“All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake He not unto them.” (Mt. 13:34)
This passage tells us of the beginning of Christ’s teaching by parables. It also indicates that one of the chief methods employed by Jesus in his instruction was the parabolic method. The parables of Christ can be found throughout the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Actually, parables make up more than one-third of the recorded teaching of Jesus.
The word “parable” (Parabole) occurs around 50 times in the New Testament. Most of the parables are recorded in Matthew and Luke while a few can be found in the book of Mark. John uses a form of the word, but the word he uses is “paroimia” and it is translated “figure” by the RSV and “figure of speech” by the NASB.
The parabolic method of teaching seems to be used exclusively by Christ in the New Testament. There is a misconception that Jesus was the inventor of parables, but parables were used frequently among the Jews during this time. Edersheim, in his book, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,” points out, “Perhaps no other mode of teaching was so common among the Jews as that by parables (p. 589).”
What Is a Parable?
A parable involves the idea of “placing one thing by the side of another.” A general definition would be “a comparison of two objects for the purpose of teaching.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says that a parable “ordinarily signifies an imaginary story, yet . . . its details could have actually transpired, the purpose of the story being to illustrate and inculcate some higher spiritual truth.” Thayer, in his Greek Lexicon, describes the parable as, “A narrative, fictitious but agreeable to the laws and usages of human life, by which either the duties of men or the things of God are . . . figuratively portrayed.“
Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?
Already it has been pointed out that Jesus often taught by parables. In Matthew 13, his disciples asked him (v. 10), “Why speaketh thou unto them in parables?” Apparently Christ made an abrupt change in His style of teaching, and His disciples wanted to know why. Jesus was questioned on many occasions and was often asked to give reason for what he did (Mt. 9:11,14; 15:2). Sometimes he was questioned by people who had ulterior motives, but here the disciples simply seem to be honestly wanting to know.
In verses 11-17, Jesus pointed out the reason that he taught by parables. We learn from these verses that the parable had a twofold purpose. They were to reveal, and conceal. In verses 11 and 13 he stated part of the reason as he said, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. . . Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”
Jesus at first did not speak in parables, but He adapted this method after His teaching had been rejected. The Pharisees had seen His miracles, heard His message, but because of the closed eyes and ears, they rejected Him as the son of God.” The “Parabolic Method” would “reveal” to those who had hearts that were right and “conceal” from the fault finding Pharisees. To the Pharisees (and people like them), the parables of Christ would seem silly and meaningless. To those sincerely seeking truth, the parable would allow them to understand the mysteries of the kingdom.
A parallel today can be seen in the way that different people view the Bible. A nonbeliever who is studying God’s Word only to find contradictions in it and with a prejudice mind will probably not get much from his endeavor. In fact, he might falsely conclude that the Bible is of little value. He would be like the Pharisees of Bible times. To the Christian, in contrast, the Bible would be a book of great value. It is a lamp to his feet and a light to his path. Paul showed that God’s Word can be viewed differently by different people in I Corinthians 1:18 when he said, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” Also, in verse 24, the teaching of Christ is described as, “. . . the power of God and the wisdom of God.” James 1:21 says that the Word of God is able to “save our souls.” “Attitude” is very important in gaining from God’s Word.
Verses 14 and 15 (of Matthew 13) are from Isaiah 6:9-10. Jesus applies these verses to the unbelievers of His day. They are described as having hearts waxed gross, ears dull of hearing, and eyes that have been closed. In contrast, verse 16 describes the disciples of Jesus by saying, “blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” Thus, as we noted, the “parabolic” form veils the truth from those who do not want it, but reveals the truth for those who are ready for it and willing to see.
The parables of Jesus are also in fulfillment of prophecy. Matthew 13:34 says, “. . . and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” Earlier, Jesus taught by direct teaching, as can be seen in the sermon on the mount, but at a certain point he started speaking in parables, and this fulfilled prophecy.
We need to study the parables of Christ and be willing to learn from them and to apply them to our lives. Much good can be obtained from a study of this kind of teaching done by Jesus.