by David Christensen
Stories shape culture. The stories we hear influence the values we believe.
Jesus understood that truth, so he told stories, lots of stories. He used metaphors to teach spiritual truths. Parables were one of his favorite preaching tools. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables and “did not speak to them without a parable!” (Mt. 13:34; Mark 4:34) Stories marked his preaching, but the stories were for the disciples, not the crowds. While he told the stories to the crowds, he designed the stories for the disciples. Jesus was making disciples. His sermons were intended to produce disciples, and he knew that if he was to make disciples, he must change their mindset. Jesus used stories to change their thinking. He shaped their values around the kingdom of heaven by the stories he told. They had been steeped in the stories of this world. The disciples needed a new set of stories to re-shape their values around Christ’s kingdom which is why most of the parables were about the “kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 13:33, 52). The parables Jesus told were kingdom stories designed to make disciples for the kingdom.
A common misunderstanding of the parables leads preachers to assume that we should use everyday stories to illustrate spiritual truths to reach unbelievers. Parabolic preaching uses simple stories to teach a single point, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. The argument runs something like this. Jesus wanted to win the common people through his preaching, so he scratched where they itched. He used stories from their everyday lives – stories to which they easily related – to get their attention. Jesus employed common sense experiences to persuade people to follow Him. He talked their language rather than using logical, rational lectures that were didactic in style. He chose not to preach elitist, technical, theological sermons but trusted in the power of stories to win his audience to believe His message. In this way, Jesus persuaded common people to follow Him. We, preachers today, should do the same if we want to reach unchurched people for Christ (Ralph Lewis and Gregg Lewis, Learning to Preach Like Jesus, 85-106).
He tells us! When we ask Jesus why he spoke in parables, we get a shocking answer. Jesus had just told the famous parable of the sower and the soils to the crowd. The disciples asked him privately, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”Jesus answered his disciples (Mt. 13:10-11; Mark 4:10-12). “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables.”Jesus goes on to quote Isaiah 6:9-10, which in Isaiah’s context, explains the result of the preaching but in Jesus’ context explains the intent of his preaching. Jesus taught in parables “in order that”or “so that”(ἵνα):

“they may indeed see but not perceive,

and may indeed hear but not understand,

lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

(Isaiah 6:9-10; Mark 4:12, ESV)

