The Purpose of Parables (Mark 4:1-12)

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Sermon Manuscript:

What makes someone a good public speaker? Humor is nice. A commanding tone that doesn’t come across as domineering, but still has a warmth to it. Simplicity in verbiage that doesn’t err on the side of sounding uneducated. Knowing when to explain things more and when to shut up. Many things are needed. But the one thing we probably prize above everything else in communicating is clarity. We want messages to be clear. The more people walk away from a communicator thinking That was confusing, the more we know that person is not a good communicator. With people’s rapidly shrinking attention spans, the ubiquity of screens and visual images, and studies that keep telling us that people struggle to engage in lecture-styled communication, we need communicators who are concise, clear, and simple.

Certainly Jesus, the most famous teacher in all of history, would exhibit a clarity and simplicity in His teaching. Afterall, Jesus’ teachings are still widely known today. Thus, it is surprising to see that when we read the gospel we find that Jesus often goes out of His way to hide the truth in His teachings, to be unclear. For example, in John 6 Jesus seems, by any measure of public speaking today, to totally blow it. Jesus has demonstrated considerable power and pathos by healing the sick (John 6:2) and by miraculously feeding five thousand people with only five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:6-14). The people are so thunderstruck by this that they immediately try to seize Jesus to make him their new King (John 6:15). Later, when Jesus leaves the region, the crowds pursue after Jesus, eager to follow Him (John 6:24-25). If there was ever a time to be clear, now was it. Jesus could build on the crowd’s admiration of Him garnered from the miracles and galvanize His emerging movement—all He needed was a clear, simple message. Jesus, however, gives a rambling tirade that leaves almost everyone listening confused and offended, concluding with, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” John 6:53. Without any other explanation, this sounds flat out crazy, right? Not surprisingly, we are told, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him,” John 6:66.  Jesus goes from having thousands of excited followers, to a mere twelve once more. What happened? Certainly, Jesus could have spoken more clearly and certainly could have explained that He was referring to “eating His flesh” and “drinking His blood” as a symbolic, not literal, act.

But He didn’t. And, similarly, here in Mark 4, Jesus appears to throw away a golden opportunity. We have read that Jesus has garnered a wide diversity of responses in His ministry thus far. There are people who believe that He is possessed by a demon and ought to be killed (Mark 3:6, 3:22); His own family believes He is crazy (Mark 3:20-21); He has crowds very excited about Him, but are unclear about the purpose of Jesus’ arrival; and He has a new collection of disciples committed to Him. He steps out onto a boat as a make-shift sort of stage to speak to the masses around Him, to clarify His message, to clear up misunderstandings, so what does He say? ““Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mark 4:3-9. Huh? What is Jesus doing? That is what we hope to look at today. Next week we will focus in more intently on the parable of the sower, but for today we will be taking some time to think about the reason behind Jesus’ use of His favorite teaching medium: the parable. Why does Jesus teach in parables?

Jesus uses parables in order to reveal mysteries to His followers and to conceal truth from those opposed to Him. They are a mystery revealed and a truth concealed.

Mystery Revealed

After Jesus explains the parable of the sower, we are told, “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,” Mark 4:10-11. Jesus then proceeds to explain the meaning of the parable in Mark 4:13-20. After Jesus provides this interpretive explanation, suddenly the meaning of the parable is plain and its immediate relevance to the events that happened back in chapter three becomes clear. It should be expected that there be a panoply of responses to Jesus, ranging from passionate hatred, shallow excitement, to genuine submission. There are different soils. Once the meaning is given, the parable becomes a memorable, vivid illustration of the truth Jesus is seeking to convey.

He then provides a series of other parables (4:21-32) before Mark concludes by explaining, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything,” Mark 4:33-34. Thus, Jesus uses His parables with His disciples as a means of teaching and conveying His message of the kingdom. Jesus tells His disciples that to them has been given the “secret of the kingdom of God” Mark 4:11. The word for “secret” here is literally “mystery” (μυστήριον). This word doesn’t refer to some mystic, esoteric mystery that requires secret knowledge or experience to understand (contra Gnosticism). Rather, “mystery” is used in the New Testament to refer to the surprising arrival and nature of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, we get a clue that Jesus’ parables revolve around this idea of the inbreaking of God’s kingship into the world through the arrival of God’s Messiah, Jesus. It is described as a “mystery” because it is so surprising. Jesus doesn’t look like the kind of Messiah, the kind of King that Israel had been expecting. He taught that it was through love, service, and sacrifice that God’s Kingdom would be established—seen ultimately in His own display of love, service, and sacrifice at the Cross. And this surprising, upside-down Kingdom that has come in the person of Jesus Christ requires people to make a decision whether or not they will submit to this King, or reject Him. This is the basic drumbeat of all of the parables, and it is through the parabolic teaching of Jesus that this mystery is revealed to His followers. So, for Jesus’ disciples, the parables are a vivid, memorable tool used to convey the surprising arrival and nature of God’s Kingdom arriving in Jesus Christ.

