Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?
The parables of Jesus are incredibly instructive but can be equally baffling if we don’t understand the purpose for them. Continue reading . . .
The parables of Jesus are incredibly instructive but can be equally baffling if we don’t understand the purpose for them.
First, what is a parable? Is it, as some have said, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning? Actually it is a comparison drawn from the scenery and events of everyday life designed to communicate a spiritual principle or enforce a moral responsibility.
Second, why did Jesus teach in parables? The disciples asked this of Jesus in Matthew 13:10 (see Mark 4:10). There are at least three reasons.
(1) He often taught in parables to conceal his teaching from those outside who were hostile to him: the Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes, Roman authorities, etc. “By his use of parables Jesus made it more difficult for those who sought to find fault with him and accuse him of sedition. After all, to speak of the kingdom of God as being like a grain of mustard seed or like leaven seemed politically quite harmless. By his use of parables Jesus made it difficult for his opponents to bring meaningful charges and accusations against him” (Robert Stein, 34).
(2) He also taught in parables to disarm his listeners, and by doing so to penetrate any hardness of heart or resistance to what he is saying. Cf. Nathan’s parable of David in 2 Sam. 12:1-4.
(3) He taught in parables to confirm the rebellious state of their souls. See especially Mark 4:10-13. When his disciples asked why he spoke to the multitude in parables, Jesus answered in terms of divine election: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables” (Mark 4:11). Or: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted” (Matt. 13:11). Note: I didn’t insert this into your Bible when your back was turned!
Jesus says that “those who are outside” hear things in parables “in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return again and be forgiven” (Mark 4:11-12). Mark’s version has bothered a lot of people. They think it is intolerable to suggest that Jesus taught in parables in order to prevent outsiders from understanding, repenting, and receiving forgiveness of sins. But to put the objection in those terms is prejudicial and misleading.
We are certainly not to envision a situation in which these crowds have experienced the conviction of sin, are repentant, and now desire to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus, knowing this, speaks to them in parables to prevent them from being saved. That is simply false. It is not as if these multitudes are crying out for salvation from Jesus but he hardens their hearts and refuses to receive them. As we shall soon see, anyone who comes to Christ will be received; no one shall be turned away or cast (John 6:37-38).
Rather, the people from whom Jesus conceals the truth by speaking in parables have already become hard of heart and dull of mind through willful repudiation and rejection of his message. Therefore, when Jesus speaks to them in parables he merely intensifies, aggravates, and confirms their existing hardheartedness and spiritual callousness. But Jesus could have overcome their hardheartedness, had he so willed, couldn’t he? Surely he could have purposed to use the parables to illumine their minds, as with the disciples, rather than darken them, couldn’t he? Yes. Why, then, didn’t he? Jesus has already answered this question in Mark 4:11. The reason some receive light and insight and others do not is because some are elect and others are not.
If the multitudes disbelieved it is because they had spiritually anesthetized their hearts and minds, muffled their ears, and shut their eyes to the person and ministry of Jesus. Thus by teaching in parables Jesus gives them over to a still deeper cultivation of their blind and stupid rebellion (see Rom. 1:18ff.). Yes, they “see” Jesus physically, but they are spiritually blind! They “hear” his words, but they are spiritually deaf! They “understand” the form of his words, the structure of his message, the cognitive substance of his ideas, but with their hearts they hate him for what he says.
Third, how does one interpret a parable? Avoid allegory. Avoid finding spiritual truth in every detail. Some have argued there is never more than one main point in each parable, but that is pushing it too far.
Fourth, what is the central message of the parables? The kingdom of God (see Mark 4:26,30; Matt. 13:11). Every parable, in one way or other, is designed to teach the same truth about the coming of the kingdom. The mystery is not that God has a kingdom or that God is king or that he intended for the kingdom to come and be manifest in the person of Jesus. The “mystery” or “secret” of the kingdom is that in advance of its coming in great power and glory at the end of history it has already come in advance in the person and work of Jesus in saving power, in the defeat of Satan, in the setting free of his captives, in the forgiveness of sins. What caught the people of the first century by surprise was that the kingdom was to come in two stages, two phases, corresponding to the two comings of Jesus the Messiah. Their problem is that they expected Jesus to do at his first coming what God intended for him to do at his second coming!
Now, open your Bibles and read the parables of Jesus . . . and enjoy!