Introduction to “The Secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven,” a study of the parables of Jesus

Jesus liked to teach with parables. Whether it was a brief statement about a camel going through the eye of a needle or a complex narrative about a crime victim ignored by a priest and a Levite but helped by a Samaritan, Jesus spoke in parables to all those who came to listen to him.

What is a parable? A parable is more than a story. Preachers sometimes are told, “You ought to tell more stories when you preach—that’s the way Jesus taught.” Jesus did not use parables to entertain the crowds or to keep their attention. He had something far more important in mind.

Children are taught that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus used as pictures those things that were familiar to his listeners. He spoke about sheep and a shepherd. He spoke about planting seeds. He spoke about investing money. All these ideas were familiar to the people of his time and place. Yet Jesus was not really teaching about sheep or seeds or investments. His parables described the kingdom of heaven.

Strange as it may seem, though, Jesus did not use parables to help everyone understand him better. In fact, he said just the opposite. When his disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables, he replied, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:11-17).

In other words, Jesus was speaking in a code. Only people who knew the key to his code could understand his teachings. The parables were ways Jesus could hide the truth in plain sight, knowing that people without the code would not be able to learn or understand the truth.

His disciples had been given the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. What are these secrets? They involve something that prophets and righteous people of the Old Testament longed to see and did not see. They mark the difference between those who are right with God and those who will be condemned by God. They draw the line between those who belong to the kingdom of heaven and those who are outside God’s kingdom.

The key to the code—the secrets to the kingdom of heaven—are the identity of Jesus and the mission of Jesus. Peter and the others knew the identity of Jesus—“the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus clearly described his mission to them—“he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Anyone who recognizes that Jesus is truly God and also truly human knows one of the secrets. Anyone who knows that the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus provide forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and victory over all evil to those who believe in Jesus knows one of the secrets. Those two secrets are the code, the knowledge that allows Christians to unpack the parables of Jesus and discover the true meaning of his parables.

Yet many Christians, even teachers of their fellow Christians, fail to understand the parables of Jesus as Jesus intended. They confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but they do not use this knowledge to understand the parables. Instead, when they study the parables, they look for commandments and rules and directions about how to live. They use the parables of Jesus to reinforce the message of the life God’s people should be living. Yet they forget that Christian obedience does not get Christians into heaven. Only the grace of God and the redemption paid by Jesus gets Christians into heaven. No one can do anything to earn salvation or to contribute to salvation—not before being saved, or while being saved, or after being saved. Heaven is a gift from God, an inheritance passed on to us because of the death of Jesus.

This secret is the code needed to understand the parables Jesus told. In each parable, the student of the Bible must find Jesus. Jesus is recognized by his identity—the one God to whom the earth and everything in it belongs, but also the God made flesh to live among his people as one of them. Jesus is recognized by his mission—to seek and to save those who are lost in sin and evil and death. Redemption lies at the heart of every parable Jesus told. Grace and love and forgiveness are expressed in all the teachings of Jesus.

Some parables are lengthy stories; others are brief sayings. All of them are told within the context of larger messages or conversations. Some of the parables are labeled as such by Matthew, Mark, and Luke; others are recognized by their similarity to those that have been labeled. In the case of sayings, not every list of parables is identical. Which sayings are parables and which are not is difficult to determine. In general, when its message is about the kingdom of heaven, and when it can be used to illustrate the identity and the mission of Jesus, a saying can be considered a parable.

Tomorrow: buried treasure and a precious pearl. J.

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