Ears to Hear (Mark 4:1-25)
Topic: Mark Passage: Mark 4:1–4:25
I. Hearing but Not Hearing
How often do you hear without really hearing?
Have you ever had someone you’re talking with say, “Are you listening to me”, because they could tell your mind was somewhere else? That’s hearing without really hearing.
Have you ever listened to someone recount a painful experience and then ask you, “Do you know what I mean”, and you don’t? That’s hearing without really hearing.
Were you ever told by your mother or father not to do something because it was too dangerous, like jump into the pool off the patio roof or ride a cardboard box down the stairs, were you ever told not to do it, but you did it anyway? That’s hearing without really hearing.
The distracted mind. The ignorant heart. The skeptical will. All of these can lead us to listen without really hearing; to receiving and processing and identifying the words someone else is speaking, but in the end not really accepting them, for one reason or another.
How often do you hear without really hearing?
But how does this work when the One were listening to is God? Do we always hear God when He speaks to us? How would we know if we really did hear Him? These are issues and questions that we find in our passage this morning: Mark 4:1-25.
If you have not already, turn this morning to Mark 4.
II. The Passage: “He Who Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear” (4:1-25)
Follow along with me as I read from Mark 4, starting in verse 1...
4:1 Again he [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.
11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” 13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 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.”
Let’s stop there. If we had a chance to look at what has led up to this point, we would find that Jesus had been attracting very large crowds as He ministered among the masses. And as we see here, these crowds are so large, he is having to teach from a boat because there are too many people on the beach.
But in spite of the seeming success of His ministry, we need to point out that in the last couple of chapters, there's been a tension building between Jesus and many of the Jewish religious leaders. What Jesus was doing and saying didn’t square with the standard message and methods of the religious elite.
This tension, in fact, got so bad, that in chapter 3 we find that some of the religious leaders were already plotting to get rid of Jesus, and later, were publicly trying to discredit His ministry and His miracles by saying that He was possessed by a demon and using demonic power.
The commotion and controversy surrounding Jesus’ ministry even caused Jesus’ family to declare that He was out of His mind.
So even though Jesus is the “man of the hour”, His message is being received very differently. Some have followed Him. Some have been curious, but non-committal. Some have come to the wrong conclusions. Others have become enemies.
But how can this be? This is Jesus we’re talking about. To use the words of the men in John 7:46, “No one ever spoke like this man!” How can we explain such different reactions to the truth that Jesus is teaching?
A.The Evidence of Hearing Ears (4:1-9; 13-20)
Well, this is the very issue that Jesus wants to make clear in our passage from chapter 4. And He begins to explain this by means of a parable. What’s a parable? A parable is a metaphor, where everyday ideas and images represent a deeper truth.
This parable is traditionally called the “parable of the sower”. The sower is the one who sows or casts the seed into the field. It may be more accurate to call this the “parable of the seeds” or the “parable of the soils”, because the sower is not really the focus of this story.
But look at how Jesus utilizes these everyday images. It would have been quite common for most of these people to see farmers out in their fields casting seed. In fact, a good number of them probably were farmers.
But what is the spiritual truth Jesus is conveying here? Through the parable, Jesus is giving us a “behind-the-scenes” snapshot of His ministry. As He makes clear in v. 14, the sower represents the one who is proclaiming the word.
But what word is Jesus talking about? Well, the word is the word of God, specifically the message of God that Jesus was announcing, starting back in 1:15. It was a message that God’s kingdom was breaking into our world in a brand new way. Men and women were being called to turn from trying to play God over their own lives and submit themselves to the true God through Jesus Christ.
Now, we also saw in 3:14 that Jesus appointed twelve of His followers to be His apostles, or His authorized representatives. This meant that they too would be proclaiming this word. So the one who is casting the seed in this parable is anyone who is proclaiming the word.
Now has anyone here ever literally sown or cast seed? Well, anyone who has ever installed a lawn, the old fashioned way, has sown grass seed. And if you have, then you know probably know something frustrating about sowing seed: spreading seed is not something you do with precision.
Do you know how I know this? Because I constantly find myself pulling grass out of the decorative rock around our lawn. I tried to be as careful as I could when I was seeding the lawn, but given enough time, I’ve realized how much seed went into the rocks instead of the lawn; or in between our flagstone, or sometimes even between the cracks in the patio.
Well, this truth about sowing seed forms the basis for what we read here. Some of the seed that was sown fell in all kinds of different places. Some seed fell beside the path that cut through the field. Some seed fell onto patches of ground where a thin layer of dirt covered up sections of limestone. Other seeds fell into areas of the field that were not properly cleared of thorn bush roots. And a good amount landed exactly where it was supposed to, on good soil.
