According to one common definition, parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. Jesus often spoke in parables and had a clearly-defined reason for doing so. Stories like the Prodigal Son, the Sheep and the Goats, and the Good Samaritan are three well-known examples. Yet, even those who love Jesus’ teaching wonder why he spoke in parables.
Jesus Christ spoke in parables to reveal truth, especially about the kingdom of God, to those who followed him. Parables also concealed revelation from those who didn’t follow him. Jesus described the meaning of parables as “secrets” or “mysteries” that some could understand and others couldn’t.
What is the purpose of parables? How did they really prevent some people from understanding divine revelation? Is it impossible for unbelievers to understand the meaning of parables? What exactly does the word “parable” mean, and why do scholars disagree on how many there are? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see Who Was the Disciple That Jesus Loved? to learn more.
What is a parable in the Bible?
According to the Baker Dictionary of Biblical Studies, “a parable proper is a short story or extended simile that teaches a spiritual truth.”  A “spiritual truth” could be theological in nature and address a person’s beliefs about God. Yet it could also have a moral meaning and speak to a person’s actions. Jesus’ parables often included subjects related to daily living like families, animals, and finances.
What does the word “parable” mean? The Greek word translated as “parable” is parabole (παραβολή). It combines the words para, meaning “beside,” and bole, meaning “to cast.” Sometimes when Jesus was teaching, he “cast” a short story or simile “beside” a concept. For example, Jesus “cast” a story about a prodigal son “beside” his teaching about the Father’s grace and forgiveness.
Are there parables in the Old Testament? While many people associate parables with the teachings of Jesus, there are some in the Old Testament as well. The Hebrew word for “parable” is mashal (מָשָׁל), which conveys a type of teaching that uses short stories or similes. For example, the story Nathan told David about the rich man stealing the poor man’s lamb is a parable (2 Sam. 12:1-9).
How many parables are there? Some scholars suggest that there are around 35 parables in the Gospels, yet others believe the number is as high as 45. The reason for the difference is that not all scholars agree on what a parable is and what stories fit the definition. For example, some scholars believe the story of the rich man and Lazarus is historical, while others think it’s a parable (Luke 16:19-31).
Also see Why Did Jesus Weep? to learn more.
What is the purpose of parables?
Bible readers today aren’t the first to wonder why Jesus taught in parables. In Matthew 13:10, the disciples ask Jesus the same question: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (ESV) One scholar paraphrases their curiosity this way: “Why do you teach them so cryptically? Why not spell things out for them?”  Jesus’ answer may surprise people.
Did Jesus speak in parables to help more people understand him? A mistaken explanation for why Jesus taught in parables was so that more people could comprehend his message. His straightforward teaching, they reason, could be confusing, so he spoke in a more understandable way. However, there are multiple problems with this interpretation.
- First, parables often confused people, even the disciples. Sometimes, Jesus spoke a parable publically and later explained its meaning to the disciples. The subject matter of most parables was relatable, but that didn’t necessarily make their point more understandable.
- Second, Jesus gave a much different answer than relatability when asked why he spoke in parables that had to do with the nature of divine revelation.
Do parables prevent some people from understanding? Parables shield information from some people. In response to the question of why he spoke in parables, Jesus said to the disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matt. 13:11). The word “secrets” (ESV, NIV, NLT) can also be translated “mysteries” (KJV, NKJV, NASB).
New Testament scholar Leon Morris explains, “Jesus is saying that the truths about God’s kingdom were not known to people in general. Nobody could know such truths unless they were revealed to them. This had happened to the disciples (which was why they were disciples), but the crowds had not responded to the revelation; they were still ignorant of the mysteries of the kingdom.” 
Another New Testament scholar, Darrell Bock, adds: “The parables then are presented as a two-edged teaching: blessing and explanation for those who know Jesus, but a judgment preventing insight for those on the outside.” 
Is controlled revelation God’s design for parables? The Gospel of Mark also records a time when the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables. He answered, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables” (4:11).
Then he says “so that…” — and quotes the prophet Isaiah — “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (4:12).
Also see What Tribe Was Jesus From? to learn more.
Was it impossible for unbelievers to understand a parable? An unbeliever has the mental ability to understand a parable. They can hear a sermon, read a commentary, or have a Christian friend explain it to them. However, only believers can understand the full meaning and impact of a parable because they have the faith to do so.
New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg explains: “For those already out of touch with God, his enigmatic yet forceful way of revealing these secrets in parables, to illustrate the coming of the kingdom of God, will further repel and repulse. For those open to Jesus’ claims, greater understanding and discipleship will result.” 
New Testament Greek scholar William Mounce adds: “Through parables Jesus is able to teach truths to his disciples while at the same time keeping it somewhat hidden from those who don’t really care about what he has to say.” 
Do Calvinists and Arminianists interpret Jesus’ explanation differently? Like other teachings and stories, Calvinists and Reformed Christians understand Jesus’ explanation differently than Arminian believers. Calvinists believe that Jesus used parables to control who receives revelation and who doesn’t. Arminians emphasize that receiving revelation depends on a person’s willingness and desire to understand.
Also see Where Did Jesus Christ Live? to learn more.
 The Baker Compact Dictionary of Biblical Studies. p. 149.
 The Gospel According to Matthew by R.T. France. p. 510.
 The Gospel According to Matthew by Leon Morris. p. 340.
 Jesus According to Scripture by Darrell Bock. p. 287.
 A Survey of the Life of Christ by Craig Blomberg. p. 263.
 Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words by William Mounce p. 496
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