Truth Concealed

However, this isn’t how everyone receives Jesus’ parables. Jesus explains, “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 4:11-12. I don’t know about you, but I for a long time had been taught that Jesus taught in parables as a way of taking complex teachings and making them more simple. Or by using everyday examples, Jesus made His teaching more palatable and interesting for the “everyman” of His day. To Jesus’ disciples who are given understanding, that is true in a way; however, it appears that another major purpose of the parables is to conceal truth from people, to turn them away. Notice Mark’s language, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,” 4:11. Parabolic teaching is for those “outside” (cf. Mark 3:31-35); when the meaning of it is given by the Lord, it becomes a revelation of the mystery of the kingdom, but left “untranslated” it is something that will actually lead people further away from the Lord. In fact, throughout Mark, parables are used almost exclusively in confrontations with “outsiders” to Jesus (ex. Mark 3:23). Here, Jesus partially quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 to explain that despite the fact that the people are hearing Jesus, they do not really listen to Him. This is the message Isaiah is told to proclaim to the nation of Israel directly after he is commissioned to be a prophet of the Lord (cf. Isa 6:1-8). In the same way no one heeded Isaiah’s message but were further hardened against God, so too would Jesus’ teaching lead some further away. It appears analogous to the way Pharaoh’s heart is hardened in the Exodus account. In many places we are told that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and then in other places we are told that Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Which is it? Well, of course, it is both. How does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? By sending Moses to preach God’s truth to Him; God’s word confronts Pharaoh and he must make a choice—submit to Yahweh, or persist in his stubbornness. And, of course, he persists, and he hardens his heart.

This illustrates what is happening in Jesus’ day well. Imagine you are a scribe or someone who is pretty skeptical of Jesus. You show up to listen to His teaching, already prejudiced against Jesus, and you listen to Him teach and for some reason He is going on and on about farmers and soil. What are you going to think? This is stupid. Why is He talking about crops, and wineskins, and pearls? Or you will hear Jesus tell a parable like the Good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, or the Prodigal Son, and you’ll think, I knew this guy didn’t take the Law seriously! He’s talking about a tax collector being more righteous than a Pharisee!? Ridiculous! The very medium of the parables expose the heart’s commitments by inviting the listener into the interpretive process, to think about what the story means. To understand the parables, you must interpret what it means and apply it to your life. To those who humbly desire the kingdom of God, they will find a revelation of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the words and work of Jesus, and see that they must submit. And to those who presumptively and arrogantly dismiss God’s Messiah, they only find obscurity, confusion and offense.

This is why Jesus explains, “And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” Mark 4:21-25. Jesus emphasizes over and over again the importance of listening. He opens the parable with the command: Listen! (4:3) and closes the parable with, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” Mark 4:9. Jesus here again admonishes the listeners to pay attention to what they hear. By using the analogy of a lamp being lifted up, not concealed, he alludes to the mystery and secret of God’s Kingdom (v. 11). However, whether or not the light is hidden or concealed depends on whether or not we are paying attention to how we hear—we must listen carefully. If we listen carefully, “more will be given” by God giving us further understanding into the kingdom; if we do not than even what we have “will be taken away” in the sense that we will be further confirmed in our certainty that Jesus cannot be who He claimed to be, and our hearts will grow harder and colder to the Lord. The truth will be concealed. This is what the parables of Jesus do to those on the outside, they actually lead them further away from the truth. Whether or not we are on the “inside” or “outside” of Jesus’ circle is determined by how we listen to Him. Thus, how we listen is of critical importance. But how do we listen well? How do we understand Jesus?


Understanding Flows from the Heart

The parables revealed the posture of the hearts of Jesus’ listeners. If their hearts were filled with haughtiness, self-righteousness, and an unyielding confidence in themselves, then Jesus’ teaching amplified what was already there. And vice versa for a heart that was humbly seeking truth. This is important because it reveals to us that understanding is not solely a cognitive issue. There is a moral aspect to knowledge. If we do not have the right posture of our heart, then we will be darkened in our understanding. Discerning God’s Word is not like understanding how to do calculus. What you love, what you treasure, and what you worship will radically influence rightly understanding who God is. Paul explains that one aspect of God’s judgment on people when they refuse to worship Him is to give them over to a blinded mind. He writes, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done,” Romans 1:28. When people refuse to submit to God and turn to worship other things, God’s judgment takes the form of a mind that is darkened. Look at John 3:19, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Why are people not embracing the light of Jesus as He comes into the world? Is it because they lack the IQ necessary? Do they need to attend seminary first? No. They love the darkness. Their hearts are entangled in the shadows of sin and they don’t want the light of Jesus to be true, because if Jesus is true, then they will have to give up these evil works.

