Maybe you’ve had the experience of having someone say something to you that was a riddle, and they would not explain to you what the riddle meant. You simply had to guess the meaning for yourself, or else remain in perpetual ignorance of the meaning of the riddle. I’m sure that some of those who listened to the teaching of Jesus must have felt that same way. They were in the dark about what Jesus meant. We have already seen that Jesus spoke in parables not merely to reveal, cut also to conceal. In verse 11 for instance, Jesus says that it has been given to the disciples the ability to understand the kingdom of heaven, but to others, it has not been given. Jesus did not want to be crowned king of the Jews in a way that escaped the cross. And, He didn’t want to be crucified before the proper time. So, Jesus spoke in parables. Furthermore, however, in looking at how parables work, we have seen that parables are a great way to get around a person’s defenses so that they condemn themselves. We see that in the parable that Nathan told David about the rich man and the poor man. If Nathan had outright accused David of murder and adultery, David might not have responded with repentance, but might have killed the messenger. However, by getting David to condemn himself, Nathan brought home to David his real guilt and the need for repentance. We have also seen that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. An earthly story about farming tells us about the state of people’s hearts when they hear the Word of God. An earthly story about weeds and wheat tells us about the state of the church as a mixed body consisting of believers and unbelievers. An earthly story about mustard seed and leaven tells us the spiritual truth about how the kingdom works and expands and how we need to view the kingdom in order to participate properly in it. What we learn here about the parables of Jesus is that they are the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Our passage starts out by telling us that whenever Jesus spoke to the crowd, He always spoke to them in parables. In fact, He never used any other kind of communication when He was speaking to the crowds. Parables reveal the state of the heart. How we respond to a parable reveals a lot about ourselves. And, by the same argument, how we respond to the Word of God reveals a great deal about who we are. Do we respond by saying, “What an excellent application…for someone else.” “So-and-so really needed to hear that.” I am reminded of the Beetle Bailey cartoon where Beetle Bailey and one of his friends went up to the chaplain and said, “Great sermon today. You really zapped ’em.” And then you see the chaplain saying to himself “How come the ones I am really trying to zap always say ‘them’?” If you are sitting within the sound of hearing my voice, rest assured that you all are the ones I am trying to zap! More importantly, however, you are all the ones the Holy Spirit is trying to “zap.” And that doesn’t always mean criticism, although it does always mean conviction of sin.
The passage continues by telling us one of the purposes of why Jesus spoke in parables. We learned some of those purposes earlier. But here we see one particular purpose given here, and that is that Jesus spoke in parables in order to fulfill prophecy. This text comes from Psalm 78:2, which is not normally reckoned as a prophecy. However, we must remember that the entire Old Testament is a prophecy about Jesus, and that is what we find in Psalm 78. You might want to turn to Psalm 78 so that we can see how Jesus is the fulfillment of this particular prophecy.
The Psalmist is Asaph, and what Asaph does is to recount the entire history of Israel from the time they were in Egypt until the reign of David. He does not tell a flattering picture of Israel, but instead shows again and again how Israel disobeyed and were rebellious. God showed grace time after time, and yet Israel disobeyed. The importance of this for Asaph was that we are supposed to tell the next generation about the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord precisely so that this sort of thing won’t happen in the future, and so that future generations will be obedient, and not rebellious.
What is important for understanding our passage in Matthew is the nature of the things that Asaph wants to tell. Verse 4 tells us what it is: “the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that He has done.” Those are the parables, the dark sayings from of old that Asaph is going to tell. They are dark because the people do not understand them anymore. They have not been passed down from father to son as they should have been.
It is interesting to note how terrible things can become when a faithful generation does not tell the next generation about the things of God. Remember that the most faithful generation of Israel was the generation that went into the promised land with Joshua. And yet that generation was followed by the first generation of the time of Judges, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes. They certainly were not following the law of Moses. All it takes is one generation of failure to instruct, and the next generation is lost. We need to tell our children what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and we need to tell them to tell their children what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This is one reason why the catechism is such a helpful tool, and why it has been emphasized so much in the history of the Reformed church. Bible memorization comes first, of course. But the catechism is a very helpful summary of what the Bible teaches.
