Jesus was a master storyteller, and the parables He told were ingeniously simple word pictures with profound spiritual lessons. Understanding the parables is a crucial matter for followers of Jesus. Jesus told parables so His people might comprehend His message about the kingdom of God clearly.
In this book, expositor and Bible commentator John MacArthur deftly explains how
- a parable is an ingeniously simple word picture illuminating a profound spiritual lesson;
- even the most detailed parables usually teach fairly straightforward, uncomplicated lessons; and
- in those cases where symbolism is more complex, Jesus almost always explains the symbolism for us.
MacArthur has spent a lifetime explaining the Word of God in clear and comprehensible terms. In Parables, he helps Christians understand the essential lessons contained in the most famous and influential short stories the world has ever known.
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About the Author
For more details about John MacArthur and his Bible-teaching resources, contact Grace to You at 800-55-GRACE or gty.org.
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The Mysteries of God's Kingdom Revealed Through the Stories Jesus Told
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
One Ominous Day in Galilee
It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
— Matthew 13:11
One very busy day near the end of Jesus' second year of public ministry, He had an encounter with some hostile Pharisees, and the whole character of His teaching suddenly changed. He no longer preached straightforward sermons peppered with key prophetic texts from the Old Testament. From that point on, whenever He taught publicly, He spoke in parables. Such an abrupt shift in Jesus' teaching style was a portent of judgment against the religious elite of Israel and all who followed their lead.
The Pharisees and the Sabbath
Matthew introduces the turning point in Jesus' public ministry by recounting a series of very public conflicts provoked by Jewish religious leaders who were desperate to discredit Jesus.
The main fight they chose to pick had to do with the proper observance of the Sabbath — the symbol of their legalistic system. The Pharisees fancied themselves specialists and law-enforcement officers when it came to strict observance of the Sabbath. They had overlaid the inspired Old Testament Sabbath statutes with a long list of petty, manmade restrictions. They made this their signature issue, and they were militant in their attempts to impose an extremely rigorous brand of Sabbatarianism on the whole nation.
The Pharisees' original rationale, evidently, was that in order to avoid careless or accidental infractions on the Sabbath, it was best to prohibit everything doubtful and restrict Sabbath activities to the barest inventory of absolute necessities. Whatever their original aim, they had turned the Sabbath into an oppressive inconvenience. Worse, their rigid system became a point of immense pride to them — and a weapon of abuse with which they tormented others. The day of "rest" became one of the most onerous ordeals in a long list of "heavy burdens, hard to bear" that the Pharisees were determined to lay on other people's shoulders (Matt. 23:4).
Sabbath observance in the Old Testament was never supposed to be burdensome; it was meant to be the exact opposite: "a delight" (Isa. 58:13) and a respite for weary people. The canonical commandments regarding the Sabbath were thorough but sharply defined. The seventh day was set aside as a gracious, weekly reminder that humanity has a standing summons to enter the Lord's rest (Heb. 4:4–11). Scripture introduces this theme right at the outset. It is the crown and culmination of the creation story: "The heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made" (Gen. 2:1–3, emphasis added).
The progression of verbs in that text is significant. When God finished His creative work, He rested — not because He needed relief or recovery, but because His work was finished. He then declared the Sabbath holy — as a favor to humanity. Work is a drudgery. That is a result of the curse humanity's sin brought upon all creation (Gen. 3:17–19). Furthermore, a man left to himself will discover "there is no end to all his labors" (Eccl. 4:8). The Sabbath is a celebration of the Lord's finished work, and all humanity is urged to enter into the Lord's rest. This truth was first pictured in the Lord's own rest on the last day of creation week. But the full glory of the Sabbath was finally unveiled in the finished work of Christ (John 19:30).
So the Sabbath is vitally important in the biblical story of redemption. It was supposed to be a weekly reminder of the grace of God, which always stands in stark contrast to human work.
A number of precepts governing Sabbath observance were included in Moses' law. But the primary command to remember and sanctify the Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. It is the last commandment in the first table of the Decalogue. (The first table features the commandments that define our duty with respect to God. The second table — encompassing the fifth through tenth commandments — spells out our duty with respect to our neighbors.)
Covering four full verses in Exodus 20, the fourth commandment is the longest one in the Decalogue. (The second commandment is three verses long. All eight others are stated in a single verse each.) But despite its extraordinary length, the Sabbath ordinance is not inherently complex. It says, simply:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Ex. 20:9–11)
Notice: the unusual wordiness of the fourth commandment is owing to the fact that it expressly prohibits landowners and heads of households from sidestepping the restriction by making others do their work for them. All such loopholes are closed. Then the text gives the biblical and doctrinal basis for the commandment, stressing how the Sabbath pictures entering into God's rest.
Aside from that, the fourth commandment is simple. What was forbidden on the Sabbath was work — specifically, the toil of everyday life. All labor was to be suspended; even beasts of burden were exempt from work on this day devoted to rest. The Sabbath was a gift and a blessing from God to His people, ordained by Him to keep earthly life from seeming like one long, unbroken, arduous grind.
