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  • The Stories Jesus Told

    By Peter Amsterdam

    Audio length: 10:27
    Download Audio (9.5MB)

    Jesus was an incredible teacher. His words, backed up by His actions, changed countless lives during His ministry on earth and for the past two millennia. His teachings and the influence of His life have had an unparalleled impact on humanity. Billions of people have fashioned their lives and beliefs on the words He spoke over 2,000 years ago. Those words and teachings, recorded in the Gospels, have radically changed humankind’s understanding of God and our relationship to Him. They spoke to the people of Jesus’ day and still speak to the hearts of seekers and believers today.

    One of the most frequent methods Jesus used to convey His message was through telling parables. In fact, one-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are in parables. Parables were an effective means of conveying His message because they were stories that engaged the listeners and drew them in. These stories sometimes challenged the cultural and religious norms of the day, and the listeners were often surprised when the story lines went in unforeseen directions and had unexpected outcomes.

    It was through these stories that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, showed God’s character, revealed what God was like, and expressed the expectations that God has for people. While the parables Jesus told speak to us today, some of their original meaning and surprise factor has been lost because we, as today’s listeners, aren’t living in first-century Palestine.

    Jesus was a first-century Jew speaking to other first-century Jews, and He spoke the common language of the day, using words, phrases, and idioms that His Jewish contemporaries understood well. When Jesus spoke of a Samaritan, He knew that His Jewish listeners despised Samaritans. When He spoke of wheat and tares, of leaven, of stewards and masters, everyone He was speaking to understood what He was talking about because those things were part of everyday first-century Jewish life and language.

    People living in first-century Palestine understood the terminology Jesus used in a more complete and well-rounded way than we, living over 2,000 years later, can. So when you’re reading the parables of Jesus, it helps to know more of the context in which He was speaking and what the original listeners would have understood.

    This is especially beneficial when we consider how much information the parables don’t give. Parables are short. They use no more words than necessary, and they generally include no unessential details. When descriptions of people are given, almost nothing is said about their appearance, relations, or personal history; we are only told the basics. With the exceptions of Lazarus and Abraham in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), no names are given, so individuals are anonymous. Actions are omitted or compressed, and elements of the story are left for the reader to fill in.

    Parables are inherently simple. There are never more than two persons or groups together in the same scene. While the father in Luke 15 has two sons, he does not interact with both of them at the same time, but with one or the other (Luke 15:11–32). When there is mention of a large number of people, such as the parable of the feast where many people are invited to the banquet, the story only focuses on three of those who were invited (Luke 14:16–24).

    Jesus’ parables reflect the lives of everyday people—farmers, shepherds, women, fathers and sons, masters and servants. They are true-to-life fictional accounts of everyday life in the time of Christ. However, they don’t necessarily portray events precisely. Some stories give realistic portrayals, and some don’t.

    One example of an unrealistic portrayal is the man who owed 10,000 talents, which is the equivalent of more than 200 metric tons of gold or silver. This parable uses a deliberate exaggeration, or what is often referred to as hyperbole, defined as an intended overstatement to make a point. Hyperbole used in this context helps to express the abundance of God’s forgiveness (Matthew 18:23–35). The use of exaggeration to make a point was common in Jewish writings and sayings.

    Why did Jesus speak in parables? What is the value of a parable? Well, everybody loves a story. Jesus told stories to draw the listeners in, to cause them to reflect on the issues the parable addressed. The scenarios that Jesus painted with His words often required the listeners to pass moral judgment on the behavior of the characters in the story, and then to make a similar judgment about matters in their own life and in their faith.

    Some parables start with a question, such as “Who of you …?” or “What do you think about …?” Other parables pose questions at the end. The questions are designed to provoke thought, to bring change in the listener’s heart and life. Sometimes the parable doesn’t have a conclusion or a final outcome—the story is left open-ended.

    Parables often present the reverse of what the listener would expect. The hated tax collector is seen as being righteous instead of the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14); the Samaritan is the true neighbor rather than the Jewish priest or the Levite (Luke 10:29–37). These conclusions were reversals of the norm. They cause the listeners to see things in a different light, to reflect, and to question the way they think. They issue a challenge to change.

