D.A. Carson – Adams Lecture Series: Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables? Matthew 13:10-17, 34-35 Part 1

Part 1 February 11, 2014 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. D A Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

D A CarsonD A Carson: Why does Jesus tell stories? Why the narrative parables? Well, it’s easy enough to list some wrong answers, or at least, reductionistic answers.

  1. Jesus used them as illustrations. He was a good homilitician; so He’d make a point, then He would illustrate it,  tell a story. But then, you have a hard job understanding [Matthew] chapter 13:11-12. „Why do you speak to the people in parables?” the disciples ask in verse 10. And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. (verse 11) 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables. In this passage it doesn’t seem like parables are used for illustrative purposes, to make things clearer.
  2. Others say He told parables because He favors the enigmatic, the thought provoking, the open ended, rather than truths and propositions. And so, some who take this stance look at verse 34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
    “I will open my mouth in parables;
    I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” [so some will say,]”And so, if we are going to preach effectively today, then we should tell stories, in order so be enigmatic. Away with this tough propositional down the line thunder from heaven stuff. Tell stories!”

The ways in which Jesus speaks:

  • But, although Jesus can certainly be enigmatic, and He can tell stories in order to illustrate something, yet He also preaches in other genres.
  • He preaches with wisdom type utterances, where „it’s either this or that”. There are two ways, one that is broad and  large and leads to distruction. Another that is narrow and leads to life. There are 2 kinds of trees, one that produces good fruit, one that produces bad fruit. And so on. These are wisdom type structured.
  • Moreover, He can preach in apocalyptic type categories.
  • He can use provers.
  • He can use extended discourse
  • Lament
  • Exposition of Old Testament texts
  • Non-narritival extended  metaphors, as in John 10 and the shepherd, John 15m the vine.
  • Dialogue
  • Provocative questions

So whatever [Matthew] 13:34 means, it does not mean that the only way He preached was using parables. All you have to do is read the New testament to discover that’s  not true. When He says He did not say anything to them when using a parable, what it means is, in the course of His regular preaching, He regularly had parables.

Others say He told parables in order to hide things from the non-elect. After all, we did read verses 11-12, which certainly  sound as if part of the purposes of parables is to hide things. Yes, but then there is verse 34-35. All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.

At this juncture, it seems that parables are disclosing things, not hiding them. So the question is: Why did jesus tell parables? I think there is some element of truth in these  and other answers that could be given, but let me give you two overwhelming reasons why Jesus told parables. Before I do, I am going to read [Matthew] 13:10-17, and then some verses at the end of the chapter:

10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 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. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Verses 34-35  34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:“I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

52 And he said to them,“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

So then, let me give 2 reasons why Jesus spoke in parables. This is not an exhaustive list:

1. Jesus tells parables because, in line with Scripture, His message blinds, deafens and hardens.

Now, reread verses 10 & 12, and you will see right away that there is a contrast  that is set up. And once the contrast  is set up, then the rest of the passage  is divided into 2 parts. So, verse 10- the question: Why do you speak to people in parables? Then, Jesus divides His answer in 2 parts, setting up a contrast: „Cause the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven has been given unto you,” that’s positive. „But, not to them.” That’s negative. „Whoever has will be given more, they will have in abundance,” that’s positive. „Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them,” that’s negative. And then, the negative is further expounded in verses 13, 14, and 15. And then the positive is expounded in verses 16, 17, and 18. That’s the structure of these verses.

