Also called the Seed Growing Secretly, this parable of Jesus appears only in Mark’s gospel. It’s about growth in the kingdom of God.
Unlike the Parable of the Sower, the seed in this parable represents God’s Word that produces fruit, which introduces people to the kingdom of God itself so it can grow. Such growth is not only gradual, it’s a mystery to man.
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He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how" (4:26–27).
par•a•ble [noun] a simple story used to illustrate the meaning of or a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the gospels
synonyms: allegory, moral story/tale, fable
Before we explore the purpose and meaning of this four-verse parable, it’s wise to remember that a parable is a simple story that presents a comparison to be evaluated. It means to put one thing alongside another, to compare them.
It’s also important to realize that parables originally were meant to be heard, not read. Therefore, we have to appreciate that fact in our interpretation of them. The listeners of Jesus’ parables had to make an instant appraisal of what Lord Jesus was telling them. Today, we readers of his parables aim to look for one significant idea that leaps out and shines like a flash of lightning. In many cases, however, there are additional related truths within parables, related to that one essential truth that Jesus wished to convey in many of them.
In contrast to the Parable of the Weeds (or Tares), we find this little parable to be disarmingly simple, like the Parable of the Mustard Seed that follows it. There are no weeds to complicate this story.
From the start, we have this question to answer: What is the great truth that the Lord wants us to learn from the Parable of the Growing Seed?
When you read this four-verse miniparable, which appears only in Mark’s gospel, you’ll likely see resemblances to the three like-kind gospel accounts of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, Seed, and Soil, as seen in Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, and Luke 8:1–15. Because this miniparable in Mark’s gospel follows his complete Sower parable’s rendition in 4:1–20, it does an excellent job of expanding on Jesus’ teaching of how “good soil” (a receptive heart) receives essential “seed” (God’s Word).
26He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28All by itself the soil produces grain — first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26–29).
Here in the Parable of the Growing Seed, Jesus talks about a man who scatters seed on the ground and then allows nature to take its course. As the man who sowed the seed went about his business, day by day, the seed began to develop accordingly: First, the seed sprouted; then it produced a stalk and leaves; then a new head of grain appeared; finally, fully developed kernels emerged in the head. Jesus emphasized to his listening disciples that all of this new growth happens without the man’s help. Clearly, the sower in this miniparable who scattered the seed couldn’t have fully understood how the sowing/growing seed process happens. It’s obviously the unexplainable work of nature: “...he knows not how. The earth produces by itself” (vv. 27b–2a8). It’s the Lord’s doing and it’s marvelous in our eyes.
So, who’s the sower? When a person teaches the Word of God, he doesn’t teach his own words; he teaches God’s words; it’s God’s seed that he sows. Because God has no need to sow his own seed, the sower in this Parable of the Growing Seed can’t be the Lord Jesus. Then who is he? Well, any and all people who sow God’s Word are the sowers; those who proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ are sowers. In the Bible, the sower isn’t always Lord Jesus. Yes, he’s the first one who sows. You might even say that he’s the Sower, with a capital ‘S.’ But we believers and followers of Jesus are all sowers (with a small ‘s’). Man is the means, the instrument that God has chosen to share the gospel with people in the world. In that sense, we are his servants, his workers, his sowers.
The man in this parable played an active role in the harvest. He didn’t know how sown seed would grow. His task was to sow seed at the beginning of the season so he could reap a harvest at its end. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul says to Timothy, “Preach the word, in season and out of season.” The expression “in season and out of season” was intentionally written using agricultural language. We normally sow the seed at a certain time of year, usually in the spring; we don’t sow in the winter. But when it comes to the Word of God, we sow at any time, in season and out of season. So you can see that Paul has combined two things in that verse: Preaching the Word of God is pictured as sowing the seed. And we’re to be the sowers of his seed.
Of course, Jesus had spoken this miniparable using also spiritual language. As we’ve seen in previous parables, the seed is God’s Word that speaks about his kingdom. As such, here’s the presumed message: There’s an inevitability of a seed’s independent growth. Essentially, it’s inevitable that God’s seed, when it’s sown onto soil, will grow in people’s lives as a result of faith, finding its way into the heart of the hearer and/or reader. God’s seed is to grow independently in our heart.
The seed of God’s Word has transforming power. Sown into barren land but then watered, seed produces a fruitful field. That’s, of course, what every farmer wants: a plentiful harvest. The word “harvest” is a key word found in the last verse of the parable. For a seed to grow, there must be a sower to sow it into the soil. In addition, there must be water. Quite likely, that act of watering turns out to be the act of prayer. That means that it’s not enough just to sow or disperse God’s Word onto fertile soil — we need to pray before, during, and after, so it will produce good growth. In effect, we need to pray so we can effectively “water the Word of God.”
