Do You Have Ears?

A sermon on Mark 4:1-34 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 9/5/99


Please turn with me in your Bibles to Mark 4. We will read the first 34 verses. Verse 9 of this chapter reads, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." So those of you who have ears, please listen and note some of what Jesus says about (1) hearing and (2) the word.

1 And He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very great multitude gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. 2 And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching, 3 "Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 and it came about that as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 "And other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 "And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 "And other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 "And other seeds fell into the good soil and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold." 9 And He was saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

10 And as soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 in order that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE; AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND LEST THEY RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN." 13 And He *said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? And how will you understand all the parables? 14 "The sower sows the word. 15 "And these are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them. 16 "And in a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 "And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 "And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold."

21 And He was saying to them, "A lamp is not brought to be put under a peck-measure, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22 "For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it should come to light. 23 "If any man has ears to hear, let him hear." 24 And He was saying to them, "Consider carefully what you hear. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides. 25 "For whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." 26 And He was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27 and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows--how, he himself does not know. 28 "The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29 "But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come." 30 And He said, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? 31 "It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32 yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE." 33 And with many such parables He was speaking the word to them as they were able to hear it; 34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples. (NASB except Jesus' first phrase in verse 24 is NIV)

A married couple sits at the breakfast table. The man, reading the paper, says: "Honey, listen to this news item: A study was done that shows conclusively that women speak twice as many words as men!" Wife: "Well, we women always have to repeat ourselves because you men never hear us the first time we say something." Husband: "What did you say?"

Listening is never easy, is it. All of us are so easily distracted -- even in church! When someone gets up during a sermon, perhaps to go to the bathroom, at least 1/3 of the eyes in the sanctuary follow the person out the door -- ensuring, I suppose, that the person doesn't fall down. Many of us will listen for a while, and then realize that for the last five minutes we've been thinking about our plans for the afternoon, and haven't heard a word that has been said. On other occasions, when we are in discussion, we'll hear a point we want to respond to and begin to formulate our own response -- not hearing anything else the other person says.

The development of good listening skills is important in many parts of our lives: academics, workplace, families -- but our skills in listening to the word of God are of greatest importance. In the passage we consider today, Jesus has much to say about our doing more than letting the word of God go in one ear and out the other.

To bring this out, we won't go straight through the passage, but instead look at three themes:

Let's first remind ourselves briefly of the context of this chapter. As we saw , Jesus has been having increasing difficulty dealing with crowds. Those who want physical healing are crowding around him, to the point that he has trouble fulfilling his primary task: to preach the word. He tells his disciples in 3:9 to have a boat ready for him, so that he can escape from those trying to touch him, yet still teach. So we find in 4:1 that he has to use that boat.

Jesus in chapter 3 begins to distinguish between those who belong to Him -- His intimate family, His true mother, brother, and sisters -- from those who are there only for physical healing, or to see the latest exciting prophet. He chooses the twelve disciples for greatest intimacy during His earthly ministry, and, on the other hand, warns the Pharisees that they reject the work of the Holy Spirit at their peril. They cannot rely on their heritage from Abraham or their external obedience to the Law; instead, it is obedience to the will of God, it is the reflection of God's character, that identifies God's chosen people, those who will His own treasured possession.

This is Jesus' invitation at the end of chapter 3: Whoever does the will of God is in my intimate family. So chapter 4 follows up this invitation with Jesus saying: So listen to the word, and obey it!

Jesus here finds himself in a similar situation to Ezekiel, as described in 30:30-32:

"As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, 'Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.' 31 My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. 32 Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. (NIV)

Ezekiel had become an attraction, an amusement. And note that the people responded to his preaching! They expressed devotion, but their actions belied their words. So Ezekiel was to them a performer, a maestro, fun to listen to but having no impact on their lives. This is what was happening with Jesus -- and you know what? It is happening today in a lot of churches this morning. Friends, I don't want to be like someone singing with a beautiful voice, where people go away saying, "Wasn't that interesting? And wasn't that illustration helpful?" -- but then don't change anything in their lives. Listen! Hear the word of God! And put it into practice!

The Importance of Hearing

Jesus emphasizes the importance of truly hearing the word again and again in this chapter:

Jesus issues a stern warning here, following up on the one he gave to the Pharisees in chapter 3: Many people hear God's word and never take it to heart. Continued failure to hear constitutes rejection of the Holy Spirit, resulting in death.

