So why did Jesus speak in parables, and what is a parable anyway?
The word parable consists of two words in the Greek, para, alongside of, and bola, to throw. A parable literally means to bring alongside of something that is thrown down. It can be said that alongside an earthly story, Jesus threw down a heavenly truth. Each of the parables of Jesus was designed to teach something about the kingdom of God. A parable is to be distinguished from a simile, a metaphor, and a hyperbole.
Simile. A simile refers to a comparison of likeness. A person might say, “That parent is like a helicopter, always hovering around their kid.” Jesus made frequent use of the simile when He said, for example, “What shall I liken this generation?” (Matt. 11:16)
Metaphor. Jesus also made use of metaphor, where one items stands for another. There are the famous “I Am” statements.
“I Am the bread of life.” John 6:35
“I Am the light of the world.” John 8:12
“I Am the door for the sheep.” John 10:7, 9
“I Am the good shepherd.” John 10:11, 14
“I Am the resurrection and the life.” John 11:25
“I Am the way, and the truth, and the life.” John 14:6
“I Am the true vine.” John 15:1, 5
Hyperbole. A hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration that is used to underscore an important point. Jesus spoke of the mustard seed, which grows into a bushy tree. While the mustard seed is not literally the smallest seed God has made, it was used by Jesus as a hyperbole to emphasis faith. “And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Matt. 17:20) Another example of a hyperbole in Scripture, is when we read of John the Baptist, “And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:5)
The reason why Jesus spoke in parables is revealed by Jesus Himself.
To Reveal the Gospel
“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. 12 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.
To Conceal the Gospel
13 Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. 14 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: 15 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.” (Matt. 13:11-15)
The same sun which melts the butter will harden the clay. The same gospel that will break the heart of a sinner to bring repentance, will harden the heart of another sinner and confirm them in their wickedness.
The idea of Jesus concealing gospel information sounds jarring to modern ears. There is so much sentimentality associated with humanities view of God, that the Biblical revelation of God is diminished, or totally obscured. Armenian theology emphasizes the grace of God, and the love of God, to the exclusion of His justice, and wrath on the unbelieving. It is true that, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” It is also true that “he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth [keeps on abiding] on him.” (John 3:36)
To those who do not want to hear the truth of God comes this divine revelation. God says to such souls, “Fine. I will stop your ears so that you cannot hear my words and be saved. If you do not want to honor my glory, then I will conceal my glory from you.” Here is divine justice. God delivers people over to their own wickedness.
Today, many Christians think that parables were designed to make a gospel truth simple, or easy to understand. That is only partially true. The original design of parables was to conceal the truth to those whose hearts were gospel hardened.
Because of these truths, some simple concepts must be kept in mind.
First, a parable is not an allegory. The early church embroiled itself in a lot of trouble when theologians began to teach the parables as if they were allegories.
An allegory is best illustrated by the Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan, where every element in the story has some symbolic meaning. It is an extreme way to study the Scriptures.
Another extreme position is to declare that all Scripture is literal. When a passage is taken, without qualification, or consideration of the context, and various writing styles, the Scripture is easily twisted. There are conservative Protestants who believe that one day the moon will literally be turned into a pool of blood, based on the words of Peter in Acts 2:20. “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come:”
Though Peter clearly states that prophesy is being fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost saying, “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16), a slavish commitment to a literal interpretation of the Bible is held. In the Catholic tradition, the terrible doctrine of transubstantiation arose because Jesus said, when referring to the Passover bread, “this is my body” (Luke 22:19)
Though some of the parables do have elements of allegory in them, the basic principle for interpreting a parable, is that there is one central truth being communicated. When an effort is made to find too much information in the incidental elements of the story, the critical point will be missed.
Another observation about parables, is the tendency to follow the Rule of Three, much like The Story of the Three Little Bears with three chairs, three bowls of portage, and three beds. The Rule of Three is popular in storytelling. So in Scripture we find three kinds of sowers; and three main actors in the Story of the Prodigal Son; and three actors in the Story of the Good Samaritan.
