The Apple Of God's Eye

November 1, 2009

A Background To The Parabolic Teachings Of Jesus Christ

bloggingthebible.comAmong the greatest and most profound of all biblical teachings are the parables of Jesus Christ. During His 3½-year ministry, Jesus expounded from 30 to 50 parables (depending on whose estimate you wish to accept). There are some important reasons why Jesus used the parabolic method of teaching. For today’s Christian there is much vital meaning contained within these rustic examples taken from everyday life in ancient Judea and its environs.

Should it be surprising that Jesus used parables? Not if you understand something of the Jewish world in Christ’s day. Says Alfred Edersheim: “Perhaps no other mode of teaching was so common among the Jews as that by parables” (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972).

The Jewish people were quite familiar with the parabolic method of teaching. In a footnote on the same page, Dr. Edersheim informs us: ” ‘… Every ancient Rabbinic work is literally full of parables.”

The Old Testament itself contains many parables. The prophet Ezekiel used at least four. A good example is found in Ezekiel 17:2: “Son of man, put forth a riddle, and speak a parable unto the house of Israel.” The prophet then unfolds a strange story of a great eagle and a giant cedar tree. In the same chapter, he explains the meaning of this unusual story.

In II Samuel 12 the prophet Nathan tactfully used a parable to convey a message from God to David.

Isaiah 5:1-6 also contains a parable that was used as a song— again conveying an important message to the people by the parabolic method. Verse 7 explains the meaning.

In most cases a parable is a story drawn from everyday life. It is usually symbolic or metaphoric in nature and often conveys a profound spiritual lesson. Most parables use imagery to which the average person can readily relate. As the hearer comes into contact with the image or symbol — a field, a fig tree — he is easily reminded of the parable in which the associated imagery is used.

In order to gain the maximum value from Jesus’ parables, we must, therefore, acquire at least a rudimentary. understanding of the elements used in those stories. And we must gain an elementary understanding of the geography involved.

Why Jesus used parables

There are several good reasons why Christ chose to use the parabolic method of teaching.

The main, obvious reason is that it was commonly accepted among the Jewish people of that day. When a teacher launched into a parable, most listeners knew how to receive such teaching. But there is yet another reason, which has escaped many commentators. Jesus clearly explained it in Matthew 13:10-13:

“And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, 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 knew that the general populace was not yet ready to receive the deeper truths of His way of life. Had He explained certain parables plainly, they would have been accountable for what they had learned. As James later said:

“Therefore to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

The truth of God is too precious to be thrown about indiscriminately! In Matthew 7:6 Jesus taught us an important principle: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

He was not calling people “dogs” or “swine”; He was merely illustrating by analogy the reaction of some people to the truth of God.

A Christian should, therefore, use discretion in determining to whom he will explain the undiluted stronger truths of God.

Jesus sent His disciples on a preliminary evangelistic tour with this instruction: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

And this is exactly what Jesus was doing in speaking to the people in unexplained parables.

Jesus always privately explained the intended spiritual meaning of each parable to His disciples. But there are other instances in which the people to whom the parable was addressed also knew the intended spiritual meaning! It depended upon who was addressed and under what circumstances.

Not all parables were given to the masses of people who followed Jesus. Some were given exclusively to the disciples.

Others were addressed to the religious leaders of the day, the scribes and Pharisees. And they knew exactly what Jesus meant.

The grouping of the parables

What many have not realized is that the parables were given in three distinct sets or groupings. Each set or group of parables had a theme or overall message. And each set became progressively stronger in its meaning and impact.

Each group of parables was presented against a different geographical background and at three distinct points in Christ’s ministry. Each set was provoked or stimulated by a different set of circumstances.

To gain the most out of a study of the parables, one must examine them in their proper chronological sequence and historical context.

The Galilean parables

Having grown up in Nazareth, Jesus later moved to the town of Capernaum near the Sea (or lake) of Galilee, where He may have owned a home. It was in the province of Galilee that He worked as a carpenter.

This provides the setting for the first group of parables, which may be called the Galilean parables. This set of parables was given early in Jesus’ ministry.

“The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side [Sea of Galilee]. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. And he spake many things unto them in parables .” (Matthew 13:1-3).

Jesus was sitting in a small boat (probably a fishing vessel) near the shore of the lake of Galilee. A large crowd was standing on the gently sloping hillside, which blended into the calm and beautiful lake.

