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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Parable of the Four Soils
Text:Mark 4:3-9,13-20 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 92:1,2,3                                                                                  

Ps 92:6,7

Reading – Mark 4:1-20

Ps 1:1,2,3

Sermon – Mark 4:3-9, 13-20

Hy 61:1,2

Hy 76:2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, some people are always curious about how things work. What makes an airplane fly? How does a raindrop form? How do they make running shoes? There are TV shows and children’s books all about how things work. It can be very interesting, and give a new appreciation for the things that we see and use each day.

Sometimes we wish that we knew more about how faith works. It can seem like a mysterious thing. For example, where has your faith come from? Or how should faith change you? And if you think that your faith is struggling right now, how can you improve it? The problem is that faith, unlike an airplane or a raindrop or a pair of running shoes, is unseen. It can’t be taken apart or put under a microscope.

There’s a mystery to faith, yet it’s so essential. As Hebrews puts it, “Without faith it’s impossible to please God” (11:6). We need faith! It’s that critical—which is why God does tell us what faith is like. He tells us where faith comes from. He tells us how it can be weakened, and how it can be strengthened.

There are many places in the Bible that we could look for instruction about faith. But the text we read this morning is one of the clearest. That’s what Mark 4 is: a picture of that invisible thing called faith. Here are some important lessons for our faith. In this parable, what can’t be seen with the eye is made clear to the mind and heart. I preach to you God’s Word from Mark 4,


Jesus the Sower tells a parable about the workings of faith:

  1. the seed that was scattered
  2. the ground where it landed
  3. the fruit that was produced


1. the seed that was scattered: There was something very powerful about the preaching of Christ. His words were clear, refreshing, and practical. And the parable in Mark 4 is probably one of his most important teachings. How do we know? It’s recorded in three out of the four Gospels. It’s also one of the only parables that Jesus spends any time explaining. For this parable gets to the heart of his own ministry on earth: Will the message of the Saviour be understood, or will it be ignored? Will you receive Jesus in faith, or reject him?

Jesus knew very well that not everyone believes in him. This is why He gives us that little interlude, between the telling of the parable, and the explaining, in verses 10-12. It was just as Isaiah had prophesied long ago: some would see the Christ, but not perceive who He was; some would hear Christ’s words, but not understand. That’s exactly what was happening in his ministry: there was faith in Jesus, but there was also opposition, and there was a short-lived enthusiasm, and there was lots of misunderstanding.

To illustrate the different responses to his gospel, Jesus paints a familiar picture: “A sower went out to sow” (v 3). When we in the 21st century hear about sowing seed, we might think of the advanced machinery that farmers use. The farmers fill up a hydraulic seed-drill, connect it to their high-powered, GPS-guided tractor, and off they go cruising through the fields; they can seed hundreds and hundreds of acres in a single day.

For farmers at the time of Jesus, it was a lot different. Sowing seed was a hard and time-consuming task. With a bag of seed slung over the shoulder, they would slowly walk the land. They’d grab handfuls of seed as they went, and scatter it over the ground that was freshly-tilled. And whether sowing grain, barley, or oats, a farmer would have to take his time, so that he wouldn’t miss any parts of the field. He would also scatter big, generous handfuls of it, because there’d always be some of it that wouldn’t grow.

There’s more to say about what happens to the seed after it leaves the sower’s hand, but for now, jump ahead to verse 14. There Jesus explains it to his disciples, “The sower sows the Word.” That’s the first aspect: the seed that was scattered. It’s the Word, the message of the Scriptures, about who God is, and what God has done. More specifically, the seed is the message about God’s Son, Christ Jesus. And ever since Mark chapter 1, this is what Jesus has been doing: sowing the seed. Going through every city and village, He was “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God.” The seed in our parable is his good news of salvation. He’s the Sower!

