Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Vol. 2, No. 1 Page 2 January 2000

Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

The Parables Of Our Lord

By Louis Rushmore

[This introduction to the parables of Christ and 25 parables of Jesus are available in two volumes of reproducible Bible class material.  Each chapter has questions following it.  See our online bookstore for more information on how to obtain these class books.]

Truly, the fitness of our Lord for teaching and preaching was unsurpassed.  Jesus was the Ideal Teacher — the Model Teacher.  Jesus became Truth Incarnate — the embodiment of Truth, and thereby he exemplified what he taught.  Further, our Lord was a precise teacher who taught with clarity, conviction, power and authority; his life was the demonstration of what he taught.  No man ever spoke and taught like Jesus (John 7:45-46).  Our Lord taught as one having authority (Matthew 7:28-29).  The common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).  Jesus the Master Teacher was also “. . . the very personification of parabolic preaching and story telling.”1   “Parables comprise more than one-third of the recorded teachings of Jesus.”2   No one has ever more effectively used pictorial speech to express and enforce Divine Truth.3

Parables are found before the Incarnation of Christ in the Old Testament, perhaps the most famous of which was uttered by the prophet Nathan to King David (2 Samuel 12:1-13).  Though, “. . . the use of parables was a unique feature of the popular teaching of Jesus . . . He did not invent this form of teaching.  Parables go back to antiquity.”4

Further, the Talmud, the official body of Jewish tradition, also incorporates parables within its pages, as does much of the Apocrypha, too.  Interestingly, though, no parables appear in the Apocryphal Gospels; apparently their penmen acknowledged the utter hopelessness of attempting to imitate the matchless parables of our Lord.

Adam Clarke quotes Dr. John Lightfoot that in Jesus’ day “[n]o scheme of Jewish rhetoric was more familiarly used than that of parables.”5   “In the age and country in which Christ appeared, parables were a common and popular method of instruction.”6

However, our Lord achieved such lasting renown through his employment of parabolic teaching that to simply say the word “parables” causes one to instantly think of Jesus Christ; certainly no other mouth ever more masterfully used this method of teaching than our Lord’s.

Mention parables and one person and one person only comes to mind both uniformly and promptly.  That person is the Christ.  He is the great PERSON of parabolic preaching and story-telling sermons.  Few indeed are the parables in the Bible aside from Jesus and outside his personal preaching and earthly ministry messages.  Since he is Deity and thus played an originating role in ALL Biblical teaching of the Old Testament, then even its parables . . . are connected closely  with the Second Person of the gracious Godhead.7

. . . the parables of Jesus are superb in their aptness, conciseness, beauty and appeal. Although he did not create the parabolic type of teaching, he certainly endowed it with high originality and gave it a deeper spiritual import and dimensions hitherto unknown.8

Definition Of Parables

“A parable is a comparison between a familiar fact and a spiritual truth.”9   Used in Scripture, the parable, “. . . always involves the idea of comparison.”10    But, additionally:
The word “parable” is an anglicized form of the Greek term parabole.  In the King James Version it is translated “comparison” once (Mk. 4:30); twice it is rendered “figure” (Heb. 9:9; 11:19); once “proverb” (Lk. 4:23); and, forty-six times it is simply found as “parable.” The word is a derivative of two roots — para meaning “beside” and ballo “to throw.”  It thus literally suggests throwing (or placing) something beside something else for the ultimate purpose of making a comparison.11
The parables of our Lord are found exclusively in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The Book of John does not use the Greek “parabole,” but employs a different Greek word which is once rendered in the King James Version by our word “parable” (John 10:6).
The other word used for “parable” is paroimia, meaning an “adage, dark saying, wayside saying, a proverb . . .” This word is almost peculiar to John, who uses it four times . . . John never uses the word parabole, the only one employed by Matthew, Mark and Luke.12
Perhaps one of the most easily remembered definitions of the term “parable” is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”13   “By the side of a familiar earthly story Jesus placed a spiritual lesson relative to the kingdom.  By the eloquent employment of parables Jesus taught the unknown (Heavenly and spiritually-minded lessons) from the known (earthly narratives).”14   Jesus readily used common circumstances with which his audiences were immediately familiar to illustrate spiritual truths about which they knew little or nothing.

Therefore, a parable is a figurative method of teaching Divine Truth.  The Bible employs primarily five figures of speech of which the parable is one.  Modern man, though, often further divides these figures into several additional subclasses.

