How Can We Understand Jesus' Parables? Dr. Peter Gurry

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Peter Gurry about the parables of Jesus.

Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Peter Gurry (@pjgurry) serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He's also co-director of the Text and Canon Institute, as well as an elder at Whitton Avenue Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Gurry is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of several books, including Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (IVP Academic, 2019), and Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible (Crossway, 2022).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.


Brian Arnold (00:18):

Jesus is the greatest teacher in the history of the world, and he often taught using parables. Some of the most well-known and beloved stories of Scripture come in the form of parables. Think about the prodigal son, who takes his inheritance early, squanders everything in a life of sin, and then slinks back to the father, who meets his returning son with great joy. Or the story about the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which sprouts into a large tree. We're told it's like the kingdom that seems to start small, but grows enormously. One of my favorites is the persistent widow, who is unrelenting in her request to the wicked judge. Eventually he gives in, and Jesus tells us that our Father, who is gracious and kind, is even more willing to provide for those who ask of him. Through these stories, we come to know what the expansion of the kingdom is like, the significance of faith, and the heart of God. But why did Jesus talk in parables? Even his disciples wondered why he talked cryptically.


Brian Arnold (01:13):

How are we to read the parables? How can we understand them? Well, here to guide us through the parables today is Dr. Peter Gurry. Dr. Gurry is assistant professor of New Testament at Phoenix Seminary, and co-director of the Text and Canon Institute, and serves as an elder at Whitton Avenue Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to teaching courses in Greek and New Testament, Dr. Gurry conducts research in the field of New Testament textual criticism, and has a book coming out in October, titled Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible, co-authored with Dr. John Meade. Dr. Gurry, welcome back to the podcast.


Peter Gurry (01:48):

It's good to be with you.


Brian Arnold (01:49):

So our big question today is this—how can we understand Jesus' parables? And when we look at the New Testament, those first four books of the New Testament, or the Gospels, and Jesus frequently talks in these things we call parables. So let's begin with definitions. What is a parable?


Peter Gurry (02:05):

Right. Good question. So, what is a parable? Okay. The Greek word behind it is very similar to our English word. In fact, we get our English word straight from it. It's parabole. And it comes from a combination of two parts, which means sort of something like "to throw beside." And the word actually...a good example of kind of getting at the idea of it is that it can be used of two ships that come side by side to fire on each other in a sea battle. Okay? The idea is to set two things side by side for the sake of comparison. Okay? So think that that's what a parable is—setting two things side by side for the sake of comparison. Okay? My own personal favorite definition of the parable is it's a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application—and this is my favorite part—to tease it into active thought. One of the things that makes the parables so significant is that they're the kind of things that hang with you. They puzzle you. And I think that's one of the reasons why Jesus taught so often with them, is because they have that ability to tease our mind into active thought.


Brian Arnold (03:07):

And why they stick so well. Even a lot of people who don't know much about the Bible, you say the prodigal son—they know that story, and they have some conceptions about that story. And probably even think of themselves, or somebody else in their life who is the prodigal son or daughter.


Peter Gurry (03:21):



Brian Arnold (03:22):

Well, you know, at first glance, we look at stories like parables and they seem like cute sermon illustrations, and they should be really clear and easy to understand. But even the disciples, we see in Scripture, struggled at times to understand the parables. Why is that? Why did Jesus choose this method of teaching then?


Peter Gurry (03:39):

Right. So keep in mind that parables were common enough in Jesus' culture. So you find them in the Old Testament, for example. Remember when David sins with Bathsheba, and Nathan, the prophet, comes to him. He tells a parable to convict David of his sin. And in fact, in the book of Proverbs, you find the Greek word for parable used to describe the Proverbs. And one of the things that people should probably know is that the word parable is used in the New Testament for much more than just the famous long narrative parables. It's used for very short little sayings as well. Okay?


Brian Arnold (04:10):

So give us an example of one of those.


Peter Gurry (04:12):

Uh, you put me on the spot. I can't think of one.


Brian Arnold (04:14):



Peter Gurry (04:14):

I was just trying to think of an example, but there's one in Luke, I think, when he says "Physician, heal thyself."


Brian Arnold (04:18):



Peter Gurry (04:19):

I think he calls that a parable, if I remember right.


Brian Arnold (04:21):

We'll say that it's so.


Peter Gurry (04:23):

We'll say that it's so. All right. You heard it here first, folks.


Brian Arnold (04:25):

<laugh> Even if not. You know, but there's this perplexing part in Matthew 13. So Jesus just gets done telling the parable of the sower. The sower goes out to sow, some seed falls on the path, some falls on the rock, some fall in the thorns, it gets choked out, some falls on the good soil. And then Jesus is like—thank you for coming to my TED talk, walks away. <Laugh> And the disciples are thinking, what on earth did that mean? And they want to hear. And Jesus kind of chastises them a little bit, and then basically says—seeing they will not see, hearing they will not hear, to you have been given the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but not to them. What are we to understand then about the parables?


Peter Gurry (05:05):

Yeah. So I think the important thing in Matthew 13...keep in mind, Matthew 13 is Matthew's kind of largest section of parables, all parables about the kingdom. And Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah here to justify his use of parables. And he says, essentially that he is like Isaiah in that when Isaiah comes on the scene and is giving his prophecy, the people have already not responded to the revelation and to the warnings they've been given so far. And by this point in Matthew's gospel, Jesus has been doing all kinds of things to show his authority. And he's gotten nothing but resistance from the Jewish leaders for it. And so by the time you get to Matthew 13, he starts teaching in parables. What he's essentially saying is...he says—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.


