The Purposes of the Parables (Matthew Sermon 58 of 151)
June 15, 2003 | Andrew Davis
What is the Context of the Parables in Teaching?
Matthew 13 is one of the great chapters in the Bible, a series of seven parables of Jesus Christ. Parables are mysterious and sometimes hard to understand. I don't know about you, but sometimes I wish that He had given a careful interpretation of each of the parables, and not just two in this chapter. But He's given us the Holy Spirit and through that Spirit, we have the ability to be led into all truth and so we can understand. In this great chapter of seven parables we're immediately struck with a question of methodology; Jesus, why did you teach in parables? Isn't that question voiced for us by the disciples in verse 10 when the disciples came to Him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" That is the question before us this morning, why did Jesus use parables.
For me, as a verse-by-verse expositor going through the Gospel of Matthew, I'm struck immediately by a methodological challenge as well. Do I immediately go into the parable, "The Seed and the Soils,” and give you the interpretation, or do we deal with the question of why did Jesus speak in parables? The first thing we have in this chapter is the parable, "The Seed and the Soils," uninterpreted, and then the discussion on why Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables. We're going to begin with that second question first. Nest week we’ll interpret the parable, "The Seed and the Soils.”
Let’s look at this first question asked for us so beautifully by the disciples: Why do you speak to the people in parables? As with all things in the Scripture, we need to understand the larger context. We're coming here to a new phase of the Gospel of Matthew. We've seen different phases throughout. In chapters 1-3 we see the credentials of Jesus Christ to be the Son of David, to reign on the throne of his father, his ancestor David established through the genealogy. Also, His unique existence as the incarnate Son of God through the virgin birth, and then the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt. All of that established his uniqueness as both son of man and son of God. He alone is fit to be the king of the kingdom of heaven right from the start. Also His Heavenly Father testified from heaven that Jesus was His Son. We have the credentials of Jesus.
Then we see the beginning of his ministry, in chapter 4, as he preaches that central message in verse17, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Jesus has come to proclaim a kingdom, He's going to preach it. Then in the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5, 6 and 7 we have unfolded for us, so beautifully, kingdom life. What does it mean to be in the kingdom of heaven, right from the start? Matthew 5:3 says, "Blessed are the spiritual beggars for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." Jesus gives the kingdom to beggars, and then explains so many aspects of the kingdom life, in straight teaching, directly to his disciples in a beautiful way. In chapters 8 and 9 He gives one miracle after another, a display of kingdom power, unlike any that had ever been seen before. There had been miracles before Jesus, but nothing like this. A river of miracles, flowing through Christ, nothing that he could not do. No sickness he could not heal, no demon too powerful for Christ. The evidence of Christ's authority as king is flowing through. Then in Chapter 10, He sends out the Apostles as messengers of the kingdom. They're going to go out and preach, and proclaim. In Chapters 11 and 12, we start to get feedback on the kingdom. People are responding, they're beginning to answer back, they're beginning to see about the kingdom and the responses are negative. Even John the Baptist did not fully understand. "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Shattering question, really from somebody like John the Baptist. And then the Jewish cities that he lived in, his home town, his home area, Capernaum, and Chorazin, and Bethsaida, rejecting him. Apathetic, marveling at his miracles, but not coming into the kingdom. Perhaps bored or hard-hearted in some way. But rejecting, definitely. Then the Scribes and Pharisees, rejecting actively, aggressively opposing the kingdom. Hating it, fighting against it, saying that Christ is coming in the name of Beelzebub, rather than in the name of His Heavenly Father. Even his own family didn't believe in Him. His own family didn't accept him. At the end of this chapter, Jesus says, "Even in his hometown and his own house is a prophet not without honor." Jesus is rejected by those who knew Him the best. They did not fully understand. Mercifully, God would work in their hearts later, and that they would come to a living faith in Christ, but the returns were not good.