In the Scriptures we have the parable, the proverb, the type, and the allegory named.  We also have the fable used, but not named. . . . The parable is the oldest and most common of all the figures of speech.  The Old Testament contains many of them, and the Saviour taught almost constantly by that medium of illustration.15
Many writers have endeavored to distinguish between the parable and other figures of speech employed in God’s Word; one of the most concise such attempts and yet sufficiently meaningful was penned by B.W. Johnson.  “The parable differs from the proverb in being a narrative, from the fable in being true to nature, from the myth in being undeceptive, from the allegory in that it veils the spiritual truth.”16

A parable is draped in the background of possibility.  The events in a parable around which is built a spiritual lesson either did occur or could have happened.  “It has been supposed, indeed, that some of the parables uttered by our Saviour narrate real and not fictitious events; but whether this was the case or not is a point of little consequence.”17   Parables use realistic earthly vehicles to convey spiritual and eternal lessons.  Fables, for instance, often resort to talking animals, trees, etc.  Proverbs are pithy sayings; allegories are self-interpreting; and parables are stories that must be pondered.

The Bible does not specifically define the word “parable,” but presents a great number of them for careful perusal.  (The subtitle of Lockyer’s book, All the Parables of the Bible, states: “A Study and Analysis of the More Than 250 Parables in Scripture.”)  Over fifty books are said to have been written which especially treat the parables of our Lord.  Yet, there is no universal agreement as to the number of Christ’s parables because there is no commonly accepted definition of the parable.

It is difficult to say how many parables are present in the Gospels. The exact number depends on one’s definition of a parable. If the word parable is taken to include proverbs, riddles, and simple comparisons as well as those in story form, the number is about sixty in all. Not counting all of the parabolic statements, the number is usually estimated as being from thirty to thirty-five.18
Lockyer estimates the range suggested for the number of the Lord’s parables varies from less to more than the above citation, and he opts for more than less.
. . . the parables uttered by our Lord, which are dealt with in varying numbers from twenty-five to seventy. It is felt by many writers that parables, in the stricter sense of this term in Christian Theology, number about thirty . . . thirty by no means offers a complete list of our Lord’s fully-formed parables. Almost His entire oral ministry was cast in parabolic form.19
The summary definition of the parable as it pertains to the parables of Jesus need not be complicated nor difficult to remember.  First, the parable must be understood in relationship to its etymology — the Greek word from which it comes and its corresponding root words.  Second, the parable always involves a comparison between a familiar fact and a spiritual truth.  Third, the most concise and frequently repeated definition of the parable remains: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”20 21     An infinitely benevolent God chose the most efficient possible means to manifest his Divine Will to mortal man; through Christ, God chose the parable.  In this connection Lockyer observed: “Because of his infinity, God had to condescend to those things with which man was familiar in order to convey to man’s finite mind the sublime revelation of His will.”22

Purpose Of Parables

“The same day” of Matthew 13:1 “. . . was the turning point in his (Jesus’) public teaching . . .”23   “. . . Christ’s use of parables (Matthew 13 and onward) represents a dramatic change in His teaching methods.”24   H. Leo Boles observed:
We now enter upon a new phase of the teachings of Jesus . . . This was a new phase of teaching and his disciples did not understand why he had at this time made the change, and perhaps they did not understand this new form of teaching. At least they did not understand why Jesus would adopt such a form of teaching as to furnish seven parables in one discourse.25
Robertson noted concerning that “day”:
. . . this group of parables is placed by Matthew on the same day as the blasphemous accusation and the visit of the mother of Jesus. It is called “the Busy Day,” not because it was the only one, but simply that so much is told of this day that it serves as a specimen of many others filled to the full with stress and strain. . . . It was not the first time that Jesus had used parables, but the first time that he had spoken so many and some of such length.26
Clarke wrote here: “Our Lord scarcely ever appears to take any rest . . .”27

 “The apostles were quick to notice the dramatic change in the Saviour’s teaching methods and promptly asked the reason for it.”28   “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10).  Christ’s first reply is found in the next verse: “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” (Matthew 13:11).  Jesus’ initial explanation for his use of parables was twofold: (1) to reveal Divine Truth, and (2) to conceal Divine Truth.