This setting provided a natural amphitheater. The boat functioned as a speaker’s platform or stage; and His voice was carried across and reflected by the water to the shore, where the people were standing. The sloped sides of the lakeshore provided a natural acoustical backdrop for the audience. In short, the speaking conditions as found in nature were as nearly ideal as possible in the days before electronic amplification.

Six parables to the people

This first set consisted of 10 parables. The first six of these are addressed to the people. The remaining four were exclusively for the disciples. Remember, the account of Jesus’ ministry is given in four different biographical books, called gospels.

To gain a truly comprehensive picture of all of Jesus’ parables, each of these accounts must be carefully compared. The first three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are called synoptics. That is, they are all thought to have basically originated from a common source, perhaps the gospel of Mark.

Each writer wrote from a somewhat different point of view. The apostle John apparently wrote much later and did not see the need to include much of the material written in the first three books.

For an accurate picture of this first grouping of parables, it is best to compare Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8. In so doing, you will notice that Mark includes two parables in this first set that are not found in Matthew 13.

The list of parables in the first set is as follows:

1. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9),

2. The Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30),

3. The Lamp Under the Bushel (Mark 4:21-25),

4. The Grain of Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32),

5. The Kingdom Like Leaven (Matthew 13:33) and

6. The Seed Cast Into the Ground (Mark 4:26-29).

This represents the set of six parables given to the people.

“All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; 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” (Matthew 13:34-35).

The prophet spoken of is Asaph, a Levite and the leader of the singers in ancient Israel. He had written many centuries earlier: “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old” (Psalm 78:2). So Jesus was actually fulfilling prophecy when He spoke these parables.

The first group of six parables was not explained to the people at that time. But Jesus, in private, did personally explain each one to the disciples at a later time.

“Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field” (Matthew 13:36). (He had explained the parable of the sower to them in verse 18.)

The remaining four parables

Jesus gave the disciples four additional parables. In each case the explanation was self-evident. These last four parables in this first set were not given to the people in general. They may be listed as follows:

7. The Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44),

8. The Merchant Seeking Pearls (Matthew 13:45-46),

9. The Net Cast Into the Sea (Matthew 13:47-50) and

10. The Householder and His Treasure (Matthew 13:52).

These parables were given as lessons to the disciples in particular. Jesus did not obscure the meaning in any way. Rather, He illustrated some important moral and spiritual lessons aimed directly at the disciples.

A common theme runs throughout these 10 parables, whether they be addressed to the general public or to the disciples. They all refer to the Kingdom of God. Each parable is designed to motivate those who understand to really want and desire the Kingdom.

They show how the Kingdom will grow and ultimately dominate the entire world. They demonstrate the need to seek God’s coming Kingdom with every fiber of our beings.

Source: The Good News, March 1979

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October 23, 2009

Parables Of Jesus: The Kingdom

As Jesus sat in a small fishing craft just offshore on the Sea (or lake) of Galilee, He began to address the large crowd assembled on the shore. He spoke in parables about the Kingdom of God.

In this first group of parables, Jesus gave to the people six parables without any explanation. Later, He privately explained the meaning of all these to His own disciples. He also gave the disciples four additional parables, which were self-explanatory. These last four parables contained a special message within the overall theme pertaining directly to the disciples’ future apostolic ministry.

It is important to realize that the parables were doctrinal in nature: “And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine” (Mark 4:2).

A doctrine is a biblical principle, teaching or truth that is accepted as authoritative. It constitutes part of the dogma of real Christianity. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the importance of seeking understanding of the parables of Jesus!

The first parable Jesus gave is of special significance because it is a pacesetter of sorts. It is typical of all such parables, and the method of explanation also follows the same basic pattern. Jesus said to His disciples: ” … Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?” (Mark 4:13.)

The parable of the sower

“Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the wayside, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred” (Mark 4:3-8).

This first parable is a simple story liberally laced with local color. It is found in three of the four gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each gospel mentions a point or two not found in the other accounts. We will use Mark’s more concise gospel as our basic reference.

Jesus describes a scene very familiar to His audience: A sower went out to sow grain in his field. The seed falls on four different types of ground: 1) the wayside, 2) stony ground, 3) among thorns and 4) good ground. Each represents a different category of person who hears the Word of God at some point in his life. Each responds differently.

We are not told who the sower is, but it is explained that “the sower soweth the word” (verse 14). We must assume that whoever disseminates God’s Word (God or one of His human instruments) is the sower. The seed in the parable, then, represents the Gospel message and all that it includes.

Each person who hears it reacts differently. Not everyone responds with equal enthusiasm. Nor does the Word of God bear the same fruit in each individual it touches.