Now, we're turning, in chapter 13, to the parables. In understanding that, we can start to see why He was teaching and why Matthew brings these seven parables to us so that we can understand because this kingdom, which is advancing, is a misunderstood kingdom. They didn't understand its internal spiritual nature. The parables are given to teach us, this kingdom which is proclaimed, it's here now, which is advancing, is misunderstood, and therefore rejected. Jesus is going to give these parables in a context of rejection of his message. The immediate context here in Matthew 13, is a large crowd. Verse 1, "That same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake, such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it while all the people stood on the shore. And then he told them many things in parables, saying, A farmer went out to sow his seed." That's the immediate context, a huge throng of people. We tend to forget how popular Jesus was through His healings. You wouldn't have been able to get close to Jesus. You wouldn't have been able to get in and have a personal interview with him, probably, because there were so many people. Jesus found this to be a physical issue as well. So he got into a boat and separated himself somewhat from the crowd, so that He could have, I think, the benefits of the acoustics across the water. Have you ever heard somebody out in a boat, and they're able to speak in almost a normal speaking voice and it can just carry very well across the water? There's a kind of a scientific explanation for why Jesus did this, but also it's kind of a symbol in a way that there's a problem between Jesus and the crowds. They're not understanding or accepting His message so He's going to speak to them in parables, this mixed group.
The Sermon on the Mount is given to his disciples, but these parables are given to a mixed group of disciples and just people who are there. He concludes, in verse 9, with a challenge. “He who has ears, let 'em hear." He's talking spiritual. It's a challenge. Everything therefore in this is somewhat mysterious, laden with mystery. The disciples don't understand it. I think they probably thought it was a missed opportunity. "Here's all these people, a huge crowd, and you give them this? Parable, the seed and the soils, and then you don't even explain it, you don't tell us what it means. Why do you speak to the people in parables?" I think right there, they're displaying their nature as disciples. They have a problem, there's a mystery concerning God, and what do they do as disciples of Jesus Christ? They go to Jesus and ask Him. They are spiritual beggars, and they go to Christ, and He's going to lavishly bless them for that asking. That ends up becoming a key concept.
What is a Parable?
What is a parable? In order to understand why Jesus spoke in parables, we have to understand what a parable is. The definition John MacArthur gives is right from the Greek, "parable" is the English transliteration of "parabolé", which is made up of two Greek words; "ballo", which means to throw, or cast, or lay down. And "para", alongside. Basically, one thing is being cast out alongside something else. What's going on here is that the physical worlds and those things that we can interact with physically are laid down alongside a spiritual kingdom that we can't understand without its help. The parable is some kind of an analogy from the physical world that helps us understand the spiritual world, according to Christ. The dictionary says that a parable' is a form of speech, a story, a saying used to illustrate a point that the speaker is trying to make. Therefore, because God, because Christ, wanted to communicate spiritual truth, He's going to give us these analogies, these illustrations to help us understand. We see a great example of it with Jesus and Nicodemus. You remember when Nicodemus came to Him in John 3, and he's interested in spiritual things. Jesus says to him, "I tell you the truth Nicodemus, unless you are born again, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Nicodemus did not understand this figure of speech. He said, "How in the world can somebody my age get back up inside my mother, and be born again? It's not possible." Jesus says something very interesting in John 3:12, He says, "I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe, how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" What is He saying there? He's saying, "I've used an earthly figure of speech to help you understand what must happen to you to enter heaven. You must be radically transformed by the Spirit, much like it was when you were born the first time." He's saying, I'm using what you're used to, physical things, to explain something you couldn't understand any other way, namely heaven, spiritual things.
This was a very common form of Jewish teaching. Forty-five times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament we have the word, “parable.” Rabbis used them again and again. As a matter of fact, one rabbi was asked, "Why do you speak so much in parables?" The same kind of question. The Jewish rabbis used parables also. Jesus said, "I'll answer you with a parable." He said, "A boy went out to shoot his arrows, and as he was shooting, somebody who came along later noticed that on every tree in the forest where he was practicing, there was a target, and the arrow was right in the center of every target." The man said, "I've never seen such a display of shooting. How do you do it?" He said, "Well, I shoot the arrow first, and then I paint the target around it." That's very clever. Actually, illustrations are important parts of sermons. Charles Spurgeon said, "A sermon without illustrations, is like a house without windows." But he also said, "You can take illustrations too far. If it's all illustration, all story, there's no structure, there's no foundation, there's no truth, there's nothing there but glass, the house will be destroyed." There's a blending, therefore, of a structure, a foundation of strength, something that will last; and then of windows to let light in so that we can see what's going on. There's a balance there.