Peter Gurry (05:50):

So he's basically saying—look, because they haven't listened to what I've already told them, now I'm going to make it even harder for them, as a form of judgment on them. They've rejected the revelation God's already given them, in my ministry and before that. And so they're now going to be given more revelation, but it's going to be in a form that they can't understand, that will only heighten their responsibility and judgment. So what I think is important, though, is we do need to qualify the Matthew 13 saying a little bit, because later in Matthew's own Gospel, when he's in Jerusalem in his last week he tells another famous parable—the parable of the tenants. And that's very clearly a parable about himself. And Matthew tells us that after he gives the parable, the Jewish leaders know that he told this parable about them. So I think it's important to note that he doesn't...that not all of the parables are designed simply to confuse people, do you see? Rather, these ones are told as a form of judgment, and then other ones they do seem to at least get the gist of enough to know that they're in the crosshairs, if I can put it that way.


Brian Arnold (06:44):

So let's get a pastoral application in here, because I often hear people who are teaching, preaching, saying—well, Jesus taught in stories, look at the parables. Now go and do likewise. And that's always seemed a little simplistic to me of what Jesus is trying to accomplish and what we're trying to do in preaching through illustration.


Peter Gurry (07:01):

Sure. So especially because in terms of Matthew 13, it's a form of judgment. I think a preacher would want to think carefully about that. I mean, I do think in general terms, just in a sense that, you know, Jesus' parables are extremely memorable and they're well-crafted, that a preacher ought to be wanting to preach in a way that's memorable and well-crafted, for sure. I mean, I guess one counter to that is just to say—well, Jesus didn't only teach in parables. Right? So it's not like the end-all be-all of preaching.


Brian Arnold (07:30):



Peter Gurry (07:30):

But, um...yeah.


Brian Arnold (07:32):

Well, let's get into interpretion. That's okay. Let's get into interpretation of parables and, you know, maybe tease out—what are the theological implications? Can we over-read parables and pull out too many details? I think even in the early church, sometimes they got allegorized, so that every last minute detail was used. But then some people, I think, undersell what we can learn from parables. So how do you teach students, even, kind of the interpretive process of parables?


Peter Gurry (07:59):

Yeah, good. So the early church loved to read the parables allegorically, and we can talk a little bit about what that means if you want. But essentially, the early church tended to read the parables and think every single detail mattered.


Brian Arnold (08:10):

Let's do one.


Peter Gurry (08:12):

So let's look at Augustine's famous one, all right? Where he gives his interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan, all right? And he says—the man who goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho is Adam himself. Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace from whose blessedness Adam fell. Jericho means the moon and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, and dies. The thieves who come to rob him are the devil and his angels, who stripped him, meaning they stripped him of his immortality, and they beat him by persuading him to sin. And they left him half dead. You get the picture, okay? By the time you get to the good Samaritan—you may not be surprised—but the good Samaritan, he says, the word Samaritan means guardian. And therefore, the Lord himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope. Wine, the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast that the man is laid on, the donkey, is the flesh in which he deigned to come to us. Being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the church. You get the idea...


Brian Arnold (09:10):

Paul is the innkeeper!


Peter Gurry (09:11):

Yes. The innkeeper is the Apostle Paul, right? So every detail has some connection to theology. And what's amazing about Augustine, before we...we're going to probably criticize him here in a second, but before we do, I think we should at least point out to people that that's a really rich reading of the parable, and really edifying to people. When people...anytime I do it with my students, and they get this whole allegorical interpretation, and see it as a kind of microcosm of all of salvation, they're kind of blown away. They oftentimes don't buy it, all of it...


Brian Arnold (09:42):

Some of it's reaching, but I just want to end it and go—and all God's people said, "Amen."


Peter Gurry (09:46):

Yeah. Well, you being the early church historian.


Brian Arnold (09:48):

I am an early church historian. I do have an affinity for it.


Peter Gurry (09:50):

For sure. But I think, you know...but even today I could show you Tim Keller's little book on the prodigal son, called The Prodigal God. And he actually follows the basic line of Augustine, in seeing that it's actually the good Samaritan who is Jesus. And we are the man who's been beat up. Whereas I think probably listeners are almost always conditioned to read us as the one—we should be the guy that comes and helps.


Brian Arnold (10:10):

We should be nice, yes.


Peter Gurry (10:11):

Yeah, that's right. We should be the good Samaritan, which is true. But we rarely see ourselves in this position of the guy who gets beat up and needs help. Right? So I think Augustine is actually onto something in that particular part of his interpretation. But I do tend to think—


Brian Arnold (10:24):

I'm glad to hear you think Augustine's onto something. The greatest theologian in the history of the church. I think Augustine's got some potential as a theologian one day, yeah.


Peter Gurry (10:32):

He's on something here. But that brings us to, I think, what is the big question, okay? Because here's the issue. When you go back to Jesus' parable of the sower, which we've already gone over a little bit, it's important to realize a lot of the details do have connections, and some do not. So, for example, all the soils represent something, okay? And in the case, say, of the birds that come and take the seed, the birds represent the devil who snatches the Word. Right? But what's interesting is that in the parable world, you have multiple birds—it's birds, plural. And Jesus doesn't draw any significance from the fact that there's plural birds. So I always tell my students what that teaches us is a principle that the question we have to ask with every parable—and there's no magic formula—we always have to ask which of the details matter, and how many of them matter. And in my opinion, the best way to sort that out is always pay careful attention to the context in which the parable occurs.


