These small group studies of the gospel of Mark contain outlines, commentary, cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, and applications. Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.
Mark 4:1-20 Bible Study Commentary – Questions For Group Discussion
I. Parable of the Sower (1-9)
II. Purpose of parables (10-13)
III. Parable explained to the disciples (14-20)
I. Parable of the Sower Verses 1-9 Discussion Questions
Why do you think Jesus often taught by the sea?
Who was Jesus’ audience in this passage?
Why did Jesus often teach in parables?
What is a parable? Is this an effective teaching method? Why or why not?
Do we use this teaching method today?
How can we interpret parables?
Imagine for a minute, you didn’t have the interpretation of this parable. Do you think you could understand it? What points would you get from this parable?
Why did Jesus conclude His parable saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear?”
Matthew 7:24-27, Matthew 13, Matthew 25 – Many more “kingdom parables.”
Matthew 9:37 – The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
Luke 10 – Jesus sends the disciples out to preach.
Verse by Verse Commentary
The sea made for a good place to teach from because he could get on a boat and separate slightly from the crowd. All of the crowd would be in one direction so he could face them. Also, they would all be able to see him. This way would typically be a lot more orderly than if he was surrounded by masses of people constantly pressing to get as close to him as they could.
Parables – About on third of Jesus’ teaching was in parables. Later in this passage we will discuss some of the reasons why he used parables. Here we will discuss what a parable is. A parable can be a metaphor, simile, allegory, illustration, story, etc. It makes use of figurative language where certain aspects of the story correlate to a truth that Jesus was teaching.
Problems in interpreting parables – Historically speaking, parables have sometimes been over-interpreted. This occurs when the parable is taken too far and given more meaning beyond what Jesus intended. People who practice an allegorical approach to biblical interpretation often make this mistake. They may assign meaning to every single thing in a parable. For example, one such allegorical scholar assigned meaning to the donkey, the coin, the cloak, the inn, the thieves, the road, and more in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But what was
Jesus; main point in this parable? Jesus’ main point was that we should love our neighbor whoever that may be. He likely had a sub-point that even respectable people do not always do this.
How to interpret a parable – A key to biblical interpretation is to recognize the genre of the passage we are reading. Different genres have different interpretations. Parables generally have ONE main meaning or truth. In some more elaborate parables like the one in this passage there are several sub-points. Jesus’ did us the favor of telling us what each different thing represented in this parable. But in other parables where Jesus didn’t do this, it would be safer to stick with the main point instead of getting bogged down in debating what various symbols represent.
Parables are effective teaching methods – Jesus was an amazing teacher. His parables help us to understand spiritual truths in a far more vivid way than if he just said “love your neighbor, put God first; forgive others.” Parables also help us to remember what we have learned as an interesting story is far more easily remembered than a lengthy factual discourse. When teaching or sharing the gospel we should try to think of simple illustrations that can help people to understand and remember spiritual truths.
Listen to this! – Jesus tells them to pay attention. What He says is important. He not only demands their attention, but also ours.
Lessons from this parable are discussed below in Jesus’ explanation of it.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear – Not everyone was spiritually prepared to understand Jesus’ message. Those who didn’t go to listen to Him for the right reasons would not have focused enough or meditated on it enough to truly grasp it, nor would they have been enlightened by the Spirit to take in its meaning.
II. Purpose of Parables Verses 10-13 Discussion Questions
Who was Jesus’ audience in this passage?
Why in this case did He give the interpretation to only this smaller group of people and not the larger group?
How might someone who is not spiritually sensitive respond to a parable they didn’t understand? How about a spiritually sensitive person? What is the principle here?
Why was this group privileged to understand the mystery of the kingdom of God? Why were outsiders not blessed in this way?
Which group are you in? How should we respond since this mystery is also revealed to us?
What does verse 12 mean? Why?
Why was it important to understand this parable if they were to understand other parables of the kingdom?
Isaiah 6:9-13 – Mark 4:12 is quoted from this context.
1 Corinthians 2:6-16 – The natural minded man cannot understand the things of God.
Verse by Verse Commentary
Jesus’ closest followers sought to better understand this parable – There is an important spiritual truth here. Where were the other people? If they didn’t fully understand, why did they not come and ask Jesus about it? It seems that these closest followers cared enough to seek out an answer to their questions while the rest of the people were ambivalent about the true meaning. The lesson for us is to keep studying, learning, asking, and meditating to understand more than before. Hebrews 5:11-14. We don’t want to become spiritually dull, but we should rather sharpen our spiritual capacity to understand through more study and meditation.
Jesus answered them – He only told the meaning to a select group, not to everyone. He rewarded their persistence and sincere questions with the explanation. Not telling the entire crowd was something akin to not casting pearls before swine, meaning not giving something valuable to those who wouldn’t value it. We must always value God’s Words instead of taken them for granted.
To you has been given the mystery – It was a great privilege and blessing that Jesus’ followers could hear and understand spiritual truths that no one had grasped up until that point in history. These parables of the kingdoms taught truths that were a mystery before which hadn’t been revealed until the time of Jesus. We too have been taught these same truths since they are recorded in Scripture for our benefit. We have more knowledge and understanding about the things of God and His kingdom than any generation who lived prior to Christ. What are you doing with this knowledge? Are we wasting this opportunity?
