Why Parables?

Posted: May 29, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 13:10-17, “Why Parables?”

Can something be hidden and yet reveal something more?  Certainly.  Stage illusionists build their entire careers on that concept.  The assistant is put in a special box & is “magically” sawed in half, and the performer is able to put him/her back together again.  Obviously no one was hurt & it was just a stage trick.  There were simply certain things and processes that were hidden from view to make it look like something was going on.

Of course the difference between illusionists & Jesus is the end result.  Illusions intend to deceive; Jesus shares the truth.  Obviously Jesus IS the truth (John 14:6), so when Jesus teaches, Jesus teaches the truth.  That’s true whether He teaches openly and clearly, or whether He uses the teaching method of parables, which is far more symbolic.

As Jesus begins to teach more parables (as seen in Ch 13), the question is asked of Him why He does it.  After all, it would seem that symbolic teaching would be the last thing Jesus would want to do.  At this point in His ministry, He’s encountering much more resistance from the Pharisees, and it would seem that the strategic thing to do would be to make His teaching as plain as possible, in order that people would clearly understand Him.  Parables would seem to do the opposite.  Not necessarily.  What Jesus tells the disciples is that parables do in fact reveal the truth of God – but it is revealed to a certain listening audience.  To those who humbly seek God in faith, God makes His truth absolutely clear; to those who continue to rebel against God, the truth is hidden from them.

Matthew 13:10–17 (NKJV)
10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”

  • It’s a good question!  Jesus had taught some parable before, but it seems that He took a turn as of late and started to teach many more parables.  To look at the Sermon on the Mount, there are a few illustrations thrown in there, but after the Pharisees committed the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit by condemning Jesus as being in league with the devil, Jesus greatly increased the frequency of His parables.  Ch 13 is chock full of them!
  • Remember what a parable is: an extended illustration with a teaching purpose.  Parables are meant to teach – it just happens to teach in a creative symbolic way.  As long as the person listening understands the symbolism, then what the parable teaches is absolutely clear.  Yet if the symbolism is not understood, then the listener doesn’t really get what’s being said.  It’s somewhat like optical illusions in which one aspect is generally seen, but when you’re told about a deeper meaning, all of a sudden you see something else. [FedEx logo, face/vase]  Parables are similar: they’re meant to teach, but they’re meant to teach something to people to understand.
  • The disciples get this – which is why they ask Jesus why He teaches them in parables.  They understand that Jesus is using symbolic language in His teaching (and even they don’t always understand it the first time!); what they want to know is why Jesus decided to use symbols with people who may not understand.