Those by the wayside

The people in this first category hear the Gospel message, but they are immediately dissuaded from doing anything about it. God’s truth is never allowed to take root in their lives. They are easy prey for the devil, who subtly convinces them to disbelieve what they hear. ” … Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts” (verse 15).

There are many ways by which this happens: A snide remark about the message from a “friend” who is supposedly in the know about such things. A sudden change of personal circumstances may lead to a temporary diversion — which becomes permanent.

A minor disagreement about a small point can lead the prospective Christian to “throw out the baby with the bath water.” It could be any number of things, but the result is always the same! The person rejects the Gospel of the Kingdom of God before it gets a chance to take root.

On stony ground

These persons advance somewhat further than those in the first category. Their initial reaction to the Word of God is enthusiastic. They are happy to hear the truth preached. They may even become baptized. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized … ” (Acts 2:41).

But unfortunately, their enthusiasm soon wears thin. They ” … have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended” (Mark 4:17).

These babes in Christ never allow their spiritual roots to go down quite deeply enough to draw on the pure, nourishing water of God’s spiritual power (John 7:38, 39; Acts 1:8). When persecution comes along, they are not strong enough to withstand. They have no persevering power in the face of the ridicule and derision of those who do not share their beliefs.

Such people are only willing to obey God as long as it does not cost them anything in terms of personal prestige and respect. They are willing to compromise the Word of God rather than suffer for it.

Did not Jesus say in another place: ” … If any man will come after me, let him … take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)?

Among thorns

The third type of person progresses somewhat further. He too begins to bear fruit and live a life of obedience to Christ. His life changes as he yields to the Word of God. But he too has a hang-up. At some point in his Christian life, “… the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful” (Mark 4:19).

In order to become unfruitful, he must have at one time been fruitful. Here is someone who has actually begun to bear substantial fruit as a result of God’s Word. He has made spiritual progress. He may have been in the Church for some time. Others may even consider him well established in the Body of Christ.

But sooner or later, plain old materialism or sensuality creeps in and smothers his spirituality.

Perhaps it is a craving for material success in the world of business or industry. A desire to be at the top of the financial heap can divert a person’s focus of attention from spiritual to material things.

For this reason, the apostle Paul warned the Colossians about drifting into materialism: “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2). He also said that “… to be carnally [physically] minded is death …” (Romans 8:6).

There are many pitfalls that can tear a person away from the abundant life to which God has called him. It could be money, the desire for financial success, another woman or man, a job or an inordinate desire of any kind. It could be a craving for liquor or food (not that eating and drinking are wrong, but drunkenness and gluttony are) or possibly even narcotic drugs.

Whatever it is, it diverts one from his life in Christ — choking out the influence of God’s Holy Spirit and any further bearing of good fruit.

On good ground

This category describes people who are converted and who make continual growth and progress in the faith. They bear the good fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

But not all bear the same amount of fruit. Some are much more productive than others. Many do not realize their maximum potential as Christians — they merely get by with a modicum of effort.

Yet it is Christ’s will that we bear much fruit. Those who are closest to Jesus Christ bear the most fruit. Jesus said: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Which category are you in?

The wheat and the tares

“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servant said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:24-30).

The second parable is also taken from a description of rural life in the province of Galilee. Any farmer of the day would have known about tares (darnel). They were weeds that grew with the wheat and looked much like it as long as the wheat remained in the blade stage. When they grew to maturity, however, they were readily distinguishable.

This is a simple illustration pointing out that both the converted and unconverted have to coexist in the same society until the time of the great harvest of lives at Christ’s return. During that time Jesus Christ will make a separation between those who are His and those who are not.

The best account of this parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30. (The explanation is given in verses 36-43.) Each element has vital meaning. Notice Matthew’s explanation:

“The field is the world; the good seed [true Christians] are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one [Satan — compare John 8:44, I John 3:8]; The enemy that sowed them is the devil [the god of this society, II Corinthians 4:4]; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world [Greek: aionos, meaning age].”

This parable graphically shows the fate of those who insist on following the devil when they know better! Those who are incorrigibly wicked will be thrown into a lake of fire and be burned into ashes (Malachi 4:3).

John spoke of this in the book of Revelation: “And death [the dead] and hell [the grave — hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14-15). In order to die twice, one must first live twice. This means a resurrection must occur.

This is not immortal life as a “soul” in an ever-burning hellfire — it is complete extinction and oblivion forever! And this is doctrine!

The Good News, April 1979

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