What Jesus is saying here is that when someone spreads the message of God’s kingdom, that word will fall on all kinds of hearts.
First, as we see in verses 14-20, in some hearts, the word is quickly taken by Satan’s influence.
Second, in other hearts, there is an initial commitment to the word, but it’s not a thoughtful commitment, it’s not a decision made deep down. And when difficult times come that test one’s resolve, the shallowness of the decision becomes apparent.
Third, still other hearts seem to consider the message of God, but are quickly lured away by a commitment to the things of this world.
Fourth, in other hearts, the message is “accepted”; it is fully received and brings forth new life, just as it was intended to do.
But notice how Jesus ends this parable in verse 9: He who has an ear to hear, let him hear. What does that mean? He who has an ear to hear, let him hear. It’s as phrase used here and then repeated again in verse 23? Some say Jesus is simply saying that anyone who can hear is now accountable for what they’ve heard.
But in the many places this phrase is used in the Gospels and in Revelation, the emphasis seems to be on a certain kind of ear rather than just any ear. I believe what Jesus is saying with this phrase is, “Anyone who can truly hear what is being said, then hear and heed this word.”
But this begs the question. Who is it that can truly hear this message? Don’t all of the hearts represented by the different kinds of soils, don’t all of them hear the word?
Well, this brings us back to our initial point that, very often, we can hear without really hearing. In this parable, there is only one kind of person who truly hears, there is only one kind of person who has the “ears to hear”. And that is the person in whom the word is fully received and in whom the word accomplishes its purpose.
And when we bring this back to the image of the seeds and the soil, it’s clear that the good soil, which brings forth fruit, is the only soil which has truly received the seed, in which the seed has accomplished its purpose. You see, this is the main point of the parable. All of the other soils in this parable, while they teach us something, all of them are simply used to contrast and highlight the distinctiveness of the good soil.
What Jesus is saying is the one who has “ears to hear”, the one who truly does hear, is the one who responds to the word with a faith that brings forth change.
Have you heard the word of God? Have you heard Jesus calling you to follow Him through the forgiveness of His cross? Have you heard God’s offer of rescue from the power and penalty of a heart that is trying to play God over your life?
You can know if you have truly heard by whether or not you have truly responded. And whether or not you have responded is clear, just as with the field, from whether or not your life is bringing forth fruit.
Can you imagine if someone claiming to be a farmer was trying to sell you on how good his soil was and yet, he couldn’t show you anything growing there? In the last line of the previous chapter, Jesus describes the one who is in right relationship with Him: “…whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
You se, unlike the other soils described here, the one who has truly heard the word reveals the fruit of perseverance in his or her life in spite of tough times.
In the same way, the one who has truly heard the word is not brought down by the “cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things”. While he or she will undoubtedly struggle against these things, such things will never overcome the true follower of Christ.
Do you want to know if you have “ears to hear”? Then consider what your heart and your life are bringing forth. Consider the fruit.
B.The Origin of Hearing Ears (4:10-12)
But where does one get such ears? What were these people who responded to Jesus doing in order to clearly hear His message? What made them different from the others? Well, Jesus touches on that in verse 10.
Here, based on Jesus’ response, it seems his followers are asking Jesus about why He is teaching in parables and also, what the parables mean, particularly the story of the sower. Since Jesus had been fairly clear up to this point about repentance, faith, and the kingdom of God, His followers are wondering why now, He is apparently only using parables.
You see, I think verses 10-25 tell us about an incident that happened later, as it says, when He was alone with His core followers, and then verses 26-34 take us back and conclude the episode where Jesus is teaching from the boat.
But notice the very first thing that Jesus tells them in response to their question (verse 11), “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that they will automatically understand the parable. This is obviously not the case. It‘s also not referring to Jesus’ explanation, or else Jesus would have said, “To you will be given the secret of the kingdom of God.”
In light of the contrast that is to come in verses 10-12, this must be referring to those “ears to hear”; to that heart that truly receives and responds to the word of God. Just as these disciples had done. And where did they get such ears; such understanding? It was given to them. The understanding of the kingdom, this comprehension and faith in the fact that God’s reign as king was present in and through Jesus Christ, was a divine gift.
Jesus made a similar expression in Matthew 11:25, 26: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”
The heart of good soil is not something that we cultivate. It is not something we prepare because we’re somehow better than others. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need the word.
No, the word of salvation comes to those who are all equally in need of change. These “ears to hear” are a gift from God. The heart to believe is a gift from God.
Look at the contrast Jesus gives His followers here in response to their curiosity about the shift in His teaching tactics. He says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside [to those who have not responded to the call] everything is in parables, so that [and here Jesus begins to quote from the prophet Isaiah]… so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
What He’s telling His disciples is that He is using parables with the crowds for a period of time (because, as we see later, Jesus does teach again without parables), but He’s doing this so that they, even though, they are hearing the truth, so they will not truly hear. They will ‘hear without hearing’. And thus, without the “ears to hear”, they will not respond to God and be forgiven.
