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The Parable of Parables

Posted on September 9, 2017 by paulyrussell

By Paul Russell and Mark Russell

Theologians throughout the church age have wrestled with parables and their meanings
yet they continue to defy a consensus in this regard among scholars today. This is due in
part to the nature of what the parables are. According to Jesus’ own words in Matthew 13,
the parables describe secrets, secrets concerning the Kingdom of God.

He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but
not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does
not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is
fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will
be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly
hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal
them.’ Matthew 13:11-15

Parables are specifically intended to work this way in order for their meaning to remain
hidden to those who are not truly part of the Kingdom, while those who are a part of the
Kingdom can come to understand them. This does not mean that those inside the Kingdom
know their meanings simply based on their citizenship; the parables contain secrets
whether one is in the Kingdom or not. The difference is that those in the Kingdom are given
the knowledge that is the key to unlock the doors of these secrets. So the real question is
what is this “knowledge” that will unlock the secrets?

Part of the answer is the role that the Holy Spirit plays in the life of the believer. Even if a
non-Christian came to understand the meaning of a particular parable, he could not realize
the significance of it nor care to embrace it. Paul even says he will think of it as foolishness
(1 Cor. 2:14). A good example of this is a non-Christian can know the meaning of the
Parable of the Sower simply by reading Jesus’ interpretation, but it will not carry with it
any lasting or life changing impact nor will he see the value of the interpretation apart from
the work of the Holy Spirit. Another example is the Parable of the Tenant in Matt. 21:33-46,
which ends by saying,
“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking
about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because
the people held that he was a prophet.” (Vs. 45-46)

Although they knew Jesus had spoken the parable about them, they not only refused to
believe it, but were so offended by his assertions they began to turn on him, which
ultimately led to the fulfillment of this prophetic parable!

Those outside the Kingdom have not put their trust in Christ; therefore, the Holy Spirit does
not minister to them by way of illuminating the scripture. This is the meaning of Christ’s
words in Matthew 13:16,

“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.”

The Holy Spirit gives understanding to the believer, making them able to perceive the
meaning of scripture and ultimately to accept the knowledge from them, including the
parables.

“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We
continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and
understanding that the Spirit gives…” Colossians 1:9

This “knowledge” given by the Holy Spirit is intended to shape the believer increasingly
into the image of Christ. However, the believer needs to understand the meaning of a
particular parable before the Holy Spirit will use it to shape his or her character. Therefore
it is critical to have a methodology of interpretation to unlock the secrets of the parables.
We need to know how to interpret and understand their meanings.

The word “parable” means “to cast alongside”, so the true meaning of a parable should
correspond or parallel the given story. Jesus uses stories that we can understand to
describe concepts that are unknown. The parables are analogical in nature. Ideas that we
are familiar with in nature such as agriculture, the animal world, human nature etc. serve
to help us understand and relate to truths in the spiritual realm. An example of this is
when Jesus describes to Nicodemus what it means to be “born of God” in John 3:1-21, he
appeals to physical birth, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John
3:6). Christ appeals to something we all are familiar with to describe something that is
difficult to understand by comparing a woman in childbirth to the Holy Spirit giving
spiritual life to a person. He goes on to point to events in nature to analogously describe the
workings of the Holy Spirit in the process of being born of God:

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes
from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:8
Even though these examples are not parables, they serve to make the point that Christ uses
things we are familiar with to teach us spiritual truths. Parables work in a similar way and
yet remain secrets. Parables are assembled by words and concepts like these and tell a
story that has some parallel meaning behind it. Not all parables are created equal so the
interpretation of one parable may be pretty easy and right on the surface while another
parable may be quite difficult and require much study and investigation. So this leads us to
the next obvious question: How are parables to be interpreted? Is there a particular
methodology that we can employ consistently to help us unlock the meanings of the
parables?

In order to pursue the answer to this question, we turn our attention to something
provocative Jesus says in regards to his disciples’ inability to understand a particular
parable. After describing certain aspects about the Kingdom of God using the Parable of the
Sower, Jesus says in Mark 4:13,

“Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (ESV)

What does he mean by these questions? He seems to be rebuking the disciples for their
inability to figure the parable out for themselves. Walter W. Wessel in his commentary on
Mark says, “There is a slight rebuke in Jesus’ statement. The implication is that the meaning
of the parable of the sower was clear and understandable. If the disciples could not
understand this clear parable, how would they understand more obscure ones?” At first
glance this just does not seem like a fair rebuke. Jesus, who is God incarnate, filled with the
Holy Spirit, pokes his slightly disadvantaged disciples for their inability to understand this
“clear” parable. Jesus does seem to be implying they should have known the meaning, but
not necessarily because it was clear. If Christ did not interpret this parable for the apostles,
the church would most likely still be wrestling with its meaning! As was pointed out earlier,
parables are hidden secrets and need discovery. He seems to be suggesting they should
have known “how” to discover the meaning of the parable. If they did not know “how” to
discover the meaning, they would not be able to understand it or any of the rest of the
parables! At this point it is crucial to explore what Christ means in Mark 4:13.

Jesus proceeds to give the answer to “what” the parable means, and in the process, shows
them “how” to understand all parables which addresses his second question in Mark 4:13,
“How then will you understand any parable? He does this in 2 ways: by assigning specific
meanings to several elements in the story; for example, the birds are Satan, the seed is the
Word of God, the ground is the heart of men, etc., and by deductive reasoning.

Regarding the first aspect of interpreting parables, which we will spend a considerable
amount of time on, the assigning of specific meanings to symbols is not all that new of a
concept. Many theologians have suggested this is the way it is done. In a current Christian
College text book on Biblical Interpretation, the authors offer an example of Augustine’s
teaching on the Parable of the Good Samaritan as “Exhibit A” in how not to interpret the
parables:

The man going down to Jericho = Adam

Jerusalem = heavenly city from which he fell

Jericho = the moon (signifying Adam’s mortality)

robbers = the devil and his angels

stripping him = taking away his immortality

beating him = persuading him to sin

leaving him half-dead = as a man lives, but is dead spiritually, therefore he is half dead

priest and Levite = priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament

the Samaritan = Christ himself

binding of the wounds = binding the restraint of sin

wine = exhortation to work with fervent spirit

beast = flesh of Christ’s incarnation

the inn = the church

two denarii = promise of this life and life to come

innkeeper = the apostle Paul


We would agree and yet disagree with the author’s assessment of Augustine’s attempt. We
would agree that he misses on the meaning of the parable, but we would disagree that his
assigning meaning to the different symbols is the wrong way to interpret.

