4:1 As Mark interviewed Peter we can imagine the question "You mentioned that because of the crowds you had to get a boat ready for Jesus (3:9). As the crowds sat there on the shore can you describe how he taught?"
4:2 Jesus had a wonderful method of teaching by parables (see 4:33-34). "Why do you think he used this parabolic method?" Jesus' parables used a minimum of words to grab the crowd before they knew what was happening. They were intrigued, and wondered what the parable meant. But then there was a sudden twist, or shocking ending, and they suddenly realized that Jesus was talking about them and their relationship to God.
4:3-8 "Can you give me an example?" Jesus' favorite parable was about a sower. Some seed fell on the path where it could not take root, and the birds ate it. Some fell on shallow rocky ground, and grew rapidly but soon got scorched. In some cases the soil had not been cleared of thorns and they choked the plants. But enough seed fell on good soil to yield a harvest. From one tiny seed the ears grew that yielded thirty to a hundred times what had been sown.
4:9 While the crowd were wondering about this wasteful method of farming, Jesus would pause and ask them to listen carefully and figure out what it meant (as he did again in 4:22-23).
4:10-11 Often Jesus did not explain the meaning of his stories, and when his apostles asked him he would say "I have taught you how the Kingdom of God works. You don't need an explanation. My parables are to grab the attention of those who are not yet baptized to begin learning as disciples."
4:12 He often quoted from Isaiah. In this case he quoted the text "You keep listening and prefer not to understand, and you keep looking but don't want to discern" (Isaiah 6:9. Here the Hebrew negative al is not a command but a wish or preference). He changed the sequence to explain how parables work "with the result that (the alternative meaning of the Greek ina) they may keep looking and not see, and keep hearing and not understand." He then took the end of the next verse in Isaiah, "and turn and be healed" (Isaiah 6:10), and translated it "so that they might perhaps turn and be forgiven." It is not helpful to translate this (and Matthew 13:14-15 that quotes it) to suggest that Jesus wanted to use parables to prevent people understanding and being forgiven. The closing of eyes to obvious truth is the result of a refusal to believe, not a means of the Lord's condemnation.
4:13-14 Jesus said the disciples should have been able to understand the parable of the Sower and other parables. This suggests that their meaning could be grasped by spiritual discernment (by the inspiration of the Spirit).
4:15 He explained that the parable of the Sower is about the response of people to Jesus' preaching of the good news. Some hear him speak words, but the message never takes root in their heart. As a result Satan is successful in keeping them ignorant. When Luke used the parable he wrote "the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved" (Luke 8:12).
4:16-17 Others receive the word with great enthusiasm, but when things get tough as Matthew explained "when trouble or persecution arises because of the Word" (Matthew 13:21)) they fall away from discipleship (as in John 6:66). Luke describes such people as "these have no root; they believe for a while" (Luke 8:13). That makes clear that a temporary emotional faith response is not the kind of deep rooted faith that changes our life.
4:18-19 The double-minded want to be disciples but their faith gets crowded out by being too busy, worry about financial matters, and all sorts of other interests. Luke explains that "as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasure of life, and their fruit does not mature" (Luke 8:14).
4:20 But the heavenly Sower knows that there will be some who "hear the word and accept it and bear fruit." Matthew has "the one who hears the word and understands it" (Matthew 13:23) and Luke explains "when they hear the word, they hold it fast in an honest and good heart and bear fruit with patient endurance" (Luke 8:15). The way Matthew and Luke comment on the explanation given in Mark indicates that they had observed the working out of discipleship in their own experience. But in all three accounts of the parable there are sufficient true believers to yield a rich harvest, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. (Luke omits the thirty and sixtyfold for stylistic reasons, Luke 8:8). It seems that Jesus was not worried about the many failures of faith in the assurance that his church would be built (Matthew 16:18). And in due course some who have fallen by the wayside and got choked would in due course come to faith (as obviously happened in Acts 2:41, 47, 4:4, 6:7).
