Three Proverbial Sayings: Mark 4:21-25

A Lamp on a Stand

21 He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? 22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. 25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

The Parable of the Growing Seed

26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:21-29 (NIV)

31st March 2023, Paphos, Cyprus

It’s difficult to know how best to describe these verses. They are essentially three short parables (i) although many commentators  describe them as a series of ‘sayings’. I l think that ‘proverbial sayings’ is a good description (ii). They are important enough to appear in very similar form in all of the synoptic gospels. In common with Luke’s gospel, these sayings appear here as a group together, whilst in Matthew they appear separately. Some commentators believe that they are best presented and read as a group, as here in Mark, whilst others prefer to deal with them individually, as they are presented in Matthew.

NT Wright suggests that each of these sayings are individually important.

‘Here we have three sayings, each with its own warning for life.’ (iii)

Each one contains a message which is really important for us. is incredibly important. I’ve decided to deal with each of them individually.


(i) RC Sproul, Mark, An Expositional Commentary, p72
(ii) JC Ryle: Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Mark, p51
(iii)NT Wright, New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel According to Luke, p120

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

Stating the Obvious? Mark 4:11-22



26th March 2024, Paphos, Cyprus

As a Christian, living in the 21st Century, Christ’s explanation of this familiar parable may appear to be really straightforward. Of course, we read it from the perspective of our times and we bring our own assumptions and understanding of the Kingdom of God. For us, it may feel that in his explanation of this parable, Jesus is stating the obvious.

11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’[a]

13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word. 15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

Mark4:11-20 (NIV)

Of course, if we stop and think about it, we know that our relationship to this story is going to be very different from that of those who heard it for the first time 2000 years ago.

Like so many people around us, most of the people who were in the crowd had little interest in listening to Jesus. Whilst he had told his friends that preaching was his true purpose, many people in the crowd had come from far and wide to see Jesus performing healing miracles. They had not really understood who Jesus was. Again – that sounds familiar.

Those who were interested in hearing Jesus speak, and this includes the disciples, had very specific views of what the coming Kingdom would look like. Their views are very different from ours.

‘People were expecting a great moment of renewal. They believed that Israel would be rescued lock, stock and barrel: God’s kingdom would explode on to the world stage in a blaze of glory.’ (i)

Actually, says Jesus, the Kingdom of God will not be like that at all.  In fact, there will be those who, in varying degrees, just won’t get it. Again, Jesus could be describing people in my own culture.

In fact, he says, whilst the opportunity is there, many people will simply miss the point. They will fail to ever enter His Kingdom at all. Others will fail to thrive or be successful in the Kingdom. This, he says, is the secret, or the mystery, of the Kingdom of God. You think you have understood, but his Kingdom is not what you were expecting it to be. There is something radical hidden away in Christ’s words. Something ”politically incorrect’ (ii). For the original crowd, rather than a simple explanation of what the Kingdom of God is like, there is a radical message of what it is not like. It is not like you are expecting! I think that message remains true today.

I’m reflecting on the culture within which God has placed me. We think of ourselves as intelligent and sophisticated. That’s fine, but I suspect that the people in 1st Century Palestine thought that too. Our modern world is full of people who have their own fixed views of what God is like and who Jesus is. Many have a sense of what God’s kingdom is like (many people assume that it doesn’t exist). Whatever you think, I suspect that even today, Jesus is saying to us you may have got this seriously wrong.

As I reflect on this parable, I wonder whether what Jesus was saying to the crowd, and to the disciples, and is saying to you, to me and to everyone around us is this. You can easily be deceived – your understanding of he Kingdom of God may be way off target.

The Kingdom of God is a secret, or a mystery (v11). Christ explains that mystery by using parables. Each parable lifts the veil on that mystery, just a little. Jesus has invited us to follow. He encourages us to go deeper. If we do, he will encourage us by helping us to grasp a little more of that mystery.

We may be coming to this 2000 years after that first crowd – we may be 21st Century Christians – but however much we think we understand, there is much more for us all to learn about His Kingdom. There is so much more we can achieve within it. Another reminder to all of us who think we have it all worked out. We are a work in progress.

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9, NIV)

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

(i) NT Wright, Mark for Everyone, p42
(ii) ibid

Parables: Mark 4:10-12

10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Mark 4:10-12 NIV

24th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

A couple of quick points to make here. Firstly, whilst all of the Gospels refer to the twelve disciples, but there are several points where it becomes clear that there are more people following Jesus. Luke alone makes a specific reference to a much larger group of followers who were with Christ –  the 70 or 72 (i) (Luke 10:1-22). At this point in Mark’s gospel, and at this early stage of his ministry, we can easily miss a reference to a group of followers who had access to Jesus. Mark gives no indication of their identity, gender or number, but clearly there were more people around Jesus than simply the twelve. It was this larger group, from whom the 12 were probably selected. Along with the disciples, this wider group asked Jesus to explain about this and other parables.

