farmer does in Mark 4:4–8. In verse 14, our Lord explains that the seed scattered by the farmer represents the “word,” that is, the gospel; thus, we have an image of the indiscriminate preaching of God’s Word. In other words, Jesus sees the gospel as a message that must be preached to all people. We may not view some people as worthy of hearing God’s Word and others as unworthy of it. Furthermore, we are not to be worried about whether our hearers have hearts that are inclined to respond in faith. God, not us, prepares the hearts of people to receive the gospel, and He alone can grant faith (1 Cor. 3:6).
The parable of the sower is framed by Jesus’ command to listen to Him (Mark 4:3) and His call, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (v. 9). With this we see the interplay of what theologians have called the outward call and the inner, effectual call of the gospel. All people are rightly exhorted to respond to the gospel in faith—they are called outwardly by the preacher to believe. However, not all will respond. Only some have ears to hear the message in faith—only some are granted faith and repentance by God.