Israel sinned repeatedly throughout her history by ignoring the Sabbaths and permitting business as usual straight through the end of the week. This negligence was motivated either by a desire for financial gain, sheer indifference about spiritual things, apostasy, idolatry, or some sinister combination of the above. Nehemiah 13:15–22 describes Nehemiah's struggle to get the people of his era to observe the Sabbath. Jeremiah 17:21–27 is a record of Jeremiah's pleading with the citizens of Jerusalem to rest on the Sabbath. They refused, and Jeremiah received a prophetic message from the Lord threatening the destruction of the city if the people would not repent of defiling the Sabbath.
By Jesus' time, however, the pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme, thanks to the preaching and politicking of the Pharisees. The people of Israel were obliged to observe the Sabbath by the strictest possible code of scruples, supposedly for the honor of God — yet not with joy and gratitude as the Lord intended, but under the Pharisees' stern compulsion and oversight. The Sabbath became a vexing, taxing, legalistic work — a cumbersome ritual rather than a true day of rest. People lived in fear that if they accidentally violated or neglected some trivial Sabbath rule, the Pharisees would call them on the carpet and threaten them with excommunication or, in the worst cases, stoning. That is precisely what happened to Jesus and His disciples.
Jesus' Conflict with the Religious Elite
Matthew 12 begins with a major confrontation provoked by a Pharisaical Sabbath-enforcement squad. The disciples were hungry and had plucked some heads of grain to eat while walking through a field of wheat or barley on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were up in arms and contended with Jesus over the propriety of what His disciples had done (Matt. 12:1–2). According to the Pharisees' rules, even casually plucking a handful of grain was a form of gleaning, and therefore it was work. This was precisely the kind of seemingly inconsequential act that the Pharisees routinely targeted, turning even the bare necessities of life into a thousand unwritten Sabbatarian taboos. Their system was a veritable minefield for the average person.
Jesus replied by showing the folly of a rule that forbids an act of human necessity on a day set aside for the benefit of humanity: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). He rebuked the Pharisees for condemning the guiltless, and then added that famous declaration of His own divine authority: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:8).
The Pharisees were infuriated. But they were not through challenging Jesus about the Sabbath.
Luke 6:6 says, "Now it happened on another Sabbath, also, that He entered the synagogue and taught. And a man was there whose right hand was withered." The Pharisees were there, too, and they were prepared to escalate the conflict over the Sabbath. Pointing to the man with the disabled hand, they more or less dared Jesus to break their Sabbath rules once more in the presence of a synagogue full of witnesses. "And they asked Him, saying, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'— that they might accuse Him" (Matt. 12:10). They had seen Jesus do miracles many times before and knew that He had power to heal any and every kind of affliction. They had also seen ample proof (again and again) that He was indeed the promised Messiah.
But He was not the kind of Messiah they had always hoped for. He clearly opposed their vast body of man-made religious traditions. He boldly challenged their authority and claimed supreme authority for Himself. They knew that if He took His rightful place on the throne as Israel's Messiah, their status and influence over the common people would be removed. In a secret conclave, discussing what to do with Jesus, they candidly admitted what the real issue was. They were concerned about losing their own power and political status: "If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation" (John 11:48). They were already losing favor with rank-and-file citizens in Galilee.
No wonder. "The common people heard [Jesus] gladly" (Mark 12:37). But the religious leaders' blind hatred was such that they frankly did not care whether His messianic credentials were legitimate or not; they were determined to dissuade people from following Him no matter what it took.
So when Jesus responded to their challenge by instantly healing the man with the disfigured hand, the Pharisees stormed out of the synagogue to have one of those private parleys, consulting with one another about what they might do with Him. Their ultimate goal was already clear: "The Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him" (Matt. 12:14).
The hatred of the entire Jerusalem-based religious regime had now literally reached a murderous level, and Jesus knew their intentions. Therefore, because His hour had not yet come, He immediately became more discreet in His movements and more guarded in His public ministry. Matthew says, "When Jesus knew [their intent to destroy Him], He withdrew from there. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all. Yet He warned them not to make Him known" (Matt. 12:15–16).
Matthew follows his account of the Sabbath conflicts with a quotation from Isaiah 42:1–4:
Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen, My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased! I will put My Spirit upon Him, and He will declare justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory; and in His name Gentiles will trust. (Matt. 12:18–21)
Matthew's point (and Isaiah's) is that contrary to all expectations, Israel's Messiah would not arrive on the scene as a military conqueror or powerful political figure, but with a gentle, quiet approach. The "bruised reed" refers to a handmade musical instrument — a pipe or flute made from the thick stalk of a cane plant that grew on water's edge. When the flute became too worn or soggy to make music, it would be snapped in half and discarded. The "smoking flax" refers to a lamp wick that could no longer sustain a flame and thus was useless for giving light. A smoldering wick would typically be snuffed out so that the burnt edge could be trimmed in order to make the lamp efficient again.