The secondary point is this wonderful cameo scene, from which we should all learn,  of those who were closest to him asking for more explanation. Jesus was a rabbi. His role is to teach. Here he is accepting questions from and teaching, not the wider crowd, but his immediate followers.

We do well to remind ourselves that we come to the Gospel from a wholly different perspective from the crowd, and even the disciples, who were following and had the most immediate access to Jesus. Alongside the fact that we might think that we know, as it were, the end of the story, our understanding is influenced by 2000 years of reflection, interpretation and analysis of the life and works of Christ. Reflecting on the well known parable of the sower, it’s a fact that most of us have heard and been influenced by many sermons on, references to and applications of this and other parables. Yet for all that, we can often find ourselves reading Scripture but not necessarily understanding what we have read..

Quoting from Isaiah 6, Jesus makes clear that his intention at this point is to reveal the Kingdom little by little. There are those close to him who receive much more guidance and teaching and to whom much will be revealed. But there are others to whom the kingdom will be revealed through parables. When they  hear these parables, some will understand – but many will not. It is pretty much the same for us.

Lots of people who hear these stories today, come loaded with preconceptions and misinformation about Jesus and the Church. We live in a culture of soundbites, and this creates a readiness to take individual verses out of context and use them to support questionable or even false teaching. We can easily fall into this practice ourselves and need to guard against it. The practice of slow, prayerful reflection on every piece of Scripture is a one way in which we can refer back to Jesus, constantly asking him to direct our thoughts and explain the Scriptures to us.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

(i) The earliest manuscripts variously record 70 or 72. Scholars cannot say with any certainty which is the original.

Parables – The Sower: Mark 4:2-9

 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”  Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Mark 4: 3-9 (NIV)

16th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

This is probably one of the best known parables used by Jesus. Alongside Mark’s Gospel, it appears in Matthew and Luke in virtually identical form. It’s unusual for various reasons, not least because uniquely, at the request of the disciples, Jesus himself offers an explanation of the parable.  We have already seen Jesus use parables when speaking to the Teachers of the Law (see ‘The unforgivable sin‘ based on Mark 3:22-29). Our record of this parable is rather longer, and it demonstrates some really important aspects of parables.

Spontaneity in the telling:  The parables of Jesus are told in a fresh, spontaneous way. He uses familiar images, drawn from real life, to draw out an important point about the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, every person in that crowd knew exactly how farms worked in 1st Century Palestine. The image of the seed being sown in a particular way was accessible to everybody. People knew what a really good crop would look like (ten fold return) and what a super crop would look like (sixty of a hundred fold). One could almost imagine that there was a farmer sowing seed within sight at the moment Jesus was speaking. We see Jesus using exactly that spontaneous use of images at the temple, when he points out a poor widow putting her small offering into the plate (Luke 21:1-4).

The very essence of the parables is that they were spontaneous, of the moment and unrehearsed. Jesus just looks around seeking a point of contact with the crowd. (i)

I was walking this morning, close to where I am staying in Paphos, and noticed a field of barley which I had passed several times in recent days. Whilst the modern farming methods here in Cyprus are very different from those which were familiar to this crowd, there in front of me was the solid path,  the rough stony ground, the weeds, and beyond, the good soil of the field. The accessibility and spontaneity of these images provide an extraordinary, timeless quality.

Barley field, Paphos, March 2024

That was the essence of Jesus’ teaching. He did not bewilder people by starting with things that were strange and obstruse and involved; he started with the simplest things that even a child could understand.'(ii)

The Apostle Paul makes a similar point, saying that we can learn something about God by simply looking around ourselves.

20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. Romans 1:20, NIV

Spontaneity in the hearing: Those of us who have spent rather a long time around Church might reflect on the number of sermons we have heard on the subject of this and other parables. Too often they are treated as allegorical stories, where meaning has to be found for each character, action and every word. I don’t think that’s how we were supposed to approach parables. Jesus spoke with a wonderful directness. His words were either heard and understood immediately by his hearers, or they were not. The crowd took no notes away with them to review later.  When given, Christ’s parables were not intended to be subjected to detailed study and interpretation.

The point is that these images simply don’t need detailed explanation for those who hear them. They provide a simple, accessible and worldly point of reference, which enables the hearer to spontaneously catch a glimpse of something of God’s Kingdom. Today, as when Jesus first spoke the parables, some people catch it. Others don’t.

“Whoever has ears to hear” He says, “let them hear.”

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

(i) Wm Barclay, Mark for Everyone, (Kindle Edition, Loc 1981) Mark 4:3-9,
(ii) Wm Barclay, ibid.




The perfect place to preach: Mark 4:1-2

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.

Mark 4:1-2, NIV

15th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

Jesus is still living and working in Capernaum, next to Lake Galilee. The nature of the geography means that the large crowds who were following Jesus would gather on the edge of the town, next to the lake. We know of one previous instance where this happened, and there was the risk of Jesus and the disciples being literally pushed into the lake by the crush of the crowd. On that occasion, ‘[Jesus] told the disciples to have a boat ready for him.’ (Mark 3:9). It is unclear whether that first time, Jesus actually resorted to using the boat. We need to remember that most of the people in the crowd have come to seek or witness dramatic healings, although Christ’s declared intention is to preach (Mark 1:38).

