The Sermon on the Boat – Mark 4

After His confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus once again went to the lakeside to reveal the secrets of heaven. He got into the boat and narrated a string of parables focusing on the word of God. There is even a practical application of His teachings, as at the end of this sermon on the boat, Jesus asked His disciples to go out to the sea where they faced storms like they had never faced before and their faith in Jesus is tested.

Jesus’ audience were usually illiterate manual workers and His parables involved mundane real-life examples that they could easily relate with. The first parable was about a farmer who went out to sow seeds in His field. As it would be the case with a bagful of seeds, there was bound to be spillovers.

The Good Soil

Some seeds fell on the stony pathway that led up to the fields. These seeds were not able to penetrate the soil and were left on the wayside as fodder for the birds. These are folks who listen to the word but have no intention to plant it in their hearts. And no sooner have they heard it, satan comes along and takes the word of God away by giving worldly blessings or worries (whichever works), that distract them from coming closer to God. Even the basic doubt shakes them to their core and they leave God without a second thought.

Some seeds fell among rocky soil that would have been formed at the edges as no one tills the soil near the corners of the fields. The seeds that were sown here have no space to grow their roots and as a result, sprout up prematurely. Since these plants are not deep-rooted, the harsh sun dries them up as quickly as they had sprouted. These rocky soil are believers who receive immediate relief or answer to their prayers and thereby limit God’s power to only fulfilling their prayer requests. They have no desire to know God deeper or to understand the plans that He has for them. They are dependent on people around them to even connect them with God and when they face the storms of lives, they are not able to stand on their own. They wither away from the fold of God forgetting the temporary relief or peace or even joy they had experienced when they first came to God.

Some seeds fell among the thorny bushels, perhaps shrubs of flowers that were planted in the adjacent fields. They had the soil to grow and their surrounding seemed colourful and pleasant as well. But when they wanted to grow more, the interlocked thorns of these bushels, suffocated them and prevented them from growing to their full potential. The people who look at the exterior glamour of a fellowship do not realise that roses have thorns too. Once they start growing spiritually, the people around them, either out of jealousy or self-preservation, stunt their growth so that they remain dependant on the fellowship forever. These people do not experience the word of God, work to its full potential in their lives.

Good soil enables healthy crop production

Finally, there were the seeds that made it to the good soil, exactly where they were meant to be sown. These seeds germinate to full-grown crops as they had been planted on good soil and had fully developed roots. Once out of the soil they have room to grow and are able to attain their full potential. These are people who hear the word of God and sow it in their hearts. They do not only hear the word of God but also apply it in their lives and when problems come their way they know how to handle every situation with God by their side. They keep growing and maturing in Christ as the works of the word of God have no end. The same word of God is given to everyone, but based on our own desires does the word of God manifest its works in our lives.

The Purpose of a Lamp

Jesus goes on to use an analogy of a lamp as the word of God. Just like the purpose of the seeds in the last parable was to find good soil where they can freely germinate and grow to their potential, the purpose of a lamp that is lit, is to brighten up a room. In those days, lamps needed a constant supply of oil (which was not cheap) to burn through the night. Lighting a lamp was not as easy or economical as flicking a light switch these days. The poor households might have to limit their use of lamps for days of absolute darkness or when the moon is not visible. Families would use the lamp judiciously, perhaps reserving the use of the lamp only for their suppers. That’s how premium a commodity it was considered for an average joe in those days. These were the same class of people who were now gathered around Jesus’ boat, listening to this parable.

Traditional Hurricane Lamp

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?

Mark 4:21

The thought of covering the light of a lamp that was filled with oil would seem utterly wasteful to Jesus’ audience. This is the emotion Jesus wanted them to associate with wasting the opportunities that God gives us to plant His word into this world. The Merchant who cheats their customers can understand their unjust acts if the person selling to them uses the same measure to sell to them. How we treat our fellow believers is a reflection of what God’s love means to us. If we treat our fellow believers without compassion, how can we expect God to show His compassion towards us? But we treat God as our personal property and do not want to spread His Grace with others. Whatever little that has been enlightened to us by His grace, we seek to hold it for ourselves and pass on only little by little to others. That is not the purpose of a lamp as when time runs out the oil will be over and His grace will cease to exist in our lives.