This is the warning He gives in verses 10-12:

And as soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 in order that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE; AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND LEST THEY RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN."

Jesus tells his disciples that they have been given the "mystery of the kingdom of God." What does he mean by that?

In the Bible, a mystery is not secret, hidden knowledge, but instead a truth that one can only come to know by God's revelation. We cannot discover a truth like this on our own. So Jesus is telling his disciples, "I am revealing to you these mysteries, these vital truths." He reemphasizes this in verse 22: "Whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed." God didn't hide these truths from us forever, but always had the intention to reveal them in the fullness of time. In Colossians 1:26, Paul refers to "the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints." That is the idea. Jesus says, "Yes, these are mysteries -- but they are meant to come out! The time is fulfilled! I'm making them available and understandable: So hear!"

That is the positive side to Jesus' comment: He is disclosing mysteries that have been hidden for ages. But there is a negative side to these verses also. Jesus contrasts the revelation to the disciples with the inability of "those outside" to hear these truths expressed in parables. It almost sounds as if Jesus is speaking in parables in order that they won't be able to understand, and thus will have no chance of forgiveness.

Clearly such an interpretation would be inconsistent with the theme of this section (as well as many other Scriptures). Matthew's parallel account (Mat 13:14) helps us to understand what Mark is saying; that verse includes these words: "in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah." So in essence, Jesus is saying: "These mysteries need to be taken to heart. I speak in parables so that you might see the truths in the story, reflect on them, and thus take them to heart. But take care! As Isaiah prophesied, there are people who will hear these parables and never perceive or understand the truths contained therein. Don't be among them!"

Mark 4:13 is both a reprimand and a challenge to his disciples. They ask him to explain the parable of the sower, and he responds"

Do you not perceive this parable? How then will you come to know any parable? [my translation]

Most English translations don't show that Jesus uses different verbs in these two questions. The first verb I've translated "perceive," for it is the same verb used in verse 12: "that seeing, they may see and not perceive." Jesus is saying here that understanding this parable of the sower is fundamental to coming to an understanding of all other parables. So He encourages his disciples to apply themselves to gaining this understanding.

Barriers to Hearing

This brings us to the well-known parable of the sower, the first parable of Jesus related in the book of Mark. How shall we interpret the parables?

Jesus explains the parable as an analogy, a story in which each object represents something else: the seed is the word, the birds are Satan, the thorns are the cares of this world, etc. Verse 13 implies that this will be true of other parables: they all are analogies in one way or another.

We frequently understand the parable of the sower as referring to evangelism: the evangelist spreads the word; some people never respond; some people appear to respond, yet fall away eventually; others respond and bear fruit. That interpretation certainly makes sense, and states an important truth. But in context in Mark, I believe it preferable to think of the different grounds as yourself at different times. Ask yourself: How am I responding to the word I hear right now? What barriers prevent you from hearing the word and putting it into practice?

Let's take Jesus' examples one by one:

The Road

Some of the seed falls beside the road, and the birds eat it. Jesus explains this as Satan taking away the word before it has a chance to germinate.

For us, this corresponds to having the word go in one ear and out the other. It never even registers in our brain. We are distracted while we are listening, or have preconceived ideas that do not allow us to hear the truths being stated.

This happens to all of us to some extent. We might be in church, supposedly listening to a sermon, perhaps even looking at the preacher -- but suddenly notice that for the last five minutes we haven't heard a word he has said. Or we're reading the Bible, with eyes moving over the page, but then realize that we can't remember any of the last three pages.

Preconceived ideas that block our hearing the word are of even greater importance. Most of the Pharisees, for example, did not allow the possibility of Jesus being the Messiah into their minds. They did not listen; they did not hear Him. Instead, they engaged in verbal jousting with Him to try to besmirch his reputation.

Some of us have had similar preconceived ideas that block our hearing; perhaps some here this morning have such blocks. In the early 1980's, Satan was taking away many seeds sown in me. At that time, I did not believe in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, so I could toss out any parts of the Bible that bothered me. I didn't have to listen, and would close my ears to the word. God took me 8,000 miles away, to a different continent, and then allowed us to suffer the breakdown of our marriage. This served to remove me from my comfort zone, to get me out of my cultural milieu, to get me to the point where He could confront me with His word. I listened to a black African preacher when I would have rejected the same sermon preached by a white American; I dug into His word and prayed fervently to Him when I found myself destroying what I loved most. God in his severe mercy allowed me to go through the pain of a difficult period in our marriage to break through the barriers to hearing I had erected.

