Jesus Makes the Difference
So one night when I was in college, I’m at this Wendy’s fast-food restaurant — it’s the one right off I-40 by McGee’s Crossroads, in North Carolina — and I’m there sitting with this guy who was a brand-new Christian, and I’ve got my Bible open, and I’m about to read to him this parable here in Mark Chapter 4.
That’s because I felt like this parable was one that every Christian should know about — because it explains why the same gospel of the same truth with the same power affects different people in different ways. That was a question that always bothered me. Because I knew several people who had heard the same gospel I had heard, but their lives looked so different, and I didn’t understand why.
But Jesus tells us why here in this passage, Mark 4, verses 1–20, which is our passage today. And as we look closer at this passage I think there are three questions that Jesus answers for us. These three questions are the outline of the sermon. They go like this:
- Why do people respond differently to the gospel?
- What makes the difference?
- How should I respond?
Those are the three questions. Let’s pray, and then we’ll dig in.
Father, as we open your word this morning we recognize that those who hear are those who have ears to hear, and that this would be none of us apart from your grace. And so we ask for you to do a supernatural work. Father, would you this morning grant there to be more ears among us, and would you grant that for those who already have ears, make more be given. In Jesus’s name, amen.
1) Why do people respond differently to the gospel?
So first remember that people do respond differently to the gospel. Mark has already shown us this. Just last week, in Mark Chapter 3, Pastor David Mathis laid out for us the different responses of the scribes, and of Jesus’s family, and then of Jesus’s disciples. If you remember, each of the responses lined up with the three famous categories explained by C. S. Lewis — the people either considered Jesus to be a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. That is established in Chapter 3, and it was explained last week, and so then today, in Mark Chapter 4, it’s almost like Jesus takes us behind the scenes to explain why that’s the case.
Every time the word is preached something is happening that we can’t see. There is a hidden reality going on, and Jesus, here in Chapter 4, is going to let us in on what that is.
Now all four of the parables in Chapter 4 are on this theme, but of these four parables, this first parable in verses 1–9 is most central. This first parable of the sower is the more detailed, ground-zero account of what happens when the word is preached, and as a pastor, this has to be one of the easiest parables to teach because Jesus gives his own commentary on what he says.
Jesus tells the parable in verses 1–9, and then he explains its meaning in verses 13–20. So it’s kind of hard to get this one wrong. We just need to look at what Jesus says. So that’s the plan here.
Jesus Gives the Parable (vv. 1–9)
Let’s first start with the parable in verses 1–9, which we just read. The parable starts with a sower who is sowing seed (that’s verse 3). And then Jesus tells us that there are four different outcomes of this sowing.
Then first outcome, in verse 4, is that the seed fell along the path and immediately birds came and devoured it.
The second outcome, in verse 5, is that the seed fell on rocky ground without any depth, and so although it sprang up quick, when sun came out it was scorched and it withered away.
The third outcome, in verse 7, is that the seed fell among some thorns, and the thorns choked its growth.
And then finally in the fourth outcome, in verse 8, the seed fell into good soil, and there was a great harvest, yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold. And that’s the parable.
Jesus Gives the Explanation (vv. 13–20)
Then, in verses 13–20, Jesus decodes the parable.
Right away, in verse 14 Jesus says that the sower is sowing the word, and by word he means the gospel — this is the good news of the kingdom of God that he is teaching and preaching and spreading. And here are those four outcomes:
Conscious Rejecters (verse 15)
And as for the seed that fell along the path in verse 4 — that’s the one that the birds came and devoured — in verse 15 Jesus says that is when the word is preached and people hear it, but immediately Satan comes and takes it away — which means these are the people who hear the gospel but don’t believe.
This first category is what we could call “conscious rejecters.” These are the people who have heard the gospel, don’t believe it, and they know they don’t believe it. They know that they’ve heard the gospel — and they don’t have any major questions about its content — but they just choose to reject it.
The fascinating thing about this category, at least in our culture, is that many of these people would also most likely reject anything to do with an unseen spiritual reality. In Western culture, it’s not just that there are people who reject the gospel, but they also reject anything outside the material world. They reject the spiritual dimension altogether.
