In Mark chapter three, Jesus healed a disabled man on the Sabbath day, an act that so enraged the religious leaders that they began to conspire to put Him to death. This increasing hostility from the spiritual leadership along with a need to accommodate the great number of people who came to see Him may explain why “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake…” where “a large crowd from Galilee followed” (Mark 3:7).
In Mark chapter four, we’ll see Jesus return to this “open air” speaking approach once more- and it seems that His choice of location was no accident…
“And again He began to teach by the sea. And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea. Then He taught them many things by parables…” (Mark 4:1-2).
The sea or lake referenced here was the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Lake of Gennesaret or Sea of Tiberias. In the days before microphones, amplifiers, and public address systems, this seaside location may have provided the sort of natural amplification that enabled Jesus to communicate His message to all those who came to hear Him speak. However, this location also provided an additional benefit, for it allowed Jesus to separate Himself from the crowds by teaching from a boat near the shore. Since the crowds that came to see Jesus continually pressed in upon him (Mark 3:9-10), this enabled Jesus to effectively communicate His message to the largest number of people.
Jesus then took advantage of this opportunity to utilize one of His favorite teaching methods: a parable. As we saw earlier in Mark chapter three, a parable is a teaching method that utilizes a short story to communicate and illustrate an important spiritual truth or moral lesson. Parables typically utilize literary devices such as comparisons, figures of speech, and examples from everyday life to effectively drive home a moral lesson, Biblical principle, or spiritual reality. In other words, a parable used a familiar example from everyday life in order to demonstrate a spiritual truth that may not have been so easily understood.
Jesus’ parables helped make His teachings more understandable for those who were willing to listen. As we’ll see, this approach not only served to teach people some important truths about God but it also served to teach people some important truths about themselves- and they continue to do so, even to this day.
“Jesus began to teach beside the lake again. Such a large crowd gathered that he climbed into a boat there on the lake. He sat in the boat while the whole crowd was nearby on the shore. He said many things to them in parables” (Mark 4:1-2 CEB).
Jesus’ parables provided an opportunity for any interested listener to uncover the deeper spiritual meaning behind each story. For those who were really interested in learning more about God, Jesus’ parables helped bring important spiritual truths into sharper focus. But for those who were spiritually unconcerned, a parable did very little to make those truths any easier to understand.
A spiritually unconcerned person might see Jesus’ parables as a collection of interesting stories but fail to grasp the deeper meaning behind them. A person’s reaction to Jesus’ parables said quite a bit about their own spiritual condition and the same is still true today. So for those who are willing, Jesus’ parables represent a great opportunity to learn more about some important spiritual realities.
In this instance, Jesus began with a parable that featured elements that were sure to be familiar to anyone living in a first century agricultural society…
“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it. Some 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.
And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred” (Mark 4:3-8).
Ironically, the first thing we should notice about this parable has nothing to do with the parable itself. Instead, it’s Jesus’ opening admonition to “Listen!” a word that when used in this context means to “consider what is or has been said” or, “to understand, perceive the sense of what is said.” (1) This small detail would serve to alert Jesus’ audience (as well as those reading this passage today) to the fact that this account represented far more than just a discussion concerning crop yields- there was a “message behind the message” for anyone who is willing to pay attention.
(1) NT:191 Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
“Listen to this! A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path; and the birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. When the sun came up, it scorched the plants; and they dried up because they had no roots.
Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked the seeds, and they produced nothing. Other seed fell into good soil and bore fruit. Upon growing and increasing, the seed produced in one case a yield of thirty to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of one hundred to one” (Mark 4:3-8 CEB).
This parable can also be found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and while it has come to be commonly known as “The Parable of the Sower,” this parable is really more about the different types of soil that the sower encountered.
With this in mind, it might seem reasonable to ask why the farmer did not simply sow all of his seed upon the quality soil alone instead of dealing with the other (and less beneficial) types of soil. Well, one answer to that question might be found in the first century farming methods that were in use during that time.
Today, a farmer has the ability to obtain a detailed soil analysis in order to condition the soil of a planting field for best results. He or she also has the benefit of modern agricultural machinery to help ensure the greatest crop yield while planting. In contrast, a first century farmer often had little more than an ox pulling a crude plow in order to prepare a field for planting.
Once that preparation was complete, the first century farmer would then transport a large bag of seed to the field. He or she would periodically take some seed from the larger bag and place it into a smaller bag to carry into the field for the actual act of planting.
