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Why Did Jesus Speak In Parables?

Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. explains why Jesus used parables to teach about the kingdom of heaven to his listeners.By Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. — Mark 4:33–34

This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. — Matthew 13:13

Jesus drew large crowds as he taught and preached. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus spoke a parable nearly every time he taught. This makes perfect sense to us now. We are so familiar with the New Testament parables that we take for granted that at any given moment in Jesus’ teaching ministry, he was likely to offer a parable to make a point or deliver a message.

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[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, How Grace and Truth Are Central Themes Throughout the Bible: An Interview with Dr. Al Mohler]

But at the time, Jesus’ use of parables confused and surprised his own disciples. One of the great gifts of the New Testament is how we can hear the disciples ask Jesus questions, and we can hear Jesus respond. The disciples, puzzled by Jesus’ parables and wishing he would speak more straightforwardly, came right out and asked Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10).

The context of the disciples’ question is vital. Jesus had just shared with the crowd the parable of the sower. The preceding chapter (Matt. 12) describes a growing excitement in Galilee. Crowds were building, drawn both to the presence of Jesus and to the prospect of conflict. The Pharisees had recently confronted Jesus and his disciples in a wheat field on a Sabbath day, charging them with violating the Sabbath by picking grain. Jesus declared himself to be Lord of the Sabbath and pointed out that God had created the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath. This infuriated the Pharisees further, and ever since then they had been doing their best to box Jesus into a corner and show their authority over him.

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The conflict escalated until the Pharisees confronted Jesus in a synagogue on another Sabbath day, where they presented a man with a withered hand to Jesus and asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt. 12:10). This question was both a challenge and a trap. Their intention was to put Jesus in a lose-lose situation. Jesus could either refuse to heal the man (striking a blow to Jesus’ popularity and credibility) or he could heal the man (thus breaking the Sabbath according to the Pharisees’ logic). Of course, Jesus turned the tables once again on the Pharisees, pointing out that they would have the common sense to understand that an animal in trouble should be rescued on the Sabbath day—and they could all agree that God considers human beings of infinitely greater value than animals. Then he simply did what only the Son of God could do: he healed the man’s hand.

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On that crucial Sabbath day, right in the synagogue in front of the gathered crowd, Jesus’ shrewd response to the Pharisees’ challenge had revealed them to be uncaring legalists who did not understand the kingdom of God. Furthermore, by restoring the man’s withered hand, he revealed himself to be the Son of God.

The Pharisees’ response was swift—and would eventually prove deadly. As Matthew tells us, they “went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (v. 14). But on that day, Jesus continued performing signs and miracles that pointed inescapably to his identity as both the Messiah and the Son of God. No one else could do such things.

Predictably, the crowd kept growing—and growing and growing. By the time chapter 13 opens, Jesus had gone out of the house to the Sea of Galilee, where the crowd had grown so large that he had to get into a boat to create enough distance to be able to speak to everyone. The eager listeners pressed to the shoreline to hear Jesus teach from the boat, and this is when he told them the parable of the sower.

That sets the stage for the disciples asking Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The context helps us see that the disciples expected Jesus to speak more directly about himself. They hoped he would publicly claim his Messianic identity and speak openly about his divine nature and mission. But, as we read in the Gospel of John, Jesus knew that his “hour had not yet come” (7:30; 8:20). The disciples knew who Jesus was, and the confrontations with the Pharisees and the series of healings and miracles made obvious Jesus’ divine nature and power. But when Jesus sat in the boat and spoke to the vast crowd, he told them a story. A parable. No wonder the disciples were puzzled. It hardly seemed like the right time for a parable, and a parable about a farmer at that!

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When the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables, they were asking more than they knew—and Jesus’ answer gave them far more than they expected: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 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” (Matt. 13:11–13).

Jesus told them that, in an incredibly important sense, the world is divided into two groups: those who hear and understand the parables, and those who hear but do not understand. The Gospel of Mark underlines this divide when Jesus said to the disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything is in parables” (4:11).

The disciples must have been shocked by Jesus’ answer, and if we are honest, we will sense that same shocking power today. The parables simultaneously reveal and hide. They divide their hearers into two worlds. In one world a parable makes known the secret of the kingdom of God. But in the second world a parable remains only a parable, nothing more.

Now we see more clearly what is at stake in the parables and why Jesus used them virtually every time he taught. It turns out that our response to the parables reveals everything important about us, with eternal consequences. Every one of the parables is an explosive disclosure of the kingdom of heaven, so if we listen to a parable and hear only a story, something is wrong.

The above article is excerpted from Tell Me the Stories of Jesus: The Explosive Power of Jesus’ Parables by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Copyright © 2022 R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Published by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com. All rights reserved.


Tell Me the Stories of Jesus: The Explosive Power of Jesus’ Parables is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.


Bio: R. Albert Mohler Jr. has been called “one of America’s most influential evangelicals” (The Economist) and the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement” (TIME.com). The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he writes a popular blog and a regular commentary, available at AlbertMohler.com, and hosts two podcasts: The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of many books, including We Cannot Be Silent and The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down, and has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, and on programs such as NBC’s TODAY, ABC’s Good Morning America, and PBS NewsHour. He and his wife, Mary, live in Louisville, Kentucky.

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