The force of Jesus’ intention is seen in the way the quote is framed. His parabolic intention was to speak in a way that hid the truth from those outside the kingdom community “lest” they believe and experience God’s forgiveness. The particle “lest” (μήποτε) reinforces the purpose of the parables.
The parables were not “self-evident illustrations” to reach the crowds. They were just the opposite. Jesus used the stories to conceal the truth from outsiders! (Robert Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 39-42). In Matthew’s account, Jesus prefaces his answer by saying, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given … this is why I speak to them in parables”(Mt. 13:11-13 ESV). The parables were illustrative for the disciples but not the crowds. This is why the pattern of parabolic teaching leads to private instruction. Jesus’ stories stimulated or provoked questions from the disciples, which led to deeper teaching about the kingdom. The disciples had to ask the meaning of the parables later in private. Only then did the story make sense (Mt. 13:10, 36; 15:15).
A parabolic path is the path of a projectile under initial thrust from an outside force after gravity takes over. If I shoot a basketball, it will follow an arc determined by the relationship between the force I impart to the basketball and the force gravity applies to that same ball. The trajectory of the ball is the parabolic path.
Jesus’ parabolic pattern follows a similar trajectory. The parable is the initial story told to the crowds of people. His story arouses interest and even gains an initial positive response. People flock to hear his stories and find his teachings interesting, but only true disciples ask more questions to learn the truths embedded in the stories. Jesus used the parable of the soils (sower) to illustrate the parabolic path (Mark 4:1-20). He said to his disciples privately, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?”(Mark 4:13) The parable of the soils illustrates the ways that people respond positively to the message without becoming disciples. Only the “good soil”hearts “hear the word”and produce fruit (Mark 4:20). The trajectory of all the other listeners is a downward arc once the gravity of depravity takes over the human mind. The gravity of depravity controls the parabolic path apart from the power of God to counteract it.
The parables Jesus told led to two distinct spiritual arcs. The normal parabolic path was a downward trajectory. Jesus understood the power of spiritual gravity because He knew the hearts of all humans. People expressed belief in Him because of the signs He did and the stories He told, but Jesus knew their hearts (John 2:23-25). He knew the trajectory of sin. After Jesus taught one of his most arresting metaphors, many turned away. Jesus taught the crowds that his flesh was the bread of heaven, and his blood was true drink. All who eat this bread and drink this drink will live forever. It is a powerful metaphor of spiritual truth. The words are drawn from normal everyday experiences (eating bread and drinking wine), but Jesus shocks the listener by how he puts those experiences together to form spiritual truth. Even his disciples struggled with his words, and many disciples left him and refused to follow him anymore (John 6:52-66). He used the moment to find out if the disciples were still committed to following him or if they too would turn away (John 6:67). Jesus explained that the normal parabolic path is a downward arc. Jesus said, “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father”(John 6:65). It takes the power of God to counteract the gravity of depravity.
The second parabolic path is the disciple-making path. The spiritual arc of a disciple follows a different trajectory because of the power of God to counteract the gravity of depravity. Jesus preached parables as dividers. The stories were interesting, winsome, and attractive. His sermons were not boring. People listened because Jesus filled his messages with stories of everyday people and common experiences. The images captured the imagination of the audience. The metaphors were emotive and compelling. However, the stories served as separators. The outsiders didn’t get “it.” To get “it’ listeners had to dive deeper. They had to ask questions. Jesus’ goal was to make disciples not converts. He was not interested in gathering crowds but in developing committed followers. The spiritual arc of a disciple starts with the same story but follows an upward trajectory. A disciple learns by asking questions. The parables quicken interest as God’s power works on the human heart to seek answers turning a listener into a disciple of Christ.
A sermon preached to a mixed crowd works like a strainer. The stories sift the disciples from the listeners, the true hearers from the tickled ears. Jesus often ended his stories with the words, “He that has ears let him hear”(Mt. 13:9). He preached for commitment. He called for decisions. The only way to understand the story required the hearer to ask questions. Jesus preached the parables to provoke examination, which is the first step in disciple-making. The parabolic principle is counter-intuitive but powerful. Hiding truth in interesting stories separates true disciples from casual consumers!
Kevin Vanhoozer, in his book Hearers & Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine, explains the importance of “social imaginaries.” Social imaginaries are the stories and metaphors that shape our perceptions of this world (8-12). We are steeped in the stories which indoctrinate us into the kingdoms of this world system where we live. We value the world’s values because the world’s stories shape our perceptions. To make disciples fit for the kingdom of heaven, we must change the social imaginaries of people. Disciples are people whose social imaginaries have been changed by Jesus. He challenged them to examine the truth embedded in His stories, and, as they asked questions, they began to see life through the values of the kingdom of heaven. Their perceptions were changed by kingdom stories.
Doctrine changes us most effectively through life stories that shape and re-shape the way we think as disciples of Christ rather than through theological jargon. A paradigm for disciple-making sermons uses common sense stories and everyday metaphors to separate disciples from casual consumers in the church. We preach to call out disciples, and, as our listeners desire to go deeper into truth, we make disciples instead of merely attracting consumers. To learn, a disciple must dive deeper. Our sermons call out people from citizens of the world’s kingdoms shaped by the world’s stories to citizens of heaven’s kingdom shaped by heaven’s stories.
  1. Make your sermons interesting through stories that surprise.
  1. Embed doctrine in common language rather than theological jargon.
  1. Stimulate disciples to want more by expressing truth with a twist.
  1. Preach for decisions that lead to deeper commitments.