1. The Purpose for Using Parables (Luke 8:9-10) (cf. Matt. 13:10-17)
2. The Principles for Understanding Parables
Is the Bible simple or complex? Can a child understand it, or do you have to have a doctorate in theology and an intimate knowledge of Greek and Hebrew?
Different people have answered these questions in different ways over the centuries.
For example, a thousand years ago, the church became very concerned at all the false teachings that were being promoted and taught, and when they looked at the sources of these heresies, many of them seemed to come from people who – in the eyes of the church – were untrained and untaught in correct Bible interpretation. So the church made it a law that only church-sanctioned pastors and priests, trained in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin could read, study and teach the Bible.
Because the church made it illegal to translate the Bible into the common, everyday language of the people. In the church service, the Bible was often read in Greek or Latin, so that only those who understood these two languages could understand what was being read.
Well, you know what happened. Partly because the Bible was not allowed to be read and studied by the average person, the church and culture entered into what is now known as the Dark Ages. The church ruled the people with an iron fist. They told people what they could and could not believe, and the people, because they could not study the Bible for themselves, had to accept whatever it was the church told them to believe.
In the fourteenth century, a man named John Wycliffe decided that God’s Word should be available to all people, and so he translated the Bible from Latin into English. This translation sparked off the period in church history known as the Reformation. The Reformation was a theological battle about many things, but ultimately, it was a battle about who had the right to read and interpret Scripture.
Wycliffe believed that any person should be able to read and interpret Scripture, and every Christian should own a Bible to read, study and apply it to their lives. About 200 years after Wycliffe, the Reformation really picked up steam with men like William Tyndale and Martin Luther. Tyndale made another English translation of the Bible, and was burned at the stake because of it. Martin Luther made a German translation of the Bible, and was condemned as a heretic by the Catholic church.
Now, 500 years later, all of you have in your laps a testimony of the battle that Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther and others like them waged on your behalf. They fought for your right to own, read and interpret the Bible for yourself. They fought against a church which said that only the elite, only the educated, only the doctors of theology could read and study Scripture. The church back then taught that the Word of God was too powerful, too dangerous and too complex to be read and taught by just anybody.
That’s one extreme. The other extreme, which is becoming prominent today in some circles, is that the Bible is only dangerous in the hands of an educated scholar. There are many today who survey church history and the present landscape of Christianity, and notice that despite what the church taught 1000 years ago, in reality, most false teaching and heresy seems to come from those who are educated.
And there is some truth to this. It is the professors of theology and prominent pastors with doctorates who are the most influential today in spreading heresy and false teaching. Those with Ph.D’s from many leading seminaries today come out with the idea that Jesus Christ was not really God’s son, was not really born of a virgin, did not really die on the cross, did not actually rise from the dead, and that everyone is going to heaven if they just try to be good enough.
So certain Christians who recognize all of this, argue that the Bible is simple enough to be understood by anybody, and those who go on for education only educate themselves into ignorance.
I was at a conference in Dallas a while back, and was staying with a friend of mine named René Lopez. René has just written a commentary on Romans, and he was selling them at the conference. One day while I was there, he went to a different conference in Dallas to sell his commentaries at that conference also.
He told me afterwards that while he was there, he got into a heated discussion with several of the men attending this other conference about how to understand and interpret the Bible. They argued that the Bible was simple, like a glass of water, and any person who could read, even a little child, could understand the Bible for themselves.
They argued that it was not necessary to have a knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. They argued that it was not necessary to compare Bible translations with one another – the King James Version was the only translation anybody needed. The Bible, for them, was simple. Anybody and everybody could read and fully understand it. They said all a person had to do was read the Bible, believe, and do what it says (which, of course, is impossible).
So these are the two extremes. There are those who say that the Bible is too complex for the average reader and one must have special training to understand it. Then there are those who say the Bible is not complex at all, but is so simple, even a little child can read and understand it.
So which is it? Is the Bible simple or complex? Can anyone read and understand it, or do you need special training?
The answer is both. The Bible is so simple that anybody can read it and understand what is being said. Even a child who has just learned to read can start in Genesis and read all the way through Revelation, and understand the message and story line of the Bible. It is so simple. Even the gospel message about how to get to heaven is clearly understood by children. You don’t need to be a Bible expert to understand the Bible.
But the Bible is an amazing book. The Bible is that it is like a diamond mine where the deeper you dig the more diamonds you find. The littlest child, playing at the mouth of this diamond mine can unearth amazing gems of truth. But as the child grows in wisdom and stature they can find more numerous and more valuable diamonds.
