Parables in the Eye of the Storm: Christ's Responses in the Face of Conflict

By Stanley A. Ellisen
Grand Rapids : Kregel (2001). 272 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 279-281

 The late, long-time professor of biblical literature at Western Baptist Seminary, Portland, Oregon, finished this clear work after retiring. It stems from a 1960s doctoral dissertation, “The Hermeneutics of the Parables,” at Dallas Theological Seminary, plus a teaching career of learning and crafting.

Ellisen sees a grasp of Jesus’ parables, one-third of His teaching, as the key to being properly impacted by His words. He views parables in the context of opposition. His writing is lucid, careful in word artistry, and colorful as well as scholarly. Ellisen felt that since Jesus was never boring, he should not be. He weighs every statement to reveal the need provoking each story, main factors in a situation, the chief idea, supports for the interpretation, and how principles from each parable apply cogently today.

Among discussions is the messianic Kingdom (Chapter 2), a theme Ellisen keeps foremost, plus exegetical guidelines for interpretation (Chapter 4). Other chapters discuss hints of disaster in early parables, mysteries of the Kingdom, and stories on entering the Kingdom, servanthood, human duty and God’s concern, preparing for the Kingdom, future rewards, and rejection/loss. An epilog summarizes the book’s highlights.

The hermeneutics discussion discourages allegorizing, foreign moral generalizations, redaction criticism, and destructive denials by The Jesus Seminar about words being from Jesus. Five steps capture each parable’s main message: identify the problem that provoked Jesus to cast a lesson in a parable, find the key idea, coordinate details with this key, clarify and defend the chief point, and apply relevantly what Jesus aimed to spotlight.

As this reviewer understands Ellisen’s idea of the Matthew 13 mysteries, Ellisen sees the mysteries as relating not to the OT but to a new kingdom phase until Jesus comes to fulfill the OT expectation. However, it appears better to relate parabolic points of Matthew 13 to the same anticipated OT Kingdom, these giving facets pertinent to that Kingdom expectation after Israel’s rejection and in the interadvent age before the Kingdom comes. For example, despite wide Israelite rejection, the forecast kingdom will succeed in that various reactions to its message will relate to whether people will enter it or not when it comes (soils, wheat and tares). Also in view is a present-age development of interests related to the future Kingdom so that at its second-advent coming many will have qualified to enter it (mustard seed, leaven), the Kingdom’s value (treasure, pearl), separation of saved and unsaved when the Kingdom arrives (tares, dragnet), and giving the message pertaining to the kingdom to prepare people for it (Householder).

Ellisen argues that the OT predicted a kingdom on earth to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3, 7). He adds that Jesus speaks about a kingdom with spiritual values but on earth. “The notion of a spiritual kingdom in human hearts without these outward dimensions was foreign to the thinking of the prophets, as well as to John” (as in Matt 3:3). John expected the Messiah to reestablish an empire in place of David’s, so did Luke’s Gospel in 1:32-33 and Matthew’s Gospel (33). The Kingdom Jesus referred to was rejected by many Israelites, and He will set it up at His future advent, restoring Israel and reigning righteously. “Mysteries” in Matthew 13, in view of national rejection of the Messiah, refer to facets Jesus will effect in His Kingdom plans, using the present age before He fulfills the covenant plan to Israel. At the same time, He blesses the receptive of other nations also. Jesus pursues a course in which aspects that the OT had not stipulated (“mysteries”) must occur before Israel’s national fulfillment. In these, Jesus opens up “His broader purposes of world redemption” (3 8), part of God’s intent via international aspects of the covenant with Abraham.

Chapter 3 defines a parable (43) and distinguishes between valid biblical allegory and parable. It gives reasons why human allegorical interpretations are wrong; they read foreign ideas into Scripture and differ from valid biblical allegory. Ellisen notes the advantages of parables to convey truths: the stories’ universal appeal, the potency of provocative analogies, simplicity, and stimulating hearers’ objective judgment.

The book appears to be the best yet among premillennial works in articulating crystal-clear summaries of most parables and defending these by interpretive principles. Ellisen makes vivid use of customs to elucidate parables, and pinpoints relevant issues in well-organized paragraphs headed by bold captions. The sower and soils (Matthew 13 and parallels) has rocky soil refer to “superficial, partygoing fans” who loved Jesus’ miracles but “deserted Him when the party was over.” Jesus depicts via rocky and thorny areas those who are not truly saved. Leaven does not depict evil, but a positive idea: despite rejection of Jesus up through Matthew 12, Kingdom interests will prosper as God uses an interadvent era by the dynamic of the Holy Spirit working within human lives (John 14:16-17; 102), corresponding to yeast spreading in dough. Treasure and pearl depict a kingdom of such worth that no sacrifice or effort is too great in light of it. The friend at midnight (Luke 11) does not urge persistence in prayer per se, but the giving of the neighbor inside to show goodness (and God as the loving Father doing this much more, vv. 11-12). Yet God’s character encourages persistent, confident praying.

Endnotes for chapters reflect wide research in relevant literature of various viewpoints. The last two pages index discussions of thirty-nine parables. Only a high rating does justice to this book for teachers, students, church leaders, and Christians in general. It is very readable, relevantly stirring, and has many sound perceptions on issues.