The Purpose of the Parables
“And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. 34 But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.”—Mark 4:33-34
John Mark closes this section of Scripture with an explanation of the purpose of the parables which Jesus spoke.
The first reason why the Lord spoke in parables was because the people were able to bear it. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, people do not comprehend the message of a man, and a way has to be found to simplify, or restate what is being said.
For example, the concept of a spiritual kingdom of God was hard for the Jews to consider. For centuries they had dreamed only of a literal, physical, political kingdom like the others nations of the world, but one ruled over by a Messiah. They never considered how the kingdom of God could be spiritual in nature and be within the hearts of men, until Jesus introduced this idea through His parables.
A second reason why the Savior spoke to the people in parables is because short stories are compelling and memorable. It seems that no matter how old a person becomes, there is enjoyment for a story with a good message.
Third, the Lord spoke to the people in parables as a form of judgment on their spiritual status. In the great crowds that gathered to hear Christ, many were “dull of hearing”, in the sense that they had failed to become good students of the Scriptures. While all people must begin the religious journey like a newborn baby, and grow in grace and in knowledge, there should be measurable growth. Each year that passes should produce a discernible amount of religious progress. But in Israel, spiritual growth had been stunted for quite a few years. Even among those who should have known better, the situation was desperate. Leading religious rabbis like Nicodemus, did not comprehend the truths of the Old Testament Scriptures. (John 3:1-10)
To make matters worse, religion had lost the essence of vital godliness. Despite a tremendous amount of outward pious activity, there was much hatred in the hearts of the members of society due to social unrest. As a result, the masses were not prepared to receive their Messiah. “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.” (John 1:11) Christ was not received by many because their vital religion had been lost through mindless repetitive rituals. Individuals had come to equate salvation with good works instead of with a personal Savior. Jesus spoke to the people in parables to remind them how far they had fallen from the truth.
For those who were determined to resist any change, for those who turned away from the gospel call to repentance and moral reformation, the Lord would confirm them in their sin by speaking in parables. Some would never understand the way of salvation.
By way of personal application, the questions come. Do we understand the parables of Christ? Do we comprehend the message of the Messiah? Philip P. Bliss understood and wrote,
“Sing them over again to me,
Wonderful words of life;
Let me more of their beauty see,
Wonderful words of Life,
Words of life and beauty,
Teach me faith and duty;
Beautiful words, wonderful words,
Wonderful words of life…
Beautiful words, wonderful words,
Wonderful words of life.”
There is a fourth reason for the parables. Jesus used them as an opportunity to expand on the things He wanted the disciples to know. “And when they were alone, He expounded [or explained] all things to His disciples.” (Mark 4:24) As friends talk more at length in private than people speak in public discourse, so Jesus would patiently amplify to His friends what He had said to the multitudes.
Though our hearts long to know what else Jesus taught, though our imagination strains to conceive of what was said in those private moments, a curtain of silence has come down over the conversation. But wait! The curtain rises once more for what Jesus taught His disciples they have shared in part through other portions of Scripture.
The teachings of Christ as recorded in the gospels, and the teachings of the apostles in the epistles, along with the 39 books of the Old Testament form our complete Scriptures, which we are to study diligently. There are six good reasons for doing so.
First, the Bible should be studied because it is personally profitable. 2 Timothy 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: This may appear to be a rather selfish reason on the surface, but we all have our own best interest in mind—and that is not bad, provided that concern and care for others is not forgotten. Nevertheless, a study of the Scriptures is personally profitable in four areas.
Doctrine (teaching). There is no limit to what God’s Word can teach about sin and salvation, heaven and hell, money and marriage, love and loss, courtship and dating, self-esteem and self control, sickness and health. There is no facet of life that the Bible does not have something to say.
Reproof. As theBible teaches, it brings conviction which in turn serves to arrest the darker impulses and passions which wait to dominate the will. Strong biblical convictions are needed in order to challenge the spirit of lawlessness that lurks near the heart of fallen humanity.
When a sense of inward conviction is destroyed, the most beastly passions are allowed to be expressed, illustrated in Nazi Germany. The rise of the National Socialist Party to ultimate leadership came about in 1933, in part because the people lost their biblical convictions. And their convictions were lost because a number of leading theologians introduced ideas that undermined respect for the Word of God. From German scholars came what is known as Higher and Lower Criticism.
Lower Criticism concerns itself with textual corruption while Higher Criticism deals with the literacy and historical accuracy of the text. This form of academic study led multitudes to cast doubt upon the integrity of the Scriptures and its authority.
Is it any wonder that when the people of Germany, in principle. rejected the law of God, they found themselves enslaved to the whimsical notions of a madman? The Land of the Reformation became the Land of Revolt against Reason, for the Bible was not allowed to arrest the dark side of the soul. A democracy became a dictatorship.
Since World War II, the pattern of confiscating the Bible, so that it cannot bring conviction, has been practiced by those regimes that come to power through a military coup or a political uprising. The Bible is confiscated because it reproves bad behavior.
Correction. It is one thing to have conviction and reproof, it is something else to straighten up the life. But the Word of God can help. The scriptures are designed to rectify, to straighten up again, to correct that which is fallen out of place.
About AD 63-64, the Apostle Paul was traveling with two of his associates, Timothy and Titus. When they arrived at Ephesus, Paul left Timothy there to teach the word of God, and traveled on to Crete with Titus. But at Crete, Paul left Titus to provide leadership for the Church. and ‘to set in order’ the things that were wanting. (Titus 1:5) And that is what Titus did. With the Word of the Lord as his guide, Titus ‘set things in order.’ And the people were personally profited.
