“And he began to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. And he taught them many things by parables…” (Mark 4:1-2). The bulk of Mark’s fourth chapter is Jesus’ teaching the multitudes in parables. This chapter does not introduce Christ’s parables in Mark’s gospel. That introduction was provided in 2:21-22 with the parables of the new cloth and new wineskins, but this is the first extended section of parabolic teaching. There are only nine parables recorded in Mark, and four of those nine are listed in chapter four.
This opening scene from Mark 4 is quite amazing. First, you must understand that this is yet another incredibly long, ministry filled day in the life of Jesus Christ. On the same day in which Christ had been healing and preaching, answering the near blasphemous charge of the scribes and Pharisees that he was in league with Satan, dealing with his family who thought he was insane and were trying to forcibly remove him back to Nazareth, on the same day he repositions himself from the confines of a house (Matthew 12:46 indicates that he had been indoors) to the wide open Galilean Sea shore. The crowd is so massive that Christ teaches from a boat on the edge of the shoreline.
The second amazing aspect of this scene is that Jesus “taught them many things by parables.” It is not that teaching with parables was new. As I mentioned earlier, Mark had already recorded two of Christ’s parables in chapter two. Parables were a normal teaching tool in Jewish life. Christ did not invent the method. Nathan the prophet had used a parable to convict King David of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12:1-4). It is not the usage of parables that was amazing, but it is amazing that these parables were indecipherable. They were inscrutable apart from Christ’s explanation.
The apostles were puzzled by these parables. They questioned Jesus about the parables. He answered them, and both the question and answer are recorded in Mark 4:10-12:
And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all [these] things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and [their] sins should be forgiven them.
Following hard on the heels of one “hard saying” (Mark 3:33-35), Christ immediately launched off into another. The undiscerning reader may think that Jesus was speaking in parables to keep people from being converted. After all, he did say that he spoke in parables “to them that are without” so they might see but not perceive, hear but not understand, otherwise they would be converted and forgiven. Was Jesus being stingy with the gospel message? Was Jesus trying to hide his life giving message in parables so that men could not hear and be saved?
Not at all!
The passage preceding this hard saying ends with Christ’s familiar refrain: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (4:9). The question is do you have listening ears, or do you only hear what you want to hear? Are you willing to learn and trust the scriptures, or will preconceived notions dominate your hearing?
Before we dive into the actual parable of this chapter we need to understand exactly what a parable is and why Christ employed them.
What is a Parable?
Parable is a transliterated word from the Greek “parabolē”. It is a compound word made up of the verb “ballō” (to throw, lay, or place) and the prefix “para” (alongside of). The idea is that of placing or laying something alongside of something else for the purpose of comparison. Therefore, we can say that a parable is a story using common, observable objects or practices to illustrate some truth or principle; a story that places one thing beside another for the purpose of teaching. Parables place the known next to the unknown so that we may learn.
The word parable is used 48 times in the synoptic gospels, twice in the book of Hebrews (9:9; 11:19), and no where else in the NT with the exception of John 10:6. The Greek word translated parable there is “paroimia” which means figure of speech; proverb, instead of the word “parabolē”. These words have a similar meaning but they are not the same. Every other NT usage of that word is translated as “proverb” (John 16:25; 16:29; 2 Peter 2:22).
These earthly stories with heavenly meanings reveal that all truth comes from God. God has secondarily reveled truth through creation and primarily revealed truth in His word. The fact that Jesus could use a seed as an explanation of His word, or a feast to explain salvation provides evidence of the unity between natural and spiritual truth.
Why Did Christ use Parables?
When the apostles asked Christ why he was using parables that were not easily understood his answer was a quotation of scripture; specifically Isaiah 6:9-10:
And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
This prophecy refers to the spiritual deterioration of the Israelite people. The northern kingdom of Israel had become utterly apostate and they were to receive God’s judgment. The southern kingdom of Judah was not much better; they were slipping into apostasy. God’s word was being steadily rejected. The people of Judah either had become or were becoming deaf and blind to Isaiah and the truth he taught. They would hear God’s word but not understand it. They would see God’s power at work, but not perceive what He was doing. Their dull hearts would make them spiritually blind and deaf, and the results would be judgment.
