The Story of the Disciples
Several years ago, a radio discission featured Jesus’ method of disciple-making. The speaker said that when Jesus worked, he capitalized on the moment. Whenever an event occurred, Jesus would use it as a teaching opportunity.
I cannot remember the person who made that observation, but his insight has stayed with me. I knew that someday I would have to write a series on his discipleship methods. That time has come.
All four Gospels show how Jesus taught his followers, but Mark observes Jesus’ teaching methods closely.
Mark’s Gospel: The Call to Head the Truth
From chapter 4 on, Mark focuses on Jesus’ training of the twelve. Jesus’ parable of the soils divides the world between his followers, who have been given “the secret of the kingdom of God,” and those who are “outside” (Mark 4:11).
The twelve, along with a larger group of close followers (Mark 4:10), are privy to the secret of the kingdom. This privilege does not allow them to rest on their laurels. To the contrary, they carry a far greater responsibility for learning and applying the truth. Throughout the central portion of his book, Mark focuses on the disciples’ less-than-stellar performance of their task.
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel
Mark portrays Jesus as the heroic figure of his Gospel. He is the Son of God who knows exactly who he is (Mark 1:1-3). His Father tears open the heavens to shout his approval (Mark 1:9-11). He announces the fulfillment of time with complete authority (Mark 1:14-15). His enemies cower before him (Mark 1:23-27). He seizes what is rightfully his (Mark 2:1 – 3:35), and then, contrary to everyone’s expectations, he submits to his own death.
Teaching to the Crowd
Jesus’ public and private teaching ministry begins in chapter 4 with the parable of the soils. The story is one that we know well—or at least we think we do. Jesus begins by teaching to “a very large crowd” beside the sea (Mark 4:1).
While the crowd illustrates Jesus’ popularity, Mark views its presence as a sign of collective ignorance. The crowds prefer what is flashy over what has substance. Jesus knows this and introduces a deliberately confusing story in which a man sows seed. The seed falls on four distinct types of ground: some by the roadside, some on rocky soil, some among thorns, and some on fertile ground.
Three areas fail to produce a harvest. Only one produces, and Jesus calls that the “good soil.” This soil produces thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold increase (Mark 4:8).
Jesus gives nothing more to the crowds. No explanation and no pleading. He adds only a pair of admonishments. At the beginning of the story, he tells them, “Listen!” (Mark 4:3), and at the end he says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).
Teaching to Confuse
The passage following the parable explains why he is dismissive. When Jesus is alone with the twelve and a larger group of close followers (Mark 4:10), they ask him what the parable means. He explains that the parable describes the way that people react to the good news about the kingdom of God. Some get it, and these become the ones whom Jesus teaches more closely. Others miss the message and fall away. In Jesus’ words,
“To you has been given the secret to the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
‘they may indeed see but not perceive;
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
--Mark 4:11-12, quoting Isaiah 6:10
The Reason for Rejection
Does this mean that Jesus turns away a whole group of people who otherwise would come to him and find the truth?
Not at all. To the contrary, people resist the truth. Most spend their lives in truth-rejecting mode. When they hear the word, signified by the seed, they are tuned out already. Three of the four categories of people ultimately miss the truth. Jesus’ explanation of the parable shows why.
The first group refuses to listen to the good news. Jesus characterizes these as the ones by the roadside. Satan robs them before they have a chance to think about what they have heard. They either do not care or they actively reject what they hear.
The second group, whom Jesus calls rocky ground, welcomes the good news at first, but balks when they encounter internal difficulties with the word. For these, the gospel message is a great ride until—oops—they discover that a cost is involved. These recipients find the cost too great, and they “fall away” (Mark 4:17).
The third reaction resembles seed sown among thorns. The more aggressive thorny species outperform the seed that is supposed to grow and choke it out. These are the people who run into external interference when they hear the word. Jesus calls this interference “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things.” When the word encounters this audience, it becomes overpowered by all the noise and “proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19).
Those Outside and the Secret of the Kingdom
Rejection of the word, internal difficulties with the word, or external interference that clouds the word. Any one of these reactions numbs the soul of the person who hears and destroys any possibility for real progress in the faith. Is it any wonder why God consigns these three groups to “the outside”?
By contrast, those who understand the secret of the kingdom receive an invitation to follow. From this point on, Mark will follow their progress with Jesus.
Their invitation does not grant them privilege. It makes them more responsible for what they hear. As we will see, Jesus will grade them on a much steep learning curve.