July 3, 2019

Hidden Meanings

If you’ve read the New Testament very much at all, you’re probably aware that Jesus made extensive use of parables in His teaching. In case you’re not exactly sure what a parable is, let’s define it.

Parable: a simple story about everyday life which is used to illustrate a spiritual or moral lesson.

No matter what subject you’re teaching, your goal is to communicate new ideas to your students. One of the most effective ways to do this is to start with concepts which your students already understand, preferably with ideas that they have fully mastered, and build upon what they already know in order to learn something new.

That’s exactly what Jesus did: He taught important spiritual lessons about the Kingdom of Heaven using stories set within everyday situations, like farming, housework, and fishing: things which his audience would have been very, very familiar with.

Students often expect a teacher to simply tell them what they need to know, or what to think or believe. There is a place for that in education. Teachers do have to give students some foundational information; for example, basic math facts like 1 + 1 = 2, or making you memorize your multiplication tables.

Presentation of basic facts is a critical first step in the learning process. This is true no matter what subject you’re teaching: math, science, language, music, technology, and yes, it’s true in the spiritual realm as well. But at some point, if the students are going to really master a concept, they have to be given a mystery to solve on their own.

And Jesus did that, too. Sometimes he would present a parable without driving the point all the way home. He would tell a story about a farmer, he would make it known that there is a spiritual truth to be found there, but he would leave it to the students to figure out what it really meant. This is an extremely effective teaching technique, because it pushes the students to form conclusions on their own, which is a crucial next step in the development of critical thinking skills.

Unfortunately (and this is a fact that legislators ignore when passing education laws), some students, for whatever reason, just aren’t going to take the next step. Some may not be ready for it yet, while others will simply choose not to do it. And yes, some may be literally unable to master certain concepts.

Jesus addresses this situation as well:

And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”

He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.… Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand... But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Get ready to blow up the comments section, because I’m about to state a very unpopular bit of truth. A good teacher has to allow students to fail sometimes. After all, it’s not like a teacher can FORCE a student to succeed. Besides that, failure is vital to the learning process.  In fact, our failures are the moments where we learn the most: about the topic we are studying, yes, but more importantly, about ourselves. How we react to failure is one of the leading indicators of future success. A good teacher takes that failure and shows the student how to make the necessary corrections, but more importantly, the student has to learn to recognize their own potential weaknesses and address them in advance, so that rather than repeating the same failure, exposure to a similar problem in the future will result in improved performance.

Since I’m talking about education, let’s consider one more extremely important factor: asking questions. It’s important for the teacher to question the students, and we see Jesus asking His disciples questions quite often. Sometimes a teacher need to see a little bit of what’s going on inside the student’s head just to make sure they’re actually on the right track. But even more important is how a teacher deals with questions posed by students, and here, once again, we see Jesus displaying his mastery of the art of teaching by answering his students’ questions directly and completely.

But back on the topic of figurative language: how do you know if a certain passage is supposed to be taken literally or somewhat metaphorically? Sometimes it is very easy to spot passages in the Bible that are using figurative language. The Psalms especially are full of mental imagery like a mother bird protecting her chicks, or God’s protection being like a shield. But the trick to really getting the most out of your Bible comes from finding spiritual truths hidden in otherwise mundane passages.

Take the book of Numbers. If you want some really, really dry reading, this is the place to go. We get page after page of lists: how many soldiers were in each tribe, the marching order for when the Israelites broke camp to move to a new location, what each family of Levites was supposed to carry when the tabernacle was moved, the details of the offerings given from each family, including the number of silver platters, gold pans, bulls, rams, lambs, and goats. Honestly, when I come around to reading from Numbers, I sometimes tend to get a little glassy-eyed and skim over a lot of it.

If you adopt the mindset that every passage of the Bible contains a spiritual lesson which is more important than whatever literal information may be included, the book of Numbers suddenly makes a lot more sense. It shows us that God knew every detail about these people, down to the very last shekels and freckles, and that He loved them deeply. He saw fit to record all of this information about them in order reveal a truth to us: He knows and loves us just as much as He knew and loved them. He is willing to be every bit as involved in our everyday lives as He was in theirs, up to and including the whole column of smoke, pillar of fire, parting of the Red Sea kind of involvement.

It’s extremely important for us to look beyond the surface when we’re reading the Bible, because there are always hidden nuggets just waiting to be discovered. Every time we find one of these hidden treasures, our faith grows that much stronger.

Here’s where we talk about the dangers of not looking for those hidden gems. You’ve probably heard the parable of the talents from Matthew 25:14-30. You’ll notice that the servant who did no work with the talent he was given had the talent taken away.

For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.

It took me a long time to understand why God would work like this, but one day the light bulb came on, and I realized it’s a very, very simple idea.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” This refers to certain skills that require constant practice in order to remain at the top of your game. I’m a saxophone player, and once upon a time, I was really pretty darn good. But it has been about 20 years since I was really serious about practicing every day, and in fact, I haven’t touched my saxophone on any kind of a regular basis for probably 10 years now. Sure, I can still pick the thing up and make a pretty good sound and play a few things, but I’ve lost a lot of the endurance and technique that I used to have. That’s exactly the point that the parable of the talents makes.

Use it or lose it.

Incidentally, it’s often very helpful to look at various Bible translations when you run into something that’s difficult to understand. For example, the New Living Translation of the Bible makes this verse far more plain:
To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.
Matthew 25:29 (NLT)   

This idea also applies to our faith in general. We have to continue to study the Word, and we have to constantly be looking for hidden wisdom. There is no standing still when it comes to God - we are always moving either toward Him, or away. If we’re not open to learning new things from Him, our faith will inevitably decline.

In much the same way, if you’re basing your faith only on a surface-level reading of the Biblical text, you will find that your faith can grow weaker. Weak faith is characterized by some pretty recognizable symptoms, including an inability to consider that you might actually be wrong about something in the Bible. You will see any disagreement about the meaning of a given passage as an attack upon your own faith, and you may respond by questioning the salvation of any believer who doesn’t agree with your understanding of scripture. You will be offended easily and often, and comfort for it will be hard to find. Other people may begin to think of you as a force for division not only between Christians and nonbelievers, but within the church itself. If you always seem to be caught in the middle of some kind of drama, especially at church, you might be the source of your own problems.

Obviously, this is no way to make disciples. Instead, you end up driving people away from Christ. I know this from personal experience: one of the things that kept me away from the church for a long, long time was the quarrelsome, judgmental attitude that I still see in far too many Christians to this day.

You’ve read where the apostle Paul talks about stumbling blocks, right? Basically what I’m saying is that if you cling to a shallow view of scripture, you’re in danger of becoming a stumbling block, quite possibly to yourself. We are, after all, usually our own worst enemies.

But enough with the wet blanket talk! The Bible has such richness and depth that there is always something new to be found. People like to say that the Bible is alive, and that passages which have been read hundreds of times still speak to them in fresh and vibrant ways. If you’re not finding that to be the case, I encourage you to start over by studying the parables that Jesus taught. Observe the ways He would hide spiritual truths in ordinary, plain, everyday stories, and begin to look at every passage of scripture with that same expectation of hidden meaning.  

You won’t be sorry.

Parables of Jesus

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