The farmer would broadcast the seed across the field to be planted and once that process was complete, he or she would return once more to plow it all under. When finished, the farmer was left with a field that seemed to be ready to produce a good crop but there were still many factors that might negatively affect the harvest. We’ll take a look at some of those factors next.
“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 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. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.
Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:3-8 ESV).
As a first century farmer scattered a bag of seed across a field in preparation for harvest, there were many factors that remained out of his or her control- things that were often difficult to anticipate from the surface.
For example, the wind would inevitably carry some of the valuable seed from the freshly prepared ground over to the footpaths that often encircled the perimeter of a field. There might be underlying rock just below the maximum depth of the plow that would serve to inhibit the seed from establishing an effective root network. Then there was the pressure from the surrounding (and often aggressively spreading) plant life. While the plowing process helped produce a better environment for seed germination, it unfortunately provided a better environment for weed generation as well. Without the benefit of 21st century weed control techniques, these weeds often sprouted along with the desirable plants and competed heavily for light, water, and nutrients. Each of these realities had the potential for limiting the kind of yield that a farmer might reasonably expect.
Now to this point, Jesus was not communicating anything that a first century farmer didn’t already know- or was He? You see, Jesus opened this parable with the admonition to “Listen!” and He closed it in a similar manner as well…
“And He said to them, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear!'” (Mark 4:9).
The phrase “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” communicates the need for the listener to analyze and consider the real meaning behind the story. It also places an emphasis on the application of that meaning in one’s daily life. To their credit, the disciples (and those with them) realized that there was something more to this message for we’re told: “…when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable” (Mark 4:10). We’ll look at Jesus’ response to this inquiry next.
“…when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them”” (Mark 4:10-12).
In the Scriptures, a “mystery” isn’t something that you might find in a detective novel or at a crime scene. Instead, the Biblical definition of a mystery refers to a spiritual truth that was previously hidden but has now been (or will be) revealed. In this instance, Jesus used the Parable of the Sower to uncover some important spiritual realities.
But first, it may seem as if Jesus deliberately sought to obscure the truth contained within this parable in order to prevent some from turning to God and finding forgiveness. However, we should notice that Jesus did not select a group of spiritual insiders to receive this “secret information” -He was simply asked for an explanation.
In fact, it appears that this request for additional information didn’t even come from a member of Jesus’ self-chosen inner circle- it came from some others who were there with the twelve. This means that Jesus’ response was not intended to serve as a revelation for the benefit of a select few- it was available for anyone who was interested enough to ask.
On the other hand, those who were uninterested in learning more from Jesus found themselves “outside” by virtue of the fact that they were unwilling to “come in” and seek Jesus for an explanation. Jesus identified such people with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “They see clearly but don’t perceive. They hear clearly but don’t understand. They never return to me and are never forgiven” (GW).* Matthew’s account of this passage also helps communicate this idea as well…
“This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ”You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them‘” (Matthew 13:13-15 NIV emphasis added).
Jesus did not shield the truth from those who came to hear Him but it did remain obscure to those who were uninterested in listening to what He had to say.
* See Isaiah 6:9-10
“But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable” (Mark 4:10).
Some of Jesus’ followers understood that there was something more to the Parable of the Sower, so the members of this group approached Him with a request for some additional information. But before Jesus took the time to explain the meaning of this parable, He first said, “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God…” (Mark 4:11 KJV). This passage demonstrates Jesus’ willingness to provide knowledge, enlightenment, and understanding to those who are serious about God, a concept that’s found in some other portions of Scripture as well…
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10).
“For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly” (Proverbs 2:6-7).
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5 NIV).
So why wouldn’t Jesus be willing to provide such information to everyone instead of sharing it with His followers exclusively? Well, one reason is that some people approached Jesus with questionable motives. For example, the religious leadership of Jesus’ day showed little real interest in listening to what He had to say. Instead, they seemed to be primarily motivated by a desire to trap Jesus into saying or doing something for which they could arrest Him (see Matthew 21:45-46).
Then there was Herod, the man who served as governor over that region. Herod was someone who was completely uninterested in obtaining any degree of spiritual enlightenment from Jesus. Luke 23:8 tells us, “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle.” In other words, Herod simply wanted to see Jesus do a trick.
There was also the account of a person who seemed to be more interested in having Jesus serve as the referee over a family dispute than in learning from Him (see Luke 12:13). This may be one reason why John 2:24-25 tells us, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.” It also may explain why Jesus entrusts such information to His followers exclusively.
“And He said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And 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'” (Mark 4:13-15).
