Light for our path: Parables purpose

Light for our path

Jesus explains his use of parables in Mark 4:11,12. Doesn’t Jesus want people to repent and become believers?

James F. Pope

Before we look at that passage in its context, we want to review the nature and overall purpose of Jesus’ parables.


Like me, you may have learned this simple definition of a parable: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. When he told parables, Jesus pointed to something his hearers knew and understood about this life and then made a comparison to a spiritual truth that was naturally beyond their knowledge.

For example, Jesus talked about a farmer sowing seed (Matthew 13:1-9) or fishermen casting a net into a lake (Matthew 13:47-50). The people who first heard these parables could easily picture those activities. They knew what sowing seed was all about, but then Jesus used that earthly activity to describe what can happen to the sowing of God’s Word in people’s hearts and lives. Similarly, those people knew that fishermen pulled up nets with fish that were “keepers” and others that were discarded. Jesus used that earthly activity to explain how believers and unbelievers will be forever separated on the Last Day. Jesus’ parables had the overall purpose of connecting the known to the unknown, reveal-ing spiritual truths that would have otherwise remained unknown.


Your question references a time in the Lord’s ministry when Jesus’ disciples asked him why he spoke to people in parables. His answer seems to call for another parable to help us understand it. “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ ” (Mark 4:11,12, quoting Isaiah 6:9,10).

Don’t misunderstand Jesus. He does want “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). He does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The key to understanding Jesus’ answer to his disciples is recognizing what he says about people who were “on the outside” of the kingdom of God. These were people who had heard Jesus’ teaching and preaching. They had enjoyed a unique opportunity to see and hear the Son of God speak to them, but they continually hardened their hearts to his message. In that way they resembled Jews in Isaiah’s day: people who had hardened their hearts to the messages God’s prophets had brought them.

To both groups of people with hardened hearts, God delivered a harsh judgment: They would no longer derive meaning from what he said. God’s followers would understand his Word—even his parables—through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, but these self-hardened enemies of God would walk away from the treasures of his Word like people who cannot see gold bars in a bank vault.

Even when God carried out that judgment in reaction to people’s unbelief, his promise rang true: “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus’ parables are that powerful. They can reveal truth to changed hearts and conceal truth to hardened hearts.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to




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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 102, Number 7
Issue: July 2015

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