The Gospels contain many references to the teaching activities of Jesus. We are told how He taught in the Temple courts, in synagogues, by the lakeside, and wherever people gathered around Him. The Gospels also preserve for us much of the material used by Jesus in His teaching. And in this connection it is interesting to note how Luke summarizes his Gospel, by referring to it as a "treatise ... concerning all that Jesus began to ... teach" (Acts 1:1). Furthermore, the Gospels place emphasis on the high order of Jesus' teaching, and its effect upon those who heard Him. Note how Nicodemus is reported as saying, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God" (John 3:2). Also, the Sermon on the Mount closes with this significant footnote: "The multitudes were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt. 7:28-29).
This lesson, therefore, will be devoted to what is often termed "the teaching ministry of Jesus."
Two important phases of this teaching ministry should be given careful consideration:
1. The Message of Jesus.
When glancing at those sections of the Gospels which deal with the teaching ministry of Jesus, the reader cannot help noticing how often the word kingdom occurs. This amounts to far more than a number of casual references, for again and again the word is given special emphasis. Jesus began His Galilean ministry by proclaiming, "The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). The Sermon on the Mount begins, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy kingdom come" (Matt. 6:10). Many of the parables of Jesus begin, "The kingdom of heaven is likened unto ..." (Matt. 13:24). Even when facing the Cross, Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Many other references will come readily to mind.
From the above it will be seen that, while during His ministry Jesus spoke of many things, His main emphasis was upon "the kingdom." Indeed, it can be said that the message of Jesus was, in reality, the message of the kingdom. The student should therefore seek a thorough understanding of this message, and what is actually indicated by the term "the kingdom"; to those who earnestly seek this understanding there is the promise: "For thus shall be richly supplied unto you the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (II Pet. 1:11)
But at this point we may find ourself inquiring: "How are we to understand Jesus' kingdom message? What is the nature of this kingdom? Where is this kingdom located? How do we attain entrance into this kingdom?"
Such questions as these cannot be dealt with in any easy, offhand manner. We are not dealing here with a material kingdom, having geographical location and governed by earthly laws. Our concern is with a spiritual kingdom (or state of consciousness), and "we [must seek to] interpret what is spiritual in spiritual language" (I Cor. 2:13 Moffatt). Jesus recognized all this, and He did not attempt to describe the kingdom in physical terms. Instead, He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto ..." (Matt. 13:31), and similar statements. We can assume that He hoped through these suggestions to create in His hearers a spiritual quickening, with the accompanying spiritual perception of the kingdom.
However, Jesus did make several important statements regarding the kingdom, and these should be given careful consideration. Note the following:
(1) Jesus assured us that the kingdom is "at hand."
In order to understand this, we must remember that for many years prior to the coming of Jesus Christ, the Jewish people had been expecting the Messiah and the setting up of His kingdom. But this expectancy was always projected into the distant future. It was a "hope long deferred"! True, John the Baptist proclaimed: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2); but the context makes clear that he meant that the kingdom was imminent, or coming in the near future. With Jesus, however, the phrase "at hand" indicated that the kingdom had actually arrived. For Him, the kingdom was not something to be anxiously awaited, but was literally "at hand." This is made clear in the following passage:
"And being asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God cometh, he [Jesus] answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo, here! or, There! for lo, the kingdom of God is within you" [or, "in the midst of you"] (Luke 17:20-21).
(2) Jesus taught that the coming of the kingdom meant the attainment of our highest good.
Mention has already been made of the Messianic expectancy, which included the coming of the Messiah and the setting up of His kingdom. However, it must be recognized that this expectancy was accompanied by a great deal of fear and dread. This is made clear by Peter's quotation from the Book of Joel on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:14-21). Here the coming of the kingdom is referred to as "the great and terrible day of Jehovah" (Joel 2:31). John the Baptist also proclaimed the coming of the kingdom in similar terms, saying, "He will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12).
In contrast to all this, Jesus' message was one of good news, and the setting up of His kingdom was to be a time of great rejoicing. For Jesus, the kingdom meant "good tidings to the poor ... and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19). Later some of the Apostles wrote about the kingdom in similar terms. Paul declared, "The kingdom of God is ... righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17); and Peter wrote of "him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light" (I Pet. 2:9).
(3) Jesus also indicated that one of the important requirements for entrance into the kingdom is repentance. He said, "Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17).