11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

  • The disciples had been given a gift.  Don’t miss this part!  The disciples had been granted a marvelous gift by the grace of God as they listened to Jesus.  We’ll look at the “what” of the gift in a moment, but for now, just consider the fact that they had received a gift…from God.  GOD.  The Almighty Ever-Existent All-knowing Creator God saw the disciples individually among all of the people in history, and gave them each a personal gift.  There were many people who encountered Jesus at some point during His earthly ministry, but not all of them had been given the understanding that the disciples received.  This understanding had been “given” to them, and the only Person who was able to give this gift was God Himself.  What privilege!  What blessing!  What favor!
    • It didn’t end at the 12 disciples.  If you’re in Christ, then you’ve received a gift given to you by the Creator of the Universe.  You’ve personally received a gift from Almighty God.  That fact alone ought to be enough to make your head spin. J  GOD saw you, loved you, and showed you personal favor and blessing by giving you the understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Your salvation has been handed to you, though you did nothing to deserve it, and in fact did everything to NOT deserve it.  Yet God gave it to you.  Praise God today (if nothing else) simply for the fact that God chose to give you a gift.  (And it just happened to be the most marvelous gift in all of creation!)
  • What was the gift?  They were able to “know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”  NIV states “secrets,” but “mysteries” is a far more literal translation – actually giving us the Greek word being used: “μυστήρια”.  We use the word a bit differently today…this isn’t talking about some fictional mystery story like an episode of CSI that’s solved in 60 minutes.  Generally speaking, a “mystery” in the Bible is a concept that has always been there, but perhaps hidden or cloudy before, which now is fully revealed.  “Secrets” imply something that is not intended to be shared at all, but a Biblical “mystery” is something that had always been intended by God to be shared…simply that it was shared at the appropriate time according to the method of God’s choosing.  These particular mysteries concerned the “kingdom of heaven.”  All throughout the book of Matthew, we’ve seen Jesus present Himself as the long-expected King, who not only brings the kingdom with Him wherever He goes, but teaches others how to live as citizens of the eternal kingdom right now, today.  This is what the parables were intended to show – and this is what the disciples had been gifted with the understanding.  When they heard the teachings of Jesus, they very clearly saw Jesus as the King, saw themselves as His subjects, heard the proclamation of the gospel that all men ought to repent and place their trust in the King, etc.  Jesus had much to teach them about the kingdom, and this was one of His chosen methods of doing it.
    • If you’re in Christ, you’ve received this same gift.  God has made it possible for you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.  Objection: “Wait a minute!  I’m not sure I understand many of these parables at all…yet I know without a doubt I’ve believed upon Jesus as Lord.  Does that mean I’m not saved after all?”  No. J  If you know Jesus as your personal King & Savior, then you understand the mysteries of the kingdom, even if you need help with your Bible study.  Our salvation isn’t based upon how much theology we understand (praise the Lord!); our salvation is based upon the Christ of whom our theology proclaims.
  • Others had not received the gift.  This can be a tough thing for some of us to grasp.  We want to hear that everyone has exactly the same opportunities as everyone else – but that’s simply not reality.  People who are born in third-world countries certainly don’t have the same opportunities as a family born here the USA.  And most of us don’t have the same opportunities as those whose families have their roots in Beverly Hills, CA.  If that’s true on the earthly level, why would it not be true spiritually?  To be sure, the gospel never changes.  The same gospel of Jesus Christ that saves you & me is the same gospel of Jesus Christ that saves the prison inmate – or the US Senator – or the impoverished former Hindu in India.  Jesus certainly died on the cross for all mankind, and His forgiveness is made available to the entire world.  Yet we must acknowledge that not everyone receives His forgiveness.  Even in a Christian-saturated culture like East Texas, not everyone is actually a Christian.  (There are far fewer born-again believers here than what most people might imagine!)  Why is that?  If the gospel doesn’t change from person to person, and if Jesus died for every person, why don’t ALL people receive of His salvation?  Because some have not been given the gift to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.
  • The underlying truth here is that faith is a gift.  No one can boast in the faith that he/she has in Jesus Christ because no one can claim that his/her faith is due to their own efforts.  The Bible makes it absolutely clear that faith is a gift from God. Ephesians 2:8–9, "(8) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, (9) not of works, lest anyone should boast." []  It is never the work of man that save us.  We cannot donate enough money – we cannot be nice enough to enough people – we cannot perform the right rituals in fancy religious buildings…those things are all the work of men & women.  All we can do is respond to the work of Christ Jesus by placing our faith in Him as Lord…and we cannot even give ourselves that faith.  If that faith is not first given to us by God, then we have nothing with which to respond to the gospel.  God gives the faith & makes it available to us, and then we of our free will respond to what God has done.
  • Objection: “But this just doesn’t sound fair!?”  “Fair” may not actually be the right word here.  Obviously life itself isn’t “fair.”  What we’re really wondering is if faith is truly a gift from God, then is God just in granting this gift to some, and not to others.  Is it righteous for God to act in such a way?  Three answers to that:
    • Justice is not the same thing as equality.  Sometimes, justice demands vastly unequal things.  Diet, for instance: to place everyone on exactly the same diet & make everyone eat exactly the same foods might harm some people, and actually kill others.  People have different food allergies, different abilities to handle sugar, different metabolism rate of burning calories, etc.  Equal diets would be quite unjust!  The same could be said about criminal matters.  There’s a reason why there are different punishments for involuntary manslaughter & murder.  The situations are vastly different, even though the end result was the same when a person died.  Yet equal punishments would be unjust.  When we’re looking to the things of God, we’re looking for justice; not equality.  And God is most certainly just.
    • ANY gift is a gift of grace.  In God’s justice, He doesn’t HAVE to give salvation to anyone.  After all, we all deserve eternal death & punishment!  There’s not a single person that is more deserving of God’s grace, because by definition “grace” is something given that is NOT deserved.  For God to extend the understanding of the gospel to “some” is a marvelous gift & one that should not be ignored!
    • What may be withheld at one time is not necessarily always withheld.  Contextually, Jesus was referring to some people who did not understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, as revealed in the parables He taught.  Just because they didn’t understand them at that time didn’t mean that they would always be without understanding.  Some of them may well have come to faith in Christ at a later date.  The point?  We’ve got to give God the benefit of the doubt.  We know without a doubt (because it is revealed to us in the Scripture) that God loves the entire world, which is why He sent Jesus (John 3:16).  We know that it is God’s desire that ALL men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).  We know that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Eze 33:11).  We know that God doesn’t want any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9).  Because those things are absolutely made clear to us, we ought to be willing to give God the benefit of the doubt regarding things that might not be AS clear.  There’s no doubt the Bible talks about the sovereignty of God & His involvement in predestination.  There’s also no doubt that the Bible talks about the grace of God being made available to all, and the need for man to freely respond to the gospel of grace.  These would seem to be contradictions to us, yet it obviously is not for the Bible.  Let’s just take the Bible at its word & trust that God is absolutely as good as what Jesus Christ reveals Him to be.
  • If this wasn’t tough enough, Jesus goes on to give a bit harder truth.  See vs. 12…

