It’s commonly said that Jesus used a lot of parables when He taught in order to make His lessons very clear to His listeners. By using a lot of examples from everyday life that the people were familiar with—like farming, cleaning, and shepherding—Jesus made His teaching points super obvious and very memorable. Gosh, what a clever Guy He was. This is what we say. It isn’t true, but we say it anyway.
If you want to get a completely warped, totally backwards understanding about who Jesus was, what His Personality was like, and how you would have felt hanging around with Him on earth, then go to church. Attend those weekly Bible classes. Go to adult Sunday School and you’ll hear all about sweet, loving, gentle Jesus who was oh so clear with His teaching, ever tender with His words, and attracting mobs to Him because He was just such a nice Guy. From pastor to layman, this is the Jesus we promote. Unfortunately, it’s a Jesus who never existed, and still doesn’t exist.
Now if you want to know the real Jesus—well, then you’ll have to get with one of His Best Friends—Someone who really knows Him. That would be the Holy Spirit. Without His help, you’ll never understand how Jesus behaved on earth because by now a bunch of brainwashed Christians have succeeded in brainwashing you into thinking Jesus was such a nice, loving Guy. When you read the Gospel books, you’re reading them through a mental filter that makes you say, “Oh, yes, look how nice He was. Look how clear His teaching was.” No, this is all wrong. Your eyes are skimming the words on the page, but your brain isn’t understanding them. Nothing about Jesus was clear. Not much about Him was nice. If you’re going to really understand Him, you’ve got to try and set aside all the pulpit pictures and start fresh. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes. When He does, you’re suddenly going to see a very different Jesus.
In this post, we’ll talk about Jesus’ teaching style. Boy, what a difficult Character He was. Have you ever raised your hand to ask a teacher a question, just to have that teacher mock you for not understanding and make you feel dumb? That was Jesus. Have you ever sat in class feeling really frustrated because you don’t understand what the heck the teacher is saying as he rambles on and on? That was Jesus. Nothing about Jesus’ teaching was clear. Part of it seems clear to you because you’ve had explanations given to you either by the Gospel writers or by a human being. But at the time Jesus actually spoke, most people had no idea what He was talking about.
It’s quite true that Jesus spoke using a lot of parables—short, metaphorical stories. In fact, Jesus spoke in so many parables that it became quite tiresome. The disciples wanted Jesus to stop with the stories and just speak plainly. But Jesus had this really weird hang-up about using endless metaphors.
“To other people, I tell everything by using stories” He says to his frustrated disciples in Mark 4:11. Here’s the thing about stories: they don’t work unless you explain them. Otherwise, it’s like telling a joke without the punch line—everyone’s left feeling confused and asking each other, “What was the point of that? Do you understand why He was talking about a farmer throwing seed around? I mean, we all get how to farm. What was His point?”
Let’s take the parable of the farmer casting seed on different types of soil. By now, you think this is an obvious analogy of people hearing the Gospel message and responding in different ways. The seeds that land in a patch of weeds are like souls who hear the teaching and accept it at first, but then the cares of the world come and choke it out. The seeds that land on rocky ground are like souls that receive the truth at first, but they don’t really let it take root inside of them and when trouble comes, they forget all about it. Jesus describes several types of soil in this parable and when we hear it today we think, “Ah, yes, the old farmer and seed parable. A very good analogy.” But this isn’t what the disciples or anyone else thought at the time. They didn’t think Jesus was a brilliant Teacher because He used farming metaphors to describe how souls react to hearing God’s truth. They just thought He was babbling on about farming and they didn’t know why.
At this time, everyone knew how farming worked. It’s like Jesus has just made a long speech about how to turn on your cell phone and dial a number. Right, we get it. So what? So…Jesus is done talking. No explanation is given. He just throws out a bunch of obvious how-to lessons and walks away. Everyone’s left feeling weird. The murmuring among the crowd probably went something like this.
“What’d you think of that farming bit? Wasn’t that random?”
“Yeah, not really sure what that was about. I thought He was a carpenter’s son.”
“He was, but maybe He always wished He could farm instead.”
“Hm, yeah, maybe that’s it. He talks about farming a lot.”
“Why did He wrap it up by saying ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear?’”
“I don’t know, but He’s always saying that.”
“Well, I heard, but I don’t know what He’s talking about.”
“I don’t think anyone did. I was watching His disciples. Peter and John looked pretty confused. I think they just nod a lot to make us think they understand Him.”
“I don’t think anyone understands Him. All He does is tell stories.”
“Yeah, well, what can you do? He’s not a very good Teacher, but His miracles are sure real.”
