I was asked once about the scripture we find in Mark 4:11-12:
“And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’’”
The question was “Is Jesus saying that he speaks in parables so people won’t be able to understand what he wants?” It is quickly followed by the question, “Isn’t this completely unfair?”
This passage was brought up along with passages in Exodus where it says that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Once again, the sentiment is “Isn’t that completely unfair?”
This can be a very confusing passage, but with a little study it can be understood and also be reconciled with the example of Pharaoh.
When read in complete context, we see that Jesus was telling the parable of the sower and that he told it to a large crowd that was gathered with him. After the parable, he talks to the twelve and tells them that the “secret of the kingdom of God” has been given to them (the apostles). In Mark 4:12, Jesus quotes scripture:
“And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.'” – Isaiah 6:9,10
This is important for a few reasons.
First of all, it shows that when Jesus speaks in parables, it is a fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah.
Secondly, Jesus wasn’t speaking in parables to confuse those who were listening, but to keep the “secret of the kingdom of God” from those who would use it to prematurely try and execute him. He had to wait for the right time and right then wasn’t the time.
Thirdly, the reason that so many in Israel wouldn’t be able to understand was because of their own self-caused hardening. The parallel scripture is found in Matthew 13:13 – 16. Notice that there, he makes it clear who caused the problem and the lack of understanding:
“This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” – Matthew 13:13 – 16
This parallel scripture makes it much easier to understand. So, to interpret the scripture in Mark to mean that Jesus spoke in code to keep people from understanding is a misinterpretation. Jesus spoke so that those who wanted to see could and those who didn’t, couldn’t.
This is much the same answer as the problem of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Scripture says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart six times before God hardened it. Right after the first time that scripture says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, God said:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me. For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.’” – Exodus 9:13-17
God gave Pharaoh six chances to do the right thing. When it was clear that Pharaoh wasn’t going to do it, God continued the plagues to prove to Pharaoh just exactly who He is. Did God cause Pharaoh to sin? Absolutely not! Pharaoh’s actions caused the hardening of his own heart. The hardening that God causes stops short of causing sinners to sin. This isn’t that hard to understand. We see it all the time. The same gospel softens some people to the listen and hardens others to ignore. When God said that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart, he simply meant that His words would not be received well by Pharaoh and that would cause a heart hardening.
God does give us a choice to follow Him or not. But, He knows that his words will soften some and harden others. Sometimes, this seems “unfair” to us as humans. However, we need to be careful about thinking that God isn’t “being fair”. God cannot sin nor does He tempt any to sin. All He does is good. Our fairness doesn’t count into the mix.
In other words, everything God does is fair. Romans 9 explains it:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? “ – Romans 9:14 – 24
Keep in mind, this is a warning against questioning God, not telling us we have no choice in the matter. Verse 14 is the key. There is no injustice on God’s part. He also can’t lie. So, we know a couple of things through what he has told us.
- He will deal with us justly.
- He will not tempt us to sin.
- He gives us free will to follow or reject him (soften or harden our hearts)
- He will judge and punish or reward us accordingly.
In other words, even when it looks like God is being “unfair” with us according to our idea of fair, He is actually being more “fair” than we deserve. He even sent His son (totally “unfair” for both Him and Jesus) to make it more “fair” for us. And even after all of that, although he doesn’t have to, he leaves the choice up to us to follow or reject him.
What an awesome God!