What are your barriers? Are you rejecting the word outright? Or are you feeding on it, allowing it to permeate you and change you?

The Rocky Ground

The sower also sows his seed on the rocky ground, where the plant germinates and springs up, but dries up when the hot sun scorches the ground.

Note that this person hears the word and initially responds in exactly the same way as the seed that falls on the good soil: germination takes place. But as soon as there is any challenge to the word, as soon as obeying that word leads to any difficulty, this person forgets the word and reverts to what he was before.

That is the traditional interpretation, considering this soil as a response to the evangelist. How do we understand this when thinking of the soils as different responses of the same person at different times?

Many of us have heard sermons or read the Bible and responded in our hearts: "Yes, yes, that is true. I agree with that. I will change my life to reflect that." Unlike the soil beside the road, in this case we do hear the word, and we mentally assent to its truth. But then we fail to act on it consistently and persistently, so that there is no fruit.

How many of you have had this experience in relation to prayer? You hear a sermon on prayer and decide, "Yes, that is important. I will pray for thirty minutes every day." And you follow through for a week. But then you stay up too late, or sleep too late, or have a busy day at the office or school, and you miss a day. Within a month, you are praying no more than before you heard the sermon.

Most often this results from having only a surface understanding of the truths being taught. These truths have not become a part of you, so you do not act on them consistently. This happens particularly with children who grow up in Christian homes, but fail to make their faith their own; when persecutions or hardships come because of Jesus, they reject the faith; it is not convenient to believe, and the faith is not really theirs anyway. Similarly, those who rely exclusively on one teacher who always gives all the answers can face this problem. Again, their faith is the faith of the teacher instead of their own. The teacher has developed a relationship with them, instead of developing their relationship to Christ through the word.

The solution to this problem is to become like the Bereans that Luke describes in Acts 17:11. They hear Paul preaching, and are eager to hear the word. But they don't stop there:

Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. (NASB)

You see what they did? They heard the word, they listened attentively to Paul -- and then they searched the Scriptures themselves to check Paul out! Their understanding of these truths deepened, indeed the truths became part of them because of their effort to understand.

So as you hear, work hard to internalize these truths! Make them a part of you, so that they can take root and bear fruit in your life.

The Thorns

Jesus explains the thorny ground with these words:

these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word (Mark 4:18-19 NASB)

One of the saddest verses in the New Testament concerns Demas. Demas worked with Paul for some time; Paul forwards his greetings in the letters to Colosse and Philemon. But in 2 Timothy 4:10 Paul writes:

Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.

Desires for other things can present a barrier to our hearing the word -- even for someone who worked beside the Apostle Paul! If these desires tempted someone working with Paul, they certainly tempt us.

Unlike those represented by the ground beside the road, these do hear initially, and agree. Unlike those represented by the rocky ground, their understanding of the truth deepens. But they reject the truth, they do not act on the truth because their stronger desires are for success in this world.

Once again, I propose that all of us act this way at times. We may have a good, solid grasp of some biblical truth -- but then say:

"Let's be practical. Surely God doesn't mean for me to do that! I might lose my job!"

"Yes, I can obey God in that area -- after I make enough money and attain financial security."

"Wow, that's such a noble sentiment -- but it's simply not practical. Maybe people 2000 years ago could act that way, but it doesn't work at the dawn of the 21st century."

Have you responded to God's truth in this way at times? I certainly have. We can all come up with a zillion reasons why living according to God's word is not practical. But "the righteous one shall live by faith." (Hab 2:4). Living by faith means we obey God whether that obedience makes sense from a human point of view or not. Living by faith means we find our security, our satisfaction, our accomplishment, and our self-worth in God alone.

Don't be a deserter, like Demas. Listen to God's word; take it to heart; and apply it to your life, regardless of the fears and worries that concern you. God is faithful. The righteous shall live by faith.

Steps to Effective Hearing

So we've seen the importance of hearing and the barriers to effective hearing. How can we open our minds to the word, and more often become like the ground that accepts the word and yields 30, 60, or 100-fold?

First, we must depend on the Holy Spirit. Pray whenever you read the Bible. Pray whenever you are hearing the word taught. Ask that God might open your ears, that He would break down your barriers, that He would allow you to take these truths to heart.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:14:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. (NASB)

By ourselves we cannot understand God's truth -- we need the assistance of the Spirit. But God willing gives His Spirit to those who ask. As Paul tells Timothy,

Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. (2 Timothy 2:7 NIV)

It is the Lord who gives us insight. So ask!

