What do you do when you don’t understand something Jesus said?
Jesus often spoke in parables and people didn’t always understand what he was talking about. This week I’m going to discuss why Jesus spoke in parables. This is in response to a question I got from a listener, Brian.
First of all I want to thank you Brian for asking this question and giving me the opportunity to talk about on the podcast. And just as a reminder, if you ever a question or a topic you’d like me to discuss on The Bible Speaks to You Podcast, please let me know. At the end of the episode, I’ll share the best way to connect with me.
Why did Jesus speak in parables?
So, here’s Brian’s question, or I should say questions. They’re very thoughtful.
In Matthew 13:1-9 is the parable of the sower and the seed. As I’m sure you know, this story also appears in Mark and Luke. From my reading of the story it appears Jesus tells the parable to the multitude. Then when he is alone with the disciples he explains the parable. Therefore, the multitude (sheep) don’t hear the explanation. My question therefore is “What benefit was there to telling the multitude the story about how you have to plant seed in good ground to expect it to grow?”
Jesus wasn’t a horticulturist on a mission to help people get a higher yield from planting seed. So what benefit did he think the multitude would get from hearing that parable…WITHOUT the explanation? This just occurred to me today and I don’t have a good answer.
Did he think people would go away thinking about this story and eventually figure it out and thereby EVENTUALLY get a spiritual benefit from it as we do today from reading both the parable and his explanation? Did he not care that most of the people wouldn’t get anything out of the story but as long as a small number of spiritually advanced people in the audience figured it out that was good enough?
Lately it has occurred to me that Jesus sometimes speaks in “riddles” that almost nobody understood. What benefit did he think anyone got from him doing that? Did he foresee that his words would be written down and future generations would someday figure out what he was saying?
Even the disciples exclaimed “Tell us plainly!” many times. Why didn’t Jesus speak more clearly? Jesus even admits that he doesn’t speak to them “plainly” in John 16:25. And I understand the benefit of using parables if the parable is explained. But when he didn’t explain the parable to many people (e.g., the “multitude”), do you think he felt that he was providing thought provoking ideas to people that he knew wouldn’t understand initially but that they would continue to think about until they finally figured it out or am I missing something?
Anyway, again, I love the podcast and wonder if you ever have trouble coming up with topics, so I thought I would send this question in case you wanted to create a podcast on this topic. And if you’ve already answered this in an existing podcast, my apologies. I just discovered your podcast a couple months ago and I haven’t yet listened to all of the episodes.
Wow, Brian, this is a really good question. Or I should say, a lot of good questions. Thanks again for reaching out. And I am so grateful you found the podcast.
Lots of possible answers
There are so many possible answers to all your questions. But, as I like to say, I wasn’t there when Jesus told the parables, so I don’t have the perfect answers. However, when we look at how he taught the parables to the crowds and explained them more privately in the context of his whole ministry, we can get a few ideas of why he did this. And he does give a reason which I’ll talk about in a few minutes.
I just want to say Brian, you are in really good company with this question. Jesus’s own disciples asked the very same thing. After he finished the parable of the sower,
His disciples came and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?” Matthew 13:10 NLT
How many disciples were there?
Then Jesus explains exactly why he uses parables. But before we get into all that, it’s important to ask the question, “Who are these ‘disciples’ who came to Jesus and asked this question?”
Does this refer just to the 12 Apostles? Or were there others as well who came up afterwards?
The gospel of Mark gives us just a little more information about who was there.
Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant. Mark 4:10 NLT
The twelve were there, but there were also others who came to ask for an explanation.
So, there could have been two more, twenty more, or a hundred and twenty more people who came to talk to Jesus at that moment. There’s no way for us to know. But Mark makes clear that there were more than just the twelve.
By the way, the Greek word for disciple is mathētēs. Sometimes it refers just to the twelve Apostles. Other times it refers to those who were following him and learning from him. The word simply means “a learner, pupil, disciple.”