Brian Arnold (11:21):

So before, in terms of like what you mentioned at the end of Matthew, where it's in the context of the Pharisees are near, and Jesus tells it, and they're like—that sounds a little suspicious, I think he's talking about us. So we're going to read the details of that parable, even in light of him critiquing the Pharisees. So it would not be wrong to see the Pharisees as actors within the parable.


Peter Gurry (11:44):

That's right. Or take the parable of the prodigal son. Okay? Probably the most famous, along with the good Samaritan. If you read it in isolation, you can come to all sorts of conclusions about it. But when you read it in context, you see there are two parables right in front of it. They are both parables of lost-ness, where things are lost—the lost coin and the lost sheep. And in both cases, the lost thing is found, and most importantly, is that after the lost thing is found, there's a celebration. And if you read right before those two parables, Jesus castigates the Scribes and Pharisees for not responding appropriately to the fact that sinners and tax collectors are responding to his ministry. And we're told that the Jewish leaders are grumbling, right? Okay, well then you read the parable of the prodigal son, and it's really a story about two lost sons. Not one lost son, but two lost sons.


Peter Gurry (12:28):

And what does the father do when the son comes home? He throws a party for him. Which is exactly what Jesus has said the angels in heaven do anytime a sinner repents. And the question in the parable of the prodigal son is—will the older brother come into the party? You see, it's not just a parable about God's forgiveness of the repentant sinner. It's certainly about that. But there's a whole second half of the parable that's just as long as the first half. And it's all about the older brother and the question of whether he's going to come in and join the party and celebrate with him. Which is just what the Scribes and Pharisees have been doing.


Brian Arnold (12:57):

I think that's absolutely key. Because the first two ones, yeah, the lost sheep and the lost coin, don't come with that other part. And I think people really forget the older brother in the story of the parable of the prodigal son, which seems to be the emphasis. Now we can pull out—what is the father like as he runs towards his son? There's a beautiful picture there. What does it look like to be in the pigsty of sin, and knowing that your father is full of love and grace, and returning? But what is it also like to be a self-righteous Pharisee? Who his heart is hardened against the father?


Peter Gurry (13:28):

And thinks that some people don't deserve God's forgiveness.


Brian Arnold (13:30):

Unjust, yeah.


Peter Gurry (13:31):

Not realizing that no one deserves God's forgiveness, including them. Right? In a way, it's the story of Jonah, right? Retold.


Brian Arnold (13:39):

Yeah. Which also doesn't have the ending that people think it has.


Peter Gurry (13:42):

But also it's an open-ended story of how will you respond, right?


Brian Arnold (13:47):

Yeah. Not the way we get it in Sunday school, often, in a lot of these stories. But I think that's critical. So setting the parable in the context in which it comes in the Gospels. Who is Jesus' audience? How is he addressing this? Why is he using this? Will even help us with the details of the parable itself.


Peter Gurry (14:04):

Yep. So I avoid telling my students that there's always one point of the parable. Because I don't think that's quite helpful. But then I also tell them, say, you don't need to feel bad if there are details you don't know what to do with. Because they may just be there sake of the parable, the story. In fact, Tertullian, who I'm sure you're a fan of, Tertullian says at one point, in talking about the parables, he says—look, there are details in the parables that don't matter. Why are there a hundred sheep? Because you have to have some number from which the other...the one is lost. Why are there 10 coins? Because there has to be some number from which the other is lost. Why is there a broom? Because that's how you sweep a house. Right? <laugh> So Tertullian realizes—and he's from the early church. So not everybody in the early church just goes hog wild on the allegorizing. Some of them do recognize there are some restraints here, and maybe not everything is significant.


Brian Arnold (14:45):

Yeah. Well let's talk about another kind of interpretive challenge that we get when we come to the parables. And one of those is moralizing. So taking the parables in order to teach kind of moral principles. Like we said with the good Samaritan—be a good person. And another school of thought that almost completely negates that and says—no, let's make them all about Jesus or something. So how do we find ourselves on that kind of interpretive spectrum?


Peter Gurry (15:10):

Yeah. So this is kind of part of a much larger debate about how to kind of apply the Scriptures, and how we think about the doctrine of sanctification and all that. But I would say, you know, the parable of the good Samaritan is a good example, in that—and I hate to just say it's both/and—but I think it is both. And because Jesus does clearly say at the end of the good Samaritan—go and do likewise. So there has to be some moral imperative with it in our teaching of it. But what I find so fascinating in the parable of the good Samaritan is that the question asked that begins the parable is—who is my neighbor? Remember this? The question Jesus asks at the end is—who was a neighbor? Which is a slightly different question. And whenever that happens, it's really fascinating.


Peter Gurry (15:49):

You ought to pay close attention. And that's where I think Jesus getting at something deeper than just—love other people, or love your enemies, which I think is part of it. But I think it's a bigger question of—who's been a neighbor to you first, that then has transformed you in such a way that you can then be a neighbor to others? Because the lawyer's response is quite interesting. He won't say "the Samaritan." It's almost as if he can't put the word on his lips. He says, "the man who showed mercy." Which of course is the right answer. But it's striking that he refuses to say "Samaritan." It's as if what Jesus is saying is—your heart has to be changed first, before you're going to be in a position to actually be a good Samaritan to somebody else.


