It is common in evangelical circles to hear Jesus described as a “master storyteller.”
Certainly he had the ability to relate eternal truths to his audience by means of ordinary examples. This ability is most obvious in the way Jesus employed parables.
A parable is a simple story with a deeper meaning. It is generally more powerful than a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme because it conveys reality through its fiction. And no one in history utilized parables as poignantly—nor, perhaps, more frequently—than Jesus. In that regard, he truly was a master storyteller.
Yet I would suggest that it is more noteworthy to say that Jesus was a master preacher. His stories, the parables, were just one of the strategies that Jesus used in his preaching. Some of the parables functioned as sermons on their own, and some were illustrations placed within larger messages.
The Priority of Preaching for Jesus
Luke’s Gospel records Jesus’ pattern of going “through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). As he did this, a crowd gathered and he spoke a parable to the people (8:4). The parable was the tool Jesus used in this case to preach the gospel, which was his priority. In fact, Luke had earlier noted Jesus’ statement, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (4:43).
Parables fit into the larger purpose of Jesus’ preaching. But was there a purpose for the parables themselves? This was a question posed by Jesus’ own disciples who heard him teach this way. They asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10; Matthew 13 is a parallel passage to Luke 8). If there is an answer to this question, then we are helped to see how all the parables work together.
What Parables Do
In Luke 8, Jesus seems to show that his parables are meant both to reveal and to conceal. He told a parable about a sower whose seed fell on different kinds of ground, and thus wilted or grew to different extents, urging the crowd, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:4-8). At the request of his disciples, he interpreted the parable, thus revealing greater insight to those who had “ears to hear” (vv 8-15).
But in the crowd was another group that would hear but not understand. Jesus explained to his disciples why he spoke in parables: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10). Jesus borrows this wording from Isaiah, thus showing that his own preaching ministry was modeled after the prophets who came before him. Both the message of the prophets and the way that message was given previewed Jesus’ preaching ministry. To demonstrate this, notice the text from Isaiah that Jesus references.
The Prophet and His Preaching
Isaiah tells that he saw the glory of God that fills the earth (Isaiah 6:1-4), the lostness of man as condemned before the Lord (6:5), and the atonement for sin that is available for those who are unclean (6:6-7). This vision shows that the Lord is king (he is sitting on the throne in verse 1 and called a king in verse 5), and that there is good news for those who submit to him as king. There is no better news to hear than this: “[Y]our guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).
In his own way, then, Isaiah is preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. He is an Old Testament gospel preacher. So when the Lord asks for one to send to the nation, Isaiah is eager: “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). It is implied that Isaiah’s message would primarily consist of what he saw in the vision, and he was motivated by the glory he experienced.
So Isaiah saw what the Lord revealed (6:1-7), he heard what the Lord requested (6:8), and he was to speak what would be concealed (6:9-13). Just as would be the case with Jesus’ parables, Isaiah’s audience would not have ears to hear or eyes to see or hearts to understand his message (6:9-10). Such a concept is mysterious to many. If God desires for people to receive his message, why conceal it?
Parables Conceal More Than They Reveal
Notice again that Luke presents Jesus explaining to his disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10). Two important conclusions must be drawn from this statement. First, the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God must be given. And they are given to some, but not to all—not even to all who hear of them. Second, it is not as though Jesus withheld secrets from his audience; he simply presented the secrets in a different way. He’s saying to his disciples, “You have been given the secrets, but for others they (the secrets) are in parables.”
Isaiah and other prophets received direct revelation from God and then relayed the words of God to the people, and yet many rejected it. Jesus was the truly excellent teacher and preacher who followed in the pattern of the prophets, but even his message was hidden from some. People miss Jesus’ message not because he or his Word are unclear, but because of what is true about people and what is true about his mission.
How long would Isaiah’s message be concealed from his hearers? It would be until God fully accomplishes his purposes of judgment and salvation, which would culminate in the tree of Israel being felled and a holy seed shooting out of its stump (Isaiah 6:11-13; 11:1). Jesus not only preaches Isaiah’s message, he also fulfills it in his life, ministry, death, resurrection, and future coming. In other words, the mission of God through Christ in the world includes the judgment of those who reject his message, which acknowledges that some (even many) will not hear, even when they hear.
Parables and the Mission of the Church
This truth about people remains an obstacle even today for Christian missionaries, preachers, and all who share the gospel with others: The gospel we preach “is veiled to those who are perishing” because “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). It is as though the world has eyes to see, yet they do not see. That is what is true about all people unless (or until) God shines in their hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6).
The purpose of the parables was never the parable; it was the good news to which the parable pointed. Our application is not necessarily to learn effective storytelling methods from Jesus, but to observe the way his stories illustrated the good news of the kingdom he preached. To that end, we proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus as Lord (2 Corinthians 4:5). We “do not lose heart” and we do not “tamper with God’s word” (4:1-2). We recognize that our message is the same one that began with the prophets and continued with Jesus. We trust that as we are faithful in knowing that message and making it known, God will do in the hearts of people what he did at creation: step into the darkness and say, “Let there be light” (compare 2 Corinthians 4:6 with Genesis 1:3).