July 16, 2020

Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?

Sometimes we think of Jesus as the master storyteller. But Christ’s parables serve a greater purpose than to entertain. Today, Sinclair Ferguson explains the role that the parables played in Jesus’ ministry and how we should read them today.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: I'm here on the Ligonier campus with Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, one of our teaching fellows. Dr. Ferguson, why did Jesus speak in parables?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Great question, Nathan. Let me begin with a negative. He didn't speak in parables because He liked using illustrations. You know, people often say to their teachers, "You should use more illustrations, like Jesus." Jesus spoke in parables because He found it the best way to expose the true spiritual condition of those to whom He was preaching.

And He says this actually in connection with parables in Matthew 13 and verse 10. He's been telling parables and the disciples want to know, "Why is it that You're speaking in parables?" Well, they were used to parables, but they were not used to teachers telling so many parables. And Jesus answers the question by saying this. The disciples came and said to Him, "Why did you speak to them in parables?" He answered them, "Not because people need illustrations." People do need illustrations; that's an important point. It's not the point Jesus makes. He answered them: "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."

So, if I can use an analogy: You tell a joke. The punchline in a joke is usually at the end, and sometimes you're with people who just don't get it. They just do not get the point. The parables are not jokes, but in a parallel way, the punchline in most parables comes at the end. And what Jesus is doing is assessing whether people get it or not.

Now, people who go to church"this is the twenty-first century; we know what the parables mean. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector"it's no surprise to us to learn that it was the tax collector who was justified. If it's no surprise to us, that means we've actually missed the point of the parable. So actually even for us today, maybe especially for us today, the parables actually disclose our true spiritual condition. If I am not totally surprised that that's the answer, even though I know that's the answer, especially if I know that's the answer, then I've actually missed the point. If I'm not surprised by how the kingdom works and how the grace of God works, it actually reveals something about me. And I think this is an interesting illustration because it points out the fact that I can say, "Well, I understand that parable, but I don't really understand it at all." So I see, but I don't really see.

So parables are not merely illustrations. In a sense, they are tests of where we are spiritually, and that's why it's so important that when we read them we really need to be surprised by them and to ask the question, What is it that's so surprising about the grace of God here?