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Spiritual Development Studying the Bible Uncategorized

Why Does Jesus Use Parables?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

If you ever find yourself confused by Jesus’ parables, don’t feel too bad. Jesus’ parables befuddled His own disciples. When they ask for clarification, Jesus reveals that an important part of understanding His parables is understanding why He’s using them in the first place. So, why does Jesus use parables?

Quick Answer: Jesus used parables to sift the crowds, to test their motives, and separate out the spiritually hungry from the self-absorbed.  

An important part of understanding this need is to let Mark take you on a journey of discovery as Jesus’ ministry shifts from direct preaching to parable preaching. 

Cut to the Chase: Jesus begins to use parables when the crowds become too large and unruly and threaten to overwhelm His attempts to preach.

An important part of letting Mark take you on this journey of discovery is to pay attention to his storytelling structure. 

Quick Summary: Mark builds his picture of Jesus’ ministry using story sermons. His first few story sermons explain the hows and whys of Jesus’ parable preaching. 

For a richer understanding, let’s go through these points in more depth.  

 

Story Sermons

Mark preaches by weaving together a series of events that together explore themes in the Life of Jesus. Each series makes up one of Mark’s story sermons. The message of a story sermon is bigger than what we tend to moralize out of any single episode. By paying careful attention to the details of each story sermon, Mark’s inspired message slowly reveals itself. Don’t glean the gospels for tidbits, just stick with Mark, and discover Jesus through his 21 story sermons as written. 

 

Story Sermons 2 & 4: The Buildup to Parables

Let’s pick up Mark’s story with the 2nd story sermon—A Day in the Life of Jesus. After Jesus has returned from his wilderness trials, Mark gives a simple version of Jesus’ preaching; it is much like John the Baptist’s. “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” It is direct and confrontational. The promises of the ages are coming upon the Jews and they either get ready or perish. 

After meeting Jesus’ first followers, the events of a single Sabbath Day stir the community and lead to a powerful encounter with Jesus. The next morning, Jesus went off alone to pray. The people are clamoring for him with palpable desperation. When His followers finally find Jesus, they are exasperated, “Everyone is looking for you,” they exclaim. Jesus’ reply reveals a conflict of motives that will eventually lead Him to parable preaching… but not yet. Rather than rushing to the aid of the crowds again, Jesus says, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” And He does just that, but there is one important change. Jesus heals a leper and though told to keep quiet, the healed man blabs about what Jesus has done “to such an extent,” says Mark, “that Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city, but stayed out in unpopulated areas; and they were coming to Him from everywhere.” Jesus’ miracles gather a level of unwanted attention from those more interested in healing than preaching. 

In Mark’s 4th story sermon, the clamoring crowds increase. Jesus has a boat set aside, as Mark notes, “for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him.” Mark builds a decisive contrast between these masses, and between those following Him. Leaving the crowds behind, Mark says that Jesus “summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And he appointed twelve.. so that they might be with Him.” Though Jesus has sympathy for the masses, it is through His followers that the Kingdom of God will grow. Jesus wishes to separate these out from the self-interested crowds, “For,” says Jesus, “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.

 

Story Sermon 5: Jesus’ Parable Preaching Pattern

It is in Mark’s 5th story sermon, that the parables finally arrive. 

The crowds become so unmanageable in their desperation that Jesus is forced to escape offshore in the boat in order to keep teaching. This time, He only teaches in parables. While He has used parables in the past to make difficult ideas plain, Jesus now begins to teach almost exclusively in parables, and His Disciples want to know why.  

The first parable Mark shares with us—The Parable of the Four Soils—gives us the reasoning behind His use of parables. When, “His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables,” Jesus gives a more direct apologetic, explaining that The Parable of Four Soils is key to His sudden shift to parable preaching exclusively. 

