Quite some time ago (1990) I taught a somewhat extended series of sessions on what I called The Parables of John. Now most Bible readers know that one distinctive of John’s Gospel is that he does not have any of the parables as seen in the three synoptic gospels. This title was a “hook” to promote interest in the series. See below for the explanation.
An Overview of Parabolic language in the Scriptures
A dictionary definition of the word “parable” is “a simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson.” Someone has defined a parable as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” As used in the Scriptures, however. the term has a much broader meaning. The word itself comes from the Greek word parabole, which means “to throw or cast beside.” This suggests placing one thing beside another in order to compare similarities and/or differences. Thus, two prominent ideas are suggested by the basic meaning of the word — “to represent or stand for something,” and “a likeness or resemblance,”
In the New Testament, the word parabole occurs 48 times. In the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, this word is used to translate the Hebrew word Mashal, which is most often translated as “proverb.” Mashal occurs 36 times in the Old testament, usually referring to a “pithy” saying, a word of wisdom, or a similitude or comparison. Thus, the term “parable” can be used to cover several forms of suggestive or picturesque speech — all those forms in which ideas are presented in robes of imagery. (Lockyer)
Another word used in both the OT and NT for “parable” is paromia; which refers to an adage or illustration. This Greek word is used four times in the NT — three times in John (10:6; 16:25,29) and in 2 Peter 2:22.
It’s interesting that John never uses the word parabole, which is the only term used in the Synoptics. More than that, John does not include a single one of the parables found in the Synoptics! (Why?)
It’s probably impossible to say how many parables Jesus uttered – Ryrie lists a total of 30. half of them appearing in Matthew, while Lockyer gives 67 parables in Matthew alone. One writer estimates that 30 of Jesus’ teachings were in the form of parables.
Let’s examine briefly some of the types of word imagery we have in the Bible.
Similitude. The word simile means “like or resembling.” An example of a similitude is Ps. 1:3-4 — “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water…The ungodly are like the chaff which the wind drives away … ”
Metaphor. A metaphor distinctly affirms that one thing is another thing. The word comes from two Greek words which mean carry over. Examples of this abound in the Scriptures. “The Lord is a sun and a shield.” (Ps. 84:11) This means that, just as the sun is the source of light, heat and power, and life on earth depends on the properties of the sun, so is God the source of our life. The statement “1 am the door” (John 1 0:7) is a metaphor.
As defined here, the primary difference between a simile and a metaphor is that a simile has the word like, making clear the item being spoken about is used for a comparison, but a metaphor does not, leaving it up to the reader to ascertain exactly what the writer intends.
Allegory. Allegory differs from metaphor in that no trabsference of properties or qualities takes place. It is the teaching of one thing by reference to something else. An allegory differs from a parable in that there is less of the hidden and mysterious. Allegories typically interpret themselves, or the person or thing that is to. be illustrated by some natural object is immediately identified with the object. An example is when Jesus speaks of the Vine, the Husbandman, and the Branches (John 15). He begins by saying that He is Himself the true Vine., and that His Father is the Husbandman.
E. W. Bullinger differentiates among these figures of speech as follows:
- Simile is comparison by resemblence; the comparison is stated.
- Metaphor is comparison by representation; the comparison is substituted.
- Allegory is comparison by implication; the comparison is simply implied.
- Proverb. This word is used somewhat interchangeably with “parable.” A proverb is typically a short, weighty saying. It is usually brief, deals with basic subjects, and does not typically tell a story.
- Fable. This is a fictitious narrative intended to illustrate some maxim or truth. Examples are found in Jotham’s story of the trees) vine and thornbush (Judges 9:8·15), and Jehoash’s tale of the beast and the thistle (II Kings 14:9-10).
- Parable. This word has been defined previously. A parable “may be said to be a story which, either true or possessing all the appearance of truth, exhibits in the sphere of natural life a process parallel to one which exists in the ideal and spiritual world.” (Fairbairn) The parables in the Synoptics are usually continued similies, Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is like … “) and then tells a short story.
Some writers see parables as a special type of allegory. In some cases, the story is strictly artificial; in others, it may not be clear whether the story was an actual event or not.
It was not my intention in the study to pin down the exact nature of each comparison. I do not mean to imply that these passages are simple stories or allegory. I fully believe that some of the events discussed were actual happenings, but I hoped to show that these events had an underlying spiritual significance. John, in particular, chose to include some of these events in his Gospel because he saw in them a spiritual meaning. It is that spiritual meaning that I wish to explore. I call these “parables” for the sake of simplicity.
One example is the Feeding of the 5000. This is the only miracle included in all four NT Gospels. Some writers have pointed out that John regards this as his Eucharist event, since he does not mention the Bread and Wine ritual at the Last Supper as contained in all three Synoptic Gospels. (Why?)
Thus, John’s gospel is an attempt by the Apostle to get across the Truth that Christ’s life portrayed. It seems clear that John saw in the actual events of Christ’s brief ministry pictures and symbols of spiritual truths that transcended the physical reality of the events. As we study these events, we need to open our minds to the spiritual message that lies beneath the surface.
As we study these “parables,” keep in mind that they were written from the Eastern perspective. Jordan Bajis said “The Eastern mind is comfortable expressing itself in pictures, parables, and stories. The Western mind expresses itself through formulas and ‘hard’ logic.” While there is something to be gained from examining the details, which we will attempt to do, do not lose sight of the fact that each parable or story was presented in a particular context, and each was intended to get across a primary message. Looking at the details of a parable too closely is like looking at a portrait up close, where one sees the streaks and globules of paint and cannot see what the artist intended one to see. The context of a parable was not only one of physical circumstances, but also one of the total spiritual revelation – God’s Kingdom of love and grace was present, physically and spiritually. Jesus was trying in each and every instance to help those present grasp this fundamental truth.
“Though it cost you all you have, get understanding.” Prov 4:7
The above is an excerpt from a longer Introduction.