And the irony is that even in their rejection of the spiritual dimension, the spiritual dimension is at work. Their rejection of the spiritual is itself spiritual — because Jesus says that Satan, the adversary of our souls, is actually prohibiting the word from taking root. And now of course the person rejecting the gospel doesn’t know this, and they don’t really care to know this — but Jesus says this is what is happening.
This first category consciously rejects the gospel, and Jesus explains that they do so because there’s more going on.
Nominal Christians (verses 16–17)
Then there’s second category. The second category is the seed that fell on the rocky ground, and if you look in verse 16, Jesus says that these people are the ones who at first receive the word with joy — they like what they hear, and at least appear to believe it — but because they don’t have any roots, when things get hard for them, they fall away. They don’t endure through hardship and difficulty.
And of the four categories in this passage, I think this category is perhaps the most frightening, especially for us, because we don’t know this outcome right away. We don’t know if we have any roots until we feel the scorching heat of the sun. We don’t know if we will endure until we have to endure — and that can be kind of hard to swallow.
See, in the ancient culture of Mark’s Gospel, and still in many cultures throughout the world today, it’s not easy to believe in Jesus. Your faith in Jesus, your identity with Jesus, comes at a cost, and so in these cultures you can know more sooner than later whether or not you’re legit.
But here in America, in most cases, it’s not risky to believe in Jesus. You’re not putting your life on the line; you’re not risking your career; you’re not leaving your family. That isn’t the situation for most of us. And since faith is relatively easy here, what is it then that attests to the genuineness of our faith? That’s an important question.
In this land of comfort and ease, what is it about us that boldly declares that yes, indeed we do trust Jesus? How do we know if we are really hoping in God? What makes that clear?
Tribulation and persecution. Sickness. Sacrifice. Loss. Affliction. Depression. Frustration. Not getting what you desire.
That is the scorching sun. And that is the place where endurance matters. At that place is where you know if you have roots.
And historically, the theologian and pastor who led the way in understanding this dynamic was Jonathan Edwards. That’s because Edwards, back in the 1730’s and 40’s saw some amazing movements of God. Remember that Edwards was a key part of the Great Awakening, which wasn’t just one big event, but it was several movements that happened at different places throughout early America. Many people were being converted to Christianity and putting their faith in Jesus, and one of the big questions during that time was whether any of that was legitimate. How might we know if any of these conversions are sincere? That was the question.
And so Edwards thought and wrote carefully on this topic, and one of the things he explains is that there are some who trust in Jesus because they find Jesus useful to get what they really want.
In other words, there are some who trust in Jesus not because they find Jesus glorious and wonderful in himself, but they trust in Jesus because they think Jesus gets them other things they find glorious and wonderful. They are using Jesus for other things, and therefore, when those other things disappear, they don’t need Jesus anymore, and so they fall away. See how that works? To these people, Jesus is a means to other things, and when the means doesn’t seem to deliver these other things, they drop the means. They’re done with Jesus.
And that’s what makes suffering so crucial in the Christian life.
Suffering is when the “other things” are taken away and God is proving to us that he is enough.
So your hardship, then, doesn’t mean that God is mad at you. It doesn’t mean that God has turned his back on you. Instead, your hardship is a refining fire through which your faith is tested and proven more precious than gold, and in fact, it will result in praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ (see 1 Peter 1:7). Or as Paul says, our “slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Listen: your hardship does not mean that you are not loved; it means that you have roots. It means that God is showing you — God is proving to you — that he is enough for you, and that you have roots.
And if that was not the case, then the very minute it gets hard you would check-out, but you haven’t done that . . . and you haven’t done that because you’re real. Can I say that to you? Receive this: You are legit.
If you’re holding on, you are not this second category. This second category, Jesus says, immediately fall away when the “other things” are taken away.
Static Christians (verses 18–19)
Okay, third category. Look at verses 18–19. This is the seed that fell among the thorns back in verse 7, and Jesus says in verses 18–19 that these are “those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
Now how is this category different than the one just before it? Well, I think a key word here is “choke” — which could also be translated “to crowd” (see Luke 8:42).
