“…God our Savior…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth…” (1 Timothy 2:3b-4)
How can they [be saved] if [Jesus speaks 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” (Mark 4:12)?
Isn’t that the whole purpose?
As always, what a great question! We’ll explore this in two parts, starting by examining the first Scripture to get a better sense of what it’s trying to say.
PART 1 – 1 Timothy 2:1-4
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Paul is talking about two things in this passage, A) that followers of Jesus should pray for all people and B) that we should live lives of peace and dignity. Then he expounds on why we should do this, namely, that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The most pressing question at hand for this passage is basically, “If God DESIRES that all people be saved, why aren’t they?”
First, we must remember is that God is always consistent with His Word. If He says something in one portion of Scripture then He will never do anything to contradict it, for that would be totally against His character quality of perfection.
Second, 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love,” and since God must be consistent with His Word, the way that love is expressed and acted on must line up with the words of 1 Corinthians 13:5, that “love does not insist on its own way.” Furthermore, also in 1 Corinthians 13, we find that love “hopes all things” (verse 7), which is surely a statement of desire.
We see, then, that God does desire all people to be saved, but He cannot force that desire to fulfillment without contradicting His nature of love.
Put another way, The New American Commentary remarks, “The will of God does not function as a ruthless bulldozer crushing and forcing into obedience any who resist it. God urges us to repentance with his goodness rather than coercing us toward the truth by the application of naked power. (see Romans 2:4)”
Finally, when we look at Romans 2:4-5, we find this:
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
So, though we see that God desires all people be saved, the reality of human choice is still a part of the equation, and Paul reminds us that some will choose to ignore God’s kindness in Christ and receive wrath instead.
PART 2 – Mark 4:10-12
Now, seeing that God wants all people to be saved, it does seem counter-productive for Jesus to intentionally obscure the message of salvation, which is what the Mark 4 passage seems to imply. As is often the case with Jesus’ statements, however, there is more to be found beneath the surface if we’re willing to dig a little.
Let’s start by looking at the way this passage is handled in all three synoptic Gospels (unsurprisingly, John does not include this account), as well as the original passage in Isaiah from which Jesus quotes.
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 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. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“ ‘ “You will indeed hear but never understand,
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
lest they should see with their eyes
And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 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, 12 so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that
‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Those are the passages for consideration, now let’s get to work.
First, while the Mark and Luke accounts are condensed, Matthew’s longer version reveals the central purpose of Jesus’ statement, namely, that the prophecy of Isaiah would be fulfilled. This was, in fact, a central theme of Jesus’ life as a whole, and many of His actions were specifically designed to fulfill prophecy so that He would be revealed as Messiah.
Therefore, the “so that” of Mark and Luke can be understood in the sense that the reason for Jesus’ parables wasn’t necessarily “so that” people wouldn’t understand Him, but that prophecy would be fulfilled.
The question then comes up about why God would want His people’s hearts hardened in the first place. However, a closer look at Matthew’s account shows that this may not be the case. Look again at Matthew 13:13-14a: “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…”
It’s not that God is trying to keep people from understanding, it’s that they have done it to themselves already.
We see this concept expounded on in Ephesians 4:17-19, which says this.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (Ephesians 4:17-19)
Note that Paul explains that the reason for a lack of understanding is that “they have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality…” This carries the same sense as both the Isaiah passage’s, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive” and the Matthew passage’s, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes have closed.”
It’s not that Jesus’ parables are intentionally obscuring the truth of His message, but that they are inevitably revealing the truth of the people’s unwillingness to listen.
The Puritans had a saying in centuries gone by, “The same sun that melts the ice, hardens the clay.” It’s a reminder that though the energy of the sun pours out equally no matter what the condition of the ground, the state of the ground determines what the result of the sunshine will be.
Far from being a contradiction, the fact that God desires all to be saved and yet allows us to close our hearts to Him is a resounding reminder of His consistency.