Why did Jesus speak in parables?

When Jesus taught, He often spoke in what are known as “parables”. This style of teaching can be challenging to comprehend even now with the full revelation of God’s word. It’s easy to see why many in His audience left confused and without understanding. That prompts the question, why would Jesus teach in an allegedly "ineffective" way?

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What you see below is a parable. Why did I begin this article by telling a parable? If want to understand the answer to the question “why did Jesus speak in parables?” keep reading because we are about to unlock the mystery.

Once there was a great philosophy professor who had more knowledge than any man who had ever lived. The professor had a special magic power to download information directly into his student’s brains. However, the teacher never used his special power. Instead, he taught his students the traditional way. Some of the students listened to the professor’s teaching and gained much knowledge. Others dismissed the professor as a drunk and lunatic, and did not hear the professor or gain knowledge. To those who heard, they grew in power and fame and attained much influence throughout the world. To those who did not, they met hardships, suffering, illness, and death.

When Jesus taught, He often spoke in what are known as “parables”. This style of teaching can be challenging to comprehend even now with the full revelation of God’s word. It’s easy to see why many in His audience left confused and without understanding. That prompts the question, why would Jesus teach in an allegedly “ineffective” way? Since God desires all men everywhere to obtain salvation (1 Timothy 2:4), it makes more sense for Him to teach in the most effective way possible, right? God can undoubtedly craft a sermon that causes all men everywhere to shudder in repentance, right?

What does effective teaching have to do with why Jesus spoke in parables?

Imagine you are a teacher for a moment. If your teaching results in most of your class displaying looks of disgust, disagreement, or confusion, you would think either something is wrong with your teaching, or the content you are teaching.

That is because as teachers, our primary goal (our definition of effective teaching) has become, “get as many of the students to understand as perfectly as possible”. In essence, the burden of effectiveness rests entirely on the material and the method. We seek to convey knowledge and understanding. Therefore, our measure for success is simply, numbers. The greater the number of students who get it, the more effective the teaching.

How does God define effective teaching?

Does God define effective teaching in this way? It is certainly true that God wants as many people saved as possible, but to what lengths is He willing to go to achieve that result? Most Christians agree that God can create an army of automaton robots, to control and subdue by force into whatever kind of behavior he wants. However, that would disagree with God’s desires because such a worldview eliminates man’s free will.

Arguing free will is a bit more nuanced, though. God doesn’t have to directly control, subdue, or alter man’s heart to affect free will. He can effectively achieve the same result by simply providing unbounded evidence of His existence. He does not directly alter the heart, but mankind simply has no other conclusion to make than the existence of God. In fact, “belief” in God is no longer because the truth of His being is already exposed. In this way, faith is no longer a necessity.

God has defined a perfect balance between hard evidence, and faith. This balance is in perfect tune with the exact amount of choice God wills. The reason for this is because that’s how He knows we truly desire Him.

The way God teaches, therefore, must align with this same balance of revealing truth and faith. What we see is Jesus perfectly performing this exact balance by his use of parables.

His own disciples didn’t understand why Jesus spoke in parables.

In Matthew 13, Jesus’ disciples asked Him the very question we are trying to understand in this article. If you ever feel silly for asking the question, at least you know you are in good company. Even those who were with Jesus day in and day out wondered the same thing.

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”

Matthew 13:10

It’s mind-blowing what plays out here in Matthew 13. The parable Jesus first tells in verses 3 through 9 is a story about a sower who sowed his seed in various soils. Some soil was not conducive to growth at all. Others grew for a short time and choked away. Finally, others grew a lot and produced a lot of fruit.

After this, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. Then Jesus responds in verses 11 through 17, essentially that to some He has revealed things and to others He has not. I encourage you to read this full context for yourself. For the purpose of this article, though, verse 13 sums up the answer to the question, “why did Jesus speak in parables?”

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

Matthew 13:13

Jesus then declares that the people He preaches to are the fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy from verses 14 through 15. This prophecy says that some will hear the words, but their heart won’t actually desire to understand and learn. They are simply not interested.

A man planting in soil to illustrate the parable of the sower and why Jesus spoke in parables

Jesus Explains the Parable of the Sower

I am convinced that what comes next is specifically because the disciples did not understand the parable of the sower. Jesus, in a rare occurrence, actually explains the meaning of the parable. What we find in verses 18 through 23 is that the seed is the word of the kingdom, or the gospel message. The condition of the soils determines whether the seeds have produce or not, and the soils are the hearts of man.

As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Matthew 13:23

So, why did Jesus speak in parables? Here’s where things get crazy.

Jesus told them a parable about why he speaks in parables.