But the negative side, which we’re going to focus on first, verses 13, 14, and 15  is largely cast, in terms of quotations from Isaiah 6. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
The very foundations shake and Isaiah testifies that he is a lost man. In the previous chapters he’s pronouncing the woes of God, the condemnations of God against corruption and greed, and idolatry, against evil and all of its forms. Against drunkenness and debauchery, and lack of faith. „Woe to you, woe to you,” and now, he sees God and he says, „Woe to me, I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King.” „THE KING”, not the king who just died, King Uzziah, „My eyes have seen the KING, the Lord Almighty.” One of the seraphim takes a live coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips, after all, he’s said he’s a man of unclean lips. Now, coal from the altar touches his lips to clean him up, as if to say: It takes the sacrifice that God has ordained to clean you up. And the angel said, „ “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And the, for the first time in this chapter, God speaks. Its almost as if He’s asking a rhetorical question to the counsels of heaven, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah says, „Here am I, send me.” Don’t misunderstand this. He’s nor saying, „I’m your man, God. Bring it on!” In the context it’s just the opposite. He’s saying, „Excuse me, would I do? Pleaaaaaase? Could you use me?” Away with this arrogance  with which people approach ministry. God says, „Go. This is what you have to do.”

Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

How would you like that preached at your ordination service? And [then], Isaiah says the obvious thing, „I understand there are cycles in preaching, but for how long? When will revival finally come? I mean, I preach faithfully all this time and all of these bad things are happening, when will revival start? How long, Lord? And the answer, in verse 11:

11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,
and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

„That’s how long. You’ve got a whole life ministry where there is nothing to show  at the end of it except waste and condemnation. That’s your job Isaiah. Go.” And the only spark of hope in the entire chapter is the last two lines.
13like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump. 
When that stump left, the structure of the book of Isaiah is set up again in chapter 11, one of the great passages of hope. „A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse. And now you have a Christological promise that ends in apocalyptical transformation until  the whole world is filled with the knowledge of the Lord, and the waters cover the sea.But of course, you would have to remember, that would take place 700 years after his ministry.
And these are the words that Jesus quotes, when He explains what He is doing with His parables, these words from Isaiah. Probably the closest connection in the New Testament is found in John 8:45, Jesus says to some of His opponents, „Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe Me.”  Note, that’s not a concessive. „Although I tell you the truth, though you do not believe Me.” That would be bad enough.  But He says, with a causal, „Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe Me.” In other words, it is the truth itself, for some people, that blinds. It is the truth itself that hardens. It is the truth itself  that guarantees unbelief.
If you talk to a culture which is absolutely steadfastly committed to the view that there are many ways to God, and you say the truth, that „There’s only one way to God”, you guarantee their unbelief. You guarantee that they think you’re a bigot. You guarantee that they are convinced that you are narrow minded, right wing and ignorant. It’s the very truth that causes offense, on occasion. Do you see? „Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe Me.” Thus, it is the faithful preaching of truth itself, which for some people , at some points in history guarantees unbelief.
So what are your options? Tell untruth? Trim the message? In effect, therefore Isaiah is commanded to harden them, not because He is saying, „I want to make you hard,” but because he’s commanded to preach the truth. And if he’s commanded to preach the truth to this particular group, at this particular point in history, then the effect is guaranteed. Namely that they will be hardened and blinded, coarsened and deafened. All he’s gotta do is preach the truth. And Jesus, we’re told, fulfills this text. He fulfills this pattern.
„In them,” verse 14 of Matthew 13 is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, of „hearing, but never understanding, seeing, but never perceiving. 15For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes.

Of course, Jesus had earlier in Matthew indicated [that] there is a trajectory of unbelief. At the end of the Beatitudes, in Matthew chapter 5:11-12- 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. There is a trajectory of unbelief. And Jesus brings that trajectory to fulfillment. Where Jesus is aware of how some are being blinded by light, He uses more parabolic teaching. That’s what he says in verses 11 & 12. In line with chap 7:6 He knows not to cast His pearls before swine. He is prepared to preach in such a way that they will not get it. That is part of judgment. And after all, that notion is found on occasion in the New Testament as well.

Do you recall what Paul writes to the Thessalonians in the second letter? 2 Thessalonians 2: 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. In other words, God hardens them. They love the lie? They don’t want to be saved? Can’t stand the truth? Then God, therefore, as it were, imposes the final judgment back into time. He sends them a strong delusion so they’re hardened in their delusion.

