INCREDIBLE as it seems to traditional thinking, the purpose of the parabolic method of
teaching was stated by the Teacher Himself as being to conceal the secrets of the kingdom
from Israel at large, to whom it was not then due to understand them (Mark 4:10-12), lest
national pardon then would frustrate the sacrifice of the Sin Offering (1 Col.2:8); with
the further purpose that the parabolic method would reveal the kingdom secrets to those to
whom they were given (Matt.13:10-17), the disciples, who were not the ones designed to
offer the Sacrifice. Any national pardon of Israel before the King was made immortal must
of necessity be only temporary. That justifies the Father in hiding His face temporarily,
that He might have mercy endlessly, and satisfactorily disposes of the incredibility that
the evangel of the kingdom should be preached in a way purposely designed to conceal the
truth thus spoken.
It may be objected that it was useless to preach it at all if it was not the intent
that it should be understood. Two reasons may be given for preaching it nevertheless.
First, it is only a half-truth to object that it was not the intent of the Speaker that
His evangel should be understood, for it was His purpose to reveal those secrets to
the inner circle of disciples, as cited above, while concealing it only from the nation at
large. If the evangel of the kingdom had not been preached at all, these could not have
had the intended secrets.
The second reason answers the possible objection, "Then why not call the chosen
ones aside and tell the secrets to them?" But the only way to choose them was by that
evangel, as in our case (Rom.8:28-30 with 2 Thess.2:13,14). Again, even the unchosen ones
needed to hear a message that they could not then understand, for as the purpose of the
law is to lead to condemnation (Rom.3:19,20) for later grace (5:20,21), so the reason here
also is given in that one word, "grace," for if the evangel of the kingdom had
not been preached at all, the ones so not hearing would have reason to excuse themselves
in the judgment at the great white throne, on the ground that if they had heard they would
have heeded. But such pleas of self- justification will be effectually barred, and thus
when self- righteousness is prevented, grace will have full scope to operate for
The same is true of Pharaoh. It might be argued, "Why tell him to let Israel go,
when it was impossible, since the whole course of events was predetermined?" When the
sea yields him before the throne of judgment, his mouth will be barred from boasting of
what he would have done if he had been given the opportunity.
The Master's purpose of concealing the kingdom secrets from Israel at large by using
the parabolic method of teaching succeeded so very well that even the ones to whom He
spoke with a view of their understanding failed to see the meaning of His parables
(Matt.13:36; Mark 4:10-13,34). Not only that, but even though He interpreted so many of
His parables, modern ministry is much at sea to understand them. This makes evident the
need for some effort to understand parables in general, which is the purpose of this
1. THE PRINCIPLE OF DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN
CHURCH AND KINGDOM
Since parables are a figurative method of teaching, their meaning may easily be missed,
for even the disciples sometimes erred in understanding, because they were too much
inclined to consider all of their Teacher's words in a literal sense, as in the
"leaven" of the Pharisees, and "the bread that came down from heaven."
His parables have suffered much from well-meant interpretation, especially by
"applying" them to the church, though they were explicitly said by Him to have
been representations of the kingdom ("The kingdom of the heavens is
like..."). This is somewhat excusable in those who consider the church as being the
kingdom, but it is to be hoped that those who know the distinction between the church and
the kingdom will welcome what is here presented in discriminating between these two
institutions when considering the Saviour's reference to the kingdom in His parables.
The proclamation made at His public appearance was, "Near is the kingdom of the
heavens." John the Baptist so announced, then the King did so. Later He sent the
twelve to announce the same evangel, then dispatched the seventy to herald it abroad. A
little later the kingdom was said to be violently seized by force (Matt.11:12; Luke
16:16), in the decapitation of the King's herald, and the predicted prospect of similar
violence to the King Himself (Matt.17:12). He also spoke of people entering the kingdom at
that time (Matt.21:31; 23:13).