And this diamond mine of the Bible is so deep, so cavernous, so complex, that its riches will never be exhausted. And how deep you go depends on how much time and energy you want to expend.
So is the Bible simple or complex? It is simple enough for the smallest child to understand, but is complex enough so the brightest mind and most studious scholar will never get bored. I have seen this to be true in my own life. I have found that the more I study, the more exciting the Bible gets.
Years ago, when I began to seriously study Scripture, I often had questions about a certain Biblical passage or theological issue. And frequently, I would do my best to find answers to those questions. And generally, I did find answers to those questions. But I also found that every time I answered one question, I also found two or three more questions.
That used to frustrate me to no end. It seemed futile to look for answers to Biblical questions only to find more questions in the process. I felt like I was in that diamond mine, and on my way down a tunnel, I found two or three other tunnels that needed to be explored. I soon became so overwhelmed with all the tunnels that I needed to explore, I almost gave up exploring. I soon had so many questions, I didn’t want to find any more answers because they only led to more questions.
That used to frustrate me. But now it only excites me. I now know that in my entire life, I will never be able to explore all those tunnels. I sometimes wonder if I would even be able to explore them all if I had eternity. But this excites me because I know that down every single tunnel is another diamond waiting to be found. Every time I come across another question, it’s not frustrating, but exciting because I know that down every single one is another diamond.
I don’t have to hope that the tunnel I’m in will lead to a diamond. I know that each and every tunnel, no matter which one I choose, will lead to a diamond. And more often than not, these tunnels lead not only to diamonds, but to huge caverns filled with sparkling rubies, emeralds, and veins of gold.
I can still remember walking into one of these sparkling caverns when I was at Moody Bible Institute. I was laying on my bed in my dorm room, reading the book of James, and along with it reading a commentary on James. James chapter 2 had always been a big question mark in my mind, and that day, I chose to walk down that tunnel, and see where it would lead me.
I remember that as I struggled with James and as I prayed over the passage, and as I read the notes in this commentary, it was as if I walked into the most beautiful, diamond encrusted, soaring, cathedral-like cavern I had ever seen. The truths of the passage sparkled like stars in the night where before it had been pitch black. My heart started beating with excitement. My blood started pumping in my veins. It still gives me excitement to think about it.
This thrill of discovery has happened many times since then, and I believe it happens to most everyone who is a serious student of the Word of God. Bruce Wilkinson writes about it this way:
“Sometimes you’ll know the principle through a burst of insight and the ‘ah-ha’ will almost blind you. Often you’ll laugh out loud because suddenly it is so obvious. Other times it will dawn slowly like a sunrise.”
If you have never experienced this thrill of Biblical discovery, you are missing out on one of the greatest excitements of life. These are the times when it seems God is speaking to you personally through His Word. These are the times when the Bible is experienced as the living and active Sword of the Spirit that it is. These are the moments when you encounter God face to face in His Word, and He whispers to you the infinite treasures of His eternal revelation.
And that is probably the real reason tricky and complex passages of Scripture no longer bother me. In fact, I love the difficult passages in Scripture now, because it is they which cause me to rely upon God more than ever. When we come to a simple passage of Scripture, it is easy to rely on our own wisdom and our own insights rather than turning to God to allow Him to teach us.
But those tricky passages throw us at His feet crying out “Teach me what this verse means, or I will never understand it!” I am convinced this is why there are difficult passages and difficult truths in Scripture. If everything were simple, and there was nothing complex, we would get bored too quickly, and most of all, we would never go to God for help in understanding His Word.
But the primary reason He wrote the Bible was so that we would come to Him. So that we would interact with Him and learn how to communicate with Him. The complexities of the Bible force us to do just that. With each diamond we uncover, we learn to be more grateful to Him for leading us to it. With each truth we learn, we get close to the mind and heart of God. With each question we ask, we learn to depend more upon Him, and less upon ourselves.
This is one of the things I love about the Bible. It is so simple, anybody can read it and understand it. But it is so complex that none of us can exhaust its riches. Is the Bible simple or complex? It’s both.
Now, why did I get into all of this? Because I want to introduce to you the Parables of Jesus.
The Parables of Jesus
I want to show you why Jesus used parables and how to understand them. And if there is one thing you need to know about the Parables, it is that understanding them is like understanding the Bible. The Parables, like the Bible, are very simple, but incredibly complex.