I think about that arrow and the trees and the target and all that. I saw a cartoon recently in a pastor magazines, they do this kind of thing. There was a pastor on his knees in his study, preparing for his sermon and he said, "Lord, please give me a great sermon to go with this incredible illustration." The sad thing is that that's kind of what's going on in pulpits all around our denomination, and many other places. We'll find a great story and try to find some biblical truth to put around it. Jesus never did that, and that's not what the parables were about. The parables, when finally and rightly understood, become some of the most perfect forms of teaching you could ever have on the kingdom. But they must be interpreted properly, they must be interpreted by Christ Himself. A parable takes what we're familiar with, the physical world, something like yeast and dough, or a seed planted in some soil, or a fishing net pulled up, filled with all kinds of fish, a treasure or a pearl. It takes something we know to explain something we don't know, and we wouldn't have any other way of understanding it. There's great riches here.
There are in Matthew 13 seven parables. From the seed and the soils, which you've already heard, to the parable of the wheat and the weeds, in which there is seed of wheat mixed together with the weeds. They all grow together, and there's a tangled mess. The harvesters want to pull out the weeds and the master says, "Let both grow together until the harvest." What does this teach us about the kingdom? It teaches that the kingdom advances in a mixed setting. We're constantly surrounded by unbelievers, and we have to make our way in a tangled mess of a world, in which we can't tell the difference, frankly, between the enemies and the friends of the kingdom. Some enemies look like friends and some friends look like enemies. That's the way it's going to be with the kingdom.
Or the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast. Two parables, which basically teach the same thing, namely, that the Kingdom starts small, and grows larger and larger, but there's a difference. With the mustard seed, the growth is obvious and evident. It's outward, you can see it. The yeast, it's hidden, and permeates and moves through. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it permeated through the dough." This is my favorite parable. Nineteen words in the Greek, and it explains all of human history, and my life too, that the Kingdom can come in small, and after a while, dominate, and yet, that whole advance is hidden and mysterious.
You see what I mean? The parables end up becoming some of the clearest windows you will ever have to understand spiritual truth. Or, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price. It's worth selling everything you have to gain it." But there's a difference again. In one case, the man stumbles across it, wasn't really looking for it, and it takes over his whole life, he's willing to sell everything. In the other case, the merchant is searching his whole life for something. And when he finds it, he recognizes it. We kind of come at the Kingdom perhaps different ways, but both of us ultimately recognize the value, we're willing to sell everything. And the key word is "for joy". We are glad to make the trade because of the value of the kingdom.
Finally, the dragnet parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a net let down until late; catches all kinds of fish. And when the net is full, the fisherman sit down and collect the good fish in baskets, then they throw the bad way." The advance of the kingdom and the history of the kingdom ends in judgment day. At that judgement day, there will be a great separation between those who have entered the kingdom, who are transformed by the grace of God, and those who have not. Seven parables. And when understood properly, they illuminate the kingdom.
Why did Jesus speak in Parables?
Why did Jesus speak in parables, why did he teach? The first answer I get out of this text is that Jesus taught in parables to fulfill prophecy. The prophets said he would. He fulfills prophecy in Isaiah and He fulfills prophecy in Psalms. In verse 13 and following, "This is why I speak to them in parables, though seeing, they do not see. Though hearing, they do not hear, or understand." Verse 14, "In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. You'll be ever-hearing but never understanding, you'll be ever-seeing, but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused, they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them." He fulfills prophecy in Isaiah, it's directly quoted by Jesus, Himself. Matthew quotes it also later on, look at verses 34 and 35. Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables, he did not say anything to them without using a parable. Verse 35, "So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden, since the creation of the world." According to Matthew, Jesus spoke in parables to fulfill prophecy. Matthew is always doing this, by the way. He's always finding fulfillment: “So was fulfilled,” or “thus was fulfilled,” “what was written”, here and there. Here he finds Psalm 78:2 where it says, "I will open my mouth and parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old." If you look to that context there, you would see that basically it has to do with the transmission of the tradition of Israel to the next generation, and it's going to be through all kinds of teaching techniques and some of them would be parables.
If you look in the Old Testament, there's going to be a whole wealth of teaching types. There are Proverbs, wisdom literature, history, prophecy, and law. All of it comes together in one central message fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For Jesus, the perfect teacher of Israel, it made perfect sense for Him to use parables as well, in direct fulfillment of Psalm 78.That's reason number one, Jesus taught in parables that He might fulfill prophecy.