All this evidence shows that in some sense the kingdom was present then. This seems to
conflict with the scriptural truth that it will not come until the King returns from
heaven. The difficulty vanishes when we discern that the kingdom "outstripped"
this intervening time between His two advents (Matt.12:28; Luke 11:20, RCV), so as to give
them a "foretaste" of it when the King was present (CV). Isaiah, "the
kingdom prophet," predicted that in that day "the inhabitant of the land shall
not say, `I am sick,'" so when the King healed sickness, He gave the healed ones a
foretaste of the kingdom health. In that way they did "enter" the kingdom by
entering the perfect health that will be in it. Thus the kingdom outstripped the
intervening time temporarily, as long as the kingdom signs continued.
It was the same when He raised the dead or stilled the tempest, for Isaiah also said,
"Thy dead men shall live," and "Violence shall no more be heard in thy
land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders." Every miracle He performed thus
brought the kingdom to them by taking them into kingdom conditions. The untamed colt
ridden quietly into the capital city and the harmlessness of snake-bites brought the
pacific conditions of the animals foretold in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah.
It was the same in the miracles of judgment as in those of mercy, for the King will
execute judgment when He returns, and the kingdom comes in reality and permanence. So the
cursed fig tree, the death of Ananias and Sapphira and the smiting of Elymas blind all
made the judgments of the kingdom time manifest when it was present in miniature and
That future kingdom will be a benign autocracy, which is the political ideal. When the
king of such a polity is present, the kingdom is there, for he is the kingdom in person.
So king and kingdom are synonymous even in an earthly autocracy (Dan.7:17, 23). Thus when
the King of Israel came to His citizens, He brought the kingdom to them in His person,
especially since He could bring the kingdom conditions with Him. He also organized His
kingdom before their eyes, by choosing the twelve rulers who will sit on thrones over the
twelve tribes in the kingdom when He shall sit on His own throne over them all
(Matt.19:28). A little later, He picked out His council of seventy supreme judges and sent
them out heralding the kingdom. So it is easy to see that when His enemies persecuted Him
and His emissaries they were doing violence to the kingdom.
We have gone to this length to show the relation of the parables to the message then
proclaimed because the evangel of the kingdom was the announcement that the kingdom had
come to them, which it had, in the samples of it then dispensed in the miracles. The
parables were part of His preaching of His kingdom evangel. Therefore they referred to
that time and those people, not to our time and the church. This is the objective to which
we have been leading the reader's mind. This is an important distinction for us to
discern. For it would destroy our assurance and peace if we were in danger of a revocation
of pardon every time we are unmerciful to others, as was the slave in the parable of the
Unmerciful Servant, beginning with the words, "Therefore likened was the kingdom of
the heavens..." (Matt.18:23).
Under the evangel of the kingdom, pardon of sins was real, in that the King really
removed the two penalties of sin, which were suffering and death (Gen.3:17-19) by healing
the sick and raising the dead. Pardon was temporary, because the King did not have lasting
health and unending life to give His citizens. So in this parable pardon was represented
correctly as being temporary, and subject to reversal, which cannot be possible after
pardoned people are glorified in immortality. So our forgiveness, though now reckoned,
instead of real, as was theirs, is nevertheless to a lasting condition that cannot be
revoked. Our justification is in a calling in which we were foreknown and predestined
before being called, and in that calling God sees us as already glorified (Rom.8:28-30).
The King's declaration that under the kingdom evangel "Many are called, but few
chosen" was true then, for the whole nation was called to the feast of miraculous
blessings at the marriage-banquet of the King's Son, but the largest number of disciples
recorded is something over five hundred who were "chosen" (1 Cor.15:6). So
"Many called...few chosen" should never be "applied" to us, all of
whom are "called" (Rom.8:30).