In response to this request for more information, Jesus provided an explanation of the various elements contained within the Parable of the Sower. He began by identifying the seed as the Word of God and the sower as the person who communicates the message of the Scriptures. The first soil type represented a group of people who never really got the message and were convinced by the enemy to disregard what they had heard. Like the seed that falls upon the compacted soil of a footpath, such people never really internalize the message of the Scriptures at all.
Others eventually became discouraged through trials or difficulties…
“These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and 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” (Mark 4:16-17).
The seed that falls on the rock represents the person who initially accept the truth of the gospel and begins to follow Jesus. But as soon as friends, family members, business associates, co-workers or others start to criticize his or her relationship with Christ, things begin to change. Or perhaps there may be a financial reversal, the demise of a romantic relationship, or persecution from those with different beliefs that ultimately helps to reveal a shallow relationship with Christ. Like a young plant in shallow soil, such people start to wilt as soon as the heat begins.
These are the people who may later remark, “Well, I tried Christianity, but it didn’t work for me.” But if Jesus really is the “way the truth and the life” as He claims to be, then we have a responsibility to follow Him, regardless of whether or not Christianity seems to be “working” or not. The person who says, “Christianity didn’t work for me,” is really saying that his or her wants, needs, and desires are most important and that Christianity is only right if it meets those needs and expectations. Christianity will never “work” for someone in this situation because that person has assumed God’s place in his or her life.
In Mark 4:3-8 Jesus offered a parable that used various types of soils to illustrate the result that can take place when people hear the Word of God. For instance, some people are derailed by the lure of prosperity and the need to accumulate a variety of possessions…
“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” (Mark 4:18-19).
The soil in this portion of the Parable of the Sower represents those people who initially accept the Gospel but later allow the desire for wealth and possessions to become more important than following God. It might also represent those who ultimately reject the Word of God out of fear of what he or she may have to give up or those who possess an unhealthy occupation with the concerns of daily life.
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes helps illustrate this problem with this kind of attitude when it tells us, “He who loves money shall never have enough. The foolishness of thinking that wealth brings happiness! The more you have, the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income…” (Ecclesiastes 5:10-11 TLB). For instance, let’s take the example of someone who feels the need to obtain the newest or latest “stuff” in order to be happy. People who feel this way are often seen buying, trading, or upgrading just to have the latest model or version of something. In fact, there are people who just don’t seem to be happy unless they have the newest or the latest item to impress others.
The problem is that a person who needs to have a lot of money or things in order to be happy is bound to become disappointed at some point. It usually takes a lot of money to keep up with the “newest and latest” and there is always bound to be something newer or better than whatever that person already possesses. This means that he or she will eventually have to spend more money just to keep up- and that leads to an ongoing cycle of discontentment and dissatisfaction.
Jesus used the concept of “thorns” to illustrate these spiritual realities. Like a thorn bush that takes over a garden and chokes out the desirable plants, such lives “…are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get” (Mark 4:19 MSG). As a result, such people never become everything that God intended them to be.
“The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and welcome the message. They produce thirty or sixty or even a hundred times as much as was planted” (Mark 4:20 CEV).
The final soil type referenced by Jesus in the Parable of the Sower is the “good soil” mentioned in the passage quoted above. This represents those who receive the Word of God and become committed to it. Those who do so then become farmers (so to speak) and introduce others to Jesus and His teachings. The result is that such people “bear fruit” for God -up to a hundredfold in some cases.
This concept of “fruitfulness” in the Scriptures carries the idea of a result or effect that’s brought about by something else (for good or bad). For instance, just as a tree can be identified by the fruit it produces, a person can also be identified by the result or the “fruit” that his or her actions produce. In other words, we might say that our actions produce an effect in the lives of others for better or worse. In this instance, the good soil brought forth good results and while every yield was different, everyone produced something.
So this is more than just a story about seeds and rocks and birds and thorns and plants and soil. You see, anyone who chooses to listen to this parable and consider it’s application can usually identify with one of these four examples. The question we really need to ask is, “what does this parable say about my own spiritual state?” Which of these categories do we fall into?
For instance, do we allow the enemy to steal the message of the Scriptures from our lives? Is there a concern over how others might respond to our relationship with Jesus that helps prevent us from becoming all that we can be in Him? Is the “desire to acquire” distracting us from following God? Or are we taking advantage of the opportunities that God provides us and effectively communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who need to hear it?
In explaining His parables to His followers, Jesus said, “Consider carefully what you hear…” (Mark 4:24). The first step towards accomplishing this is to become familiar with Jesus and His teachings through the Scriptures. Remember that the people who fail to take the time to reflect on this parable will receive no benefit from it- and as Jesus reminds us, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).
