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The Olivet Discourse (4): The Parables

J Gibson, Derby

Bible parables are difficult to understand. They present Bible students with some of their biggest expositional challenges. The Lord Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, not to reveal, but rather to conceal truth (Mt 13.10-15). And, even though the stories themselves are relatively simple, their primary message is often hard to unravel. Always read them with a good dose of common sense. Refrain from making speculations about every detail. Remember, most parables only have one or two central points, the remaining details acting as a supportive framework. For instance, the key emphasis of these seven parables is the unexpectedness of Christ’s return.

As with all Scripture, never divorce the parables from their context. It is almost always significant. Christ told these parables whilst explaining the signs that will accompany His coming again as Israel’s Messiah to inaugurate His Kingdom. Therefore, having a predominantly Jewish emphasis, they give practical instructions for believers who will live during the Tribulation – the time of Jacob’s trouble. Also, when parables are grouped together, as in this case, compare them with each other. For example, the fifth and sixth parables look at Christ’s second coming in relation to Israel. Believers and unbelievers in that nation will be surprised at the suddenness of His coming that will irreversibly divide them. The seventh parable, on the other hand, relates Christ’s coming to Gentile nations. They too will be divided, some entering the millennial Kingdom, others cast out into eternal punishment. Since judgment must begin at the house of God (1 Pet 4.17), Israel’s preparedness for their Messiah, and their faithfulness in His service, will be judged first; afterwards, the Gentiles will be assessed according to how they treated persecuted Israelites during the Tribulation.

To further aid our grasp of the parables, if possible read up about contemporary cultural practices. The order of events in a traditional Jewish marriage is relevant for the fifth parable. Before the actual marriage ceremony the young couple would become betrothed. This contractual agreement was more formal than modern day engagement. "Then, after some time had elapsed, the bridegroom would go to the bride’s home where a marriage ceremony would take place. Then the bridegroom and the bride would go to the home of the bridegroom in a long procession. There a great marriage festival would be held. The scene of this parable is laid near the bridegroom’s house where the virgins are waiting for the bridegroom to return from the house of the bride."1 Notice that the bride is never mentioned. Why not? Because the church, which is Christ’s bride, will return with Him to earth to reign. She is presently betrothed to Him, but will at that time have been married to Him in heaven, following the Rapture (Rev 19.7-9). Though Jews and Gentiles will be saved during the Tribulation and enter the blessings of Christ’s Kingdom, no other group of believers in history have such close affinity to the Lord Jesus Christ as His church.

Parable 1. The Fig Tree (Mt 24.32-36; Mk 13.28-32; Lk 21.29-33)

Our Saviour’s words will outlast the universe. Therefore, they are worth paying careful attention to. When foliage appears on the trees we know that summer approaches. Similarly, these signs, as explained by the Lord Jesus, will indicate that His coming is imminent. And once this series of events starts it will be completed within one generation. Here is a warning. We cannot tell when these signs will begin. Neither will those living through the dark tribulation days be able to know with certainty when Christ will return. Their awful affliction in combination with disturbances in the astrological bodies and changes in the earth’s climate and lighting will probably hamper all accurate record keeping. Not even the angels, nor the omniscient Son, who "in His submission to the Father’s will…refrained from calling this bit of information to His conscious human mind",2 knew the exact timing of His return. And so, let us be warned against all futile date setting. "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power" (Acts 1.7).

To be continued.

1 Toussaint S D. Behold the King. A Study of Matthew (Portland, Oregon. Multnomah Press, 1980), p. 284.
2 Macarthur J F. The Second Coming (Wheaton, Illinois. Crossway Books, 1999), p. 139.

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