Simon J. Kistemaker (Ph.D., Free University, Amsterdam) was a professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida (He passed away in September, 2017). He is the author of numerous biblical commentaries in Baker’s New Testament Commentary Series, including the volume on Revelation.
The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told is a biblical commentary that focuses solely on the parables of Jesus that are recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Kistemaker states the goal of his book: “In this book I have tried to meet the need of pastors and students of the Bible who wish to consult an evangelical book comprising all the parables of Jesus and the majority of the parabolic sayings recorded in the Synoptic Gospels” (8). The book is aimed at the level of theologically trained pastors, but because technical details are relegated to an extensive “End Notes” section, the text is user-friendly for any serious Bible student (8).
Kistemaker speaks extensively about his approach to God’s Word and biblical interpretation in the introduction of his commentary. He believes in the authenticity of Scripture and in the inerrancy of God’s Word (12). He ascribes to the historical-grammatical approach to interpreting Scripture (13). He believes that Scripture must interpret Scripture, and that God will never contradict himself in his Word (18). Specifically, in the realm of interpreting parables, Kistemaker warns against improper allegorical interpretations and the dangerous search for hidden meanings within Jesus’ parables. Instead, he recognizes that Jesus taught in the form of parables so that the readily known and accepted elements of the story he told could lead his hearers to one basic spiritual truth. Kistemaker writes, “Anyone interpreting the parables should know the one basic point a parable conveys, understand the central message Jesus is teaching, and fittingly apply the parable to the life of the people in the audience” (15).
Kistemaker then goes on to apply these principles of interpretation to offer sound commentary on thirty-nine of Jesus’ parables and parabolic sayings that are recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Each chapter covers a different parable and begins with the biblical text of the parable (if a parable was recorded in multiple gospels, both or all three texts are included). Each chapter is anywhere from two to ten pages (most are around four or five).
Kistemaker’s commentary often provides a deeper look into the historical and cultural details that would have been relevant to the story Jesus told (while at the same time frequently cautioning against using such details to make unintended allegorical connections). For example, in the parable of The Sower (Mt 5:13; Mk 5:30; Lk 14:34,35), he explains the ins and outs of the farming process and the importance of agriculture in the Galilean region in which Jesus lived (31,32). In the parable of The Ten Virgins (Mt 25:1-13), he informs his readers of the customs that would have surrounded a marriage in 1st century Israel (114,115). In the parable of The Talents (Mt 25:14-30), he describes the nature of commerce and the economy of Jesus’ day (120,121). Such details would have been readily understood by his original audience. Because they are not as readily understood to Bible students of different ages and cultures, Kistemaker includes these fitting and necessary details at the beginning of each chapter.
Near the conclusion of each chapter, Kistemaker’s commentary often contains a sentence or series of sentences that captures the main point of Jesus’ story in a clear and succinct way. As he explains Jesus’ parabolic saying about salt (Mt 5:13; Mk 9:50; Lk 14:34,35), he writes, “As salt has the characteristic of checking deterioration, so Christians should be a moral influence in the society in which they live. By their words and deeds they should arrest spiritual and moral corruption” (22). As he commented on the parable of The Weeds and The Wheat (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43), he explains, “[There is] conflict between good and evil, between God and Satan. And in this conflict Satan loses this battle…The parable instructs us to be patient and not to act as self-appointed judges” (48,49). In the parable of The Two Debtors (Lk 7:36-50), he makes this Christ-centered application: “Love for Jesus can only be genuine when we acknowledge him as the Savior in whom we receive forgiveness of sin. We can have the greatest respect for Jesus and can even serve him; but genuine love for him comes only when in Jesus we have experienced remission of sin and assurance of pardon. Then we have learned to know him as Savior; then our love is expressed to him in deeds of gratitude” (139). The conclusions Kistemaker draws as he explains Jesus’ parables are doctrinally sound and simply stated. They lead the reader to understand the simple meanings of Jesus’ stories without becoming bogged down in a search for hidden meanings.
The author also does an admirable job of making connections to other sections of Scripture that apply to the point Jesus makes in his parables, often citing references from the Old Testament. For example, in the parable of The Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16), he points to Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:15, which state that God desired employers to pay their workers before the workers left for the night (74). In the parable of The Tenants (Mt 21:33-46; Mk 12:1-12; Lk 20:9-19), he draws a connection to “The Song of the Vineyard” from Isaiah 5 (86,87). In the parable of The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), he references similar language used in 2 Chronicles 28:15 and Hosea 6:9 (145). Such references can lead the reader to further study, and they provide a deeper understanding as to why Jesus may have chosen to tell the specific stories he told.
Kistemaker’s approach to the Word of God is exemplary, and his commentary can be trusted. He demonstrates an understanding of the life and times of Jesus and of the cultural norms of his day (which is especially useful when studying stories of Jesus that were embedded into the day-to-day of his life, times, and culture). Kistemaker makes it clear that the details he provides about culture and setting are simply to help his readers gain a better understanding and appreciation for the story, rather than to lead his readers to make dangerous allegorical applications. He has a valuable way of capturing the main point of Jesus’ teaching in a clear and concise manner. While his writing could be described as heavily informational, he also demonstrates an understanding of law and gospel, and his writing is Christ-centered and evangelical.
The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told reads similarly to The People’s Bible commentary, with perhaps a bit more detail and depth. As such, pastors may find benefit in incorporating it into their study routine anytime one of Jesus’ parables is the focus of a sermon or Bible study. The extensive “End Notes” section (a few pages of commentary could have as many as twenty end notes included) and bibliography could also be useful in directing study to other helpful resources. Because of the user-friendly format, conciseness of each entry, and Kistemaker’s easy-to-read writing style, the book could also be a helpful resource for lay people to use as they study more deeply on their own.
Because Kistemaker’s commentary focuses specifically on parables, the outline of his book could also serve as an outline for an extensive Bible study (or sermon) series on the parables of Jesus. It could even be used as a daily or weekly devotional, as each individual entry on a parable would only take a few minutes to read, while providing several insightful applications upon which to meditate.
In summary, The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told can serve as a handy resource for a pastor’s bookshelf. While Kistemaker’s commentary may not captivate a Bible student with insights and applications never discovered or thought about before, this isn’t his goal. He provides sound expositions of the teachings of Jesus based on sound biblical interpretation, and his words will lead his readers to grow in the grace and knowledge of their Savior.