The Purpose of Parables

Gospel Devotions

And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked 
him about the parables. And he said to them, 
“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.”
(Mark 4:9-12) ESV

Now here is a rather difficult passage to understand. Jesus had just told the Parable of the Soils to a large crowd by the lake. After his preaching, His disciples (including the apostles) asked Him about the parable.

Comparing Mark's account with Matthew 13:10, I notice that Jesus' followers did not only ask about the meaning of the parable. They also wanted to know why Jesus taught using parables in the first place.

A parable (Gk prabole)"is a comparison of two objects for the purpose of teaching, usually in the form of a story." When Jesus uses parables, He usually employs common, everyday themes and stories that are easily understood by His audience.

In the Gospel of Mark, the Parable of the Soils is the second parable recorded. The first one is the "Parable of the Strongman" in Mark 3:23ff. In contrast, the Parable of the Soils is the first parable mentioned in Matthew (13:3ff), and it is the third one in Luke (8:9ff). There are no parables in the Gospel of John, nor is the word ever mentioned.

In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus' first method of teaching was discourse which, at times, was accompanied with miraculous signs and wonders. In Mark 1:14, for example, Jesus opened His ministry with a straightforward teaching, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel!" He used this method in succeeding episodes in Mark 1:21ff, 39; 2:1-28; 3:1-12, 31-35, before using parables beginning in Mark 3:23.

This is even more obvious in Matthew where I read Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7). He taught with direct teachings, with lessons that hit straight to the point. The apostles might have expected Him to teach this way until the end of His ministry. Thus, when Jesus began teaching in parables beginning Mark 3, they were moved to ask, "Why?"

Mark 4:9 is telling. As Jesus wrapped up His parable, He gave out a challenge to His listeners saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." He basically challenged His audience to understand and apply the parable to themselves. Jesus hid the main points in a story, but called out to the people to understand His message. At the same time, He challenged those who understood to apply it.  

Now, Jesus' followers were confused at their Master's new method of teaching. Perhaps they thought that the parables were difficult to grasp, and so Jesus was actually confusing the people. I can imagine them with question marks in their minds while listening to Him.

As I read further, it became apparent that not only were the audience confused with the message, but also Jesus' followers. This was the reason behind Jesus' disappointment in Mark 4:13.

He expected them to understand, for to these followers "has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…" With secret, Jesus meant that God has revealed to them the truth of His Kingdom. In this context, this truth may mean the nearing complete dominion and rule of God on earth through the coming of Jesus Christ.

This was the message Jesus first proclaimed in Mark 1:14. It was proclaimed to all, but understood only by those who believed. Here, I again encounter the reality that apart from the grace of God, no one will understand His truth (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And when Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 in part, He took on Himself the very ministry of the prophet. He used parables because like Isaiah, Jesus was to proclaim the truth of God to accomplish two things: 1) to instruct those who have faith on what they should do, and 2) to confirm the hardness of heart of unbelievers so that they have no excuse before God.

Because God's truth was preached to everyone through parables, it was as if Jesus was sifting the people. Those who have faith will understand. These are people who really went to Jesus because they were seeking God. Jeremiah 29:13 comes to my mind, "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart."

This sudden shift in teaching method came because of the heightened harassment of a number of people following Jesus. He knew that there were those in the crowd who were not interested with God's truths. The Pharisees and Scribes are good examples. They appeared interested because of their many questions; however, Jesus knew that they were not really seeking answers.

He perceived that even if He were to answer all their questions, He would never satisfy them because they were not really seeking God. They were just there to cast doubt on Jesus' identity. As such, He chose to hide the message in plain sight so that only those who have faith will be able to see it.

The parables were Jesus' way of fulfilling Isaiah 6:10. Through these simple stories, the people who did not believe were all the more blinded, deafened and their hearts dulled. They had no faith, and so it was useless to give them the truth.

As testimony and judgment to their hardened hearts, God deliberately withheld the truth from them so that they cannot turn to Him to see, hear, understand and be healed.

This seemed harsh and cruel. However, remembering that the LORD had revealed the truths to them in countless ways in the past--through the prophets, through the Scripture and through Jesus' initial teachings--yet they chose not to believe, gives me a glimpse of their hardness of heart. They have earned their judgment.

I also believe, however, that God remained gracious. If they repented and believed, God would have opened their eyes to see.

Some may ask, "Because faith is a gift of God, is it not God's fault that these people did not believe?" Or in other words, "Is God not behind their unbelief?"

I am convinced that unbelief is a product of man's sinfulness (Hebrews 3:12). That is, people do not believe because their sinful nature chooses not to believe. It is not as if God gave them unbelief. No! They have unbelief because of sin and they exercise it, so their condemnation is their own doing.

My prayer is that God will always make me sensitive to His truths. May I be able to see and hear clearly, to obey swiftly and joyfully. And to my friends and loved ones who still do not believe, like Christ, I continue to call out, "repent and believe the good news."

Lord, be gracious to us all.
Next Next


  1. While saving faith comes from God, by choosing not to believe people reject that faith. You are entirely correct that they have chosen no to be saved. That God knows what they will choose does not make him responsible for their choice.