The word repent refers to a complete change in our thoughts, attitudes, and actions; and it was used by both John the Baptist and Jesus. However, with John the Baptist repentance was associated with the possibility of punishment for wrongdoing; the implied warning was, "Repent ... or else!" But with Jesus, while repentance called for a letting go of wrong beliefs and erroneous ways of living, it also included entering into the new and joyous experiences of the kingdom.
At this time the following statements regarding the kingdom should be given careful consideration:
"The kingdom of heaven, or of the heavens, is a state of consciousness in which the soul and body are in harmony with Divine Mind" (Metaphysical Bible Dictionary 266).
"Jesus [said] ... 'The kingdom of God is within you.' This kingdom is now ready. 'The fields ... are white already unto harvest.' The conditions are ripe. But only those come in who are willing to exchange for it their ideas of earthly possessions" (Keep a True Lent 176).
"When a person arrives at a certain exalted consciousness through the exercise of his mind in thinking about God and His laws, he is lifted above the thoughts of the world into a heavenly realm. This is the beginning of his entry into the kingdom of the heavens, which was the text of many of Jesus' discourses. When a man attains this high place in consciousness he is baptized by the Spirit; that is, his mind and even his body are suffused with spiritual essences, and he begins the process of becoming a new creature in Christ Jesus" (Teach Us to Pray 163).
Having considered the message of Jesus, we should now give attention to:
2. Jesus' Methods of Teaching.
In presenting His message of the kingdom, as discussed above, Jesus did not limit Himself to the bare statement given in Mark 1:14-15. Jesus' kingdom message was presented in many different ways, and under many different circumstances; and in making these presentations Jesus used several different teaching methods. At this time, therefore, it will be helpful to make a careful study of the teaching methods used by Jesus, selecting four outstanding examples. Such a study will lead us to a better understanding, not only of the kingdom message, but also of the entire ministry of Jesus.
(A) Teaching by Precept:
Matt. 11:28; Mark 2:27; Luke 8:19-21; John 8:31-32
The word precept has been defined as "a commandment, instruction, or order, intended as a rule of action or conduct ... a practical rule guiding behavior, technique, etc." However, for purposes of New Testament study, we may regard the word precept as indicating a short statement of Truth, given without embellishment or illustration and intended to convey important instruction to the hearer or reader. Some of the precepts of Jesus take the form of invitations or promises.
The student should now look again at the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5, 6, 7) and note how many of these "precepts" or sayings of Jesus, as they are sometimes called, are to be found in these three chapters. The opening section of the Sermon (often referred to as the Beatitudes) begins with the words:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3).
Then notice how precept after precept occurs throughout the entire Sermon. The following are good examples:
"All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12).
Similar precepts are plentiful throughout the four Gospels, and the student should become thoroughly familiar with this type of teaching, seeking to trace, wherever possible, the connection between these precepts and Jesus' message of the kingdom.
(B) Teaching by Parables:
Matt. 13:1-58; 25:14-30; Luke 10:25-37; 15:1-32
An outstanding teaching method employed by Jesus was His use of parables. These parables have a prominent place in the Synoptic Gospels, and Jesus used them freely throughout His ministry. Matthew states, "All these things spake Jesus in parables unto the multitudes; and without a parable spake he nothing unto them" (Matt. 13:34).
It should be noted here that the parables of Jesus are found mainly in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). John's Gospel contains two or three suggestions of parables, but these differ considerably from the parables recorded by the synoptic writers. John's Gospel deals with what is sometimes termed the advanced, or deeper, teachings of Jesus; and since the Synoptic Gospels were already in circulation, the writer may have felt it unnecessary to duplicate the parables. However, in our next lesson we shall see how the writer of John's Gospel used an altogether different type of material to take the place of parables.
Perhaps the best way of entering into an understanding of the parables will be by asking, and seeking to briefly answer, a few leading questions, as follows:
What is a parable?
A parable is a short story dealing with familiar subjects or situations, and is told for the purpose of illustrating or making clear some important truth or phase of teaching. Thus, the value of the parable is to be found not in the actual story, but in the truth or teaching which it pictorially presents. A popular definition is: "A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning."
Why did Jesus use parables in His teaching?
At first glance, this seems a very simple question, and the answer appears self-evident. Above, it was stated that the purpose of a parable is to illustrate or make clear some important teaching. Parables may be likened to pictures in a book, or illustrations in a sermon; their main purpose is to help people grasp the truth. Thus, when we ask, "Why did Jesus use parables?" the apparent answer is: Jesus used parables so that people could easily understand the important points in His teaching.
