Setting

The narrative takes a rare break from its fast-paced action. Here we reflect on four parables about our faith and the kingdom of God. The meaning of these parables was hidden from the people in general, and revealed only when Jesus was alone with His own disciples.

Key Verse

(4:11)

Did You Know...?

1. Parable (4:2): Derived from the Greek word parabole, which means, “placing next to something”—a comparison. In the New Testament, it referred to the stories Jesus drew from nature and human life. [ref]

2. Sower (4:3): A farmer scattered his seeds over the entire ground, which caused some seeds to land on the wayside, on stony ground, or among the thorns. [ref]

3. Stony ground (4:5): Not ground covered with small stones, but shallow soil on top of solid rock. [ref]

4. Lamp (4:21): In Jesus’ day, people used small clay lamps that burned olive oil drawn up by a wick. [ref]

5. Mustard seed (4:31): The smallest of the garden seeds known to farmers at that time. Though its seed is so small, a mustard plant grows to a great height 12-15 feet (5-6 m) in one season, and is a nesting place for the birds of the air. [ref]

Outline

  • Jesus Teaches in Galilee
    (4:1-2)
  • Parable of the sower
    (4:3-20)
  • Seeds sowed on four types of soil
    (4:3-9)
  • Parable of the sower explained
    (4:10-20)
  • Parable of the Lamp
    (4:21-23)
  • Parable of the Measure
    (4:24-25)
  • Parable of the Growing Seed
    (4:26-29)
  • Parable of the Mustard Seed
    (4:30-32)
  • Jesus Explains the Parables Only to His Own Disciples
    (4:33-34)

General Analysis

  • 1a.

    In this passage, what common things did Jesus mention in His teaching? Elsewhere in the Bible, what other common things did He mention?

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    Seeds, birds, soil, wayside/road, stony ground, thorns, lamp, stalk, head, kernel, sickle, mustard

    garment (Mk 2:21), wineskins (Mk 2:22), leaven (Mk 8:15), salt (Mk 9:50), camel, eye of a needle (Mk 10:25), fig tree (Mk 11:20-22), vineyard (Mk 12:1-9), sheep (Mt 18:12-13)

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  • 1b.

    Even though Jesus was brought up in a carpenter’s house, He was observant of life outside His circle (evidenced by His familiarity with fishing, farming, shepherding, etc). How can your secular knowledge help you preach the gospel?

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    Paul writes about accommodating people’s weaknesses and different customs for the sake of saving their souls (1Cor 9:19-22). As long as it does not weaken our own faith in God, it is important to know what is going on around us. Knowing current world events helps us understand biblical prophecies and the world under the devil’s control. Knowing what teenagers face in school (what they do for fun, what music they listen to, what TV shows or movies they like, etc.) helps us counsel them by speaking at their level instead of talking down to them. Jesus knew His audience. To some, you need to talk about deep spiritual teachings. To others, it is better to tell a story in simple language.

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  • 2a.

    Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why did He explain everything only to His disciples (34)?

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    God chooses to reveal His truth in His time, when we are able to accept it. Until this time, Jesus had commanded others not to tell anyone who He was (Mk 1:34, 44; 3:12); it was not yet time for His identity to be revealed. He prophesied that the truth will be spoken in parables (Ps 78:2). Those who did not have the heart to seek the truth would not understand. But Jesus has compassion on those who want to learn. In this passage, “His disciples” does not refer only to the twelve disciples, but also to those who stayed behind and asked Him about the parable (10).

    There are many things we still don’t understand. Some biblical passages still confound us. But our job is to strive to learn “what is acceptable to the Lord” (Eph 5:10) and do as much as we know. Ultimately, when we go to heaven, we will “see Him as He is” (1Jn 3:2) and understand everything.

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  • 2b.

    If Jesus explained everything to His disciples, why are we given the explanation to only one parable?

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    Verse 13 implies that the parable of the sower was the easiest to understand. Jesus explained everything to His disciples because they were not equipped to learn on their own. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the disciples continued to misinterpret Jesus. They did not truly understand until after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and they received the promised Holy Spirit.

