Those who have been reared from infancy in a Christian environment will have retained a familiarity with the illustrations used by the Lord Jesus in His parabolic ministry. He drew his illustrations from the fields and trees as well as from people. The beauty and simplicity of His teaching has captured the hearts and minds of children and adults alike. At the same time, the closer we look at the parables the more the spiritual mind will be arrested by the rich vein of truth lying beneath the surface.
The reason for the parables
The parables came towards the later time of Jesus public ministry after it became obvious that the Jewish religious leaders had openly rejected Him as their Messiah. In Marks Gospel this is seen early (3.22-25). The parable of the sower follows (4.1-20). The corresponding events appear in Matthew (12.22-50) with the parable of the sower following in ch.13. This observation reveals at least one reason why the Lord spoke in parables. Those who in hardness and unbelief closed their eyes and ears to His teaching were unable to discern the underlying spiritual lessons. On the other hand, the disciples and those who were seeking the truth received enlightenment to enable them to comprehend the deeper things relating to the Kingdom of God (Mt 13.10-16; Mk 4.10-12).
The range of teaching in the parables
The parables are found only in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. None of the recognised parables are found in Johns Gospel, although the word "parable" is found (10.6, AV) in connection with the Good Shepherd. However, the Greek word used there is not parabole, the word normally used, but the word paroimia which signifies "by the way". Elsewhere in Johns Gospel it is translated proverb (see 16.25,29). It is more in the nature of a proverb or allegory!
Many of the parables serve to reveal mans moral and spiritual bankruptcy on account of sin, and the provision of grace to meet the need. Lukes Gospel is particularly rich in this regard. The Two Debtors (7.41-50); the Good Samaritan (10.30-37); the parable of the Lost Sheep, Lost Silver and Lost Son (ch.15), and that of the Pharisee and the Publican (18.9-14) are examples. There are parables which encourage us as the Lords people to engage in prayer (Lk 18.1-8), and some that show the need to cultivate a forgiving spirit towards one another (Mt 18.23-35). There are others which stimulate faithful service and stewardship. Many are rich in prophetic instruction, and lovers of the Word of God have pondered long over such as the "Kingdom Parables" (Mt 13).
The recorded parables in Marks Gospel
The Gospel of Mark is noted as one of activity and movement. Marks emphasis is directed towards what Jesus did by way of miracles rather than what He taught. He is, however, careful to remind us that the authority of Christs teaching was no less effective than the power of his miracles (1.22,27; 11.27-33). This Gospel contains only four parables, and, in keeping with the character of the Gospel, they focus on issues of service and stewardship.
Three of these are found in ch.4, and one in ch.12. The first deals with the sowing of seed and the fourth with the planting of a vineyard and the desire of the "lord of the vineyard" to find fruit where he had a right to expect it. All who seek to serve the Lord will find much profit from the Saviours teaching regarding these parables, so we shall seek to consider briefly those found in ch.4.
The Sower Mark 4.3-20
The sower of the good seed was initially the Lord Jesus. In another parable we read, "He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man; The field is the world" (Mt 13.37-38). In turn, Jesus commissioned others, and so, from the sending out of the apostles at the first, men have been called of God to "go and sow". The seed which is broadcast is the Word of God - "The sower soweth the word" (v.14).
The varied conditions of the soil indicate the state of mens hearts towards the heavenly message, and if in our preaching we are prone to discouragement we must bear in mind that the conditions existing today existed when the Sower first cast the seed.
The "wayside" pictures for us a path through the field, compacted and hardened by traffic, so that the seed cannot penetrate, and Satanic agencies, pictured by the fowls of the air, devour it. Luke in his Gospel writes, "Then cometh the devil and taketh away the word out of their hearts" (8.12). The frenetic pace of modern life has been well summed up in the words of the hymn:
"Not a place He can enter,
In the heart for which he died".
The "stony ground" hearers show promise in giving a mental assent to the Word, but when faith is put to the test it reveals a shallow profession without substance. Some seed fell among thorns, so that it was choked in its early stages. Three categories of hindrance are mentioned, embracing all classes of society. The poor may be overwhelmed by the cares of this world, and the wealthy by the deceitfulness of riches. All, however, are liable to be affected by "the lusts of other things entering in" (v.19). Our western world is so overcrowded by pressure from business, and materialistic considerations, that men and women become too involved to allow spiritual issues to mould their character.
However, we find encouragement that there are hearts that have been prepared by God. The fallow ground has been broken, bringing about a conviction and sense of need. The Spirit of God has done His work, and into such hearts the seed penetrates and germinates. The evangelist today, as in bygone days, often experiences the disappointment of seeing those who showed initial promise fall away because no real work of God was ever done in their hearts, but, on the other hand, he still has the joy of witnessing the miracle of new birth, as hearts have been genuinely opened to receive the good seed of Gods word which was sown. The different levels of production suggest that each individual will have a varying measure of fruitfulness, but it underlines for us that the desire of the Lord is that the life of every believer is such that the He will find something for His glory.
The mystery of life and growth - Mark 4.26-29
Following the parable of the sower, the Lord Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God being like a man who sows seed in his field, and having done that he can do no more other then observe its progress. The Kingdom of God is that sphere where the rule of God is acknowledged. John Baptist preached that it was at hand (Mt 3.2), followed closely by Jesus coming to Galilee and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God, saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mk 1.15). It will extend beyond the present church age to the time when Christ will come to claim His rightful reign of government in the world.
As the sower, Jesus initially sowed the seed of the word of the Kingdom, followed by those whom he afterwards sent. The lesson is that the Lords servants should be diligently engaged in the work almost as if everything depended upon them, yet at the same time recognising that all depends upon God. Surely the lesson is that having planted and watered the servant must patiently wait upon God for the increase (1 Cor 3.6). How beautiful is the picture of the three stages of spiritual growth the blade, the ear, then the full corn in the ear. John also acknowledges three stages of growth as he writes to children, young men, and fathers (1 Jn 2.12-14).
We notice a solemn link between the hand of the sower (the Son of Man) that initially dispenses the seed, and the hand that in the end uses the sickle (Rev 14.14-15). However, the main lesson is that the process of life and growth belongs to God.
The mustard seed Mark 4.30-32
In this parable the Lord speaks of the Kingdom of God being like a grain of mustard seed. We note that something with a very small insignificant beginning grew until it became marked by abnormal earthly greatness (a similar picture is used to describe Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4.20-22). The spread of its branches provide shelter and lodging for the birds of the air. The very agents that devoured the seed (4.4,15) now rest under the shadow of this mustard tree! The image points to the development of Christendom in the world after the close of the New Testament era. It shows the beginning of a liaison in which the genuine and the counterfeit are brought together, and will co-exist until the end times when the Son of Man intervenes in judgment. The church, the body of Christ, although existing up to the Rapture within the parameters of the Kingdom, is distinct, and is composed only of those men and women who are truly born again, and sealed with Gods Holy Spirit.
To be continued.