In Matthew 13:12-17 Jesus expanded his answer to the disciples’ query and in the process quoted Isaiah 6:9-10.  This horrific spiritual condition was frequently characteristic of God’s people as well as the rest of the world, too.  “This is one of the most important prophecies in the Old Testament, and it is quoted five times in the New Testament (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; Acts 28:26-27).”29

“The parbolic [sic] form veils the truth from those who do not want it, but unveils the truth to those who are ready for it and will receive it.”30   “This is why parables were spoken — to unveil truth for the godly and to veil it for the scoffers and scorners of salvation.”31   God, though, is neither blameworthy nor responsible for the lost condition of impenitent sinners.

Their wills of rebellion and defiance overruled God’s will to save them. Today, the same situation largely prevails. Closed Bibles and closed hearts will never lead one into the sunlit realm of truth heard, truth believed, truth loved, truth obeyed and salvation received and retained.32
With Clarke we must concur:
On the whole I conclude, that the grand object of parabolical writing is not to conceal the truth, but to convey information to the hearts of the hearers in the most concise, appropriate, impressive, and effectual manner.33
The nature of parables has as its purposes:
(1) To reveal truth: making the people to understand the unknown by a comparison with the known. (2) For the purpose of concealing truth from the minds of those who had no right to it, or who would abuse it if it were given to them. (3) They were made the means of embalming truth. (4) And in the fourth place, for the purpose of causing men to assent to truth before they could know it certainly meant them.34
Another purpose of our Lord’s use of parables was to fulfill Messianic Prophecy.
“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).
Herein Jesus quoted Psalm 78:2, “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old” and applied it to Himself.
One of Matthew’s purposes in writing his Gospel was to show how Jesus Christ, in His life and teaching, fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures. “That it might be fulfilled” is one of his key statements (see 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14).35

Interpreting Parables

Only two of the Lord’s parables are explained by him — the first two, The Sower and The Tares.  It would seem reasonable that having two parables explained by our Savior, by them man should possess sufficient insight into the proper understanding of the balance of Christ’s parables.  It is imperative that Jesus’ explanation of those parables serve as “. . . the standard for the interpretation of all parables . . .”36

Yet, there is sometimes disagreement even among brethren regarding the interpretation of some of the points of these first two parables.  It is little wonder, then, that through the centuries men have often grossly perverted the parables of our Lord.

There are two extremes to be avoided in the interpretation of parables.  One is to make too much of them — The other to make too little of them.37
Therefore, some careful, prudent considerations are in order before anyone attempts to interpret the parables of Christ; this is even more so the case should one also then purpose to convey those interpretations to others.

First, “[i]t is a basic rule of Bible study that we examine each passage of Scripture in the light of its literary classification.”38   This principle does not reflect unfavorably upon the inspiration of the Bible, but simply denotes a difference, for instance, between literal and figurative language.  Above all: “Interpretation is limited by the original intent of the parable . . .”39

It would be a serious mistake and a violation of legitimate hermeneutics to ignore this principle.  Otherwise, the Bible would forever mean nothing at all in particular and everything at the same time; the Bible would then be wholly subjective — meaningless.

Study each parable in its context40  is also a maxim!  The context includes the background behind the parable.

. . . the Bible student should undertake to determine the immediate historical background of the parable; and if possible, the implied or stated purpose of the narrative. This would prevent many serious mis-applications. . . . It cannot be overstressed; the background of a parable is frequently vital to its interpretation. . . . The imagery, especially as it relates to the 1st century era and Palestinean [sic] culture, should be carefully noted. . . . By an examination of the contextual setting, determine the basic purpose of the parable. A parable, divorced from context, can often become fertile soil for the speculator.41
Further, consideration must be given to details.  Details in the narrative of a parable need to be carefully handled to avoid teaching indefensible doctrines; it is also indefensible to teach truth from a passage which does not treat that axiom.  “Incidental elements in these stories of the Savior must not be exploited to unjust ends.”42
A failure to recognize that all of the details of a parable are not meaningful has led many astray in their interpretations. . . . The details of a parable are there most often just to add color to the story.43

Some of the parables are quite detailed, such as the sower and the tares, while others have very little detail. It is not necessary to make everything mean something unless the context warrants it. . . . In connection with this principle, the symbols used in different parables do not always represent the same thing.44

Still another guideline for the proper interpretation of parables must be: “No point of doctrine, that is not elsewhere clearly affirmed, may be derived from an incidental parabolic reference.”45   That is, “[t]raits which, if interpreted, would teach doctrines not elsewhere taught in Scripture belong only to the coloring.”46   Also, “[t]raits which, if literally interpreted, would contradict Scripture, are colouring . . .”47   The parables were given to illustrate doctrine, not to declare it.  In other words, don’t try to build a case for some doctrine only on the basis of a parable.”48   Akin to these principles is: “Traits which cannot be applied to the relation between God and man belong only to the coloring.”49