    The Bible does not give us an explanation to the other three parables because we also have someone to help us explain them: the Holy Spirit. The spirit of Jesus helps us think through the word of God (Jn 16:12-15). The thought process is as important as the answer. (That is the purpose of these Bible study guides).

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  • 2c.

    How can we discern between correct and incorrect interpretations of the Bible?

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    God’s word is alive; we constantly discover new teachings in the same passage. At the same time, a new idea or interpretation that sounds logical (at least at first) is not necessary correct. We can never understand the Bible through human reasoning alone (1Jn 4:5-6). The only way to learn God’s word is to be filled with the Holy Spirit (1Cor 9- 16) and to know the Bible well (2Tim 3:14-17). The truth is always confirmed by the Holy Spirit and biblical verses.

    When listening to sermons or reading a Bible study guide, analyze the message and keep the word of God in your mind. Pray over what you read and hear. Discuss it with church ministers and members (Col 3:16).

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  • 3.

    What is the kingdom of God like to you? How would you describe the kingdom of God?

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    The kingdom of God is not only the heavenly kingdom. It is also on earth today, in the church, and in our hearts (Lk 17:21). Jesus even taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10).

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Segment Analysis

  • 4:1-20

    1.

    How much is the seed able to grow and produce in each of the following places? a. Wayside/along the path; b. On stony ground; c. Among thorns; d. On good ground

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    a. Wayside/along the path—none; the birds ate it up before it could grow at all.

    b. On stony ground—the seed sprang up quickly, but withered easily because it had no root.

    c. Among thorns—the seed grew up, but did not bear grain because it was choked by the thorns.

    d. On good ground—the seed came up, grew, and produced a crop of 30, 60, or 100 times.

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  • 2.

    What does each of the following represent? a. Sower; b. Seed; c. Wayside/path; d. Bird; e. Stony ground; f. Sun; g. Thorns; h. Good ground; i. Crop

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    a. Sower—Jesus (cf. Mt 13:37)

    b. Seed—the word

    c. Wayside/path—person who hears the word, but the word does not have a chance to take root.

    d. Bird—Satan

    e. Stony ground—person who hears the word and receives it with joy, but the faith has no root.

    f. Sun—trouble or persecution because of the word

    g. Thorns—worries of this life, deceitfulness of wealth, desires for other things

    h. Good ground—person who hears the word, accepts it, and produces a crop

    i. Crop—the word of God manifested in our lives; the kingdom of God (30- 32); fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23)

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  • 3.

    List examples of “the cares of this world,” “the deceitfulness of riches,” and “the desires for other things” (19).

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    Worries of this world—job/financial security, becoming successful, peer pressure

    Deceitfulness of riches—the more money, the better; money will improve my life

    Desires for other things—new clothing, new car, bigger house, physical lust

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  • 4.

    What are needed for a seed to produce a crop? (cf. Jn 12:24)

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    Good ground; hear the word; accept the word; the seed must die; understanding God’s word means understanding and accepting the sacrifices necessary to our faith

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  • 5.

    How much has the word of God taken root in you? What crops have you produced?

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  • 6.

    Explain 11-12. Does it mean God does not want everyone to be saved? (cf. Isa 6:9-10).

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    According to the Lord Jesus, the purpose of parables is to conceal the mystery of the kingdom of God. However, when quoting the prophecy from Isaiah, Jesus had in mind those who were callous in their hearts (“those who are outside”), not everyone in general.

    Those who are unbelieving may see but not perceive, hear and not understand. As a result, their sins remain. In other words, the inability to understand the mystery of the kingdom of God is the result of man’s callousness. Through the use of parables, God conceals the truth from the hard-hearted. But God does not intend to withhold the truth from those who humbly and sincerely seek His will (cf. Mt 11:25). Instead, He lets them know the mystery of God’s kingdom, as He did for the followers mentioned in verse 10.

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  • 7.

    Who is “he who has ears to hear” (9,23)? (cf. Rev 2-3).

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    Jesus quoted Isaiah, saying, “they may hear and not understand” (12). He spoke the word of God through parables, “as much as they could understand” (33, NIV). It implies that some people understood the parables more than others. Some took the time to ask Jesus about the parables (10). When Jesus was alone with them (34), He explained everything about “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (11). So “he who has ears to hear” refers to those who are willing to open their ears to learn about God’s spiritual teachings. We must dedicate time for our spiritual cultivation, to be alone with Christ. Only then can we grow in faith and knowledge (Heb 5:12-14), like the seed on good ground.