Back in Isaiah’s day, the prophet was confronting an apostate society and was called to extract a small remnant of the faithful out from the deaf, blind, and morally stupid masses, who were ultimately committed to the path of death. Jesus explains His use of parables by quoting Isaiah’s commission and explaining the Four Soils. Standing before Him, Jesus sees the Hard-hearted, the shallow-souled, the self-absorbed, and, scattered among them, that same small remnant useful for the Kingdom of God. Lest He cast the pearls of the kingdom before the apostate swine among whom the faithful sit, Jesus uses parables. Alone with His followers, Jesus explains all, simply, plainly, and directly.

Throughout the sermon, Mark will emphasize the role of the listener and call them to turn their ears on full focus to what Jesus is saying. Jesus calls upon the multitudes, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” As one lights a lamp for the very purpose of casting light, so He is preaching in order to give spiritual light. It is up to them, however, what they do with it. Jesus is looking for those who will listen and hear, those who will sense the value in his parables and press in for more. Thus, Jesus says, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” Basically, this means, if you handle what you hear well, and press in for more, you’ll get more.” Just so, He says to His followers who ask Him privately about the parables, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” Jesus places parables before the masses in order to sift out the faithful remnant from the selfish seekers. 

 

Why Does Jesus Tell Parables?

So, why does Jesus tell parables? Many of Jesus’ parables are meant as filters for the crowds to separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, good fish from bad fish. The listener’s job is to hear, wrestle, question, seek, and ask. If they do, the secrets of the Kingdom of God will be opened to them.

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Christian History

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

For hundreds of years, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in bondage as Egyptian slaves. Then, in a miraculous event that served as the very foundation of developing Israelite culture, God freed His people to bring them into their own land. Through Moses the deliverer, God sent plague after plague against His enemies until, finally, His people were released. God showed up in spectacular form, appearing as a pillar of cloud and fire, and led His people through the Red Sea on dry land. Notice, immediately after these amazing events, how the people respond to their God and Rescuer. Exodus 16:2-3 tells us: 

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt…”

 

The Israelites Complain

Did you catch that? Miracle after miracle, spectacle after spectacle, with the presence of God visible in their midst, the first thing the people do is complain. And their complaining didn’t end there. When God provided food from heaven, the people complained. When God gave them water out of a rock, the people complained, and when God finally led them to the edge of the Promised Land, the people refused to enter, complaining about the size of its inhabitants. In fact, they had rejected God’s kindness so often that He decided to teach them a lesson they and their descendants would never forget. He taught them, among other things, how to be grateful. For this generation of ex-slaves, this lesson would take 40 years to learn.

It’s easy to sit back and judge these people. Certainly, I would have made better choices. I wouldn’t complain… But ask yourself; how do you respond to the goodness of God in your own life? How long after God blesses you with something amazing do you wait before grumbling about His blessings? When you are blessed with an education, do you complain about teachers or assignments? Or when you are blessed with a job, do you complain about the work you do, your boss, or your co-workers? When you are blessed with a child, do you complain about the late nights and dirty diapers? You see, it is so easy to become like the rebellious generation of Israelites who perished in the wilderness. 

So, what is the remedy to this problem? How do we keep from grumbling? While future generations of Israelites that we read about in the Old Testament don’t have the best track record, they did institute practices to help guard against an attitude of rebellion. Perhaps the biggest part of this was the Feast Days. 

 

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

Feast days, or festivals, were yearly opportunities to remember and give thanks for the goodness and kindness that God had displayed in the past. By celebrating festivals annually, the people would never forget what God had done for them. During these feasts, the people would come together and recite their history, giving thanks to God. To a lesser degree, the weekly Sabbath day of rest also served this purpose as it reoriented the worshipper to have a heart of praise and gratefulness toward God.

And what better way to celebrate than with food? Of course, we do this all the time. Try to think of a celebration that doesn’t involve food. Typically, the happier the occasion, the more it revolves around eating. It is a great way to establish gratitude in our hearts with good memories of friends, family, and feasting.

