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WHILE VERY many preachers still regard the parables of Christ as pictures of how to be saved, most modern evangelical Bible dictionaries and commentaries, and strangely, many seminary lecturers, now think they are largely moral lessons, and, sadly, this view is being successfully implanted in a new generation of preachers. However, it is deeply mistaken and out of line with the outlook of Bible believers through most of the history of the church.
The modern approach, with its exaggerated fear of allegories and parables, permits only a minimal point or two from any parable, and frequently sees no Gospel element. If such an element is recognised, it never extends to a full unfolding of the way of salvation. The modern textbooks all say there is no catch-all rule for the interpretation of our Lord’s parables, but the old view says there is, and it is the presentation of grace and conversion. Salvation is always there. It is therefore important that we should prove from Scripture that all the parables are designed to be pictures of grace at work, supplying to preachers numerous powerful arguments for reaching all sorts and conditions of lost people.
In John 16.25 the Saviour says: ‘These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs [literally parables]: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father.’ The Lord intended that to a large extent His parables would obscure His teaching. With a little explanation, such as He gave to His disciples, they would bring to light the way of salvation in a remarkable way, but left unexplained, they could equally veil the truth. This was the Lord’s necessary purpose, partly to conceal the way of salvation from those who despised it, partly to prevent murderous violence against Himself (not to mention the disciples) prior to Calvary, and partly (according to John 16.25) because the full light of the parables would not dawn until the time of His death and resurrection. There was a ‘fuse’ in the parables, a delayed-action sense which would be activated by the Saviour’s atoning work.
A parable is an analogy from common experience, or a short story illustrating a spiritual truth. The simplest definition says that it is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, or a salvation lesson. Our Lord’s parables are most engaging even when not spiritually understood, but with explanation, they make the truth easy to grasp.
The unvarying heart of every parable is the way of salvation, or entry to the kingdom, as the Lord made clear when explaining the parable of the sower. In Mark 4.11-12 we read:
Clearly, a merely moral message would not have needed veiling, because it would not have lead to conviction and repentance, but the veiling attached to parables shows that they contained the message of salvation.
Furthermore the Lord states clearly that’ parables convey ‘the mystery of the kingdom’ and we know that this refers to Christ’s kingdom and how it is entered. It refers to the Gospel. Paul uses a similar term ‘the mystery of Christ’ in Ephesians 3 to describe the secret hidden from former ages about how the Gentiles would be saved by the Gospel. In Ephesians 6 he calls it plainly ‘the mystery of the gospel’. When, therefore, the Saviour calls His parables vehicles of ‘the mystery of the kingdom’ He means that they all speak about the way of salvation.
This ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’ terminology also occurs in Matthew 13.34-35 where we read:
In other words it was prophesied (by the psalmist in Psalm 78) that Messiah would teach in parables, and these would be about the way of salvation.
In Mark 1.14-15 it is recorded:
Parables are not specifically mentioned in this verse, but the Lord’s entire ministry is here summed up by the word ‘gospel’, and as parables were the principal element of His ministry, they must be gracious. Parables were uniquely associated with the Lord, there being no others in the New Testament, and as they formed such a special, dominant and memorable part of His teaching, it is unthinkable that they did not proclaim the purpose of His work — the Gospel. They clearly have soul-saving significance, and should not be turned into moral lessons only, but interpreted so as to draw out the way of salvation.
The Saviour taught His disciples how to interpret two of His parables, both of them being obvious salvation messages, and His explanations are decisive in proving that all parables convey the Gospel. The Lord questioned the disciples about the parable of the sower, saying, ‘Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? (Mark 4.13.) If the disciples knew how to handle one parable, they would know how to handle the others; if they learned to see grace in one, they would see it in all. If, however, some of the parables contained a saving message, while others had a moral message, then the parable of the sower would not have been an ideal pattern for the interpretation of all.
The parallel passage in Luke 8 provides (in verse 12) a clear identification of salvation issues in the parable, the Lord saying — ‘Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.’
The other example of the Saviour teaching the disciples how to interpret a parable is in Matthew 13.24-43, where the parable of the wheat and the tares is unfolded. ‘Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field,’ they ask, and the explanation is given entirely in terms of salvation and eternal destiny. ‘The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; the enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.’
