Jesus Taught with Parables All the Time
Everything Jesus said had an underlying spiritual meaning … a hidden moral message. This is a true statement because Jesus spoke in parables. It isn’t that He spoke in parables on some occasions and not on others, He actually spoke in parables all of the time.
34 All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.
35 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34-35)
It was God’s plan that Jesus would teach with parables, and it was proclaimed to the world beforehand by the Psalmist, Asaph (Psalm 78:2), which is quoted in verse 35 of Matthew 13 above. Notice that it says Jesus would utter things hidden since the foundation of the world. That sounds like Jesus would be revealing some pretty deep stuff. Surely, the prophetic statement is not talking about farmers sowing seed, merchants searching for pearls or rich men throwing grand dinner parties. Are these the great secrets of God that were hidden since the time the world was created? Of course not! Verse 35 says Jesus would “utter things hidden since the foundation of the world,” but it first says that these things would be spoken in parables. That means the things that had been hidden were to remain hidden … concealed within parables. If the things that had been hidden were not to remain hidden, there would be no need for the use of parables, a literary form with a built-in hidden part. That is, if the secrets of God’s kingdom were not to remain hidden, Jesus would have spoken the hidden mysteries directly. The secrets of the kingdom of God are like precious jewels buried in simple, ordinary and common stories that are hidden but intended to be found by those who seek with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Not all parables require spoken words. For instance, a ballet very rarely has any spoken or sung words, but communication is accomplished through a vocabulary of highly formalized steps and gestures along with mime and acting. Though words are not spoken, a story is told and a full range of emotion is emitted. Jesus was not a dancer, but the words He spoke were not the only parables He employed. His actions also had hidden meanings. An example of what I call an ‘action parable’ that contains a hidden lesson is Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet.
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God,
4 got up from supper, and laid aside His garments: and taking a towel, He girded Himself.
5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.
6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”
7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” (John 13:3-7)
Jesus wasn’t insulting the disciples’ intelligence when He said that they didn’t know what He had done … He wasn’t saying I just washed your feet, but you don’t know that I washed your feet. He was telling them that He had done something to them that had a meaning they did not understand, but they would at some later time. In other words, Jesus had done something to them that had a hidden message. Therefore, the washing of the disciples’ feet was an action parable.
As the episode unfolds, we see that Peter does not catch on, and is not satisfied with Jesus’ explanation. He is still seeing with his physical mind believing Jesus just wants to wash his feet.
Peter said to Him, “Never shall you wash my feet!” (John 13:8a) Then Jesus refutes Peter’s declaration. “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.” (John 13:8b) Peter still does not understand. Once again Jesus asserts that what He is doing is not about the physical act of cleaning feet.
9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”
10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.”
11 For He knew the one betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” (John 13:9-11)
The tenth verse contains a spoken parable within the foot washing parable. Jesus says that those who have bathed are clean, but He is not speaking of physical cleanliness, rather of being spiritually washed and made clean. We know this because of His reference to Judas who was not spiritually clean because he had deception in his heart. With this, Peter seems to be getting the idea and finally relents to Jesus washing his feet. Following the foot washing exercise, Jesus asks the disciples if they understand what He had done.
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” (John 13:12)
Jesus then explains the meaning of this action parable and reveals to them an important characteristic of the kingdom of God.
13 “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.
14 If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
15 For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.
16 Truly, truly, I say to you, [here is the meaning of the example, the action parable] a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.
17 If you know these things [the things that are hidden in the parables], you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17)
When Jesus tells His disciples they should follow His example and wash each others’ feet, He immediately follows with the explanation that what He did was an example. It wasn’t an example for washing feet, however. Rather, it was an example … a parable … that revealed an important principle of the kingdom of God: In God’s kingdom, those who are leaders will be the servant of all … realizing they are not greater than the One who sent them … selflessly serving the flock … even if it should mean washing their feet as a lowly servant. Jesus expressed this kingdom principle in Mark’s gospel when He said, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
The foot washing story shows us that actions can be parables as well as words. Jesus used both forms, and both are utilized in the Old and New Testaments. Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, Moses parting the Red Sea, David killing Goliath and Jesus dying on a cross are but four of a myriad of action parables in the Bible, each one carefully selected and placed in the Bible by the Spirit of God for our instruction and edification. Jesus taught with parables using words and actions, and He taught with parables all the time.
Jesus wanted His disciples to know the significance of teaching with parables. Therefore, He taught the people with parables, but he explained them to the disciples.
33 And with many such parables He was speaking the word to them as they were able to hear it;
34 and He did not speak to them without a parable, but He was explaining everything [the meaning of the parables] privately to His own disciples. (Mark 4:33-34)
The practice of explaining the parables to the disciples was in itself a parable. Jesus was acting in the role of the Holy Spirit until the soon to come time when His disciples would be filled with the Spirit. He said it this way:
25 “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you.
26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (John 14:25-26)
God’s parables are now available for all the world to read in a book called the Holy Bible. The parables of the Bible are in our day just as confusing, and the source of just as much controversy, as they were when Jesus was teaching in Israel. And just as Jesus explained the parables to the disciples, the Holy Spirit does so today to the disciples of Jesus.