[When Pastor Hammack talked about Bible study methods, I did this chapter study. I picked Mark 4 because I had heard a lot about it over the past few weeks.]
1. Caption: THE SOWER SOWS THE WORD
2. Contents: Jesus tells a parable about the word as a seed. The parable seems quite simple and obvious, not requiring any deep interpretation. Jesus is saying simply that his word will start small, like a seed (even the smallest of seeds, v 31), but spread out like the canopy of the biggest tree (v 32). In simple, memorable, and direct language, Jesus has explained the way the kingdom of God will be spread on the earth.
But the section on sowing the word (vv 1-20) is the foundational scripture of the whole Word of Faith movement, and has been interpreted in a way that seems perfectly natural to that movement (and is never questioned). Yet their interpretation seems to involve extreme eisogesis, reading into the text the fact that believers sow the word as a creative force to cause that which is not to be (financial prosperity, health, and so on).
In his 2010 book "Winning in Troubled Times", Creflo Dollar devotes a chapter to "The Combination to True Posperity" where he explains "how God operates" (p. 8-10). Here, the parable of the sower is used as "the granddaddy of all parables". Dollar says: "the Bible should not be viewed as a book of rules, but rather a bag of seeds ... our hearts are the ground or soil into which we sow the Word of God... our method of cultivating seeds (the Word) is through speaking faith-filled words." Dollar states: "The kingfom of God, which is God's manufacturing center for life, is located within each of us (see Luke 17:21). The manufacturing center of prosperity requires a sower, sowing the Word. We must plant the Word in our hearts, and the center will produce it." This interpretation of the parable seems to be possible only if Mark 4 is read into the existing Word of Faith system.
What's interesting about this particular parable, in contrast to some others (consider the lost coin or a similar parable), is that Jesus himself explains it in great detail. Jesus deconstructs the parable he told, showing what the symbols he used meant and the point he was teaching to those who could hear. I find it hard to see that there could be more to this parable than what Jesus himself said there was. To accept the Word of Faith interpretation, a lot of preconceived ideas have to be read into the parable which Jesus, if his explanation is to be believed, never intended.
3. Chief People: JESUS, CROWD (who does not understand), and DISCIPLES (to whom the parable is revealed).
4. Choice Verse: verse 14
5. Crucial Word(s): SEED, KINGDOM
6. Challenges (Difficulties I need to study):
Why are the numbers 30, 60, 100 in this chapter included? Are they for rhetorical effect, or are they to be taken literally?
Are the distinct parts of this chapter related, or just put together? Does the word in vv 1-20 have anything to do with the kingdom in vv 21-33? And from v 35 to the end seems to be an appendix unrelated to the parables.
7. Cross References:
The idea of seed can be traced through the Bible from the original promise of the Messiah in Genesis 3, and the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. Jesus frequently spoke about seed in his parables, which would be an interesting study. Paul, in 1 Cor 15, adds a new dimension when he discusses a seed "dying" (v 36) which is clearly about Christ. Paul's further discussion of seed in Galatians 3 ties in with the contrast of seed between Genesis 3 and Genesis 15, and ties everything together. A full study of seed in the Bible is a theological journey through the story of redemption.
The study of seed is also interesting in the sense that, in no part of the Bible, does seed ever refer to the individual believer using the Bible's text as "seed" to cause God to do something for the believer. All major instances of seed that I know of point directly to Christ's redemptive work.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones has already done a worthwhile study of verses related to the kingdom collected in the book "The Kingdom of God", each chapter of which is on a text related to the kingdom, so that's a good resource to find key verses on this subject.
8. Christ Seen: Christ tells the parable, of course, but he is also the Word (John 1), so he is actually telling a parable about himself and his teachings.
9. Central Lessons: The chapter has several related parts, which seem to expand much like a seed germinating. First, the word is sown. Then it grows. Then the size of the growth. All of these seem to branch out from the small beginning of Jesus' message, which has grown from the efforts of a few uncertain disciples to be known around the world.
On the one hand, the chapter is a straightforward analogy of the kingdom of God compared to something which grows. Yet the fact that this is one place where Jesus interprets his own parable gives the chapter an added dimension, showing there are limits to which interpretation should be taken.
10. Conclusion (Personal application): This chapter almost acts like a mirror and shows the reader what assumptions are brought to the chapter. Because this chapter is woven into the heart of the Word of Faith message, it's almost impossible for me to read it without bringing my preconceptions. I'm not sure that most of the questions apply to this chapter, but the ones which do all seem to lead me back to questioning my assumptions. My conclusion is that this chapter, particularly the parable of the sower and its explanation, was included for that purpose.
Attitude to change? Example to follow? Error to avoid? All of these are related to the central theme of the boundary Jesus put around his own parable's intepretation. It's important for me to question my own assumptions and what I've always heard when approaching a text, and to always see what the text itself is saying.