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Jesus on Parables, Forgiveness, and Salvation (Mark 4:10-12)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches his Apostles

Jesus Teaches his Apostles

    10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. 11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: 12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
    Compare: Matthew 13:1-23; Luke 8:4-15

Salvation is Not for Everyone?

It is no surprise that Jesus’ apostles didn’t understand what he was talking about when he delivered his parable about the seeds and the sower. It appears to be metaphorical, so the meaning isn’t immediately obvious or intuitive to everyone hearing it. Naturally, they ask him about it.

Stranger than even the parable is Jesus' response here, which is that the parable is supposed to be a mystery and that most people aren’t supposed to understand it. This is one of the most controversial passages in the entire New Testament. The apostles will be given the keys to interpretation, apparently, but not everyone else. Why? Because if they did understand it then “at any time” they might be converted and “their sins” would be forgiven.

Please, do go back and read over that paragraph again, because it’s very important that you fully understand the significance of this. According to orthodox Christian theology, Jesus’ entire purpose was to save people from their sins, but here we find him saying that he didn’t want that to happen as a consequence of his preaching. Isn’t that contradictory? Doesn’t it contradict Jesus’ specially forgiving of people’s sins? Perhaps. Although just three verses long, this passage has important issues that need to be addressed.

First, Jesus is clear that those who hear him can be divided into two groups: those who see and hear without perceiving and understanding, and those who see and hear while also perceiving and understanding. Just about everyone falls into the former group while only a select few fall into the latter group — specifically, Jesus’ twelve apostles.

Similar tactics have been used in just about every “cult” that has ever been created: some people are told that they are special and are carriers of information not given to anyone else, thus leading them to believe that they are different and more important than others. This is hardly a means for conveying anything like “universal love” — it is instead a message of exclusion.

Keeping in mind that Mark was written well after the events described and after Jesus would have died, could these verses be an effort to establish a special level of authority for the apostles? That is possible. These verses would allow that an apostle could assert special insight into anything attributed to Jesus simply by virtue of his having spent time with him.

On the other hand, we also have to keep in mind that Mark was likely written long after the events described — probably forty years or so. It’s possible that the apostles weren’t even alive at this time anymore. If any were alive, it wouldn’t have been many, and it is unlikely that this passage would have been meant to benefit just a couple of elderly people.

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