There are truths on the surface of every parable which everyone can comprehend, but the real riches are only found by digging down deep. And the deeper you dig, the more treasure you find, and the more treasure you find, the closer you get to God and the heart of Jesus.
To see this, look at Luke 8:9-10. These two verses come right in the middle of one of Christ’s parables. The parable is in Luke 8:4-15. In Luke 8:4-8, Jesus tells the parable, and in Luke 8:11-15, Jesus explains the parable. We will look at this parable next week.
But in Luke 8:9-10, the two verses we are looking at today, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. They are often confused by the parables, and the multitudes are often confused by the parables, and so they wonder why Jesus even uses parables. Why not just speak plainly? In these verses, Jesus explains His purpose for using parables. The answer will shock you. In fact, the answer for why Christ uses parables is another one of those diamond encrusted, cathedral like caverns of Scripture. When I first learned this a few years ago, it got my heart beating with excitement.
1. The Purpose for Using Parables (Luke 8:9-10) (cf. Matt. 13:10-17)
Luke 8:9. Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”
Jesus has just told them the parable of the four soils. They have no clue what he is talking about, and so they ask Him what it means. He gives them the answer in Luke 8:11-15.
Here in Luke 8:9, Luke does not record for us that the apostles also ask why Jesus insists on teaching in parables. But in the parallel account in Matthew 13, we do read that the apostles asked that question. Matthew 13:10 says that the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”
In Matthew 13, Jesus gives a detailed answer in Matthew 13:11-17. Luke condenses Christ’s answer down into one verse, Luke 8:10.
Luke 8:10. And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that
‘Seeing they may not see,
And hearing they may not understand.’
Why does Christ speak in parables? So that people will not understand Him.
There’s your answer to the question. Isn’t that a glorious truth? We had this question about why Jesus speaks in parables that often don’t make much sense, and so we set out traveling down this tunnel to find the answer, and when we discover the answer, it only sparks off more questions.
Jesus spoke in parables in order to confuse people? That doesn’t make any sense. I thought the purpose of teaching was to make things clear, not to muddy the water. I thought the purpose of using illustrations and stories was to cement an abstract truth into down to earth imagery. I thought stories and parables were to help people remember difficult to grasp truths.
In fact, one web site I use to search for sermon illustrations says this on its front page: “Jesus used stories. Why don’t we?” I always smile when I go to that web site looking for sermon illustrations, because Jesus tells us that He only used stories to confuse people, not make the truth more obvious.
So now we know why Jesus told stories, but the answer didn’t help much. It only gave us more questions. Why would Jesus intentionally confuse people? If the parables are supposed to be confusing, then how can we understand them? They do mean something, don’t they?
These are a few of the forks in the tunnel we have now discovered. Let’s journey down each one to find a diamond at the end. But first of all, I want you to understand the diamond you have already uncovered. I told you that all questions lead to diamonds. Our question was why Jesus uses parables. The answer was that parables were told to confuse people.
Where’s the diamond in that? I’ll tell you where. For years and years, as I studied Scripture, I thought that the parables were intended to clarify truth and illustrate truth. But when I read the parables, more often than not, they made no sense to me. I was confused by most of the parables.
In Luke 16, we have this dishonest employee who cheats his boss, and Jesus praises him for it. What’s that all about? In Luke 18, we have an account of a widow who only gets what she wants because she pesters a judge for it, and Jesus equates her behavior with prayer. Does that mean we will only get answer to prayer if we pester and nag God? That can’t be right. In some parables, all the workers get the same amount of pay no matter how much they work, while in other parables, different workers get rewarded differently depending on how faithfully they worked. How can these parables make sense together?
Listen, if you have ever been confused by a parable, it’s not because you’re ignorant. But that’s the way I felt for years and years. I felt stupid because the parables confused me. But then I learned that Jesus meant the parables to be confusing. When I got confused by them, they were doing to me exactly what Jesus intended them to do – confuse! And that was encouraging to me.
Look, if parables were meant to clarify truth, and I was only confused by them, then either Jesus is a very bad teacher, or I am a very dumb student. But if the parables were meant to be confusing, and I was confused by them, then everything was just fine. That’s an encouragement. That’s a diamond.
If you have ever been confused by the parables, you are right on track with what Jesus intended.
So that brings us to our next question. Why would Jesus intentionally confuse people? Isn’t a teacher supposed to make sense? Yet Jesus says in Luke 8:10 that He speaks in parables, that
‘Seeing they may not see,
And hearing they may not understand.’