    The main point usually comes at the end of the parable, similar to how the punch line of a joke is delivered at the end. The story piques your interest, draws you in, and then at the end, it makes the point.

    While those hearing the parables in the first century understood the language, the culture and customs, and the idioms and expressions, that didn’t mean they always understood the point of the parables. Sometimes even Jesus’ disciples had to ask Him what a parable meant. The spiritual points contained in the parables weren’t always obvious and caused people to ponder the meaning.

    Jesus wasn’t the first or only teacher to use parables. In the Old Testament and in Jewish writings before the first century, there are some parables and parable-like writings, but few that are similar to Jesus’ narrative parables.1 So while Jesus wasn’t the inventor of parables, no one throughout history is known to have used them as ingeniously and effectively as He did.

    The parables of Jesus are a worthy study. Through them, Jesus conveyed His message about God, our interaction with Him and others, and life and how it should be lived. Reading the parables with more understanding of the first-century context helps bring further clarity to His message. It gives insight to why He had so much opposition and why His religious enemies wanted Him dead. It also helps to show why many loved and followed Him.

    The messages that Jesus conveyed through His parables offended His religious enemies and even threatened their standing. At the same time, the message embedded in His stories drew in those who were lost and seeking. The parables show the love and mercy of God, His call to the heart of every man, woman, and child, and His willingness to pay the price of costly love to bring humankind to redemption. These wonderful truths caused people to love Jesus, to become His followers and disciples, to even die for His name. And His words evoke the same response today.

    Jesus’ parables aren’t just stories to enjoy; they are the very voice of Jesus speaking His message. These short stories have deep intent, and that intent is to move each of us toward God and toward living our lives in accordance with His truth. When we carefully listen to what Jesus is saying in His parables, we will face answering the same questions as His original listeners. A light will shine on our lives as we confront the realization that we may be like the older brother, or the rich fool hoarding his wealth, or the priest and Levite rather than the Good Samaritan.

    The parables also beautifully show the different ways that Jesus conveyed how deeply God loves humankind and to what lengths He is willing to go to show us that love, as well as the joy He has when one person enters into relationship with Him. Jesus used parables to describe the Father, and those descriptions brought a new understanding of what God is like.

    As in any study of God’s Word, as we read and study the parables, it’s beneficial to take time to think deeply about the points they make, to allow these spiritual truths to speak to us. They are meant to cause change in our hearts, lives, attitudes, outlooks, and behavior.

    May the study of the parables fortify your faith and encourage you to invite others to learn about and come to personally know Jesus—our wonderful Savior and our blessed Redeemer.

    Originally published May 2013. Adapted and republished July 2024. Read by Jon Marc.

    1 Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 594.

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  • Jul 2 The Power of Your Words
  • Jun 28 What a Friend We Have in Jesus
  • Jun 27 The Story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
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  • Jun 19 His Desire and Plan for Our Life Journey

Directors’ Corner

Faith-building Bible studies and articles

  • 1 Corinthians: Chapter 3 (verses 10-17)

    According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.1

    Earlier in this chapter (v. 6), Paul used the metaphor of a planter, whereas now he refers to himself as a master builder who has laid a foundation. While he had done the original work of founding the Corinthian church, others were building on his foundation. He made the point that he only served to lay a foundation through the grace God had given him.

    Paul reminds the readers that there will be a number of people who are called to build. He may have in mind only those leaders currently working in Corinth, but what he says applies to all Christians. Later, he will show that all Christians have gifts from God for building up the church. All Christians are challenged as to how they “build.”

    For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.2

    Paul makes the same point he made earlier,3 that it is Christ alone upon whom the church must be built. Many might attempt to lay other foundations and to build on them, but they won’t succeed, as all other than Him are foundations of sand.

    Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.4

    He now focuses on the judgment that will come upon those who build wrongly and the reward that will come to those who build properly. He uses the first of four conditions (the other three will be covered in verses 14–17). Paul assumes that some people’s work will last (v. 14) and that some people’s work will be burned up (v. 15). He is concerned about the people who are building and the materials they are using, as some works will be burned up while others will not.

