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When was the last time you heard a sermon or read a passage and thought, “Huh! I never looked at it that way before.” Today’s book promises you a new set of eyes to see passages in a new light.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review the Faithlife Free Book of the Month for October: “Fresh Eyes on Jesus’ Parables: Discovering New Insights in Familiar Passages” by Doug Newton. 208 pages, published by David C. Cook in August 2018.
The First Samaritan Moment
Do you remember your first time hearing or reading the Parable of the Samaritan Man? Wow! Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the religious elite. What a wise and powerful answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”
Do you remember how the weight of the parable came to bear on you? “Can I do that? What does this story mean to me? Will my life now be forever changed?”
Fast forward some years, and you have heard many sermons on the Good Samaritan, you have read many articles on the parable, you have explained the parable to others, perhaps even teaching it in Sunday school.
Now, when a preacher comes up to preach on the Parable of the Samaritan Man, or the Parable of the Sower, or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or other familiar passages, before he has finished reading the passage, you have outlined his sermon and are now just tapping your watch waiting for him to finish. Unless, of course, the preacher offers new insights.
And if he does, those old passages spring back to life. You are gripped by the revelation of God speaking into your life again. Don’t you want a book that promises new insights on familiar passages? Doug Newton’s book “Fresh Eyes on Jesus’ Parables: Discovering New Insights in Familiar Passages” offers more than new insights. The keyword here is ‘discovering’. He gives you the tools for discovery.
Fresh Eye Series
This book is part of a three-book Fresh Eye series. Let me quote from the book’s introduction to the series:
My primary mission with this book series is not to share new insights I’ve uncovered. My greater desire is to reveal specific techniques that will allow you to make new discoveries about familiar passages that can revive your love for the infinite Word and transform your work in teaching and testimony.
The series consists of three books: “Fresh Eyes on Famous Bible Sayings”, “Fresh Eyes on Jesus’ Miracles” and “Fresh Eyes on Jesus’ Parables”, which is the one free for October from Faithlife. All three books in the series offers to teach readers how to discover new insights on familiar passages.
Running Man Makes Every Effort
Who is the writer making this offer? According to his online profile:
Doug Newton is the cofounder and director of the National Prayer Ministry of the Free Methodist Church-USA. The author of twelve books, he served for thirty years as a senior pastor and for fifteen years as editor of Light & Life magazine.
This profile doesn’t convey Newton’s passion to (I quote) “help people see the Bible with fresh eyes and expectancy.” This is a pastor who preached two sermons back-to-back while running on a treadmill just so that he could illustrate what the Greek word spoudazo in 2 Peter 1:5 means. I can almost see the pastor huffing and puffing, “Spoudazo in the Greek means make every effort.”
Some listeners would be attracted to such gimmicks. Some would be turned off.
I have used gimmicks, mostly in sermons targeting children and youth. Now if you think it’s acceptable to use such visual aids for children and youth, then rejecting them on the main Sunday Service might reveal a personal preference rather than a theological line. While we could discuss whether the sign acts of Ezekiel and Jeremiah allows preachers to use gimmicks, that is not the point of the book.
Suspicious Gimmicks and Insights?
Even though I employ gimmicks, I am suspicious of them. Gimmicks like sermon illustrations and personal testimonies can take a life of its own and hijack the sermon. Similarly, even though I offer and desire new insights on familiar passages, I am also suspicious of people offering them, because these phrases are also used to cover distorted or false teachings.
My suspicions are not assured by Newton’s interpretative approach, I quote:
Other scholars have argued that a parable should be reduced to one simple lesson. Seminary students are often trained in that school of thought. Thankfully, a resurgence of interpretation theories has allowed for allegorical readings of parables and their ability to convey multiple points at once.
He later continues:
We need to use our limited permission and let the parables take us into Spirit-guided research, reflection and application, in harmony with the whole Word of God.
He says clearly good things (i.e. it should be in harmony with the whole Word of God) but what does he mean by “allegorical readings of parables and their ability to convey multiple points at once”?
Bingo: Jesus’ Parables
Let’s find out in the book. What are the new insights that Doug Newton offers in this book and how helpful are his techniques on discovering them?
Excluding the introduction, there are ten chapters for the ten parables he has selected. Let me pause and ask you, “How many Parables of Jesus can you remember?” If you are not driving, I suggest you pause this podcast now and list the Parables of Jesus that you remember.
Because we are going to play Bingo, the Parables of Jesus version. If your list, the list that you made, includes all ten of the parables in this book, you can shout, “Bingo!” and earn the admiration of all your peers. By one count, Jesus spoke more than 30 Parables, so get going. Fun for the whole family!
