A Brief Introduction to the Parables
by Jack M. Lane
Many Sunday school teachers teach that Christ taught in parables in order to make the meaning clear. But the Bible teaches that Christ taught in parables in order to hide the meaning. What else can we learn about the parables of Christ?
In Matthew chapter 13, we read about the time the disciples came to Christ and asked: “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.'
“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:10-17, NIV throughout).
What is the kingdom?
Many of the parables begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like...”, or “The kingdom of heaven is like...” There is a wide variety of beliefs regarding what the kingdom of God really is. Some teach that the kingdom is something in people’s hearts, or it’s the church, or it’s some nebulous fairy tale something. Some teach that the kingdom is the Millennium, or the kingdom is the resurrection. I have heard many people say, “In the kingdom...” but what they really meant was “During the Millennium...”.
A more biblically accurate teaching is that the kingdom of God is the family of God, ruled by the Father, co-ruled by the resurrected Messiah under the Father, and administered by the saints under the Messiah. We are now called sons of God (Galatians 3:26, 1 John 3:1-2), and we are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:15-17), although in our current mortal form we can be compared to the family of God in embryo, waiting to be born in the resurrection, but still full sons of God, even today.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words relates that the word “kingdom” is translated from the Greek word basileia, which originally meant rulership, reign, dominion; later on the word came to mean the traditional idea of a country with a ruler and subjects.
The phrase “the kingdom of God” as used in the gospels refers to the reign of God in our lives, and whether or not we have placed ourselves under His authority to rule us in our daily activities.
What does this have to do with the parables? When we hear the parables that begin, “The kingdom of God is like...”, we need to listen and decide for ourselves whether the parable describes the resurrection, the Millennium, the body of saints, or our relationship to God’s reign over us. There are times when a parable could be in more than one category, and we need to study and meditate to know what each parable is trying to tell us. For the most part, however, when we read that “the kingdom of God is like” this or that, we can see how we are to learn a lesson from this parable and apply it to our lives today.
Something else important to remember when looking at parables is this: Parables need to be interpreted. They are stories which tell spiritual truths by using people and events which may very well stand for something else.
When you see “The kingdom of God is like...”, you are about to enter a story. The elements of the story mean something. They are there to teach a lesson. The trick is to understand what Messiah meant when He told the story. Take the parable as it comes. Don’t try to read meanings into it out of your own imagination, or your church’s statement of beliefs.
You may have heard the terms “exegesis” and “eisogesis.” Exegesis means getting out of scriptures the meaning that’s there. Eisogesis means reading meaning into scriptures which is not there.
An example of eisogesis is what is often called “proof texting.” You know how people proof text. If they want to tell you about how we are immortal souls that go to heaven, they can string several scriptures together that talk about the soul, immortality, and heaven, and that can appear to show that the Bible teaches the doctrine of the immortal soul. You have to know what the Bible actually teaches in order not to be misled. And you can only know what the scriptures teach by learning the scriptures.
The allegory of the bride of Christ
Here’s a classic example of proof texting: “The wedding ceremony of Christ.” A number of years ago I came across some people who were absolutely sure there will be a wedding ceremony between Christ and the bride of Christ.
When I first read the scriptures about the bride of Christ, I realized it was an allegory, a way of referring to the group of saints who would be resurrected at Christ’s coming (Ephesians 5:25-32). I never thought there would be some kind of wedding ceremony between Messiah as the groom and 144,000 people as the bride. I kept saying things like, “How would you stuff 144,000 people into that dress?” It’s an allegory!
Another allegory in scripture is to call the saints “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 1:22; 5:23-32). Another allegory is to call the saints “the household of God” (Matthew 10:25; Ephesians 2:19), or a dwelling, a temple, or a spiritual house (Ephesians 2:22; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Peter 2:5). No one takes these literally, as if we really are the physical body of the man Yeshua, or that we’re a literal single family dwelling, or a big temple somewhere. But this idea that the saints are literally the bride of Christ really took hold of some people. And they searched the scriptures, looking for the wedding ceremony that will take place. And someone found the wedding ceremony! (Or at least they think they found it.)
It’s all part of a larger picture. First they would go through a long sequence of proof texts to show that we will be changed to immortals in Petra when Christ comes secretly to rapture the saints to heaven. Then they go to Revelation 19. This is taking place in heaven.
“Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7).
So we see the bride in heaven with Christ, getting ready to get married.
“Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints)” (verse 8).
Other translators also see this. For example: “For the fine linen represents the righteous acts of the saints” (Holman Christian Standard Bible). “(‘Fine linen’ means the righteous deeds of God’s people.)” (Complete Jewish Bible). “For the fine linen is (signifies, represents) the righteousness (the upright, just, and godly living, deeds, and conduct, and right standing with God) of the saints (God's holy people)” (Amplified Bible). “For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God's holy people” (New Living Translation).
