Life of Christ 68
We discussed recently what I call the hinge pivot of the ministry of Christ, which is found in Matthew 12. In the tug of war between Jesus and the Pharisees for the soul of Israel the Pharisees advanced the unforgivable theory that Jesus did His miracles because He was possessed by Satan, and Israel began to move in the Pharisees' direction.
Following this, a whole lot changes, and one of the things that changed was how Jesus approached the preaching portion of His public ministry. Increasingly, He turned from clear and plain sermons to the stories we know of as parables. The word 'parable' is found 47 times in the New Testament but it isn't found anywhere prior to Matthew 13, and this isn't an accident. Prior to the unforgivable sin in Matthew 12 He hadn't told any; after that He told many. The question I want to deal with today is why? Why was there such a dramatic shift to parables in Matthew 13? Why go in that direction?
The classic definition of a parable is a statement or story that conveys meaning indirectly via an allegory, simile, or metaphor. There will be a surface story or truth, but the deeper meaning underneath is the main point.
Matthew 13.10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
11 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.
Why was it given to the disciples, but not to the rest of Israel? Because the rest of Israel had smacked away the open hand being offered by Christ. In almost two years of public ministry Jesus had offered Himself as their Messiah, King, and God. He had authenticated His claims with many varied and indisputable miracles. He had matched it with a spotless life. He had accompanied it with powerful sermons. He had paired it with a life of fulfilled prophecy.
Their response to all of this was a gradually increasing hardness and hostility that had recently burst into the open flame of plans to assassinate Him. Thus it is that He turns from openly offering Himself to this nation that has already chosen to reject Him, and begins to focus on the handful who have accepted Him.
Matthew 13. 12 For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
13 Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
15 For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
In essence, then, He either needs to make His ministry completely private at this point, which would prevent Him from reaching any future converts, or else He needs to adjust His course. People will still flock to Him in great numbers, but those crowds will be made up mostly of people who have already chosen to reject Him, accompanied at the same time by some who do believe, mixed all together with a handful who are still weighing Him in the balance. Rather than attempt to physically speak only to those who believed on Him, or to separate the believers out of every crowd, He adopted the method of parables. This would allow those who believed in Him to understand Him, and those who rejected Him wouldn't.
Remember, He came looking for belief, and believers have a key to spiritual knowledge that unbelievers do not (I Corinthians 2.14).
Matthew 13.9 Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Matthew 13.34 All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:
35 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 13.43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
I think several important things flow from this. For instance, understanding this gives us solid reasons to look for secondary or spiritualized meanings in the text of Jesus' parables.
I'm a firm believer in a literal interpretation of Scripture. It is sometimes called the historical grammatical approach to interpretation. It seeks to set the text in the history and culture of its own time, and emphasize and explain certain words as they were normally understood then.
There is another approach to hermeneutics called spiritualizing. It takes the literal words of God and explains them away under the guise of finding the real meaning behind what is said. Generally speaking, this approach, when widely used is dangerous. Why? Because it takes away the simplicity and power of God's words and replaces them with mere human thoughts, and because it makes the mind of the interpreter the authority. Religious movements that take the spiritualized approach to Scripture never stay orthodox in doctrine or practice over the long term as too much of humanity and sin leaks into their religion.
On the other hand, a literal approach is the normal approach we take when someone is talking, and a literal approach is the approach that Jesus and the Apostles took as they interpreted the Torah. Having said that, a literal approach still leaves room for figures of speech, and some secondary meaning. For instance, when I hear my teenage son say, 'I'm starving' I take it to mean he is hungry, not that he is actually starving.
So how do I determine, as I interpret the Bible, which is which? How do I determine when to give the Bible, that I normally approach literally, a secondary spiritualized meaning, without being inappropriate? The short answer is when the author Himself tells me I can. The only one who has the right to correctly assert a secondary spiritualized meaning is the person who wrote it. No one else can completely know the author's mind. In this case, with Scripture, the author is God, and He is careful to tell us here in Matthew 13 that Jesus' parables will have a greater meaning than just the one that lies on the surface.
Understanding this, then, gives us not only permission to look for a deeper meaning, but the motivation with which to do so. Oil companies pay billions of dollars for mineral rights precisely because they have a good reason to believe there is oil under that ground. I've got good reason to believe that there is great truth contained beneath the surface of Jesus' parables, and that motivates me to go get it.
Understanding this also helps us grasp why Jesus seemed sometimes so cold or evasive or silent when somebody professed to be asking for what He thought. Periodically, we will come across people or groups who ask Jesus what He thinks or believes about something, and He doesn't give a straight answer. This is because He knew they weren't actually interested in the real answer. 'Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you' (Matthew 7.6).
Occasionally I am asked what the Bible says about disciplining children. My answer to that question depends, in large part, on who is doing the asking. If it is a reporter from the Chicago Tribune I will handle it differently than I would if it was a troubled parent whom I know and whom I trust. The former is looking for controversy to make a story and get attention. The latter is looking for help. So while I won't lie to the former I also certainly wouldn't tell them everything I thought or believed. In a real sense, I believe this is exactly what Jesus was doing. Some people He would not deem worth the actual answer.
Beloved, if Jesus is still speaking directly to you treasure it. Conviction isn't fun, and often we don't like what God has to say to us. But the alternative, the one in which He ignores us, speaking over us to deal in reality with the few around us who care, is much, much worse. Amos goes through a long series of judgments that would come to the Jews as a result of disobedience, but amongst all of them the worst was this: 'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD' (Amos 8.11).
Don't reject Him. Don’t reject His words. Don’t reject His offers. For He won't keep offering forever.
If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 39, 'Why Parables?'