8 Simple Steps to Understand the Parables of Jesus

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Have you ever read a parable in the Bible and wondered what on earth it was talking about? Or maybe you’ve understood it just a little but wasn’t sure if you had gotten the right interpretation.

I’ve got you. We’re going to talk about what are parables and how we can understand them.

What are Parables?

Let’s start by looking at the original Greek word parabolḗ, (pronounced par-ab-ol-ay’). A parabolḗ is a similitude, i.e. (symbolic) fictitious narrative of common life that conveys a moral.

In other words, a parable is a story that uses earthly things to teach a spiritual lesson by comparing two (usually seemingly unrelated) things. Some consider parables “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”.

Examples of Parables

Even if you’ve never read the New Testament, you may have heard of some of the parables of Jesus. Parables such as the Prodigal Son which tells the story of a young man who wanted his inheritance while his father was still alive. He wasted his money just as the country he was living in experienced a famine.

The young man got so hungry, he was on the verge of eating swine food when he decided to return to his father’s house as a servant. He was welcomed with joy. You can read that parable in Luke 15:11-32.

Or maybe you’ve heard the Parable of the Sower which is found in Matthew 13:3-9, Mark 4:3-9, and Luke 8:5-15. A man sowed his seeds which fell on different types of soil with varying results. Some of the plants withered and died, some were choked by weeds, and others did not take root. But the ones that fell on good soil flourished and produced fruit in varying quantities.

These parables often have a powerful message wrapped in what sometimes appear to be a simple story.

Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?

8 Simple Steps to Understand the Parables of Jesus
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So why did Jesus teach in parables? This was a question that also baffles His disciples to the point where they asked Him. I’ll allow you to read Jesus’ response and then we’ll try to figure out what it means.

He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

“For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.

“Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11-13 NKJV).

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Wait,  what? Jesus’answer almost sounds like a parable in itself. Let’s go through the passage slowly to figure out why Jesus taught in parables.

1. To reveal truth. When speaking to the disciples He said they had been given the keys to understand the mysteries of the kingdom but they (meaning the crowd) had not been given the ability.

Basically, this means those who are seeking the kingdom of God, those who are pursuing Christ will be able to understand the message.

2. To conceal truth. On the other hand, those who chose to remain blind to spiritual things would not be able to understand.

This idea of concealing truth continues in verse 13. Those who are spiritually blind or deaf will not be able to hear or understand the truths He taught in parables.

3. To fulfill prophecies about the Messiah. In His response to the disciples, Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:10-12. It has been evident throughout the ages: God’s people don’t listen. We know what God expects from us yet we still go our own way .

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In some cases, the is repentance and a turning away from sin but most of times, God sends word through His prophets and they are ignored. Our Heavenly Father knew the Messiah would experience the same thing. He spoke about it years before it happened and those prophecies were fulfilled in the parables of Jesus Christ.

How to Understand the Parables of Jesus

Okay, now that we understand what are parables and why Jesus used them in His ministry, let’s talk about how we can understand them when we read them in the Bible.

1. Look at the context. Parables, like all Scripture, need to be interpreted in the context of the surrounding text. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Why did Jesus tell the story?
  • Who was He talking to?
  • What were the events that happened before He told the parable?

2. Determine what two things are being compared. Parables usually compare an abstract spiritual concept like the kingdom of heaven to something physical.  As you look at the two things being compared, try to look for clues as to why the two things were being compared.

3. Consider the cultural norms of the original audience. This may require some additional research on your part. However, if we’re going to understand what a parable is saying we have to think about what it meant to the original audience.

For example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan goes beyond a man helping a foreigner. The Jews and Samaritans had a long history of dissention. A Samaritan would not have touched a Jew any more than a Jew would have wanted to be touched by a Samaritan.  Yet, this was the character Jesus chose to make the hero in his story.

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4. Figure out the point.  Parables usually have one main point. Zoom in on the parable to try to understand its meaning. Ask questions such as:

  • Who are the main characters?
  • What happened at the end of the parable?
  • Who or what is the focus of the story?
  • What two things are being compared in the parable?

5. Make note of surprising details. Is there any that stands out or strikes you as unusual? For example, in the Parable of the Lost Coin didn’t you find it strange that the woman called her neighbors to celebrate the fact that she had found her lost coin? Or the fact that the coin was considered lost though it was in her house?

6. Don’t get distracted by the details. While it’s important to take note of what’s happening in the parable, do not get so bogged down in the tiny details that you miss the point.

For example, in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, do not get so distracted by the fact that the master praised the steward for his shrewdness that you miss the point. We are not being told to be dishonest in this life, rather we are being encouraged to use what wealth and influence we have for good. In doing that we will be rewarded in the next life.

7. Look for parallels in Scripture. You may have noticed as you read your Bible that there are some concepts and imagery that occurs repeatedly. Look for those cues when reading parables as they may offer insight in understanding what the parable is saying.

For example, a master, king, or judge in a parable usually signifies God. Sheep, servants, or workers are usually used to illustrate the followers of God.

8. Use commentaries. After you have extracted as much information from a passage as you can, don’t be afraid to use commentaries to supplement your understanding. The point is to understand the Scripture. Be sure to read multiple commentaries so you get a wide range of thoughts and ideas on the passage.

Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you so you can discern what is true.

The Parables of Jesus Christ

There are more than 50 recorded parables of Jesus in the New Testament. Some are duplicated in the Gospels while others occur only once. Each parable was told to illustrate a specific point so it’s important for us to know how to decipher them.

I hope these 8 steps will give you direction on how you can unpack the parables of Jesus as you strive to know more about your Savior.

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