Jesus explains in much more detail in Matthew 13:11-14 why He speaks in parables, but ultimately, it is so that parables reveal truth to some, but at the same time, hides truth from others. Jesus often spoke in parables when the multitudes were listening, and in such situations, He wanted to instruct the believers, but hide the truth from the unbelievers.
Why would He want to hide the truth from unbelievers? Because it was truth they were not yet ready to receive. The main truth an unbeliever needs to hear is that they need eternal life and it is received by faith alone in Christ alone. Though it does happen (mainly in John), this truth is rarely presented in parable form. When Jesus wants to tell unbelievers to believe in Him for eternal life, He just flat out tells them. There are never (to my knowledge) any parables which hide the truth about receiving eternal life by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
However, the more advanced truths about the kingdom of heaven are reserved for those who have already believed and who are willing and eager to learn them. So when Jesus speaks truths about the kingdom of heaven, He speaks in parables. And whether the person is a believer or unbeliever, one of two things will happen.
Either the person would come to Him asking for an explanation or would go away thinking, “That’s a nice story” and never really understand the truth behind it. Obviously, Jesus wanted the people to come to Him for explanations about His parables. If they did, and they were an unbeliever, He would first share the Gospel with them. We see this with Nicodemus in John 3. But if the person was a believer, Jesus would explain the hidden truth of the parable. That’s what He does here in Luke 8.
So ultimately, Jesus spoke in parables because He wanted people to come to Him and ask for an explanation. This is because Jesus was first and foremost a disciple maker. Yes, He was a great preacher, and a miracle worker. But at the heart of Jesus was a desire for people to come to Him for one-on-one, or small group discipleship.
When Jesus taught in parables, people who wanted to hear more would come and ask for more and then He was able to disciple them. But people whose hearts were hard would listen to Him teach, then go away thinking they had heard some great stories, but not ever really grasping the truth of what He had said.
All of this has incredible implications for you and for me when we come to the difficult portions of Scripture. God put those there for the same reason Jesus spoke in parables. Those who want to learn more will go to God to ask for an explanation. This is what God wants you to do. But those whose hearts are hard, will just skip over the tough passages and not bother with going to God for answers.
If you do that, you are missing out on some of the greatest truths in Scripture. It is under the hardest surfaces that the greatest treasures lie if only you will ask God to show them to you.
So that is what we must do with the parables. The parables contain some of the greatest diamonds of the Bible. The parables contain some of the hardest hitting truths of Scripture. And that is why Jesus used parables. I’ve entitled today’s message, “Stories the Sting” because I have found that when a parable is rightly understood, they most often have a bite to them. They hurt. They sting.
Jesus used Parables to teach the hardest truths. He didn’t want to needlessly offend people with these confrontational truths, and so He camouflaged them with parables. If you interpret a parable and it doesn’t sting a little bit, you probably have not understood it correctly. A Parable, correctly understood, makes you squirm.
Parables contain truths that need to be said, but nobody wants to say them, and nobody wants to hear them. Therefore, those who hear parables are given a choice. You can either come to Jesus saying, “Jesus, I’m not sure I want to hear the truth behind this story, but tell it to me anyway. If you’re trying to tell me something, I want to hear it.” Or you can walk away thinking, “That’s a nice story”
Which will you be? Are you going to be like these apostles in Luke 8:9 who ask Jesus for an explanation, no matter how much the truth might hurt? Or are going to see without seeing and hear without understanding? Hopefully, all of us are in that first position. We want the truth, even if it hurts, for we remember what Proverbs says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.”
2. The Principles for Understanding Parables
So if you want to understand parables, let me give you a few principles. Just as with all Scripture, there are a few rules to help us understand and apply what Jesus is saying in parables.
1. The Parables are about the Kingdom of Heaven
The first thing to remember about the parables is that they mostly concern the kingdom of heaven. It is crucial to remember that the kingdom of heaven is not heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the rule and reign of God on earth, so that what is done in heaven is also done on earth. The kingdom of heaven is bringing the rule and reign of God to earth.
The parables teach us what life looks like when God rules and reigns in our lives as we live on earth. It teaches us how to behave, how to think, what to do as members of the kingdom of heaven.
2. Know the Actions and Attitudes of the Audience
This is a context issue. When you come to a parable, you must discern who Jesus is telling the parable to, and what actions they had just done, or what words they had just said. Frequently, Jesus will use a parable to correct them.