Some people blow right past that line! These translations show that fine linen stands for, in prophetic interpretation, the righteous acts of the saints! They’re so hung up on what it is they’re going to wear to the wedding, they fail to see the interpretation of the allegory! It’s not the white chenille dress with the pink taffeta – it’s the righteous acts we do in our lifetimes! It’s a parable, an allegory, a picture.
“Then the angel said to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”’ And he added, ‘These are the true words of God.’ At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’” (verses 9-10).
At this point the wedding ceremony is supposed to be taking place in heaven. Then, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war” (verse 11).
I can hear the pipe organ playing the recessional, can’t you? The doors to heaven swing wide open, and the bride and groom come running out, ready to jump on their white horses. So here we are, riding white horses, following our new husband down from heaven, to begin our new life together by smashing enemy tanks and aircraft, and by tying mushroom clouds into knots.
By the way, if clean white linen represents the righteous acts of the saints, what do you suppose white horses represent?
The wedding supper of the Lamb?
And it doesn’t stop there. The folks who present this scenario have found another really great reference to the wedding supper of the Lamb. It’s found in Matthew chapter 22.
1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:
2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.
3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
5 “But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business.
6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.
7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.
9 Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’
10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.
12 ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.
13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:1-14).
And so the lesson is taught: If you are invited to the wedding supper given by the King for His Son, you’d better come, and you’d better be in the right garment. You are the bride of Christ, and you need to be at the wedding. Happy ending, a closing hymn, and let’s get to the coffee social.
How this is flawed thinking
If you are one who believes this line of reasoning, I have probably not said anything that would prove to you that this scenario is not the case. But I think you can tell, I don’t believe this package. Let’s look at several ways that this is a classic example of eisogesis, or reading meaning into the scriptures.
First of all, there is the idea that the bride of Christ is a literal, rather than a figurative, way of referring to the saints. The scriptures are filled with figures of speech, allegories, word plays, pithy sayings, and so forth. “The bride of Christ” is imagery, a construct, a figure of speech.
Secondly, the idea that there needs to be a literal wedding ceremony between a groom and a bride, rather than understanding that being resurrected to immortal life as sons of God is what makes us united with Christ, as so many scriptures say.
Thirdly, the idea that the supposed wedding ceremony is in scripture, somewhere, so let’s go looking until we find it. As anyone familiar with proof texting can tell you, if you go looking for something, you’re bound to find it – even if it’s not there!
The fourth mistake is an important area for you to consider: We have gone looking for a wedding supper put on by the Father on behalf of His Son, and here in the gospels is a parable about a wedding supper put on by a king on behalf of his son. The conclusion has been drawn that this parable is a direct teaching to us about the literal wedding ceremony between Christ and His bride, and therefore we should study this parable because it will teach us more about the wedding ceremony.
This is the kind of thinking that leads people down the primrose path, where they end up swallowing a good-sounding story that someone has concocted, but which is not what the Bible is trying to teach us. In other words, they are not exercising their exegetical skills when they read their Bibles – or rather when they have someone read their Bibles to them.
You may be familiar with the expression, “Let the Bible interpret itself.” That is sound advice. However, Bible students need to be aware that not all things which seem to fit together actually go together. My mother had a favorite example of putting two scriptures together unwisely: “[Judas] went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5); “Go and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).
A fifth problem is that the parable in Matthew 22 is not usually read in context. Let’s take a look again at this parable. But this time let’s back up a few verses. Messiah has already been speaking in parables to a group of people.
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.
46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet (Matthew 21:42-46).
Then we read in Matthew 22:1-2: “Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.’”
And after Messiah finished the parable, what happened? Matthew 22:15: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”
Who was He telling the parable to? The chief priests and the Pharisees. The same people He was just telling a series of parables to. The same people who hated Him and wanted to kill Him.
This is problem number 5 – not realizing the context in which a parable is told.
And by taking the story out of context, the old devil of eisogesis is able to sneak in and put a completely different spin on the story. Then the story is dropped into another context entirely, about Petra, and a secret rapture, and a wedding ceremony in heaven. And a gullible audience swallows it whole.
As an old friend used to say, a text without a context is a pretext!
I won’t take the time now to go over this parable in Matthew 22 again. But I want you to take the time to read it yourself later, and draw your own conclusions. Does it talk about a wedding ceremony in heaven? Or does it talk about how the chief priests and Pharisees might miss out on something really good if they didn’t change their ways?
Then you need to decide: If the kingdom of heaven is like this, which kingdom is it talking about – the Millennium, the resurrection, the family of God, the reign of God, or something else entirely? You be the judge. I just want to equip you to be judges who judge righteous judgment. You should now have the skills to analyze the parables better, and come to more correct conclusions when you look at the parables.
The kingdom of heaven is like so many things, told in so many parables. From this we should be able to realize that God’s kingdom has many features, many facets, many deep things to think about, many ways to approach it, just as the parables do.
With that as a background, I hope you will have many hours of happy and productive hunting in the parables of Christ.