Why did some folks get an explanation and some didn’t?
So, what was the benefit to the multitude to hear the parable without the explanation?
Well, it allowed those who heard the parable to self-select to find out more. Those who were curious, intrigued, or inspired by what Jesus said were free to stick around after the public talk and see if they could find out more.
Have you ever been to a public presentation, lecture, or talk and gone up afterwards to talk to the speaker, either to thank them or ask a question about something they said? Did everyone at the talk go up to ask the speaker a question? I would imagine not.
I can see this same thing happening when Jesus spoke publicly. Some people were fascinated by what he said and must have caught a glimpse there was a deeper meaning. They wanted to understand more so they went up to talk to him afterwards. And some just went back home.
Perhaps Jesus was sharing in a way that those who were more spiritually minded would respond by wanting to know more.
In fact, when Jesus finished telling the parable in public, he says
Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. Matthew 13:9 NLT
Maybe Jesus is actually inviting those who are receptive to stay around and listen to the explanation.
Not everyone was ready for the message
Have you ever tried to explain something to someone who didn’t have a clue what you were talking about? It’s kind of frustrating. Not everyone in the crowd that day, was ready for the deeper meaning of the parable. So Jesus didn’t go deep with them.
In a sense though, he was doing exactly what his parable described. He was planting seeds. Maybe some of those who heard the parable weren’t ready for the seeds to germinate and grow, but at least they had some spiritual seeds of truth planted in their hearts that day, to sprout sometime in the future.
The next part of Brian’s question digs into this a little deeper. He asks,
Did he [Jesus] think people would go away thinking about this story and eventually figure it out and thereby EVENTUALLY get a spiritual benefit from it as we do today from reading both the parable and his explanation? Did he not care that most of the people wouldn’t get anything out of the story but as long as a small number of spiritually advanced people in the audience figured it out that was good enough?
Didn’t Jesus want everyone to understand?
Again, I don’t have the perfect answer for what Jesus may have been thinking when he didn’t explain the parables to the crowds.
But, yes I do think he expected, and hoped for, the multitudes at some point to understand his teachings and put them into practice in their daily lives.
The very fact that he told his disciples what the parable meant, was one way to do this.
Just imagine yourself living back then and that you had gone to hear Jesus preach. You heard him tell some good stories, and just by the tone of his voice and his body language he made everything sound really important. But you didn’t really see much deeper meaning other than to be careful where you plant your seeds.
But a week later, you ran into Peter and John in the market place, and you asked them, “What was the big deal about those seeds planted in all those different places?” And because of your genuine interest, they explained it all to you just as Jesus had to them.
Now, this is 100% speculation. It’s just to get us to think.
But we do have the parable and it’s explanation in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These stories were circulating years before they were ever written down. It seems clear to me that Jesus did want everyone to understand, when they were spiritually ready, the deeper meaning of the Parable of the Sower, along with all the other parables.
Who is spiritually ready to understand Jesus’s parables?
They key phrase here, to me, is “when they were spiritually ready.”
Let me expand on the idea of a farmer planting seeds. Would a farmer plant his crop of wheat on a field that had not been plowed and had last year’s stubble still in the ground? Of course not. The wheat seeds would just lie on the top of soil. If they did germinate, it would be hard for the tender roots to penetrate the crusty surface of the field. The ground needs to be prepared before you plant a crop of wheat.
And so it is with the human heart. Jesus knew the hearts of his listeners had to be ready spiritually to receive the seeds of Truth he planted, before they would grow and bear fruit.
So when Jesus did not explain everything in detail to the crowds, he was doing it out of love for everyone there, those who were receptive and those who weren’t. To give a gift someone is not ready or able to receive is not very loving.
Just as John the Baptist prepared the hearts of the people to be ready for Jesus’s arrival, Jesus was trusting his heavenly Father to prepare, in due time, everyone to be ready to receive the deeper meaning of his teachings.