“Also He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear'” (Mark 4:21-23).
In Jesus’ day, a small clay bowl with a candle or a dish filled with oil and a wick were implements that were typically used to provide light after sunset. These devices were commonly suspended from ceilings or placed on a shelf protruding from a wall for lighting purposes. But just as we saw with the Parable of the Sower, Jesus did not provide us with a simple, common sense statement about good interior lighting in this passage. In this instance, “light” represents that which is good, true and holy. The idea is that such things should not be hidden but brought out to provide illumination for those who are within their vicinity.
Just as there are many different type of light available today, there are different lights identified for us within the Scriptures as well. For instance, the small New Testament epistle of 1 John tells us, “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Jesus also said of Himself, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). Finally, Jesus said of His followers, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
When God-honoring people illuminate that which is good, true, and holy, they serve to reflect the One who is the light of the world. Perhaps this is why Jesus went on to say, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). However, there is an opposing truth that is identified for us in John chapter three…
“And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).
“Then He said to them, ‘Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him'” (Mark 4:24-25).
This passage indicates that Jesus clearly wanted others to understand the principles behind the parables that He shared with those who came to hear Him speak. For example, Jesus counseled His audience to “Listen carefully…” (CEV), “Think carefully…” (ERV), or, “Pay attention to what you hear” (ESV). The idea behind this admonition involved the need to purposefully consider the meaning behind the message of these parables.
If we were to illustrate this concept with a paraphrase, we might do so in this manner: “Don’t listen to these parables as mere stories; give attentive consideration to the ideas behind them. What you hear in these parables will not benefit those who are unwilling to carefully consider their deeper meaning and application.”
Jesus then went on to say, “The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given —and you will receive even more” (Mark 4:24 NLT). In other words, the person who is willing to invest the time and effort involved in understanding and applying Jesus’ teachings will receive greater spiritual insight in return. On the other hand, the person who casually neglects the study of God’s Word or is uninterested in the application of Jesus’ teachings is in danger of losing whatever spiritual understanding he or she once may have possessed.
The point is that if we are faithful to apply the spiritual knowledge we currently possess, then we may expect God to faithfully provide greater knowledge and insight. But if we are not faithful in applyng the spiritual knowledge we already have, then why would He provide us with anything more?
So it’s important for a God-honoring person to be faithful with the knowledge that He has already provided- and the right kind of attitude towards the study of Jesus’ teachings can be found in the New Testament book of 2 Timothy…
“Work hard so God can say to you, ‘Well done.’ Be a good workman, one who does not need to be ashamed when God examines your work. Know what his Word says and means” (2 Timothy 2:15 TLB).
“And He said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come'” (Mark 4:26-29).
This parable of the seed growing unoticed is the only one of Jesus’ parables that is unique to Mark’s Gospel- and just as we saw with the Parable of the Sower earlier in Mark chapter four, this parable featured some elements that would be prove to be quite familiar to anyone living in an agricultural society.
For example, there is a period of time when nothing seems to happen once a farmer has planted his or her crop. But even though the farmer expends a great deal of effort without an immediate return, he or she doesn’t become discouraged during this initial period. That’s because the germination process takes place below the surface and out of sight- and once that unseen process is complete, the farmer can actually see the growth and positive results that have occurred through his or her efforts.
In a similar way, it’s sometimes possible to become discouraged during those times when nothing seems to be happening in our relationship with God. Or perhaps there is no discernible movement in the spiritual lives of others we may be praying for. When these things occur, it may be helpful to bring the parable of the seed growing unoticed to mind. Just as a farmer is unable to see the growth and activity that takes place below the surface, so it may also be with God’s work in our lives and the lives of others.
We don’t always know what God may be doing behind the scenes on our behalf- and just because we can’t see God at work doesn’t necessarily that He isn’t working to make good things happen without our knowledge. Remember that a farmer doesn’t plant a crop and then return to harvest it the next day- it takes time for that harvest to develop. While it may sometimes seem as if we are not having much impact for God in our homes, jobs, schools, or neighborhoods, it may just be that God is working on our behalf in a manner that may not be visible or obvious- just like the seed growing unnoticed in this parable.
“Then He said, ‘To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade'” (Mark 4:30-34).
Mustard plants were well known to the people of Jesus’ day and could often be found growing wild in a field or along a roadside during that time. While there were different types of mustard plants, at least one common variety of that time had the ability to grow from a tiny seed to a height of 10 or 15 ft. (3 to 5m) in one season if the conditions were good. People of that time cultivated mustard plants for oil and they were also used for seasoning food, just as is done today. Birds also liked eating mustard seeds and would sometimes perch in the branches of a large mustard plant to eat the seeds there.
