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Parables are stories and illustrations drawn from real-life experiences that teach a truth or illustrate a principle. In Scripture, parables are particularly characteristic of Jesus’ instruction, but He is not the only figure in the Bible who used parables.


One of the most well-known aspects of the Bible is its frequent use of parables to teach and apply truth. These short stories, using people, vocations, and actions from everyday life, make teaching points concrete and memorable, helping readers and hearers to retain the instruction. Parables invite listeners to dwell on the teaching at hand and to ask whether and how it is true of them. For example, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25–32) not only teaches the profound depth of the mercy of God toward sinners, but it also encourages the reader to consider whether he might be like the older brother when he frowns on the Lord’s grace toward sinners who are like the younger brother in the parable.

Parables typically emphasize one major point. For instance, the chief point of the parable of the seed growing (Mark 4:26–29) is the mysterious growth of the kingdom of God that occurs in His hidden providence as the Word does its work in the hearts and minds of its hearers. Sometimes, however, the one major point in a parable may be complex. The parable of the sower, also known as the parable of the soils (vv. 1–20), is a good example of this. Its main point concerns the type of heart that receives and believes the words of Jesus. Only good soil—receptive hearts—believe our Savior, trust in Him alone, and bear the fruit of the kingdom. But the point is complex in that the parable also shows the kind of hearts that do not receive the kingdom, the work of Satan in keeping the kingdom from taking root in the hearts of its hearers, and so on.

Not every little detail in a parable should be pressed for symbolic meanings. However, some parables use different aspects of the story to represent different things. Consider the parable of the tenants (Matt. 21:33–46). In this parable, the master represents God, the vineyard represents Israel, the first group of tenants represents the faithless leaders of Israel, the servants represent the faithful prophets and teachers of Israel, the son of the master represents Jesus, and the second group of tenants represents the faithful people of God made up of Jews and gentiles who trust in Christ. This second group of tenants receives the kingdom of God when the first group of tenants proves unwilling to trust in the Lord.

The parable of the tenants shows us another key truth about parables—namely, that they both reveal and conceal the truth of God. This does not mean primarily that some people understand what is being taught in a parable and others do not, although that happens on occasion. Parables reveal and conceal the truth of God in that they have different effects on audiences depending on the condition of the hearts of those in the audience. When parables conceal something, they harden the hearts of the audience against the truth of the parable. So, the chief priests and Pharisees who heard the parable of the tenants understood what Jesus was saying about them, but their hearts were hardened against the message. Instead of repenting of their sin, they plotted to arrest Jesus (Matt. 21:45–46).

As noted, parables can be found throughout the Bible. One famous Old Testament parable is the parable that Nathan told David to point out his sin regarding Uriah and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:1–15). Ezekiel 17 features the parable of the two eagles and a vine. The Old Testament prophets often performed prophetic signs, which may be seen as parables in action. Jeremiah, for instance, purchased a field to teach the people of Judah that God would restore them to their land after the Babylonian exile (Jer. 32). Old Testament wisdom teaching often has much in common with parables, such as in the description of the virtuous wife in Proverbs 31:10–31.

Although parables can be found throughout Scripture, they are particularly associated with Jesus. Christ frequently used parables during His earthly teaching ministry. We find His parables chiefly in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke); however, the gospel of John also features a few parables, such as the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10:1–18). Many of Jesus’ parables are based on the commercial and agricultural life of first-century Jews in Galilee and Judea, which made His parables particularly effective for conveying truth to the people of that day. These parables are clear enough and general enough, however, that even we who live thousands of years later can understand them with just a little bit of effort. Some of His most well-known parables besides the aforementioned parable of the soils, the parable of the tenants, and the parable of the prodigal son include the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30–32), the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24–30), the parable of the pearl of great price (vv. 45–46), the parable of the wineskins (Luke 5:36–39), and the parable of the good Samaritan (10:25–37).


When we hear a parable, we nod in agreement because the story is true to life and readily understood.

Simon J. Kistemaker

The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told

While the parables do illustrate and clarify truth for those with ears to hear, they have precisely the opposite effect on those who oppose and reject Christ.

John F. MacArthur


A few parables might have two major points or possibly even three, but we do not treat them as true allegories, finding hidden significance for every single element.