The issue in this category isn’t that there is no root; the seed apparently springs up and stays; but it becomes entangled. It gets crowded out and choked by worldly cares, and riches, and desires. These things inhibit its fruitfulness.
And so, in agreement with others, I think this category is describing immature, apparently static Christians. These are the “meh Christians.” And there is such a thing. There are Christians who have their priorities mixed up — Christians who veer off in the wrong directions, Christians who either pursue the wrong things or who pursue the right things wrongly. These are the ones who might have all the right answers — their theology might be good — but it just doesn’t translate into how they live. And one of the reasons the local church exists is because no real Christian is ever meant to stay here.
Now at some point every Christian can be in this category, I think. We at least can start here. And that is exactly why Jesus tells the church to make disciples. Jesus says make disciples baptizing — speak the gospel and invite people to believe in Jesus — and then he says “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20).
So we’re not expected to know everything about what it means to follow Jesus right away. But when we come to Jesus we are invited to learn from him, together in the local church, what it means to be his disciple. That is what discipleship is — and it’s the mission of Cities Church. It’s what we’re trying to do.
We want everybody to eventually be this fourth category.
Mature Christians (verse 20)
Jesus said in the parable, in verse 8, that some seed fell into good soil. He explains in verse 20,
But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.
This last category describes mature, fruitful Christians. It doesn’t mean smart people or perfect people or passionate people. It just means Christians who are real. They’re authentic. They believe in Jesus, and they follow Jesus, and they bear fruit. Amen.
Okay, so taken altogether, Jesus is teaching us here that every time the word is preached, these dynamics are in play. Jesus is giving us the behind-the-scenes. This is why people respond differently to the gospel. But there’s another question, and this sort of goes another step behind the scenes. This is the question of what make the difference.
We’ve seen why people respond differently, but what is it exactly that makes the difference?
2. What makes the difference?
So if you have a Bible, and you look at Chapter 4, you’ll notice that right in the middle of Jesus’s parable (verses 1–9) and his explanation (verses 13–20) there is this little private conversation mentioned in verses 10–12. I think this conversation answers our second question, and it’s really the key to the whole chapter. Let’s look here.
First, notice in this conversation who Jesus is talking to. Mark says in verse 10, “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about parables.”
So “the twelve” is referring to the disciples, but who are “those around him”?
Well, the last time Mark mentions people who were “around” Jesus it was at the end of Mark Chapter 3. And there, in verse 34, we read that Jesus:
looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’” (3:34–35) [which is an amazing statement]
And so these people around Jesus in Chapter 3 — those who do the will of God — they are the same kind of people around Jesus in Chapter 4, with his twelve disciples, asking Jesus about parables.
So Jesus in verse 10 is alone with his disciples and with this new institution of people, which is like a new family, and this is how Jesus explains parables to them. He says, verse 11, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”
Insiders and Outsiders
And before we can really say anything else we should recognize that Jesus here divides the world into two parts. There is first “you” (the ones he’s talking to), and then there are “those outside.” So in other words, Jesus says there are insiders and there are outsiders.
And this is the same juxtaposition happening at the end of the Chapter 3.
When Jesus’s family came to where he was teaching, Mark mentions twice that they were “outside” (verses 31 and 32 of Chapter 3). Jesus’s family being outside is meant to be contrasted with those sitting around Jesus. So there are insiders and there are outsiders.
And parables are not simply analogies or illustrations; they’re more like secrets. Parables are hidden sayings that cannot be understood from the outside. Parables don’t help outsiders, and in fact, parables can actually confirm outsiders in their unbelief. People on the outside hear the teachings of Jesus, they hear the word, but seeing, they don’t perceive; hearing, they don’t understand; “lest they should turn and be forgiven.” That’s verse 12.
Verse 12 here is a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah Chapter 6, and it’s about the hardness of the heart. It’s about the heart that is turned against God — and what changes that heart is not more information. More teaching and convincing and persuading does not connect with a hard heart. Because they’re on the outside, and they won’t get it.