The bruised reed and smoking flax in Isaiah's prophecy are symbolic of broken and dysfunctional people. Instead of rejecting and discarding the outcasts, Israel's Messiah would embrace them, teach them, heal them, mend them, and minister to them. Even the Gentiles would learn to trust in Him.
That prophecy from Isaiah is the bridge between Matthew's recounting of these twin Sabbath controversies and the explosive conflict that dominates the second half of Matthew 12. The writers of all four gospels sometimes arrange anecdotes from Jesus' earthly ministry in topical, rather than chronological, order. Whenever time clues are given, they are important, but sometimes the chronological relationship between one incident and the next is not crucial and therefore is not recorded in the text. That's the case between the first and second halves of Matthew 12. The plucking of the grain, followed by the healing of the man with the withered hand are told as if they occurred in quick succession. The two incidents are told in close sequence not only in Matthew 12, but also in Mark 2:23–3:5 and in Luke 6:1–11. But Luke 6:6 makes it clear that the two incidents happened on separate Sabbaths. Mark and Luke immediately follow their account of those incidents with the record of Jesus calling the Twelve, so the two Sabbath conflicts seem to have occurred early in Jesus' Galilean ministry.
Matthew is more concerned with the topic than with the timing, and his point in his chapter 12 is to show how the Sabbath controversies provoked extreme hostility against Jesus from the Jewish religious leaders. The utter contempt they had for Him finally culminated in a determination to destroy Him, which intention they sealed with an unforgivable blasphemy.
Matthew 12:22–37 recounts the shocking blasphemy and Jesus' response to it. This incident became the final straw that provoked Jesus to change His teaching style. Piecing together the chronology from all the gospel accounts, we know that this happened several months after the two Sabbath disputes. The word then at the start of verse 22 therefore moves us from the Isaiah prophecy to a new day near the end of Jesus' Galilean ministry. This was a pivotal day in more ways than one. In fact, this is one of the most thoroughly documented days of Jesus' Galilean ministry.
A Remarkable Healing and Deliverance
The day started ominously when Jesus was presented with a desperately needy man — one of the most complex, heartbreaking, seemingly impossible cases of human misery imaginable. This was a vastly more difficult case than the man with a withered hand. This poor man's very soul was withering. He was not only in dire need of physical healing; he was also in permanent bondage to some evil spirit. He was precisely the kind of bruised reed and smoking flax pictured in Isaiah's prophecy.
As Matthew describes it, "one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute" (Matt. 12:22). Here was the living epitome of "those who are sick" and in "need of a physician" (Mark 2:17). The man was unable to see, unable to communicate, and most cruelly trapped in enslavement to a powerful demon. The very best physicians and doctors of divinity working together could not have helped him by any means known to them. What could be more hopeless? Or more urgent?
Excerpted from Parables by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2015 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Sloppy Thinking About the Parables xiv
Why Parables? xviii
Some Definitions and Details xxiv
1 One Ominous Day in Galilee 1
The Pharisees and the Sabbath 1
Jesus' Conflict with the Religious Elite 5
A Remarkable Healing and Deliverance 8
The Unpardonable Sin 11
The Pivotal Day Continues 14
2 A Lesson About Receiving the Word 17
A Surprisingly Simple Story 18
Some Subtle Points to Notice 22
Take Heed How You Hear 22
The Explanation 25
3 A Lesson About the Cost of Discipleship 39
What Is the Kingdom? 40
Is Entrance to the Kingdom Free, or Is There a Cost? 41
Hidden Treasure 44
The Pearl of Great Price 47
Six Vital Truths About the Kingdom 48
4 A Lesson About Justice and Grace 57
The Parable 61
The Proverb 66
The Point 67
The Purpose 69
The Principles 71
5 A Lesson About Neighborly Love 75
A Trick Question 76
A Hard Heart 79
A Gentle Answer with a Powerful Point 81
The Dangerous Road and the Attack 82
The Priest and the Levite 83
Jews and Samaritans 86
How the Samaritan Loved 89
Limitless Love 91
6 A Lesson About Justification by Faith 97
Two Men at the Temple 101
The Problem for Sinners 103
Analyzing the Parable 109
The Contrasts 110
The Similarities 115
The Chief Difference 116
Right with God 118
A Short Coda 120
7 A Lesson About Faithfulness 123
A Tale of Two Servants 126
The Ten Bridesmaids 128
The Talents 133
What Links These Parables Together? 138
8 A Lesson About Serpentine Wisdom 141
The Story 143
The Shocker 148
The Explanation 150
9 A Lesson About Heaven and Hell 157
Jesus v. the Pharisees 158
Some Context for This Parable 160
Knowing the Terror of the Lord 162
The Characters 166
The Rich Man's Plea and Abraham's Reply 169
Though One Rise from the Dead 172
10 A Lesson About Persistence in Prayer 175
The Judge 178
The Woman's Dilemma 180
The Turning Point 182
The Meaning 183
Appendix: Storied Truth: Objective Meaning in Narrative 191
Stories as Effective Vehicles for Truth 196
The Wealth of Truth in Jesus' Parables 198
Stories and Propositions 199
Scripture Index 211
About the Author 217