The Use of Parables in Jesus' Teaching

Discourse #3

This lesson will examine the reasons why Jesus used parables in His teaching ministry and what rules we need to follow in order to understand their original meaning and how to draw applications from them today.
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In the previous narrative we saw Jesus and His teachings being rejected by the religious leaders and a majority of people.

The next section will find the Lord using parables to teach the crowds that followed Him. Matthew explains that Jesus did this in order to keep instructing His disciples but keep hidden the things of the kingdom from those who disbelieved and rejected Him. The parable was the perfect format to accomplish these dual purposes.


The word "parable" means to place beside. It signified the placing of two or more objects together in order to compare them. In the New Testament, "seen" things are put beside "unseen" in order to reveal truth. It was a good teaching tool because it was easily understood by the uneducated and was more likely to be remembered.

In most cases a parable uses an imaginary story about something that could have happened in reality but is used figuratively to illustrate some higher spiritual truth. Parables are not fables or myths because the lessons contained in the stories could have actually happened (no fairies or mysticism).

Parables are not a device invented by Jesus (II Samuel 12:1-77, Nathan telling the parable of the sheep to David) but Jesus borrows the device and gives it special meaning. In the New Testament only Jesus uses parables and these are only recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (John has figures, "I am the vine", but not parables). Some are repeated in more than one gospel, and many are exclusive to one gospel (i.e. Matthew, Pearl / Luke, Good Samaritan).

In order to draw accurate lessons from the parables there are some basic rules to follow:

  1. Look for the spiritual truth as it applies to the situation that prompted the telling of the parable in the first place.
    • It was the grumbling of the Pharisees because Jesus ate with sinners that prompted the telling of the parable of the prodigal son. In order to properly interpret the parable, Jesus' words have to be applied to their situation.
  2. Avoid oversimplification or complication. Do not look for meaning in every detail and do not over interpret. Look for the general spiritual principle put forth.
    • To say that the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that the doing of good to others is the be all and end all of Christianity is to oversimplify (neglects the cross of Christ, etc.).
    • To look for meaning to direct the way we operate economic matters in the parable of the master who paid his workers similar wages for different work (Matthew 20:1-7) is to overcomplicate matters.
  3. Parables illustrate truth (like pictures in a textbook illustrate the text) but they do not prove truth. We shouldn't formulate doctrine based on parables alone.
    • We need to remember that parables are not doctrinal statements. They are figurative ways of pointing toward unseen things.
    • Laying a story with concrete things (seen) next to spiritual things (unseen) so that through what is seen, what is unseen becomes clearer.
    • They usually point to some truth which can be found written somewhere else. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates love for neighbor and who neighbor is. In Luke 10:27 Jesus quotes Old Testament scriptures to clearly say it. In this case the parable illustrated the idea but did not invent it.
  4. Look for the meaning or conclusion within the parable itself or within the context before drawing your own conclusion.
    • Sometimes Jesus gives the meaning at the beginning or end (Rich Fool in Luke 12:16-21). Sometimes He asks someone to give the meaning (Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37). Sometimes He responds to a question about the parable from a listener in the group (Peter asks about how something entering a man's mouth cannot defile him). Sometimes people are left to draw their own conclusions (Mark 12:12 shows religious leaders draw the correct conclusion that the parable speaking of wicked servants beating and killing the master's son was really speaking about them).
    • Usually the primary meaning is contained within the parable and applicable to the situation in which the parable is first spoken.
  5. Jesus and His parables are one.
    • Other teachers and moralists can be separated from their teachings because their illustrations are not about themselves. Not so with Jesus. His parables are about Himself and His kingdom. The reason people failed to understand the parables is because they failed to accept Him as the Messiah, and in doing so could not grasp the full meaning of His parables.
    • He told them in such a way that in rejecting Him, they shut themselves off from understanding the things concerning the kingdom taught in the parables.

Kingdom Parables

Matthew 13 has seven parables about the kingdom (one implicit and six explicit), and one small parable about disciples at the endow the chapter. Many of Jesus' parables were about the kingdom, its nature, its coming, value, etc.

The interpretations of these have varied throughout the years depending on the theological positions held. One extreme view sees the kingdom coming suddenly and cataclysmically in the future. This position interprets all parables concerning the kingdom from this perspective (i.e. the leaven rising in the dough suddenly is an image that the kingdom will come suddenly). The other extreme is that the kingdom is fully realized and completed here and we are only adding to it as time goes by (i.e. the leaven rising is interpreted as the on going growth of the kingdom).

A more middle of the road and, in my opinion, biblically accurate interpretation says that the kingdom has been established by Christ here on earth but it will be fulfilled (resurrection and glorification) when He returns (i.e. the leaven is Jesus, the growth is the work of the saints, and the final outcome is His return). Kingdom parables demonstrate the behavior of those who live and develop within the kingdom until the King returns.

Parables in Matthew 13

In Matthew 13 we see seven kingdom parables and an explanation of the reasons for using parables, as well as examples of most of the devices concerning parables mentioned in this chapter.

Jesus telling the parable of the sower and seed as a response to rejection from leaders and people

1That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. 2And large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach.

3And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, "Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. 8And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. 9He who has ears, let him hear."
- Matthew 13:1-9

Explanation of why He will now use parables

10And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" 11Jesus answered them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. 12For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. 13Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,

'You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;

15For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.'

16But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. 17For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
- Matthew 13:10-17

For disciples' teaching and method of separating believers and unbelievers. His use of parables and reason for them is according to prophecy.

Example of Him explaining a parable to disciples (also giving us the correct commentary about the parable within the text)

18"Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. 20The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. 22And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 23And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."
- Matthew 13:18-23

The remaining kingdom parables are in two groups of three separated by two statements and followed by a summary:


Wheat and Tares

24Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. 26But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. 27The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?' 28And he said to them, 'An enemy has done this!' The slaves said to him, 'Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?' 29But he said, 'No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn."'"
- Matthew 13:24-30

Parable of Growing Seed

31He presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches."
- Matthew 13:31-32

Parable of the Leaven

He spoke another parable to them, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened."
- Matthew 13:33

Parenthetical statement that parable use is according to prophecy

34All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. 35This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
"I will open My mouth in parables;
I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world."
- Matthew 13:34-35

Explanation of parable of wheat and tares in response to question from disciples

36Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him and said, "Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field." 37And He said, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, 38and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. 40So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
- Matthew 13:36-43



"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
- Matthew 13:44


45"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, 46and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
- Matthew 13:45-46


47"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; 48and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. 49So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, 50and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- Matthew 13:47-50

Summary Statement

51"Have you understood all these things?" They said to Him, "Yes." 52And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old."
- Matthew 13:51-52

He asks if they understand the parables and they say that they do. He responds with yet another parable, this time comparing them to a head of a household (whose job was to provide for the needs of the household).

They are providers of the household (kingdom) in providing what they have been given and taught, will see and be taught. Some old truths, things known and accepted (the Law and prophets). Some new truths that they have learned from Jesus who taught through parables (the gospel, death, burial and resurrection). If they have learned and understood what He has taught them then they will see how both old and new are connected (the old points to the new, the new fulfills the old) and thus they will be able to feed and teach those in the kingdom, and those seeking the kingdom.


Personal project if you want a little challenge in Bible study.

  1. Choose two parables in this section.
  2. Answer the following questions:
    • What is the main truth?
    • What was the parable saying to the disciples?
    • What meaning does it have for us today?
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