Under the kingdom evangel the penalties of suffering and death that were miraculously
removed by pardon were just as miraculously inflicted when pardon was revoked, hence the
King taught His disciples to pray that they might be forgiven as they forgave. So in the
context here in Matt.18 "keys" (of authority, to "bind" or
"loose," shackle or unshackle, inflict or pardon) were delivered to the twelve
officials in the kingdom authority then present. These were not keys to lock or unlock
"doors" (supposedly of "the church" at Pentecost and at the home of
Cornelius, as Peter is supposed to have used them). They were keys to "bind" or
"loose" citizens of the kingdom then present. If Peter could "open the
doors of the church" by using the keys in mercy, why could he not lock people out of
church-membership by using the keys in the opposite way from "loosing," as
implied in "binding?" For if "loosing" means "opening the doors
of the church," "binding" would be closing the doors of the church, so that
seeking entrants could not get into it. That would be a notable thing in modern
evangelism! That supposed use of the keys would make Peter like the Pharisees, for they
were "locking the kingdom of the heavens in front of men" (Matt.23:13). But he
did shackle Ananias, and threatened to do it to Simon of Samaria, though he relented when
that magician pleaded for mercy. And the King "loosed" one of His citizens whom
the king of darkness had bound (Luke.13:15), as all His miracles of mercy may likewise be
regarded as unshackling (Acts 10:38).
As a further example of the evil of applying all the parables to the church and the
present, consider the three little parables at the close of Luke 14, teaching that all
would-be disciples then must renounce all business and family ties for a discipleship that
entailed walking over the land preaching the kingdom as present, and making it present by
miracles. If we should apply that to ourselves, who could qualify for discipleship, not
only because of the ties and the walking, but because of the impossible barrier of not
being able to furnish the kingdom signs? For while some today claim a few of the miracles
of mercy, who will dare to threaten all liars with death or all opponents of their
preaching with blindness, or smite unfruitful trees dead, all by mere word of mouth?
As a final example of the need of distinguishing church and kingdom, consider the
parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard for a denarius a day. If, as is the usual
interpretation, the denarius represented future life and the eleventh hour, death-bed
repentance, then those who become disciples early in life would complain in eonian life
because those who repented at death would be there too, though envy cannot inherit the
kingdom of God (Gal.5:21). But when we let the parable be what it is declared to be, a
portrait of the kingdom then present, we find such envy voiced in Peter's words that
elicited the parable, and the difficulty we create for ourselves by wrenching it away from
its setting vanishes.
II. EQUALITY OF PARABLE-LEG AND INTERPRETATION-LEG
"The legs of the lame are not equal; so is a parable in the mouth of fools"
(Prov.26:7). By these words Solomon evidently meant that unwise people are not careful in
making a parabolic illustration, so that it fails to fit the case intended to be
illustrated. An example of this is the common illustration of throwing the gospel
"life-line" to a man already "dead in sins" for how can a dead man
grasp a rope in any work of his own in saving himself?
We will adapt this parable of the legs of a lame man, so that, instead of using it as
he did to illustrate the framing of a parable, we shall use it in the interpretation of
parables. The two "legs" would then be parable and interpretation. They should
so match that every significant item in the parable should be interpreted, lest the
interpretation-leg be too short; and only the significant items should be interpreted,
lest the interpretation leg be too long. If error is made in either way, truth goes
To illustrate: "one" is a significant item in the parable of the Lost Sheep
Found (Luke 15:1-7), for the Teacher interpreted it as "one sinner" of the
publicans and sinners who drew near to Him on that occasion to hear Him. But
"ninety-nine" is not a significant number, for in the next (and
companion-parable) nine coins correspond to ninety-nine sheep. Some number must be put
into each parable to illustrate the Scribes and Pharisees, and in the first, the larger
number is more suitable for a flock of sheep, while in the second, the smaller number more
fitly represents the number of coins a woman of that time would probably have.
In the third parable of this series (The Prodigal Son) the numbers are one son for each
of the two classes of people parabolically represented. So while the number for the sinner
is uniformly one, the number for the Pharisees varies, ninety- nine, nine, one.
Some number must be used in each parable, and the one selected in each ease is nicely
These three parables form a series teaching the same lesson, as is shown by the fact
that they are all tied together by the word "lost," being used of the sinner in
each ease, a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. But sinners are not hopelessly lost.
