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Jesus spoke all these things in parables to the crowds; he did not speak to them without a parable. This fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet,
Matthew 13:34-35 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
34 All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and without a parable he would not speak to them. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation.”
While Jesus formulated many utterances as summaries of a sermon or debate, he set others before his hearers for their contemplation (Matt. 13:24, 31). Most worthy of mention are those pericopes [passages from the Bible] commonly known as parables.
Jesus was the Master Storyteller. His teaching provoked people to think; it did not paralyze the listeners. Parables were His most famous characteristic form of involving people creatively in the process of learning. Mark noted that Jesus “taught them many things by parables” (Mark 4:2). Archibald Hunter claims that 35 percent of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic [similar] Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] can be found in parabolic form. He identified certain parables which describe “the coming of the kingdom,” others which explain “the grace of the kingdom,” a third group which portrays “the men of the kingdom” and a final collection dealing with “the crisis of the kingdom.” A critical question asks, “Why did Jesus teach so extensively in parables?” As soon as He started teaching them with parables, the disciples asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10). Since the disciples’ question, countless of students, pastors, and teachers tried to give the best possible answer to the disciples’ question. Many of the parables of Jesus are specifically called parables of the Kingdom.
In order to understand the purpose of Jesus’ usage of parables, the reader needs to understand what is a parable? The English word parable refers to a short narrative with two levels of meaning. The Greek and Hebrew words for “parable” are much broader. Jesus’ parables are both works of art and the weapons he used in the conflict with his opponents. They were the teaching method he chose most frequently to explain the Kingdom of God and to show the character of God and the expectations God has for people.
In Sunday school, the teachers are explaining that “a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, or a heavenly story with an earthly meaning.” The English Dictionary defined the parable as “a short allegorical story, designed to convey some truth or moral lesson.”
“Parable” is a transliteration of the Greek parabolē, “comparison.” It can designate a variety of figurative forms of speech (e.g., Mark 2:19-22; 3:23-25; 4:3-9, 26-32; 7:15-17; 13:28). However, usually a parable is a short discourse [more than a paragraph] that conveys spiritual truth by making a vivid comparison. The truth to be taught is compared to something in nature or a common-life experience. A parable usually expresses a single important truth, though occasionally a subordinate feature expands its total meaning (cf. 4:3-9, 13-20; 12:1-12). A parable draws its hearers to take part in a situation, evaluate it, and apply its truth to themselves.
The parable as a literary method can be understood as an extended simile. The comparison is expressed, and the subject and the thing compared, explained more fully, are kept separate. (A simile is merely an expressed comparison: it typically uses the words like or as). For example, Psalm 1:3, speaks of what the righteous man is like, when the psalmist writes, “He is like a tree planted by streams.”
In the Old Testament, the word mashal was translated as a proverb (1 Sam 24:13; Ezek 18:2-3; Prov. 1:1; 10:1); a parable (2 Sam 12:1-4; 2 Sam 14:1-11; Is 5:1-7). Other meanings were the following: an allegory (Ezek 24:2-5; 17:2-10; 20:49-21:5); and a byword, satire, taunt, word of derision (Hab 2:6; Num 21:27-30; Deut 28:37; 1 Kings 9:7). Also, mashal can be translated as discourse (Num 23:7, 18; 24:3, 15, 20, 21, 23); riddle (Ps 49:4; Prov. 1:6); or a saying of ethical wisdom (Job 27:1; 29:1). Thus, the parable in the Old Testament included a much wider variety of concepts than simply stories that contained moral or spiritual truths.
In the New Testament the word parabolee has these meanings: proverb (Luke 4:23); metaphor of figurative saying (Mark 7:14-17; Luke 5:36-38; Mark 2:21-22, Matt 9:16-17); riddle (Mark 3:23); illustration (Mark 13:28); and parable (Matt 13:33). The Greek verb prabolee means, “To throw or place alongside.” Thus, a parable is something placed alongside something else for the purpose of comparison.
A.T. Robertson defined the parable in the broad etymological [word origins] sense, as a simile and consequently finds that our Lord employed this method from the beginning of His ministry (Matt 5:13-16; 7:3-5, 17-19, 24-27) as a literary device. There is no problem with this kind of classification or usage of the parable. Jesus used the parables in a special sense when He was accused of being under Beelzebub.