It’s the same Word of Christ that we have received. Many of us have grown up with it, having the seed scattered liberally on the soil of our hearts. The seed was scattered in the home, through our parents’ instruction and example. More seed was scattered at church, through the preaching of the Word, and the teaching of Catechism. And another layer of seed at Christian school, in so many classes and subjects. Still more seed was scattered whenever we took up the Scriptures for personal devotions. The Sower has been busy in our lives.

And the same thing happens not just in this small corner of the field, but the message of Christ is scattered through the whole world! Today there are many millions who’ve heard about Jesus Christ and the Word of God, in one way or another. Missionaries have gone out to cities and jungles and villages. Books and pamphlets have been printed and handed out here, there and everywhere, telling people about the riches of salvation. There are television shows and radio broadcasts and websites that explain God’s Word. Highway billboards too: some announce an upcoming restaurant, and a few still proclaim a simple gospel message. Also in countless hotel rooms across the world, there are countless Bibles in countless bedside tables. And across this globe are multitudes of Christians, who dare speak of the hope we have in Christ.

It’s true that the gospel is always brought in weakness. And maybe a lot of those hotel Bibles never get opened. Maybe the words of Christian neighbours are ignored. Missionaries will often face hostility.

Even so, the message of Christ is being spread onto the fields, the seed scattered, far and wide. There still remain far too many who’ve never heard the gospel… yet many have. They’ve heard that there is salvation from sin. They’ve heard that there’s a way to be restored to fellowship with God, and to enter his Kingdom forever. Right to the four corners of the world, the Sower has made sure that his seed is scattered.

Beloved, give thanks to God for your great privilege. You get to hear the Word of God read and explained every Sunday. You get to open the Holy Scriptures whenever you want. You’re allowed to study the Bible in peace, on your own, and with others. You have the saving Word of God on your phone, on your bedside table, and right in front of you this morning. Those pages tell you everything you need to know—even the secret of happiness, and a life that never ends. There’s no greater treasure! This Word of Christ is the essential ingredient for your faith. But a second vital point is this: Where has the seed landed?


2. the ground where it landed: As you watch the sower at work in Mark 4, remember again the difference between sowing seed then and sowing now. Today the automatic seed-drill puts the seed directly into the ground, covering it with soil, even adding a shot of fertilizer as it goes along. Wherever the farmer wants, the seeds are properly planted. He can avoid planting seed in those spots of poor soil, or where there’s been a lot of weeds.

And certainly the sower in the parable tries to do the same. Yet because of his method—doing it by hand—the seed lands in ways that he can’t always control. The wind catches some seed. Some falls from his hand too early. Some gets thrown too far. So some seed lands in good places, and others in bad.

Jesus focuses on those different parts of the field. Actually, his parable isn’t so much about him as the sower, nor about the scattered seed, but about where the seed lands. This parable has been called the Parable of the Sower, but more accurately it’s “the Parable of the Four Soils.” The four kinds of ground are well-known: there’s the hard path; the rocky places; the area overrun by thorns; and then there’s the good, fertile soil.

First, “As he sowed… some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it” (v 4). Fields in Palestine would have these narrow paths running between them; that way people could avoid freshly-seeded areas, or areas of new growth. But because these paths were well-used, their ground was hard-packed. A seed falling there could hardly penetrate, let alone send down roots. As the seed lay exposed on the path, it was easy pickings for the birds.

Jesus explains in verse 15, “These are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.” There’s hardly a chance for people to believe, and the seed gets snatched away! But notice that it’s not the fault of the seed that it doesn’t grow. God’s Word always has great potential. Romans 1 says that the gospel is the very “power of salvation”—it can do great things, in itself. Yet the gospel first needs to sink in. And in this case, it doesn’t. As Jesus said earlier, the gospel is heard by some people, but it simply isn’t understood.

Now, when Jesus talks about “understanding,” He’s not saying that we can grasp every mystery of God. Some things of God’s will we can’t ever grasp. Some things in Scripture take a lifetime to appreciate. But in his Word, God reveals enough for us to be saved. We know this, that by ourselves, we’re completely dead in sin. And we know this, that we can be rescued by faith alone, out of mere grace, only through Christ Jesus. And then we also know that belonging to the Lord Jesus, it’s our calling to love him with everything we are.