    Paul looks to “the Day.” He has previously referred to it as “the day of our Lord” in verse 1:8, where it is seen positively as the day when God’s people will appear before the Lord’s judgment seat. In the Old Testament, the Day refers to the coming time of judgment.5

    Verse 13 shows what Paul means when he says that each one’s work will become manifest. The Day will disclose it because the work of building, and the materials used to that end, will be revealed for what they are through fire.

    From the earliest times, fire has been linked in Scripture with the presence of God as one who is righteous and is Judge and Savior. He judged Sodom and Gomorrah with fire,6 He appeared to Moses in a flaming bush,7 and He descended on Mount Sinai in fire.8 In Hebrews 12:29, we’re told that our God is a consuming fire. In the New Testament, when it states that fire judges or tests, it conveys the meaning that the Lord himself will judge and test.

    If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.9

    Paul indicates that the builder whose work lasts, surviving the test by fire, will receive a reward. Those whose work is “burned up” will suffer loss, but they will still be saved.

    Each person bears responsibility for their contribution to the building, and will receive a reward or a loss based on the quality of the workmanship. If the building goes up in smoke, the builders discover that they have labored in vain. If the building stands, the builders will be rewarded for faithful service. The phrase he will receive a reward means to receive wages for the work done. The loss referred to does not mean the loss of salvation, but rather the loss of a reward.

    Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?10

    Paul re-emphasizes that the Corinthian church is to be regarded as God’s temple and thus the believers are obliged to be unified in Christ. They are God’s temple because the Spirit of God dwells among them. Do you not know is a rhetorical question, and Paul expects them to agree with what he has written. He uses this rhetorical question phrasing eight times in this letter.11 The question usually introduces a section of the letter in which Paul is especially concerned about the practices or behaviors of the believers. Paul is emphasizing through this wording that what he is saying is foundational and should be accepted by all.

    The “temple” in this passage doesn’t refer to the temple complex in Jerusalem with all of its courtyards, but rather to the building itself, the holy place. Paul sees the believers as God’s building.12 Later in this letter, Paul will refer to the believer’s body being the temple of the Holy Spirit.13 In this instance, Paul wants the teachers, leaders, and believers to understand the significance of the church.

    If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.14

    This is a strong warning, a decree. It may be that there were some leaders in the church that Paul was thinking about when he wrote this, those who had been promoting factionalism and causing division. Paul has moved on from talking about the works of the leaders being judged or rewarded. Now he speaks of the destruction of anyone who has played a role in the destruction of the church. In doing so, he is warning the whole church. It seems as if much of the church had been tempted to look to certain leaders due to their status, rather than looking to the Lord.

    (To be continued.)

    Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

    1 1 Corinthians 3:10.

    2 1 Corinthians 3:11.

    3 1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2.

    4 1 Corinthians 3:12–13.

    5 Isaiah 66:15–16, Zephaniah 1:7–18, Malachi 3:2–3.

    6 Genesis 19:24–25.

    7 Exodus 3:2.

    8 Exodus 19:18.

    9 1 Corinthians 3:14–15.

    10 1 Corinthians 3:16.

    11 Verses 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:13, 24.

    12 1 Corinthians 3:9.

    13 1 Corinthians 6:19.

    14 1 Corinthians 3:17.


  • Jun 25 1 Corinthians: Chapter 3 (verses 1-9)
  • Jun 11 Virtues for Christ-Followers: Peace
  • Jun 4 Seeing God in Your Suffering
  • May 28 1 Corinthians: Chapter 2 (verses 9-16)
  • May 14 Virtues for Christ-Followers: Joy
  • Apr 30 1 Corinthians: Chapter 2 (verses 1-8)
  • Apr 16 Virtues for Christ-Followers: Love
  • Apr 2 1 Corinthians: Chapter 1 (verses 26-31)
  • Mar 12 1 Corinthians: Chapter 1 (verses 17-25)


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