A parable is a story or that could be true but the truth of the story is not the point. A parable has a truth about the work of God that is hidden from view and requires interpretation. The Bible is filled with parables. When we think of them, we mostly think of the parables of Jesus. However, Ezekiel was instructed to tell or display parables many times, and they are also found throughout the Bible. Nathan’s story of the pet lamb is a parable, for example.

Parables are often misinterpreted. This is unfortunate since the scripture itself often interprets the parable in plain language and in the immediate context. The fundamental rule of interpretation is let scripture interpret scripture. This rule alone would save us from the many interpretive errors that are often made in parables.

Let’s discuss three common interpretive errors when dealing with parables.

Making a parable where one does not exist.

Wikipedia gives us a simple definition. But, like many things on Wikipedia, it shows us not what a parable is but rather what people think a parable is.

The Wikipedia definition:

“A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles.”[1]

Note that this definition makes a parable to be a variety of illustration. In the Bible, however, a parable reveals a hidden truth while an illustration highlights stated truth. While a type or an illustration can be confused with a parable, they are different animals all-together. The first error of interpretation, therefore, is misidentifying parables, illustrations, and types.

Take, for example, the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Many time this is presented as the parable of the prodigal son. However, nothing in the Biblical text identifies this as a parable, and everything in the Biblical text looks at this as a real-life, time-and-space occurrence. The same could be said on the account of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

When you make a parable into an illustration, you begin to find hidden meanings that are not actually there. You also remove the potential of reality that is not required in parables.

The first rule of interpreting parables is to make sure you are dealing with a parable. The safest way to do this is to look for an announcement that the story given is a parable. This seems almost too simple to state, yet hundreds of illustrations could be given of interpretive errors that arose when a preacher or teacher made a parable from that which was not a parable.

One example of making a parable where one does not exist is in the account of David and Goliath. When that historical account is interpreted as if it were a parable, all sorts of crazy application ensues.

Making a parable into a type

type is not a parable, and a parable is not a type. A type is a real-life, time-and-space occurrence that has direct points of reference to a future real-life, time-and-space occurrence.

Many types are expressly revealed in Scripture. For example, 1 Corinthians 10:4 tells us that the rock struck by Moses was a type that represented Christ. Other types, however, are not expressly revealed (and thus should be interpreted with great care). For example, almost every interpretation of The Song of Solomon views the love-story as a type, but the interpretation of the type varies wildly.

The major difference in interpreting parables versus types is that in a type, each detail matters (and must matter), whereas in a parable there is a singular revealed truth. Thus if one interprets a parable as a type they will find meaning in details where the details are not relevant.

The second rule of interpreting parables, then, is to look for the singular meaning of the parable, not trying to get meaning from every aspect of the parable.

Making a parable apply to irrelevant issues.

Parables are given with a certain context. In tomorrow’s post I will write about the chief subject of the parables of Jesus. For this post, let me speak generally by giving the third rule of interpreting parables: only apply the parable to its original subject.

If a parable is about the Kingdom, it is not about the church, or the family, or the current administration, or evangelistic methods, etc. Over the years, so much harm has been done by taking parables that have a clear meaning in one subject and applying them to another subject.

A parable is a juxtaposition of two things. The Greek παραβολή [parabole] is a combination of para (along-side) and ballo (to throw), thus “to throw alongside.” In a parable, two things are being thrown alongside one another for comparison or contrast. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Juxtaposition as,  “The action of placing two or more things close together or side by side, or one thing with or beside another”

A juxtaposition requires comparison or contrast. Two irrelevant things will destroy the parable or juxtaposition.

For example, many parables of Jesus begin with the words,  “the Kingdom of Heaven is like….” In these parables, the Kingdom is set beside the matter within the parable. From these Kingdom parables, we can learn about the Kingdom. (and the Kingdom alone). If we use these parables to learn about parenting (or politics or salvation or chemistry or…) we will inevitably create a train-wreck of an application.

Summary: Three Rules of Interpretation of Parables

  1. Take care to make sure that the parable is actually a parable.
  2. Look for the singular meaning of the parable.
  3. Only apply the parable to its original (and often stated) subject.

Happy interpreting!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable – accessed 5/29/2019


Randy White is the founder and CEO of Dispensational Publishing House, Inc. He teaches Bible online at www.RandyWhiteMinistries.org and preaches at the Taos (NM) First Baptist Church.