Categories of Bible Literature (VII)


We defined parables as, “Short, simple stories that illustrate spiritual truths.” While there are no books of the Bible devoted to parables, the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) contain many of them. Today we’ll take a closer look at the nature of parables and talk about some tips for understanding them.

Proverbs Serve A Dual Purpose

When most people think of parables, they think of simple stories that make it easy for people to get the point. That is sometimes true, but Jesus made it clear that parables served another purpose. They confound those who don’t understand.

“And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? 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. 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. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. 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: 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. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.” (Mat 13:10-16)

This passage makes it clear that part of the reason the Christ taught in parables was to obscure the truth from those who didn’t have ears to hear it.

Parables Are Extended Metaphors or Similes

We’ve talked about metaphors and similes in earlier lessons. Parables are like methphors and similes – only longer. As you know, similes contain like or as. Here are a couple of sample parables that use like in their extended similes.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Mat 13:44-46)”

Parables Use Everyday Objects and Actions

A lost coin, a lost sheep, planting seeds, etc. Parables almost always have a situation or an action to which the audience can easily relate. Here are a couple of examples:

“And he spake also a parable unto them; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved.” (Luk 5:36-38)”

Parables Have a Central Idea That Illustrates Some Spiritual Truth.

The parables above also illustrate another important point. Parables have a core idea that relates to a spiritual truth. In the parable of the patch, something new is placed on something old, resulting in damage. In the parable of the wineskins, something new is placed in something old, resulting in damage and loss. These parables take a simple idea and make a spiritual comparison. Notice that the spiritual side of this comparison is implied, not expressed.

One key to understanding parables is to focus in on the story’s central theme. If you stray too far from the central idea, you can end up reading things in to the parable that are incorrect. Which leads us to our next point…

Some Elements of Parables May Not Impart Doctrine.

If you try to expand on the details of parables, you’ll may end up misinterpreting the passage. Consider the following parable:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Mat 13:45-46)

Now, the point of this parable is that entering God’s kingdom is worth setting aside anything else to gain it. It’s similar to what the apostle Paul said:

“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,” (Phi 3:7-8)”

If you take the details of this parable too far, you’ll get it wrong. Notice, for example, that the central character and that he purchases the pearl of great price. What if you interpret this to mean that you can buy your way into God’s kingdom? If you sacrifice enough, if you give enough, God will accept you. You wouldn’t be the first one to buy into this idea, but you’d be wrong.

Read More About It

Read Matthew 13 and look for the characteristics we mentioned here.

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