Okay, here are the basics: (1) A sower is needed to sow and spread seeds; (2) that seed must be watered so it can stay alive and grow productively. There’s a third basic element that we must include and appreciate: the soil must be fertile. Highlighted in our summary of the Parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soil, when we look back at Mark’s account of that parable, we see that good soil is designated as representing those who hear the word and receive it. When seed falls on good-soil-types of people, they, “like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop — some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown” (4:20).
Interestingly, the Sower Parable tells us of the inevitability that, while three quarters of its hearers will refuse or reject the seed of God’s Word in some sense and prevent it from being sown deep into their hearts so it can bear fruit, at least one quarter of his hearers will successfully and meaningfully harvest healthy spiritual growth! It also tells us, its readers, that we too have a responsibility to cultivate our hearts. After all, God’s seed is fully capable of bearing good fruit. But it must be sown onto and sink into fertile soil that’s adequately watered by devoted prayer so that it will be most productive within our God-honoring, responsive hearts.
What can we learn from the central truth of the parable? We can learn at least two lessons. First, we learn something of the unique power of the Word of God. The “seed” is the Word. We ought to look again at v. 27: “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” Note the order the Greek language uses in which the verse ends with “though he does not know how.” The emphasis therein is on “how.” The sower has sown the seed; he sleeps night and day, leaves it, waits, and it grows; he’s dumbfounded at the process that he can’t explain. With all our today’s knowledge, the mystery of such growth still puzzles today’s farmers and scientists. But nature’s secret processes don’t fail to operate because we’re ignorant. This secret, unexplainable, mysterious growth of the kingdom is cultivated within our hearts and lives — that’s the point of this beautiful parable told only by Mark.
Second, this miniparable demonstrates the unusual productivity of the Word of God. It’s spoken of in v. 28a: “All by itself the soil produces grain.” The Lord is describing the mysterious, imperceivable growth of the seed, “all by itself.” That phrase is a translation of the Greek word ‘automate’ and ‘automatic.’ So, automatically, the seed sprouts because there’s life within it. It’s true that the nature of the soil, the weather, and the cultivation of the plant all enter in, but the secret of this growth is in the seed itself. It’s life and growth potential aren’t reliant upon the sower, the water, or the soil; it’s life is in the seed itself!
The prophet Isaiah summarizes the key elements of this parable in his popular “Invitation to the Thirsty” passage in chapter 55. . .
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
9“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:8–11).
Mark tells us in 4:29 that the one who sows is the one who reaps. Here, in the Parable of the Growing Seed, when we sow God’s seed, we can expect to reap a productive harvest. As the seed-sowing farmer represented herein, we’re to water his seed by praying throughout the entire process. In addition to waiting for our harvest, Lord Jesus will instruct us, his disciples, on how to productively sow more seeds elsewhere, allowing us to reach the multitudes with the seeds will sow onto their soil.
Productivity Requires Patience This miniparable ought to give us perspective when we consider the unusual productivity of the Word of God, which happens in spite of us and our efforts. We’re certainly involved in the “growing seed” process, but such springing forth of life doesn’t depend on our active participation. In addition to giving us perspective, this parable also demonstrates the need for us to be patient with the work of God. Look at vv. 27 and 28 wherein we’re told that the farmer slept and rose, night and day, before the germinated seed sprung up. Ecclesiastes 3:1–2 says: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” The close of v. 2 reads, “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” That’s saying that there are seasons in life, in nature, and in our sowing of seed, followed by a season of waiting. The success formula involves sowing, watering, waiting, then reaping.
We mustn’t get the idea that this farmer, after he’d sown the seed, did nothing until harvest. This parable bypasses a number of details — significant as they may be — and places the emphasis on the sowing, the growing, and the harvesting. Of course the farmer didn’t spend his days being idle. There was much work to do: Plowing, fertilizing, and weeding took a lot of his time. Our weeding effort requires vigilance in determining the applicability of God’s Word in our seed-growth efforts; note the specific weeding effort that Jesus highlights in his Parable of the Weeds (or Tares). Besides his many daily chores, the sower had to buy and sell and plan and prepare for the harvest. All these tasks and responsibilities were taken for granted in this miniparable.
The farmer can’t expect to exert special efforts for the seed to grow. He can make the circumstances as good as possible for seed growth, but he can’t cause it to grow. The power to germinate, break forth, and grow is of the seed itself, by its own virtue. Man doesn’t create life. He can only discover, rearrange, and develop what’s already been created. Unless God causes the seed to grow, all the farmer’s vigilant efforts would be wasted. It’s the same with the kingdom of God, with the growth of believers, both individually and collectively. Growth is not of man; growth is of God. It’s the Spirit of God who takes the gospel and changes a man’s and a woman’s heart, causing him and her to grow in grace.