4:21 Then Peter gave another example of one of Jesus' parables. The meaning of the oil lamp hidden under a basket, or put away under a bed, is not explained by Jesus. But in the Sermon on the Mount he referred to this parable and explained "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). So this is a parable for disciples not to be ashamed of their faith (as in Mark 8:38, Romans 1:16, 2 Timothy 1:12).
4:22 We know that human attempts to hide something (see Matthew 10:26) are sooner or later exposed. And our attempts to hide our faith usually end in terrible embarrassment (as happened when Peter denied he had ever known Jesus, 14:66-72).
4:23-25 When he told a parable Jesus would pause and encourage people to listen carefully, think about the message (as in 4:9), and then teach it to others (4:22). The best way of learning and understanding something is to teach it to others. Which is how what we give to others reinforces and adds to what we know. But those who never share what they have learned lose even what they had.
4:26-29 Though Peter remembered this parable of the growing seed, it was not used in the other Gospels probably because its meaning was obscure? It complements the parable of the Sower to explain that from germination to producing the ears of wheat takes time. The farmer has to wait patiently. If that is the case, the going in with the sickle corresponds to the bearing of fruit when the good grain is ready to be cut and the seeds are used for food and to reproduce themselves (4:20). Perhaps Peter had seen this happening among those who were baptized on the Day of Pentecost when there was a delay before the process of multiplication began to occur (Acts 2:41, 6:7).
4:30-32 In this parable Jesus seems to answering the question. "Do you really think what you are teaching is going to make a difference to the world? At first the kingdom is almost invisible like a tiny grain of mustard (brassica nigra which can grow to 3 meters). This parable is used by both Matthew and Luke because both of them could see it obviously referred to the huge church growth which was taking place all over the Mediterranean world (Matthew 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19). Some think the birds of the air are the satanic birds that are ready to devour rudimentary faith (4:4, compare 4:15). It is also possible to imagine Jesus was predicting the growth of the large branches of his church and the many institutions (hospitals, universities, legal systems) that would take shelter under it (as in Ezekiel 17:23).
4:33-34 In answer to Mark's questions Peter explained that Jesus' main method of speaking to ordinary people was to use parables. "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; but he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" (Mark 4:33-34). Parables are not meant to be read like novels. They are encountered to shock us and make us think. Nor are parables to be interpreted like allegories in which every detail is designed to have a meaning. The Good Samaritan offers a model to tell us what a neighbor is. We are not to fasten on the oil and the wine, the donkey and the two pence for the inn keeper (Luke 10:29-37). The parable of the Prodigal Son tells us what God's parental love is like. We confuse the model if we try to guess at the spiritual meaning of the ring and the shoes (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus' parables usually have an irony, sarcasm, or sudden twist in them. That is the lever that undermines our previous model of what we think God must be like.
4:35-36 On one occasion after a long exhausting teaching session Jesus asked the disciples to cross over to the other side of the Lake of Galilee. "Just as he was" suggests his humanity and weariness after a long day teaching the crowd. Other fishermen joined Peter's boat to make the crossing.
4:37-38 As is common on the Lake of Galilee a sudden storm came down (probably from the trans-Jordan hills) and the boat was being swamped with waves. But Jesus was so exhausted he was fast asleep on the cushion across the wide stern of the boat. Later Peter would preach that the Jesus he had known so well was "both Lord and Messiah" (Acts 2:36), but he never forgot the full humanity of the one who got tired and needed sleep as we do (see John 4:6).
4:39-41 When Jesus addressed the howling gale Peter remembered there was a sudden dead calm. As a fisherman Peter knew that after a storm it takes hours for the waves to settle. But this was an awesome sudden stillness. "Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?" (4:41). The fact that a storm can be quieted as people pray was known in the Old Testament. When there was a storm "which lifted up the waves of the sea . . . and they were at their wits end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed" (Psalm 107:25-30). When Jonah confessed that the storm was due to his sin, and asked to be thrown overboard "the sea ceased from its raging" (Jonah 1:15). In this case the disciples had been in total panic, and Jesus wondered why they did not have the faith to believe that when he was on board they were in no danger. Paul had that kind of faith in the storm when all hope of being saved was abandoned by the crew (Acts 27:20-26).