What does Mark 4:17 mean?The seed that falls on the rocky ground in Jesus' parable of the sower (Mark 4:1–9) quickly sprouts, but just as quickly wilts when the hot sun shines on it. The soil is too shallow for deep roots to grow, and the little plant can't draw enough water and nutrients from the ground.
Jesus explains that the ground represents a shallow person who quickly accepts the gospel and seems to grow in faith very quickly. But their character is weak. They can't absorb the spiritual truths they need to grow in faith. And so they "fall away." The crowd that pressures Jesus for healing but has little interest in His teaching show characteristics of the rocky soil (Mark 3:7–12).
"Fall away" comes from the Greek root word skandalizo, from which we get the English word "scandal." The Greek word meant to tempt to sin, to cause to distrust, or to place a stumbling block. By the sixteenth century, it meant to be discredited because of sinful actions. To "fall away" doesn't just mean to reject the gospel, it means to return to a life of sin.
In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2–12), Jesus describes as "blessed" the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the hungry and thirsty, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. He promises that those with worldly disadvantages will find their situations redeemed. But here, He warns that those with shallow characters cannot accept the gospel. They may seem to at the beginning, but when their pretense is exposed to hardships, their "faith" will shrivel. Equally, when their pseudo-faith is challenged by persecution, it will shrivel up and die.
This verse inspires discussion as to whether or not the seed sown in the rocky, shallow soil represents someone who is actually saved. Salvation is through faith, not works (Romans 3:28), even as works are evidence of faith (James 2:14-26). But James 2:19 shows that it is possible to believe to an extent without being saved. There is more to faith than a shallow belief that never results in true, lasting growth.