 

Our Feast: Thanksgiving

In the United States, we have a holiday that accomplishes this explicitly. It is even called Thanksgiving. Like the Jewish feast days, Thanksgiving is a time when we join together with our community and remember the goodness and kindness of God. We do this historically, remembering what God did in the lives of our ancestors. We do this in our community, recognizing what God has done and is doing in our nation. And we do this personally, cultivating thankfulness in our hearts toward God for His faithfulness. 

This Thanksgiving, as you look out over the holiday feast, or even as you microwave a single serving of frozen turkey, take the opportunity to remember and give thanks to God. Take the opportunity to guard your heart against grumbling. Remind those around you of the great things God has done in history and in your life. Practice thankfulness and see how remembering God’s goodness impacts your faith in a positive way. 

Learn more about the bible by studying with our free bible study materials.

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Studying the Bible

What Kind of Book is Genesis? The Book of Creation as Ancestor Epic

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

What Kind of Document is Genesis?

The way you answer that question will dramatically impact how you read Genesis. 

When reading fiction, you expect to be entertained. When reading a law book, you expect to learn the rules of society. If you try to read Genesis the same way you read the Psalms or Revelation, you will quickly run into problems. 

So, to return to our question, What kind of document is Genesis? 

Is Genesis a myth? Is Genesis akin to works like the Canaanite Baal epic where Baal earns his kingship by defeating the sea dragon, Yamm, or perhaps like the Babylonian creation story about Marduk’s defeat of the sea goddess Tiamat, called the Enuma Elish?   

Well, one thing we can say with confidence is that Genesis does not bear the marks of any of the myths that were common in the days of Abraham, nor in all the years of the Israelites. 

Another thing we can say with confidence is that Genesis, being largely stories about historical figures, presents itself as a historical document. Knowing this certainly does not mean, however, that we easily understand the nature of ancient history writing, the skill of woven story, or the purpose of telling these particular stories as they are told.

 

Genesis is History

So, if Genesis is History, what kind of history is it? Is Genesis cold, academic inquiry, or does the author hope to impact the thoughts and actions of the reader through it? Is he preaching?

Well, we might be interested to know that the ancient Israelites regarded their sacred history texts as prophetic literature. Through the prophets, God inspired a proclamation and interpretation of the past that was designed to preach. Therefore, these stories are theology, however, rooted they may be in actual historical events.

Now an important point when reading biblical history is that you must know where to look to find the message God has for you in it. Some think that the telling of the story points you to an event that you are expected to recreate in your imagination and then respond to in your heart. They think that the inspired message is then found in your heart’s response to events as the text helps you imagine them. 

We see the flaw in this perspective most keenly when reading the Gospels. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus exactly the way each inspired author wished to tell it. When most of us read them, however, rather than studying the details of each gospel exactly as it is written, we treat each telling of an event as a resource for details that we can use to imagine the story. Matthew tells us part, Mark tells us part, Luke throws in some new points, and, in a few instances, John may even give us an extra tidbit to chew on. We gather all these facts, iron out seeming contradictions, and then we spin a whole new version of the story replete with all the tidbits from all the Gospel writers. Then we meditate upon the event as we imagine it, and listen for God’s word to us. 

This is not how the gospel writers wanted us to do it. Each author crafted the stories in their histories using the necessary terms, grammar, literary relationships, and structures needed to deliver their message. Because the author used common communication symbols and literature processes of his day, the intended audience could be reasonably expected to use all of them to discern the message. Each story preaches into a context in such a way that those living there at that time could grasp what was being said to them. 

Wow! That sounds complicated, it can be but have no fear. I’ll give you the skinny on exactly what kind of history Genesis is, exactly what lens will prove most beneficial to you when reading it. 

 

Genesis is an Ancestor Epic

So, here it is! Genesis is an Ancestor Epic.