Aldous Huxley, the 20th century philosopher and author of Brave New World, subscribed to a nihilistic and atheistic philosophy of meaningless. There was no God, so he was free to live however he wanted. But, in his candid book Ends and Means, he reflects on what led him to his worldview: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption… For myself… the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation… sexual… [and] political.” Do you see what Huxley is getting at? He isn’t claiming that he arrived at his atheism out of some objective quest for Truth; rather, he just didn’t want there to be a God because he wanted to be able to sleep with whoever he wanted to. The posture of his heart is limiting his understanding. He is like a man who has confused the smell of homemade stew with something from the sewer. He repeatedly tells himself that whatever is under the lid of this pot is revolting, smells revolting, will taste revolting, will look revolting, they just know it. So the second someone slightly raises the lid and he actually smells it, he throws his hands up and yells, I knew it! Disgusting! This smells like sewage! 

Charles Spurgeon explains, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins.” It is the smell from the pot, which would normally entice someone into the meal, which drives them away. And it is Jesus’ confronting words, which if received with humility would bring life, which harden those outside even more. It is our heart’s disposition that will influence how we understand. I once sat and studied the Bible with a philosophy student who was an agnostic who was very sharp, but simply was not convinced Jesus was who He claimed to be. I, shortly afterwards, began to study the Bible with someone else who was mentally handicapped who happily surrendered his whole life to Jesus because He came to see that Jesus was God in the flesh. What happened there? The philosophy student was significantly more intelligent than my handicapped friend. Why couldn’t the student see what he saw? It had nothing to do with his mental capacity and everything to do with what his heart loved—He did not want to repent and submit to Christ. And so, he was left on the outside, unable to see the beauties and glories my other friend was able to behold.

Understanding Requires Humility

Notice in the story that we are told that it is “those around [Jesus] with the twelve” who ask Jesus the purpose of the parable (Mark 4:10). Jesus doesn’t reserve the explanation of the parables only to the twelve but also to other people who are willing to come to Jesus in humility and ask. Jesus’ parables aside, there are some things in the Bible that are hard to understand. Peter admits, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures,” 2 Pet 3:16. Peter, an apostle, admits that sometimes Paul is hard to understand. Sometimes when we read the Bible, we find it to be difficult to comprehend what it means. But, notice, Peter still holds people culpable for understanding what Paul and the other Scriptures are actually saying; if you twist the meaning of the Scriptures, it could result in your own destruction. So, if we are held responsible for understanding it, Peter must expect that understanding is possible! It is just hard, sometimes. There are times where we read and think, I have no idea what that means. So we have to struggle, and think, and study, and find faithful teachers to help us, and pray and pray and pray and pray. It is a deeply humbling exercise to try to understand the Bible. And I think this is why God didn’t just zap us with a perfect understanding of it when we became Christians. He wants us struggle and wrestle with the text and then humbly come to Him and say, “Will you help me understand this?”

Understanding Comes from the Lord

The disciples are in the dark till Jesus explains the meaning of the parables (cf. Mark 4:13-20). Of course, Jesus doesn’t give us a detailed explanation of each parable—in fact, this is the only parable that we get such a detailed level of explanation. Mark just gives us the summary comment that Jesus explained everything in private to His disciples (Mark 4:33-34). How are we to understand the parables then? We don’t have Jesus explaining them to us! Well, we have something that the disciples before the resurrection didn’t have: the Holy Spirit (cf. John 7:39). Jesus teaches that the Holy Spirit will lead His disciples into truth and teach them all things (John 14:26; 16:13). Paul explains that the “mystery” of God’s wisdom is given to us by His Spirit: “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual,” 1 Cor 2:10-13. Friends, this is encouraging! We are not on our own! God is helping us understand God. As we strive to understand, and read, and think, and pray, and listen to good teaching, and ask for wisdom from others—in, through, and around all of that, God’s Spirit is at work to open the eyes of our hearts to see and understand God’s truth (cf. John 6:63).

What are Jesus’ parables? They are a revelation of the surprising arrival of the kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus. To those who are open-minded and humble, these parables are revelations of this truth. To those are unwilling to see Jesus as the messiah and submit to Him, the parables are a darkening. They are both mysteries revealed, and truths concealed.

What does this show us about how we understand Jesus’ teaching? This shows us that understanding flows from our heart’s posture to Jesus, that understanding requires humility, that understanding comes from the Lord.

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