Here recently my wife and I have been reading through Mark’s Gospel together. As new parents, we wanted to take some time this summer to refocus our hearts on Jesus and reassess how we’re doing as his disciples. Since most scholars say that Mark was the first Gospel book to be written, and since it focuses on the bare essentials of Jesus’s life and message, it seemed like going through it again would be a great fit for this season of our lives.
So the other day we were reading along through Mark 4, which tells of Jesus’ preaching ministry in Galilee. At this point in his life, he’s mighty popular among the locals for his miracles and his healing of the sick. Such great crowds of people were gathering to listen to him (and hopefully see a miracle or two while they were at it) that he had to set out in a boat and preach from the middle of the lake to avoid getting crushed by his audience!
The record tells us that at this point Jesus began preaching to the crowd in “parables,” or riddles. These were short object-lessons or stories that hid important spiritual truths inside them, for those with the insight to decipher them.
I chuckle whenever I imagine what it must have been like for all those people who first heard Jesus’ parables. Many of them had walked for miles and miles across the dusty, hilly countryside to see Jesus. I picture them pressing in toward the shore, trying to be as close as possible to the action, leaning in so they can hear his voice boom out over the lake, eager to learn about God’s kingdom and to hear how all their ancient prophecies would be fulfilled!
Aaaaand . . . he starts talking about a farmer planting some seeds.
After delivering the world’s most intentionally-perplexing sermon, Jesus withdraws with his disciples — who, naturally, have questions. I like to imagine some of them going about like this:
“Rabbi, what in Sheol was that all about?”
“Don’t you know those people are never going to come back to our rallies now? This is a PR nightmare!”
“Has he been turning the water to wine again?”
“Peter, go ask him what’s up with all the riddles!”
Yeah, that’s probably about how it went down. 🙂
Then again, Mark 4:10-12 puts it like this:
“When he was alone, those around him with the Twelve asked him about the parables. He answered them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that
“they may indeed look,
and yet not perceive;
they may indeed listen,
and yet not understand;
otherwise, they might turn back
and be forgiven”‘” (Mark 4:10-12, CSB)
At this point in the story, my wife stopped me with a surprised look on her face. I was already anticipating her question, since it was one I had asked the first time I came across this passage:
“Did Jesus not want his listeners to be saved??”
She was referring to the last words in verse 12 (“they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back and be forgiven”), which make it sound like Jesus was intentionally keeping all those crowds from hearing a message that would lead them to salvation (or, more specifically, forgiveness). But to keep so many people from any chance to find forgiveness and salvation would be an awfully cruel thing for Jesus to do!
So was that in fact what he was doing?
The Purpose of the Parables
Before we jump to conclusions about Jesus’ seemingly-harsh words, it’s absolutely vital to note the source of Jesus’ response — he’s quoting Old Testament Scripture. Specifically, he references Isaiah 6:9-10.
So, to understand what Jesus was getting at, we have to understand what that Isaiah quote meant in its original context.
If you know your Old Testament, you know that Isaiah prophesied that God was about to judge the nation of Judah for its people’s sins. The people had rejected God’s ways over, and over, and over again, even after repeated warnings from the prophets. So God tells Isaiah that he’s had enough of giving Judah second chances. This time, judgment really is coming, and it’s too late to turn it back!
Thus, God’s words in Isaiah 6:9-10 have a note of irony to them. In essence, what he’s communicating is, “I’m going to warn the people again, but they’re not going to listen anyway. They’ll hear me, but they’re not going to obey. So this time there will be no opportunity for false ‘repentance’ from them.”
Rather than let the people pretend they’re sorry for a little while and then go back to their idolatrous ways, God is moving forward with their punishment. Isaiah announces that God’s going to bring the nation of Babylon to take Judah into exile (and that’s exactly what happened in 586 B.C.E.).
So, rather than being a harsh and arbitrary exclusion of certain people before they even had a chance, this word from God through Isaiah was a response to the people’s prior rejection of God’s truth. It was something the Judahites brought upon themselves. And it turns out that’s exactly why Jesus used this passage when explaining the purpose of his parables.
Just like the people had already rejected God in Isaiah’s day, Jesus had already been rejected by many of the people of Galilee and Judea in his day. He had in fact given them a chance, but they had refused it. He had announced his gospel and invited people to become his disciples, but when many of them only followed him for his miracles and what they could get out of him, he began to distance himself from them to focus on teaching his disciples.
Just as God did not want any more false repentance from the kingdom of Judah, Jesus did not want any more false converts hanging around him. That’s why, after the crowds left, Jesus revealed the secrets of his parables privately to his disciples, because they had already been responding properly to his invitation by following him.
That was the point of Jesus’ famous saying, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen” (Mark 4:9, CSB). Those who were receptive and were seeking God’s truth would be given more, while those who weren’t genuine seekers would stay on the outside.
Outsiders Could Become Insiders
Hopefully you see the implications of putting Jesus’ words in context. Rather than being harsh, arbitrary, or exclusionary, Jesus was seeking to curb false discipleship. He wanted to focus his attention on those who were truly invested in being his followers — those whose hearts were receptive.
And keep in mind, too, that anyone in those crowds could have learned the path to forgiveness if they had made the commitment to follow Jesus. Their blindness and lostness was only certain as long as they kept themselves on the outside. If they were to take the step of faith, they would have learned the secrets of God’s kingdom.
The same goes for anyone today who is investigating this Jesus. If they’ll have ears to hear, they’ll find that Jesus’ arms are open to anyone who wants the life he offers (see 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 22:16-17). It’s not too late to step out from the crowd of outsiders and enjoy friendship with the Savior.
And for those of us who are already his followers, Mark 4:1-12 reminds us to be faithful to invite others to Jesus; to look for those who may have ears to hear.
See you down the path.
 “[Mark] most likely was the first to pen the story of Jesus. In fact, Mark’s Gospel may well have spawned the writing of the other Gospels. Though there is still some dispute today . . . , the consensus of biblical scholarship accepts as axiomatic the thesis that both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as their foundational source.” — Robert W. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 34A, Author’s Preface.
 One important implication is that Mark 4:1-12 (and its parallels in Matt. 13:11-17; Luke 8:9-10) should not be used to try and support a notion of unconditional, individual election to salvation. One would have to look elsewhere if wanting to try and support such a doctrine.