The seeds that are planted by the sower might need some tending but the production of the fruit is an act of God as it is not under the control of the farmer. Similarly in our ministries, we plant the seed as per God’s leading and don’t even have to do that part on our own. The faith grows in the person through their experiences with God as they come closer to Him, who keeps performing wondrous works in their lives in the process. We tend to end up taking credit for the transformations that they have gone through with God. Our job is to only put the sickle and tell people about His love. Everything else He has already done and continues to do for them. Dying for their sins, giving them a new life, being a constant provider of both protection and comfort is all being taken care off by God.

Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Continuing with the example of seeds, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a small mustard seed. Given the accounts of different authors who wrote about the kingdom of God in both the old and new Testaments, no one described it quite like this. Our imaginations of the kingdom of God is one of heaven that is filled with all the treasures that we desire on this earth and where the very streets are made of gold. But Jesus teaches us that heaven is not a faraway paradise but that He has brought down heaven in all our lives. The word of God that Has been given to us, is a small mustard seed that starts with a small act of faith but goes on to produce countless branches. The start of Jesus’ work on earth was not what the Jewish Leaders expected from the Messiah. They imagined their Messianic king to be the all-conquering ruler of the world. But seeing Jesus and His ministry, none of the scholars (who dedicated their entire lives to knowing God’s will through His scriptures) were able to identify Him as the Saviour of the world. But the seed that Jesus planted in His followers has now become the greatest kingdom in the world that has no borders or barriers dividing it up, the community of believers. That is how the kingdom of God works in us, it starts small but soon we can see it as the most influential part of our lives.

But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Mark 4:34

Jesus did not elaborate on the meaning of these parables to the general audience but reserved these for His personal bible studies with His disciples. The Pharisees and other temple leaders were looking for ammunition to build their case against Jesus and were twisting His words. But Jesus did not mind them and spoke His mind freely. But when it came to revealing the truth about the kingdom of heaven and His own identity, He only disclosed those to His closest followers. Even the demons who He confronted during His ministry, were prevented from revealing His identity.

The heart needs to be ready to listen to the word of God, otherwise, it will be like the seeds that fell everywhere but on good soil. None of us truly deserve to understand or even question the will of God but He still chose to reveal some of His glory to us. Similarly, the disciples had some knowledge about His missions rather than the everyday crowd who came to hear just for sound and light show. And He chose to reveal these mysteries to them to build their faith further.

Faith During Storm

After preaching to the crowds, Jesus asked His disciples to take the boat out to the water and reach the other side of the lake. It was evening by the time they started their journey and there were other boats in the water with them. Suddenly a violent storm came and took over the boat. Water was gushing into the boat from every direction and while everyone was trying their best to drain the boat, Jesus was sound asleep.

The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Mark 4:38

A question that we too would have asked God many times, especially when we were drowning in the storms of our lives. Jesus spent that entire day with His disciples, explaining to them the deeper meaning of these parables. But in an instant, the disciples had forgotten all that He had taught them. Most of the disciples were fishermen by trade and would have seen squalls regularly. One would imagine that seasoned seamen would have known how to steer through any storm. But this was no ordinary storm. Mark carefully adds this incident right after the parables of the seeds and soil. The disciples though chosen by God acted like seeds that fell into the thorns as the troubles around them, almost choked them to death. Jesus got up and commanded the wind to be still and they duly obeyed. In doing so He revealed another part of His identity to the disciples that as the Creator of the world He has control over even the winds and waves. The disciples failed the test that day but what about us? When we go through frequent storms in our lives, do we come out of those storms as seeds planted in the good soil or like the other seeds, as our faith is washed away by the rising tide?

Discussion Questions

  • Which soil are we for our sower?
  • What is the task assigned to us?
  • Why did Jesus not explain the parables to everyone?
  • What makes us doubt Jesus?


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