Jesus is sitting by the seaside before a great multitude [Mt-13]. He’s teaching lessons via a series of parables, the first of which is the parable of The Sower. He uses the word parable for the first five lessons; then He uses the word like for the next four lessons. These four lessons are also parables for the words like and parable are interchangeable. Matthew 13:53 proves this compatibility: “And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these parables, he departed thence.”
Not only this, but Jesus always used parables when speaking to the multitudes: “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them” [Mt 13:34]. This verse enables us to use His consistency as a tool to help determine which of His teachings are figurative and which ones are literal. This tool becomes essential when studying the four Gospels because most of His figurative teachings don’t use the word parable or the word like.
Even so, we must modify this rule for “without a parable” includes some with whom Jesus speaks who are not always among a multitude. These are the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and Lawyers, the religious leaders of that day. So then, any time Jesus is speaking to a multitude or to any of the religious leaders we know that whatever He says is a parable.
Now let’s consider a different situation: “But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” [Mr 4:34]. That is, Jesus usually waited until He was alone with His disciples before explaining the meanings of His parables.
When analyzing any text we must be careful because there are a few times when Jesus speaks parables to His disciples; and there are a few times [very few] when Jesus speaks “plain speech” to the multitudes. We will look at how He speaks in these various settings during the course of this lesson. Then we will look at some texts to show the power of this tool toward discerning figurative vs. literal texts. Symbols identify texts that contain parables; the complete absence of symbols identifies texts that contain plain speech.
Parables & Plain Speech to the Multitudes:
The Beatitudes in Mt-5 and Lk-6 show Jesus speaking to the multitudes using both parables and plain speech. In Mt 5:3-12, He speaks nine blessings using parables and plain speech. In Mt 5:13-16 His use of symbols identify these verses as parables. Then the complete absence of symbols in Mt 5:17-20 shows these verses as plain speech.
Beginning with Mt 5:21 the verses get more interesting. Jesus takes several of the plain speech Ten Commandments and uses them as parables. Thou shalt not kill [do no murder] is clearly plain speech— it means exactly what it says. However, Jesus uses this command as a parable to teach that undue anger is equivalent to murder.
Plain Speech & Parables to the Disciples:
When Jesus was alone with His disciple He explained the meanings of the parables He had spoken to the multitudes. In Mark 4:1-9, Jesus spoke the parable of The Sower to a great multitude. Then, after explaining why He speaks only parables to the multitudes, He interprets The Sower parable to the twelve [Mr 4:10-20].
Now turn to John 11:1-14 and read a text in which Jesus speaks to His chosen disciples via a parable. Read the full text then focus on 11:9 where He begins using symbols. Verses 9-11 introduce the symbols: walking, stumbling, day, light, night and sleep. It’s difficult to know how many of these symbols His disciples understood, but when Jesus said plainly in 9:14, “Lazarus is dead,” one would think that they should have understood all the symbols He had spoken up to that point.
One final point before seeing the tool at work: Some “Tools of the Trade” that help us understand the Scriptures are as laws not to be broken. Others can be both fixed and flexible. This is kind of like, “Never say never;” reason being, it’s difficult to put God in a box.
Using the Tool — Without a Parable Lazarus and the Rich Man – Lu 16:19-31
Read this text in your Bible. Is is a parable or is it plain speech? Some see this story as literal and preach and teach that all who don’t repent will end up with the rich man in eternal flames of hell. This does get many sinners to the altar, but is their message true? How can we know?
Begin with this question: “Is the story figurative or literal?” If figurative, the flame is symbolic and represents something other than literal fire; but if literal, the fire is real and their message is true. We can determine the status of the story by determining the status of the audience.
Now, we can only learn who the audience is from the scriptures before and or after the story. If the audience is a religious leader or a multitude, the story is a parable. But, if Jesus is telling the story when alone with His disciples, the story is most likely plain speech: yet, it could be a parable. In this instance, who’s the audience?
Read Lu 16:14: “And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: . . . .” This verse relates to what Jesus has just finished saying in Lu 16:1-13], but “them” in Lu 16:15 shows that the Pharisees are still in the audience after 16:14-18.
Are the Pharisees still present when Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Lu 16:19? There’s a major break in thought between verses 18 and 19. Look back and read the phrase “who were covetous” in Lk 16:14. Read the story of Lazarus again and notice that the Rich Man lives a covetous life. And not just this, but read the parable of another covetous rich man at the beginning of this chapter [Lu 16:1-13]. This entire chapter is about the 10th commandment— Thou shalt not covet.
Reviewing, Luke 16:1-13 tells of a steward who must give an account to a rich man to keep his job. Immediately after this Lu 16:14 reveals some Pharisees in the audience. Then Luke 16:15-18 shows Jesus rebuking these Pharisees for justifying themselves as the rich man had done.
Next let’s re-visit the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man [Lu 16:19-31]. Jesus might have had a different audience than suggested earlier because there’s nothing in Lu 16:14-18 about who’s hearing this story. However, a commonality in the two main stories, a covetous steward in the first and a covetous rich man in the second show that Jesus spoke to the same audience.
Having proved that the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a parable, you may be expecting to read the interpretation, i.e., what the symbols mean and how they apply to the real life of a covetous person. However, the purpose of this lesson is to teach the Tool and to show its use, and not to interpret this particular parable.
Using the Tool Jonah and the Whale — Mt 12:38-40
Verse-40 contains a mystery that has baffled Theologians for hundreds of years. Johah was in the belly of a whale for three full days and nights; Jesus was in the tomb for one full day and two nights. So how could Jesus liken His time in the earth to Jonah’s time in the whale’s belly?
The math simply doesn’t add up. Moreover, adding an extra Sabbath day doesn’t provide the answer and neither does all other proposed solutions. Clearly, Jesus was buried after the ninth hour [3PM – Mt 27:46] on a Friday afternoon and He arose the following Sunday morning before daybreak [John 20:1]. As already stated, He was in the earth for only one day and two nights.
You need only to read Mt 12:38-39 to begin the discovery of the answer. Christ’s audience includes scribes and Pharisees— men to whom Jesus spoke parables only. So here’s the rest of the story: Jonah is a symbol of Christ. Jonah’s time in the whale’s belly was a 3-days journey. Jesus’ time in the earth was a 3-days journey.
D1: Jonah cast overboard — Jesus on His Cross.
D2 Jonah in the whale — Jesus in the tomb.
D3: Jonah on the beach — Jesus resurrected.
As you can see, in both cases the 3 days represent the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So then, the answer to the mystery of Christ’s time in the heart of the earth is simply that Jesus spoke figuratively and not literally.