The parable of the mustard seed is a good illustration of the impact that a Christian can have in the lives of others. The idea is that just as a tiny mustard seed can grow to produce a large plant, one life lived for God can start from small beginnings and grow to have a great effect and positive impact on the lives of many others.
However, we should take a closer look Jesus’ comment regarding the mustard seed of that area and how that seed was “…smaller than all the seeds on earth…” Since we know today that other seed varieties are smaller than the kind that Jesus was speaking of in this passage, is it possible that He made a mistake in referring to the local mustard seed in this manner? Well, a look at the original language that was used to write this portion of Scripture may help provide an answer.
You see, a more literal rendering of Mark 4:31 looks like this: “It is like a grain of mustard seed which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth.” (1) So the context of this passage refers to the smallest seed that a local farmer might plant in the ground. When compared to the other types of seed that a farmer might sow, the mustard seed was “…less than all the seeds that are in the earth” (MKJV).
So this was not an observation on botanical science or the relative size and weight of various types of seeds throughout the world; Jesus instead used the literary device of comparison to illustrate an important spiritual truth.
(1) Interlinear Transliterated Bible. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.
Anyone who has followed Jesus for any length of time probably knows that there are times when everything isn’t “smooth sailing” in life. Contrary to what some may believe, Christianity doesn’t offer a one-way ticket to an easy, trouble-free existence. In fact, there might even be times in life when Jesus actually appears to be unresponsive or indifferent to the needs of His people. Let’s look at one such situation in the lives of Jesus’ disciples and see what we might be able to learn from their experience…
“On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, ‘Let us cross over to the other side.” Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him” (Mark 4:35-36)
The body of water that Jesus and His disciples were traveling upon in this passage was the Sea of Galilee (also referred to as the Lake of Gennesaret or the Sea of Tiberias in the Scriptures). Fed by the Jordan River, this freshwater lake is almost 13 miles (20 km) long and ranges in depth from 80-160 feet (24-30 m). The lake is also bordered on three sides by steep, mountainous cliffs that rise up to 2700 feet (823 m) high and these natural characteristics can produce some very unusual weather on the water. You see, the mountainous cliffs that surround the lake sometimes allow cool winds to rush down the steep cliffs and act on the warm waters of the lake- an environmental condition that surely contributed to what we read next…
“And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling” (Mark 4:37).
So just how bad was the storm that’s mentioned in the verse quoted above? Well the word used for “storm” or tempest in Matthew’s account of this event is the Greek word seismos, a word that refers to a sudden, violent shaking. You might recognize the word seismos as the word from which we get our modern-day word seismograph, a device that’s used to measure earthquakes. So we might say that the Bible describes this storm as a kind of “earthquake on the water.”
So where was Jesus during this “quake on the lake?” Well, Jesus was not where we might have expected Him to be. We’ll look at where He was during this time and see how we might apply the disciple’s experience in our lives next.
“But (Jesus) was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?'” (Mark 4:38).
The stern of the ship was the captain’s area, a place that was located away from the splashing waves of this intense storm. In fact, this storm must have been exceptionally severe because the disciples (some of whom were experienced fishermen) appear to have become fearful for their very lives. To the disciples, it seemed as if Jesus didn’t care about them or the terrible situation that they were in. To the others in the boats that accompanied them, it may have appeared as if Jesus was “asleep at the wheel” while everyone else struggled for their lives through this terrible storm.
Or so it seemed…
“Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. But He said to them, ‘Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?’ And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, ‘Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!'” (Mark 4:39-41).
When you think about it, this storm wasn’t as much of a test for Jesus as it was a test for His disciples. Why? Well, their reaction to this storm demonstrated how little faith they really had in Him. The reality was that Jesus was neither uncaring or unconcerned about His disciples despite the way things may have initially appeared. You see, the disciples had originally feared the waves and the storm but once they saw a demonstration of Jesus’ ability to handle this situation, they began to have a greater degree of respect for Him.
This account is good to remember whenever we begin to encounter storms in our own lives. When trials and difficulties enter our lives, we have a choice: we can react in fear like the disciples or we can trust Jesus to handle the situation just as He did in the Scripture quoted above. Remember that it’s impossible to be pleasing to God without faith (see Hebrews 11:6), so it helps to remember that the storms of life represent an opportunity to exercise faith in Christ. In the words of one commentator…
“When Christ seems as if He is asleep in a storm, He is awakened by the prayers of his people” (1)
(1) Matthew Henry’s Commentary