Text: Matthew 13:10-17

The Adult Bible Study kicked off 2021 with a new series on the parables of Jesus. This forms part of a comprehensive programme which covers topics like Systematic Theology, Principles of Bible Interpretation, Contemporary Theology, Bible Geography and Introduction to Various Genres of the Bible. The following is a supplement to the opening message conducted during the ABS.

The Parables – A Litmus Test

On first observation, it seems strange that Jesus would want to speak in parables. A crowd had gathered to hear Christ. He had previously taught them in plain language. Why did Christ chose to crouch His words in the form of parables?

Matthew 13:10-17 gives us the answer. The parables are to be a litmus test. We can determine if a liquid is acidic or alkaline by dipping a piece of litmus paper into the liquid. If the paper turns blue, it is alkaline. If the paper turns red, it is acidic. Similarly, parables serve to sieve out the hardened unbelievers from the penitent believer, for the two parties will have different reactions to the parables of Christ.

To understand Jesus’ use of the parables, it is good for us to look at the previous chapter in the Book of Matthew. In Matthew 12:22, Jesus healed a blind and dumb man who had been possessed by a devil. This was the latest in a series of miracles that he had already done in the midst of the people. Jesus had also been preaching and teaching extensively in His walks in Israel. One such example was the Sermon on the Mount of which it was recorded that the people were “astonished at his doctrine.” (Matt. 7:28).

What was the response of the congregation to these great things that they had witnessed?
They asked, “Is not this the Son of David?” (Matt. 12:23). This was a question demanding the answer “No” , revealing their hardened hearts. Following this, the Pharisees (who were the respected religious teachers of the days) added fuel to fire by claiming that Jesus did them miracles by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of devils. This was outright blasphemy. Jesus proceeded to expose this ridiculous claim – “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? . . . For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” (Matt. 12:25-26; 37)

Nevertheless, the crowds continued to throng wherever Jesus walked. However Jesus was not interested in large numbers especially if they were following for the wrong reasons. This stands in stark contrast with many churches today who are willing to compromise the truth for the sake of numbers. They would replace a God-centered religion with one which is man-centered for the sake of popularity and money. They would rather follow the teachings of some self-anointed church growth guru than to heed the example of Jesus.

It is with this largely hardened and faithless crowd in mind, that Jesus began speaking in parables. These parables were designed to divide and to judge. For those who were not truly seeking Christ, the meaning behind the parables will remain hidden from them. Thus, hearing they will not understand, and seeing yet they will not perceive (Matt. 13:14-15). This thus is a case of judicial hardening. They have been judged for the words that they have said in the previous chapter. And rightly so.

On the other hand, for the sincere believer of Christ, the parable serves to teach vividly the truth of the kingdom of God. With time, the Lord will reveal the instruction in these parables to His true disciples. Just observe the patience Christ had in explaining the parables to the disciples in Matthew 13! Their understanding of the parables stands in stark contrast to the blindness of the rest of the motley crowd thronging Jesus. And thus, the disciples of Christ are blessed indeed.

Therefore, the parables serve as a litmus test. For the hardened sinner, the parables serve to conceal and judge. And yet the same parable serves to reveal and instruct the believers to their blessing. Therein lies the wisdom of God.

Our Response to the Parables

It is heartening to know that the ABS, like the disciples of old do not disregard the parables but look forward to digging them for great spiritual riches. Those who sincerely seek the Lord will surely be blessed. As believers, we must understand the great privilege which the

Lord gives to us to understand His Word. Let us all humble ourselves then before the Scriptures and to diligently study them so that we may be fed the spiritual food that is so necessary for our nourishment.  

On the other hand, the doctrine of judicial hardening is not to be trifled with. There could be those who attend church all these years, and yet are none the wiser, unable to discern the spiritual things that are found in God’s Word. Consider the Pharisees who look so prim and proper in the eyes of men. Yet, despite their years of training of the Word, they are none the wiser concerning the Scriptures, nor are they found in the Kingdom of God. May none of us be accounted among such men.

Interpreting the Parables

The next step for us would be to understand the characteristics of the parables and how to interpret them.  

Firstly, we must always remember that the Bible is a spiritual book, and thus we need the Holy Spirit to interpret the book. We must pray for the Lord to instruct us whenever we read the Bible.  

Secondly, we observe that the main point of the parables are usually found at the end of the parable. For example, the main point of the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) lies in verse 13 – “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.” (Matt. 25:13) Do not be too quick to apply, nor let yourself be distracted from the main thrust of the parable.  

Thirdly, as a follow up to the above, care must be taken to identify and distinguish the embellishments from the key parts of the parable. Failure to do so can lead to fanciful interpretations. One example of fanciful interpreter is Origen, who believed that the parables are filled with hidden symbols. Consider his interpretation of the ten virgins as reported by Kistenmaker:

The virgins, said Origen, are all the people who have received the Word of God.  The wise believe and live a righteous life; the foolish believe but fail to act. The five lamps of the wise represent the five natural sentences, which are all trimmed  by proper use. The five lamps of the foolish fail to give light and move out into the  night of the world The oil is the teaching of the Word, and the sellers of oil are the  teachers. The price they ask for the oil is perseverance. 

Midnight is the time of reckless regret. The great cry that is heard comes from the angels who awaken all people And the bridegroom is Christ who comes to meet his  bride, the church.

The problem with such allegorical interpretations is that it is subjected to the fertility of man’s imaginations. And therefore, such methods could lead to varied interpretations that may be so off from each other. For example, the burning lamp in the parable of the ten virgins is regarded by some to represent good works. Others regard them as representing the believer’s faith. Others view the oil of the lamps as symbolic of the Holy Ghost. We must not follow in the same footsteps.

On the other hand, John Calvin avoided allegorical interpretations but stuck to interpreting the parable using the historical-grammatical method. He was disciplined in establishing the main thrust of the parable and did not trouble himself with the embellishments. That is also what we should seek to do when learning from the parables.  

May the Lord bless us with a most fruitful two years (D.V.), learning from the parables of Jesus.  

Yours affectionately,
Pastor Clement Chew