12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.

  • Objection: “Say what?!  Could God really do such a thing?  It sounds as if He’ll give more to the rich, and take away from the poor.  Didn’t God condemn David for doing exactly this when he sinned with Bathsheba?”  It’s easy to read a verse like this and jump to a condemnation of God.  Obviously we need to give God the benefit of the doubt, but we also need to be careful to read this verse within its context.  It’s far too easy to rip a Scripture out of its context and start to impugn the character of God, which is exactly what many do here.
  • First, we need to remember that the emphasis here is on grace.  We tend to look at this & immediately jump to what Jesus says about the person who doesn’t have anything, but the statement that comes first speaks plainly about the loving and gracious gift that God provides.  “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance.”  We’ve already seen that the disciples had been given a gift; now we see that the gift doesn’t stop…it goes on and on to greater and greater levels.  The disciples had been given understanding of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven – they had understood that Jesus is Christ the King, and they were beginning to understand God’s plan of salvation.  But they would be given far more than that. They would be given understanding to the character and nature of God.  They would be given the privilege of seeing Jesus risen from the dead.  They would be given the power of the Holy Spirit.  They would be given spiritual gifts as a witness unto God.  They would be granted strength to endure persecution, and much more.  And that doesn’t even begin to describe what they would be given in heaven!  Truly, they would be given more & have an abundance of blessing from the Lord!
    • The gospel of Jesus Christ is bigger than just a promise of eternal life.  To be sure, the promise of eternal life with God in heaven is more than enough reason for us to trust Jesus as Savior and Lord – but sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that this is the only point of the gospel, and it’s not.  Jesus didn’t only come that we would have life eternally, but life abundantly.  Granted, we don’t want to misunderstand Jesus & think that we’re promised nothing but health, wealth, and prosperity (we’re not, and Jesus promises us much the opposite!) – but there is no doubt that those who trust Jesus as Lord are supremely blessed.  We’ve been blessed to know the Living God – to be indwelled by the Living God – to be empowered by Him, and continually set apart by Him.  For sure, we’ve been given understanding of the gospel message, but those who know Jesus are given more!
  • What about the second clause?  It makes perfect sense when we look at it in its context.  Remember that all of this is taking place on the same day in which the Pharisees blasphemed the Holy Spirit.  They had forever shut themselves off from the grace of God because they refused to humble themselves in repentance and acknowledge Jesus for who He is.  Confronted with the clear reality that Jesus is in fact God in the flesh, the Pharisees spurned Him & accused Him of being in league with Satan.  They had committed the sin of which there is no forgiveness, and they would forever remain separated from God in their sin.  That said…Jesus was still among them.  Jesus was still teaching and healing – Jesus still had the purpose of yet going to the cross and rising from the grave.  The Pharisees would be first hand witnesses to all of these things.  This is an incredible gift from the Lord – what a privilege to be in the physical presence of the Messiah!  But because they would remain in their rebellion, even this gift would be taken away from them.  They were in the presence of Messiah, but because they refused to recognize Him, they would lose even this opportunity as well.
    • Of course this doesn’t just apply to the Pharisees; the same thing happens today.  There are multitudes of people who hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.  They have repeatedly heard that they need to turn away from their sin & entrust themselves to Jesus Christ, believing upon Him as God, and receiving Him as their King.  They’ve heard it, but they refuse to do it.  They refuse to respond to the gospel, and will continue to refuse to respond.  (Some people listening today may be in this very category!)  Because they refuse to respond, even what they have been given will be taken away from them.  They’ve heard about the salvation and forgiveness of Jesus, but when they see Him on the Day of Judgment, they will not know Him as the Savior, but rather as the God that condemns them in righteous judgment.
    • The key is to respond now!  If you’ve been given understanding, you need to respond to that.  And if you do, God will grant you more…His blessings in eternity are beyond our imagination!  Yet if you don’t, and if you refuse to respond to the call of Christ, you can be assured that you will lose more than you can possibly imagine.