Ancestor Epics are collections of stories that ancient tribes told themselves about how they became a people… indeed, about how they almost failed to become a people. Circumstances arose that once threatened their future existence as a people but their God saved them. For had Sarah been kept by Pharaoh they would not exist. If Rebekah had remained barren, they would not exist. Had Esau killed Jacob they would not exist. But they have become a people, because Yahweh had a plan for them and overcame those situations on their behalf, and dozens more, in order to bring about His plan in and through them.

There are two main divisions in the Genesis Ancestor Epic. We find their Primordial History in Genesis 1-11 and their Patriarchal History in Genesis 12-50.

 

The Patriarchal History

The Patriarchal History looks at the circumstances that (save for the grace & mercy of Yahweh who loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives) would have overtaken Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 tribal fathers. These include barrenness, wars, famines, captured wives, political struggles over land and water and intermarriage, divine judgments, competing heirs, dead childless heirs, pre-tribal jealousies, and betrayed heirs.

 

The Primordial History

The Primordial History looks at issues of threat more broadly, considering the threats to yet older ancestors, the ancestors of all men. Had the world remained a barren, anti-creational, dark, and landless waste, they would not exist. Had God not made a plan of redemption when Adam and Eve fell, they would not exist. Had God not acted to check human evil with the flood, they would not exist. Had God not spared Noah and his family, they would not exist. Had Abraham not been a man of faith, waking up to the One Holy Creator of all, they would not be a people. 

God’s plans, God’s purposes, remain unthwarted whatever men may do. What remains for those preserving the stories is to live well in the world which YHWH has created. They are called to fulfill His purposes in it. This is why he continually saves them from manifold threats, and the greatest of these threats is their own corrupt hearts and their own wanton stupidity. 

 

Genesis Shares Foundational Theology

Through Genesis, the nation of Israel spends a millennium sitting around the metaphorical campfire with their ancestors. There, they hear the stories of how they almost failed to become a people. They tell how the One Holy Creator of all saved them and continues to save them because He chose them from among all the peoples of the earth to fulfill a corporate mission. He chose them because of the great faith of their father Abraham, who showed them how to continue in the good favor of Yahweh. God is at work in the world; the Israelites are His chosen tool; He preserved and continues to preserve them from extinction so that they might be the People of God, instruments of his Glory in the world. 

Genesis, therefore, preaches some pretty foundational theology about the nature of reality. As an ancestor epic, it establishes their worldview, telling them where they came from, who they are, and what their reason for being is. It tells them what’s wrong with the world and the part they play as instruments of God in making it right. 

Use this as a lens for reading Genesis. Ask yourself: If I were an Israelite, struggling with the tension between what the prophets are telling me about God, man, and reality and what the pagans all around me are telling me about them, what would Genesis be preaching to me? What would I learn about God, man, and reality from reading it?

Learn more about the bible by studying with our free bible study materials.

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Spiritual Development Studying the Bible

Why Does God Allow Evil?

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

According to a recent Barna research study, the number of young people in the U.S. who identify as atheists has doubled in a single generation. One of the most significant reasons many reject the idea of God is the reality of suffering and evil in the world. Philosophers refer to this as the Problem of Evil and it is generally stated in this way: a loving God would prevent suffering and evil if He could; therefore, God is either not loving or not powerful enough to stop it. Yet, Christians believe that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. Is this a contradiction? Or does the Bible tell us what we need to know to answer such a significant objection to God’s existence? Let’s spend some time considering what Scripture has to say about the issue.

First, let’s consider what we need to study:

  1. Is God Loving?
  2. Is God Powerful?
  3. Why Does God Allow Suffering and Evil?

If we can answer these three questions, then we can combat the Problem of Evil and help people who are suffering to see the goodness and power of God.

Is God Loving?