There is also the Rule of Two, whereby there are two characters for contrast to make a point such as the Story of the Two Sons. (Matt. 21:28-32)
When the Principle of Comparison is used in the parables, the phrase, “How much more” can be noted. (Matt. 7:11; Matt. 10:25; Luke 11:13; Luke 12:24; Luke 12:28) For example, the unjust judge is set in contrast to the Heavenly Father, who is just and will listen to our prayers. So watch for the Principle of Comparison, when you study the parables.
When St. Augustine taught his students how to study the Scripture, he insisted they observe three rules: context, context, context. A realtor knows that the three most important things about selling property is location, location, location. So the three most important facets of Biblical interpretation is context, context, context.
Actually, there really are three good rules for Biblical study, which can be remembered in the acrostic ICE.
Isagogics. This word consists of two words in the Greek, eis, into, and ago, “to lead.” In English, “isagoge” is an introduction. The 1955 Oxford English Dictionary defines “isogoic” as “introductory studies, especially that part of theology which is introductory to exegesis.” Specifically, isagogics is the study of the historical and cultural background of a biblical passage.
There are many passages in the Bible which cannot be understood apart from knowing the historical and cultural background of the audience to whom the Word of God was written. For example, 1 Corinthians 8-10 cannot be properly understood, apart from knowing of idol worship in Corinth. The city of Corinth was given to the worship of Aphrodite, where gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual licentiousness were incorporated into the worship ceremonies. Some Christians were having a difficult time coming out of such worldliness, without becoming legalistic.
Categorical. A category refers to a specific area of Bible doctrine. There are many topics that must be examined in light of the whole counsel of God. What does the Bible have to say about divorce? What does the Bible teach about the Second Coming? What does the Bible have to say about the bodily resurrection from the dead? A systematic, categorical study of the Bible is imperative.
Traditionally, there are distinct branches of theology: Historical Theology is a systematic study of theologians of the past; Moral Theology addresses questions relating to how Christians ought to live; Practical Theology addresses theological topics with immediate practical significance; Systematic Theology aims to give a critical, coherent, and balanced treatment of main topics in Christian faith and practice.
Within Systematic Theology the following subdivisions are examined:
Theology Proper Study of God
Eschatology Study of things to some
Hamartiology Study of sin
Soteriology Study of salvation
Pneumatology Study of the Holy Spirit
Christology Study of Jesus Christ
Ecclesiology Study of the church
Anthropology Study of man
Exegesis. The Greek, “ek”, meaning, “out,” and “hegeomai,” meaning, “to lead out”, or, “go before,” is to lead out of a passage what is there. The temptation is to read into the Scriptures something which is not there. One primary example is the modern day teaching on the Rapture of the church, whereby Christians are said to disappear for seven years and then return with Jesus in His third coming. The Bible states Christ will appear the second time for all who believe. (Heb. 9:28) He will come in the same manner in which He went away. (Acts 1:11)
While studying the Bible, keep in mind three important principles, called by the Reformers the “analogy of faith” principles.
First, The Bible can be understood.
Second, the Bible is a book of progression through Moses, and the prophets, and ending with the completed canon of Scripture.
Third, the Bible does not contradict itself.
Of course, all the Bible study in the world is to no avail until four spiritual requirements are initially met.
First, a person must be born again. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) It is impossible for unbelievers to understand the things of God. (1 Cor. 2:14)
Second, a person must rely on the Holy Spirit for divine illumination. “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.” (1 Cor. 2:12)
Third, a person must study by faith. “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17)
Fourth, a person must study diligently. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)
Now, a parable can be short, or it can be long.
Long Parables. The Story of the Prodigal Son Luke 15:11-32
The Story of the Sower Mark 4: 1-20
Short Parables. The blind leading the blind Matthew 15:14
The mustard seed Matthew 13:31-32
The parables of the New Testament were substituted, at times, for the riddles of the Old Testament. A little story might be told in times of conflict, or a tense situation, to diffuse a situation. On occasion, a parable could be used to trap one’s opponent, logically, in a debate.
One day Jesus was involved with the Pharisees over their interpretation of the Old Testament concerning who was a neighbor. Instead of giving a quick answer, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, who showed profound compassion to a traditional enemy. (Luke 10:25-37) May every Christian prove to be a good neighbor for Christ.