Let’s hear it. The ten parables you will find in this book are: The Hidden Treasure, The Vineyard Workers, The Lost Son, The Friend in Need, The Unmerciful Servant, The Wise and Foolish Builders, The Five Talents, The Shrewd Manager, The Lost Sheep and lastly, the Good Samaritan. How many did you get? Are all these parables familiar to you?
Walkthrough the Hidden Treasure
I’ll walkthrough the first chapter, the Parable of the Hidden Treasure to show what readers should expect for the rest of the book.
First, he leads in with a brief story, humorous and relevant to the point he will eventually make. Soon he introduces the parable, in this chapter he quotes Matthew 13:44:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
He then tells us what the traditional view is. I quote:
One common interpretation … [is]: the kingdom of heaven is such a precious treasure that we, like the man, should give up everything to lay hold of it. Of course, that’s absolutely true—but probably not what Jesus was talking about. So let’s flip our minds upside down, shake out the old teaching, and ask the Holy Spirit to help us discover something new. Let’s start with a quick review of the facts:
What did the man buy? Don’t say “treasure.” He wanted the treasure, but he had to buy the field where he found it in order to possess the treasure. That’s an important observation.
How did the man come up with the money to buy the field? He sold everything he owned.
What was his frame of mind while doing that? He was joyful.
Finally, what was the kingdom of heaven like? Wait . . . don’t say “treasure.” The first thing you must do whenever you approach a parable that begins “the kingdom of heaven (or God) is like . . .” is to put the parable’s elements inside a parenthesis so the phrase “kingdom of heaven” applies to everything that follows. This parable is not saying the kingdom of God is like any one element in the parable, such as the treasure or the man or the field. Rather, the parable is saying the whole picture that follows is what the kingdom of God is like. That is, the man finds treasure, hides it, joyfully sells everything, and buys the field. Given that basic rule of interpretation, we cannot interpret this parable the common way—that the kingdom of God should be like a treasure to us.
Four Things I Like About You
Let me tell you four things I like and one I don’t.
First, I like how he challenges us to really read the text and not just recall whatever we have heard or learnt. Here is the text, read it for yourselves.
Second, I like how teaches by asking questions. I believe that effective learning is often asking the right questions instead of giving the right answers. And if this book helps readers ask better questions, it’s a good book.
Third, he makes a distinction between right teaching and right interpretation. He affirms that the kingdom of heaven is a precious treasure to us, that’s right teaching, but he claims that’s not what Jesus was talking about, that’s not the right interpretation. I think this is an important distinction which preachers and teachers should know.
Fourth, I like it that he says the traditional interpretation is “probably not what Jesus was talking about.” If you recall, earlier he said one parable may convey multiple meanings at once. I like this because he doesn’t say there are two meanings. He says the traditional meaning is wrong and that makes it easier for me to argue against, which you will hear later.
You are the Treasure! It is You!
But I haven’t yet told you what is his conclusion. After telling us that the kingdom of heaven is not the treasure but the whole picture of the man finding, hiding, selling and buying, where would this interpretation lead to?
He leads us by reminding us to be aware and to check our assumptions. Then he throws the big question: “What if the man in the parable is not us? What if the man who finds the hidden treasure is Jesus?” If so, then it is Jesus who gave everything up in order to gain the treasure, and the treasure would be us!
How does Newton support this interpretation? Ironically, for a man who seeks to overcome an interpretation we have received via tradition, he begins his argument by appealing to an earlier tradition.
On the picture of the man being Jesus, he writes:
Did you realize that for the first thousand years of Christendom that picture was likely the more common way of understanding salvation? It is sometimes called Christus Victor.
Using Christus Victor as the interpretative key, Newton then confirms this to be the right way of thinking by connecting the joy, selling and buying in the parable to Hebrews 12:2 “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…”, Philippians 2:6-7, “[Jesus] made himself nothing…” and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.”
Finally, Newton tells us how this Christus Victor interpretation can make a different in our lives. Christ gave up everything in order to gain you, his treasure. He writes:
When you become His, Jesus wonderfully and lovingly turns your life upside down and erases the sin, shame, corruption, and marks the Devil left in your life, granting you a clean slate and heart that He writes on by His Spirit. Because you belong to Him.
This chapter ends, as does every chapter, with two sections titled 20/20 Focus and Vision Check, both of which I will explain later.
Standing Up For Tradition
But first I want to ask, “Are you convinced with Doug Newton’s interpretation? The parable of the hidden treasure is not about us giving all we have to gain Christ but instead is Christ giving his life to gain us?”
Let’s be clear, both teachings are right. If the teaching is not taught here, it is taught elsewhere in the Bible. We are asking, “Which is the right interpretation of this parable?”
