The Purpose of Parables (Mark 4:10-12)

In response to the question of why he teaches in parables, Jesus says “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.” (Mark 4:11-12)

Several questions arise from Jesus’ answer:

1. Does Jesus use parables to intentionally prevent some from seeing, hearing, repenting, etc.?

2. What exactly does the phrase “mystery of the kingdom of God” mean?

3. How does the “citation” of Isa 6:9 fit with the larger context of Mark?

4. How does the larger context of Mark illuminate Jesus’ statement here?

The floor is now yours …

10 thoughts on “The Purpose of Parables (Mark 4:10-12)”

  1. Ok… I’ll give it a shot:

    1) No, Jesus does not use parables to prevent some from seeing. Instead, he uses parables in order to demonstrate that some do not see.

    2) The “mystery of the kingdom of God” is that which has now been revealed about the kingdom of God… specifically in Mark that the kingdom of God is near in the person of Jesus Christ.

    3) This is a huge question. Depending on one’s view of Paul’s use of OT. I believe he is probably using it on two levels. First, the statement itself demonstrates that all will not be able to understand. Second, Is 6:9 points to the remnant. Taken together, it seems that Jesus is saying that only the “remnant” – that is, the true people of God? – will understand the parables.

    4) The larger context of Mark? Wow… good question. I’ll need much more time to think about that.


  2. I would like to answer your questions in reverse.

    4. In the book of Mark, Jesus seems to view his primary role as preacher/teacher. This is evidenced by the following: 1:14-15 – Jesus came preaching the gospel of God; 1:38 – And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; that is why I came out.”; 2:2 – and he was preaching the word to them; 2:13 – He went out again beside the sea; and all the crowd gathered about him, and he taught them.; 4:1 – Again he began to teach beside the sea; 6:34 – and he began to teach them many things; 10:1 – and again, as was his custom, he taught them

    In addition to his teaching, Mark also declares the authority of Jesus: over disciples (1:16-20), over truth (1:21-22), over demons (1:23-28, 32-34), over sickness (1:29-34, 40-45, 2:1-12, 7:31-37), over sins (2:1-12), over nature (4:35-41, 6:45-52), and over the law (2:17, 22, 27, 7:1-23).

    Mark uses the above (teaching and authority of Jesus) as the dividing line between God’s side and man’s side (8:33). For those who reject the teaching and authority of Jesus and evidence unbelief, even what they have is taken away (4:25). Examples of this include: people of the country of the Gerasenes (5:18), Jarius’ friends/family (5:40), people of Nazareth (6:1-6), those not excepting disciples (6:11), Pharisees (8:11-13), rich young ruler (10:17-22), chief priests/scribes/elders (11:27-33), Pharisees and Herodians, Sadducees, scribes (12:13-34), and Judas (14:17-21). For those who respond in faith, more is given (4:25) and they receive mercy. Examples of this include: Demoniac (5:1-20), woman with bleeding (5:25-34), Jairus (5:21-24, 35-43), Syrophonecian woman (7:24-30), Decapolis deaf/mute (7:31-35), father of demoniac boy (9:23-29), blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52), and Mary of Bethany (14:3-9).

    This larger context of Mark illuminates Jesus’ comment in 4:10-12 by showing how parables fit into the above mentioned scheme. They illustrate the teaching of Jesus and his authority over truth. They play a part in the “taking away” from those who do not believe as they do not understand the meaning, and in the “giving more” to those who believe as Jesus explains the meaning to them.

    3. This citation fits very well into the context of Mark. It lends support to the idea of “giving more” and “taking away” based on a person’s response to the teaching and authority of Jesus. It also roots this idea in one of the purposes of the Prophets and the prophetic literature. In addition to the quote in 4:12, he introduces the ministry of John the Baptist by quoting Is. 40:3 (1:2-3). He quotes Is. 29:13 to reveal the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (7:6-7). He quotes Is. 56:7 to judge the money changers/sellers in the temple (11:17). There is possibly a reference to the parable of the vineyard from Is. 5 found in the parable of the wicked tenants in 12:1-12. The use of Is. 6:9 seems to fit with the theme of prophetic judgement against unbelief.

    2. The “mystery” is something that cannot be understood without revelation from God. It is not something that can be discovered through the craftiness or wisdom of man apart from God. In this context, it seems to refer to Jesus giving the disciples a fuller understanding of the meaning of the parable so that they would understand the kingdom of God and how they were expected to function within it. This is supported in 4:22, “for there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” Disciples already have permanent possession (Robertson) of the kingdom “mystery”; even though they may not understand it completely. As this understanding is illumined by the Holy Spirit, they will proclaim it to the larger world.