Brian Arnold (16:25):

Well, absolutely. I think that's an important detail of that kind of text. And help us to stay on the donkey, as we would say. I love to quote Martin Luther on this. He said the church is like a drunken peasant—falls off one side of the donkey to come up and fall off the other side. And I think we kind of go between the moralizing of the text, and then saying—well, there's no moral implication of the text at all. And we need to be people who say both/and. We can glean both these things from them. Just like you said—there might not be one only interpretation to a parable. There's multiple things that Jesus is doing. That's part of it. You said at the beginning, "arresting our minds, with vivid language."


Peter Gurry (17:03):

A great way, I think, to think about it, is actually going back to the Reformers, who distinguished various uses of God's law, of God's imperatives to us. They said one of the uses of God's law is to convict us of sin. Right? But one of the uses of the law is once we've been convicted of sin, and repented of our sin, had our hearts transformed, then is to help us know how to live. And so, for example, when I'm preaching, I think two things. One, I want to remind people of what Jesus has done for them. Always. That's first and foremost. But then I also need to give them guidance about how to live. They need that help. They need that instruction. Right? And so, like you said, it's not either/or, but ideally I always want to keep both of those two things together—remind people of what Christ has done on their behalf, that they can't do for themselves, because that will humble them. But then, having heard that good news, now there is a question, a legitimate question, of—okay, now how do I go out and love my neighbor?


Brian Arnold (17:48):

Okay. Let's switch gears. And let me ask you this question, as you've taught electives, even on the parables before. Are there any parables that seem to surprise students? Like the ones that just aren't thought of that often and have kind of surprising interpretations to them? Or ones that you see are some of the more challenging ones to interpret?


Peter Gurry (18:07):

Yeah. My own personal favorite one is probably the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, because that's one that students often have a lot of questions about, or are very confused about.


Brian Arnold (18:16):

Yeah. Well it's interesting—you're saying a parable. That's going to shock maybe even some listeners, because that's a little bit of an open debate. Is the rich man and Lazarus a parable? Or is it more of a historical story?


Peter Gurry (18:26):

Okay. This is true. Yes. John Calvin, for example, thought it was a real story. And he thought that for what is a good reason, a true observation, that is it's the only parable—if it's a parable—it's the only one that has a named character in Lazarus. So Calvin, rightly noting that, rightly observing that, drew the conclusion that it's not a parable then, as a result. The problem is, I think, Calvin, at this one point, was not reading his Greek New Testament carefully enough, because this parable starts the exact same way in Greek that the last four parables in Luke's Gospel have all started, including the parable of the prodigal son. But the parable of the lost sheep starts with "a certain person," parable of the lost coin, "a certain woman," the parable of the prodigal son, "a certain man." Then the parable in the beginning of chapter 16, the dishonest manager, "there was a certain rich man." And then our parable, "there was a certain rich man." It's a little bit clearer in Greek, because English translations tend to vary their translations of the particular Greek construction there. But yeah, I think it's very clearly meant to be a parable. Now where I agree with Calvin—having disagreed with him, maybe I should redeem him. <laugh> Calvin says, regardless of whether it's a real story or a parable, what really matters is the theology of it.


Brian Arnold (19:33):

That's right.


Peter Gurry (19:33):

And I totally agree with him on that.


Brian Arnold (19:35):

So what trips your students up the most about this parable?


Peter Gurry (19:37):

Well, what's so confusing is on first read it seems to be a parable about how poor people go to heaven and rich people go to hell. Which tends to know, our affluent students tend to find a little bit disconcerting. And then also it seems to indicate that people in hell can see people in heaven, and talk to each other across this divide, but you can't cross it. So there's a number of things that really just trip students up in this.


Brian Arnold (20:01):

Well, as any scholar likes to do—in 30 seconds, resolve it for us. <laugh>


Peter Gurry (20:06):

Well, okay. So just a couple things. One is, keep in mind it's not a parable about rich people going to hell and poor people going to heaven, because if that were the case, then Lazarus wouldn't go to Abraham's bosom, or his side. To say Abraham's bosom is a way of saying you have a prime place at the great feast, the banquet at the end of all time. Right? And so Abraham, of course, in the Old Testament is extremely wealthy. So the fact that he's there just shows you that this is not about rich people going to hell. What it is a parable about, though, is the way, or the danger, of wealth cauterizing our hearts and making us insensitive to the needs of other people. So the rich man lives in opulence. He wears purple and fine linen. He feasts essentially every day.


Peter Gurry (20:46):

Meanwhile, Lazarus is outside his gate, and just wants to eat the scraps from his table—what's for the dogs. But instead of eating the dog food, he doesn't get even that, the dogs actually come and make him their food, because they come and lick his sores. Right? And then what's remarkable is once the rich man ends up in Hades and he is in torment, he still knows Lazarus's name. And I think that's the reason for the name in this parable, because it's...what Jesus is saying to us is—if you think you're going to get the rich man off the hook by saying, well, he wasn't aware of the man's need...that can't be the explanation. Because he knows his name. What are the chances that this guy has been outside his front door all these years, and he's completely unaware, but somehow knows his name? If you know somebody's name, and they're on the street, that's because you know their situation too. He could have helped him. And he didn't. And what's so striking is that even in the afterlife, the rich man seems to continue to have a very hard heart. He continues to seem to want to sort of boss Lazarus around and tell him what to do, and shows no signs of remorse for his previous actions.