13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

  • The plain fact is that some don’t understand.  This is why Jesus speaks in parables…He can continue to present the truth to them, even though they refuse to hear Him.  They can be right in front of Jesus, and their heart is closed to them before Jesus even opens His mouth.  Thus He shares symbolic illustrations that they would hear the gospel and the heart of God, but they hear it without the understanding that is needed.  God is faithful to have the truths of the kingdom of heaven presented to them, but it is their eyes and ears that are shut to God.  God does not force the understanding upon them; they don’t want it in the first place. 

14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; 15 For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’

  • Original context: Isaiah 6, when Isaiah receives his vision of the throne room of God & his commission as a prophet. Isaiah 6:8–10, "(8) Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” (9) And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ (10) “Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.”" []  Obviously this was fulfilled in Isaiah’s day – the prophet went to the people of Judah & proclaimed the word of God, yet the people continued in their sins and were eventually judged when the Babylonians came in conquest.  Yet there is a dual fulfillment here, as pointed out by Jesus.  Ultimately what Isaiah was told by God was fulfilled in the earthly ministry of Jesus, and specifically in the parable teachings.  People have always been stubborn (emphasized in the OT among the Jews, but certainly not limited to the Jews), and people have always resisted the gracious revelation of God.  In the case of the kingdom Jews, God had already determined their judgment & nothing was going to change it.  Certainly God would hear the people if they repented (as He did for a short while with Josiah’s fervent revival), but that only delayed the inevitable.  The people remained dull & unrepentant, and God did not truly heal them.
  • You might notice a key difference between the Hebrew OT, and the quote from Jesus (which comes from the LXX).  In Isaiah, God shuts their eyes (or commands them to be made dim).  In Matthew, it is the people who close their own eyes.  They hardened themselves to God; God did the same thing back to them.  So who closes their eyes & ears: is it them, or God?  Scripture would give us the example of both.  With Pharaoh, first he hardened his own heart, and only after that did God continue to harden it.  It seems to be something similar here.  To take the Pharisees for example, they had always been resistant to the gospel proclamation that Jesus is Christ the King, and they tried to make up more and more reasons not to believe, finally committing the unpardonable sin.  They had closed their eyes (hardened their heart), and God simply confirms what they had already done.
  • So here’s the million dollar question: how do you know if you’ve gone too far?  How do you know if in your resistance of the gospel of Christ, you’ve turned away from the grace of God enough times that your ears are hard of hearing & your eyes are closed, and God has confirmed this by not granting you understanding?  If you care one iota about the question, then it likely hasn’t happened.  If you are concerned at all about eternity, and the fact that you might be found in rebellion against God, then your heart is not yet completely hardened.  There is still time to respond to the good news of Jesus!  To be sure, there is no guarantee how long you will remain with a softened heart.  The more you refuse the gospel invitation, the easier it will be to do so, and the more your eyes will close.  Don’t wait until it is indeed too late!
  • Please note: God’s healing IS available!  The very last line of Isaiah’s prophecy makes it clear that God does heal those who repent.  Anyone who understands with their hearts and turns to God will experience the spiritual healing of God.  The only question is if your eyes and ears are open to God’s invitation.

