Jesus and Parables

QUESTION: Didn’t Jesus use parables to make His teachings clearer?  If so, why does He then say (Mark 4:12) that parables were used so that people would hear but not understand?

ANSWER: At first this seems really contradictory.  But to answer this question, there are four facts that need to be talked about.  First, what is a “parable”?  The word “parable” carries with it the idea of placing one thing beside another for the sake of a comparison. As Jesus used parables, He compared various things from nature or life itself and compared it to the spiritual life and God’s dealings with people. So parables are a literary device to communicate truths.

Second, contrary to what people often think, parables really were not used by Jesus until the last year of His ministry (of a three ministry). Jesus’ ministry was primarily a teaching ministry (His miracles were used to validate His teachings as being from God).  But during the first two years, He spoke plainly and authoritatively. This fact can be seen in the responses of His listeners.  For example, “they were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).  Jesus did use illustrations, but when He began teaching using parables, His disciples were caught off guard and wondered why He was changing His way of teaching (see Matt. 13:10).  Their question as to “why are you speaking in parables?” makes little sense if this had been Jesus’ pattern of ministry all along.  When the disciples asked that question, it was just about two years into Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Third, this logically raises the question as to why He made the change.  Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at the answer because Jesus gave the reason (Matt. 13:11-17).  In short, He said that people who hear God’s word are responsible to respond correctly to it. The idea that “revelation demands a response” is a concept found throughout the Bible. Jesus had for two years given out God’s word, but the response was mixed. Some believed and many did not. There is another concept found in the Bible related to God’s word, and that is, when a person does not respond in belief to what they have heard then it is likely they will receive no more truth.  This is the essence of what Jesus said in Matthew 13:12: “you accept the truth, you get more of it; you do not accept it, you get no more of it.”

Fourth, parables were used because of the makeup of those who listened to Him. When Jesus spoke to the crowds, those groups were populated by many who did not believe and accept what Jesus had taught.  People will be judged for refusing to embrace the truth/revelation of God.  Jesus was essentially doing a favor to those who had chosen not to believe Him.  The more truth that is rejected, the greater will be the judgment (Jesus had talked about this just the day before in Matthew 12:41-45; and Luke 8:18 where “use it or lose it” is expressed). So it is actually a benefit to the rejecters that they are not able to understand any more truth (and thus will not be held accountable for it).  But Jesus still needed and wanted to instruct those who did believe.  And so, He used parables to speak to both groups at once.  The believers would understand while the unbelievers would not.

  • Dr. Paul Benware