Brian Arnold (21:47):

Yeah. And I think that is...obviously, if we want to pull a main point away, that'd be it. But one of the things I pull away from that text, too, is how he wants to go back and tell his brothers about this. And they say—you have Moses and the prophets. So it even shows the sufficiency of Scripture. People say, "oh, well, if God just showed himself right here, sent somebody back from the dead, or did whatever." That's not the issue. Scripture is actually sufficient to convict hearts and change them.


Peter Gurry (22:09):

And that's what Jesus had said—and this going back to the importance of context for interpreting a parable—Jesus had brought up three things right before this parable in criticizing the Pharisees. He says they were lovers of money, they were those who justified themselves before men, and he tells them—the law and the prophets were until John, and that it's easier it for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void. And what does he say at the end to the rich man? He says—they have Moses and the prophets. If they don't listen to them, neither will they be convinced if someone would rise from the dead. So it's a threefold, I think, point of the parable. One, the dangers of wealth, the dangers of self righteousness, and then thirdly, the danger of thinking that you somehow need more than God's Word to know what he expects from us.


Brian Arnold (22:52):

Well I love that we got to take a deep dive into an actual parable to watch kind of how you think through them and ways that we can interpret them. So for those listening today, if you could mention maybe one or two resources that you find helpful for people who want to know the parables, where would you point them?


Peter Gurry (23:12):

The best book by far is one by Klyne Snodgrass on the parables. It's a big one. So if you're a pastor out there listening, that's the one you need to grab, especially if you're going to do a preaching series through the parables, or maybe teach them in Sunday school. There's another smaller book that really builds on that book, but brings it down to the layperson, by an author named Michelle Lee Barnewell. And I forget what the title of her book is, but it's got parables in the title.


Brian Arnold (23:34):



Peter Gurry (23:34):

It's short and sweet, but draws out many of the good insights from Snodgrass' bigger book.


Brian Arnold (23:40):

And then one of the things you mentioned earlier is Tim Keller's book on the prodigal God. So that might be...if somebody wanted to read about the prodigal son, a specific parable, that would be another one.


Peter Gurry (23:50):

Yeah. And especially if they want to see it in a very different light than they probably are used to thinking. If they're used to just thinking, you know, the good—sorry, the prodigal son is, you know, pretty simple and obvious, you might pick that one up.


Brian Arnold (24:01):

Well, thanks for this conversation today. I think people are going to continue to be enamored by Jesus' parables. And I hope that everyone listening today goes back and reads one and can be benefited by understanding the kingdom, and the necessity of faith, and just how Jesus brings these important themes to life through these everlasting stories.


Peter Gurry (24:21):



Outro (24:13):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at


What Does It Mean to be Human? Dr. Kelly Kapic

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Kapic on how to understand the limitations that come with being human.

Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Kelly Kapic serves as professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College. He is the author of several books, including The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Zondervan Academic, 2018), Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering (IVP Academic, 2017), and You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Brazos Press, 2022).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.


Brian Arnold (00:18):

Do you ever feel like you just can't get it all done? Things are piling up, and no matter how much time you give them, it just won't all get done. Do you ever feel like you just don't measure up? Well, welcome to the club. We all feel like that. But why is that? Well the answer is that we're human. Being human means a lot of things. It means that we're made in God's image and we've been given dominion over creation. It means that we have enormous capacity and have great ambition to make this world better. But it also means that we're finite. God didn't create us to be infinite. He created us to be in dependence on him. Well here to help us understand what it means to be human, especially in our limitations, we have with us Dr. Kelly Kapic. Dr. Kapic is professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He has written books on a variety of theological topics, ranging from the theology of John Owen, to theological anthropology, to various issues in practical and pastoral theology. Some of his books include The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story, and Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. Most recently, he has written You're Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God's Design and Why That's Good News, which released back in January of 2022, and is the topic of our conversation today. Dr. Kapic, welcome to the podcast.


Kelly Kapic (01:35):

Oh, it's great to be with you. Thank you for having me.


Brian Arnold (01:37):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what does it mean to be human? So let's just start off there. What makes a human, human? Especially in, you know, differentiating that between animals or the rest of creation?


Kelly Kapic (01:52):

Yeah, well obviously that's a huge question. For us, part of what I'm trying to explore as Christians is to understand—to be human is to be a creature. I think that makes us nervous. I mean, we could get into the theological idea that we're made in the image of God, which is absolutely vital to us. But part of what I'm trying to help us understand is—we were made to be human, and to be human as a human creature is not a problem. It's a benefit. And we could explore...I actually think to understand what it means to be human, we should look...we should spend less time comparing humans to animals, and more time comparing ourselves to Jesus, who is the image of God. We're made in his likeness. And so if you want to know what it means to be truly and fully human, we look to Christ. And that raises all kinds of interesting questions. But yeah, I'm interested in exploring—what does it mean that we're creatures? And to be a creature, even a human creature, is not inherently sinful. Sin is a later problem, but just being human isn't a problem. Does that make any sense?


