Introduction to the Parable
‘I Will Open My Mouth in Parables’
Because we use them so freely and see them about us so frequently, we often fail to appreciate how many of Jesus’ words and stories populate our speech and cultural references. The Sermon on the Mount contains scores of them: “Blessed are the peacemakers“; “inherit the earth”; “salt of the earth”; “city on a hill”; “let your light so shine”; “one jot or one tittle”—and these are only a few of the most recognizable ones in the first eighteen verses! Hundreds of others are liberally sprinkled throughout the gospels.
Besides being religiously significant, Jesus’ parables are also part of our literary and cultural heritage. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) has captured the imaginations of many down through the centuries to the point that “good Samaritan” is a common reference for anyone who voluntarily aids a person in need. In a similar way, “a pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46) has become a shorthand allusion to a thing or aspiration a person is willing to give everything he has to achieve. Similar common expressions have come from the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32), among others.
But are Jesus’ parables just interesting stories with a moral at the end, like Aesop’s Fables? Many people—lifelong Christians all—believe that they are and give them no further thought. This, however, is a mistake because the parables of Jesus Christ are one of His primary teaching vehicles for His disciples, containing deep truths embedded in concisely drawn stories of everyday life.
What is a parable? A common dictionary definition styles them as “a short fictitious story that illustrates a moral or religious truth.” While this meaning is accurate, it falls far short of all that a biblical parable encompasses. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words contains a comprehensive explanation of the Greek word, parabole:
[Literally] denotes a placing beside. . . . It signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison. . . . It is generally used of a somewhat lengthy utterance or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson. It is the lesson that is of value; the hearer must catch the analogy if he is to be instructed. . . . Such a narrative or saying, dealing with earthly things with a spiritual meaning, is distinct from a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature. . . . (p. 840)
A parable, then, is a typical story designed to illicit a comparison between it and real life, from which derives—in the case of Christ’s parables—an eternal lesson or principle. In addition, beyond the overall lesson, a well-constructed parable is comprised of symbols and types that correspond to consistent realities—for example, in Christ’s parables, a field is a symbol for the world (Matthew 13:38). Knowing this interpretation—which is sure, given that it comes from Jesus Himself—we can use it to help us understand other parables that also employ the image of a field, as the Parable of the Hidden Treasure does (verse 44).
The purpose of a parable
Many people make the mistake of thinking that parables are stories that Jesus used to make a spiritual teaching interesting and understandable. As interesting as Jesus may have made them, He did not design His parables to clarify but to obscure meaning! This comes from His own lips, in response to His disciples’ question, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”: “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. . . . Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11, 13). Parables, then, hide the deep truths of God’s Kingdom from those who have not been given the keys to unlock them.
This means that Jesus’ parables are multifaceted. Most people can see the obvious meaning—the moral of the story—without much difficulty and find it pleasing and satisfying. However, without divine revelation, they miss the deeper meaning that applies only to God’s elect. Thus, as Jesus said, “. . . seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Moreover, some parables, especially the longer ones like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), deliver not just one “moral” but two or even several!
The Parables are about the Kingdom of God
- A Woman
- A Bride
- A City
- A Mountain
- A Kingdom
Another factor that we must acknowledge is that Jesus’ parables are focused on the Kingdom of God. Perhaps Matthew informs us most noticeably of this, as many of the parables in his gospel begin with the formulaic opening, “The kingdom of heaven is like. . . .” This beginning tells the reader or listener that the story He is about to tell contains instruction that in some way expands our knowledge or understanding of God’s Kingdom.
The teaching is quite diverse. Sometimes the instruction centers on a Christian’s attitude or character. Sometimes it illustrates God’s work in the world or in the church. Sometimes it prophesies of a future event, like Christ’s judgment or His return, providing us details so that we can conform to God’s expectations of us. At other times, it warns us of Satan’s or some other enemy’s designs against us, the church, or God’s plan. Frequently, several of these points appear in the same parable. Clearly, Christ’s parables are much more than nice stories!
A final characteristic of parables, as just mentioned, is that they are frequently prophetic. Though many may scoff at such an assertion, this must be the case because the Kingdom of God itself has both present and future aspects. While Colossians 1:13 declares that the Father “has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love,” it is also true that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 15:50). The Bible obviously teaches that the fullness of the Kingdom of God awaits the return of Christ in power and glory, and our part in it now is strictly spiritual in nature. For this reason, Christ’s parables teach us how to live as children of God amidst the evil of this world and how to prepare for the world to come.