So if someone ignores this gospel, and doesn’t try to understand it, he makes himself an easy target for Satan. If someone leaves this treasure unclaimed, he’s just inviting the devil to steal it away. That’s why letting the Word sink in—taking the gospel seriously—is so essential, the moment you hear it. Don’t wait until you’re older to pay attention to the preaching. Don’t put devotions off because this time in your life is so busy. Don’t imagine that faith is easier when you’re older, or when you’re done school, or once you’ve settled down. When the Sower sows the Word, we need to receive it, then and there!

Wait too long, and birds will devour it—wait too long, and Satan will make it next-to-impossible for you to receive the Word. No wonder Jesus cries out at the end of his parable, “He who ears to hear, let him hear!” (v 9). Embrace the gospel, before it’s too late. Believe it, before you become hardened against it.

Jesus continues, “Some [seed] fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away” (v 5). Maybe you have a rocky corner of your garden, where things have never grown well, and it’s just a spot to park your wheelbarrow. That’s what this sower had: a place where his seed took root, even quickly, but where its roots would only ever be shallow. And without good roots, a plant is doomed. Come a week without rain, and it’ll wither in the hot sun.

Jesus explains, “These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the Word, immediately receive it with gladness” (v 16). How true that can be. Some people are so glad to hear about Jesus. He seems to take away our troubles! Or maybe we love the feeling of God’s amazing love, or the emotion of vibrant worship, or the excitement of serving others. From that, you might think the seed has sunk in. But when that’s all there is—when your faith is based only on good feelings, or our special experiences—it can’t endure. If you always need another “high,” another intense experience, then your faith will be short-lived.

Jesus describes what happens to this kind of believer, “They have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the Word’s sake, immediately they stumble” (v 17). There can be a faith that’s only superficial. Maybe it’s easy to love God when all is well, when we’re feeling happy and blessed. But faith takes more. It needs roots!

For there will come the scorching sun. Jesus promises us a lot, including tribulation, and persecution—yes, He promises that there will be things that hurt you and bring pain. You might come into times when things that you once accepted as true and reliable seem doubtful and unsure. Illness or disappointment can bring this kind of doubt. The ridicule and mockery of unbelievers can do it to us too.

You need roots, which means you need a strong connection to the source of your life. As we said before, this means faithfully attending Sunday worship, and actively absorbing the Word your hear. Then water the faith in you with prayer, prayer that begins in the morning and continues throughout our day. A true faith endures persecution and temptation and difficulty, only when it’s well-connected to Christ and his Word.

The third kind of ground is infested by thorns. Along the perimeter of fields are often weeds and brambles. This is where other seed fell, and started growing. But there’s at once a battle. For the thorns “grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop” (v 7). There’s a battle for sunlight and moisture and space—and the thorns win out.

That’s true to life. Thorns and weeds have this amazing resilience, growing wherever they’re not supposed to. You can have a nice smooth driveway, yet the weeds will always find that thin crack and start growing. Even when everything else in your garden is struggling, the weeds grow and crowd out the good things you’ve planted. That’s a lot like the power of sin. It’s so stubborn. It needs so little encouragement from us. We have to work so hard at good things like devotions and holiness, while sin gets rooted in an instant, and it lives on.

Says Jesus, “Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the Word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful” (vv 18-19). Looks like some front yards you see around town: weeds everywhere!

For there are “cares,” says Jesus. Maybe you’re worried about your health, your family, money. You worry about your future, your career, your friends. So many cares, popping up all over the place. And why is our worrying such an enemy to faith? Because faith is all about us trusting in God, resting in his daily grace. Whenever we give in to worry, we stop looking at our life in light of the sure gospel of Christ. We stop accepting his promises as true. So root out those cares by bringing them to God! Fight those worries with the true Word!