The Bible teaches us about Jesus Christ,and that is what Psalm 78 goes on to say. The Psalm comes to a climax in the last 6 verses, where it becomes clear that David is the point of the Psalm. David was a man after God’s own heart. Jesus Christ is the heir of David, as Matthew 1 makes very clear. Jesus was a descendant of David, and everything in the Old Testament about David is also instructing us about Christ, even David’s sin. For it is in David’s sin that we learn that David wasn’t enough, but that we need a King who is perfectly pure. Verse 72 tells us that David shepherded his people with an upright heart. Jesus Christ is the Greater Shepherd who shepherds us with an upright heart that is perfect.
So, going back to Matthew, we can see that the parables that Jesus utters are talking about the same kinds of things that Psalm 78 is talking about: sin and salvation in Jesus Christ. The difference is that Jesus’ parables announced the fulfillment of that salvation in Jesus’ own person and work, whereas the Psalm talks about it from a distance. Indeed, as Jesus says, these things were hidden from the foundation of the world. They weren’t exactly obvious from the pages of the Old Testament. If you didn’t know about the New Testament, you might very easily look at the Old Testament and not see Jesus there. You would certainly know that something good is coming, and that our sin will be dealt with, but you wouldn’t necessary know what form that would take. In the clear light of Jesus in the New Testament, however, we can see what God had planned from before the foundation of the world.
So, what does this have to do with us, and how should we then live? First point: we should respond properly to Jesus parables, and to all of the Word of God. We should be like the good soil in which the seed is sown and in which we bear a crop, by the grace of God. How do we listen to God’s Word? Do we listen as humble, penitent sinners, who need to hear about their sin, so that they can hear about Jesus? Do we listen as sitting under the Word, and not over it? Do we listen for any truth, and truth at all, and cling to that? Or do we listen as from a distance? Oftentimes, we prefer to detach ourselves from the message of the Word, so that it doesn’t apply to me like it does to my neighbor. The Word needs to penetrate our hearts, every one of us, so that it will bear fruit. We need to make sure that our fundamental position of listening is that of submission, and not of superiority, and that includes me, the pastor, as well. My brother in law once wisely told me to preach to myself first. As Paul says, it is rather useless to preach to others when I am a castaway myself. I am not over the Word, but under it myself, even if God has given me the authority to preach the Word of God. So, we all need to listen to the Word in the right way.
Secondly, we need to pass on to our children the true faith. The importance of this can hardly be exaggerated. The Bible’s own witness of what happens when we do not pass on this knowledge is frightening and real. It seems in our churches that, while we have done some things along these lines, we have not always done everything possible. I believe that we need to dig deeper into God’s Word with our children, and show them why we believe what we believe from the pages of Scripture. And this needs to be an ongoing thing with our children and grandchildren, even.
Thirdly, and lastly, we ourselves need to work at understanding the Scriptures. This passage and the version in Psalm 78 both tell us that understanding the Bible is not always easy, though it is always important. What do we do when we come to a passage that we do not understand? I fear that many of us simply skip over it, saying that we will look at that some other time. Well, that “some other time” almost never comes. Why not keep a journal of passages that you feel like you don’t understand very well? Use a Bible dictionary, a Bible concordance, and a Bible commentary to help you out. Ask your pastor. I love to get questions like that from people, even though I sure don’t know all the answers. I promise that if you tell me about a passage that you don’t understand, I will always seek to come to some answers that are helpful. I may be able to that at once, or I may have to do a little research first. Either way, that’s one of the reasons I am here. But when you read the Bible, don’t just skip over the difficult parts. Some of the most amazing things can be learned by a little perseverance in trying to understand difficult passages. Now, in saying this, I certainly do not want to imply that all Scripture is difficult. What we need to know for salvation is crystal clear. However, that is different from saying that the whole Bible is easy to understand. Peter tells us in his second letter, for instance, that there are many things in Paul’s letters that are difficult to understand. But that should encourage us all the more, for what we find when we dig more is that find out more about Jesus’ love for us and more about how we should live in the light of that knowledge. So, while Jesus may speak in parables, and while some of these might be difficult to understand, we should make the effort, and spend the time, for it is definitely worth it.