Instruction in righteousness. The concept of a disciplinary correction is in view here. There are many ways that God teaches His children, including the use of the rod. The Psalmist said, 67 Before I was afflicted, I went astray: but now have I kept thy word. Psalms 119:67 Sometimes the Scriptures act as a rod against the soul, and thus it is personally profitable.
Second, the Bible should be studied because it is illuminating. Psalms 119:105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. To illuminate means to shed light on, to reveal. In spiritual matters, knowledge is important, but it is not enough. There must be illumination or understanding of what is being communicated. An example of this concept is found in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Lord upheld the letter of the Law of Moses that the people were familiar with. The Law forbids idolatry. It taught that people should not murder, lie, or steal. But beyond the letter of the Law there was a spirit of the Law that Jesus illuminated. “Ye have head [said Jesus,] that it was said by them of old time. Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt. 5:21).
In other words, there is such a thing as soul murder. When there is excessive anger in the heart against someone without just cause, the law of God is broken through a spirit of soul murder. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also” (Matt. 5:38, 39).
Once more the letter of the law is tempered with further illumination about the spirit of the Law. Christ reveals that in temporal matters an eternal perspective must be brought into focus. Those who would do us personal harm must not be resisted, if that is the will of the Lord.
In the struggle to live out Christian ethics, illumination is needed for every given situation—and the Scriptures will help provide that illumination in the hour of need.
There is a third reason to study the Scriptures. They will help to produce a holy life. The Bible teaches that without holiness no man shall see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14) Psalms 119:9, 11 Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word… 11Thy word have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee. A sincere study of the Scriptures is designed to produce a holy life. Therefore, 2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
A fourth reason to study the Scriptures is because of their inherent power. Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
“His Word is like fire consuming,
His Word is a hammer to break;
His Word is a sword with two edges.
His Word like a lamp you can take.
His Word is against the false prophets,
His Word is opposed to all sin;
His Word will endure forever,
His Word the victory will win.
His Word is both written and living,H. H. Savage
His Word will outlive sword and pen;
His Word is His eternal edict,
His Word—it is yea and amen.”
A fifth reason to study the Scriptures is because they are given by inspiration of God. The Eternal has invaded time. The Bible is a love letter from the Lord. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.”
Sixth, the Scriptures are to be studied because they alone will abide the passing of time. Matthew 5:17-18 says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
“I paused last eve beside the blacksmith’s door,
And heard the anvil ring, the vesper’s chime,
And looking in I saw upon the floor
Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
‘How many anvil have you had?’ said I,
‘To wear and batter all these hammers so?’
‘Just one,’ he answered. Then with twinkling eye:
‘The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.’
And so, I thought, the anvil of God’s Word
For ages skeptics’ blows have beat upon,
But though the noise of falling blows were heardJohn Clifford
The anvil is unchanged; the hammers gone.”
Because Bibles are so abundant today, it is hard to fully appreciate the sacrificial price people have paid to place the Scriptures into the hands of others. Down through the centuries attempts have been made to destroy both the Old and the New Testaments.
The mad tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC, decreed that his soldiers destroyed the Scriptures. And so it was that, “The books of the law (the Jewish scriptures) that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death.”
In like manner, the Roman emperor Diocletian instituted the “Great Persecution” against Christians in the year 303 AD. Diocletian made every attempt to exterminate the church, and decreed that every manuscript of the Bible be seized and destroyed. He had the words extincto nomine Christianorum put over the ashes of a copy of the Bible. (“The name of the Christians having been destroyed”) But God has preserved His word as Jesus said.
Surprising enough, the next major suppression of the Scriptures did not come from without the church, but from within. In the 14th century, when John Wycliffe wanted to translate the entire Bible into English, the bishops and popes of Rome said, “No!” They were afraid of heresies and misinterpretations, and so the Catholic Church moved against Wycliffe. His manuscripts were collected and destroyed.
Nevertheless, the hope for an English Bible lived. In the 16th century William Tyndale, a brilliant young priest, defied the Church of Rome. He took up where John Wycliffe left off to bring the Bible to the common people. Hunted by Church authorities, Tyndale worked as an outlaw on-the-run. Moving from place to place about Europe he translated the Bible into English from the original languages, and then smuggled his work back to England. He was captured, condemned, and executed in 1536.
Though Tyndale died, the dream lived on. In the providence of God, not only were English Bibles produced, but also the Scriptures have been translated into hundreds of languages and dialects throughout the world.
In the 18th century, young Mary Jones prompted a key surge in Bible production. As a teenager she saved her money and walked barefoot 25 miles to buy a Bible of her own. Her example is credited with inspiring the formation of Bible Societies that now provide millions of copies worldwide every year.
God has been good to our nation. He has given us Bibles in abundance. But we must study them. In public and in private we must study the parables, and beyond that, we must find out the meaning of all the Scriptures. There is no better way to redeem time. May God make us a Church built upon the Book, the Bible, God’s Holy Word. Bishop Anderson once noted:
The Bible is . . .
The charter of all true liberty,
The forerunner of civilization,
The molder of institutions and government,
The fashioner of law,
The secret of national progress.
The Bible is . . .
The ornament of literature,
The friend of science,
The inspiration of philosophers,
The textbook of ethics,
The light of intellectuals,
The answer to the deepest longing
of the human heart.
The Bible is . . .
The illuminator of darkness,
The foe of superstition,
The slayer of sin,
The regulator of all high and worthy standards.
The Bible is . . .
The comfort in sorrow,
The strength in weakness,
The pathway in perplexity,
The way of escape in the hour of temptation,
The power in the day of prayer.
The Bible is . . .
The begetter of life,
The promise of the future,
The star of death’s night,
The glory of God,
The guide and hope and inspiration of man.