    The same expression also appears in the letters to the seven churches. In those letters, the Holy Spirit addresses the virtues and shortcomings of each church. The passage in Revelation describes what happens once the word of God (the seed) takes root in the different churches.

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  • 4:21-23

    8.

    What does the lamp on a stand represent? (cf. Rev 1:20; 2:5; Jn 1:4-5, 9; 1Jn 1:5-7).

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    1. Jesus Christ and His word (Jn 1:4-5,9; Ps 119:105).

    2. The believers (Mt 5:14-16; Rev 1:20)—Like a lamp that is placed on a stand to give off light, we believers must walk in the light and shine as lights in the world by living out Jesus’ example and teachings (Mt 5:14-16; 1Jn 1:5-10; Php 2:15-16).

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  • 9.

    Explain verses 22. What does it have to do with the parable of the lamp? (cf. Lk 11:33-36; 12:2-3; Eph 5:3-14; Php 2:15; Rev 2-3).

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    1. Our Lord Jesus and His word bring to light our deeds of darkness, even the secret thoughts and intentions. Nothing can escape from the light of God, which searches our hearts and convicts us of our sins (Eph 5:11-14; Heb 4:12-13). One day, God will also judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ, and everything will come to light (Rom 2:16).

    2. Believers, in turn, serve as lights in this dark world. By imitating the examples of Jesus Christ, they lead good lives among unbelievers and thereby expose and condemn the wickedness of this world (Eph 5:11; 1Pet 2:12, 15; 3:16; 4:4).

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  • 4:24-25

    10.

    What is the parable of the measure teaching us?

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    Measuring represents giving. In this context, it means devoting ourselves to hearing and practicing the words of Christ. The more we put into living out God’s word, the more God will enable us to understand and benefit from His word (cf. Mt 13:12; 25:29).

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  • 11.

    How do the parables of the lamp and the measure help explain why Jesus used parables?

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    The parable of the lamp teaches us that God’s word is so pervasive that it exposes man’s secrets. Thus, the parables of Jesus Christ will reveal the hearts of the listeners. Those who are humble and sincere will understand the truth behind the parables and come to the light. But those who are hard-hearted will be confounded and keep away from the light.

    The parable of the measure teaches us that the more eager a person is to seek God’s will and to practice it, the more he understands the parables of Jesus. through the use of parables, God measures to each person according to his heart.

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  • 4:26-29

    12.

    What is the main point of this parable?

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    If the seed represents the word of God, then the sower represents the person who preaches the gospel. The first parable focuses on what happens to the seed, while this one focuses on the worker. The sower does not know how the seed grows; he simply does his job, night and day. The kingdom of God is advancing, with or without us. We decide whether or not we want to be part of the mission. Today, it might be hard to comprehend how the gospel can be preached to the ends of the earth, but we just need to preach (as Jesus commanded us to do); it is up to God to make the seed grow (1Cor 3:6).

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  • 13.

    What does the harvest represent?

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    The word of God grows in the hearts and transforms us so that we might be saved. Many have worked before us (sowing the seed). Today we reap the fruit of their labor (Jn 4:37-38). We continue the work of the early workers. In the last days, Christ will harvest the earth (Rev 14:14- 16, 18).

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  • 4:30-32

    14.

    How is the kingdom of God like the growth of a mustard seed?

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    On the surface, the kingdom of God in this world undergoes a dramatic expansion in a way that is like the tiny mustard seed turning into a large tree. But it has experienced a change in substance. As evident in history, false doctrines infiltrated the church and altered the gospel of salvation the apostles once preached.

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  • 15.

    What is the meaning of birds perching in the shade of the mustard plant?

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    If we draw a parallel between this parable and the parable of the seed, then the birds represent Satan (1 Jn 2:18-19). When the church grows and prospers, Satan tries to corrupt it from within (1 Jn 2:18-19). However, the parable of the mustard seed tells only part of the story. The parable of the weeds (Mt 13:24-30, 38-42) tells us that God will weed out evil from His kingdom.

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