This doesn’t mean they cannot understand the parables. Mark 12:12 tells us that even the Pharisees understood the parable that He spoke against them. But they didn’t truly receive it. With parables, the people could feel like they were getting something, while they really weren’t spiritually comprehending anything.
But why? Why would God be doing this? Why would he be keeping some in the dark, while others were given understanding? Well the prophecy that Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6 is particularly helpful here. Listen to this passage in its entirety:
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” 9 He said, “Go and tell this people: “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, 12 until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. (Isaiah 6:8-12)
You see, in Isaiah, God was judging the people for their wickedness. Though the judgment would only last for a time, this hardening of their hearts was a response to their hardness of heart toward Him and His word
The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement about God’s judgment in the last days. He writes in II Thessalonians 2, “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”
So those who had not responded to Jesus’ teaching, those who were calling Him crazy, those who were saying He was possessed, these, for some appointed time, would remain in the dark until God’s purpose was accomplished.
What was God’s purpose in this judgment of spiritual callousness? Listen to Peter speak to the crowds after Jesus’ resurrection, after He had returned to the Father:
“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. (Acts 2:22, 23)
So in response to their stubbornness, those on the outside were kept in their disobedience until their stubbornness had run its full course and Jesus was rejected and killed according to the purpose of God for our deliverance.
So both the heart to believe and the judgment resulting in further blindness, both come from God. As it says in Psalm 115:3, Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
He who has “ears to hear, let him hear”. If we have heard, truly heard, then we must give thanks and honor to God for His gift of hearing. But Jesus is not finished with His disciples. Look back at verses 21 through 25:
C.The Responsibility of Hearing Ears (4:21-25)
And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
I believe what Jesus is telling His followers in verses 21 and 22 is that, even though, the understanding of these parables, and of God’s agenda in Jesus, is now hidden from those on the outside and confined to the disciples, the truth behind it all will once again be proclaimed.
Like a lamp brought into a house, Jesus and God’s message did not come into our world in order to be concealed, even if it must be this way for a time. Nothing is hidden except to be made manifest. And we know it was revealed because we’re reading it today!
But look at how He challenges His followers in verse 24. He tells them, “even though you have received this secret, hunger for more. Pay attention to everything I tell you. You won’t just ‘get it ‘(just like they apparently didn’t understand the parable of the seeds and soils).”
With the measure of attention they give to growing in their understanding of God’s kingdom, they will receive an equal measure from God. In fact they will receive even more! As James put it in James 4:8, “draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.”
This is like a mysterious benefactor granting a struggling student, who is on the verge of dropping out, granting him a full scholarship to the best private school in the country. Even though the student has been graciously granted entrance into a whole new world, he has to apply himself in order to really experience this gift.
In the same way, if we have received the gift of ‘ears to hear’, we need to pay attention. God is telling us to pay attention, not to sit back and spiritually kick our feet up.
God wants you to grow. He wants you to know more of Him. If He has opened your ears to hear, then He will enlarge your heart and mind to know fully the secret of the Kingdom of God which is embodied in Jesus Christ. For the one who has, more will be given.
We’ve covered a lot of ground this morning and we’ve dealt with what is probably one of the most difficult passages in this entire Gospel. So let’s do this. Let’s try to sum up what God has shown us this morning through His word:
First, the parable of the seeds and soils teaches us that we can know if we have the “ears to hear” God’s truth by whether or not we have a life that is heeding God’s truth. What Jesus is telling us here is that Hearing leads to heeding. In any field, the only way to tell if the seed actually did land on good soil is to look for the fruit. What is God doing in your life?
Second, these “ears to hear” that cause us to respond to God’s word are a supernatural gift from God himself. Only God can take people like us and give us hearts that really understand what is true and right and beautiful. Has he given you such a heart? If He has, respond to Him with praise, with thanksgiving, with worship; respond to Him with humility because of the mercy He’s shown you.
Third, having the “ears to hear” God’s truth should lead us to hear and heed God’s word even more carefully. If you have responded with a genuine faith that results in faithful living, if you have personally experienced the gift of God, then you should be hungering for even more. God wants to give you more. He wants you to be fully satisfied with Him. He wants your mind bursting with the knowledge of Christ. He wants you to live more and more for Him.
The question is, what do we want? Is that your desire?
How often do you hear without really hearing? The greatest prayer that I can pray for you and myself, the greatest prayer that we can pray for others is that we would be granted the “ears to hear” the voice of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
When we truly hear Him, through His word, we’ll know it. And others will know it as they see a life transformed by the grace of God. Amen?