In other words, one of the reasons why Jesus tells parables is because, in line with Scripture, His message blinds, deafens and hardens. 
2. Jesus tells parables because in line with Scripture, His message reveals things hidden in Scripture. 
Now, focus on verses 34-35. We’ll come back to verses 15-18 in a moment. Once again, we discover Jesus appeals to an Old Testament text.34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.
This is a quotation from Psalm 78:2 I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old Psalm 78 is one of the psalms called historical psalms. God unpacks, in a psalm, something of Israel’s history. But he does so in such a way, as to make certain points. You see, history is never exhaustive. You can’t possibly explain everything that happened, about anything. It’s inevitably selective. So that you can tell the same story from different perspectives by simply including or excluding certain details. So, it’s possible to tell the story of the civil war from the Northern perspective, and from a Southern perspective. It’s possible to tell the story of the Revolutionary war from the perspective of the Americans; it looks a little different in Britain. And in between there are… I speak now as someone born in Canada, there are the UEL’s, we call themThe United Empire Loyalists, thousands of them who went north of the 49 parallel, because they wanted to remain loyal to the crown. They look at things a little bit differently, too. In fact, some people have done their phd’s on the sermons of the UEL Christians vs. the sermons of the American Christians. And both are claiming Scripture. So, it’s possible to tell the story of America in grandiose and wonderful terms and how the pilgrim fathers came here and wanted freedom and so forth, and they wanted to build a new place where it was safe for the Gospel and to build a light, a city set on a hill. Then you can talk about their sacrifices and the way the 13 colonies grew on the east coast, and eventually moved west and settled. There was commerce and glory, they struggled with England in 1812, but nevertheless settled and yes, there was the shame of slavery, but we did get through that, and now we’ve come out the other side and we should be grateful for the grace of God in this respect, and at least we did eventually do the right thing and besides that, we came to the rescue of Europe, not once, but twice in the 20th century. And so on, and so on, and so on. We prevailed against communism simply by holding the line and being a robust economy until finally they collapsed. It’s all true. It’s wonderfully true.
But then, of course, somebody else could come along and tell a story: They came in here and took over the lands of the Indians and  they said there was freedom for all, but they still had slaves… and tell the whole story and slant it a whole different way. I could tell you similar store from Canada, of which I spring (come from). I can paint a pretty shameful story of what we’ve done to the inuit, the eskimo. I could do the same thing for the British Empire. I could do the same thing for parts of Chinese history. Because every country has some things for which to be proud and some things for which to be deeply ashamed.
So, how will Jews think of Israelite history? On the one hand, you could say, „You know, God chose us. Of all the nations of the earth, He chose us. That’s what Deuteronomy 10:7 says, He chose us because He loved us. He did choose us. And He made Jerusalem to be a city on a hill, too. He promised a great messianic King. He reveals Himself in glory at the tabernacle  that He has established Himself. He gave us a great body of law, the word of God, the books of the law. He gave us a man like Moses, raised up prophets again and again, and again. When we sinned, He rescued us. Yes, He sometime punished us, by sending us into exile, but He restored us back to Himself again and again. We are the people of God. All true.
And then you read Psalm 78. Now the psalmist presents the city of Israel in rather painful terms. They remind you a bit of Stephen’s speech  in Acts 7. That’s another sermon that begins with the history of Israel, but Stephen slants the history to show how often people rejected the revelation that God sent. God sent prophets and God sent the law, God sent various people He raised up to teach the people the way of God and they rejected them again and again, and again. So it’s not too surprising that when He sends the Messiah, they reject the Messiah too. He builds a whole theology that warrants a whole rejection of Messiah by reading Old Testament history.