And just as a side note, even when we have the explanations in the gospels of many of Jesus’s parables, there are folks who read these explanations, and still don’t get the deeper meaning. It’s all about the receptivity level in your heart.
This is what Jesus was dealing with.
Why didn’t Jesus speak plainly to the disciples?
Here’s the next part of Brian’s question:
Lately it has occurred to me that Jesus sometimes speaks in “riddles” that almost nobody understood. What benefit did he think anyone got from him doing that? Did he foresee that his words would be written down and future generations would someday figure out what he was saying? Even the disciples exclaimed “Tell us plainly!” many times. Why didn’t Jesus speak more clearly? Jesus even admits that he doesn’t speak to them “plainly” in John 16:25.
Yes, there were times when Jesus spoke in metaphors and parables, even to the disciples. Here’s the reference Brian is referring to:
I have spoken of these matters in figures of speech, but soon I will stop speaking figuratively and will tell you plainly all about the Father. John 16:25 NLT
This whole idea of speaking figuratively was very much part of Jesus’s ministry. Remember when he told Nicodemus he had to be born again in order to see the kingdom of God? (See John 3:3 below)
Nicodemus took it literally and wondered how he was going to get back in his mother’s womb. Jesus meant it figuratively. It was a metaphor. In fact, Jesus acknowledged that when he questioned Nicodemus,
But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? John 3:12 NLT
The earthly minded had, and still have, a hard enough time understanding Jesus when he spoke figuratively in metaphors and parables. Jesus was using the simple language of the earth to describe heavenly things. If Jesus had told Nicodemus the full undiluted truth, it would have been too much for him.
Modern day parable
When you’re teaching your four year old daughter to ride a tricycle, you don’t start out by giving her a 10 speed racing bike. You give her what’s appropriate for her skill level.
That’s what Jesus was doing with Nicodemus, his disciples, and the multitudes. He was telling them they could ride a tricycle. Some were perhaps ready to get on a small bike with training wheels. Later they would be ready to advance to a racing bike.
See what I’ve done. I’ve made up my own little parable and used the metaphor of riding a bike to talk about how ready someone is to grasp higher spiritual teachings.
Why did Jesus talk in parables?
And so now, let’s come back to why Jesus spoke in parables. Here’s what he says when his disciples ask that very question.
That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand.
This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend.
For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ [Isaiah 6:9, 10 – Septuagint] Matthew 13:13-15 NLT
Jesus knew that not everyone in the crowd would understand him. They weren’t ready for his deeper meaning. He knew his ideas were revolutionary and beyond the grasp of most of the people listening to him.
And sometimes, this was often true even for his disciples.
The disciples weren’t ready for everything Jesus wanted to tell them
At one point he said to them at the very end of his ministry, at the Last Supper.
There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. John 16:12 NLT
Do you hear the yearning in Jesus’s heart? There was so much he wanted to tell his disciples. He knew he wouldn’t be with them much longer. But they just weren’t ready.
Fortunately, that didn’t mean they would never be ready.
Jesus assured them there would be a time when they would understand everything they needed to. He promised the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, or the Holy Spirit, would come.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. John 16:13 NLT
That promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, and every day the Holy Spirit comes to us.
Did Jesus know his parables would be recorded?
Now let’s talk about whether Jesus knew his teachings would be around for future generations to read and understand.
I think he did know things would get written down and passed along to future generations. This is what he says in
Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. Matthew 24:35 NLT
And so we have what we have of what Jesus said. Not everything was written down. But we have plenty to point us in the right direction.
And more importantly, even though Jesus is not here the way he was personally 2,000 years ago, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter he promised, is still here and continues to guide us “into all truth.”
How does all this relate to you and me?
And here we get to the crux of the matter. What do we do when we don’t understand something Jesus said?
Do we try to figure it out by talking to other people, reading books, listening to sermons or podcasts? All these things can be an important part of how we learn things. But there is a much deeper and better way.