Now sometimes, the actions or attitude of the audience will not be very clear from the text, and so you may have to get into other Bible study tools to help. Bible background commentaries and such will aid you with that.
The more you know about the audience, and how they lived, and how they thought, the more sense the parables will make to you. And I will try to bring some of this out as we go through the parables.
Once you know the audience, you can look for the spiritual lesson Jesus was trying to teach them. This is where the sting comes in.
3. Look for a Spiritual Sting
If you have a soft, warm and fuzzy, cuddly truth from a parable, chances are, you misunderstood the parable. Most parables have sharp points. They sting. Roy Clements in his book called A Sting in the Tale says this about the parables:
In these [stories of Jesus, He] is not merely seeking to tantalize or educate His hearers; he’s wanting to challenge them at a fundamental level. On the surface, such stories seem [harmless]; charming little narratives full of familiar images that easily capture your attention.
In reality they’re a kind of Stealth bomber, specially designed to evade your psychological defenses, [squirming their way] inside our mind in spite of every barricade we may seek to erect, and then dropping a highly explosive charge targeted at the most vulnerable point of our spiritual [laziness].
One feature that is often characteristic of these [stories] is that they have a sting in the tale; a punch line that creeps up on you and then kicks you in the stomach when you’re not expecting it….
…Each one carries a megaton charge guaranteed to blow your mind!
The stories of Jesus are just like that, as are many of the stories in the Bible.
Remember when the prophet Nathan went to confront David about his sin with Bathsheba? Nathan told him a story about a rich man who had lots of sheep who took the only lamb of a poor man. Of course, David was outraged that such a thing could happen in his kingdom. And that is when Nathan said, “Oh David, you are that man.”
The story got David to see his sin in a way that he would not have seen it otherwise. This is frequently what prophets did when they wanted to confront the people of Israel with their sin.
The story Nathan told David had a punch line that hurt. And the parables of Jesus are no different. In fact, they are probably some of the best-told stories in the Bible. Since Jesus was perfect in every way, He was also the perfect storyteller. And since most Biblical stories were for the purpose of correction and rebuking, Jesus’ stories always pack a punch. They are stories that sting.
When you have what you think is the stinging point of the parable, that doesn’t mean that is for sure the point. Remember, parables are notoriously tricky. So the fourth key, which is true for all Bible study, is to compare Scripture with Scripture.
4. Compare Scripture with Scripture
Once you think you have found the one main spiritual truth of the parable, make sure that you go to plain scripture teaching – like in Paul’s letters, or in some of the clear teachings of Jesus – to verify what you think is the main point. The great thing about the Bible is that while it contains both simple and complex issues, the complex issues build upon those things that are simple and will never contradict the simple. This is why we always must understand the simple things before we move on to the complex, and why, when we teach the complex, we must never contradict the simple.
I cannot tell you how many heretical sermons I have heard because a pastor thinks he has understood a parable, and then taught it, but what he thinks the parable teaches blatantly contradicts what the Bible teaches in other places. The Bible does not contradict itself.
If you think you understand a parable, and the truth you come up with contradicts what the Bible says somewhere else, you have not understood the parable correctly. So compare Scripture with scripture. Once you have a truth that a passage is teaching, and it fits with the rest of Scripture, you are not done with the passage, for now you must apply it.
It is uncanny how many of the parables still speak directly to us and our attitudes and our actions today as well. I find it helpful sometimes to put myself into the parable at times – especially when the parable has people in it. I try to identify which of the characters best describes me, or what my attitude is in regard to what Jesus is saying, or what my actions have been recently.
And when we get this before us, we sink into the parable itself, and when the sting comes, it often gives us a good kick in the pants as well. That is the best way to apply a parable.
So remember those four things when studying the parables. We will do that for us next week when we look at the parable of the four soils in Luke 8:4-15. The parable is simple, but very complex – just like the rest of Scripture – which makes it such a thrill to study.
And that’s what I encourage you to do. Go to the Word of God this week. Go to it prayerfully, expecting to hear from God. Praise Him for the things that are simple and easily understood. And when you come across something that is not simple, don’t skip over it. Under the biggest rocks lie the greatest jewels.
J. Dwight Pentecost, who has spent his life studying and teaching Scripture, writes that “The parables of Jesus have long challenged expositors and stimulated teachers, for in their simple form the deepest truths have been revealed.” As we uncover these truths, we will be led into a deeper love for the One who spoke them.