Jesus also warns against the choking of “riches” (v 19). Earthly riches always come with the lie that these nice things can make us happy, because God can’t really do it. If you have just a little more, you can be satisfied. But wealth has a dangerous ability to take our eyes off Christ.

And what about the “desires for other things” (v 19) that Jesus mentions? Picture the one lonely flower of your faith, in a garden that is full of the prickly alternatives. There’s so much fun we can have, so many ways to be amused, so many ways for us to escape. There’s so many idols we can worship, whether it’s our work, or our sports, or our games, or our education, or our parties. If we’re giving the best of our time and energy to these things, will we really have much left for God?

Today, how does your faith look amidst everything else in your life? Can you still see your faith? Do you have to hack away at the weeds every Sunday, because your faith has been choked out and neglected all week again? Is your love for Christ being strangled by your desires for other things?

After so much seed has fallen in bad spots, it’s a wonder that there’s any left. But there is: “Other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred” (v 8). Notice that only this seed really came to life as intended. It wasn’t eaten by birds. It didn’t wither in the heat, or get choked. It falls on good soil, and begins to grow.

Jesus explains, “These are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the Word, accept it, and bear fruit” (v 20). This is when we understand the gospel for what it really means, and when we believe Christ for what He can really bring: the forgiveness of sins, renewal of life, and eternal salvation. This is when we say to Christ, “Yes, I do believe!” And not just on Sunday, but day after day, year after, we say: “Yes, I do believe! I do love Christ, more than any other. He died for me. And now I want to live for him.”

It’s not our own doing. That farmer has been tilling the ground, and scattering the seed. If the Lord didn’t help us receive his gospel, we’d be just like so many today: we’d have hard hearts, rocky hearts, hearts that are overgrown. It’s only his doing that any of us are here. Christ makes us fertile soil, so that the seed of his Word might produce a rich crop.


3. the fruit that was produced: Now for that last kind of the four soils, the fertile ground. Here the seed sends down good roots. Here it receives proper moisture and sunlight, and begins to develop. And it yields a crop thirty or sixty or a hundred times what was sown. This is the good result that the Sower was looking for.

It means that if the gospel has really taken root in us, then something has to happen. Faith cannot not stay in a budding form forever. Now there has to be a crop, a harvest! If our faith is real, then it must grow, and it must bear much fruit.

Just think of that word, “a hundredfold.” That means there’s a hundred times what was there before! In a hundred different ways—a thousand different ways—faith must fill our lives. Because Christ should shape the way we think about the world, and how we speak to each other, and how we behave all week. Christ should determine how we spend our time, and how we spend our money. Christ should shape how we deal with one another when we disagree, and He should direct how we plan our future.           

So that’s the question for all of us: What kind of fruit will be produced in us? How will our faith in Christ be seen in our lives? How much fruit will there be? I’ll put that question more simply: What kind of soil are we showing ourselves to be?

Are you a hard path, leaving God’s covenant promises unclaimed and unloved? Today does it look like you’re all but waiting for Satan to snatch away what you have?

Or are you a section of rocky ground, able to give the message only a temporary home? Is your only response a shallow one, something that fades as soon as Sunday’s over?

Are you being choked out by thorns? Is your faith struggling under the cares of life, or all your desires for other things? Does your faith even have the room to grow?

Or are you fertile soil? Do people look at you and do they see fruit? Does God look at your life, and see a harvest: love, and joy, and peace?

What kind of ground are you showing yourself to be? Jesus says that you can only be one kind of soil. There’s no “middle ground.” Either we have a true and active faith, or we don’t. Either we receive the gospel and let it take root, or we don’t. It’s why Jesus makes that urgent plea, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (v 8). Don’t let Christ’s Word pass you by. Don’t be unprepared for the day of God’s harvest.

So cultivate the faith that you have, so it bears more fruit. Pray for the Son to shine on it. Pray for the Spirit to blow on it. Pray that you would be a good home for the seed of the Word, now and always.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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