The Church has witnessed not only plenty of misses with this type of attempt at
interpretation, but plenty of abuses as well. Just one example from church history should
serve to demonstrate this point. Pope Innocent, in seeking to strengthen and justify the
Church’s power over the state, said in a Letter to the prefect Acerbius and the nobles of
Tuscany in 1198, writes,

“Just as the founder of the universe established two great lights in the firmament of heaven,
the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night, so too He set two great
dignities in the firmament of the universal church…, the greater one to rule the day, that is,
souls, and the lesser to rule the night, that is, bodies. These dignities are the papal authority
and the royal power. Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed
lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power
derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority” (Powel, 2004 , p. 13).

This is an obvious example of eisegesis, or reading something into the text. With a lack of
some type of rule or methodology, many bible expositors of the past have been left to their
own devices in determining a meaning of the parables and, unfortunately, some have even
twisted them for their own political or selfish agendas. To guard against this type of
speculation and deception, some modern scholars have swung the other way over-
correcting to the point that they hardly think there is any specific meaning to the symbols
at all, but only a spiritual principle that can be drawn. More will be said later on this.

This void of standardization in methodology still persists today considering the fact that
there remains a lack of consensus in the meanings of the parables. Many modern scholars
and commentators teach that “context” is the primary driver in determining the meaning of
a parable (Duvall, J. S., & Hays, J. D., 2012). Although context is important, there is no
evidence that it is the most important factor in discovery. In fact, it can sometimes mislead
in understanding the meaning of the parables as will be demonstrated. The primary driver
when interpreting parables is to discover what the symbols are. This, in fact, is where the
interpreter should start. Just like if someone was putting a puzzle together they would grab
the most obvious pieces first such as the corner pieces or the outer edges, the symbols
should be the first step. This is what Jesus does in the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of
the Weeds, and partially in the Parable of the Net. Augustine was attempting to follow
Christ’s example in assigning specific meaning to each of the symbols in the parable. Where
he went wrong (we believe) is “how” he went about assigning meaning. His attempt can be
reduced to simply guessing at the specific meaning of each symbol. Although his
interpretation may seem to fit the parable itself and does not necessarily contradict what is
taught in Scripture overall, because of the lack of methodology the results are simply
speculation. This leads us back to Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples. If he expected them to
know the meaning of his parables, they had to have the same access that he himself had in
determining the meaning of the symbols, otherwise his rebuke is simply unfair and
unwarranted. This is the theory of this article, that they did have the same access. Jesus was
trying to reveal this to them while at the same time teach them the methodology to
interpret all the other parables. If this theory is correct, then the information needed for
discovery has to be found in the Scriptures themselves and in his disciples’ case, the Old
Testament. This is why we refer to the Parable of the Sower as the “Parable of Parables”
and this for at least 2 reasons. The first is that it has been constructed by Christ out of
existing material including symbols from the Old Testament. We think the Lord did not use
a casual event like the sowing of a field in the springtime as is so often suggested in the
literature as the source material for this parable. Rather it was constructed deliberately by
Christ from the perfect Word of God as expressed in the Old Testament scriptures.
Secondly, it is the archetypal parable which holds the key to understanding all other
parables. If we can reverse engineer the ways in which the Lord comes to his conclusions
regarding the meanings of the different symbols, we can begin to understand the method
he is revealing to us in how to approach all parables.

When considering the parables, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the culture of Jesus’
time was steeped in its knowledge of the Old Testament. Contrast this with our modern
perspective, the Old Testament is not nearly as familiar and in some circles dismissed as
irrelevant or even avoided. Some schools of thought believe the Old Testament was meant
only for the nation of Israel. This may be the reason this rebuke seems so unjust to our
modern ears, but is actually quite fair in light of the exposure to the Old Testament his
disciples would have had. Along with parables being analogous in essence in that they
reflect spiritual truths from our realities seen in nature, the Holy Spirit has authored the
writings of the Old Testament in such a way as to leave behind clues or keys through
symbols to help unlock the meaning of parables. Jesus reaches back to these keys
(symbols), as well as his use of reason, to not only assemble the Parable of the Sower and
other parables, but goes on to decipher it and unlock its meaning.

At this point there needs to be some attention paid to some critiques to this sort of
interpretive method. Some theologians feel that because a certain symbol can have
different meanings, the symbol really cannot be known due to the lack of consistency. Take
for example the symbol of water; it can mean the Word of God (Ephesians 5:25-26) or it
can mean the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39) or it can mean some sort of trouble or trials (Psalm
69:1-2). This is an odd criticism for at least three reasons:

1) This position is all but arguing that because a symbol can have different meanings, it
essentially has “no” meaning. This does not logically follow and is essentially a non
sequitur. The opposite would seem to be more logical, namely that because a symbol can
have multiple meanings, any unknown symbol probably has a meaning as well! To simply
argue that because a particular word can have several meanings does not logically follow
that its meaning cannot be known, it simply means we have to have some way of
determining its meaning.
2) There are many languages where a certain word has different meanings, but we don’t
take the same stance in these cases do we? Take for example the English word right, it can
mean something that is true or moral; or it can mean a location or direction as in “go right
instead of left”; or it can mean an interest or entitlement, such as an “inalienable right”. The
same is true with Greek words in which we get our New Testament. Words are containers
or vessels for ideas and concepts. What determines the actual meaning of a particular word
is how it is used in a particular context. The same is true with symbolic words. They too,
contain concepts or ideas even though they can be a bit more cryptic than words we are
familiar with in our own language. We need to study the context in which they are used in
order to understand all possible meanings so that we can determine their actual meaning
in a specific passage.

3) Jesus teaches us that symbolic words have a range of meaning. This is the reason he
interprets the Parable of the Wheat and Tares for us and this is why, we believe, Jesus
interprets 2 parables for us. In the first parable, the Parable of the Sower, Jesus is teaching
us the methodology used to interpret the symbols as he is giving us the meaning of it. In the
Parable of the Wheat and Tares, Jesus is not only teaching the meaning of it, but also he is
showing us that symbols can have a range of meaning. In the Parable of the Sower, the seed
represents the Word of God while in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, the seed
represent the “sons of the kingdom”. Although there is a difference in the meanings of the
symbols, they are not totally unrelated, though, as the “sons of the kingdom” are those who
have seed of the Word of God in them.

Let us now turn our attention to the Parable of the Sower and see if we can understand
how Christ is determining the specific meanings to the different symbols.

“Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that
he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the
land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to
them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the
path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not
have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun
rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns,
and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good
soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a
hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him
hear.” Mark 4:1-9 (ESV)

In Mark 4:13-20, Jesus interprets the Parable of the Sower by assigning specific meanings
to several symbols,

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all
the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the
word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is
sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear
the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for
a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they
fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but
the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in
and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are
the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a
hundredfold.”

This parable has some easy symbols and some that are a bit harder. It also has some
symbols that seem to need to be reasoned or deduced. We will start with the easier ones
and progress from there to see if we can understand his interpreting method more clearly.