No one understood Jesus’ parables, not even His disciples. And because Jesus was so condescending towards those who asked Him questions in the middle of big crowds, the disciples waited until they were alone with Him to try and ask what the heck He was talking about. They got the usual crispy Jesus response:
“Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mk. 4:13)
Ah…our sweet, loving Lord. Better have thick skin when you go to ask Him a question. Jesus was very good at making His disciples feel like dumbbells. But here in Mark 4, He says something very interesting before He delivers the usual condescending retort. Let’s look at the whole exchange:
When He was alone, the Twelve and the others around Him asked Him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mk. 4:10-13)
Jesus has just said something very shocking and disturbing. Unless you really know your Old Testament, this will go right over your head. Now Jesus’ Jewish disciples would have known their Scriptures well enough to remember this famous quote from Isaiah 6:9-10. Let’s check it out for ourselves so we can hear what they heard when Jesus dropped this little grenade.
In Isaiah 6 we find a description of Yahweh first calling Isaiah to be His prophet. It starts out with Isaiah having a vision of Heaven. He sees Yahweh sitting in majestic glory on a throne in the Temple, with a very long robe that Isaiah describes as filling the Temple. Doesn’t sound like a very practical design, does it? Can you imagine attending a wedding where the train of a bride’s dress is so long that it fills the whole church? You’d walk into the room and start slipping and sliding on silk. This is the kind of description Isaiah is giving us—he’s obviously describing something very unusual. Around Yahweh in this cloth-filled place are angelic creatures that are calling out how holy He is. Isaiah suddenly becomes hyperaware of the fact that he is a sinful man who is unworthy to stand in the Presence of such holy Perfection. He cries out:
“Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Almighty” (Isa. 6:5).
If a mere mortal comes too close to a holy God, the human will die: this was a rule that Yahweh laid down way back in Exodus 19 when He ordered Moses to execute anyone who dared to come too close to Mt. Sinai—a place where Yahweh would sometimes put His Presence before the days of the tabernacle.
Happily for terrified Isaiah, Yahweh is in a gracious mood. He sends an angel forward to touch Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal (ouch), which figuratively cleanses him.
“See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Then I heard the Voice of Yahweh saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for Us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa. 6:7-8)
Once Isaiah boldly volunteers, Yahweh responds to him by saying:
“Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isa. 6:9-10)
This is a very disturbing statement. Yahweh is commissioning Isaiah to be His prophet to Israel, but at the same time, He is saying that He will block His chosen people from understanding anything Isaiah says. Why? Because Yahweh does not want the people to understand how mad He is at them, otherwise they might repent of their sins and be saved from His wrath. This is a very unexpected answer and a very disturbing way for our gracious God to behave—to intentionally block people from understanding His truth. Isaiah is very upset by all this. Yahweh can’t be serious—or if He is, He can’t mean He’s going to keep blinding people permanently. In the next verse, Isaiah asks, “For how long, Lord?”
And Yahweh answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until Yahweh has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But just as terebinth and oak trees leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (Isa. 6:11-13)
How long does Yahweh intend to block people from coming to Him? Until He’s destroyed their land, slaughtered a bunch of them, and sent many more away into exile. There will be a small remnant left—and then He’ll return and trash everyone again. In the end there will be just a little bitty remnant left—the “holy seed”. Wow.
When we read this whole exchange, it becomes obvious why we only like to quote the first part of the conversation and pretend that the rest of it never happened. Most of the Christians who sing one of the worship songs based on this chapter have no idea how God responded to the famous “Here I am, send me” line. Yet when we slice and dice the Bible like this, we end up with a very warped understanding of God. In this passage, Yahweh clearly demonstrates that our gracious, long-suffering Father has a whole other side to Him—a dark, raging, terrifying side. Yes, God does want us all to be saved—but He also reaches a point where He intentionally blocks us from being able to come to Him. As we learn in Isaiah 6, this blocking sometimes happens while we are still on this earth. Yikes! This is a terrifying thought. We never want to get on this side of Yahweh.
Now let’s fast-forward and get back to Jesus and His confused disciples. They’ve asked Him to explain His parables and He responds by saying:
“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mk 4:11-12)
Wow! Jesus has just said that the reason He speaks in parables is not to make things super-obvious, but to confuse people and to prevent them from understanding what He is talking about. What a shocking statement! Jesus doesn’t want people to understand what He’s saying? Yes, and by quoting the words of a fuming Yahweh back in Isaiah 6, Jesus makes His motivations exceptionally clear. He is not feeling the love for everyone He is speaking to. Instead, He has some extremely hostile feelings towards much of His audience because of the way their souls are responding to God. Now this shouldn’t come as too much of a shock if we’ve been really studying Jesus. By now He’s cursed whole towns for not responding right to His miracles. Jesus is not a sweet loving Guy who just travels through the land blessing people. His mission is to drive souls back to God and open their eyes to some very unpleasant truths. If they aren’t willing to listen, He reacts with disgust and hate, not love and grace.