Last Christmas I ran a large event in the town centre in the middle of a busy market,  which involved a stage, a band and a likely crowd of about 300 people. I had recruited a wonderful team of about a dozen stewards. Before the event, I needed to brief the stewards, so we gathered at the back of the stage for me to talk to them. It was a slightly breezy day, and there were lots of distractions. They all wanted to know what I had to say, and I have lots of experience of ‘throwing my voice’, but it was a challenge to make these few people hear me. Our ready access to megaphones, microphones and portable PA systems can make us forget just how difficult it is to make yourself heard by large groups of people.

Whilst the actual location referred to here is open to discussion, there are several places beside the lake where the land rises quite quickly.  This time, Jesus uses the boat (which, incidentally, Luke tells us belonged to Simon – Luke 5:1-3). By selecting the right place, and by placing himself on the water a few yards off shore, Jesus is able to address a large crowd of people standing on that rising ground, his voice amplified by the landscape and reflecting off the water (For a study of how this might work, click here (link to Bible Affirming Truth website)).

The separation from the people allows Jesus to remain the centre of their attention. The boat allows Jesus to maintain distance from those who have come looking for the opportunity to touch him and receive healing, yet it seems that now, they are ready to remain and listen to what he has to say. This, then, is the perfect place to preach.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

The unforgiveable sin: Mark 3:22-29

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’

New International Version

14th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

Jesus makes reference to the unforgiveable sin in verses 28-29. The longer reading is represented here because without it, we risk losing the context. (for a fuller discussion on verses 22-27, see my previous post, ‘Divided Kingdom’)

The Teachers of the Law, who had travelled all the way from Jerusalem to investigate what Jesus was up to, had no choice but to accept that Christ was performing miracles. They had no doubt thoroughly investigated, if not witnessed first hand, that he had been healing the sick and casting out demons. Their very presence alongside Jesus clearly affirms that his work had become widely known and was attracting lots of attention within the Jewish establishment.

His growing popularity was making the Jewish leadership feel very uncomfortable. It was probably in order to diminish the attraction of his ministry in the eyes of his supporters that the Teachers of the Law declared that Christ’s power came, not from the Holy Spirit, but from Satan. This comment undermines the integrity of Christ, the man, but it also rejects any suggestion that his power is from God. It is this accusation which leads to Christ’s comments about the unforgiveable sin.

The comments are in two parts. The first, in verse 28, contains wonderful news for me, for you, and for the world which we can easily miss.

28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 

Here is the reassurance that every sin can be forgiven. It doesn’t matter how heavy or serious your sin feels. From slanderous talk to the most grievous of sins, it can and will of all who repent. When we come to God we ask for forgiveness for the things we have done wrong, we believe that it by His grace that we are forgiven. In this context, the word grace means that forgiveness is free – there is no cost to you except owning up to your shortcomings before God.

If we are genuine in our repentance, we believe that God takes away our sin.  For a host of reasons, some of us find it difficult to accept that forgiveness. It’s as if having laid down that burden, instead of accepting forgiveness, we pick our guilt up again and carry it with us as we continue on our way. Scripture says that  when we are forgiven we should regard our sins, sometimes called transgressions, as completely gone. In God’s eyes, they no longer exist.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:11-12 (NIV)

I want to be clear. This doesn’t give you the licence to go out and commit sin. There have been people throughout Christian history who felt that it was acceptable to do as much sin as possible so that you can experience much more of His grace. The Apostle Paul points out that this is a dangerous fallacy.

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)

To keep on deliberately sinning would be perverse, and God isn’t impressed by that (Proverbs 11:20).

Verse 28 says whatever you’ve done, however bad it feels to you, you can find forgiveness in Christ. Then, of course, we come to verse 29.

29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’

Having said that every sin, however awful it might feel to us, can be forgiven by God, Jesus declares an exception. You will not be forgiven for blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This act is, uniquely, an eternal sin. This sounds alarming – but in context, his meaning is quite clear.

These appointed representatives of the greatest theological teachers in the land of Israel have been sent to undermine Christ’s ministry. They have witnessed supernatural powerr at work in bring They have recognised that there is supernatural power at work in healing  and deliverance, and they are determined that Christ will not be seen as acting in the power of the Holy Spirit. For their own purposes, and in order to undermine the ministry of Jesus, they have witness the work of the Holy Spirit, but attribute it to Satan. They have done more than undermine and blaspheme Jesus – he makes clear that this will be forgiven – but they have gone further and blasphemed the Spirit.

So here we have the best of news. Any sin, says Jesus, can be forgiven -But we also have a dire warning. There is a red line. Do not cross it. There is a warning here, for the teachers of the Law and for us –  do not blaspheme the Holy Spirit. To do so is an unforgivable, eternal sin.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK