Thoughts from Matthew 13…
Jesus had spent over a year traveling through Galilee, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles (see here and here). He gathered large crowds and the people were excited to see what this man would do next! But when challenged, the people would rather listen to their leaders, believing He was from the devil, than over Him as their King (see here).
Facing the unbelief and rejection of the people, Jesus changed His method of teaching. He no longer taught directly about the kingdom of heaven, but instead, left His message encoded within parables.
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
These parables were simple illustrations that conveyed a much deeper spiritual truth. But they had a twofold purpose:
- They illuminated the truth for those who believed. Jesus explained the meaning of many of His parables, but only privately to His disciples when asked.
- They concealed the truth from those who would not believe. He no longer taught truth to those who rejected Him.
See the previous post for more details about the purpose of parables.
This section of Matthew’s gospel account (Matthew 13) contains a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven. But we only have explanations in Scripture for three of these parables (See the previous post for the first parable, the Parable of the Sower).
Therefore, we face the same question that Bible scholars have faced since the days of the early church. How do we interpret these parables? What do they mean? Why did God give us these parables if He didn’t also show us the meaning?
As we look at each of these parables, it is important to remember the following principles:
- Who was the audience? We often look at these stories and jump to what it means for us. Yes, there is truth in each of these stories that we can apply to our lives, but don’t forget that Jesus was not addressing 21st-century Christians when He was speaking. Who was He speaking to?
- What were the circumstances? What were the events in Jesus’ life when He was teaching these parables? How would these events direct His message?
- What does other Scripture say? Jesus never taught a message that contradicted other words from God. Therefore, any interpretation of His teaching — including the parables — must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.
And finally, we cannot be dogmatic about our own conclusions when they are not in scripture. We can make inferences and assumptions, but we always need to go back to God’s Word as the source of truth and authority. See also the link here for more information about how to read and understand God’s word.
So why didn’t Jesus explain all of His parables? Pastors and Bible scholars have provided several possible answers:
First, remember again that Jesus was directing His parables to His disciples, not to us. Therefore, the disciples might have understood their meaning without further explanation. All of these parables are references to their culture and their times, using illustrations that they could easily recognize. The messages would have been easier for them to understand than for us who are much further removed.
But there is still a mystery in these parables which we cannot simply explain by the culture and the times. The entire crowd heard the parables but the meanings were hidden from the unbelievers.
Beyond the simple cultural understanding, these are other common answers for why we do not have explanations for all of Jesus’ parables:a
- His message may have been already clear to the disciples. This is similar to the cultural understanding, but the disciples had spent the entire day with Jesus, and therefore would have the best context for understanding what He was about to teach them.
- Jesus might have explained the parables, but the explanations were never recorded in Scripture. Matthew may have simply not seen it necessary to include all of the explanations.
- Many times we don’t understand the parables because we try too hard. Jesus isn’t necessarily drawing a parallel to every nuance of these stories. We drive ourselves into confusion when we look for a spiritual allegory for every aspect within a parable. For example, in the parable of the pearl, we don’t need to understand the value, consistency, or location of the pearl.
- Jesus may have intentionally left some of His parables unexplained. He didn’t always explain everything about Himself, as the disciples were often not ready to understand Him. The understanding could come later (see also John 16:25-26).
For us, we don’t always know the explanations for everything Jesus said. There are still many things that He has yet to reveal.