Jesus’ teaching in Mark 4 represents Mark’s report of Jesus’ actions throughout his Gospel. In quick succession, Jesus stacked parables on top of one another as a means of teaching since parables reveal true meaning only to those who have the ability to hear. Jesus’ parables in Mark 4 accentuate His ministry and the kingdom of God in light of Old Testament expectations.
(1) In Mark 4:2-10, Jesus told the Parable of the Soils, explaining His ministry in accord with Isa 6:9-10. The point of the parable is that only good soil is able to produce a crop (Mark 4:8, 20). The other three surfaces—due to their lack of ability to internalize the seed and give it habitation for growth—receive it to no ultimate effect (Mark 4:13-19). Jesus’ statement, “Anyone who has ears to hear should listen!” (Mark 4:9), establishes the point of contact between Jesus and Isaiah. The Evangelists noted that Jesus taught in parables in a way that reflected Isaiah’s ministry (Matt 13:1-15//Mark 4:1-12//Luke 4:4-10). At the beginning of Isaiah 6, the prophet reported the historical circumstances of his ministry. It was the year of King Uzziah’s death, a time of political and spiritual unrest in Israel. But that is when Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord lofty and exalted, sitting on His throne in the temple filled with glory (Isa 6:1-2). The prophet heard the angels around the Lord’s throne crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth” (Isa 6:3). The Lord called out asking who would go out to speak the Lord’s message and Isaiah responded to God’s call (Isa 6:8). The prophet learned that although the Lord’s glory filled the temple, it did not fill Israel. Israel was a stubborn people with dull ears, the Lord told Isaiah. The prophet’s sermons would dull them further, the Lord told him (Isa 6:9-10). Jesus used parables so that those outside of the kingdom “may look and look, yet not perceive; they may listen and listen, yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back—and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). When in private the disciples asked Jesus about His use of parables, Jesus went on to tell them that the ability to understand His teaching was the foundation of repentance and faith and the kingdom of God (Mark 4:10-12).
(2) In Mark 4:26-32, Jesus’ parables about the growth of the kingdom of God reflected the growth of Israel from one man to a great nation. God called Abraham and promised to make him into a great nation such that his descendants would be like the stars of the sky (Gen 12:1-3; 15:5). Abraham’s family grew through his sons Isaac and Jacob. When Jacob left Canaan to take refuge with Joseph in Egypt, Jacob’s family numbered 70 (Gen 46:27). In Egypt, the descendants of Abraham multiplied so greatly that the Pharaoh considered the Hebrews a threat to Egyptian security. He ordered all Hebrew boys to be executed (Exod 1:15-16). The Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Mark 4:26-32 continue the theme of agriculture expressed in the Parable of the Sower. Jesus’ point was that when something small grows to its potential, it is far beyond what might have been expected. Through the parables of Mark 4, Jesus argued that those who hear with understanding, those who correspond to good soil (Mark 4:8, 20), esteem the kingdom of God even though at present the kingdom seemed small and insignificant.