What Is A Parable?


All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable–Matthew 13:34

When Jesus wanted to get a spiritual truth across to ordinary men and women, He used the vehicle of the parable. By teaching in parables Christ depicted what was happening in real life. He told a story taken from everyday life to convey a particular truth He was trying to teach. So, it logically follows that in order to fully grasp the truth, we must first grasp the parable. Any Bible student of today can greatly clarify their understanding of Jesus’ teachings by examining the nature and language of the parable, as well as the reasons for which He chose to employ it. During His ministry, Jesus told more than forty parables. It is estimated that about one-third of Jesus’ instruction has been given in parabolic form.

What is a Parable?

The word “parable” is a transliteration of the Greek “parabole” (para-bow-LAY) which means “to place beside, to cast alongside.” As defined by Vine’s Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words, “it signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison.”
Warren Wiersbe describes a parable as “a story that places one thing beside another for the purpose of teaching. It puts the known next to the unknown so that we may learn.” Another simple but sound definition of the parable is that it is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning–a story true to this house of earth, but with a window open to the sky. It is usually a story or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances. A parable is usually identified by the use of the word, “like.” Certainly, many of the most often remembered sayings of Jesus are the parables He taught. The fact that these stories are remembered and have endured over two thousand years is evidence of their simplistic nature.
However, it is important to note that a parable is not an allegory, in which words are used figuratively. The parables of Jesus are simple stories illustrating truth that give some statement about the Kingdom of God. They generally teach only one basic point. One should never try to allegorize the parable – that is, to make every point of the story have a spiritual truth. The details of the story are only supportive of the message the parable conveys.

Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?
It appears that Jesus was seeking, through parables to both reveal and conceal His word (Matthew 13:10-17; Luke 8:9-10). That is, the parables were used both to project, as well as, to protect God’s truth.
Because of the hard hearts of many in the multitude, Jesus began speaking to them in parables.
By resorting to parables, Jesus effectively separated the truth-seekers from curiosity-seekers. Those seeking the truth would desire an explanation of the parable, while those who were simply curious would dismiss its significance. Even though the primary purpose in telling the parables was to conceal the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” from the multitude, Jesus would reveal (explain) the parables in private to His disciples.

The Content of the Parables
The content of the parables was centered around the theme of Jesus’ ministry which was highlighted by the expression, “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God.” As illustrated by many of His parables, Jesus would begin them by declaring the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like.” Three (3) sub-themes that are stressed in the parables are the character of the Kingdom, the character of the King, and the character of the King’s subjects.

The Kingdom of Heaven vs. The Kingdom of God

Because “the kingdom of heaven” is such a prominent subject in the parables of Jesus, it would serve a good purpose to preface our study of the parables with a careful look at what the term “the kingdom of heaven” means, and how a proper definition of it would benefit one’s understanding of our Lord’s teaching on the subject matter.
While some scholars try to make a distinction between the two phrases, a quick comparison of the gospels indicates that the terms refer to the same thing.

a. Cf. Mt 4:17 with Mk 1:14-15
b. Cf. Mt 5:3 with Lk 6:20
c. Cf. Mt 13:31 with Mk 4:30-31

Matthew used the expression “kingdom of heaven” almost exclusively, while the other gospel writers used the phrase “kingdom of God.” It may be that since Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jews, he chose to use the phrase “kingdom of heaven” for several reasons:
a. The Jews were reluctant to use the name of God (out of reverence)

b. The Jews possessed a misconception of the coming kingdom

1) Many anticipated a physical kingdom

2) The expression “heaven” would emphasize a spiritual kingdom

What Did Jesus Mean by the Term,
“Kingdom of Heaven?”

In researching the parables of Jesus, one will find many references to the “kingdom of heaven.” Sometimes it appears that Jesus refers to the “present” aspect of the kingdom.
But then, at other times He has reference to the “future” aspect of the kingdom. However, there are four (4) concepts or elements that must be kept in mind whenever we think of the kingdom of God. They are (a) the reign of God, (b) the spiritual nature of the kingdom, (c) the visible manifestation of the kingdom, and (d) the present or future tense of the kingdom.

A. The Reign of God

The term “kingdom” as used by the Jews often stressed the abstract idea of “reign” or “dominion,” not some geographical area surrounded by physical boundaries. Thus, the “kingdom of heaven” (or “kingdom of God”) is wherever the reign or dominion of God (who is in heaven) is manifested. In one sense, the kingdom of God has always existed, but in a special way the rule or reign of God is manifested with the coming of Christ. Indeed, it is in the Person of Jesus Christ that the “reign of God” is being expressly manifest today.

B. Spiritual in Nature

The kingdom (or reign of God) would not be found in the form of a physical kingdom. It is a spiritual kingdom where God rules in the hearts of men.

C. Visibly Manifested Today in the Lord’s Church

The visible manifestation of the kingdom today is the Lord’s church.
It is a community of souls in whose hearts God is recognized as Sovereign. The terms “church” and “kingdom” can be used interchangeably. Thus, the church can properly be referred to as the kingdom of God today.

D. Both Present and Future

The “kingdom of heaven” has a future element as well as a present one. The kingdom was inaugurated on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), but the kingdom will be culminated with the coming of the Lord when Christ delivers the kingdom of God to the Father. At that point, the future state of the kingdom of heaven will involve the “new heavens and new earth” and the people of God.

These four (4) concepts or elements must be kept in mind whenever one thinks of the “kingdom of heaven.” Failure to remember all four can easily lead to misconceptions about the nature of the kingdom.