The Purpose of Parables

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’ ” (vv. 11–12).

- Mark 4:10—12

Like most of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the sower is based on experiences familiar to His first-century Jewish audience. Thus, we might expect that He spoke in parables because they were the best way to get people to understand Him. As today’s passage explains, however, that was not why He spoke in parables. In fact, Jesus taught in parables to hide God’s kingdom from those who are outside it and to reveal it to those who are inside it (Mark 4:11).

Here our Lord implicitly teaches the doctrine of election. All people are outside the kingdom until they encounter our Lord’s teaching. Yet some people hear Him, believe, and become kingdom citizens. Since the parables reveal the kingdom only to those inside it, people who become believers after encountering our Lord’s teaching must have been outside the kingdom in one sense but inside it in another. Those in whom the teaching is effective unto salvation are somehow already in the kingdom before they trust in Christ even though they are also estranged from Him. Only divine election unto salvation explains this reality. The parables and other teachings of Jesus can take root in some who are outside of His kingdom because our Creator’s election guarantees that they will enter the kingdom. Because of election, they are in a sense “as good as in” the kingdom even while at enmity with the Lord, for God will certainly make His Word effective in their hearts. Note, however, that the elect do not actually receive salvation until they believe, and no one should presume that he is elect and does not have to believe. God’s choice of us always manifests itself through our personal faith in Jesus (John 3:1–15; 15:16; Rom. 8–9).

Note also that the hiding of the kingdom through the parables is not a consequence of the teaching in itself. Christ’s teaching is not difficult to comprehend as an intellectual matter. Even today, many unbelievers read the Gospels and understand what Jesus means by His teaching. Their problem is moral hardness—they know what Jesus teaches, but they do not believe it. The parables do not create fresh unbelief in sinners; rather, they confirm the opposition already present, and apart from grace the unregenerate perversely use our Lord’s teaching to increase their resistance. John Calvin comments, “When the word of God blinds and hardens the reprobate, as this takes place through their own depravity, it belongs truly and naturally to themselves, but is accidental, as respects the word.”

Coram Deo

Many of us have the opportunity to teach the Word of God to others. Some of us serve as pastors, elders, Bible study leaders, or Sunday school teachers. Others of us teach our kids the truths of Scripture at home. No matter who we teach, it is a good thing to endeavor to teach in an understandable way. Nevertheless, we must remember that God alone chooses what kind of blessing His Word will bring. We are to be faithful and trust Him to make His Word effective.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 6:8–13
Lamentations 3:65
Matthew 13:10–17
Acts 28:17–31

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