About 2,000 years ago, before the advent of electricity, overhead projectors and transparencies, Jesus Christ proved himself to be the master illustrator. Jesus did this through the effective use of picturesque speech. Frequently, our Lord employed parables. Christ’s discourses were often accentuated with parables as a vehicle through which to endear heavenly truths among his auditors. In his parables, Jesus referred to physical circumstances with which his audiences were abundantly familiar to teach them spiritual truths about which they knew little or nothing. One popular definition of the biblical parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus Christ was a master in the use of pictorial speech. Though Jesus was not the first to use parables, his parabolic instruction excelled that of all others so simply the mention of parables causes one to immediately think our Lord.
The popularity of our Lord’s parables has mesmerized all who read Matthew, Mark and Luke. This is evident from the 50 or more books that have been published concerning the parables of Jesus. Though the number of these parables may be disputed, most commentators number them from 30 to 35. Almost our Lord’s entire ministry resorted to some form of illustrative speech, of which the parable was one tool.
The purpose of parables is stated by Jesus himself in Matthew 13. In verse 10, his disciples asked him why he was speaking in parables: “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” Our Lord’s reply was:
“He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (Matthew 13:11-17).
In verse 11, Jesus cited two purposes of his parables: (1) to reveal divine truth, and (2) toconceal divine truth. Essentially, God determined to reveal his will for man’s redemption to those who long for it and desire to respond to it. God also determined to withhold his plan for man from those who sought only to distort and otherwise not comply with it. Jesus quoted from the prophecy in Isaiah 6:9-10 regarding the then future arrival of the Messiah and his message. The same prophecy is also quoted in Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10, John 12:39-40 and Acts 28:26-27. Whereas Jesus embalmed the divine message with parabolic narratives for lovers of truth, the same parables proved to be obstacles to comprehension to souls neither really nor sincerely interested in God’s Word. Another fascinating characteristic of parables is that often one accepts the validity of the parable before he realizes that it applies to him. Overall, though, parabolic preaching triumphed revealing divine truth in such a way that every accountable, truly pious soul could know God’s will for him.
The purposes of Jesus’ parables included the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies and the unfolding of information from God not previously available.
“All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:34-35). Our Lord applied Psalm 78:2, “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old,” to himself in the verse cited above.
Our mission today is to understand what the original recipients of inspired writings were expected to understand. With a little effort to acquaint ourselves with the biblical environment, the parables and similar illustrations can greatly enhance our understanding of spiritual truths. The audiences to whom Jesus spoke comprised an agrarian society. Hence, our Lord’s parables speak of farmers, crops, sheep, shepherds, vineyards and fruit trees. Complimentary illustrations included references to fishing, religious life and first century commerce.
Unless we endeavor to ascertain meaning based on these principles, the Bible would mean nothing at all in particular and everything at the same time. The Bible, under those circumstances, would be wholly subjective and meaningless. It is a serious mistake and a violation of legitimate hermeneutics to ignore responsible exegesis. In this regard, the immediate context surrounding a passage, the larger context of a book and the general context of the Bible must be evaluated. Jesus sufficiently illustrated his teaching that no one need wonder about what Jesus was talking.
In keeping with the immediately preceding consideration, one has no excuse for attempting to teach some otherwise novel doctrine from the illustrated teaching of Jesus. Any details in a parable, for instance, that conflict with other, clearly understood passages or the nature of God pertain to background and color in the narratives.
Another way in which Jesus Christ masterfully illustrated the teachings which he presented was by the way in which he lived his life. Jesus exemplified what he taught. We might say in our own vernacular, “He practiced what he preached!” Our Lord was a precise teacher who taught with clarity, conviction, power and authority. His life was a demonstration of what and how he taught. He did not in word or conduct subscribe to the vain philosophy of “Do as I say, not as I do!” Jesus illustrated the way to heaven no less distinctly than trails blazed through the dense woods in young America by frontiersmen. All we have to do is follow Jesus and stay on the narrow path he marked for us.
Written by Louis Rushmore