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Mar 24, 2024

Spiritual Farming 101

Passage: Mark 4:1-20

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Gospel of Mark

Keywords: gospel, word of god, fruitfulness, barrenness, cultivating, soul soil


This section of Mark introduces us to Jesus' methodology of teaching by parables. And this parable is THE foundational parable, according to Jesus. Jesus speaks to our role as soil and as potential farmers in this parable. See how God wants us to experience both roles to the full.


Spiritual Farming 101

Mark 4:1-20

March 24, 2024

Fellowship Question:  Tell someone about one of your least favorite classes or subjects when you were a student…and WHY.

INTRO: How many of you have ever been perplexed by something you have read in the Bible?  (Everyone who’s ever read much of the Bible, right?)

            What do you do when you read or hear something in the Bible that seems like a contradiction…or a riddle…or outright confusing?  As we’re going to see, your answer to that question will determine which category of spiritual soil you find yourself in on any given day… or our whole lifetime and eternity, for that matter.

            Mark 4 actually brings us full-bore into one of Jesus’ more perplexing teaching methods—telling parables.  We were introduced last week to the whole genre of parables with Jesus’ discussion about kingdoms and homes fighting against themselves.  That was Mark’s introduction to Jesus’ use of parables.  And he’s going to tell us many more in coming passages.  So, we need to get a handle on what parables are all about.

The Greek word for “parable” literally means a “placing of things along side of each other, for the purpose of comparison.” The technical definition of a parable (for those of you who love English grammar) is that it is an extended simile. The comparison is expressed clearly (“the kingdom of heaven is like . . .”), but the comparison is a story or a prolonged comparison, not a simple simile.  The parable is a story or an illustration placed along side of a truth with the intention of explaining the one by the other

ILL:  If I say, “My marriage is like a dance,” that’s a simile.  But if I were to say, “Life in the family of God is like a man from China and a woman from England who met at a dance, fell in love, got engaged, and had a destination wedding…in Mozambique.  They bought a home, raised a large family, went through trials of disease, accidents, bankruptcy and aging together,” etc., that would be a parable.  It’s a relatable, memorable (sometimes shockingly so) story with a spiritual meaning. 

            If you were to fully grasp all the overt and subtle comparisons I was intending to make between marriage and life in the family of God, you’d probably have ask me a few questions.  “What is the significance of the courtship period with life in the family of God?”  “What comparison are you making between a large family and God’s family?”  “What kinds of ‘disease, accidents, bankruptcy and aging’ are you referring to in the family of God?” 

            The same is true of the parables Jesus told.  Parts of their comparison and meaning may be pretty evident.  Others may be more obscure. All of them require a few questions to really figure out well what He was trying to communicate.  That fact will either draw you into more relationship with Jesus OR produce more distance from Him.  Jesus always welcomed questions about his parables. 

NOTEasking questions about what Jesus said/is talking about is a good thingParents:  encourage your children to question early on.  Jesus encouraged questions and questioning.  But the attitude with which we ask the questions is critical. 

  • Jesus got plenty of questions from the religious leaders who hated him. What was the purpose of their questions?  (Trick him, trip him up, accuse him, disprove who he claimed to be, reject him, etc.)
  • Disciples: what did their questions do to their relationship with Jesus?  (Closer, more faith, more personal, more obedience, etc.) 

Mark 4:1-20

First, let’s extract Jesus discussion of WHY he decided to move to the method of teaching in parables from this parable itself.  The WHY is signaling a shift in Jesus ministry and how he is relating to the crowd verses the core

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables….

[skip the parable]

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Question:  Why did Jesus teach in parables?       

I don’t know about you, but I tend to think that God, as a loving and compassionate God, wants to make His truth as clear and simple as possible so that the greatest number of people will grasp it and obey it. 

Or stated more negatively, why would a loving God want to hide things from people He’s trying to reconcile to himself? 

            Remember that opening “fellowship topic” of a class you didn’t like as a kid?  WHY didn’t we usually like a class or subject?

  • Didn’t like the teacher.
  • Subject was hard to grasp.
  • It took too much work to get a good grade.
  • We didn’t like the other students.
  • ???

There are a lot of parallels between our answers and how a whole lot of people felt about Jesus and parables in his day:

  • Many of them had already made up their minds that they didn’t like the teacher. In fact, some hated him so much they were plotting his murder.
  • Parables were sometimes hard to understand in terms of the exact spiritual meanings. You had to stay after class or go to an extra remedial class to understand the material.  NOTE:  What potential upside did needing to do that bring to your experience of the teacher?
  • Understanding the spiritual truths Jesus was imparting didn’t come naturally for anyone. If people weren’t wild about Jesus and his clear teachings and demands, they weren’t inclined to put in more work to discover additional demands and teachings that they would probably reject too.
  • Other students: many were already critical of the ‘common folk’, the ‘sinners’ and the ‘tax-collector’-types Jesus had in His classes.  Most folks didn’t want to have to spend more time with that type of ‘fellow-student.’ 