"The Good Shepherd" in the first parable sought the lost sheep till He found it,
and so also the woman corresponding to the shepherd. So also the father, representing the
Heavenly Father. He waited until his son returned. Our Father will not be disappointed by
"hell" or annihilation.
In the study of parables we may err not only by making the interpretation-leg too long,
as in saying that a non-significant item is significant, as above, if we think that
ninety-nine is a significant number: but we may also err by making the interpretation-leg
too short by not interpreting a significant item. The number ten in the parable of the
Watching Virgins is probably significant, intended to represent those who will be
disciples in the ten federated nations at the end of gentile rule ("Then,"
Matt.25:1), at the visible unveiling of the Bridegroom, as the previous context places it.
But to interpret the two fives as showing that exactly half of those disciples will be
unprepared would probably make the interpretation-leg, too long. The parable needed a
number for the unfaithful disciples, as well as one for the faithful ones, so ten is
divided in the middle for the two numbers, as in the previous parable one slave represents
each of the same two classes. Insistence on exactness of number would require the
foreknown number of both faithful and unfaithful disciples and that the number of each be
stated in the parable.
This is not a parable of the church, as is suggested in the song, "Will Jesus Find
Us Watching?" "Then likened shall be the kingdom...to ten virgins." This
scene belongs in the marriage of the Lamb (Rev.19:6-9). The church is taken before that.
The ten virgins are not even the Lamb's wife, but are attendants at the feast following
the wedding. If a bride is only half present, the wedding ceremony would probably be
delayed. This parable is not for us. The present grace was then an unrevealed secret.
When the Great Teacher interpreted any of His parables, He usually introduced the
interpretation with what may be called "bridge-words," at the close of the
parable, when He passed on to the interpretation. These bridge-words are a valuable aid in
reaching a true interpretation. The bridge-words He most frequently used were
"Likewise" or "So likewise" ("Thus" CV), though there are
other expressions. "Likewise" is an apt word, the interpretation is
"like" the parable.
We have these bridge-words "So likewise" at Matt.18:35, and "So" at
20:16 ("Thus" CV). At Matt.22:14 it is merely "For." At 21:31 and 43
it is "I am saying to you." At Luke 18:6 we have "Now the Lord said.
"In Matt.25:13 it is merely "Therefore" or "then" (CV). By
watching for such bridge-words the student may see where a parable ends and the
Some of the parables were not interpreted by the Lord, and in those cases there are, of
course, no bridge-words. And in some cases, the interpretations He did give are not
recorded (Mark 4:34).
These are among the most important things that must be noted in studying parables, for
they afford an infallible guide in understanding those parables in which the Great Teacher
used them in the interpretations He gave of His parables. For He interpreted more of His
parables than is generally realized, because His interpretations are usually brief, and
so, unnoticed. In many of His interpretations, He used what we call "key-words."
By that term we mean words used in the parable and repeated in His interpretation. It will
be evident to the reader at once that this method in His interpretation is of inestimable
value in understanding, the parables He interpreted, for it guides us into an
understanding of His own explanations, and His own would manifestly be infallible. And an
understanding of the interpretations He gave will help us to a more reliable form of
interpretation for the uninterpreted parables than if we were not given a pattern of His
"One" is a key-word in the parable of the Lost Sheep and again in that of the
Lost Coin. In the parables it is one sheep or coin; in the interpretations it is "one
sinner" in each case. In the Unjust Steward the key-word is "receive," In
the Unjust Judge it is "avenge."
But we desist from pointing out other examples, that the reader may have the same joy
in searching for these treasures that the writer, when the grace of the Great Teacher
opened his eyes to see the fact that there is such a key in so many of the parables that
unlocks their beautiful meaning. A due regard for these key-words will save us from many
mistaken interpretations that have been offered in all sincerity by past students of these
wonderful stories. The most prevalent mistake in the past has been that of applying
kingdom parables to the church, already referred to in this study.
Because it would be too far afield from our subject, we have not given full
interpretations of any of the parables used in our study in this article.