Today we are beginning a new study in morning worship, a study I’m calling, “The Storyteller.” We all love a good story. People pay money so they can watch movies, attend plays, and read books that tell great stories. Some are captivating stories of fiction and some are riveting, true-to-life stories of moments in history or the chronicles of a person’s life. Little ones love to have their mom or dad tell them a story at bedtime. Teens and adults of all ages love stories as well. People from every walk of life, in every age of history, and from every culture around the world love stories.
Most of the stories today are purely for entertainment purposes, but throughout history people have told a variety of stories. Some stories, like Aesop’s fables, are told to teach morals, life lessons. Aesop, who was born into slavery and later gained his freedom, collected fables to teach people of all ages important lessons about life. Aesop used animals in his story, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” to teach the valuable lesson that slow and steady wins the race. His fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” was used to teach people that one has to work for what he or she wants, you can’t be lazy and get anywhere in life. Aesop lived in the 6th century before Christ, he collected 725 fables, and many of them are still told today to teach valuable lessons about life. A more modern version of Aesop would be Dr. Seuss’ fables and the lessons he has taught us through his strange creatures.
Another method of storytelling is allegory. In an allegory there is layer upon layer much more complex and larger than what you see on the surface. Allegorical stories like “The Chronicles of Narnia,” John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” or “The Giving Tree” can be read and enjoyed as nothing more than great stories, but for those who are willing, there is much more there than meets the eye.
Jesus taught using a variety of methods, but He didn’t use fables and He didn’t tell allegorical stories. Jesus taught in sermons, like the greatest sermon ever preached, “The Sermon on the Mount,” found in Matthew 5-7. Jesus also told many parables. It’s hard to get a grasp on the exact number of parables Jesus told. Most would agree that Jesus told somewhere between 40-60 parables. The Greek word that is translated, “parable,” is the word, “parabole” and it occurs 50 times in the New Testament. The word means, “a placing of one thing by the side of another, an example used to teach a biblical truth.” I read a definition of Jesus’ parables from Dr. Warren Wiersbe this past week that has been really helpful to me. Listen to this.
A parable starts off as a picture that is familiar to listeners. But as you carefully consider the picture, it becomes a mirror in which you see yourself, and many people do not like to see themselves. This explains why some of our Lord’s listeners became angry when they heard His parables, and even tried to kill Him. But if we see ourselves as needy sinners and ask for help, then the mirror becomes a window through which we see God and His grace. To understand a parable and to benefit from it demands honesty and humility on our part, and many of our Lord’s hearers lacked both. (Wiersbe, Warren. The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 1. pg. 201).
A familiar picture that becomes a mirror in which we come to see ourselves. We don’t like the mirror placed in front of us because it exposes our flaws and defects. It is only when we see ourselves accurately, not who we think we are, but as we truly are before God, that the mirror can then become a window into God’s grace.
Jesus told so many parables that I could use to illustrate this. I’ve got a different goal in mind for us this morning so I’ll just share one. In Luke 18:9 we read,
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: (Luke 18:9 NIVO)
Jesus then went on to use a Pharisee, the most religious person in Jerusalem, and a tax collector, the most despised in the land as His examples. You’ll have to read the parable for yourself, but I’ll serve up the spoiler: the despised tax collector left the temple justified before God and the Pharisee didn’t. And the lesson for those who consider themselves more righteous than others…they might want to rethink their definition of righteous.
Jesus told parables that turned conventional thinking upside down and that is what absolutely infuriated the religious establishment of His day. You will see this so clearly, and repeated over and over again, if you continue to join us on Sundays. I want us to look at the first parable Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel. If you will turn to Matthew 13:1-10 with me. Let’s read together.
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop– a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.” 10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:1-10 NIVO)
The reason I say this is Jesus’ first parable is because this is the first place we find the Greek word for parable in Matthew’s Gospel. The parable of the Sower is one of Jesus most recognizable parables. I’ve got good news and bad news for you. First the bad news. We’re not going to talk about the Sower this morning. Now, the good news. We’ll devote all of our time next week to the Sower. This morning I want to focus on what took place after Jesus shared the parable with the crowd. Look at verse 10 once again,
10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:10 NIVO)
They didn’t ask one single question about the parable of the Sower. They asked, “Why parables?” Jesus didn’t invent parables. Parables were being told long, long before Jesus ever began His ministry. Parables were not invented by the Jews either, even though we find parables in the Old Testament. Parables like the story Nathan told King David after David had Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed. Jesus didn’t begin His ministry by teaching parables, so why now? That’s a great question.
