The Purpose of the Parables

The parables of Jesus are easily recognized as some of His most well-known teachings. The Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son are at least understood by name in most of the Western world. Yet for all of their popularity, Jesus’ parables can be quite difficult to understand or, at least, understand properly, which as we will see is part of the function of communicating truths through parables. For this lesson, we will seek to answer introductory questions regarding the parables of Jesus generally and, since are focus is upon parables of the kingdom specifically, regarding the kingdom of heaven.

WHAT ARE PARABLES?

The first question to be asked is what is a parable? Although the commonly held statement that they are “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning” is certainly true, Robert Plummer (taking his cue from Robert Stein) argues that “the most fundamental component of a parable is that there must be a comparison” (40 Questions, 265). A survey of Jesus’ parables quickly indicates the validity of this statement. For the purposes of our studies, we will only be studying parables from Matthew that blatantly provide a teaching over the kingdom of heaven. Some of these comparisons are brief (i.e. a mustard seed), while others are more detailed (i.e. a wedding feast). Some may even focus upon certain aspects of the kingdom, while others may apply to the whole.

WHY DID JESUS SPEAK IN PARABLES?

In Matthew 13, after telling the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explicitly explains His reasoning for speaking in parables to His disciples:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
             and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
             and with their ears they can barely hear,
                 and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
              and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
             and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Matthew 13:10-17

Jesus spoke in parables for a dual purpose of both revealing and concealing “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” Although many heard Jesus’ parables, not all could actually hear His meaning. Yet for all ready to receive the kingdom, the parables communicated the realities that awaited them. Burk Parsons summarizes this point well:

If someone finds all of Jesus’ stories confounding, it is because our sovereign God has not given him the eyes to see, the ears to hear, or the heart to perceive the saving truth of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

However, we as believers love Jesus’ parables not simply because they are good stories well told but because the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes, ears, and hearts to understand their message.

The myriad of often strange and far-reaching interpretations of the parables throughout history accents Jesus’ words. For example, Plummer gives a list of how Origen (an early church theologian) interpreted the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) allegorically. For Origen, the man going to Jericho was Adam, Jerusalem represented paradise, Jericho is the world, the robbers are hostile powers, the priest is the Law, the Levite represents the Prophets, the Samaritan is Christ, the man’s wounds are sin, the animal is the Lord’s body (which bears our sins away), the inn is the church, the two denarii symbolize the knowledge of the Father and the Son, the innkeeper is the head of the church, and the Samaritan’s promised return is Jesus’ Second Coming (p. 268). While such interpretations are certainly impressive for the thought that was obviously given to them, it misses the explicit intention of the parable: to teach what it means to be a neighbor and fulfill the command “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Thus, one of the greatest dangers in studying the parables is to make them far more complex than they actually are. In reality, the meanings of Jesus’ parables are remarkably simple, yet beware that simplicity does not mean a lack of depth. Neither, of course, does complexity always mean that something is profound. Like all of Scriptures, the parables deserve a lifetime of meditation, but we should not be probing for secret meanings. Indeed, the purpose of most of the parables is found by simply observing the context in which Jesus said them. For example, the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21 is explicitly meant to warn of the foolish danger in accumulating riches on earth rather than in heaven.

WHAT IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN?

Finally, now that we have briefly commented on the nature and purpose of parables, we must now turn our attention to the kingdom of heaven since it is the object of the parables within our study. Graeme Goldsworthy defines God’s kingdom[1] as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.” Indeed, every kingdom requires these three elements: people, place, and power. A king over a kingdom must possess the authority to rule and govern his people. Furthermore, there must be a people for the king to rule over, and there must also be a place where the people live under the rule of their king. Holding these three elements of the kingdom in our mind can be helpful for understanding the truth about God’s kingdom that Jesus taught.

The first glimpse of the God’s kingdom is in the garden of Eden (place) where Adam and Eve (people) exercised dominion under God’s rule (power). Then with the calling of Abraham we see God’s command and blessing (power) to Abraham and his family (people) as he sojourned in the land of Canaan (place). Once the Israelites conquered the Promised Land, we observe God’s rule through first judges then kings in the land of promise over God’s people. For us under the new covenant in Christ, Jesus is our King, and we are His people. But we are sojourners in a land not yet our own. One day the place of the God’s kingdom will be upon the new earth, but for now, the kingdom is spiritually infiltrating the physical kingdoms of the earth. Thus, God’s kingdom is both here and growing and still come.  

For us, the parables of Jesus are timeless because they communicate with vivid imagery the power of God as He extends grace to His people and is bringing them to the place where God and man will eternally dwell together again.


[1] It is also worth noting briefly that I do consider the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God to be synonymous. Consider Jesus usage of both in Matthew 19:23–24, “And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’”

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