Vs. 9 is key to why Jesus switched at this point in his ministry to parables—Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”  Whenever Jesus used that statement (which was frequently), he was essentially saying, “If you really want to understand and obey what I’m saying, you’re going to have to dig a little deeper.  If you don’t want to, you won’t.” It was a statement of fact and a challenge to those who were true followers.   

            11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.”  That term “secret” might be better translated “mystery.” 

ILL:  A “murder mystery” is not something that the writer does so they can be the only ones to figure out who-done-it.  It’s a type of writing that is designed to pull the reader in, maintain interest and develop the plot so the reader all along tries to solve the ‘mystery.’

            The ‘mystery of the kingdom’ is that most Jews were sure that the mystery of how God was working with his people would be solved by their anticipated Messiah upending their occupiers and setting up his political kingdom right away.  But God had another plan:  set up His kingdom in the hearts of his people world-over (not just Jews) before eventually setting up His Kingdom world-wide (His millennial reign yet to come). 

            In essence Jesus was saying, “This mystery of the kingdom of God has been give to you who want God to reign over you right now, not just reign over the people you hate or are oppressing you.  But to ‘those on the outside’—those who don’t want my Lordship in their lives, these spiritual truths are going to be given in parables.” 

            Which brings us back to our Q1:  WHY parables?  To which Jesus responds with a quote from the Prophet Isaiah

            Here Jesus is likening his ministry to that of Isaiah some 700 years prior as he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10.   Isaiah was sent to the nation of Judah at a time when the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires were threatening northern Israel.  But more importantly, it was a time internally…among God’s people… when they refused to listen to God.  Isaiah 6 is all about God commissioning Isaiah and the kind of ministry he would have.  It was not an enviable one.  It was not going to result in massive national spiritual revival.  In fact, God told him that his job would be one that would confirm the Jewish people in their rebellion against God and lead to God’s judgment in their exile from the Promised Land.  It wasn’t the kind of ministry any of us would want for a life-long assignment.  But when God asked, “Whom shall I send?”, Isaiah replied, “Here am I.  Send me!”  So God told him exactly what to expect.  Here’s my Repsold Paraphrase Version:

            “People are going to pretend to listen but they won’t want to do what you say. 

            They will pretend to understand/see My truth, but they’re determined not to embrace it.

            Their hearts are going to get more indifferent and calloused, their ears more deaf, their eyes more blind.

            The alternative is that they would actually want My truth, actually obey what I command and actually embrace Me with their hearts resulting in repentance and healing as a nation…but they won’t” 

Isaiah’s role was, as prophet to a nation in the last stages of rebellion, to put the proverbial “nail in the coffin” of judgment against the nation’s evil. 

APP:  implications personal, for the church and for our nation today.

  • Personal: we must not shy away from God’s convicting calls to radical change, holiness and sanctification as the people of God.  To do that makes us a target for the promised judgment of God against evil (even in His family)…and God is a perfect marksman!  To ignore the Spirit’s convicting work when he says, “That’s got to GO,” or “You need to follow Christ more by INCORPORATING this INTO your life,” is to choose calloused hearts over seeing and hearing spiritual reality. 
  • Church: we are seeing an unprecedented decline in the American church today.  There have to be good spiritual reasons for that.  If we avoid asking the hard questions about why God is not blessing us with the kind of life, vitality, growth and experience of His healthy church evidenced from the book of Acts to today in human history, we run the risk of being just like “those on the outside” of Isaiah and Jesus’ message.  We’ll be maintaining the illusion that we’re really ‘listening’ to God and ‘seeing’ spiritual realities when, in fact, we are blind and deaf to transformational change. 

ILL:  the battle for biblical sexuality unfolding in church after church, Christian organization after Christian organization, Christian college after Christian college.  We cannot pretend to hold to God’s heart for male-female sexuality while rejecting His clear teaching on male-female differences, commonalities, marriage, sexual morality and personhood.  Holding to God’s heart for human sexuality doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with sexuality or treat sexual sin as something worse than other sins.  But to call “acceptable” or “compassionate inclusion” what God says we must flee is to choose spiritual blindness, spiritual deafness and spiritual callousness…not to mention God’s judgment that must always begin at the house of God.  And we are not doing anyone a favor to abandon God’s plan for humanity and pretend a false substitute is good for us.

