Jesus’ parables have long been a popular focus of bible studies because most people assume that they are in the character of analogies or illustrations that Jesus used in order to make His meaning clear. I can still recall sitting in a Sunday school class and having my Sunday school teacher explain that Jesus’ parables were little stories–usually fictitious–that He designed to make the truth simple and easy to understand. It’s no wonder some people are startled when they finally come face to face with the truth about why Jesus spoke in parables.
There came a day when Jesus was sitting by the seaside and a rather large crowd of people was gathered around Him–so much so in fact that He went out into a ship and spoke to them as they stood about the shore. He spoke many things to them in parables but the Gospel writers chose to focus on one parable in particular: the parable of the sower. You will find three accounts of this parable in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8.
Jesus spoke of a sower who went forth to sow. As he sowed his seed indiscriminately, some fell by the wayside, some fell on stony places, some fell among thorns, and some fell on good ground. Jesus pointed out how the fowls came and devoured the seed by the wayside, how the sun scorched the plants that grew up on the stony ground, how the thorns choked out the plants that grew up among them, and how that seed that had fallen on good ground brought forth good fruit.
When He had finished, the disciples came to Him and asked a rather puzzling question. They asked:
Why speakest thou unto them in parables? (Matthew 13:10). The question is puzzling because one would have thought the reason for speaking in parables was obvious–to illustrate, clarify, or simplify the truth for those who were hearing. Jesus’ answer must have astonished them:
He answered and said unto them, Because it is given to you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given (Matthew 13:11).
Mark remembered Jesus’ words this way:
And He said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
The disciples must have been shocked! Jesus plainly said that it was not His purpose that all who heard Him should be converted and their sins forgiven! Throughout Jesus’ ministry it must have been a source of continual amazement to the disciples that Jesus–in spite of all of His miracles and the power of His teaching– continued to be despised and rejected by the majority of those who heard Him. It was all the more puzzling because these were God’s chosen people. But it was apparently not God’s will that they all be converted at that time. But what was to happen to them? Were they to be lost forever?
Paul was troubled deeply by the repeated rejection of the gospel of Christ by synagogue after synagogue. Although there were a few Jews who accepted the gospel gladly, for the most part they seemed totally blind to it. Paul struggled with this in his ministry and even came to the place where he could have wished–if it would have helped–to be cut off from Christ if it could have brought about the salvation of his Israelite brethren (Romans 9:1–5).
Paul recognized, though, that the gospel had to go to the Gentiles and cited the prophets as support:
As he saith also in Hosea, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.
But what about the Israelites who had lived and died without the faith of Jesus Christ? Were they lost forever? The question troubled Paul:
I say then, Hath God cast away His people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away His people which He foreknew.
He clearly realized that there was a remnant of Israel that was being saved in his own time (Romans 11:5), but there had to be more.
He begins to explain in verse 7:
What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded. Shocking as it may sound, most of the people who sat and listened to Jesus teach in parables were blinded—they could not understand. As Paul puts it,
According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear; unto this day (verse 8). As Jesus told His disciples,
Unto you it is given to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given.
It should be immediately apparent that if we accept the traditional Christian beliefs of heaven and hell—that a man goes to his reward immediately at death—then it would appear that Jesus, by design, consigned a group of people to hell who never had a chance to be saved. It doesn’t make sense, does it?
There came a day when Jesus was struggling with some of the unbelieving Jews and He told them,
I am the bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, That ye also have seen Me, and believe not. All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me; and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.
It is clear that, if all those the Father gave Christ would come to Him, then those who did not believe had not been given to Him by the Father. He continued in this passage to speak of the Father’s will, but the Jews murmured at Him and they said,
Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He saith, I come down from heaven? (verse 42). They just could not accept Him. Jesus answered,
Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, and they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto Me.
It’s the same theme again. Some people are able to be taught and learn of God and some are not. They have been blinded. But blinded by whom? Jesus gives us a clue on another occasion when He says,
But though He [God] had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him: That the saying of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Isaiah said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.
But what happens to those Israelites who did not believe—who were blinded and could not understand? Listen to Paul’s continuing analysis of the subject in his letter to the Romans:
Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again (Romans 11:22–23). So it is possible for those who have not believed yet to believe.
But what of those who had died? Are they lost forever? Paul continues in verse 25 to explain:
For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved (verses 25–26). It is indeed, as Paul says, a mystery. How is it possible for those who have lived and died in a blinded state to yet be saved?
There is an obscure prophecy that gives us a clue to all this. It’s found in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel–the prophecy of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. In the prophecy Ezekiel is picked up and carried in the spirit and set down in the middle of a valley which is full of bones. It must have been as though a great battle had taken place there at some time in the past and the bodies left unburied. God asked Ezekiel if those bones could live. He then told him to prophesy upon the bones and say,
Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.
Now, it is fairly obvious that this verse is talking about a resurrection from the dead. We have dead bones coming back to life. But this is a resurrection totally different from the resurrection spoken of by Jesus and Paul in which those resurrected would be like the angels in heaven—no longer flesh and bone. This is a resurrection to physical life—note that sinews, flesh and skin are put back on bones and breath is put back in the body. These resurrected ones are not to be taken off to meet the Lord in the air. They are not to be spirit beings able to come and go like the wind.
When they had been raised and were standing upon their feet—an exceeding great army—God told Ezekiel who they were. He said,
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: Behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts, Therefore, prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
Note that they are brought into the land of Israel—they don’t go into the clouds to meet the Lord. To what purpose are they brought up?
And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up out of your graves, and shall put My Spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it; saith the Lord.
These people are going to come to know God and receive His Spirit—they will be converted. Those who lived out their life in a blinded state—those who never came to know God—will, at last, receive mercy. It may have seemed harsh at first to consider that God would have concluded these people to unbelief—seemingly denying them a chance at salvation. But as Paul put it in Romans 11:32,
For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all.
Jesus knew that all those who heard Him were not ready to believe. He knew that there was still a great deal of rebellion, stubbornness and self-will in their hearts. Had He spoken to them plainly, they would have had no excuse for their sins. So He withheld the truth from them—for a time—by speaking to them in parables. But their day of salvation will come.