This Sunday evening, the pastors of Pray’s Mill Baptist Church where I serve as pastor, will begin a series through the parables. In preparation for that series, I’ve been reading and thinking about the purpose of parables in the preaching and teaching ministry of Jesus. What is the point of parable as a genre? Why did Jesus employ parables? What can we learn today from Jesus’ parables as we consider the art of sermon crafting and sermon delivery? The answer to such questions are both expected and shocking at the same time.
What is a parable? A parable is a specific type of genre. In the Bible we see differing types of genre such as law, wisdom, history, narrative, poetry, didactic, gospel, and the always exciting apocalyptic literature. The parable is a short fictional story used for the purpose of revealing and concealing truth—sometimes simultaneously. John MacArthur, in his excellent book titled, Parables, writes:
A parable is not merely a simple analogy. It’s an elongated simile or metaphor with a distinctly spiritual lesson contained in the analogy. Short figures of speech like “as strong as a horse” or “as quick as a rabbit” are plain similes—simples and straightforward enough not to require an explanation. A parable extends the comparison into a longer story or more complex metaphor, and the meaning (always a point of spiritual truth) is not necessarily obvious. Most of Jesus’ parables demanded some kind of explanation. 
John MacArthur goes on to writes, “A parable is an ingeniously simple word picture illuminating a profound spiritual lesson.”  While some people define a parable as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” it would do us well to go far beyond that simplistic definition of a parable. MacArthur’s definition is helpful on several levels as it points to the illuminating work and the profound spiritual lesson.
Powerful Stories to Illustrate Truth
There is no mistaking the power of a good story. Jesus, as the master-teacher in the history of the world, certainly understood this truth. In a masterful way, Jesus would take a story and use it to illustrate a truth in a powerful manner. Although our Lord did not always speak in parables (most of the Sermon on the Mount is not parable), he used them frequently as devices to illustrate the truths of God to his disciples. What does it mean to illustrate truth?
First, we must understand that Jesus used fictional tales that he made up for the purpose of illustrating truth. These stories were not true, although they certainly followed the storyline of normal everyday life in such a way that connected with normal everyday people. However, we must not forget that Jesus was certainly teaching absolute truth. Parables are not open riddles left to the reader’s flowery imagination to interpret how he or she so desires. The story may be flowery, but only in so far as to illustrate the concrete truth to his followers. Parables added color and life to the concrete truth in such a way that his followers could understand and remember.
We must reject the notion that “a sermon is not a doctrinal lecture. It is an event-in-time, a narrative art form more akin to a play or a novel in shape than to a book. Hence we are not engineering scientists; we are narrative artists by professional function.”  Such ideas may sound attractive to the post-truth culture, but for those entrusted with God’s Word, we must rightly handle the Word of truth. The use of stories may help illustrate a truth, but the idea that doctrine and story cannot live under the same roof is a misrepresentation of parabolic literature.
Practical Stories to Reveal Truth
Parables were often practical stories about normal characters in life such as “two sons” or the “sheep and goats.” How more practical could you get than a story about marriage or fishing? Such stories connected with people, but they were not just designed to evoke a feeling in the listeners as much as they were vehicles to deliver truth. As we discussed the ability of Jesus to illustrate truth with such stories, parables were also used to unveil truth that was never before known to his followers.
When Jesus wanted to reveal truth to his followers, he would at times provide such revelation through the use of a parable. One example is the parable of the sower as recorded in Matthew 13. After Jesus told the story of the sower, he was asked, “Why do you speak in parables?” Jesus responded by saying, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matt. 13:11). In another place, Jesus prayed to the Father and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight” (Matt. 11:25-26).
Polemical Stories to Conceal Truth
Often people view Jesus’ parables as little pithy stories designed to teach and explain spiritual truths. In fact, many believe that Jesus, as the master-teacher, is seeking to put the cookies on the bottom shelf for everyone to understand. However, it may come as a shock to you that Jesus often used parables to conceal truth from people. Rather than seeking to unveil the truth to all, Jesus often spoke with parables in order to conceal truths that were never designed for some people to understand. Why would Jesus want to hide truth from people?
In one sense, Jesus’ parabolic teaching was a judgment upon the wicked. They were not given eyes to see and ears to hear of these grand truths—and so as Jesus preached to his disciples—the God hating, Jesus despising, and highly religious Jews of the day were being judged. Such judgment was evident as Jesus said:
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’ 
The polemical idea of parabolic teaching is that Jesus is calling out the unbelievers and their hard hearts by pronouncing a judgment upon them. Parables may be a blessing to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, but they are clearly judgment upon those who are seeing but cannot see and having ears are unable to hear and understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Last of all, this veiled judgment is a mercy upon the wicked at the same time. For, just as Jesus warned the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum—those who have heard more gospel and seen more of God’s light of truth will be held accountable for it on the day of judgment. In other words, had those people understood the parables of Jesus—they would have been held to a much more strict judgment and the truth would have been a more severe weight of judgment on them in eternity. Therefore, God in his judgment is merciful at the same time. We should praise God for his judgments and his mercy—for in both we see the goodness of God.
Matthew 13:11 — And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
- John MacArthur, Parables, (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), xxiv.
- Ibid., xxvi.
- Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), xx-xxi.
- Matthew 13:13-15 (ESV).
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