The same was true of many people during the Lord’s time. They had witnessed miraculous acts of God’s power. They had heard the very words of God from the very lips of God. In spite of this gracious and awesome display of divinity, by and large Christ was rejected. John 1:11 says, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” This rejection of Christ was subsequently confirmed by the rejection of Christ’s church.
Why use parables? Jesus’ answer to the disciples was clear: to reveal truth to those who receive him, and to conceal meaning from those who reject him. “Unto you,” Christ said in v. 11, “it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God.” Indeed, Christ would explain the parable of the sower to the disciples in vv. 14-20. “But,” the Lord continued, “unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables. That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.”
Christ’s parables both revealed and concealed truth. To the careless, indifferent, and defiant; those with no spiritual hunger for truth and salvation, they would not understand the parables. As a result their hearts would be hardened, not by the Word but hardened against the Word. The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay.
By teaching the multitude with these parables Christ was simultaneously displaying his gracious mercy and his righteous judgment. These were the words of the Master Teacher drawing those who had ears to hear, but they were also the sentences of a holy Judge condemning those who refused to listen. Those who were concerned for their soul were excited by the parables and stimulated to learn more. Those who were careless about their soul were blinded with zero desire to understand the parables. It was true then, and it is true now, you are either the better or the worse for having heard God’s Word.
It is important to recognize that the concerned and the careless do not always fit into neat packages. Looking out on the multitude to which Christ preached one most likely would have categorized, based solely on looks and reputation, the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and their ilk as the concerned. Surely, if any group of people were concerned about their soul it would have been those folks. They were the most religious minded people present. Likewise, based strictly on looks and reputation, the tax collectors, harlots, Hellenistic compromisers, the Gentiles, and their sort certainly would have been pigeonholed as the careless. After all, they were the tax collectors, harlots, Hellenistic compromisers, and Gentiles.
Based on the response to Christ’s ministry, however, the opposite of the above assumption was true. Many times the most religious amongst us are the most careless about their soul. They trust in their religion and eschew repentance; whereas the irreligious in our midst are often painfully aware of their need. As Mark has already made abundantly clear in this gospel account, the appeal of Christ is not restricted to a certain subset of people. The call of Christ to repent and believe the gospel is universal, but the salvation of Christ, the gift of eternal life, is received only by those who humble themselves, repent of their sin, and follow him.
Jesus did not and does not seek to confuse but to clarify. It’s not necessary to have a decoder ring to understand God’s word or Christ’s parables. Only hearing ears are required. Hard hearts are a detriment to hearing ears.
Why and How to Study the Parables.
The reason why is simple. The parables are to be studied because they are in the Bible! The entire counsel of God is to be proclaimed, understood, and applied. Plus, one-third of Christ’s recorded teaching is in parables and you will understand that to ignore the parables is to ignore a significant portion of what Christ taught.
In answering the question “Why study the parables?” Warren Wiersbe wrote:
The parables are both mirrors and windows. As mirrors, they help us see ourselves. They reveal our lives as they really are. As windows, they help us see life and God. You may not have an easy time identifying with some truth in Romans 7 or Ephesians 2, but you probably have little difficulty seeing yourself in one of the parables. (WWW, Meet Yourself in the Parables, pg. 14)
The scriptures are God’s inspired revelation to us, and the whole of scripture is unified in theme the parts of scripture are diverse in style. That is to say that scripture contains poetry, proverbs, historical narrative, didactic teaching, royal decrees, homespun allegories, and parables. While it is all the Word of God and all equally true, each genre should be appropriately studied. The didactic lessons of Paul’s letters are different in form than Christ’s parables, and this is something for which the reader must take into account when reading, interpreting, and applying scripture. “A basic rule of Bible study is to examine each passage of Scripture in the light of its literary classification.” (Ibid., pg. 14).
