Why did Jesus teach in parables? Before we can answer this question, we need to understand what parables are. The Gospels record 39 distinct parables of Jesus. These range in length from the Parable of the Old Garment, which is given in only one verse (cf. Luke 5:36), to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which covers some 21 verses (cf. Luke 15:11–32). Some parables are unique, being only found in one of the Gospel narratives, while other parables appear in each of the Synoptic Gospels. Note that the Gospel of John contains no parables—at least not as parables are commonly understood—for John’s focus was more upon recording Jesus’ teaching narratives, especially to his disciples.
The word “parable” in Greek literally means “to come alongside.” Parables, then, were short stories given by Jesus in order “to come alongside” His listeners and to teach an important spiritual truth. Since they convey more than just a moral truth, parables are not fables; and since they focus upon more than just words and phrases, parables are not metaphors, similes or word pictures. Indeed, parables are a unique genre of literature and they are the most common way Jesus taught, especially when speaking to large crowds (cf. Matt. 13:34). To modern readers, at first glance, parables may seem like colorful examples that clarify Jesus’ teachings. In a similar manner to sermon illustrations, then, contemporary Christians may assume that Jesus primarily used parables to explain His doctrines, which may have seemed complex to the common crowds. Yet is this a correct understanding of Jesus’ use of parables?
The reason why Jesus taught in parables was not to explain spiritual truths to the crowds, but to keep spiritual truths from the crowds.
Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?
Observe that after giving the Parable of the Soils, which is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (cf. Matt. 13:3–23; Mark 4:2–32; Luke 8:4–15), and before He explained its meaning, Jesus was asked by His disciples, “Why do You speak to the crowds in parables?” (Matt. 13:10). The precise reason why the apostles asked this question is not stated; however, it may have been the case that the disciples were afraid the people did not understand Jesus’ teachings (cf. Mark 4:13). Regardless of the rationale for the disciples’ question, Christ’s answer about His use of parables is both surprising and instructive. Jesus replied that He taught in parables for this reason: “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matt. 13:11).
In other words, the reason why Jesus taught in parables was not to explain spiritual truths to the crowds, but to keep spiritual truths from the crowds. Lest we doubt or misunderstand Christ’s answer here, Jesus noted that the veiling of spiritual truths from the unbelieving crowds is actually a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy given at Isa. 6:9–10. Note Luke’s account of this narrative, as he refers to Jesus’ citation of Isa. 6:9, and writes,
And Jesus said to the disciples, ‘To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, [so] that, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand”’ (Luke 8:10; cf. Mark 4:11–12).
Yet this invites the question: Why would Jesus purposefully veil truth from unbelievers? By way of response we can note that the condition of the unbelieving crowds was both a natural result of their own rejection of Christ’s message, and a divine response of judicial blinding on account of their sin (cf. 2 Thess. 2:11–12). Indeed, whenever spiritual truth is communicated—be it plainly or in parables—acceptance will always result in understanding and growth (cf. Rom. 3:20; 10:17), while rejecting truth will always result in confusion and hardness of heart (cf. Ps. 81:12; Rom. 1:24). This idea is communicated all throughout Scripture.
Jesus’ Parables and Self-Evaluation
So, as we read Christ’s parables in the Gospel narratives, let us be confident that while certain of the parables can be very challenging to understand, the Holy Spirit who indwells all of God’s people will “guide [believers]. . . into all truth” (John 16:13) and God’s Word—which contains parables—is truth (cf. John 17:17). Yet, if the parables of Christ make no sense to us, or if their meaning eludes others to whom we are ministering, let us consider Jesus’ teaching about His rationale for speaking in parables. Indeed, we must always evaluate ourselves, and others, in light of God’s Word in order to make sure that our lack of understanding of a given parable is not a symptom of a wider rejection of spiritual truth.