Let us look at the context. The Parable of the Hidden Treasure sits in the midst of a string of parables! In them, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to:
- a man sowing good seed in the field,
- a grain of mustard seed,
- hidden treasure,
- a merchant in search of fine pearls,
- a net
and closes with Jesus saying:
Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
What is the treasure here? Can the treasure be us? Or is it more likely that the treasure is the kingdom of God, the old treasure is the old understanding we receive from Moses and the prophets and the new treasure is the new understanding we receive from Jesus and the apostles?
Second point. In the string of parables, what is the unifying theme? Or asking it another way, “What triggered this string of parables?”
We read in Matthew 13:10 that the disciples after hearing the Parable of the Sower asks Jesus, “Why do you speak in parables?” And Jesus answers them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 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.”
If we take the trigger as the interpretative key, it becomes clear. The good soil receives God’s Word and produces a hundred-, sixty-, thirty-fold. Jesus explains he speaks in parables because there are two sets of people: the one who has and the one who has not. As we follow the string of parables, we see that in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure, Jesus is continuing his teaching; he is describing a man who gives up everything to gain the kingdom of heaven. The man who has, for whom more will be given. The man who is the good soil. The man who will be saved. The man is you and me. The man is not Jesus.
Right Teaching Good Christian
At this point, you might think, “This book isn’t any good, is it? Terence just said Newton got it wrong.”
Well, I think he interpreted the parable wrongly but I think the his teaching is right. Many of his interpretations and questions lands on a note of Christian compassion, kindness and care. His section titled 20/20 Focus asks 3-4 questions or prompts which if you do them would make you a better follower of Christ.
I Got It Right Because Of Him
As for his insights being wrong, well, get this… my conclusions that you heard earlier, I employed two of Newton’s interpretative techniques.
The star of the book is not the new insights, it’s the techniques to get new insights. The different insights are examples of what you can get by applying the techniques.
This is made clear in the section titled Vision Check. For the first chapter, Newton writes:
Whenever you begin to think about anything, you start with assumptions you’re not even aware of. The key to clear thinking is to release those assumptions. Don’t let them control what you see before you check them out like we did in this parable. (Are we right to assume the man who bought the field is a person like ourselves?)
Newton is right. We may assume we know what the text says. We should not be defensive if asked to check our assumptions.
Vision Check is a key feature of the book for two reasons. First, he explains, in simple terms, the interpretative technique used in the chapter. Second reason is he asks you to practice the technique on a given bible verse and compare your answer against his.
For example, on checking assumptions, he writes:
Practice this skill by going to 2 Corinthians 9:15, where Paul wrote, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” First, identify what most people assume Paul meant by the “indescribable gift” and hold it in question. Then read the preceding verses (vv. 6–14) to see if the common assumption fits the context. Or is the “indescribable gift” referring to something else? Hop on dougnewton.com or the Fresh Eyes app to compare your thoughts with mine.
I went to the website and found a 4-minute video of Newton going through his answer for the homework. It’s a really nice personal touch to have the author walkthrough the exercise with you.
He does this for every chapter so by the end of this book, you would have practiced 10 interpretative techniques. And if you get the whole series, you can learn 31 of them.
You might think that I would not recommend this book after disagreeing with his primary conclusion in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure, and your interpretation of my comments would be wrong. He has insights which I agree with.
What Triggered It All?
Remember when I said, let us find out what triggered the string of parables? Well, that’s the technique Newton presents in chapter three, applying it on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This all too familiar passage is often taught to emphasise God the Father’s great love, which is not a wrong teaching but not the right interpretation.
Newton shows us that by asking what triggered this parable, we see that this is the third parable following the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and thus in keeping with the pattern, the Prodigal Son would be better named the Lost Son. And what triggered this series of three parables? We read in Luke 15:2:
The Pharisees had grumbled saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
And Jesus responded with the three parables where the recovery of the sheep, coin and son leads to joy! Joy in heaven, joy before the angels of God and joy in the prodigal’s home. Instead of grumbling as the prodigal’s brother did, the Pharisees should be rejoicing! Newton writes:
Even though we might like to bask in the father’s love as the parable’s emphatic point, Jesus clearly combined the three parables into one strong rebuke of the Pharisees’ attitude.
Did Newton discover an insight previously unknown to man? No. In a sermon, Charles Spurgeon linked the three parables together. John MacArthur has a book, “The Prodigal Son” where he points readers to what triggered the parable. The important thing is not who discovered the insight or even the insight itself but how we get there.
In this chapter’s Vision Check, Newton writes:
You never fully understand what’s going on in a person’s mind until you know what triggered what he or she did or said. You have to ask, “I know what you said, but why did you say it? What are you getting at?”