16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

  • Praise God for the revelation that He HAS given us!  Jesus reaffirms that the disciples had indeed received this gift, and because of that, they were blessed.  It’s tragic that people can go their whole lives knowing OF Jesus, without actually knowing Him.  How someone can sit week after week hearing of the compassion and love of Christ and still harden their hearts to His offer of forgiveness is astounding.  Yet for those who DO respond…what blessing!  What a gift of grace!  Some people close their eyes, but others DO see.  Some people close their ears, but others DO hear.  If you’ve heard, then praise God – you are blessed!
  • The disciples were even better off than many who had come before them.  Many of those written of in the OT wanted to see the Messiah, but they didn’t, simply because they lived at the inopportune time.  Other prophets looked forward to the Messiah; the disciples were actually looking at Him.  The OT saints surely looked forward in faith, but it was still a mystery yet to be revealed in the future; the NT disciples were looking straight at the fulfillment of those prophecies and promises.  What a blessing!
  • As the Church, we’ve been given more than what even the disciples had received at this point in time.  When Jesus was speaking to them, He hadn’t yet gone to the cross & the grave.  He hadn’t risen from the dead.  He hadn’t sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  They would be decades from even receiving the whole of the New Testament Scriptures.  Of course, they would receive these things in time, but some of them would die before it all came to pass.  Yet we HAVE received all of these things!  When someone puts their faith in Christ today, they enter into the fullness of the promises only barely imagined by the OT prophets, and barely tasted by the NT disciples.  To be sure, they were also blessed in ways we are not, but there’s no doubt that David would have loved to have walked in the power of the Holy Spirit like we do (instead of fearing that the Spirit would be taken from him) – or that Aaron would have loved to have seen the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus (as opposed to all of the daily sacrifices he performed).  We DO see these things & experience the abundant life in Christ Jesus, and we are blessed.

Conclusion:
Some of these things are tough truths, to be sure.  But there is some very good news that Jesus shares here in regards to the parables.

  • The mysteries of the kingdom are granted to some.
  • To those it is granted, they will be blessed with more.
  • Praise God for His gift of grace!

What does this mean for the believer?  It means that we are absolutely dependent upon the grace of God.  Why parables?  It demonstrates the gift of God’s grace.  Any understanding we have is due to the grace of God; not of ourselves.  We are just as much dependent upon God for the beginning of our faith, as we are for the continuation of our faith, and the fulfillment of our faith.

Don’t miss the point…the main idea is that God DOES reveal the truth.  His revelation is a gift to those who seek Him by faith in Christ.  If your heart is humble before the Lord, and you truly seek the Lord Jesus, then God does not hide Himself from you.  Hebrews 11:6, "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."  When you respond to the faith God grants you, He grants you more – and He rewards those who seek with finding.

Those who are not granted the mysteries have already hardened their heart.  God will not heal those who are unwilling to be humble.  The question for you today is: will you continue to harden your heart and close your eyes & ears?

The truth is there!  Are your eyes open to see it?  Those who look to faith in Christ WILL see Him.

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