Parables Explained - Riverside Indonesian Fellowship

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Bible Study 2021
Parables Explained
Matthew 13:11-15 says, “His disciples came and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?” 11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. 12 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.”

“13 That is why I use these parables, for they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand. 14 This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10 that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend. 15 For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear and they have closed their eyes, so their eyes cannot see.”

“And their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.” So while parables do illustrate and clarify truth for those who have ears to hear, they have precisely the opposite effect on those who oppose and reject Christ. The symbolism hides the truth from anyone without the desire to seek out Christ’s meaning. It was divine judgment against those who looked at His teaching with unbelief or apathy.

These parables were not just a reflection of how God condemns unbelief; they were also an expression of His mercy. Look at how Jesus describes these unbelievers in verse 15, “For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear and they have closed their eyes, so their eyes cannot see and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.”

Their unbelief was stubborn. The more they heard Christ, the more truth they were accountable for and the more severe their judgment would be. Luke 12:48 says, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.” Parables had the effect of awakening the minds of people when struck by the simplicity, so they became eager to discover the underlying meanings.

When explained, parables were illuminating illustrations of important truths. But for those who hated Him, the unexplained parables remained riddles without clear meaning. Matthew 11:25-26 says, “Jesus prayed this prayer: “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. 26 Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way!”

But our Lord did not always speak in parables. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is straight forward exhortation. Though Jesus closes the sermon with the short parable of the wise and foolish builders. But the substance of the message, starting with the Beatitudes, is delivered in direct statements, commandments, exhortations and words of warning. There are many word pictures in there: a courtroom, a prison scene, the amputations of hands etc.

But they are not parables. Jesus best known public speech is simply a classic sermon, dominated by doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. Some of the longest, most detailed records of Jesus’ public sermons are found in John’s gospel and none of them include parables. So it is not accurate to imply that Jesus used narrative preaching more than any other style. Parables were just a response to unbelief and rejection.

The stories of Jesus can be interpreted endlessly and are therefore meaningless, because real understanding requires faith, diligence, careful exegesis and a genuine desire to understand what Christ is saying. No unbeliever will ever grasp the mysteries of the kingdom by filtering these stories through human wisdom. But God has revealed hem to us through His Holy Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (1 Cor.2:10)

A parables refers to an analogy between some common place reality and a profound spiritual truth. The juxtaposition of common thigs alongside transcendental truth is what is most distinctive about a parable. Simply put, a parable is an illustrative figure of speech made for comparison’s sake and specifically for the purpose of teaching a spiritual lesson. The lesson revealed in the comparison is the central point.

Jesus’ parables never have elements of myth or fantasy. The parables of Jesus are all believable, true-to-life illustrations. Not a single parable is recorded in John, all but one of the recorded parables are found in Matthew and Luke. In most cases parables make one simple point. Trying to find meaning in every story element is bad hermeneutics. Built into these parables is the promise of blessedness to the one who understands the truth they teach.

So let us begin with the parable in Luke 8:4-10, “One day Jesus told a story in the form of a parable to a large crowd that had gathered from many towns to hear him: 5 “A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. 6 Other seed fell on ground on top of rocks. It began to grow, but the plant soon wilted and died for lack of moisture.”

7 Other seed fell among thorns that grew up with it and choked out the tender plants. 8 Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted!” When Jesus had said this, He called out, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” 9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of God.”

“But to the rest of the people it is given in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Now let us look at what Jesus told the crowd, He names four different types of soil. First there is this “Footpath soil” which are unplowed footpaths that are as hard as concrete. Seed would not grow there and birds would eat it. The second soil is a rock bed underneath a shallow layer of good soil.

In such soil the seed would germinate but it will soon wither away because of lack of water. The roots cannot pass the layer of rock. The third soil mentioned by Jesus is weed infested soil. Thorns and thistles are harmful to crops because they take over and choke them out. Freshly plowed weed infested soil might look good but they will kill the crop. Finally the fertile soil. It is prepared clean soil.

And Jesus says this seed will bring forth thirtyfold, sixtyfold and even a hundredfold. A hundredfold does not mean that each seed will become a hundred seeds. This expression speaks of the return on the farmer’s original financial investment. For every denarius spend on seed, he earns a hundred denarii in the sale of his crops. Tenfold would be a healthy return. Thirty or sixtyfold return would be spectacular.