However, referring to Matt. 13, we find that the very question we are discussing here was originally put to Jesus by His own disciples. "The disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?" Jesus gave the following cryptic reply: "Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. ... Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand" (Matt. 13:10, 11, 13).
How are we to interpret the above statement?
First, we must recognize that among the thronging crowds surrounding Jesus there were many persons who listened to Him merely to pass the time, or for the purpose of being entertained. They had no real interest in the kingdom message of Jesus. Hence, all such persons would continue to hear, but they would not really understand. However, Jesus knew that among those self-same crowds there were some earnest souls who were really seeking the truth; and as these seekers listened to the parables, they would eventually be led into an understanding of the kingdom.
Second, it must also be recognized that some of Jesus' parables constituted what may be termed a kindly method of reproof. These parables were directed toward certain groups, or individuals, for the purpose of correcting their erroneous ways of thinking. Of course, the important lessons in these parables would be helpful to all of Jesus' hearers; but the persons immediately concerned would recognize a special message for themselves. Thus, Matt. 21: 45 reads: "And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them." In other words (to use the terms of the old proverb) they saw that the shoe fitted, and they must needs wear it! Examples of this type of parable are "the Two Sons" (Matt. 21:28-32), "the Wicked Husbandmen" (Matt. 21:33-41), and "the Prodigal Son" (Luke 15:11-32).
One other point should be considered: Just prior to the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist had adopted a denunciatory style of preaching. John placed great emphasis on the sins of the people, and spoke to them in stern terms. Jesus, however, adopted an entirely different style in proclaiming His kingdom message. Instead of warning people of "the wrath to come," He tried to interest people and win them to His way of thinking. Thus it was that He taught in parables, presenting His message in terms that were acceptable and helpful. True, there came a time when Jesus Himself used the denunciatory style of speaking—as when He called the Pharisees "hypocrites" (Mark 7:6)-—but this was only after He had used the parable method.
What is the best way to study the parables?
Let us now outline a practical plan of study, in order that we may obtain a good grasp, not only of the parables themselves, but also of their meaning and purpose. At the end of the lesson will be found a list of Jesus' parables and some suggestions showing how the proposed plan of study may be put into operation. But first let us list the necessary steps in studying the parables:
(1) Read carefully the parable to be studied. Do not omit this first step. Many of the parables are so familiar that we may assume that a re-reading is unnecessary. But this very familiarity may have its own disadvantages and dangers; so it will be well to read carefully each parable, no matter how familiar it may seem.
(2) Try to get a clear picture of the setting of the parable. This is very important. We should ask ourself: Under what circumstances did Jesus utter this parable? What was actually happening at that time? Was Jesus directing this parable to any particular person or group? If so, what was His purpose in so doing? In other words, we should gather as much information as possible concerning each parable. Usually, the answers to the suggested questions are indicated in the context, so the setting can easily be reconstructed. But even in the few instances where the circumstances are not too clear, a careful reading will disclose enough information to form some sort of helpful background.
(3) Try to pick out the theme, or main teaching, of the parable. This will not be difficult if we have the right setting or background. We should ask ourself: What is the real message contained in this parable? What particular point, or special teaching, was Jesus seeking to put forward at this time? What important truth does this parable illustrate? Usually the answers to these or similar questions give us the theme of the parable. However, one point should be noted: As a general rule, each parable contains only one main idea; but, since the parable is in story form, there will also be included a number of details, making for color and interest in the story. Hence we must learn to focus our attention on the theme, or main teaching, and not be led away into any bypaths suggested by details. This is most important if we would really profit from a study of the parables.
(4) Additional interest is found in seeking to trace the connection between the parables and Jesus' teaching of the kingdom. It will be well to ask ourself: What special point in the kingdom teaching is illustrated by this parable? How does this parable help us better to understand and find entrance into the kingdom? In many instances a definite connection can be traced; and the time and effort thus put forth will return rich dividends in a deeper understanding, both of the parables and of the kingdom.
(5) As a final step in the study of the parables, we should seek to understand their metaphysical meaning. This is important, because we are thus led to see the great value of the parables and profit from their teachings. The steps already suggested enable us to see what the parables meant in the days of Jesus' ministry; but this final, or metaphysical, step brings their message right home to us in terms of practical, present-day living.
The following suggestions should prove helpful in finding the metaphysical interpretation of the parables:
Try to get a clear understanding of the theme, or main teaching, of the parable. This understanding is important, since the entire interpretation of the parable arises out of the theme.