Others have a narrower definition of the parable and say that Christ did not use the parabolic device at first, but introduced it later in teaching the “mysteries of the kingdom,” as recorded in Matthew 13 and Mark 4.
This article will answer two questions: why did Jesus’ use parables in His teaching? In addition, when did He start using the parables? It is not in the scope of this article to analyze all the parables that Jesus used during His entire ministry, nor to explain the meaning of the parables of Jesus. There are many available resources for those subjects.
This article will focus on these two questions because the answer to both questions seems to be only one answer! When Jesus started His earthly ministry, He called people to repent “for the Kingdom of heaven was at hand,” (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15). Jesus announced the Kingdom and the simple way of receiving it. Both John the Baptist and Jesus called people to repent as a way of entering the Kingdom. Jesus told Nicodemus to be born again in order to see, and/or to enter the Kingdom of God, (John 3). In the beginning of His ministry, the parables were not part of Jesus’ teaching. As He proclaimed the message of repentance, His words were declarative and forceful. Contrary to the interpretations of some current scholars, He did not continue in the tradition of the rabbis of the day but had a new and innovative message. McKnight argued that Jesus took popular prayers and other sayings from those days and elevated them to His level. Jesus “preached” the Sermon on the Mountain, and He reversed much of what “was said before.” He did not add a couple of points to the Law of Moses, but He changed it after He had fulfilled it! He gave a “new command,” not a revised version of the old commandment. Jesus was teaching with power and conviction. His preaching was called “kerygma,” proclamation! Jesus proclaimed the euangelion, the good news. Jesus was the King proclaiming His Kingdom! He spoke as “One who had power,” (Luke 4:32). His enemies declared that “no one ever spoke like this man!”―John 7:46.
He was not one of the masters of the day–He was The Master teacher! When Jesus went to Bethany, John recorded these words: “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” n Matthew 11:28-29, Jesus called all the “weary and heavy-laden” to give them rest and “learn from Me.” The Master Teacher had all the tools available to make His message clear, but He did not use the parables, because He had a plan when and why to introduce the parables. Jesus preached and taught for almost two years before He introduced the parables in His teaching.
During the second year of His ministry, Jesus was accused of being demon possessed (Matt. 12:24; Mark 3:22). The leaders of Israel inferred that He was working with Beelzebub and not with God’s power as He claimed. At that point, Jesus pronounced the danger of the unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:30-31). It was a very dramatic moment in the history of Israel. The nation of Israel’s leaders refused to follow Jesus, and they rejected Him from the days of His coming into the world (Matt. 2:16-23), but this moment was different. The leaders of Israel crossed a line of no return! Jesus offered them the Kingdom, for which they were waiting, but they were rejecting the King, and thus they rejected the Kingdom.
The people of Israel had the opportunity to have the reality of God’s Kingdom, but they did not believe Jesus and His claims. Jesus loved the people of Israel and made it clear that His message was for the “lost sheep of the people of Israel,” (Matt. 15:24). He did not want to take the bread from the children and give it to the dogs! He wanted the children of Israel to eat the bread that came from heaven, but they left Him, (John 6:66). He came to His own, but they received Him not! When it was clear that Israel rejected Him and His Kingdom, Jesus turned to speak in parables “because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt. 13:13).
The Purpose of the Parables
After Jesus was accused of being empowered by Beelzebub, Jesus started to use the “parables.” Although it can be argued that it was a change in “style,” the context demonstrates that it was more than that. It was a change in the “essence” of His treaching. The parables can be a literary device to help someone to understand a message, but Jesus introduced the parables not to make it easier for the people of Israel to understand His message, but to make it harder! It is clear that Jesus did not use the parables like other teachers were using them. He declared His purpose in teaching with parables. He wanted the generation that rejected Him to be blind and deaf to His teachings, if they had a hard heart [not receptive]. It seems clear that Jesus shifted His focus from the “people of Israel” to His disciples, and to the future ecclessia [congregation], or to a generation that “will bring fruit.” The Kingdom that was promised to the people of Israel was postponed. Jesus was aware that His own people rejected Him and His message. Not long after the parables became His main style of teaching, Jesus announced the ekklessia (Matt. 16:18). For the present age, the Church will carry God’s program, not the Kingdom. The Kingdom will be represented as a spiritual reality in the lives of those who receive Jesus as Lord.