Some Symbols are Directly Interpreted

Sometimes in any given parable, a symbol will have a very direct interpretation in another
passage of scripture. For example, Jesus interprets for us the first phrase “the farmer sows
the word” from the symbol of the “seed”. If we look back in the Old Testament and see
where this symbol is used, we come to a passage that should have been very familiar to his
hearers found in Isaiah 55:10-11,

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering
the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for
the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but
will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

In this passage the Word of God is likened to three things: rain and snow (water), seed, and
bread. This is an example of where the meaning of the symbol is somewhat easy due to the
use of Hebrew parallelism. To confirm this understanding and the consistency of this
interpretation, the Apostle Paul, who is very familiar with this symbolism, incorporates the
same ideas in 1 Corinthians 3:6,

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”

Peter, as well, is consistent in his understanding when he writes,


“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living
and enduring word of God.” 1 Peter 1:23

The next symbol that seems not too difficult to understand after some word study is the
meaning of the symbol for the “ground”. In Mark’s version of the Parable of the Sower,
Jesus’ interpretation reads,

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it,

Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.” (Mark 4:15)

While Matthew’s version reads,

“When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one
comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.” (Matthew 13:19)

So when the seed is sow along the path or ground, the different gospels describe it as being
sow in them (people) or in their heart. Starting in the Book of Genesis to understand this
symbol, we are told “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground…” (Gen.
2:7) and also “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). So sometimes
the ground is a symbol for man or mankind. For more confirmation, consider what God
says in the curse of the Serpent,

“Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust all the days of your life”. (Gen. 3:14)

Also, a similar idea is found in Isaiah,

“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox,but dust will
be the serpent’s food.” Isaiah 65:25

It is not very clear how the literal species of snakes are cursed from their former state in
that they now literally “eat dust” because they do not eat dust, they eat small rodents!
Though they might get dust in their mouths as they eat their prey or because they move
along the ground, this is not what is meant by this type of language. We must keep in mind
the actual curse was on the devil, and he is the one who “eats dust”! A New Testament
parallel that is found in 1 Peter 5:8 and should help us with this idea,

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking
for someone to devour.”
So the idea of the serpent “eating dust” is the same as what it means for the lion to “devour
someone”. So the ground can be a symbol of man, but because Matthew’s version of Christ’s
interpretation uses the word “heart”, it refers to a passage in the Old Testament that his
disciples would be very familiar with,

“If you will return, O Israel, return to me,” declares the LORD. “If you put your detestable idols
out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear,
‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will
glory.” This is what the LORD says to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem: “Break up your
unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD,
circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out
and burn like fire because of the evil you have done”. Jeremiah 4:1-4

Israel was influenced by the world around them; consequently, they drifted away and
rebelled against God. Their hearts had become calloused and hard so the Lord was reaching
out to them, warning them through the prophet, Jeremiah, to repent and return to him. This
is the idea behind “circumcising themselves” and “circumcising their hearts” to the Lord; to
return and repent. He likens the symbolism of breaking up their “unplowed ground” to
“circumcising their hearts” by utilizing Hebrew parallelism. So this is a clear reference to
the ground representing the hearts of people that Jesus uses to not only assemble the idea
in the Parable of the Sower, but also interpret it. Notice the command not to sow among the
thorns in Jeremiah 4:1-4. In the Parable of the Sower, the farmer ends up sowing among the
thorns and the plant is choked out. More will be said on this symbol later.

So from these 2 symbols we can see that Christ interprets them directly by appealing to
passages in the Old Testament with the known symbols. So this should be the first step in
trying to discover the meaning of a symbol by way of a word study. We need to see if there
are symbols interpreted for us already in other parts of scripture and see if they work
within the context of the parable we are studying.

Some symbols need to be logically deduced

Sometimes a symbol might not have an easy interpretation already found in the Scriptures
and may need to be logically deduced. Satan represented by birds seems to be an example
of this because birds are usually symbols for people when studying how it is used. This
symbol is a little more difficult to see how Christ came to this conclusion. If we cannot find
a symbol that is already interpreted for us by the Scriptures, the next step would most
likely be to try to reason them out. In this case it is a very common scene in nature where
birds eat seeds on a daily basis prohibiting their chance to sprout and grow. So, we can look
at this from an analogical perspective and simply reason that this symbol of birds is Satan
because he would ultimately be the one responsible for stealing the word of God from the
hearts of man. Who else would steal God’s word from man? We can also look back in the
Old Testament to see this played out in a demonstrable way in the fall of man,
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He
said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The
woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say,
‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not
touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God
knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing
good and evil.” Gen. 3:1-5

Satan steals the word of God away from Eve by subtly deceiving her into not believing what
God had said. So sometimes a symbol can be deduced by thinking analogously about what
we see in nature. We can also search the Scriptures for a concrete example of it as in this
case. This process of discovering the meaning of a symbol will be used by the disciples
themselves and will be shone later to confirm this step in interpreting symbols. As a follow
on to the idea of the symbol of birds usually representing people, Satan does not usually
communicate to people these days like it seems he did with Eve, though he still steals the
word of God from people. The typical way he accomplishes this is through other people.
Consider the words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse warning his disciples about the coming
of false prophets,

At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.
For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to
deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. “So if anyone
tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do
not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be
the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will
gather. Matt. 24:23-28

Jesus is, in effect, equating false Christs and false prophets who will come and deceive
many, to the vultures who gather around the carcass or “dead body” as Luke 17:37
translates it. The dead body is referring to the “spiritually dead” or a body of people
without the Spirit of God, the non-elect, who are vulnerable to being deceived. The vultures
or false prophets feed off of or prey upon the undiscerning to draw followers after
themselves. This is ultimately the work of Satan for we are told that he comes to “steal and
kill and destroy” (John 10:10) and that he is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Satan
using people, namely false teachers, is taught in several places in the New Testament. In
John 8:44, Jesus says of the Pharisees,

“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a
murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he
lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Paul describes so called “super-apostles” who had infiltrated the Corinthian Church this
way in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15,
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And
no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his
servants masquerade as servants of righteousness”.

Finally in 1 Timothy 4:1-2, we read,

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith by
devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of
liars whose consciences are seared…”

So ultimately Satan is responsible for stealing the Word of God from people whether he
directly does it or he does it using other people.

Some Symbols are interpreted by using both methods described above

In this next section we will jump ahead in the parable to see what we feel is an example of
Christ using both methods of finding symbols already interpreted and deduction in
determining their meaning. In Mark 4:6, Jesus goes on to say,

“But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no
root.”

Jesus’ interpretation continues in Mark 4:17,

“When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.”

In Luke 8:13, his version of Jesus’ interpretation reads,

“Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they
have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”

Jesus compares the heat from the sun to times of testing through trouble and persecution
that comes because of the word. Looking back in the Old Testament, there are no passages
that directly equate the idea of scorching and withering of plants to mean trouble or
persecution, though there might be some that hint of it. The point is there may be times in a
parable that a symbol may not have a directly interpreted key and its meaning may simply
need to be deduced or reasoned out when using some symbols that can be discovered. With
this in mind, there is a similar reference using a plant analogy to describe the relationship
of one who trusts in God found in Jeremiah 17:8,
“He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.It does not
fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”

The heat mentioned in this passage has the potential to cause fear and worries, but the one
who is like this tree trusts the Lord and will continue to bear fruit.

So in Psalm 84:11 we can understand what the sun refers to,

For the LORD God is a sun and shield…

Also in Malachi 4:2,

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.

Two passages will help to shed more light on the idea of heat representing the testing of the
Lord,

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart. Proverbs 17:3

See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of
affliction. Isaiah 48:10

These passages suggest that just as the crucible and furnace generate heat, so does the
testing of the Lord. In the Parable of the Sower, trouble and persecution are the tests (the
heat) that scorch and wither the plant. In Numbers 33:55, the Lord warns the people that
they would suffer trouble because of their testimony if they did not drive out the
inhabitants of the land completely,

“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become
barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where
you will live.”

Because of Israel’s rebellion and eventual conforming to the nations around them, the Lord
declares He would use the other nations to test them,
“Because this nation has violated the covenant that I laid down for their forefathers and has
not listened to me, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when
he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD
and walk in it as their forefathers did.” Judges 2:19-22

The book of Job is the quintessential testimony of somebody surviving some of the most
severe trouble and persecution associated with his profession of faith. The Lord takes the
ultimate responsibility for these trials in his response to the devil in Job 2:3,

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth
like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still
maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any
reason.”

Job’s response to his wife in the aftermath of his trials shows his insightful perspective on
the situation after she urges him to abandon his faith,

His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” He replied,
“You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” Job
2:9-10

From this section of the parable we have to reason out its’ meaning using a combination of
parallel passages, already interpreted symbols and deduction. By the way, once a symbol is
interpreted in a certain parable or symbolic portion of scripture, it can become a key in
understanding another portion of scripture. An example of this is found in the Book of
Revelations where we read,

Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and
he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never
again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching
heat.” Revelation 7:15-16

We can now understand this passage in Revelation to mean there will no longer be any
testing through trouble or persecution in heaven from our understanding of the Parable of
the Sower due to the interpretation Christ gives us. As we unlock passages with symbols in
them, it could serve to help in other passages.

After identifying the symbol we can draw a conclusion, consequence or spiritual


principle
In the next section we will go back to the passages concerning the seed sown among the
thorns and the rocky places. Here, Jesus seems to be doing something different because we
believe he does not directly interpret the thorns and rocky places for us. Let’s start by
studying the symbol of thorns and see if we can determine what it generally means. You
may recall the quote that was used above in Jeremiah 4:3,

This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem: “Break up your unplowed
ground and do not sow among thorns.

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were warned over and over about completely
clearing the land of its inhabitants so as not to be influenced by them and ultimately drawn
away from the Lord. In Numbers 33:55, the Lord says it this way,

“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become
barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you
will live.”

In Joshua 23:12 we read,

But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain
among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, then you may be
sure that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they
will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you
perish from this good land, which the LORD your God has given you.

The Israelites fail in their attempts to remain faithful to the Lord so He gives them over in
Judges 2:3,

Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your
sides and their gods will be a snare to you.

The influence from the nations served to “choke” the word of God out of Israel’s life of
devotion to the Lord. This influence becomes so great that the people of God succumb and
eventually become like them. When commissioning Ezekiel to speak to Israel, the Lord
describes

His people this way,

“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against
me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom
I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD
says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will
know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or
their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live
among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a
rebellious house”. Ezekiel 2:3-
6

Eventually there will come a time when this prophecy in Ezekiel 28:24 will come to pass,

No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and
sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign LORD.

Even in the New Testament this symbol seems consistent, take for example what we read
in Matthew 7:15-16,

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are
ferocious wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn
bushes, or figs from thistles?”

In this passage Jesus likens the false prophets to wolves, and thorn and thistles. So thorns
and briers are consistent symbols of people who are unbelievers. The Parable of the Weeds
confirms this as well (Matt.13:24-30 and 13:36-43). The Apostle Paul, who was again, very
familiar with this use of language and symbols, incorporates it to describe a situation he
found himself in. In 2 Corinthians 12: 7 we read,

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there
was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

Many Bible commentators speculate that this may have been a physical ailment of some
sort or even a temptation to some form of sin. However, due to his vast knowledge of the
Old Testament, Paul is more than likely using similar language to describe a person who
made his life miserable. He even claims it is a “messenger” of Satan, who is the one
responsible for sowing weeds in the Parable of the Weeds! A messenger is usually a person
so this is more than likely the meaning Paul was trying to convey.

In the Parable of the Sower, the seed that is sown among the thorns is choked and made
unfruitful. However, we seem to have a dilemma. Christ identifies the symbol of thorns in
Mark 4:19 as,

“the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things…”
If thorns are usually symbols for people, why is Christ interpreting them as “the worries of
this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things…”? Because of this
apparent dilemma we need to ask ourselves a question. What is he doing here? Is Christ
trying to help us or confuse us? We must believe Christ is helping us (or better steering us)
because God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). Is Christ interpreting the
symbol for us or something else? We believe that he is doing something else, specifically
steering us to a result or conclusion. Often times when we come to an apparent road block
we need to ask ourselves questions like these because this may be a red flag to try to get us
to think about what he may be doing. In scripture, the people of the world have their minds
consumed by these things like “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the
desires for other things…” (Matthew 6:31-32). We believe Christ is not directly interpreting
the symbol itself, but interprets the effect from the influence of worldly people or those
outside the Kingdom of God. Like a weed or thorn is to a plant are worldly people to people
of the Kingdom. Why does he do this? Why not interpret the symbol directly as he did with
the seed being the Word of God or the ground being the hearts of men? We believe here
that Christ is teaching us that once we understand what the symbol is, we can now better
understand the consequence, the resulting effect, or draw a spiritual principle. More will be
said about this later.

The next type of ground where the word is sown is among rocky places. This symbol seems
to get a bit harder than the others. To help us understand the meaning of this symbol and
what Christ is doing, we need to start by doing a study on the word “rock”. In Job 8:13–19
there is a passage with some interesting parallels that can serve to start us in the right
direction which reads,

” Such is the destiny of all who forget God; so perishes the hope of the godless… He is like a
well-watered plant in the sunshine, spreading its shoots over the garden; it entwines its
roots around a pile of rocks and looks for a place among the stones. But when it is torn
from its spot, that place disowns it and says, ‘I never saw you.’ Surely its life withers away, and
from the soil other plants grow.”

This symbol regarding a “pile of rocks” or “stones” is mentioned more than may be realized
and can be glossed over without knowing it. Some examples should serve to demonstrate
this.

“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a
fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He
built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good
grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” Isaiah 5:1-2

“Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the
highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.” Isaiah 62:10
“Like wild donkeys in the desert, the poor go about their labor of foraging food; the wasteland
provides food for their children. They gather fodder in the fields and glean in the vineyards of
the wicked. Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked; they have nothing to cover
themselves in the cold. They are drenched by mountain rains and hug the rocks for lack of
shelter.” Job 24:5-8

At first glance, these passages may simply give the impression that these are tedious
obstacles to contend with while completing major projects (such as planting a vineyard or
building a highway) or emphasizing tough living conditions (finding relief from the
weather). If we can understand the meaning of the symbol of rocks, we should be able to
understand many of these other passages. The following parable in Jeremiah 13:1-10
should give more insight into understanding the meaning of the symbols for rocks and
stones,

“This is what the LORD said to me: “Go and buy a linen belt and put it around your waist, but
do not let it touch water.” So I bought a belt, as the LORD directed, and put it around my
waist. Then the word of the LORD came to me a second time: “Take the belt you bought and
are wearing around your waist, and go now to Perath and hide it there in a crevice in the
rocks.” So I went and hid it at Perath, as the LORD told me. Many days later the LORD said to
me, “Go now to Perath and get the belt I told you to hide there.” So I went to Perath and dug
up the belt and took it from the place where I had hidden it, but now it was ruined and
completely useless. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “This is what the LORD says: ‘In
the same way I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. These wicked
people, who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts and go
after other gods to serve and worship them, will be like this belt—completely useless!”

The Lord likens the belt being hidden among the rocks and eventually ruined to Israel
going after other gods or idols. In other words, the rocks and stones are pictures or
symbols of idols! Other passages should serve to confirm this:

“My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites,
Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods
or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred
stones to pieces.” Exodus 23:23-24

“Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they
will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut
down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is
Jealous, is a jealous God. ” Exodus 34:12-14

“Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a
carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 26:1
“They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned
their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save
us!’ Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you
when you are in trouble!” Jeremiah 2:27-28

“└ The idols ┘ among the smooth stones of the ravines are your portion; they, they are
your lot. Yes, to them you have poured out drink offerings and offered grain offerings. In the
light of these things, should I relent?” Isaiah 57:6

“I will destroy your carved images and your sacred stones from among you; you will no
longer bow down to the work of your hands.” Micah 5:13

So in the Job 8:13-15 passage cited earlier, when it says “it entwines its roots around a
pile of rocks and looks for a place among the stones, they are embracing idols or false
gods! In the Isaiah passages about clearing and removing the stones, it is speaking about
removing the idols from the land. In the Job 24:5-8 passage earlier, those who are poor and
naked, who hug the rocks for lack of shelter, cling to idols. Notice the Lords rebuke of his
people in Deuteronomy 32:37-38,

“He will say: “Now where are their gods, the rock they took refuge in, the gods who ate the fat
of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offerings? Let them rise up to help you!
Let them give you shelter!”

So when Jesus describes seed that was sown among “rocky places”, he is describing people
who hear the word but who have idols in their lives, or are influenced by people who trust
in idols rather than on the one true God. They have no root in the God of the scriptures, and
trust in a god of their own making or imagination. Jesus goes on to describe this ground as
although the seed may sprout, it lasts only a short time. When their idols fail to help them,
sustain them, provide for them in times of trouble or persecution, they end up losing their
faith.

Again, this symbol is not directly interpreted by Christ as “idols”, but he seems to be
interpreting the effect, result or spiritual principle that can be drawn from the influence of
idols in the lives of those who initially believe. He does this, we believe, as an example of
once the symbol is understood, then we can come to some conclusions concerning the
purpose or meaning of the passage.

At the conclusion of Christ’s interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, he describes a plant
that grows to become fruitful, 30, 60 and 100 times what was sown. This is probably the
most recognizable symbol in that it is found several places in the Old Testament. Probably
the most familiar passage is Psalm 1:1-3,
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of
sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he
meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit
in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers”.

Just to sum up the Parable of the Sower, there are three obstacles that those in the Kingdom
of God will struggle with as the nation of Israel struggled with. Their history is parabolic in
a sense to the journey of the church (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:6 and 11). The three
obstacles include: the enemy stealing God’s Word through doubts or false teaching, their
spiritual life choked out by worldliness, and lack of perseverance and apostasy due to
idolatry. These obstacles will usually come through the influence of the other people. Only
those who have separated themselves and their hearts to the Lord, who bear fruit in their
lives, will ultimately be saved.

In Christ’s interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, he interprets the seed as the word
and the ground as the hearts of men directly, but he does not directly interpret the rest of
the symbols. Why is this? It is most likely that the two symbols that are directly interpreted
are found in such familiar passages, that this should have gotten the disciple’s attention and
alerted them to those passages. This would have shown them that the meanings of the
symbols are already interpreted for them in the Old Testament. As for the rest of the
symbols, Jesus seems to allow more room for discovery by giving the conclusion or results
or spiritual principle of the different influences on those who hear or receive the Word of
God. For example, when Christ says the thorns choke out the word from those who have
received it due to worries and the deceitfulness of wealth, the thorns do not represent
these things of worries and deceitfulness of wealth directly, but indirectly because the
thorns are symbols of worldly people. Jesus seems to do this intentionally, as though he
was giving them (us) just enough information to point them in the right direction which
should help them to “connect the dots”.

As we discover what the symbols actually describe, we not only get a clearer understanding
of the parable itself, but the methodology becomes clearer as well. Christ is revealing this
methodology to us through the Parable of the Sower, the “Parable of Parables”.
Furthermore, in the process he leads us to discover not only how often symbols are
consistent, but also their continuity into the New Testament. Jesus goes on to interpret the
Parable of the Weeds and the Parable of the Net directly. Augustine was attempting to
follow Christ’s method of interpretation but ends up forcing meaning into the different
symbols. The correct method is to allow the scriptures to interpret the scriptures;
discovering how the Holy Spirit uses the symbols to give us keys to unlock other passages
and by analogical and deductive reasoning.

If this theory is correct, then Jesus is showing us not only how to interpret the parables, but
suggests that unless we interpret this way, we will not be able to fully understand all other
parables. To test this theory, we will look at another parable to see if this methodology
holds up.
The motivation for this article came because of what these authors thinks is a
misinterpretation of the Parable of the Yeast in many modern commentaries. Several
commentators rely on the context of not only this parable, but the Parable of the Mustard
Seed which precedes this parable in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. The Parable of the
Mustard Seed has to do with growth and size so some feel the Parable of the Yeast is
looking at the flipped side of the same coin, namely, the inward growth of the Kingdom of
God. D. A. Carson, in his commentary on Matthew, describes these parables this way, “If
there is a distinction between this one [the Parable of the Yeast] and the last one [the
Parable of the Mustard Seed], it is that the mustard seed suggests extensive growth and the
yeast intensive transformation.” This interpretation seems to be a good assessment if
context was the primary driver in determining the meaning, but let’s assume for the sake of
argument that the symbols have specific meanings and see if we come to the same
conclusion.