If God is not loving; that is, if He is not good, then it would be pointless to continue this discussion. Now, it is one thing to assert that He is loving just by stating all the good things He does. But is God loving in the midst of suffering? Let’s look at what the Bible says. 

Psalm 23 details the life of David who is surrounded by suffering for so much of his life. David writes in verses 4-6:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… surely your goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

David recounts the goodness of God in the midst of great pain and evil. He does not praise God for removing suffering, but for being present in suffering. While David stares his enemies in the face, he is at peace because of the presence of the Lord. He does not praise God because God will certainly save him from his enemies, but that even if he were to suffer the worst possible fate, he would still be with God forever. 

The Bible is absolutely filled with examples of God being good in the midst of suffering. In fact, to be in the world is to endure suffering, whether small or large. We have the promise that He will be with us and that He will rescue us out of this world whether it happens now or only when we get to heaven. 

Is God Powerful?

So, if God is good, but there is still suffering, perhaps the reason is that He is unable to stop it. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that God can do anything, including preventing bad things from happening. Furthermore, there are many verses in Scripture that talk about deliverance from evil. Consider 2 Timothy 4:18: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” Or 2 Thessalonians 3:3: “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” We see examples throughout Scripture of God preventing great evils or avoiding certain disasters. God prevents the destruction of the Hebrew people at the hands of pursuing Egyptians in Exodus 14. God again prevents genocide of the same people in the story of Esther. Many other examples from both the Old and New Testament could be cited to support this. 

But it is equally clear that God does not always prevent suffering and evil. So, if it is the case that God is good even in the midst of suffering, and that He is perfectly able to prevent it, we are left with one big question:

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

As we ask this question, we must first ask ourselves what sort of answer we want to hear. 

Do we want to know why there is any suffering at all? If so, Genesis 3 begins to answer this question, and the rest of the Old Testament fills in the blanks. Suffering exists because sin has broken the perfection that existed in the Garden.

Do we want to know why God doesn’t prevent the worst kinds of suffering? If so, ask yourself how you would know if He did. That is, if God prevented all of the worst evil, then you would never know what those evils would have been, and then the second-worst evil would now be the worst from your perspective. In the end, this question is no different from asking why there is any suffering whatsoever.

Do we want to know why God allows a particular instance of suffering? There are times in Scripture when we see God give an explanation for certain evils. Think of Joseph being captured by his brothers and sold into slavery. Joseph himself says in Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” But many times, as in the case of Job, the reason for suffering is not given. Instead, we are asked simply to trust God.

So, Why Does God Allow Evil?

Two important and complementary answers are found in Scripture:

  1. God allows certain evils in order to accomplish certain good things. Think, for example, of the Babylonian Exile of the people of Judah. God tells His people that they are going into exile in order to be broken of their wickedness and idolatry. Or, think of the greatest example of all: the death of Jesus. God allows, and even clearly plans and purposes this evil in order to accomplish the greatest possible good. 
  2. God also allows evil to exist in general because He has created the world with a certain order which He has freely chosen not to violate. Among the most important aspects of this created order is the free will that He gives to His creatures. Scripture makes it clear that God desires for His creatures to freely choose to love, worship, and obey Him. Love that is not free is also not real.  So, God allows evil to exist because He created us with the ability to reject Him, and evil exists because we choose to reject God.

Now, as we close this discussion, we must remember that God is in control. His greatest desire is to eradicate all suffering and for us to live in perfect unity with Him forever. He promised to do exactly this, beginning all the way back in Genesis 3 and culminating in the final verses of Revelation. God’s immediate reaction to humanity’s betrayal was to promise to make everything right. He promised to personally enter into the suffering of this fallen world, thereby taking on all the sin and wickedness of humanity, putting it to death on the cross. God has always had a plan to deal with evil and suffering, and the Bible tells us the history of that plan. We, as Christians, are agents of that restoration; a restoration that will one day be complete. 

Let’s close this discussion with the great promise of Scripture from Revelation 21:4: “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.