Recognize that the parable pictorially represents some phase in the development of our consciousness. As a story, the parable seems to be dealing with happenings taking place in the outside world; but in a metaphysical sense, these happenings are regarded as taking place within our own consciousness.
Realize that all persons, places, or activities in the parable are symbols of ideas, qualities, or powers active within us. Thus, we are not to regard one 34 person in the parable as representing ourself, while another person represents someone else. All persons, places, and activities have their location as symbols within ourself. For example, the prodigal son and his elder brother represent ideas and activities in our life and affairs; under certain conditions, both may be functioning in our consciousness. (See examples given in the APPENDIX B for further explanation.)
Remember to relate all details in the parable to the central theme, as suggested above. The theme contains the really important teaching, and the details should be used only to explain, amplify, or otherwise help us to understand and apply the theme. We should continue to ask ourself: What special idea, or message, was Jesus here seeking to present? How does this apply to us today? This procedure will give meaning and purpose to each parable, as applied to our own life and affairs; and it will also guard against fanciful or far-fetched interpretation of details.
The student should now refer to the list of Jesus' parables, as given in APPENDIX A. Read these carefully and select several for further study.
Refer also to APPENDIX B, which gives several examples showing how the directions for study given above may be applied to specific parables. The principles given may be similarly applied to all parables, to bring out their important lessons for us today.
Questions for Lesson 6
- How is the kingdom message of Jesus stated in the first chapter of Mark's Gospel? How does this differ from a similar statement made earlier by John the Baptist? (Matt. 3:2)
- What is a precept? Explain briefly. List five helpful precepts given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Give chapter and verse references with each precept.
- What is a parable? Give, briefly, three reasons why Jesus taught in parables.
- Using your own words, tell in brief form the story of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32)
- Briefly explain the important lesson contained in the parable of the Talents. (Matt. 25:14-30)
- Give a brief explanation of the term, "the kingdom of heaven." Where is this kingdom located?
- What is indicated by the word repent? Is this a requirement for entrance into the kingdom?
- Explain briefly. Explain briefly how the parable of the Sower emphasizes the importance of receptivity. (Matt. 13:1-9) What is the result, or reward, of good receptivity? What happens when there is lack of receptivity?
- Read carefully the parable of the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32), and then state briefly what each of these sons represents in our consciousness.
- What is the theme of Jesus' parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins? How can we apply this theme to our everyday living?
1. An Early Group
|1. The Two Houses||Matt. 7:24-27|
|2. The Two Debtors||Luke 7:41-50|
|3. The Sower||Matt. 13:1-9||Luke 8:4-8|
2. Parables of the Kingdom
|1. The Seed||Mark 4:26-29|
|2. The Tares||Matt. 13:24-30|
|3. The Mustard Seed||Matt. 13:31-32||Mark 4:30-32|
|4. The Leaven||Matt. 13:33|
|5. The Hidden Treasure||Matt. 13:44|
|6. The Costly Pearl||Matt. 13:45-46|
|7. The Fishing Net||Matt. 13:47-50|
|8. The Unforgiving Servant||Matt. 18:23-35|
|9. The Wedding Feast||Matt. 22:1-14|
3. The Main Group
|1. The Good Samaritan||Luke 10:25-37|
|2. The Empty House||Matt. 12:43-45||Luke 11:24-26|
|3. The Rich Farmer||Luke 12:16-21|
|4. The Barren Fig Tree||Luke 13:6-9|
|5. The Wedding Guest||Luke 14:7-11|
|6. The Lost Sheep||Luke 15:1-7|
|7. The Lost Coin||Luke 15:8-10|
|8. The Prodigal Son||Luke 15:11-32|
|9. The Unjust Steward||Luke 16:1-13|
|10. The Rich Man and Lazarus||Luke 16:19-31|
|11. The Importunate Widow||Luke 18:1-8|
|12. The Pharisee and Publican||Luke 18:9-14|
|13. The Laborers in the Vineyard||Matt. 20:1-16|
4. Parables of Urgent Appeal
|1. The Two Sons||Matt. 21:28-32|
|2. The Wicked Husbandmen||Matt. 21:33-46||Mark 12:1-12||Luke 20:9-19|
|3. The Wedding Feast||Matt. 22:1-14||Luke 14:15-24|
|4. The Ten Virgins|
|5. The Talents||Matt. 25:14-30|
|6. The Pounds||Luke 19:11-28|
Further Suggestions Concerning Typical Parables
The Sower (Mark 4:1-9)
SETTING: Crowds gathered around Jesus, but many persons were motivated only by curiosity, or something similar. What could be done to gain the attention of such persons? Note the way this situation is handled.
