Some Principles of Parabolic Interpreattion

(Adapted from the author's manuscript for a book on "The Parables of the Great Teacher.")

by J. W. Williams

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 salvation.

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 article.


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 samples.

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.


"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 limping.

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 suitable.

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 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 interpretation begins.

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 to follow.

"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.

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