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took
and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Matthew
13:33 (NIV)

Yeast is seen as something negative or evil throughout the scriptures. The only time it is
used in a positive sense, according to many scholars, is here in Matthew 13:33 in the
Parable of the Yeast! If yeast is generally used in a negative sense, what would cause us to
think otherwise with regard to the Parable of the Yeast? This position seems difficult to
understand. Here is where something must be said concerning presuppositions and
assumptions. When Christ uses this parable (and the other ones) to describe the Kingdom
of God, there might be a tendency to assume he is using this symbolic language to paint a
positive picture or point out positive attributes of the Kingdom. These assumptions need to
be kept in check realizing Christ describes both good and bad aspects about his Kingdom.
Also, context or grammatical structures do not seem to be primary drivers in Christ’s
examples of interpretation. If we try to understand this parable apart from the way Jesus
demonstrated, we will probably miss some or all of its meaning.

There are a few places in scripture where the symbol of yeast is clearly interpreted. Jesus
gives his disciples a huge clue to help them come to understand what the symbol is in Luke
12:1,

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on
one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the
yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

Jesus makes this statement right after blasting the Pharisees and experts in the law for
their hypocrisy to the point of cursing them (Luke 11:37-52). Whatever the yeast is, they at
least know it is hypocrisy. The Pharisees focused on outward righteousness that would
attract the attention and praise of man for their own glory rather than live for the glory of
God. Jesus rebukes them harshly, and then warns the disciples to watch out for this yeast.
Jesus is not interpreting what the yeast is by calling it “hypocrisy” we think, rather, he is
describing it or what their particular form of “yeast” will lead to. If this was not the case,
he could have simply said, “Be on guard against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees”.

A second place where the symbol of yeast is interpreted is in the following passages:

“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.” Aware of
their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still
not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears
but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand,
how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the
seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They
answered, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not
understand?”
Mark 8:15-21

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and
Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any
bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among
yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five
loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for
the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand
that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the
Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard
against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and
Sadducees. Matt.16:6-16

These passages seem to describe the same event and are very interesting in that Jesus takes
this opportunity to coach his disciples through a lesson of interpretation. After warning
them about the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (and Herod when combining both
accounts) the minds of the Apostles go immediately to the literal, physical understanding of
yeast. As they wrestle with what the yeast might be as it relates to physical bread and their
lack of it, their struggle may only be compounded as to how the Pharisees, Sadducees and
Herod are involved. Jesus’ words in Mark’s account are extremely important as they are
processing his warning and deserve a close look,

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your
hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?

Mark 8:17-18
After making his disciples realize they need not concern themselves about a lack of physical
bread because of the miraculous ability Jesus used to provide for the masses, he questions
their spiritual condition and the hardness of their hearts due to their inability to see and
hear spiritual truth! Those with hard hearts are a reference to people without faith, those
outside the Kingdom of God. This is an allusion to and the same language he uses in
Matthew 13 when he warned that those without eyes that see and ears that hear will not
understand the parables. His statement is intended to remind his disciples of his words
when he first introduced his parables to them and his reason as to why he speaks in
parables back in Matthew 13,

This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing,
they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be
ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving . For this
people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed
their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with
their hearts and turn, and I would heal
them.’
Matt 13:13-15

It is after this statement in Mark 8:17-18, that his disciples shift their thinking from a literal
understanding to a symbolic one. They are obviously motivated to prove to Jesus they do
not want to be associated with those outside the Kingdom with hard hearts, eyes that
cannot see and ears that cannot hear. But more than that, they are reminded how Jesus
proceeded to interpret the Parable of the Sower, how he interpreted the symbols with
specific meanings and they follow suit. However, nowhere in the Old Testament do we see
the symbol of yeast interpreted as “teaching”. So, at this point we need to ask ourselves a
question, how would they come to the conclusion that the yeast would represent the
teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Besides remembering Jesus’ reference to the
“yeast” of the Pharisees as being hypocrisy or hypocritical, and while using reason and
considering the context, they would also have to discover what other symbols might be to
understand the meaning of yeast. They obviously knew that it was a symbol for something
negative that would need to be removed from their homes during Passover and was not
allowed in their bread. So if yeast was symbolic, then the bread would also have to be
symbolic. What is bread a symbol for? Some passages would probably have come to their
minds,

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering
the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for
the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but
will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent
it.” Isaiah 55:10-11
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you
nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every
word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Duet 8:3

This passage in Isaiah was dealt with earlier with regard to the Parable of the Sower. The
Word of God is likened to water, seed, and bread. As physical bread feeds and sustains the
body, the Word of God or “spiritual bread” feeds and sustains the soul. Bread was a staple
of food for their time; likewise, the Word of God is a spiritual staple. In the Deuteronomy
passage, Jesus quotes this to fend off the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread. Christ
reveals that though physical bread may curb hunger pains for a while, it is the Word of God
that ultimately sustains life, even eternal life.

In the Book of Ezekiel, the Lord uses parabolic language to describe the apostasy Israel had
fallen into by likening her to his Queen who had become a prostitute. Starting with verse 9
in chapter 16 we read,

“I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed
you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and
covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms
and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a
beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of
fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive
oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. And your fame spread among the
nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty
perfect, declares the Sovereign LORD. But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to
become a prostitute.”

This language is highly symbolic as it compares the nation of Israel to a woman, the wife
and Queen of the Lord. God washes Israel, clothes her nakedness, makes her beautiful and
feeds her. The fine flour that He feeds her with is not literally ground wheat, just as the rest
of the parable is not literal. The fine flour is the Word of God, their spiritual food. Notice
there is no mention of yeast, only honey and olive oil which are also symbolic. This parable
about Israel has interesting similarities with the Parable of the Yeast concerning the
Kingdom of God, namely they both have a woman in them and the flour. More will be said
about this later. Some other passages that have similar symbols for the Word of God,

“If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would follow my ways, how quickly would I
subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes! Those who hate the LORD would
cringe before him, and their punishment would last forever. But you would be fed with the
finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy
you.” Psalm 81:13-16
(As a side note, notice the “honey” comes from “the rock”. Honey, obviously does not come
from a rock, but is a symbol for the Word of God that comes from Christ! Psalm 119:103, 1
Cor.10:3)

“Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it
faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the LORD.”