Brian Arnold (03:02):

Absolutely, it does. And I'm looking forward to unpacking that. And I love even just setting our focus on Jesus as the ultimate human. He is what humanity is meant to be, right? In his even sinlessness. But I wonder how often people get some of the finitude issues confused with sinfulness issues, right? So we're created to be finite, but sin enters the world. So how do we understand all that in terms of—was Adam...did he have more capacity than we had, or is finitude more of an issue of the fall? How do you walk people through that?


Kelly Kapic (03:40):

Yeah. And that's great. And you know, the word finitude or finite is not a word we use a lot. So just to make sure people are tracking with us, it's just a fancy word for meaning creature, having limits—space, time, knowledge, power. And so, even though...Christians, we talk about having eternal life. Actually, we have a beginning, and we are always dependent on God. So we are...only God is infinite, and by definition, all of us are finite. And so finite's just a fancy word for creature. Let me just jump to really a pastoral implication of this, to help us understand what we're actually trying to get at. So many of your listeners will probably be like me, where, when I put my head on the pillow at night, I feel—not just tired, but I feel often a wave of guilt come over me.


Kelly Kapic (04:30):

And what's interesting is when I explore that, it's not always that it's because I'm reflecting on my day, and I think, "Oh, I was cruel to that person" or "I was greedy in that case" or know, sinful things. But what's interesting is often the wave of guilt, when I analyze it, it's actually, "Kelly, you didn't do enough—why didn't you get more done?" And that's fascinating, because I think it's an example of where, in my own heart and life, I have confused finitude and sin. And so I feel guilty all the time, but as a theologian, as I've explored it, I have felt guilty for actually just being a creature. And so in this book I'm trying to help myself and others work through the theology of it—to recognize God never intended us to do everything. And so we're living with...we have plenty of sin in our lives we need to deal with, but doing more is often not the problem.


Brian Arnold (05:26):

Well in this world, in this day and age, we're encouraged to do more and more and more. We are so measured by our output—you know, are you a high capacity person or a low capacity person? Are you the kind of person we want to hire and promote and place a lot of responsibilities on? And if you do, you have high worth. If you don't, somehow your worth is decreased. And that has crept its way into ministry. So you know, there's a lot of pastors who might be even listening. So how have you seen that, you know, come into the church? And what even word of encouragement would you give to pastors who feel that guilt, just simply because they're finite?


Kelly Kapic (06:07):

Yeah. Well, for a long time we've tried to make machines like people, and what's happened is—we've actually made people like machines. And Christians...we've even baptized this. And so, we have elevated efficiency and productivity as the greatest values. And that even creeps into the church. So you know, well-meaning business people will get in the church, and they'll realize how inefficient the church is. And they'll come in and they'll want to fix it. But here's one of the reasons why a lot of pastors listening feel constantly frustrated. You have a good plan for your week, you know how much you want to get done. You know—this is what you're going to do. And then Monday, Aunt Susie dies, and now you're dealing with a grieving family and a funeral. And then Monday afternoon, you're dealing with someone whose child is dealing with an addiction. And you haven't even gotten to Monday evening, and your entire week is shattered, right?


Kelly Kapic (07:03):

And I can help the pastor—as long as you don't love anybody, you can get everything done. And so what I want people to realize is God's value is not efficiency or productivity. It's love. But that then means we need to reevaluate our lives, our values, and some of those things. There's a lot more to say on that, but I would just say to pastors—part of the reason why those of us in ministry feel guilty all the time, is because we have baptized time is money. We commodify it, and that actually isn't a path that tends to make space for love. Love happens in the margin. And we try and max out our lives, and so there's no margin. And so to help and serve people actually makes us angry. So you have a lot of ministers and Christians who are smiling, but deep down they are enraged. And these are all larger conversations.


Brian Arnold (08:03):

It is. But I want to press in a little bit more there. I was telling my wife even recently—somebody's got to do some more work on why pastors are so angry. I see it, I talked to...I was having some conversations recently with guys whose dad was a pastor. And they said, you know, "I know my dad loves the Lord, and you know, he was never sinning against us majorly, but he was just an angry guy." And then they started seeing that in their own life. And the busier I become, I see that more in my own life. And I think it would surprise a lot of people to realize how much their pastor, or somebody leading in ministry, is dealing with anger behind a facade of the slapped-on smile, like you said. So let's pierce a little bit deeper into that issue. Because I think it's under-talked about in the churches today.


Kelly Kapic (08:58):

Yeah. Because part of what's going on are expectations. Expectations from the church, but to be honest, I often find that pastors themselves, know, those in ministry, those in nonprofit ministry and leadership, very few have as unrealistic expectations of those leaders as they have of themselves.


Brian Arnold (09:18):

It's self-imposed, absolutely.


Kelly Kapic (09:20):

Yeah. And what's interesting is if I ask—do you think God expects...we don't tend to blame God, but when you...if you can slow down and ask, and sit with honest questions, the reason why we feel guilty, the reason why we feel angry, is actually we do think God expects all of it of us. He expects us to be everywhere, to do everything, to know every answer. And in our heart we know we don't, and can't, and so we're just angry. Because it's being given a task that's impossible, and yet to pretend like if we just tried harder, we could. So we need to have pastoral care for pastors. And this is's not a small problem. It's a major problem for us.