Secondly, Jesus taught in parables that he might conceal and judge. What do I mean by that? That He might conceal kingdom truth, and judge the hard-hearted. There is a tone of judgment here. “I’m speaking to the people in parables in order that I may judge them." Look again at verses 13-15, "This is why I speak to them in parables. Though seeing, they do not see, though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is filled the prophecy of Isaiah. You will be ever-hearing but never understanding, you will be ever-seeing, but never perceiving. For this, people's heart has become calloused. They hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them." This is a quote from Isaiah 6. “And the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord,” and he got his commission." In Isaiah 6:8 God says, Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah says “Here am I, Lord, send me.” Isaiah wants to know, “What shall I tell them?" "Tell them that they're not going to understand your message, tell them that they're going to be judged for their hard-hearted-ness, tell them that you'll have a whole life of preaching and they will not get it. As a matter of fact, Isaiah, they're going to reject you, they're going to spurn you, and tradition has, they're going to saw you in half because their hearts are hard and they're not listening." And it happened.
In Isaiah 28: 9-10 he talks about some of the feedback he was getting on his message. The people were offended because he had gone from one level of speaking to a more simple level. He says, "Who is he trying to teach, to whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast? For it is do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule, a little here, a little there." They're mocking Isaiah because of the simplistic way that he was teaching them at that point. What doesn't come across in the English translation is the Hebrew and the way it sounded. It was, "Kabbalab, Kabbalab. Sabbalab, Sabbalab." It's like babble, they were mocking the preached word. God said, "Very well, then... " Stop there. When God says that, sit up and take notice. "Very well, then. If you don't accept my plain, simple teaching, I will speak to you through the lips of a foreign language." Isaiah says, "Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues, God will speak to this people. When the Babylonians are walking down the street of Jerusalem, when the temple is burning, when everybody's either dead or deported, and you're hearing the babble of the Babylonians, Kabbalab, Kabbalab. Sabbalab, Sabbalab, and that's what it sounds like, you will know I have spoken to you. Because through those foreign lips, I will communicate that your time has come and judgment has fallen." That's what's going on here. Jesus is saying, “You didn't understand the simple, plain message. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Therefore, I will speak to you a little bit more obliquely. And there's going to be a division between insiders and outsiders.”
This division is very strong in Mark's Gospel. In Mark 4:11-12, when Jesus explains the parables, He tells his disciples, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside, everything is said in parables, so that they may be ever-seeing, but never perceiving, and ever-hearing, but never understanding. Otherwise, they might turn and be forgiven." Do you see that? Inside, outside. The outsiders get the parables, the insiders get the secrets. There's a strong element, not just of judgment, but of election,of choice, on God's part, and of hardening of the outsiders. What ends up happening is that the parables are told so that the people may be ever-seeing, but never perceiving. Do you see it? The purpose statement's right in there, the parables are told so that they won't get it. The idea is if Christ had not told parables with no explanation, they'd be better off. Now, they're actually even worse. They're actually hardened now, because Jesus told a parable without explanation. A very clear example of this is in John, chapter 10. When Jesus, after He gives the figure of speech of the good shepherd, "I am the good shepherd," He picks up on these themes in the Old Testament. After He gets done speaking about the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, "And my sheep hear my voice and they follow me and I give them eternal life." The reaction to all of this beautiful sheep and shepherd language in John 10: 20-21, is that many of them said, "He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?" But the others said, "These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon." Do you see the division? It's so plain. The parable hardens one group and makes them say, "Jesus is insane,” and it opens up another group that says, "I've never heard teaching like this." It's incredible. Do you see what happens? There's a wider gulf as a result of the parable. As a result, the people who are on the outside actually understood less about God in Christ after he had gotten done with the parables. They had a worse assessment of Christ because he taught them in parables. Therefore, secondly, Christ told parables to conceal his truth from his hard-hearted enemies as an act of judgement.
Amazingly though, the exact same words, the same parables were given for a third reason and that is to reveal spiritual truth and to bless His disciples. It's that incredible, the two-edged sword. The same words become a source of revelation, of insight, of windows, that let light into the kingdom so that we can see the truth. And as a result, we know more about the kingdom now, and we are blessed because of it. In verses 10 through 12 the disciples came to Him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" Verse 11, He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you, but not to them." Then in Verse 12, "Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has, will be taken from him."