I unreservedly agree with commentator John Phillips when he writes:
Many of the wrong teachings current today are based on or bolstered by a wrong interpretation of a parable. Much foolish exegesis has resulted from trying to force a meaning on every item in a parable. Normally, a parable contains one central truth. Any interpretation of a parable must be consistent with what is taught elsewhere in the Bible. (Emphasis mine) (Mark CT, pg. 93)
Context is Crucial
Understanding the context of any Biblical passage is critical in understanding that passage. This is especially true of the parables. Ignoring a text’s context is a sure way of distorting the text’s meaning. Readers do not have the privilege of assigning a work’s sense. That is the author’s job. The work of the reader is to understand authorial intent. That is why, when studying scripture, particularly the parables; context is crucial.
For example, Matthew 13 is the parallel passage of Mark 4. Naturally, it is a longer account of Christ’s kingdom parables, but the context is identical. Christ was using parables to teach about the mystery of the kingdom of God; not only a literal future kingdom but a present spiritual kingdom in the hearts of the saved. I have heard a preacher use Matthew 13:44, the parable of the hidden treasure, as a text on relationships. It was taught to mean that relationships are easily taken for granted as people overlook the “hidden treasures” of family and friends. It was said that no amount of effort or expense should be spared in cultivating and maintaining our close relationships; these “hidden treasures.”
Much of what the preacher said was true. None of it had anything to do with Matthew 13:44. Likewise, one cannot use the parable of the two lost sons to teach about the need to express appreciation for “good kids’ behavior” as one preacher was guilty of dong at a youth camp. That is an egregious misinterpretation of Luke 15, and it is so far from the theme of the text that one wonders if the text was actually even read.
Should we work and sacrifice in regards to our relationships? Yes! Should we express appreciation for kids who work at keeping their nose clean? Absolutely! Are those ideas explicitly or even remotely communicated in Matthew 13 or Luke 15?
Not at all!
Context is crucial!
Stay on Target!
I‘m a Star Wars fan, and as such, lines from those movies regularly pop into my head when I’m reading, thinking, and writing. One particular line from the original movie is appropriate here. The climax of the story is the assault on the powerful Death Star by the Rebellion’s rag-tag fighter wing “Rogue Squadron”. The small aircraft had to fly down a narrow shaft to hit a specific target all the while being chased by the bad guys. During one scene the squad leader repeatedly exhorts his men to “Stay on target. Stay on target.” In battle, real and imagined, it is easy to become distracted. Hence the command to “Stay on target.”
With the parables especially it is important to “Stay on target.” Find the main message of the parable, or, as John Phillips so aptly stated, “the central truth” of the parable. The central truth of Luke 15 is that God receives and forgives sinners, and rejoices when the lost are found. The central truth of Matthew 13:44 is that salvation is priceless (not relationships or that salvation may be purchased)
Avoid over Spiritualization
It is not necessary to make everything is a parable mean something unless the context warrants such a designation. In Luke 15 the prodigal’s father clearly represents God the father, the younger son the publicans and sinners, and the older son the scribes and Pharisees. That is obvious based on the context. It is just as obvious from the context of Matthew 13:44 that the hidden treasure is not one’s relationship with his wife or children. Nor does the hidden treasure picture the nation of Israel.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is often spiritualized by forcing Jerusalem to represent heaven, Jericho hell, the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho as the road to hell, and each person as a pilgrim on the Jericho Road robbed by Satan. Dead religion is represented by the Levite and the Rabbi. Christ is the Good Samaritan. The oil is the Holy Spirit. The wine is the shed blood of Christ. The inn is the church. The two pence are the two ordinances.
Christ told the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer bulldozed the mistaken Pharisaical notion that hatred of one’s enemies was a legitimate attitude.
When reading and interpreting the parables (indeed, all of scripture) always keep in mind these three axioms…
1) Context is crucial
2) Stay of target
3) Avoid over spiritualization
Similarly, there are three responsibilities concerning the parables (indeed, all of scripture) that we must bear in mind as well. (WWW, Meet Yourself in the Parables, pg. 17)
1) The responsibility of learning the truth. God’s truth means one thing, and we are to work at learning what that is.
2) The responsibility of living the truth. “The learning is for living.”™
3) The responsibility of sharing the truth. Resources that are not invested are wasted.