But what exactly goes on during that waiting time, when we sowers should be prayerful and patient? That answer is often imperceptible to us sowers of seed. The farmer doesn’t know what goes on within the soil. But something’s definitely happening down there because the essence of life is in the seed. The farmer sleeps and rises, again and again, praying and waiting patiently. One day the seed grows but he doesn’t know how that happens — every season!
What does that mean to us? We need to couple God’s grace with man’s intention to produce a harvest. God’s grace always takes into account the will of man.
Faith and Patience It takes a good amount of faith to be a farmer like the man in this parable; it also takes a substantial amount of patience to be a successful farmer; it takes all that faith and patience to sow God’s seed. Someone has said that the secret of patience is “doing something else in the meantime.” Note the element of “patiently waiting” that James highlights below, from his epistle.
7Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains (James 5:7).
While we’re waiting patiently for our anticipated harvest, we ought to sow elsewhere, water that other soil, and wait faithfully and patiently for its new growth. That’s our responsibility — our job! As Lord Jesus’ active servant, we’re to respond devotedly to Lord Jesus’ Great Commission. Some believers go a lifetime without cultivating and producing much spiritual fruit. But, thankfully, God’s Word promises that a harvest will definitely come, so long as we have faith, pray often, remain patient, and continually sow God’s seed here and there.
The Parable of the Growing Seed ends with the announcement of a harvest. When the grain became ripe, the farmer utilized the sickle, harvesting the cultivated seed. The entire sowing-waiting-cultivating-harvesting process happens continually, according to God’s calendar, at his chosen time.
Ultimate Purpose This miniparable presents God’s kingdom, starting with its first sowing, hidden in the hearts of men, when Lord Jesus lived on the earth. Once the seed has been sown, we must wait patiently in this age of grace, eventually appreciating a final reaping for all to see at the great harvest. The ultimate purpose for the Word of God is to successfully develop a harvest that glorifies God. But what a challenge this Parable of the Growing Seed presents! Clearly, we have a responsibility to sow his seed. We must also water the seed and soil, then wait patiently while looking for other areas or fields in which to sow God’s seed. Remember: Life is in the seed! The Parable of the Sower concentrates more on the force of resistance to the seed and the soils. But this parable about seed growth concentrates our focus on the potential and promise of life within the seed, which causes the seed to grow. In God’s Word, there’s a unique power, an unusual productivity, and an ultimate purpose that’s to be fulfilled.
Mark doesn’t tell his readers if the disciples had understood the purpose and challenge of this parable. There’s no mention of Jesus explaining this parable to his attentive disciples, as he’d done during other teaching situations. Instead, he left it to them — and us — to attempt to find out and understand its meaning. Appreciating “the seed” as being God’s Word, as in 4:14, it behooves us to interpret a “growth of plants” as an unexplainable divine effect of God’s Word in our hearts. The fact that a crop grows without the farmer’s active intervention means that God can accomplish his purposes even when we’re absent or unaware of what he’s doing in and around us. God’s goal is to grow and cultivate a harvest of ripened spiritual grain. At the proper time, his Word will raise and produce healthy fruit. As a result of his seed growth, the Lord of the harvest (Luke 10:2) will be glorified.
We can see the truth of this miniparable as being well illustrated in the growth of the early church: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6). In the same way that a farmer can’t make or force a crop to grow, an evangelist can’t force spiritual life or growth in others’ lives. Neither can spiritual growth be measured by a stopwatch. The kingdom of God may begin in a person’s life in an instant. But its growth becomes visible only with the passing of time and the practice of faithfulness.
The point of the Parable of the Growing Seed could be summarized accordingly: The way God uses his Word, in the heart of an individual, is mysterious and completely independent of human effort. May our ongoing efforts as the Lord’s ambassadors and servants be faithful and fruitful in “sowing the seed,” “praying for a harvest,” and “leaving the results to the Lord!”
Our Responsibility Each of us believers and followers of Lord Jesus is to become one of his active sowers. Perhaps we’ll sow by speaking the Word to people; some of us will share our personal testimony; some will write articles or teach or preach; some will show kindness to those in need; and so on. Recipients of spiritual seed (as represented by the four soil types described in the Parable of the Sower) are attracted to our sowing efforts. But it’s God who does the bulk of the work that grows the seed. Spiritual growth happens slowly and incrementally after the seed gets planted in our hearts. At first, we probably didn’t see any growth. But after patiently waiting for the Lord’s provision of water and sunlight, the seed began to grow and eventually produced fruit.
Sower, do not despair: God’s Word has unique power, provides unusual productivity, and is blessed with an ultimate purpose. And we sowers shall see it soon. . . amen.