Verse 12 – On the surface this verse is hard to understand. It seems to conflict with much of what we know about Christ and His ministry of preaching the gospel so that people would repent and believe (Mark 1:15, 2 Peter 3:9). But we can better understand this verse by considering its historical context. This quote actually comes from Isaiah 6, where God calls Isaiah to ministry. At the beginning of the call, God explains to Isaiah that his ministry will not be fruitful in the traditional sense. Although he will spend years preaching, the people will not repent. Instead their hearts would grow harder to the truth. God used Isaiah as a warning to the people and to make them more culpable for their own sin. As a nation, they had already used up God’s patience and He planned to punish them for it. While Isaiah’s message could be heard and believed by some individuals, as a group, God’s sovereign plan required the nation to reject His message. This is the same type of situation with Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion required that the nation as a whole reject His message. While individuals, even many, would hear and repent, as a group the people would reject Him as the Messiah. This reminds us once again of God’s sovereign plan, but also people’s responsibility.
Those who were not spiritually enlightened would not truly grasp Jesus’ core message. To understand the Word, we have to be regenerated and enlightened by the Spirit.
Jesus did not always talk in parables and His parables were not always hard to understand. Can you think of any parables that the people could easily understand? Generally speaking, Jesus’ parables were easy to understand such as the Good Samaritan. Yet in certain cases He made them harder to understand. We can only conclude that the makeup of the crowd, its attitudes, and the people present were such that Jesus found it best to occasionally obscure certain parts of His message. One other time we see Jesus do this is when He was wildly popular, but He told the people they needed to eat His flesh and drink His blood. This pushed away many people who were following Him for wrong reasons and left only the most dedicated behind.
III. Parable Explained to the Disciples Verses 14-20
Identify the various symbols in the parable including who or what is the: sower, seed, 4 soils, birds, thorns, root, and fruit.
What are the key lessons we can get from this parable?
Where are you in this parable?
What should you do based on what you have learned in this parable?
Are there any lessons we can apply as we seek to share the gospel?
Can you think of a way to only sow on the good soil?
How can you get a better crop?
What will you do to make sure you have a firm root that can withstand persecution?
What will you do to bear fruit?
What will you do to become a more faithful sower?
Matthew 13:18-23 – Parable of the sower in Matthew.
Verse 13 – This parable seems to be THE key parable in understand the rest of the kingdom parables. The basic principles in it about the seed and fruit are seen across several other parables so if we understand this parable it will give us insight into others.
The sower sows – Every believer should be a sower. We should all be sowing the Word of God. If we are not spreading His Word then we cannot be called a sower. In this parable the sower sows seed on all types of soil. He doesn’t know which seed will grow and which won’t. When we share the gospel, we don’t know who will believe and who won’t. Sometimes the person we think least likely to accept the gospel will be the one to surprise us. Our job is NOT to try to figure out what the good soil is. It is not to try to filter out people. This is not the way to guarantee a big crop. The best way to have a big crop is to sow more seed. The more seed you sow, the better the chance will be that some will fall on good soil. If you sow one seed, there is a pretty good chance nothing will grow. If you sow 5 seeds, there is still a chance nothing will grow. If you sow, one thousand seeds, it is very very likely that some of those seeds will hit good soil and grow up into a healthy plant.
Wherever the sower is active Satan is also active – Satan is working against the gospel all the time. He tries to snatch it out of people’s hearts (by making them forget it or ignore it) before it can take root. What can we do about this? The only thing we can do is pray. This truth should drive us to our knees. Pray that the seed we sow will be protected by God, that it will be remembered, and watered, and that God will keep Satan from influencing the person in any way.
Not all positive reaction indicates a real change – Some people will hear the gospel and respond with joy and excitement. Many of those will fall away. We see that happening throughout Jesus’ ministry and we can still see it happening today. Why do the people fall away?
They didn’t have a strong root. Perhaps their response was just an emotional one or one on the surface. When trouble comes, these people abandon their newfound faith because it is too difficult to keep it. What can we do about this? This is just the fact. We have to accept that it will happen sometimes and not get too discouraged when we see it happening. At the same time, a good farmer will do everything he can to prevent this from happening. We should obviously pray for a strong root for new believers. At the same time we can share with them how to become rooted in God’s Word and in prayer so that they will be able to better persist in times of persecution. Understanding this fact does not relieve us of our responsibility to try our best to help people grow.
Worldly influences are powerful – They can keep people from pursuing a relationship with God. This is another of Satan’s traps to ensnare people.
An important application for us is to make sure that we don’t fall into any of these first three categories. Through prayer and humility ask God to give you a strong root. Place Him as the first priority over everything in the world so that it doesn’t choke our relationship with Him.
The crop from the good soil will bear fruit – All true believers will be fruitful. We may be fruitful to different extents, but we will be fruitful. In farming a lot of times the ratio of planting to harvest is around 10 to 1. So a ratio of even 30 to 1 is still amazing.
Application: Where are you in this parable? Are you sowing a lot of seed, just one seed here or there, or just watching other people sow seed? Are you the good soil? If so, are you bearing fruit? Do you want to bear fruit 30 or 100 fold? What must you do to bear 100 fold? What do you plan to do in the next week to apply what you have learned today?