A hundredfold return on his financial investment would be a huge profit. Now notice that nothing is mentioned about the sower and his skill. There is only one sower. Nothing is said about the quality of the seed. The lesson Jesus is teaching is all about the soil! Jesus therefore urges those who hear to investigate the true meaning of the parable. Luke 8:8, “When He had said this, He called out, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”

He said listen with a believing heart. Jesus said later in Luke 8:18, “So pay attention to how you hear. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.” In Mark 4:10 it says, “Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant.”

Sometimes Jesus speaks of “mysteries.” But He is not talking about some teaching that is reserved for only advanced or enlightened followers. A biblical mystery is a spiritual truth that was obscure or totally hidden under the Old Testament but now has been fully revealed in the New Testament. The fact that the Gentiles would be fellow heirs and partakers of the Gospel was one such mystery. The incarnation of Christ was also a mystery.

Paul describes the entire earthly ministry of Christ, everything from His birth to His ascension, as the ‘mystery of godliness.’ But the unveiling of these mysteries was on purpose very subtle, so only authentic believers understood the truths that Jesus was teaching. But no one was excluded against his or her will. Anyone who truly wanted to understand could have asked. Jesus urged every person within earshot to seek understanding.

Now let us read the explanation from Jesus Himself in Luke 8:11-15, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is God’s Word. 12 The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved. 13 The seeds on the rocky soil represent those who hear the message and receive it with joy.”

“But since they don’t have deep roots, they believe for a while, then they fall away when they face temptation. 14 The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity. 15 And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, and patiently produce a huge harvest.”

The seed represents God’s Word which is the gospel message, the good news of the kingdom. The imagery of a seed is also used in Psalm 126:5-6, “Those who plant in tears will harvest with shouts of joy. 6 They weep as they go to plant their seed, but they sing as they return with the harvest.” The sower is not specifically identified, because his identity is not important. It is anyone who is distributing the seed.

Anyone who proclaims the Word of God through preaching, personal evangelism, individual testimony or whatever is a sower. The point of the parable has to do with the soil and that is a picture of the human heart. There are four different kinds of hearts. Luke 8:12 says, “The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved.”

The heart is where the seed of God’s Word ought to take root. So the parable is about hearts that are in different stages of preparedness. What makes them distinct from each other is whether they are able to produce fruit or not. So this has nothing to do with the skill of the sower or the quality of the seed. In other words it has nothing to do with how well you present God’s word and how well you pick what you present of God’s Word.

So many people are afraid that what they present is not good enough or what they talk about is not the right portion of Scripture. Really how you became a Christian has nothing to do with how well you told your story. The only factor that differentiates between an abundant harvest and no harvest on the hard condition of the footpath ground is simply only the condition of the soil which is the human heart.

The church today desperately needs to be reminded of this. Because evangelicals constantly adopt unbiblical methodologies because they think that they can affect a better response from these shallow and worldly hearts. Some people alter the seed, they change God’s message, they tone down the offense of the cross and leave unpopular parts out. And there are preachers that interpret the bible wrongly and thus create a different message.

Some people abandon the church altogether and think that they can devise a better use for it. Why not use it for musical entertainment or make it a movie theater. But this parable is not about enhancing the quality of the seed or improving the skill of the sower or finding a more elegant use for the farm. It is all about the condition of the soil. Whether the Word of God bears fruit in the life of a hearer depends on the condition of that person’s heart.

The Footpath Hearer

Unbelief and love of sin has made this heart dense and rock like, where truth cannot penetrate. The hearer is spiritually dead and is influenced by Satan. Luke 8:12, “The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved.” The goal of the sower is so people believe and are saved.

Inevitably we all will meet hearers whose hearts are like concrete, the bible calls them “stiff-necked.” They have hardened their hearts against turning to the Lord. They are depicted by a footpath that is not fenced and lies exposed to all evil that comes along. It is never plowed by conviction. Indifference and love for sin have made this person’s heart dry and impenetrable. Jesus here is not describing atheists, but the religious elite, the Pharisees.

Jesus said of them in John 8:44, “For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Satan confuses people through false teachers who come in Christ’s name but subtly undermine the truth of the gospel.