And there’s something of that going on in Psalm 78. „Don’t you remember your own history?” He says. You look back at your own history, you see how many times people complained and whined and were disgruntled with God in the desert. And as a preface to this psalm, the writer says, „My people hear my teaching, listen to the words of my mouth..” Verse 2 in the NIV has, „I will open my mouth with a parable. I will utter hidden things, things of old.” You start asking: If they’re hidden, why does he go on to say, „Things we have heard and things our ancestors have told us.” If they’re things we have known and our ancestors have told us, why are they hidden things? Things that we have not known. But you see, that’s the way expounding is. Even when you know the data, as it were, the materials are there, there are new lessons that are being brought out. So that, when Steven for example, teaches from the Old Testament, the actual data that he refers to are all known. It’s common ground. It’s the raw data of history, but they’re so configured, that lessons are brought out  that we haven’t thought about at all. You see? ANd that’s what Psalm 78 is doing. It’s an historical Psalm that looks at Israel’s history to bring forth moral lessons, which most Jews at the time of the Psalmist, they’re not ready to hear about themselves. It’s a bit too hot, too privileged. They didn’t see their own history as a massive call for repentance.
And that’s what Jesus does Himself. He takes the Old Testament, and He now says things that have been hidden. Go back to verse 11. Why do you speak in parables? „Because the knowledge of the secret of the kingdom,” the NIV has, some translations have „the mysteries of the kingdom”. What does that mean „the mysteries of the kingdom”? Not the mysterious things of the kingdom. That’s not what mysteries means in the New Testament. The word mystery is used 27 or 28 times, with one variant. And in just about every case, the word mystery refers to that which has been hidden in the past, but is now disclosed. „So, I am going to tell you,” he says, „I’m going to make you understand, the mysteries of the kingdom.” Things that were hidden in the past, that are now disclosed.They’re hidden, but they’re hidden in plain sight. They’re in the text, but they’re hidden and nowI disclose them to you. The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, not to them.
That is, Jesus tells parables now because in line with Scripture, His message reveals things hidden in Scripture. What does this mean? What does this look like? Take a look at the parable of the sower, which is the context in which Jesus says these things. What’s the parable of the sower about? You have to remember that most jews expected that when the Messiah came, He would come with a bang. There would be clear differentiation between the just and the unjust. The kingdom would be established. All you have to do is read the preaching of John the Baptist to see what that would look like. When He comes, He will gather the wheat into barns, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and pass the chaff into unquenchable fire. Matthew 3:11-12. That’s what Jews expected would happen when the kingdom came. And what Jesus says is: The kingdom is a bit like a farmer, who goes out to sow . He scatters seed here, there. Some of it falls on good soil, some of it falls on bad soil, the birds take it away… some places are rocky, shallow, that soil warms up the fastest in the spring, the seed germinates, looks as if it’s gonna be the most promising crop, and then the middle east sun pelts down and the plant keels over and dies. Other seed falls over amongst thorns and  the thorns choke the life out of it. But some seed falls on good ground with various degrees of productivity. That’s what the kingdom is like.
What? I thought it came with a bang. I thought God was gonna clean up the whole mess. You’re just making things confusing. And so, the parable is not understood by the people who are hearing it. And even the christians to be – believers, they don’t understand it as well, though Jesus does carefully unpack it for them in the following verses. How does that come from the Old Testament? But it does. It does. Take a look, for ex., at Daniel 2 -The great vision of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Daniel interprets the dream. The various body parts, then verse 2:34 „While you were watching,” Daniel says to Nebuchadnezzar, describing a dream, „a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron , the clay, the bronze, the silver, and gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the sumer. The wind swept away without leaving a trace.” Here’s a vision of the kingdom of God, coming with a bang. And then, in the vision we read, „The rock that struck the statue  grew to become a whole mountain and filled the whole earth.” Now you got growth, not a bang.  But where is the evidence that jews got those bits put together as coming explanations of Christ?