Well…this is an awkward moment. Now that Jesus has just said He’s using parables to block people from understanding what He’s talking about, and referenced a passage about Jews being destroyed by Yahweh’s wrath, the disciples really want to stay on Jesus’ good side. Suddenly having the parables explained to them has become a very precious privilege—one that they don’t want to squander. So when Jesus begins His explanation by insulting them with His “Don’t you understand this story?” comment, they don’t dare to protest. Jesus can call them names if He wants to, they just don’t want to be cut off from His wisdom.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the doubletalk Jesus is slinging here. After just explaining that no one can understand His parables, He then says to His disciples: “Don’t you understand this story? If you don’t, how will you understand any story?”
At this point, some of the disciples had to be thinking, “Uh, hello, Jesus, we don’t understand because YOU aren’t letting us understand! We’ll never understand anything unless YOU explain it to us!”
Yes, this is true, and it raises a very important point for us Christians today: being able to understand any kernel of God’s truth is a gift. If you are wise, you’ll cherish every gift God gives you and respond with reverential awe and humble gratitude. At any time, He could cut you off, dull your mind, and toss you in the pile of those He hates. Now let’s be clear: if you are a Christian, God is never going to disown you. God loves you, and He wants you to grow in your understanding of truth. But when we Christians get attitudinal with God and start acting like we’ve got Him all figured out, then we’re asking for trouble. God will take back the illumination of truth that He has given us. He won’t take back our salvation—we’ll still end up in Heaven with all of our sins atoned for—but He will block us from growing into a deeper understanding of Him.
God considers the knowledge of Him to be a priceless gift. He considers intimate communion with Him to be the most coveted of all treasures. We can’t know intimate communion with God without Him helping us to understand Him better than we currently do. We need His help to really grasp what He cares about, what His priorities are, why He acts the way He does, and how He views us. All insights into who God is are sacred things which should be received with utmost humility and gratitude. If we respond well to what God gives us, then He will give us more. But if we treat His insights with disrespect, then He will make our minds forget what we’ve learned and turn us into spiritual morons who go around promoting themselves as brilliant Bible teachers.
It’s a great privilege to have God explain something to us in a straightforward manner without using a bunch of confusing parables and metaphors. By God’s own admission, He doesn’t speak plainly with us very often. Way back in Numbers 12, we find Yahweh describing what an unusual exception Moses was to His typical teaching style.
“When there is a prophet among you, I, Yahweh, reveal Myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of My servant Moses; he is faithful in all My house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of Yahweh.” (Num. 12:6-8)
Moses obeyed God, and Yahweh chose to speak to Him plainly and clearly. Yet when Jesus came along, He spoke in parables that no one understood. Why? Because most of the people that Jesus spoke to were hardened rebels—people who claimed to believe in God, yet really weren’t obeying Him in their hearts. When we play games with God, He responds in kind. Jesus knew that most of the people gathered around Him on those sunny hillsides were only there for free food and miracles. They didn’t care about pleasing God or getting to know Him. To them, God was just a dispenser of blessings.
What about us Christians? Are we treating God any better? Are we willing to have our egos insulted and our pride ground down by God’s stinging comments and cutting truths? Would we have gotten all huffy if Jesus had called us dingdongs for not understanding His parables? Would we have walked away and thought, “that Guy is a rude, two-faced jerk”? It would have been very tempting at times. Jesus was sarcastic, vague, and very difficult to track with. He was famous for veering off on strange tangents in the middle of normal conversation or making some nonsensical side comment. There was nothing easy about trying to get to know Jesus, yet if you stuck with Him, He was totally addictive.
God is constantly sifting through the souls who follow Him to see who has what it takes to go the whole way. He is constantly trying our patience with His long silences and nonsensical directives. His leading style is downright maddening as He makes us constantly start and stop, make U-turns and weave all over the place. If you’re going to let God lead your life, you’re going to be in for a wild ride. God doesn’t move in straight, logical lines—He goes all over the place. He gives us strange commands and refuses to explain Himself. He never lets us in on the big picture. He keeps us constantly guessing and wondering what He’s up to. He keeps most of what He accomplishes through us completely hidden from our eyes, and we end up discouraged and convinced we aren’t making any real difference. God is difficult to work with—He always has been. And yet if we stick it out and keep following Him about, determined that He really is the only One worth living for—then, like the disciples, we will find ourselves totally addicted. There’s a lot more to God than strange parables and sarcastic questions, but He makes us work for the pleasures of His Company. We have to be willing to put up with a whole lot of frustration, disillusionment, and confusion if we’re going to experience true intimacy with God. But once we experience it—wow. He’s so worth it. God is incredible. He is the only One who can really satisfy our souls. Being close to Him is like—well, no word has been invented that can describe something that good.