Satan also exploits sinful human passions like fear of what people might think, pride, anger, stubbornness, prejudice, and various lusts. He appeals to the fallen heart’s love for the pleasures of sin. It is easy for him to make himself appealing to those who love darkness. Then having obtained the sinner’s trust and attention, he diverts the mind from the truth of the Word to snatching it away from the person’s consciousness.

The Shallow Hearer

The soil spread thinly over a layer of rock illustrates a shallow hearted person who responds immediately but only superficially. Without deep roots, vegetation cannot live long in a dry climate. Such growth is useless for any profitable purpose. This describes the way some people respond to the gospel. They are excited, but all that enthusiasm obscures the fact that there is no root. They only believe in the beginning.

Each person who responds positively to the gospel will experience a “time of temptation.” It can also refer to a trial or a test. The new disciple’s faith will be tested by calamities or persecution or difficulties that makes it hard to maintain a belief that is shallow. And no matter how enthusiastic the response may have seemed in the beginning, that person will fall away, meaning that person will abandon the faith completely.

Colossians 1:23 says, “But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. The Good News has been preached all over the world, and I, Paul, have been appointed as God’s servant to proclaim it.” Perhaps they think that Jesus will fix their worldly problems or make life easier for them. They don’t count the cost.

Jesus tells us that great joy sometimes accompanies false conversions. A person’s fruit will reveal that. Matthew 12:33, “A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” That person never was a believer. 1 John 2:19 says, “These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us.”

The Worldly Hearer

This type of soil, the weedy soil, represents a heart preoccupied with worldly matters. Luke 8:14 says, “The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity.” There will be some initial sign that they receive the way of faith. But at some point the cares of this world choke out the Word.

This time the soil is well plowed and deep enough, but there are all kinds of impurities in it. The values of this temporal world like sinful pleasures and earthly ambitions such as money, prestige and possessions deluge the heart and muffle the truth of God’s Word. Luke 16:13 says, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.”

1 Timothy 6:9-10 says, “But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” James 4:4 says, “If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God.”

1 John 2:16 says, “For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world.” The weeds and thorns in the parable represent selfishness and sinful desire of this world that is from Satan. Material wealth and pleasure are not inherently evil. But it is evil to love the gift more than the Giver.

A classic example is the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. But he was a materialist and a lover of his world and Jesus knew it. Jesus told him to keep the commandments and he said he had obeyed all those commandments. Verse 21-22, “Then Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

“22 But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” He loved worldly values more than he loved God. Here is what the footpath hearer, the shallow hearer and the worldly hearer have all in common, they bring forth no fruit. All three varieties of fruitless soil are emblematic of unbelievers, including those who originally showed some promise but failed to bear fruit.

The Fruitful Hearer

The final soil is well plowed and produces the desired crop. Luke 8:15, “And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, and patiently produce a huge harvest.” This is the truly prepared heart. Jesus is describing someone whose heart is well prepared that when that person hears the gospel, he or she receives it with understanding and genuine faith.

Perseverance is the necessary sign of saving faith. This is one of the key lessons of the parable. Jesus said in John 8:31, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings.” The fruit spoken of in the parable includes the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, which is love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And a truly believing heart will produce worship.

Matthew and Mark both say “some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold and some a hundredfold.” Jesus is clearly teaching that Christians are not all equally fruitful. But He at the same time is suggesting that an abundance of fruit is the expected result of faith. The spiritual fruit in our life should be abundant because Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

But here is the problem. We cannot accomplish that ourselves, we are born with a sin nature and are unclean. We are fallen sinners with rebellious hearts. Romans 8:7-8 says, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Only God can prepare a heart that is willing to receive the Word.

He does that through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, who in John 16:8 convicts the world of sin and righteousness and of judgment. He awakens them spiritually in Romans 8:11. He washes them clean and removes their stony heart and gives them a new heart in Ezekiel 36:25-26. He engraves the truth of God on their hearts in Jeremiah 31:33. And He pours the love of God on their hearts in Romans 5:5.

This parable is a reminder that when we proclaim the gospel to people, the results will always vary according to the conditions of the hearts of the hearers. Success of failure does not depend on our skill as sowers. Some of the seed will fall on hard, shallow or weedy ground. But there is nothing wrong with the seed. If you are faithful at your task, some of the seed you throw will find well-cultivated soil and the result will be abundant fruit.

© 2017 Ferdy Gunawan

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