We can start to see the mastery of Jesus’ teaching as we unpack what is actually happening here. First, Jesus tells a parable about various conditions of man’s heart. Following this parable, His disciples (clearly confused) ask why He speaks in parables.

The disciples were probably frustrated. They could undoubtedly see the confused or even disgusted looks of rejection in the faces of the audience. Maybe even with a touch of arrogance, they question Jesus on His teaching methods. I am sure they thought Jesus could grow the army they were looking for faster if He would simply put the truth out there.

It’s incredible. The parable of the sower is about God seeking a certain kind of heart. The disciples ask, “why do you speak in parables” and Jesus essentially answers, “Because, I am seeking a certain kind of heart”. In other words, Jesus told the parable of the sower so he could ultimately answer the question of why he tells parables. This is why Jesus spoke in parables.

Jesus told the parable of the sower so He could ultimately answer the question of why He speaks in parables.

What is that certain kind of heart that God is seeking? Those who hear the gospel message, understand it, and ultimately produce fruit. By “understand” I believe this to mean those who humbly seek to understand, desire to know God, and find truth. God is looking for the heart that has not grown dull.

Jesus spoke in parables because he wanted to appeal directly to the heart that humbly seeks to understand, desire, and know God. All of this shows that God’s measure of effective teaching is to a different standard than ours. He crafted the gospel message to make it perfectly tuned to create the reaction He desires in the exact type of heart he desires. If the condition of your soil (heart) is not yet ready to produce fruit, then you will simply reject the word, or accept it for a short time and fall away.

What We Learn From Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

I think there’s a lot that we can apply to our lives from this understanding of God and why Jesus would speak in parables.

1. The burden is on the message, not the messenger.

Our job is to simply spread the seed. That’s because God has designed the gospel message to do the work of changing hearts, not us. Sometimes we are caught up in the idea that the message needs our help with eloquent preaching styles, entertainment, and fellowship benefits.

The truth is, since God has created a message that appeals directly to the hearts he is looking for, our job is to simply spread the seed. The gospel message is as powerful as it needs to be to do its work and does not need our assistance.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with apply our best efforts and skills that God has blessed us with in order to work as hard as we can to bring more people to Christ. We should realize however that it is not by our effort that the sinner turns his or her heart. The power is in the gospel and those who truly desire God will find their way. They will always find their way to Him.

2. Anyone can be a sower.

Do you ever feel like evangelism is only for those highly trained in the word, with years of experience? I felt like that for a very long time. The reality though, is that it’s not up to us whether the hearing heart responds to the gospel or not. We simply sow the seed, and it’s up to the message working in the right kind of soil to do the work.

That means that you (yes you!) can, and should, spread the seed. In fact, I argue that this is a core responsibility of the Christian, and perhaps even one of the traits of those who have good soil. Why? Because the good soil produces fruit.

3. God’s ways are higher than our ways.

In our own wisdom we sometimes think that we have things figured out. When it comes to spiritual matters, the parable of the sower is maybe the best illustration of that. The disciples clearly thought that Jesus had somehow become ineffective in his teaching style. We see that they ask the exact same question, “Why did Jesus speak in parables?” In reality, He masterfully worked His plan, utilizing an incredibly effective style of teaching.

We simply did not understand it.

4. It’s not our job to judge hearts.

I say this because of two reasons. First, we fall into the trap of dismissing people that we pre-judge to think they might not be receptive to the gospel. Even Jesus didn’t teach this way. He could have simply picked out the individuals from the crowd that He knew would accept His teaching, but he didn’t. He taught all people, with all kinds of hearts. There was even one of his disciples who eventually turned and betrayed Him, Judas.

Second, if we try to “improve” upon the message, what we are doing is appealing to the kind of hearts that God is not looking for. That’s because when we “improve” upon the simplicity of the message, what we are really doing is drawing hearts into the “improvements”, not the gospel itself. Thus, certain hearts will be in the mixture of Christianity, but really be false converts, or converts who fall away when suffering comes.

How about the parable of the philosophy professor?

Having made it this far into the article about “why did Jesus speak in parables”, maybe now you understand the parable that I shared at the beginning. You see, Jesus is the great philosophy teacher, and we (mankind) are the students. Jesus has the power to bend our will to perfectly match His, but He does not desire to do so and does not use this power. Instead, He teaches in the traditional way and rests on the power of the message. To those who seek to understand and apply the message, they gain immense blessings. Yet, for those who hear, but do not apply the message, they suffer terrible consequences.

Now that you know why Jesus spoke in parables, there remains only one question. Is your heart the one that He is looking for?

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