Or, to take an example that’s better known, yet. In Caesarea Philippi (later in Matthew chapter 16), Jesus says, „Who do people say that I am?” Some say this, some say that. So he asks his own apostles, „What do you say?” Peter says, „You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus responds, „You are blessed Simon, son of John, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Great. But, does Peter mean by his confession what you and I mean? Do we confess that Jesus is the Christ? Nope. Because when you and  I confess that Jesus is the Christ, we cannot help but think of Christ crucified. Christ on the cross, dead, buried, risen again, ascended to the Father’s right hand. You see, we cannot help but think of the Father in these holistic categories. But those are not category that Peter understands, because when Jesus then goes on n the context of Matthew 16, to talk about His own impending death, Peter, having scored once theologically thinks to try again. „Never Lord, this shall never happen to you, Messiah’s don’t die, they win. Especially one like you, you can do all these nice miracles. This will never happen to you. You’re wrong on this one, Jesus.” Jesus wheels on him and says, „Get behind me Satan, you do not understand the things of God.” So then, why is Peter told he is blessed because he understands, because he confesses that Jesus is the Messiah? Because, while others are doubting that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, the promised King, Peter, anointed by God Himself, really does grasp that Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t have all the categories for Messiahship. He doesn’t see that this King must also be the suffering servant. He doesn’t see that this king will reign from a cross. He doesn’t see that. And the proof that he doesn’t see it carries on in the entire Gospel. He and the disciples are in the upper room. He still doesn’t know that the Messiah must die, even though 5 times, in Matthew’s Gospel alone, Jesus has unpacked that He’s the sort of Messiah  who must die and give His life. Well, tell me, is that announced in Scripture? Well, there’s the Passover, there’s Yom Kippur, there are passages like Isaiah 53. There are psalms, like Psalm 69 where the Davidic King is broken and crushed, betrayed by his own familiar friend. But you really cannot find any jews  of Jesus’ generation, before the cross, who simply got it together and believed that Jesus was simultaneously  the Davidic promised triumphant king and the suffering slaughtered  damned servant. But it was there in Scripture. They just hadn’t gotten it together.
One of the reasons Jesus tells parables, He says, is to unpack  this change slowly. In a way analogous  to what the historical psalms do: „I will open my mouth in parables, where you tell stories, compare things with things. I will utter things secret since the creation of the world.” But nevertheless, things  in the context of Psalm 78, your father knew about Isaiah 53,  and could get it together. Which is why when you read on in verse 16 „Blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because you hear, for truly, I tell you, many prophets and righteous people long to see what you see, but did not see it. And to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. Even the Old Testament saints could not put all the pieces together, which is why at the end of the chapter, verse 52 „Therefore every teacher of the law, who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house that brings down in the store room new treasures as well. You open the Old Testament Scriptures, and now you’re putting them together in  things you haven’t seen before, they are truly there, but they have not been put together. They’ve been hidden a little bit.
Now, what can we learn from these passages? We could easily spend a half hour unpacking this. Let me summarize.
  1. We should gain wonder in worship where there is a fresh grasp about how God has put the Bible together. I have my professors here and they’re all trying to get me to read the Old Testament is a Christological way, and I see it, I’m beginning to understand what typology  is and I’m beginning to understand what the trajectories are that run from the New Testament to the Old Testament and all , but I don’t wanna be blasphemous or anything, but couldn’t God have done it a little more simply? Why not be just a bit more straightforward? God in His great wisdom reveals so very much, but he shadows and types and structures, and you don’t really get them all together until after the events and those with eyes to see look back and say, „Spectacular. Here is the mind of our God. First thing is wonder in worship where there is a fresh grasp about how God has put the Bible together.
  2. We should gain gratitude in humility, for the gift of seeing the truth about Jesus and His Gospel, because so many people do not see it. That’s a gift.
  3. We should gain discretion in witness where there is a hostile environment. For we, too, understand as I understood, as Jesus understood, as Paul understood that sometimes the environment is so hostile, that you must approach these things with a certain kind of discretion, understanding that the truth itself can blind and harden, and deafen, as well as reveal.

At Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

D.A. Carson – Adams Lecture Series: Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables? – Matthew 13:10-17, 34-35 from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.

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