  • National: While we are not the chosen nation of Israel, and while we’ve got plenty of ungodly strains in our history, an objective look at our history and influence on the growth of Christianity world-wide demands that we recognize that God has blessed us when we have obeyed on a broad national scale and disciplined us when we have not.  We are clearly in one of those “not” periods right now.  By any measure of morality, marriage, family, false gods, love, hatred, violence, perversion, materialism, greed, exploitation, justice, etc., we are deaf, blind and callous spiritually as a nation. 

Just as Isaiah’s prophecies and Jesus’ words to their generations were needed but sadly not heeded by the majority, so today.  So how should we then live among a people just like then?  Here is where this parable of the soils is so needed by each of us. 

            This is one of the few parables we have where Jesus gives us the needed interpretation.  I think that is probably because this parable is foundational to understanding the rest of His parables (vs. 13).  “Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable?  How then will you understand any parable?”  So, let’s see why this parable is so foundational to spiritual understanding for every one of us. 

“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” 

Now skip to Jesus’ interpretation.

13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word. 15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

            If we’re reading this parable correctly, there are at least two places we should see ourselves in it:

  • As a soil-type.
  • As the farmer (depending on our soil type).

Both of them have very important applications for the rest of our lives.

Here’s what we know clearly from this well-known parable.

  • The seed = the word of God.
  • People = the 4 types of soil
    • Type 1 = hard, trampled, path-like, barren soil
    • Type 2 = shallow, rocky soil
    • Type 3 = thorny, weed-filled soil
    • Type 4 = clean, fruitful soil

Let’s talk about these soil types so we can see which one we are.

Soil Type 1:  Hard, trampled, barren.  If you were Jesus’ disciples, and you heard his description of this kind of soul-soil, WHO would you think he was talking about in the crowd? 

  • Those who had rejected his word completely. Those in whom the word was not producing a nourishing harvest.  The teachers of the law (Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, etc.)  They were actively rejecting and fighting against Jesus and God’s word.  They saw their rejection of Him as virtuous, healthy, even good. 

There are many today who see their opposition to Christ and Christianity as virtuous.  They don’t even want to entertain the possibility that the word of God could bring something healthy and good to their lives.  They’ve decided that Jesus has no right to make any claims on their lives and they don’t want to have to think about the implications of His claim on their lives…so they don’t.  The are perfectly happy having the enemy of their souls, Satan, take away whatever word of God they’ve encountered so they don’t have to think about it.  These are people who will usually argue against any attempt to show the reasonableness or benefits of Christ in lives and nations. 

They may make uneducated statements like, “More lives have been lost due to religions in the world than any other single thing in human history,” completely ignoring that just in the last century (or half-century), communism has claimed over 65 million lives (conservative estimate), non-religious wars over 2-300 million, and, in just the last 50 years, abortion over 3.5 billion innocent children, all less than a year old, while all “religious wars” they point to from the Crusades on amount to maybe 10 million (still, agreeably, a tragedy).

The merciful thing with this soil is not that it is completely unproductive; it is that any farmer would spend any of his seed on this ground.  Yet God does…and calls us to still do the same.

Type 2 Soil:  shallow, rocky, short-lived.  These Jesus describes as people who like hearing about Jesus and even like listening to God’s word, but they lack any depth.  The spiritual soil of their lives is shallow.  Any religious seed will take root and spring up.  But the word of God, which demands depth of commitment because it will have to confront real challenges, difficulties, suffering and persecution, can’t get traction in their lives.  They are comfort-driven people who have no room for a God who uses suffering of all kinds to bring depth and strength and blessing and fruitfulness into the lives of His children. 

APP:  This is one of the grave dangers of a western-type American Christianity that presents God as our servant and the Gospel as the means to a richer, easier, ‘better’, more prosperous life. The real Gospel promises relationship with God, not material, social or environmental prosperity. 

            How many people in churches today walk away from the Word of God and Christ when life gets hard?

Type 3 Soil:  seedy, weed-choked soil.  This is the soil Jesus described as filled with “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things [that] come in and choke the word.”  The soil could be good in the souls of these people.  They may have more root and more longevity.  They may have fewer challenges or issues with suffering and hardship.  In their case it is simply a busy, overly-distracted, maybe even overly-ambitious life that, over a longer period of time, crowds out the life of God, leaving their spiritual life just another part of an already overly-distracted life.  They aren’t willing to weed out secondary things in order to have the primary thing—obedience to God—dominate and thrive. 

NOTICE: all three of these soils are unproductive and unfruitful.  They all describe “the crowd” Christians who never reach a place of fruitfulness which is what God’s word is all about. They may look like they are highly interested in spiritual things or highly religious, things and people other than Jesus dominate their daily lives.  While I don’t think the purpose of this parable is so we can judge others as to whether they are “saved” or not, I do think the purpose of the parable is so we can measure our own lives with regard to whether God’s Word is bearing fruit in us. 