    1. According to the way you have phrased this question, I would answer no. I would say that Jesus uses parables because that is what the people were able to hear (4:33). I also like Alan’s comment, “to demonstrate that some do not see.” I think there is definitely an element of judgement in Jesus’ use of parables; the “taking away” that I refered to earlier. This particular parable follows a series of rejections by the religious leaders, friends and family in Chs. 2 and 3; which occurred after clear demonstrations of his teaching and authority in Ch. 1. The idea of judgement is also supported by the explanations given the disciples that are not given to those “outside.” This “inside/outside” idea (i.e., those within the kingdom and those without) has an interesting illustration later in Mark with the story of Jairus. When Jesus and the three disciples arrive at the home of Jairus, the mourners mock Jesus when he says the daughter is asleep. In response, Jesus put the mockers “outside”, and took the faithful “inside” where he “added to their faith” by healing the daughter. This seems to illustrate the idea of judgment found in the current text.

  3. I think I will break the trend and answer “yes” to question 1. I actually think it is quite evident from the citation of Isaiah. The “seeing” and the “hearing” occur, but there is no “perceiving” or “understanding.” There is a distinction here between seeing/hearing on the one hand and perceiving/understanding on the other. But that’s not all. The remainder of the verse tells us what it means to perceive/understand: repenting. As such perception/understanding for Isaiah (and by implcation for Jesus) is not merely a cognitive understanding. It is more than mental assention, it is an action. To understand is to act.

    As a side note I think this lends some credibility to certain strands of reader response theories. Ok, if you could put the stones down for a moment I will explain: To grasp the “message” and “meaning” of a parable is to act. Hence, the authorial intent of Jesus (as discussed above) was to leave the parable open to recontextualization. So for me to truly understand the parable of the sower I must appropriate it to my situation and to my context. To fail to personally contextualize is to fail to perceive/understand. I might see/hear, but if the parable does not move me to action then there is no true understanding.

    So, if a parable must be personalized then the “meaning” is tied up with the subject. Hence meaning becomes subjective. A scary thought, I think.

  4. I’ve recently read through Mark a few times, and the phrase that came to mind was the enigma of the kingdom. So it seems 2&4 are hugely linked. Incidentally I think q.3 is too narrow. Isaiah crops up at many intriguing times through the book.

    Jesus bursts onto the scene as Christ and Son, but hold on…why does Satan suddenly show up? And why is God’s messenger getting arrested? (see juxtaposition in 1v11-15) then (ch.1-4) why are demons the only ones who know who Jesus is? I dont get it. Then 3v7-8v21 there’s a play off between the amazed crowds, the disciples and the mounting opposition. In context, Mark 4 draws us to listen to his words to the disciples and understand the reactions of others.

    Then after Peter’s confession, Jesus is all the more enigmatic as we can only half-see… indeed, frighteningly, we see the blindness of the disciples to the cross, and the ones who get in on Jesus’ secret kingdom arent the ones you’d expect, but the Son of David serves the blind beggar son of a nobody (10:46-51), and the stone the builders reject becomes the capstone (12:10-11) which is marvellous to see.

    Finally, as the story gets to a climax and the King enters Jerusalem he enters to die, indeed he’s enthroned on the cross (hugely ironic juxtaposition of “King of the Jews” repeating through 14-15)

    So I think the “secrets of the kingdom” are hugely significant. As a reader it drew me in, kept me reading – I just didnt get Jesus – and made me listen all the more to Jesus’ words to his disciples, whether they got them or not… Mark adds to this with his “let the reader understand” in 13:14 referring to Daniel 9, when “the Anointed One will be killed, appearing to have accomplished nothing” (NLT)

    In sum, just trying to read Mark without preconceptions, it seems the secret of the kingdom is the cross – that the King of the jews and king of the nations should be Isaiah’s suffering servant. That power should be in service.

    9:1 seems then to refer to the cross. That is the secret.

  5. Isaiah’s ministry was to deafen, blind and harden. Not unlike Isaiah it appears that Jesus has a similar ministry. Isaiah’s ministry revealed Immanuel, the remnant with whom YHWH remained. It appears that in the new exodus that Jesus is leading Israel out of – from sin, death and satan – that Jesus’ parables will be a means of bringing in or turning away people from his kingdom.

  6. Good comments! Now I’ll take my turn:

    1. Jesus’ uses of parables confirms the existing openeness or hardness of people towards God and his kingdom. Those who are receptive to that kingdom respond, but those who are already hardened are confirmed in their hardness of heart. The same was true in Isaiah’s day; his ministry was used by God to confirm the hardness of heart already present in Israel.

    2. The mystery of the kingdom is in fact bound up with the presence of Jesus the King. But it also has its roots in Daniel 2, where the same Greek word (mustarion) used here also occurs in the LXX to refer to the mystery of God establishing his own eternal kingdom.