The Apostle John devoted half of his Gospel describing the last week of Jesus’ life before His death and resurrection. There is a consensus among the New Testament commentators that Jesus’ discussions in the Gospel of John were ”private,” designated for His disciples only. He was no longer offering the Kingdom to that generation. Even the parables of His last week, before the crucifixion, (Matt. 21-22) although they touched on the national rejection of His kingship, did not offer the nation of Israel as a whole the possibility of returning to Jesus. Why did Jesus teach with parables during this time? Kistemaker argued that Jesus used the parables as a literary device in order to “communicate the message of salvation in a clear and simple manner.” There is no doubt that this can be a normal sense of someone using the parables, but Jesus did not give such an answer to His disciples. Rather, Jesus gave the following answer to His disciples:
Mark 4:10-12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
10 Now when he was alone, those around him with the twelve began questioning him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
Robert Stein has a masterful chapter on “The Parables of Jesus” in which he sets forth three reasons: (1) to conceal His teaching from those outside (cf. Mark 4:10–12; Matt. 11:25–27); (2) to illustrate and reveal His message to His followers (Mark 4:34); and (3) to disarm His listeners (12:1–11; Luke 15:1–2). It is true that a parable disarms the listener, but Jesus was not looking for dramatic effects to His presentation. He proclaimed the Kingdom with the authority of the King! Jesus came to His own (John 1:11-12), but His own received Him not. Once the Light came into the world, the world loved darkness more than the Light (John 3:19). Parables withdrew the light from those who loved darkness. They protected the truth, which they enshrined from the mockery of the scoffer. They reveal, on the other hand, a message to seekers after the truth. Although the parables can help any communicator to convey his message much more easily because they attract and, when fully understood, are sure to be remembered, Jesus did not use them for this reason. Parables greatly help the mind and thinking faculty; they are a great help to memory. In addition, parables stir up, or excite the affections, and awaken consciences, and arrest and hold attention. Parables preserve the truth that was communicated.
Jesus employed a variety of creative methods such as overstatement (Mark 5:29–30); proverb (6:4); paradox (12:41–44); irony (Matt. 16:2–3); hyperbole (23:23–24); riddle (11:12); simile (Luke 13:34); pun (Matt. 16:18); allusion (John 2:19); and metaphor (Luke 13:32).
Locyer listed Finis Dake’s seven beneficial reasons for using parables:
- To reveal truth in interesting form and create more interest (Matt 13:10-11; 16)
- To make known new truths to interested hearers (Matt 13:11-12; 16-17)
- To make known mysteries by comparison with things already known (Matt 13:11)
- To conceal truth from disinterested hearers and rebel heart (Matt 13:11-15)
- To add truth to those who love it and want more of it (Matt 13:12)
- To take away from those who hate and do not want it (Matt 13:12)
- To fulfill prophecy (Matt 13:14, 17, 35).
Although the “parables” help the listener to understand a concept or a new thing more easily, Jesus did not introduce the parables for this reason. In fact, this author believes that Jesus did not use parables in His early ministry, until the dramatic moment in Matthew 13 or Mark 4.
The initial five of these special parables about the Kingdom (four in Matthew 13 and one in Mark 4) were addressed primarily to the general public in Israel, not to the disciples. The stated purpose of these parables was about the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” It is good to remember that ordinarily, the use of such similes and comparisons was intended to aid in the understanding of something (Luke 6:39). However, the parables about the mysteries of the Kingdom were not primarily so intended. On the contrary, the Lord Himself tells us; their purpose was to hide rather than to reveal.