The parables of Jesus are not as simple as they appear on the surface. They are a gold vein of spiritual truth and teaching at all levels of understanding. With a little thought and the help of God’s Spirit, we can mine from them a lifetime of instruction.
Matthew 13 contains Christ’s explanation of His use of parables as a way of teaching. In analyzing these parables, we discover the King’s personal view of His Kingdom through the past, present, and future of the history of His church. They seem not to reveal as much about the church’s eternal characteristics as about its day-to-day efforts resulting from Christ’s work in coming into the world. They act as a prophetic summary of the historical development of God’s church. The recurring phrase “kingdom of heaven” denotes Christ’s work through His church to make known “the word of the kingdom” (verse 19)
These parables contain practical applications and are of prophetic significance. There are seven parables in the 13th chapter of Matthew where Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of God. They are both terms used interchangeably. There is absolutely no difference between the terms “Kingdom of Heaven”, and the “kingdom of God”. If I would list, the parables in a prophetic time frame they would be as follows;
- The parable of the Sower (The Morning Time Age) – A.D. 33
- The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (The Age of Apostasy)- A.D. 270
- The Parable of the Mustard Seed (The Dark Age) – A.D. 530
- The Parable of the Leaven (The Age of Reform) – A.D. 1530
- The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (The Age of Revival) – A.D. 1730
- The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (The Age of Restoration) – A.D. 1880
- The Parable of the Net (The Age of the Harvest) – A.D. 2000
The truths that are revealed by Jesus in these parables are life altering, if they are heard and heeded. They teach a truth so powerful that they cannot be ignored. I want to look into these verses for a few moments today. I want to try and deliver the One Message You Cannot Afford to Ignore
The chapter contains eight parables. Jesus gave the first four to the mixed multitude, while He told the last four to the twelve disciples in private. After the first series of four parables, Matthew writes, “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them” (verse 34).
- These four parables describe the outward characteristics of the church,
- the working of the mystery of sin against the church, and
- the extent to which the Evil One is allowed to go in his opposition.
The remaining four parables illustrate the inner characteristics of His church. After the eighth parable, Matthew makes another concluding statement, “. . . when Jesus had finished these parables, . . . He departed from there” (verse 53).
The parables can also be grouped into related pairs that illustrate the church’s different characteristics:
First Pair: The Sower (verse 3) represents the relationship of the church to the different groups of people with which it comes into contact while doing its work. The Tares (verse 24) represents the relationship of the church to the wicked one and his agents.
Second Pair: The Mustard Seed (verse 31) represents the dynamic growth of the church from small beginnings even while adversaries confront it. The Leaven (verse 33) represents the progress of the church against and despite the contagious outspread of sin.
Third Pair: The Treasure (verse 44) represents the preciousness of Christians to Christ, who can see their hidden value and sacrifices all to possess them. The Pearl (verse 45) represents the preciousness of the Church to Christ, who sacrifices everything to acquire it.
Fourth Pair: The Dragnet (verse 47) teaches that the good and evil who intermingle on earth will be completely separated in the judgment. The Householder (verse 52) represents the work of the true minister and teacher who feeds the household of faith from a rich storehouse of essential spiritual treasures.
Taken together, the stories describe the characteristics and dynamism of the church, its formidable obstacles, and its ultimate victory. They show Christ working through His messengers to preach the gospel of the Kingdom between the time of His first and second comings.
The first parable, The Sower, and the eighth, The Householder, are key, the first introducing and anticipating all of the parables, and the last concluding and reflecting back on the whole, stating the church’s purpose and duty under the authority of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus finished the first seven parables, He asked His disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” That they understood made it possible for Jesus to conclude with a final parable that reveals the responsibility of the disciples as “scribes” in the church, “instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven” (verse 52). The apostles, and the church Jesus would build, would bring forth a treasure of knowledge and understanding, “things new and old.”
Jesus teaches us by the simplicity and shortness of His parables that directness and brevity are effective teaching tools. His method stands in sharp contrast to the involved and lengthy style of some Bible commentators. Jesus gave clear and precise illustrations to which His audience could relate. Farmers listened to pictures of agricultural life. Wives could grasp His word pictures from home life. Merchants could relate to illustrations from the business world that translated into spiritual principles. Jesus also spoke of common civic duties and social events. Portrayals of nature scenes provided Him with analogies with which to express spiritual truth. Jesus used pictures that fit the occasion in a way that preserved their naturalness.
Only Christ’s disciples can really understand the true spiritual principles involved in the parables, “because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (verse 11). They were inspired by His Father in heaven, “[for] all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15), therefore “blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16).