In Jesus' time, and really in our time as well and throughout history, there have been things called "mystery religions". Mystery religions work this way: If you were one of the initiates, one of the insiders, you had the secret passwords of knowledge that would enable you to make progress in the religion. Gnosticism's a great example of this, comes from the Greek word, "gnosis", which means "to know". If you have the little key of knowledge, you can open doors and make progress in the mystery religion. Mormonism has an element of mystery religion in it. There's growth and progress if you're one of the inner initiates. Also in the time of Christ, there was the cult of Osiris and Isis, Egyptian deities. Again, if you had the inside knowledge, you could see the significance to the whole mythological story there, and you would make progress in the religion. Jesus picks up on this word, using the word "Mysterion". The knowledge of the secrets, or the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you, but not to them. There's nothing you can do, it's just knowledge that is given by grace. Jesus, of His own grace, of His own mercy, is willing to just give you the knowledge. "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance." He says, "I'm just here to give it to you, freely." Terefore, He lavished wisdom, and lavished blessing on His chosen disciples. Verse 16-18, "Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men long to see what you see, but did not see it. And to hear what you hear, but did not hear it." Do you see what's going on here? Not only do you get the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom, but you get parables personally explain to you by the incarnate Son of God. You get a private tutoring session with Christ, Himself, as he sits down with you and says, "This is what it means. I'll give it to you."
The Old Testament prophets and righteous men didn't have that kind of privilege. Whoever wrote Psalm 78 didn't understand fully what he was talking about. I don't think he was able to project to the future and say, "This is about Christ," he just wrote it led by the spirit. They longed to know more, but they couldn't figure it out. They know now, praise God. They're in heaven, and they have fuller knowledge. But he's saying, "You have a great advantage." We 21st century Christians have an even greater advantage. We can look back on 20 centuries of yeast spreading through dough and we've seen fulfillment. Even the apostles didn't have that advantage. We've been able to see the kingdom grow from almost nothing, to take over the world. It's almost finished, too, praise God. We're in a great time to live. We have been given the secrets, we've been given the inside information by Christ, Himself. The parables become a rich and lavish storehouse of blessing.
Listen, then, to what the parable of the sower means. Tell me,Jesus, what it means. Tell me what the wheat and the tares, thing. What is that, what's going on with that? The treasure in the field. Tell me, Jesus. And so that's the fourth reason, too, that he's given the parables. He wants to make you a dependent spiritual beggar. He wants to make you non-self-sufficient, he wants to make you puzzled, he wants to make you troubled sometimes, so that you will come and ask him. Not just the parables but the Bible, as a whole, is filled with mysteries. Hard things to reconcile, how one thing could be true in something else and how do we put that together, how do we wrestle with the truths of the Bible? We're troubled by it. Sometimes even new denominations start over those things. We should be humbly, submissively, like servants going to the master, saying, "I don't get this. Tell me what it means, tell me what it means." The parables have a humbling effect on you. They make you humble, they make you ask. "Blessed are the spiritual bangers for theirs is everything," “I’ll give you the secrets, if you just come and ask me." That is something hardened enemies will never do, they'll never go to Him after the Good Shepherd parable and say, "I don't understand, tell me what it means. They won't do that because if they would, they would be told fully and they would rejoice and they'd fall on their face, and say, "Thank you for being my good shepherd." So in the end, this kind of teaching, the parables, divides. Good fish, bad fish. Wheat and weeds. Because we are humble enough to come and say, "I don't get it. Tell me what it means,” He tells us. The parables were given, therefore, number one: To fulfill prophecy. Number two: To harden and judge enemies. Number three: To reveal and to bless disciples. And number four: To make us humble spiritual beggars.
The first one should be obvious, humble yourself and ask. If you don't understand anything in the Bible, or the parables, come to Christ on your knees in your own quiet time, and say, "Lord Jesus, teach me the truth." Do that for years, and He will. Anyone who lacks knowledge, He will give it to them. He is, it says in the Book of Isaiah, "A rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge." You come to Christ and ask Him, humble yourself and be a spiritual beggar.
Secondly, just marvel. These seven parables are like seven gems, each one of them teaching something about the kingdom. Marvel that He's given us this kind of wisdom, this kind of insight. Thirdly, rejoice in your privilege as a disciple, that you have the right and the freedom to come any time and ask Him for truth and insight, and He will give it to you through His indwelling Spirit. Marvel at this privilege as a disciple.
Then, study. Learn each parable, learn the difference between the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast. There is a difference and there's a similarity. Learn the difference between the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price. Work on it, think about it. Finally, some of Christ's parables were given to make you come to faith in Christ, to make you realize you need to enter the Kingdom. You must respond to the Kingdom, you must bear the fruit of the Kingdom or you will be lost. You must have a heart that is soft and yielded to Christ. If you have never given your life to Christ, don't leave without talking to me. Talk to me, "How can I enter? How can I be one of His disciples, how can I have saving faith?" And He will give it to you.