Early in Jesus’ ministry we find Him teaching and performing miracles that captured the hearts of the people. The more Jesus taught and the more miracles He performed, the more people were drawn to Him, and the more the religious leaders fumed. The line was being drawn between those who loved Jesus and those who despised Jesus.
In Matthew 12 Jesus was in the region around the Sea of Galilee and the religious leaders were watching. He and His disciples were walking through a grainfield and were hungry, so they ate some of the grain. The religious leaders, who were spying on Jesus, said,
2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:2 NIVO)
The religious leaders had expanded the rules governing the Sabbath so that keeping the Sabbath had become work for the people whereas God had meant for the Sabbath to be a day of rest. Jesus answered their complaint, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Sometime later, Jesus visited one of the synagogues in the area. A man with a withered hand was present and this also took place on a Sabbath, although not the same Sabbath as the first incident. The religious leaders were looking on. They were more than looking on, they were taunting Jesus: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10) Jesus healed the man and the very next verse we read is this:
14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. (Matthew 12:14 NIVO)
No rejoicing with the man who had been healed. No praising God for the wonderful miracle they had witnessed. They were livid and began to come up with a plan to kill Jesus. These events are not told only by Matthew, they are told by Mark as well. In Mark, after the healing of the man with the shriveled hand, we read about more miracles that Jesus performed. And then we read about the response of Jesus’ family and the teachers of the law to the marvelous move of God.
21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:21-22 NIVO)
Mark says that at that point Jesus began to speak in parables. Matthew tells us about Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the disciples ask, “Why do you speak in parables?” It’s when we understand the growing opposition to Jesus and the maniacal desire of the religious leaders that we can then understand Jesus’ response to the question, “Why parables?” Turn to Matthew 13:11-17 with me and we can read Jesus’ answer.
11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ” ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:11-17 NIVO)
Jesus’ answer needs to be studied and understood and that’s what I want us to do this morning. If you ask most people about Jesus’ use of parables they will tell you that Jesus told simple stories using the things of earth to reveal heavenly truths. There’s some truth in that, but it’s not the whole truth. Jesus told His disciples,
11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. (Matthew 13:11 NIVO)
Who is the “you” and who is the “them?” That’s not a tough question to answer if you’ve been paying attention. The “you” are the disciples and those who have been listening, really paying attention, to Jesus. The “them” are the religious leaders and those who were listening, but they weren’t listening to learn, they were listening to trap Jesus, find something wrong about His teaching, and to add to their case against Him. They didn’t want to hear from God so Jesus began to hide His teaching from them in the stories He told.
In verse 13 Jesus said, “This is why I speak to them in parables:” and then He quoted from Isaiah 6. This section of Scripture is important for us to understand because it can sound like Jesus is being so harsh, that He’s not even giving some people a chance to hear the Good News because He’s speaking in a way that only some can understand. His parables are shared in a way in which only some can understand, but those who understand are not some select, super-spiritual, high I.Q. group of folks. Let me show you what I’m talking about. After Isaiah had that great vision of God’s glory filling the temple and having his sins cleansed, Isaiah heard a voice,
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8 NIVO)
Isaiah said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah, the man with unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, who had seen the Lord and had his sins cleansed, volunteered to go and do God’s work. Then God gave Isaiah his assignment. Let’s read Isaiah 6:9-10.
9 He said, “Go and tell this people:” ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 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.” (Isaiah 6:9-10 NIVO)
Once again, it sounds like God was telling Isaiah to stop the people from hearing, stop them from understanding, but the truth is many had already hardened their hearts and closed their ears to the Lord. The people had hardened their hearts, closed their eyes, and stopped up their ears, but God was going to continue to send His Word among them. With God’s Word present they would only harden their hearts more. This is similar to what we read in Romans 1 where God had made Himself plain as day to those in Paul’s day, yet the people didn’t want God, they wanted to make their own decisions about their lives. And so we read three times, “And God gave them over…” He gave them over to their sinful desires, to their sinful lusts, and to their own depraved thinking.