It’s being guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit. Truth is not figured out intellectually. It is not deciphered by human will or doctrinal debates. Truth is revealed by God through the Holy Spirit.
Part of the deeper answer to Brian’s question is that you cannot figure out the answer with just your human mind. And with your human mind, you cannot understand the answer, even when it’s right in front of you. Although it may catch glimpses, the human mind cannot perceive the fullness of spiritual truth.
And when the human mind does perceive truth to some degree, it does what the human mind always does with what it doesn’t completely understand. It makes an idol, or a golden calf out of it. It turns a living truth into a dead dogma to say you believe instead of letting it become a practice in daily life.
I’ll repeat, we only receive and understand truth when it is revealed to us by God.
The Spirit reveals the things of God
Paul puts it this way,
That is what the Scriptures mean when they say,
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
what God has prepared
for those who love him
But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. 1 Corinthians 2: 9, 10 NLT
Paul is actually quoting Isaiah 64:4 when he says that the eyes and ears cannot perceive things of the Spirit.
This is the mentality Jesus was dealing with and part of why he spoke in parables.
Letter versus the Spirit
So much of what Jesus said was with metaphors. I think sometimes we’ve taken the words of these metaphors a little too literally? When we do this we miss the meaning. We focus on the letter and lose the spirit of the idea Jesus is trying to teach us.
We can never understand the things of the Spirit with our eyes and ears. If you’re listening to Jesus’s words with just the capacities of the human mind, however intellectually brilliant you may be, you will not grasp the deeper spiritual meaning of what Jesus is saying.
The only way to perceive and understand Jesus’s teachings, his parables, and his instructions for living, is through the revelations from the Holy Spirit, which, Jesus says, will guide us “into all truth.”
Let the Holy Spirit reveal the truth to you
So if there’s something Jesus said or something in the Bible you’re trying to understand, maybe it’s time to stop trying so hard to figure it out. It’s always time to let the Holy Spirit reveal the things of God to us.
And if you don’t get an answer right away, that’s okay. Ask God to prepare you to be ready for the answer. And one of the best ways to be prepared to receive more is to put into practice what you already know. Keep loving the way Jesus did. Keep forgiving. Hold onto humility.
Now you may think this next idea I’m going to share doesn’t have anything to do with understanding Jesus’s parables or his teachings, but I can promise you, if you read through the Sermon on the Mount and do everything in it that Jesus tells you to do, your heart will be so ready to receive revelations from the Holy Spirit, and you will see deeper meaning in the parables, and all Jesus’s teachings, that you never saw before.
God is speaking to you through the Holy Spirit, revealing the deep spiritual meaning of Jesus’s teachings. And you have the ability to hear and understand because, as Jesus said,
blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. Matthew 13:16 NLT
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
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Matthew 13:10 NLT
10 His disciples came and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?”
Mark 4:10 NLT
10 Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant.
Matthew 13:9 NLT
9 Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.
John 16:25 NLT
25 I have spoken of these matters in figures of speech, but soon I will stop speaking figuratively and will tell you plainly all about the Father.
John 3:3 NLT
3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
John 3:12 NLT
12 But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
Matthew 13:13-15 NLT
13 That is why I use these parables,
For they look, but they don’t really see.
They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand.
14 This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says,
‘When you hear what I say,
you will not understand.
When you see what I do,
you will not comprehend.
15 For the hearts of these people are hardened,
and their ears cannot hear,
and they have closed their eyes—
so their eyes cannot see,
and their ears cannot hear,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and let me heal them.’ [Isaiah 6:9, 10 – Septuagint]
John 16:12 NLT
12 There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.
John 16:13 NLT
13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.
Matthew 24:35 NLT
35 Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear.
1 Corinthians 2: 9, 10 NLT
9 That is what the Scriptures mean when they say,
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
what God has prepared
for those who love him
10 But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit.
Matthew 13:16 NLT
16 blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.