Most readers of the Bible know that Jesus used parables in His teaching. But His reasons for doing so might come as a surprise. Some have said that Jesus spoke in parables because He was a master teacher. They argue that Jesus told stories in order to capture the attention of His listeners and make difficult matters plain. But when the disciples asked Him privately to explain His parables, Jesus said: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:1–12). Jesus acknowledged that the parables hid the truth from some and revealed it to others.
In His reply to the disciples, Jesus quoted from Isaiah 6:9–10 to emphasize the prophetic intent of His parables. Jesus’ use of parables was prophetic on three levels. First, He used these stories to reveal truth to His own disciples.They had a responsibility to listen carefully and understand what Jesus said. The disciples’ insider status allowed them to ask Jesus to explain His sayings.This privilege made them stewards of the things that had been revealed to them. Jesus revealed the meaning of His parables to them in secret so that they could teach it to others later.
Second, Jesus used parables to hide the true nature of His ministry from “those on the outside” until everything that had been predicted about Him was fulfilled. Jesus came not only to proclaim redemption but to accomplish it. In order for this to take place, some aspects of His mission could not be revealed in full until after His crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus had to be rejected, betrayed, and slain as a sacrifice for sin.
Third, Jesus’ use of parables was a kind of judgment on those who rejected Him. New Testament commentator C. F. D. Moule explains that the mystery Jesus spoke of in these verses was the secret that the kingdom of God had come in the person of Christ. During His ministry Jesus revealed Himself, but He did so in a veiled manner. “The incarnate Word is not obvious,” Moule explains. “Only faith could recognize the Son of God in the lowly figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The secret of the kingdom of God is the secret of the person of Jesus.”The parables became a kind of litmus test that revealed those who had ears to hear and those who did not.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
To learn more about Jesus’ use of parables, read The Parables of Jesus by James Boice (Moody Publishers).