Jeremiah 23:28

The yeast that was used in these times was leftover bread that, as it aged it, in effect, would
spoil and ferment to where when added to a new batch, it would cause it to rise. This yeast
is basically bad, sour and decaying bread. So the disciples reasoned that this yeast is the
teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees because they are the ones who taught the Word of
God and theirs was not only bad and additional teaching, but hypocritical according to
Christ. The Pharisees were known to add laws in their teaching of the Word of God leading
to legalism and righteousness being merited through the keeping of the law which they
themselves were unable to keep, thus Christ calls their “yeast” hypocrisy. The Sadducees,
on the other hand, denied certain doctrines taught in the Word of God (The Sadducees say
that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits Acts 17:8) and
only recognized the Torah as authoritative among the writings in the Old Testament. The
“yeast” of Herod might refer to politics making their way into the preaching of the Word of
God. An earlier reference to Pope Innocent’s letter to the prefect Acerbius and the nobles of
Tuscany in 1198 is an example of this. Or it could refer to “politically correct” preaching
that would please the listeners. Politicians are notorious for telling their constituents what
they want to hear. In Acts we read of Herod in 12:1-3,

“It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending
to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he
saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.”

The point is the disciples must have reasoned that the yeast of the Pharisees, the Sadducees
and Herod is their teaching or influence because it is not purely the Word of God which
should be “unleavened”. To put it another way, the teaching of the Pharisees, Sadducees
and Herod is to the Word of God as yeast is to bread. It is bad teaching, additional and
foreign to the Word of God or outside of it. Yeast adds no nutritional value to bread. It
serves to raise the bread and expand, to puff it up as it were, especially when heat is
introduced making it seem like there is more than there really is. It is the same with the
teaching of these types of groups. It is not the pure Word of God. It will lead to hypocrisy. It
will “puff men up” and make them proud of themselves and their performance. It will do to
the church what yeast does to bread.

This is an example of deduction when coming to understand the meaning of a symbol. Just
like in the Parable of the Sower when Christ says the birds represent Satan, he does this as
a demonstration where we need to see the symbols analogically and deduce their meaning.
The disciples use this same process when coming to their conclusion of yeast being
teaching. Nowhere in scripture is yeast directly interpreted as teaching in the Old
Testament. The important thing we must keep in mind as Jesus is coaching his disciples to
come to this conclusion is that this is not a standalone passage, but is meant to be used as a
key to understand other passages (as in the Parable of the Yeast). Think about this and ask
yourself this question, what other reason would explain why Jesus coaches them to think
about his words symbolically if they were not going to use this interpretation as a key
somewhere else? After all, why does he not just come straight out and say “Watch out for
the teachings of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herod”?

So to recap, the bread is a symbol for the Word of God and the yeast is a symbol for bad or
sinful teaching or at least teaching that is foreign to the Word of God. These are the keys to
start to unlock the interpretation of the Parable of the Yeast.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of
flour until it worked all through the dough.” Matt. 13:33

Before addressing the meaning of this parable, we need to look at more evidence for our
interpretation regarding the flour. In the NIV version of the Bible, the translators seek to
make things easier for the readers by condensing the thoughts in the Parable of the Yeast
so that it reads, “… a large amount of flour”. The actual reading is “three satas of flour”. In
their effort to make the reading easier to understand, the translators actually obscure our
ability to decipher the parable. As Evangelicals, we believe every word is inspired by God,
therefore, we should not overlook the significance of this phrase, but realize numbers are
not arbitrary and do carry meaning. The number “three” can refer to God because we
believe God is triune, three personages in one God; so three satas of flour is further
evidence for this referring to God’s Word.

When we compare the NASB version to the NIV version of Matthew 13:33, there is a subtle
difference in the wording that also needs to be addressed before going further.

He spoke another parable to them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman
took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.” NASB

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took
and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the
dough.” NIV

The NIV version uses the word “mixed” while the NASB uses the word “hid”. Again the
translators obscure the meaning of this crucial verb in their well-intentioned pursuit in
trying to simplify this for their readers. The word “hid” carries with it the idea of being
secretive, even deceptive and is the better translation for the Greek word ἐνέκρυψεν
(enekrypsen). In light of the Old Testament practice of eating unleavened bread and
removing any trace of yeast from their households during Passover, the Jewish mind would
(or should) immediately pick up on this “red flag”. This woman did not want to make it
known or obvious that she was hiding yeast in this bread. The same is true of false teachers
according to the Apostle Peter,

“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers
among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign
Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.” 2 Peter 2:1

Moving on to the woman in this parable, D. A. Carson says in his commentary on Matthew,
“There seems to be little merit in trying to identify the woman, any more than the man in
verse 31 (in the Parable of the Mustard Seed)”. Why would there be little merit? It seems
that the opposite would be true and there would be absolute merit! If we do not identify
who the woman is, how can we know its full meaning? In the Parable of the Weeds, Christ
identifies the man as being himself, the Son of Man! It seems that we should at least try and
investigate to determine if we can identify who the woman is in the Parable of the Yeast.
We looked at a parable earlier in Ezekiel 16:9-15 where Israel was likened to a woman and
a Queen, the wife of the Lord as it were. Her food which the Lord provided was the finest of
flour. This parable is similar in that there is a woman mixing yeast into three satas of flour.
The woman would have to represent the professing church or certain members of the
church, the Bride of Christ, because it is the church or, more specifically, teachers within
the church that handle and prepare spiritual meals consisting of the Word of God!

At this juncture, to help us parse out the details of this parable further, we will look at how
Paul deals with the symbol of “bread” in 1 Corinthians 5. This is fascinating how closely
Paul’s ideas parallel the Lord Jesus’ regarding the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the
symbol of “seeds”. Paul indicts the Corinthians as being “proud” for thinking of themselves
as loving and mature for allowing a bizarre relationship to take place among them when, in
fact, they should have been ashamed.

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even
pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t
you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has
been doing this?” 1 Cor. 5:1-2

While giving advice in how to handle this situation, Paul uses symbolic language to help
bring his point home, but in the process he uses the symbol of bread to mean 2 different
things and this within a couple of verses.

1 Cor. 5:8 “…the bread of sincerity and truth” = the Word of God
1 Cor. 5:7 “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really
are.” = the church

What is Paul doing? Is he trying to confuse us? Which is it, Paul? Is “bread” a symbol for the
“Word of God” or is it a symbol for the “church”? The answer is both! While at the same
time being under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul is following Christ’s example of
interpretation! We said earlier that Christ interpreted two parables concerning the
Kingdom of God; the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Weeds. Reviewing the
Parable of the Weeds we see that the “seed” is the “sons of the kingdom” while in the
Parable of the Sower the “seed” refers to the “Word of God”. We concluded that Christ is
trying to teach us that symbols can have a range of meaning and in this case, they are not
totally unrelated. In other words, the “seed” can mean the Word of God or people with the
Word of God in them. The same can be said about “bread”, it can mean the Word of God or
people with the Word of God in them. A seed can grow to grain which can be made into
bread. These symbols are not totally unrelated. As we feed on the bread of the Word of God,
we become bread towards others individually and corporately…

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all
wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to
God.” Colossians 3:16

Taking all this information together and then re-examining the Parable of the Yeast, we can
see the whole picture.