Parables Categorized

Perhaps an extensive introduction to the parables of our Lord, such as this, would be incomplete without some kind of list or chart of those parables.  However, how many and which parables should be included?  Exactly in what manner would those parables be best arranged?  The classifications of the parables number as many as the writers who have undertaken the task of writing about them.  Yet, probably none of those lists are perfect.
It is largely individual taste that must determine the arrangement of the parables. Any division will be open to attack, for a parable may have so many aspects of truth that it will leap over any fence of classification by which we may endeavor to confine it. The chronological plan, if same could be determined, might be the best, but such a chronological order in which the parables were spoken is unknown.50
Maybe the only list that cannot be too sorely criticized is one in which the parable-stories of our Lord are listed according to the Gospel records in which they are found.  Such a chart appears in what is commonly called the Dickson Bible,51  which chart also attempts to list the parables in chronological order.  Lightfoot provides a more comprehensive list of the parables according to their location.52

Resources

The Parables of Our Saviour is unique and priceless since it is comprised of numerous lectures on parables, researched and explained by some of the most biblically conservative brethren in the Lord’s church.  The first lecture therein, written by brother Robert R. Taylor, Jr., “Introduction Of The Saviour’s Parables,” has as its theme the same subject of this chapter, and proved to be of great value in the preparation of this material.

The Parables in Profile was especially useful and by itself was the basis of several lectures on the parables presented in the Upper Ohio Valley (1991) in a Bible class comprised of members from several congregations.  The degree to which other works are beneficial can be ascertained by the quotations made from them.

It is hoped that the multiplicity of resources cited will benefit the reader; special care was exercised to peruse numerous written works, select the best remarks from a wide field of biblical scholarship and arrange those citations in a fluid, balanced presentation of truth about the parables of Christ.

Endnotes

1Robert R. Taylor, Jr., “Introduction of the Saviour’s Parables,” The Parables of Our Saviour, Garfield Heights church of Christ, p. 1.

2Neil R. Lightfoot, The Parables of Jesus, Vol. I, ACU Press, p. 1.

3Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, p. 9.

4Ibid., p. 9.

5Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. I, Abingdon Press, p. 143.

6Lockyer, p. 9.

7Taylor, p. 5.

8Lockyer, p. 10.

9W. Gaddys Roy, Sermon Outlines on the Parables of Jesus, W. Gaddys Roy, 1974.

10Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. I, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 74.

11Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile, Star Bible & Tract Corp., p. 6.

12Lockyer, p. 12.

13Lightfoot, p. 1.

14Taylor, p. 4.

15D.R. Dungan, Hermeneutics, Gospel Light Publishing Co., p. 226.

16B.W. Johnson, The People’s New Testament with Explanatory Notes, Gospel Advocate Co., p. 76.

17John M’Clintock and James Strong, “Parables,” Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. VII, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, p.643.

18Lightfoot, p. 4.

19Lockyer, p. 125.

20Ibid., p. 13.

21Warren W. Wiersbe, Windows on the Parables, Wheaton, Scripture Press, p. 12.

22Lockyer, p. 10.

23Johnson, p. 76.

24Jackson, p. 8.

25H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, Nashville, Gospel Advocate Co., p. 284, 287.

26Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, pp. 100.

27Clarke, p. 142.

28James Burton Coffman, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Austin, Firm Foundation Publishing House, p. 187.

29Wiersbe, p. 12.

30Boles, p. 287.

31Taylor, p. 9.

32Ibid.

33Clarke, p. 155.

34Dungan, pp. 230, 231.

35Wiersbe, p. 14.

36R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, p. 510.

37Lockyer, p. 19.

38Wiersbe, p. 16.

39Lockyer, p. 21.

40Wiersbe, p. 1.

41Jackson, pp. 10, 11.

42Ibid., p. 12.

43Lightfoot, p. 3.

44Wiersbe, p. 17.

45Jackson, p. 12.

46M’Clintock and Strong, p. 649.

47Lockyer, p. 22.

48Wiersbe, p. 17.

49M’Clintock and Strong, p. 649.

50Lockyer, p. 133.

51The New Analytical Bible and Dictionary of the Bible, Chicago, John A. Dickson Publishing Co., p. 1241.

52Lightfoot, pp. 5, 6.


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