And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” (Mark 4:10-11; ESV)
One of the things people say about Jesus — whether it’s from believers or unbelievers — is that he’s a great teacher. No one disputes that Jesus was a teacher par excellence. He was known to his disciples and to his adversaries as Rabbi, which is Hebrew for “teacher.” Jesus’ teaching was so profound and was proclaimed with such authority that many would exclaim, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46).
Because Jesus was such a great teacher, it doesn’t surprise anyone that he often taught in parables. A parable is an allegorical story to teach a greater principle or truth. Many of Jesus’ parables would borrow imagery that his disciples and the multitudes would understand; imagery relating to agriculture or fishing, etc.
In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus begins his parabolic ministry with the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9). It’s a familiar story, so I don’t need to recount it here, but it uses the symbolism of seed and soil and birds and weeds to relate the truth that the seed of the Word is received differently by different people. We know this is the point of the story because Jesus explains it to the disciples (Mark 4:13-20).
However, the question can be asked, “Why does Jesus teach in parables?” In fact, after telling the Parable of the Sower, his disciples ask him that very question (v. 10). The question they asked can be taken two ways: 1) Why does Jesus teach in parables (the general question); 2) What is the meaning of this parable (the specific question). Jesus answers both questions.
Before looking at Jesus’ answer, it might be helpful to examine a common reason why Jesus taught in parables. Given the above discussion about Jesus being an excellent teacher, the common answer as to why Jesus taught in parable wass to simplify his message about the Kingdom of God to the uneducated masses he commonly taught. On the surface, this seems like a logical answer. Consider the Parable of the Sower. Some might not readily understand the truth about how different people respond differently to the gospel, so illustrating this truth with an agricultural allegory helps his listeners to understand the greater truth being presented.
However, if you read the text, quite the opposite is true. Jesus would teach the parable and more often than not, his disciples would have to ask him to explain what he meant. Consider what Mark describes a few verses later:
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. (Mark 4:33-34)
Jesus’ public teaching ministry from this point onward was one in which he taught exclusively in parables, yet he explained everything to his disciples in private. In other words, the purpose of the parables seems more to conceal than to reveal. This is verified by Jesus’ own words in responding to his disciples’ question: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God.” His disciples had been chosen to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God. To everyone else, he spoke in parable to conceal the secrets from those to whom it hasn’t been given to know these things.
Jesus confirms this by quoting from the Prophet Isaiah:
But for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:11-12)
So rather than making the complex simple, Jesus is concealing the truth of the Kingdom as a form of divine judgment. The next question is why? Consider the encounters Jesus has with the Jewish leaders in Mark 2-3. Almost at every point, the Pharisees are confronting Jesus with healing on the Sabbath or not following the traditions of men. It culminates in the ultimate of blasphemies, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:22-30) in which the Pharisees attributes to God’s holy Son, the works of the devil. Since the people prove themselves unworthy to hear his message, he conceals his message from the general populace as a sign of judgment. This brings to bold relief the message of Jesus when he says, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mark 4:25).
So why did Jesus teach in parables? Far from simplifying complex heavenly truths, the parables are a way of concealing heavenly truths from those who have not been chosen to know.