the woman = the professing Church (or teachers within the Church)

yeast = false teaching/sin

3 measures or satas of flour = the Word of God

the whole batch of dough = the Church

So this parable is prophetically warning that false teachers in the professing church itself
will introduce yeast (bad, sinful or heretical teaching including denying the truths found in
it) into the teaching of the Word of God and that this will spread and permeate to the point
of affecting the whole church. This is why context is not enough to try to interpret this
parable. Commentators who rely simply on the context of yeast spreading and permeating
and assume the Lord is describing something good may overlook the fact that bad, evil and
harmful things spread as well.
“Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who
have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place,
and they destroy the faith of some.” 2 Timothy 2:17-18

The fortunate thing about this interpretation of the Parable of the Yeast is we are not left to
our own judgments, but we have the Apostle Paul to help with this. He is the preeminent
theologian of the Church and is not only extremely well informed with the language of the
Old Testament, but is also extremely knowledgeable concerning Christ’s teachings. Luke
accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys so no doubt they spent much time
discussing the teachings of Christ as well as with the other apostles. There are two places in
his epistles where he explicitly appeals to the warnings found in the Parable of the Yeast.

“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That
kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through
the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The
one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. Brothers, if I
am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the
cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and
emasculate
themselves!” Galat
ians 5:7-8

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not
occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you
rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?
Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed
judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the
name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present,
hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved
on the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works
through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch
without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and
wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and
truth.” 1Corithians 5:1-8

These two churches had experienced leavened bread in their infancy. Because of their lack
of knowledge and discernment concerning the Word of God, they were vulnerable to the
false teaching that had infiltrated their fellowships. In the Galatian Church, legalism was
what spread through the teaching of God’s Word enslaving the people back to the
observance of the Law. Paul was arguing that once being saved from grace, if one tries to
sustain his salvation through works, Christ’s work was of no value. In the case of the
Corinthian Church, the people were taught that it was a more loving position to be tolerant
toward this man’s sin than to hold him accountable by confronting him with
excommunication. This was an egregious sin that even pagans would blush at. Our point
here is that Paul uses the phrase “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough”
and applies it to false teaching! Notice also that the only 2 times Paul uses this phrase
among his epistles to the churches addresses 2 extremes of teaching, legalism and
antinomianism. Legalism is the pursuit of earning God’s favor and a right standing before
him through good works, while antinomianism is the opposite. It is the idea that there is
“no law” and that one has freedom to do anything one wants. Paul knows exactly what the
meaning of the Parable of the Yeast is about and he interprets and applies this for the
church. He was so familiar with Christ’s teachings about the Kingdom of God being
infiltrated by false teaching that he warns over and over in his epistles to be on guard
against it. In fact, much of the reason for writing his letters was to combat false teaching.
False teaching and worldly influence was what caused Israel to abandon her devotion to
the Lord and the church is vulnerable to this as well. It was said earlier that Israel’s history
was parabolic to the church’s.

“Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as
they did…”

“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on
whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.”

1 Cor. 10:6 and 11

False teaching is one of the enemy’s most effective weapons used against the church. Paul
was keenly aware of this and warns us in many areas of his writings to confront this threat.

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving
spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose
consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” 1Timothy 4:1-2

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their
own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their
itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to
myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3-4

“And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who
want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such
men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no
wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” 2 Corinthians 11:12-14

Luke records Paul’s warnings to the Ephesian Church with these words,
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.
I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.
Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away
disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped
warning each of you night and day with tears.” Acts 20:28-31

Church history is replete with example after example of heresy being introduced into the
teaching of God’s Word threatening the church’s devotion to the truth. False teaching has
led to one major split in the 16th century and countless other splits up to the present.
Everything from politics to eastern mysticism to prosperity preaching to even denying
essential truths has made its way into the teaching of God’s Word threatening to “work
through the whole batch of dough’. The church has up to now been able to fight off these
threats. The day is fast arriving, though, when the yeast will spread and permeate the
teaching of the Word of God within His Kingdom to the point where Christ’s question in
Luke 18:8 becomes a reality,

“… when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

This article is by no means an exhaustive treatment on the subject of interpreting the


parables, but we realize it is a definite paradigm shift. The purpose is to address some
issues dealing with current methods of interpretation and stimulating discussion towards
more consensus. If anything, hopefully this may serve to advance the ball a bit. With this
purpose in mind, here is a good question: what good argument is there to defend why we
do not follow Christ’s example of interpretation and discover specific meaning in the
symbols? R.C. Sproul offers one in his book Knowing Scripture, “When Jesus does interpret
the Parable of the Sower, he does so in an allegorical fashion. That might lead us to assume
all the parables have an allegorical meaning with each detail having a “specific” spiritual
meaning. If we approach the parables in this way, we will get ourselves into trouble. If we
treat all the parables as allegory, we will soon discover that the teaching of Jesus becomes a
mass of confusion. Many of the parables are simply not suited to allegorical interpretation.
It may be fun, especially in preaching, to allow our imaginations to roam freely seeking
the allegorical meaning of the details of the parables, but it will not be very
instructive.” (Sproul, 1977, p. 96) R. C. Sproul is a highly respected theologian and a
favorite with these authors. He does have a point if people are “allowed to let their
imaginations roam freely seeking an allegorical meaning of the details of the parables”. This
is not what this article is arguing for. The argument is for allowing the scriptures to
interpret the symbols and our reasoning, not our imaginations. Our imaginations do lead to
much confusion, even when just trying to draw a spiritual principle as in the Parable of the
Yeast. The argument is for following Jesus’ example in which we find specific meanings of
symbols rooted in the scriptures themselves and through deductive reasoning. We do not
assign meaning drawing from our own imaginations. This article argues that we need to
interpret the parables the same way Jesus did and not how others tell us. Do we follow
Christ or somebody else? If we cannot follow Christ’s example, whose do we follow? He is
our teacher. If we cannot appeal to his methodology, whose methodology do we follow?
Think about this question carefully. Why would we think these different elements in
parables do not carry meaning and are just arbitrarily inserted features to help round out a
story when Jesus Christ shows us that they have specific meaning? When approaching the
parables, we would do well to always refer to Christ’s words,

“Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?”
(ESV) Mark 4:13

References

Blomberg, C. (2012). Interpreting the Parables. Downers Grove, IL : IVP Academic, c2012.

Duvall, J. S., & Hays, J. D. (2012). Grasping God’s word : a hands-on approach to reading,
interpreting, and applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI : Zondervan, c2012.

France, R. T. (1985). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, V 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke. Trinity
Journal, 6(1), 108-112. -c1992.

Powell, J. M. (2004). The Deeds of Pope Innocent III. [electronic resource]. Washington, DC. :
Catholic University of America Press, c2004.

Sproul, R. C. (1977). Knowing Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill. : Inter Varsity Press, c1977