THEME: "The importance of receptivity"
METAPHYSICAL MEANING: The "seed" is the freeing word of Truth, and the soil represents our consciousness in varying degrees of receptivity. The "wayside," or pathway, indicates the closed mind, with no receptivity; the "rocky ground" represents shallow thinking or lack of interest, with no lasting receptivity; the "thorns," or weeds, indicate the preoccupied mind. The "good ground" is the receptive mind leading to an abundant harvest. Note the closing emphasis upon the rewards that come to the receptive mind.
The Importunate Widow (Luke 18:1-8)
SETTING: Apparently Jesus had been giving some teaching regarding prayer, and questions had arisen about answers to prayer and the tendency to give up if no answers were forthcoming. That this was an oft-discussed subject is shown by many New Testament references. (See Matt. 6:6; Gal. 6:9; I Thess. 5:17.)
THEME: "Persistence in prayer"
METAPHYSICAL MEANING: (1) The "widow" represents a condition in our experience where something is needed to make life whole and complete. (2) The "judge" represents those conditions or circumstances that seem to hold back our desired good or stand in the way of its manifestation. (3) Note the importance of persistent prayer. Suggested statements for personal use: "Nothing can hold back that which rightfully belongs to me." "I am open and receptive to receive my good." Note the close relationship between faith and persistence. Be careful not to think of the unjust judge as representing God. God does not withhold our good; but persistence is sometimes needed to develop our capacity to receive.
The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
SETTING: The Jewish leaders were complaining about the attitude of Jesus toward the "publicans and sinners." Jesus' message made a strong appeal to some of these transgressors of the law, and many had already "come to themselves" and were starting life afresh. But apparently the Jewish leaders objected to this rehabilitation work for those whom they regarded as permanent outcasts. It is easy to recognize these "publicans and sinners" in the "prodigal" and the religious leaders of that day in the "elder brother."
THEME: "The unchanging love of the Father" While this parable has always been known as the parable of the Prodigal Son, it should be noted that it actually deals with the activities of two sons; and the real emphasis is upon the loving and forgiving attitude of the father. The father gave the inheritance to the younger son and then forgave him after "he had spent all." Later the father also forgave the complaining elder brother. The father's love is seen at its best in these activities, and the story clearly points to the forgiving love of God, our Father.
METAPHYSICAL MEANING: The "younger son" represents what is sometimes referred to as "human nature," with its desires of the flesh and the tendency to break away from all supposed restraints of home, seeking its pleasures in the "far country." The "elder brother" represents what may be termed the religious side of our nature; and under certain conditions this may develop a "holier than thou" attitude. However, in both instances a change is possible through repentance. Note how the younger son "came to himself," and there was then a complete change in his thoughts and activities. Above all, recognize the love of the father (as shown in this parable) as a symbol of the forgiving, unchanging love of God, our Heavenly Father; and know that He is ever ready to receive His erring children back into the Father's house.
The Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13)
SETTING: Note that this parable belongs to the group designated as "Parables of Urgent Appeal." These parables were spoken by Jesus during the closing period of His ministry, and they indicate His desire that the hearers should give speedy response to the teaching thus presented. Scripture states that "the common people heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37)—but Jesus recognized that there was a wide divergence between "hearing" and "doing"! In some of His earlier messages, Jesus had emphasized this necessity for action, saying, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father" (Matt. 7:21). Now the time for action had arrived; and if such action was not taken, the opportunity would pass away.
THEME: "The necessity for preparedness"
METAPHYSICAL MEANING: Several important points should be carefully considered: (1) The "virgins" are sometimes regarded as representing our faculties, some of which may be alert and ready for advancement, while others may have fallen asleep. (2) The attitude of some of the virgins in refusing to share their oil has often been questioned, and on first reading this attitude does seem contrary to Christian teaching. However, we must recognize that there are some things and experiences in life which cannot be shared. The "oil" mentioned is suggestive of the possibilities of spiritual illumination—an individual experience which each person must seek and find for himself. The "foolish virgins" had time and opportunity to obtain this "oil," but they chose to spend their time in sleep. (3) "Behold, the bridegroom!" This call comes to all persons, in many ways and at many times, and the call represents life's supreme opportunity. Then it is that prepared men and women are able to enter the festive chamber and join with the bridegroom in the joys of the wedding feast; but those who are unprepared find themselves facing the closed door. It is significant that shortly before giving this parable, Jesus had uttered the memorable words: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matt. 23:37).