            Very simply, seed produces after its kind.  If our souls are good soil, Christ-likeness and living that conforms majoritively to God’s Word will be hallmarks of our lives. Trials won’t derail us from holy living; they will deepen us in it.  Distractions won’t consume us; we’ll weed them out.  Temptations won’t own us; commitment to Christ will. 


  • Which of the 3 “unproductive” soils is your greatest danger? Are you content to stay that way?  Or are you determined to “become an insider” in the life of Christ by carefully nurturing God’s word whenever you hear it, read it or receive it?  What’s going to change if you are going to become a fruitful follower of Jesus?
  • If you see yourself as “good soil” that is reproducing the life of Christ and the lived-out word of God, what can you do to go from a lower-yield Christ-follower to a higher-yield follower (30-60-90 times the original seed)? What could you do right now that would help God’s word be more fruitful in your life?  Receive Jesus? Read it daily?  Focus on one way to obey it every week?  [Stop, pray, ask God.]

Lastly, anyone who sees themselves as the 4th Soil Type should also be asking questions about their role as “the farmer” in this parable.  A critical component of being truly fruitful soil is that we are actually sharing/sowing the word of God into the lives/soils of other people’s lives.  Heb. 5:12—“…by this time you ought to be teachers….”  It is the plan of God that all of us “reproduce after our kind.”  For every Christian that involves spreading the word of God, the Gospel, into the lives of as many people as we possibly can. 

ILL:  I don’t know WHO God is pointing out to you that He wants you to take more time, effort, attention, sacrifice and energy to sow the Gospel into.  I know what He’s been bringing to my attention the last few months.

  • The people He brings to us every day here at this building.
  • Specifically those I fail to love and engage with because I tell myself I have more important things to do (like go to a prayer meeting…or prepare/attend a Bible study…or work on ministry projects/programs…or attend a meeting, etc.).
  • Yesterday’s 12-Hour Revival Prayer: one of the street people lit a fire of cardboard under our gas meter while we were praying yesterday about 2:00 p.m.  So I, in my infinite and impatient wisdom, decreed that we weren’t going to allow anyone to hang out around our building, day or night.  So, when I did the sweep around the building about 9:00 p.m., I found a man sitting on his sleeping bags right near the blackened sidewalk.  I at least had enough presence of the Holy Spirit to offer him a cup of coffee and tell him what had happened.  But I informed him that “we” (yes, I included “you” in there, unfortunately) weren’t allowing camping there overnight. He’d have to move on.  He was very polite and understanding.  We exchanged names, shook hands and he asked, “Is this forever?”  I mumbled some non-committal answer and came back to praying for revival!

As God would have it, the leader that hour was leading us to pray through the Beatitudes.  Of course, I’d like to think I’m in line for God’s blessing, being so “poor in spirit,” so “pure in heart”, so “persecuted for righteousness sake” and all!  Then we got to “Blessed are the merciful….”  In the list of verses the leader had given us about mercy was this one Jesus said in Mt. 9:13--“Go and learn what this means:  ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”  Here I was, supposedly “sacrificing” 12 hours to pray…while totally failing at showing mercy and leading sinners to the Father.  Shame on me!  God have mercy on me…and grant me another chance to actually bear the fruit of mercy by having another opportunity to apologize to this man and serve him some mercy.  For Pete’s sake, he didn’t even start the fire!

But if it isn’t him, there will be another person today…and tomorrow…and every day this week…for the rest of my life.  How many of them will turn out to be better soil than my soul is?  How many could turn out to be far more fruitful soil than I am? 

      Can I suggest something for all of us?  How about we all make up our minds that being spiritual farmers in the field is more important than being mechanics in the barn?  Farmers need machinery that runs and works.  So they work on it in the winter and get it ready for plowing and planting and fertilizing and harvesting the rest of the year.  We need to spend some time tending to business “in the barn”.  But when that gets in the way of working in the field, we need to change some things. 

Let me end by suggesting a simple “tool” we should all be using “in the field” of people God brings into our lives, be they for 30 seconds or 30 years. 

            We all need the tools of a few good questions we can use to lead us to meaningful spiritual conversations and sowing of God’s word into those conversations.  Here are just five questions I’ve found helpful with just about anyone I know or don’t know.

  1. Hello, I’m John. What’s your name?
  2. __________, tell me a little about yourself/your story.
  3. Tell me, what’s your experience or spiritual journey with God been in life?
  4. If you could talk to God and ask Him one question, what would it be?” 
  5. Would you be interested in finding an answer to that question?

I think one of the primary reasons the church and our country is in the state it is in is that we’ve stopped being “farmers in the field” and settled for being “mechanics in the barn.”  I’d like to change that in my life.  Anyone interested in joining me on the journey? 

[Raise hands?  Come forward for prayer?]

Invitation to receive the ‘seed’ of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.