We can go through all the parables of the Bible. After studying a few of them carefully, we will realize that there are certain principles to interpreting parables. One cannot interpret them in any way he chooses. Once we identify principles, we will know how to interpret other parables when we study them.
Every parable has its subject and its subsidiary points. In interpreting a parable, one must distinguish between the main thought and the subsidiary thought. The main subject must be interpreted point by point. Subsidiary thoughts can be interpreted in detail, or they can be skipped over. For example, the Lord spoke seven parables in Matthew 13, the first of which is the parable of the sower. There is one kind of seed but four kinds of ground. The word is the same, but the hearts are different. This is the subject. We have to pay attention to the word and the four kinds of hearts. Other points, such as the meaning of the devouring of the seed by the birds or the significance of the number of “folds” the good seed multiplies, are not as crucial. Some seeds can multiply a thousandfold or even twelve hundredfold. But the Lord does not say anything about them. This means that the exact number of “folds” is not important. If we pay attention to the size of the birds, the altitude they are flying, or the exact number of “folds” the seeds multiply, we are on the wrong track. In interpreting parables, the first thing to do is distinguish the subject from the subsidiary points.
Another point worth noting is that no parable is to be interpreted in a literal way. For example, in the parable of the sower, the sower does not mean an actual sower, the field does not mean an actual field, and the seed is not an actual seed. This is obvious. All parables have their spiritual significance and should be interpreted spiritually. But this does not mean that every point within a parable has to have spiritual significance attached to it. It only means that the main points in the parable must be interpreted spiritually. The subsidiary points can be interpreted literally. Some people try to attach interpretation to every main point as well as every minor point in a parable. This is wrong. Matthew 13 is the first instance where the Lord spoke to us in parables, and in the first parable the Lord gave us the interpretation Himself. He did not interpret every point. With some points, He gave the interpretations. With other points, He did not interpret at all. For example, in expounding the “good earth,” He told us that the earth refers to man’s heart, while good refers to the state of being noble and good (Luke 8:15). The Lord has interpreted this for us. We know that a noble and good heart is the subject here. The Lord did not expand on the meaning of the words “yielded fruit.” Hence, the yielding of fruit is not the main thought. If we are caught up with the details, we will lose sight of the spiritual significance of the passage, and our course will be wrong. It is not easy to interpret the parables. One must seek light concerning each one of them before he can interpret them properly.
We should pay particular attention to the miracles of the Lord Jesus. One can, of course, also study the other miracles. For the Old Testament miracles, one can study those of Elijah and Elisha. For the New Testament miracles, one can study those of Paul’s. If we consider the miracles as a special subject and study them, we will find out that each miracle has its own characteristics. For example, there is a difference between the miracle of healing the blind and the miracle of healing the lame. The eyes have to do with seeing; the blind have to see. Lameness has to do with power; the lame have to walk. In studying these miracles, we must first find out the special characteristics in each case and then find out how the Lord deals with them. This will give us a glimpse as to how He deals with our spiritual problems.
The Lord attached a spiritual teaching to some miracles. For example, in the case of the man born blind in John 9, the Lord clearly said that He would make the blind see and those that can see blind (v. 39). Again, in the case of the resurrection of Lazarus, the Lord clearly said that He is the resurrection and the life (11:25).
Some miracles are not followed explicitly by the Lord’s teachings. Yet there are teachings contained in the miracles, and we have to look to the Lord to show us these teachings. For example, in the case of the healing of the lame man, there is spiritual teaching attached to it. At the time the Lord healed him, He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” But He did not simply forgive his sins; He also said to him, “Rise, take up your mat and go to your house.” The man rose up, took up the mat, and went out before all men (Mark 2:3-12). Here we find a spiritual principle: It is not enough to be forgiven of our sins; we must have the manifestation of the signs of life and the ability to walk spiritually. No one can say that he is forgiven who cannot rise up to walk. Those who are forgiven will surely walk. Forgiveness comes before walking, and walking is the result of forgiveness. We see a very clear picture here.
(How to Study the Bible, Chapter 5, by Watchman Nee)