Brian Arnold (10:05):

It is. And I love how you know, we're talking about the self-imposition of it, and the weights that we put on ourselves. And it's really then a fear of failure. Like, I feel like anger comes out of—I'm going to fail at this. I can't be successful at this. And I want to succeed. I think a lot of people in pastoral ministry have been those who have succeeded in a lot of things in life, and they get accolades for that. And then feel like—if I'm not doing that, then I'm failing. And if I'm failing, ultimately I'm letting God down. You have this quote in your book, or this quotation, let me read it—"The Creator God is not embarrassed by the limitations of our bodies and his material world, but fully approves of them, in and through the Son's incarnation. Only when we appreciate this can we clearly see how our human limits should not be confused with sin, but rather seen as a positive aspect of our humanity." So there's something actually glorious about our limitations. God is not embarrassed by those. And he's actually in this position of—when he sees us trying to act like we don't have those, he knows things are going to break for us.


Kelly Kapic (11:08):

Yeah. Yeah, it's huge. So do you mind if I take us in the direction of talking about humility for a second here?


Brian Arnold (11:15):



Kelly Kapic (11:15):

Because that' part of the argument I make in the book, it's framed around different questions, and one of the questions is—have we misunderstood humility? And I think we have in some pretty profound ways, historically and even in the contemporary church. So if you ask a Christian—why should we be humble? Our immediate answer is—well because we're sinners. And I'm a theologian, I think we are sinners. We need to repent of sin. And our sin should foster in us a humility. But actually, if you build the foundation of humility on sin, that then distorts the whole structure. Which is why people think...we know we should be humble, but then we try and achieve it by just thinking worse and worse of ourselves. Right? But if—and I'm gonna circle back to your actual question—if you build humility, not on the doctrine of sin, but on the doctrine of a good creation, then everything changes.


Kelly Kapic (12:11):

So here's the question—even if there were no sin or fall, should we, as human creatures, be humble? Right? And the answer is yes. Because even before sin and fall we were, by our design, dependent upon God, dependent upon our neighbor or others, dependent upon the earth. And in those dependencies—that's all part of the good of God's creation. Think about how the word dependence, even me, it strikes us as such a bad word in our culture. And I know that there are problems, like inappropriate dependencies. But the good of creation is these kind of dependencies...sin doesn't make us dependent, sin twists those dependencies. So all of that to say, learning to say, not just "I'm sorry," but "I don't know," or "Can you help me?" Those are humble questions that are not...they're not at even admitting sin. They're just part of the good. And then we get to celebrate other people, rather than compete with other people. So that's a lot, but a way to start to think through some of those.


Brian Arnold (13:22):

Well, and even kind of bringing some of those themes together is the idea of sleep. I mean, the fact that we were created...I'm imagining that Adam was sleeping his eight hours a night before the fall. And, I like to imagine, unmolested by mosquitoes, out in the Garden of Eden, enjoying some really deep rest. And God tells us he doesn't sleep. So like—he's the one who can be awake and handle those things. But even the fact that we need sleep should remind us of our humility, should remind us of our finitude, should remind us that we can't do it all. That God is the one who's still at work, even when we can't.


Kelly Kapic (14:02):

Yeah, no. And it was fun to kind of...there's a section on a theology of sleep, and realizing, exactly as you said—the fact that God doesn't sleep is why we can sleep. Right? But when you're in war, if there's no one to watch your back, you can't go to sleep. But we can sleep, because God never does. Right? And just kind of thinking through that. And even a one-in-seven day of rest, these kind of biblical experiences that much of the church, and definitely the world, has forgotten is one of the reasons why we're all exhausted. And it's really hurting us.


Brian Arnold (14:38):

Exhausted, and then what we said before—exhaustion, and the feeling that you can't get it all done, leads to anger. And we see plenty of that in our world today. I wonder how much of those are just connected. And if we were a people who, again, in humility, put more on the Lord than on ourselves, we would...


Kelly Kapic (14:55):

Yeah. Just one thought on that. So for example, you know, when we start to think about our lives—and we can all feel how stressed out we are and how much—it's often then that we say, "Well, look at how much Netflix people watch," and "Look at how much time they spend scrolling on their phone, on Facebook or Twitter," or whatever. All of those things are true, but where I've come to is I no longer...we tend to blame those things. And I now think they're a symptom of a much deeper malady. In other words, I don't think we have a time management problem. I think we have a theological problem. I don't think we actually know what...not just what good work looks like, but what good rest looks like, what pace looks like. And part of that's just because we'd have to talk about time, and you know, what is time, and how we have started to think about time, and how it's really not just smartphones, it's the fact of electricity, and at 11:30 at night you can turn on your computer and start working for an hour. And we act like that hour is the same as your body at nine in the morning. And there's all kinds of factors that it's not the same, but we have decontextualized time, and it's really affecting our bodies, our relationships, all kinds of things.


Brian Arnold (16:11):

It's a complex of issues. And we're kind of in the middle of lots of different attacks on that, that is complicating everything. And I know I feel that, you know? Like when Scripture it's pretty clear that we have a Sabbath rest. Like God knew that we would have a tendency to want to overwork ourselves. But he wanted, you know...Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. And you know, so many people—and myself included. I mean, I am...this is a really helpful conversation for my own heart and soul of thinking how much space I give to work and things that just have to get done. And the list just keeps getting longer. And what you feel like you can accomplish gets less. And so you rest less. And then you're in this cycle of constantly trying to do more.


