Jesus spoke with divine conviction, power, and authority. If we study his teachings, we can also see that he was very deliberate about every detail of his messages. Sometimes he spoke in a very straightforward manner, such as when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and when he introduced the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Other times he used parables in his teaching. What is interesting is that although he taught over thirty-seven parables, he did not begin to teach in this manner until the second year of his three-year ministry.
What is a parable, and why did Jesus choose this method and timing in his teachings?
A parable is a word-picture, a way to teach spiritual realities by illustrating them through ordinary stories. Some of the more well-known parables include “The Wheat and the Tares” (Matthew 13:24-30), “The Sower” (Matthew 13:18-23), and “The Prodigal Son” (Matthew 21:28-32). However, there are many more, each unique and deserving of reflective study for the insight they offer about the Kingdom of God.
In the short span of a few years, Jesus’s earthly ministry grew from a group of twelve men to an audience of hundreds and thousands. Notice the description of his popularity as stated in Mark 4:23-25:
“And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him – from Galilee, and from Decapolis Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.”
Word spread quickly as he not only performed healing miracles, but also fed multitudes of people with just a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread on more than one occasion, (Matthew 14:13 and Matthew 15:32).
We would think that such a wide outreach would equate to thousands of followers, but that is not the case. Consider the words of John 2:23-25:
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man”.
Why did Jesus “not commit himself unto them”? Why was he careful not to entrust or invest fully to them? It was because he knew their hearts. He knew that although they physically followed him, they did so because they were attracted to the spectacular. They were curious to see the signs and wonders they heard about.
Others sought him for a giveaway, a free meal. Jesus called them out on this, saying, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” (John 6:26). Yet, when Jesus clearly pointed them away from the physical, and implored them to instead seek him as the “Bread of life”, they rejected him, and walked with him no more. (John 6:66).
Of course, none of this took Jesus by surprise. He knew from the beginning who was genuine and who was not. Indeed, there were many who “followed” him in his travels, but few were there to follow him to the foot of the cross.
This will bring us back to the original question about why Jesus began to teach in parables.
On the first occasion of teaching in this manner, the disciples asked him that same question, and he answered, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 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. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11)
Jesus proceeds to explain to them the meaning of the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23), and clarified that his use of parables were for two purposes: 1) To reveal the truth to those who wanted to know it , and 2) To conceal the truth to those who didn’t care to know.
Jesus affirms that the ability to understand spiritual truth in the parables is a gracious gift of God. On the other hand, he determined that to those who would not hear the truth would he give them up to their unbelief. Though this was an act of judgement, it also had an element of mercy, for if Jesus would have kept on speaking in clear, straightforward terms, it would have only increased their condemnation because they had already rejected the light.
His disciples were hungry for truth and intrigued to know the meaning of the parables. They listened knowing that what Jesus was teaching was of eternal value. Those who came for other reasons heard his words, but did not care to delve any further.
It is important to note that the parables are understandable to believers because they rest upon the foundation of sound doctrine, the essential element of biblical teaching. As believers, we understand God’s terms concerning sin, repentance, obedience, and salvation, elements of which the unbeliever either scoffs at or has no context. And thus, they “come alongside” (and not instead of) what we understand to be the gospel through the clear, essential and straightforward language of scripture.
May the overview of the parables, and their purpose inspire us to dig into God’s word even further to discover these nuggets of truth. In Jesus’s own words, they have been given to us “to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven”.
What greater motivation could there be than that?