Second, we must spend time and energy trying to understand. Paul doesn't tell Timothy only to pray; he tells him to reflect, to think hard about these issues -- and to know that God will allow that reflection to pay off. Similarly, Jesus tells the disciples in verses 24 and 25 of today's passage:

"Consider carefully what you hear. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him."

This first phrase, "consider carefully what you hear," is quite interesting. The NASB translation "Be careful what you listen to," while good advice and one possible translation of the words in question, misses the point in context. Literally, Jesus is saying, "See what you hear." You have ears; you have used them to hear; now see what you hear! Perceive it, contemplate it, mull it over, understand it thoroughly.

Jesus emphasizes this in the rest of these two verses. In saying "by your standard of measure it shall be measured to you," Jesus presents an image of a bag of grain (of seed). We have a choice of scoops for drawing out the seed. Similarly, in verse 25, the first "has" can mean "take hold." Luke's account (8:18) clarifies the rest of the expression by rendering the last phrase "even what he thinks he has shall be taken." So we might paraphrase 24 and 25:

"How deeply are you digging into the bag of the word of God? Pick a big scoop! Gather as much seed as you possibly can, and then even more will be given to you! He who takes hold, who really grabs onto what is there, even more will be given. If you don't take hold, you'll find you don't have even what you think you have."

We don't have time to address verses 26 to 34 in detail, but let's try to summarize the main points in one more paraphrase of the entire section from 21 to 32:

"I am bringing you the light, I am bringing you the lamp; I'm not hiding it from you. Here it is! Here is the word of life, the mystery hidden for ages, revealed to you! Now, mull this over, let the word of God dwell in you richly (Col 3:14); take hold of it in great big scoops! For if you don't, you'll lose even what you think you have. If you do, it will grow and multiply, and you won't know where it comes from or how it does it. The seed, the word, is going out. Where will it land?"

Conclusion

You all are here this morning, listening to the word of God being preached. Most of you would like to hear what I am saying, you would like to soak up the word of God. How can you do this?

Let's close this morning with five suggestions for effective listening to sermons:

  1. Take the teaching of God's word seriously. God's word is more important than anything you learn in school; it is more important than anything you read in newspapers; it is more important than anything your boss tells you in a staff meeting. Give at least as much effort to understanding the sermon as you would to what you hear in these other contexts.
  2. Pay attention. Usually this requires taking notes. Note taking forces you to focus on the speaker, and keeps some of the seed from falling beside the road where the birds eat it. It also requires you to do some thinking and reflecting even while the person speaks. In addition to taking notes, you can go over this material later by getting the tape (these are free to anyone who asks), or downloading the written form off the web (always posted by Tuesday), or requesting a written copy from me. Going back over this material usually is well worth the effort.
  3. Realize you won't catch everything. When we lose focus, Satan is apt to accuse us: "You lost focus and missed the last few minutes; you might as well stop listening now." Don't yield to that temptation. No one will catch everything the first time through. Simply resume listening, and ask God to open up the rest to you.
  4. Pick one or two thoughts from the sermon, and reflect on what they mean for your life. Then put them into practice! Once again, you won't understand everything, and that's ok. But God wants you to take something away from this sermon, and every sermon. Indeed, when I take notes, I generally put a vertical line on the page. On the left I try to outline and summarize the message; on the right, I focus on the specific message for me that I need to apply in my life. So pick out only one or two thoughts -- and be sure to apply them.
  5. Resist the urge to be like the music critic at the symphony. Don't evaluate the sermon, trying to give it a grade of A, B, C (or worse!). Instead, listen for what God is saying through His word. The sermon may be poorly organized and poorly delivered -- but, if the word is preached truly, there will still be a message for you there. And when you speak to any preacher after the sermon, try to avoid a blanket statement about the quality of the sermon. Doug and I would much prefer to hear you say, "What you said about X really hit me. I'll meditate on that this week, and try to put it into practice. Pray for me." Or, "I didn't understand what you said about Y. Can we talk about that later?" Or, "I hear what you were saying, but doesn't this other Scripture contradict that point?"

So engage the word! Listen to it! Work hard at hearing it!

All of you have ears. May you hear, and may the word of God dwell in you richly.


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 9/5/99. A.T. Robertson's Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament was very helpful, particularly on verses 24 and 25.

Copyright © 1999, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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