Most of the parables of Christ focus on the last judgement and the harvest of souls, and this is all compounded under the term (in Matthew 13.19) ‘the word of the kingdom’. These, of course, are Gospel themes. Kingdom, Gospel, faith and saved are wonderfully symphonious terms, spoken of in the parables, and joined with repent and believe.
However, modern writers will not have it, and it is very sad that commentators who we so often appreciate for their technical exegesis cannot find an evangelistic purpose in the parables. If we have access to older works and published sermons, we receive help in abundance. If we have Spurgeon on parables and miracles, we possess a rich supply of evangelistic application. Indeed, if we have almost any treatment of parables from bygone preachers, we will find the reformed position was ‘all Gospel’, but for the ‘moderns’, the lost sheep is about the Father’s love, and not specifically about the mechanics of salvation, and the lost coin and the lost son go the same way, the latter being an appeal to the Pharisees to be reasonable. There is no Gospel.
In modern works the parable of the pounds in Luke 19 is about equal rewards in service, and loss for those who are unfaithful to the Lord, so the parable is virtually reduced to works. The friend at midnight, according to modern approach commentaries, simply means — ‘keep praying!’ There is nothing more. The rich fool is only a moral lesson about greed. Good men consistently wreck the parables and do not seem to be aware of what they are doing.
Some commentaries are quite bizarre in their failure to see ‘the mystery of the kingdom’ or ‘the gospel’ in these parables. An eminent and no doubt godly evangelical in the US, a seminary professor, issued a few years ago an enormous two-volume commentary on Luke, this being enthusiastically reviewed by evangelical journals as showing acute power in application. But when we look at the comments on parables, there is practically no salvation in sight, and the pages of scholarly observation become useless. The modern approach has accomplished something liberal theologians never managed to do; it has effectively buried the parables.
Looking for the gracious element in a parable requires a simplified interpretive grid of the kind referred to earlier in this book, for we must look for certain factors in the passage. Is spiritual disease pictured, and is sin reflected, or ignorance, or alienation from God? Is there anything to resemble spiritual deadness or injury, or the receiving of spiritual life? Or is there any allusion to atonement, or anything about judgement, or Heaven or hell, or God’s mercy? In addition — and this is very important — do we see any special arguments to persuade lost souls, or is any particular kind of sinner in view?
If we keep in mind a mental list of these vital elements of the Gospel, we will not fail to identify them. ‘But,’ the protest comes, ‘this is not interpretation, but the reading in of our presuppositions.’ Of course it is, but when the Saviour tells us that this is what parables convey, it becomes a legitimate and necessary pursuit, and any other procedure is vain. We must bring presuppositions and expectations to the Word of God, as long as they are the expectations prescribed in the Word.
The parable of the good Samaritan is usually held up by modern approach teachers as an example of a moral story of Christ, with no possible evangelistic content. It is taken this way by all modern evangelical books on the parables. (Only sometimes do past preachers take it this way.) Some years ago the writer received a letter from a prominent evangelical pastor critical of a published ‘evangelistic’ exposition of this parable. He said it was a breach of all sane rules of interpretation to see Christ as the Samaritan. It was unwarranted allegorisation.
How, then, do we arrive at a gracious (or Gospel) message in this parable? To begin with, we are guided by the rule that all Christ’s parables are gracious according to the texts already considered. Alongside this, we remember the ‘fuse’ attached to the parables. They all possess, to some extent, a delayed-action understandability. With Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, all take on a clearer meaning and stand ready to supply arguments and appeals to the preaching of the Gospel. The parable of the good Samaritan had a fuse attached, so that the scribe to whom it was spoken, and all within hearing, would grasp its meaning a little later.
As the parable was given in answer to a question, we need to consider the kind of answer the Lord might give to someone who asked, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ Would He really have left the questioner with nothing better than — perform the commandments ‘and thou shalt live’? It is, of course, inconceivable that the Saviour of souls would give no greater light.