Why did Jesus speak in parables? Jesus’ parables are designed for those who have “ears to hear,” not for those who have no desire to hear from God. Right after Jesus told the parable of the Sower, He said, “He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:9 NIVO) That’s such an important phrase for Jesus. That phrase appears seven times in the Greek New Testament. It is never spoken by anyone other than Jesus.
Do you have ears to hear? I don’t know of anyone here today who doesn’t have ears and can hear the sound of my voice, but I’m certain there are people here this morning who have ears and do not hear in the way God desires for us to hear. For some of us the Word of God and God’s Will is the most precious and priceless thing in the whole world. You are like some of the people in Jesus’ parables who gave up everything for the most important thing, the Kingdom of God. For others of us who are here today, we are no more listening than a man in the moon. We may be sitting in a pew under the shadow of the stained glass, but our minds and hearts are elsewhere. Jesus spoke in parables both to conceal the truths of the Kingdom and to reveal the truths of the Kingdom. Let me explain.
There is no one who can come to a saving faith on their own. The truths of God don’t come by reason of intellect or inspiration, they come by the revelation of God. Do you remember when Jesus was talking to His disciples about the talk going on around town about Him? The disciples said, “Some folks say you’re John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and some other folks say you’re Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus said, “But you, who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-17 NIVO)
God revealed truth to Simon Peter and God wants to reveal His truth to you and me. The question is, “What will we do with the truth God reveals?” The truth of God is cherished and longed for by some and the very same truth is despised, dismissed, or rejected by others. It’s the same truth, so why such a wide variety of responses? Why did some say with Peter, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God!” and others say, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the brothers and sisters in Corinth. Turn with me to 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 and let’s read together.
15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Corinthians 2:15-16 NIVO)
Isn’t that interesting? The people of God, Paul and his companions, are the aroma of Christ, which is the fragrance of life to some and the very same people of God are the stench of death to others. How does that happen? It’s a matter of the heart isn’t it? Oh, my friend, don’t harden your heart towards the Lord. When God doesn’t behave in the way we want Him to behave or do what we want Him to do, it is so easy to harden our hearts towards Him. Sometimes we want what we want and God confronts us with our sin. Rather than repenting of our sin and turning to God we harden our heart and close up our minds to God.
In 2 Chronicles 36 we learn about king Zedekiah who reigned in Jerusalem for 11 years. We are told that he did evil in the eyes of the LORD and he wouldn’t humble himself, he wouldn’t listen to Jeremiah the prophet. Worse than that, verse 13 tells us,
…He became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the LORD, the God of Israel. (2 Chronicles 36:13 NIVO)
When Jesus spoke there were those who stiffened their necks and hardened their hearts just like king Zedekiah. Jesus’ words only caused them to stiffen their necks more, to make their hearts even harder. At the same time, there were those present when Jesus spoke, people from every walk of life, fisherman like Peter, James, and John, tax collectors like Matthew, businesswomen like Phoebe, and even Pharisees like Nicodemus who heard Jesus speak and hung on His every word. When Jesus spoke in parables that were confusing they yearned to understand and their open heart and open mind were fertile soil for the truth of God.
Over the next several weeks we’ll take a look at many of Jesus’ parables, some easily understood and some very difficult to understand. The key to you and me understanding them is not our intelligence, but the condition of our hearts. Jesus’ parables will serve as a mirror to allow us to see ourselves in the way God sees us. When God reveals things about your life or my life that are difficult, painful for us to face, how will we respond? Will we have ears to hear, to really hear? Will we have a heart that is soft, open, and pliable in the Father’s hands or will we harden our heart and seek to justify ourselves? Will we turn away or will we come before the Lord in repentance? I want to encourage you in the same way the writer of Hebrews encouraged those in his day in Hebrews 3:13-15,
13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. 15 As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:13-15 NIVO)
You don’t have to wait until next week when we study the parable of the Sower. I believe the Lord is already speaking to us this very morning. Are you listening? Do you have ears to hear? Will you respond to His voice? Please, whatever you do, do not harden your heart to the Lord. Allow Him to speak to you through His Word, to reveal to you what He desires to do in your life, and trust Him that His way is far better than any other way available to you and me.
If you have never received Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life, then do you recognize His voice calling you to Himself this very morning? Don’t say, “When I get my life together then I’ll turn to Jesus.” Don’t say, “When I get through having my fun and doing what I want, then I’ll come to Jesus.” Just come to Jesus.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 23, 2018