But what about the inside? What does it mean to be an insider?
Well, this is really simple: to be on the inside means that you’re with Jesus.
See, when it comes to the four categories of this parable, and when it comes to whether you are an insider or an outsider, it has to do with whether you are with Jesus or not. Jesus is the one who makes the difference.
To be on the inside means to be with him. It means you do his will. It means that you hear his word and accept it. Insiders are those who have faith in Jesus. Insiders are the ones who are around Jesus, and he says to them in verse 11, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God.”
It’s important that Jesus says “to you has been given” because this is not something that people can earn or figure out on their own. If we’re going to understand the kingdom of God — if we are going to recognize the glory of Jesus, who he is and what he’s doing and what it all means for the world — THAT can only be given.
It doesn’t make sense any other way, and that’s what the other parables in this chapter are getting at. The subversive, hidden, patient-to-be-manifest nature of the kingdom of God boggles the mind of man. It’s just a little teeny mustard seed, that’s all, and then all of a sudden it’s the largest tree around and birds are making their nests in its branches. You would never expect that when you’re holding that little seed in your fingers.
Just like you would never expect that the man doing this teaching and saying these things is the Son of God himself who has come into this world not merely to teach, but to die. And not merely to die, but to die for sinners — this man has come to take upon himself the wrath of God that we sinners deserve. He came to die for us, in our place, and even more than that: he came to defeat death. He’s not going to stay dead, but he’s going to enter into the deepest, darkest death that there is in order to destroy it. This man is going to be raised from the dead — this man talking here in Mark Chapter 4, the one who’s mother and brothers were embarrassed by in Chapter 3; the carpenter’s boy from Nazareth — this man is going to be raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God; he’s going to be enthroned and vindicated as the King of the nations before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that this man, Jesus, he is YHWH himself!
If you have ears to hear, hear this: Jesus is the one makes the difference. He is the secret of the kingdom. If you want to be on the inside, you’ve got to come to Jesus.
And that’s how this thing closes. Our third point, and final question is “How should I respond?”
3) How should I respond?
The answer is come to Jesus. Put your faith in Jesus. That’s how outsiders become insiders — and the Bible and all of history is full of examples of how this happens. This room is full of examples. Our passage here even has an example.
At the end of Mark 3 Jesus’s brothers were on the outside, and that included his brother James, but we know that James didn’t stay there. James is going to end up believing in Jesus, and in the Book of Acts he becomes a leader in the church, and he writes the Epistle of James here in the New Testament. James was an outsider who became an insider, just like a lot of us — and just like anyone who comes to Jesus.
When I was in college I started discipling this guy who had recently put his faith in Jesus. He was a few years younger than me, and he didn’t know anything about the Bible — he was brand new to Jesus and church and everything. And we were sitting at this Wendy’s one night — the one right off I-40 by McGee’s Crossroads — and I’ve got my Bible open to this passage in Mark 4.
I didn’t know much about the Bible either, but I thought this parable was one that this guy should know about. And so, like a rhinoceros in a china shop, I read this parable to this brand-new Christian, and after we read it he asked me: “So which of these categories do you think I am?”
And look, I was an idiot, okay; I did not know what I was doing; but I told this guy that I didn’t think the point was for us to worry about which category we’re in; but the point is just that we believe in Jesus.
And I still think that’s right. It’s a simple answer, but it’s the point. Jesus invites us to the inside. The fact that we can read the parable, and then read Jesus’s explanation, and hear this private conversation, it means we’re invited in. It means you are invited to come to Jesus by faith. And so, on behalf of Jesus, I’m asking you to come to him. This morning, believe in Jesus.
And come to this Table.
We enjoy the Lord’s Table together every week as a church, which is amazing, because this is an insider meal. This bread and cup is not just for everybody, it’s for everybody who trusts in Jesus. And so, if you trust in Jesus; if you by his grace are on the inside, would you come and receive this morning the body of Jesus broken for you and the blood of Jesus shed for you. You are united to Jesus by faith. Receive him this morning.