As we begin to study the parable, perhaps for message preparation, another scripture containing the word ‘Samaritan’ comes to our attention, in John 8.47-48, where the Lord reproves the Jewish leaders and scribes, and they reply, ‘Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?’ Their words show that many of them were using this term of abuse to describe the Lord, doubtless in private and in public, and now they hurl it in His face as if to justify it. In due time, when Christ (Who was known for compassion and good works) went to Calvary, rose again, and began to be preached about by the apostles as the rescuer and Saviour of wounded, dying men and women, the hearers of this parable would say to themselves, ‘He was the good Samaritan. He spoke of Himself. We called Him a Samaritan, and we despised Him, but all the time He was tending the wounds of lost people like us.’
The Lord’s provocative and inflammatory story, casting the Jewish clergy in so bad a light, would have been driven deeply into the memories of hearers and it would live again as Gospel events unfolded. As Isaiah 53 became fulfilled before their eyes, they would say, ‘He provided for us in our sin, spiritual loss, and hopelessness. He poured into the wounds of our sin and guilt the oil and wine of free forgiveness, set us on His own beast, and carried us to safety.’
We have read sermons from past pulpit worthies describing the man on the downhill journey from Jerusalem to Jericho as picturing a sinner on his progressive descent into sin. Such sermons have presented the notorious route, and the ambush as picturing attack by thieves such as immorality, atheism, materialistic thinking and self-love. We have read some perhaps less warranted applications of, say, the oil and the wine and the two coins, but the imaginative excesses of some should not lead to the abandoning of saving grace in the story.
This parable unmistakeably shows the unexpected, unappreciated saving mission of Christ; His immense compassion; His readiness to save; His treatment of our injuries; His sure comforts; His strengthening of the wounded; His continuing care; and His bearing of all the cost of our rescue. Who has the compassion to save, in this parable — the priesthood, or the despised One?
The preacher’s task is to identify such gracious elements of the story together with any distinctive reasoning for lost sinners. In his presentation he will need to preserve the story-form because this is its fascinating strength. Some preachers seem anxious to turn every parable into a kind of physics lesson, giving a didactic series of points, and leaving no trace of a story once told.
It is said that Calvin refused to spiritualise parables, rejecting, for example, that the good Samaritan pictured Christ. It is true that the great expositor was inclined to overreact against the extreme Catholic allegorisation of the parables, and that he expounded them extremely briefly. (Calvin’s exposition of the Gospels amounts to a single volume harmony.) One modern approach author provides an unwitting acknowledgement that the vast majority of Reformation tradition preachers did spiritualise the parables, when he calls Calvin a ‘lone voice’ in the matter until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Calvin, however, does point out the Gospel in parables, in his own way, as demonstrated in his treatment of the prodigal son, where he widens his application to include — God’s boundless goodness and readiness to forgive; God’s call to men to repent; God meeting the sinner as soon as he proposes to confess his guilt; the nature of repentance; and the illustration of how the ‘best robe’ buries the Father’s view of sin.
As a means of communicating the Gospel a parable is remarkably helpful, because it strangely opens the mind of even a hostile hearer. Let us suppose the preacher seeks to engage the attention of unsaved people in a more direct way, crying, ‘You are a sinner! You will go to hell! You need redemption! You must repent in shame!’ In a sense something like this must be done, but if it is the first or exclusive element in evangelistic preaching, the preacher will quickly antagonise many hearers.
The genius of the parable is that it places the ‘iron fist’ of the Gospel in a velvet glove, for instead of crying: ‘You! you! you!’ it focuses attention on a person in a parable, who represents the needy, lost sinner. It softens the sharp edge of the Gospel in such a way that it will be heard by people — even cynical and hostile people — without immediate personal offence. The application may then be made progressively. So the preacher is very glad of parables (as he is of miracles) because they provide a fascinating framework for the Gospel that will engage the listener, enable the compassion of the Gospel to be sensed and make the potentially offensive thrust of a spiritual assault bearable and effective.
Another great value of the parable to the preacher is that it is clearly the Lord’s teaching, and so the preacher does not come across as one presenting his own ideas. Nor does he need to include a battery of quotations to prove his message, as if he were presenting an academic paper, because his sermon is obviously only amplifying something given by the Lord. The preacher is but a representative of a higher authority, and however young he may be, he will not be resented as an upstart. How valuable are parables to Gospel messengers! How tragic it is that even Bible-believing seminaries are turning out students trained to be cynical — sometimes even contemptuous — of the greatest source of soul-winning arguments available to them, namely, the choice sermons of the Son of God. The modern approach has a lot to answer for.
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