Replying to the disciples’ question as to why He spoke to the multitudes in parables, the Lord explained that it was “Because…to them, it is not given to know the mysteries of the kingdom (Matt 13:10-11). The Kingdom parables must be regarded as a divine judgment upon the nation of Israel. They refused the simple announcement of the Kingdom, and because of their refusal, God spoke in such a way that they could not understand, if their heart was hard (Isa. 6:9-10). When Israel rejected Jesus and “did not want Him to rule over them,” Jesus turned to the parables to hide his message from them. Until His ascension, Jesus did not offer the Kingdom again to His generation. His generation was locked in unbelief. However, the mystery parables of the Kingdom had also a beneficial purpose (Matt 13:51-52).
For the disciples of Jesus, the parables had the effect of revealing the mystery of the Kingdom. Each parable illustrates what the Kingdom was like and how the Kingdom can be received. Some have found Mark 4:10–12 very difficult to understand, for it seems to suggest that Jesus’ purpose in the parables was not to enlighten the unenlightened, but that the unbeliever might become hardened in his unbelief. It is possible, however, that what seems to be a clause of purpose in Mark. 4:12 is, in fact, a clause of consequence (also Matt. 13:13). The parables of Jesus may have the effect of hardening the unbeliever, just as Isaiah prophesied with regard to the effects of preaching the Word of God.
The truth is that Jesus’ parables are unique. The parables of other teachers to some extent can be separated from the teachers themselves, but Jesus and His parables are inseparable. To fail to understand Him is to fail to understand His parables. ‘For those outside everything is in parables’ (Mark 4:11); the whole of Jesus’ ministry, not merely the parables, remains on the level of earthly stories and portents [signs] devoid of any deeper significance. Here “parables” have virtually come to mean “riddles.” It is, therefore, possible for men to decline the invitation to understanding and commitment found in the parables, and in them Isaiah’s prophecy (Is. 6:9f.) is fulfilled (cf. Jn. 12:40 where the same prophecy is cited with reference to the disbelief of the Jews in the face of Jesus’ mighty works).
It is clear that Jesus used parables as way of communicating God’s truth and that He taught with parables with a clear purpose in mind, to reveal and conceal! The Kingdom was taken away from that generation (Rom. 9:10-11), until they will see coming again to rule on this earth (Rev. 19:11-16). Paul the Apostle insisted that because of Israel’s hardened attitude the message of “God’s salvation” has been sent directly to Gentiles where it would find a positive response. In Acts 28:28, Paul documented this point by quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. In quoting this prophecy, Paul was not just explaining Israel’s stubbornness; he stressed it further by showing that in the providence of God, redemption was now being offered directly to Gentiles, and they were responding. Jesus turned to the parables at the moment when the Kingdom was taken from that generation and offered to the Church. If Jews were going to find favor with God, they were going to have to repent and accept Christ. Natural Israel was no longer the way to God.
By Benjamin Cocar
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BIBLICAL STUDIES / INTERPRETATION
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Bibliography of Sources Consulted
Batey, A. Richard. ed. New Testament Issues. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich. An English-Greek Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1975.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005; 2005). The NET Bible First Edition (Noteless); Bible. English. NET Bible (Noteless). Biblical Studies Press.
Blomberg, Craig. Interpreting the Parables. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989.
Brown, Colin. Miracles and the Critical Mind. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984.
Brown Francis, S.R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906, 1951.
Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Tyndale reference library (703). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.
Erickson, J. Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983.
Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (591). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Hunter, H, Archibald. Interpreting the Parables. London:SCM; Philadephia, Westminster, 1980.
Kistemaker, Simon. The Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980, 1989.
Lockyer, Herbert. All the Parables of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963.
McClain, J. Alva. The Greatness of the Kingdom. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1959.
McKnight, Scott. The Jesus Creed. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004.
Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.. , s.v. “Parable.”
Stein, Robert. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981.
Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983.
Wenham, David. The Parables of Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1989.
Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.) Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
 A. H. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (London:SCM; Philadephia, Westminster, 1980), 44-45.
 Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W., Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale Reference Library (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 703.
 Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. (1992), 591.
 Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.. , s.v. “Parable.”
 Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), p.118.
 Francis, Brown S.R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906, 1951, s.v. “Parable.”
 Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich. An English-Greek Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1975, s.v. “Parable.
 See the short bibliography at the end of this article.
 Scott McKnight, The Jesus Creed. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004), 17-20.
 Simon Kistemaker, The Parables of Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), xviii.
 Herbert, Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963), 17-18.
 Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.) (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 869.