So how is it that two man can employ the same methods but reach different conclusions? Well, I would say that for the first chapter, Newton did not go far enough in asking what triggered the parable. But if asked, he probably would explain why he is right and I am wrong. And I want to point out that the difference is because we are wrestling, not with each other but with Scripture.
I am happy with any book that gives me more tools to wrestle with Scripture and Newton does a great job of inspiring readers to try the tools for themselves to get fresh eyes on the text.
Do You Mean New Insights or ‘New Insights’?
Which leads me to my final thought on the premise of the book. When we say we want fresh eyes or new insights on familiar passages, what exactly do we mean?
If it’s music, when I want fresh and new insights, do I mean it’s the same hymn but I now appreciate it better because I know it was composed by a mourning father as his ship sailed past the site where his daughters drowned? So it’s the same hymn played the same way but it’s now more significant to the listener.
Or in the second case, when I say fresh and new: do I mean it’s the same hymn but jazzed up, with drums and electric guitar, a faster tempo and more modern. It’s the same hymn but because it’s presented differently, it’s fresh to our ears.
Or in the third case, when I say fresh and new: do I mean change the song because the song has been overplayed and it’s about time for everyone to hear something different but the same.
We are not talking about music here, we are talking about interpretations.
My worry is some people like the idea of fresh eyes and new insights because they want, above everything else, novelty. That is dangerous and I would argue underlies the temptation “to go and serve other gods – gods that neither you nor your fathers have known.” (Deuteronomy 13:6). Novelty is not but it can be a form of idolatry.
For others, fresh eyes and new insights is a thunderclap to wake slumbering Christians. You have heard the Good Friday message so often, how can we make it as meaningful as the first time you heard it? Why don’t we show a clip from the movie the Passion of the Christ? Is it gimmicky? Maybe. Is it necessary? No. Does it help the congregation see what Jesus went through for sinners? Yes. So the audio-visual is meant to compensate for our lack of imagination and because we are so far away from that time and place. Thus, the text becomes fresh without changing the message.
But do we need to make the delivery more hip and trendy with audio visual magic to make it fresh? No, as Newton abundantly shows. Another example in books, is John Piper’s 700 page Providence. In an interview, Piper affirmed he doesn’t say anything new about God’s Providence. His position is an old position. He gives fresh eyes and new insights by showing the connecting parts, a more complete picture than the scattered pieces we have.
Therefore, the techniques in this book can:
- give you a deeper appreciation and understanding of a traditional view,
- make the traditional view more significant (or if you prefer, more relevant) by bridging ancient Scripture into modern times, or
- challenge the traditional view to be replaced with an alternate view. A view that can be God-glorifying right or dangerously wrong.
In short, the techniques introduced in this book are like scalpels. The results depend on the surgeon. And I hope this doesn’t come across too macabre, but failed surgeries are rigorously studied for surgeons to learn what not to do. We should do the same for interpretations. And we do!
More Interpretations Help
When we study apologetics, we study heresies, which are often wrong interpretations of key passages. In a similar but less consequential way, when we study different interpretations of Jesus’ parables, we are applying the discipline of humbly taking in an alternate view, analysing it from all angles using all the techniques in our disposal and deciding whether is it true or not. Just like how I appreciate reading commentaries that debate the merits of different interpretations, I appreciate Newton explaining how he arrives at his insights even as I disagree with him.
One added bonus of knowing more interpretations is it takes the wind out of people who are chasing after novelty.
Your friend comes to you and says, “Did you know that this passage could be read in this way and that? It’s shocking isn’t it how we have been misled all these centuries?!” And you listen and say, “Oh… I know that view. Have you considered so and so before you accepted it as true?” If your friend is chasing novelty, he will be discouraged by your response. But if he aims for truth, he will engage and want to know more, and you will be ready.
In conclusion, I like the book because of the interpretative techniques. The new insights he offers are a mixed bag. It’s only 208 pages and written in a very accessible way, plenty of personal anecdotes and humour. If you are bored or spiritually dry, you could give this book a try. You might just wake up with fresh eyes. Don’t forget it’s now available for free for this month and only this month from Faithlife.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Fresh Eyes on Jesus’ Parables: Discovering New Insights from Familiar Passages” by Doug Newton.
I confess one area in frequent need of freshness here is how to persuade you to share this podcast with more of your friends. Maybe instead of new insights, you need new friends. Not for my benefit – you are making an assumption there! – but for the kingdom of heaven.
I am working on another review on a free book for October. It’s the free book from Logos, “Exalting Jesus in 1, 2, 3 John by Daniel L. Akin. I may need an extra week to prepare the episode but I aim to publish it before the month ends. Just get the books and tell your friends about the free books (and this podcast that reviews them!). Take care and God bless!