Brian Arnold (16:54):

You know, one of the areas you even take that in your book, is in terms of identity, right? That we can find our identity wrapped up in who we are, what we accomplish, the what you do of life, right? When you first...women this is true of too, but I feel like it's especially true of men, of asking that question—what do you do? And that becoming the totality of our existence. And we want to justify that by then how much we get done, to demonstrate how much worth we have. So how have you seen identity come into the question of finitude in our day?


Kelly Kapic (17:28):

Yeah. I think there's a lot of confusion on identity, both...coming in different directions, the right and the left. I hate using those terms. But it comes in different ways from both sides. So, for example, people don't even tend to realize how contemporary it is that when you say, "Who am I?" or "Who are you?" we try and answer that question by simply looking inside of ourselves for an answer, right? Through a psychological evaluation. We say, "Oh, here is who I am." Whereas for much of the history of the world, and through much of the globe today, if you ask someone who you are, who are they, they will tell you about their tribe, their land, you know, their family, their DNA in that sense, or even their vocation, what they do. And it's interesting—biblically, there's something about both the external factors and the internal factors that help us understand who we are.


Kelly Kapic (18:24):

And so I think identity is pretty complex. And so, in Christian circles, we rightly tell people to have their identity in Christ. And I absolutely think that's true. But here's a bit of a problem on the right side (the other one is on the left), is we tell people—have your identity in Christ. Absolutely true, because that relativizes all other identities. But the reality is—the fact that I am from this family, and this land, and have this history, and this biology, that's not insignificant. It's part of my identity. And to be a Christian doesn't mean none of those things matter. It just means none of them have ultimacy. So we can honor people's particularity without letting any of it have an undue power or destructive force, right? So I do think identity is partly related to what we do and everything, but it's ultimately in Christ. But we can value and honor one another's differences, even as we're united in Christ.


Brian Arnold (19:25):

That's fascinating. I might have to have you back on someday to talk more about that. Because I think that gets into a lot of the complex issues even of our day, and how those things are being teased out, like you said...and left and the right, and from all over. Let me ask you a kind of a question on the other side. So, you know, I'm a seminary president, and I served as a pastor, and wanted to see our church, you know, really impact the community, and grow, and see people get saved. And so I don't really struggle with being driven or having ambition. And so I'm tempered by what you're saying on the side of—I need to recognize my finitude more, and rely more on God. But could it be a license for some people to excuse laziness? So how does drivenness and ambition kind of fit into your thinking of this book?


Kelly Kapic (20:14):

Yeah. And, I's interesting, I do get versions of that question. I think it's a legitimate question in the sense of, you know, are we just telling people to be lazy? But the answer is no—to be human is...part of it is actually, work is a good thing, using work, when I say the word work in our culture, we instantly think paid. That's not what I'm talking about. Right? But the use of the good gifts God has given us, paid or unpaid, is all reputable. But the short answer to a longer conversation would be, I think, whether you struggle know, probably you and I struggle more on the end of overworking, and then you have some people struggling on sloth, is part of what I would argue—and do argue in the book—that we need communities.


Kelly Kapic (21:00):

See the problem is we're not the best judges of these things. So we do need spouses. We need friends, we need the church. We need others to help us navigate our lives, because we do tend to go to various extremes. And sometimes the appropriate pastoral word is—you have gifts that you're not using, you're neglecting, and you need to get busy. Right? And to others it is—you think you matter too much. And so I think that doesn't tend to be something we're very well equipped to answer on our own. We tend to need others, and that gets hard, because we need to trust others. But that's...part of the book is to try and help, not just individuals, but communities try and figure out—how do we live in a countercultural way that actually can be a light to the world? And the final thing I'll just say is, an Eastern Orthodox theologian I read not too long ago said—the problem in our day with the secular world is not just that people have forgotten that God exists, or something like that, he said—people have forgotten what it means to be human. And I think he's right. And I think part of the church's witness to the world is to present a humane way of living. And in that, we can start to point them to God again.


Brian Arnold (22:23):

Well, I think this is one of the more important books of our day. I see a huge need for this—in my own life, and I just...I talk to a lot of pastors, and I see how they are running themselves ragged, and not really leaning into remembering their finitude. One of the things that really impressed me with your book is just how many sources you're pulling on. What would you recommend to our readers, in addition to your book, that really helped you think through these issues?


Kelly Kapic (22:56):

Oh, goodness. That's a great question. Dead people. People from different times and different cultures are definitely the way to go on this. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is absolutely brilliant on some of this stuff in his book Creation and Fall, for example. Augustine has had a massive influence on me. And in the book, they'll see like Aquinas and Calvin, but Bonhoeffer is very readable. And Augustine's great. But yeah, those would be some places that I think of immediately.


Brian Arnold (23:28):

Well, as a church historian, I like it when people say "read dead people." Because, you know, it's like C.S. Lewis' famous thing—it's “the clean sea breeze that blows through our minds.” And they've kind of run their race, so they're not really going to disappoint us at this point in who they are. But Kelly, really, thank you so much for your book. I really encourage people to read it, and to take their time thinking through it, meditating on it. Because I think it can be transformative for our lives. It's definitely the right word in this moment, for where we're at—especially in American Christianity. Again, it's You're Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God's Design and Why That's Good News. Kelly, thanks for the conversation today.


Kelly Kapic (24:11):

Oh, it's been great. Thank you so much.


Outro (24:13):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at