    3. Jesus’ use of Isaiah 6:9 confirms that he is confronting a similar hard-heartedness as Isaiah did. As a result the judgment on hardened Israel will be the same in Jesus’ day as then – missing out on God’s purposes and kingdom. It also explains the “insiders-outsiders” theme in Mark; some understand and are “insiders” while others are hardened and remain “outside”

    4. The larger context of Mark makes it clear that Israel and her leadership have rejected God’s kingdom and Jesus as King. Eventually this hardness leads them to successfully seek his death, and in paradoxically doing so play a key role in key event in the kingdom – the vicarious death of the King for his people.

  7. I was wondering about this as well. Specifically the fact that in most translations, the word “otherwise” is not used. The word “lest” is used instead and this is where things seem to get a little tricky.

    Many confuse lest to mean “unless” however my New Testament professor explained that I was having an issue with the english language and it actually means “for fear that” ( suggesting that Jesus had an exclusive message, one that was not meant to be heard by many others for fear that they might return/convert/turn and be forgiven.

    Does anyone have a comment on this? I don’t think that Jesus was trying to hide the message of his Kingdom, but the use of “lest” for many seems to advocate an intentional prevention of seeing, hearing, and repenting…


  8. Well, this is just for the first point. I think that when Jesus says ‘you’ he refers too all those who are along with him i.e. people who believed what he spoke and abandoned wordly things etc. So for them, the ‘Kingdom of God’ is given. Mystery may refer to its existence and their understaning of it. The Jews at that time had different perceptions of the KoG.
    1) God would wipe out everyone other than the Jews (his chosen people) and rule with them.
    2) A warrior would come – the Messiah – who would defeat the Romans and make Israel a untited people once more, simiar to what King David did.
    So, for the Jews/ Israelites, they held a very different view on what the KoG was, when compared to what Jesus was teaching. Through Jesus, we realise that the KoG is somewhere God is present, such as in our hearts. If God is present in our hearts we live the way he wants us to – follow the commandment (old and new), follow the beatitudes etc. Thus, creating a world based on LOVE, the KoG. This is followed by the arrival of God at the end of time to defeat evil etc etc
    Now, when Jesus said this he referred to those who HAD understood what we do now. When he says ‘those who are outside’, he refers to hard hearted people like the Pharisees, basically those who are outside his “circle”. Those who do not WANT to accept his teachings. For them, they see the parables as stories. Forms of mere entertainment. They can hear everything those who have accepted Jesus can, they can see everything the believers can YET they do not understand.
    We can think of it like a code. Assuming I write a complex code in a very simple form – LOST: A blue sweater with a sparkly snowflake on the front. Now I send it out very publically, in the form of a newspaper ad. Though this message is visible to multitudes and all are capable of seeing this message, only those who know me and know what I am really trying to say will understand the message. Each simple word may stand for something more complex JUST like in a parable. The simple story has a deeper meaning. The message is for everyone but only those who have accepted Jesus and his message can decipher the parable. To others, it is nothing more than a story.
    ‘SO THAT’ is said to say that Jesus speaks in parables to stop the mesage of God being spoon fed to the people. If it was just given, the Pharisees may use it in a political sense against Jesus or the people may just take for granted what he is saying. When he speaks in parables he makes the people really think about what he is trying to say. Only those who have really opened their hearts get the message. The rest may see and discard it as a story. No further harm (other than their one way ticket to misery) done, i.e. Those who are worthy understand, those who arent can do no harm to Jesus by condemning him for telling stories like they could have done if Jesus said, ‘I AM THE SON OF GOD, THE MESSIAH YOU ALL HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR’. Immediately, the Pharisees would have condemned him for blasphemy etc.
    ‘OTHERWISE’: This word simply means, that if those who ‘WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND’ did otherwise from what they are doing would turn and return. Jesus is stating that the ones on the outside do so and so, otherwise (if they were not the way they are and turned to God), they’d return and be forgiven.

    Though these particular verses may seem extremely confusing and baffling, they were actually even to me until just now, it all depends on the way they are read. The same sentence can mean two completely diff things. Like the joke: An English professor wrote the words, “Woman without her man is nothing” on the blackboard and directed his students to punctuate it correctly.

    The men wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

    The women wrote: “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”



  9. Words in general are inneficient for communication. That being said, God’s word is used to communicate to us all, and He uses it at will to communicate different things to different people with the same words. The kingdom of God is a mystery until you have seen Him and know Him by personal experience of His communicating to you again and again. He opens the meanings of the parables to you as you have need. Some of the parables seem obvious, and yet over time, additional meaning may be revealed to you personally. No one who is an unbeliever will ever understand the kingdom or His word as it is nonsense to them. If God is a concept rather than a loved being that you surrender to and make your king, you just won’t “get it”

    As a side note, the great and terrible day of the Lord is coming. Elijah will come again (Malachi). He & the Holy Spirit will turn some back to God, and those that will not turn will go through the final hardening of their hearts towards God. This will also entail a final fulfilling of the texts quoted. Expect this soon.

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