My son-in-law is from Brazil, therefore English is his second language, and he doesn’t always understand our idioms. At a family birthday party recently, a family member said to him, speaking of his one-year-old son who had not managed a nap that day, “Aw, he’s pooped.”
“Twice today,” was the humorous reply. My son-in-law misunderstood the term “pooped.”
Understanding what someone really means can be a challenge even when both parties speak the same language. We each have personal history, experiences, and expectations through which we interpret the words of others, and it is all too easy to misunderstand.
Jesus was misunderstood by almost everyone in his day.
First century Jews had plenty of history behind their understanding of Jesus. Unfortunately much of it was of their own making. It took some doing to get them to see Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus had to re-frame their thinking, and some of them followed him, like the disciples, while others did not, like the Pharisees.
Jesus According to the Pharisees
An exchange in John 8 is particularly revealing of the unbelief of the Pharisees. Jesus was telling the Pharisees who he was, and they could not understand his words. Jesus said, “I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you…Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word (vv 37, 43). Jesus had more strong words for the Pharisees: “You are of your father the devil…Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (vv 44, 47). The Pharisees were infuriated.
They were interpreting Jesus from their place of power and position, and they felt threatened by him. Jesus knew that, of course, and he regularly challenged them. They were not asking Jesus questions to truly understand who we was, but to find wiggle room in his words. Good luck with that.
Jesus According to the Disciples
The disciples, on the other hand, believed Jesus, but they did not understand some of his words terribly well either. Jesus told his disciples multiple times that he was going to suffer and die at the hands of men, but they couldn’t make sense of it.
Let these words sink into your ears: ‘The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.’ But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. (Luke 9:44-45)
It’s actually kind of comical. On the way down the mountain after the transfiguration, when Peter, James, and John had the incredible experience of seeing Jesus dressed in bright white while chatting with Moses and Elijah, Jesus told them not to tell anyone “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean” (Mark 9:9-10).
I imagine their conversation going something like this: “Jesus can’t mean that he is really going to die, can he? No, that’s impossible. Surely not. Therefore, ‘rising from the dead’ must mean something else. What could it be?”
Neither group fully understood Jesus. They both interpreted his words based on their own desires and expectations.
The Pharisees were blind to his identity because they had already decided that Jesus was not the Messiah, and they were looking for ways to prove it. The disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they didn’t want to believe what that would mean.
Who Do You Say Jesus Is?
The same misunderstandings are common today.
Some people have decided that Jesus is a great teacher or a prophet, but they will not allow for the possibility that he is God. They read the Bible with that frame of reference, conveniently overlooking aspects of Jesus that point to his divinity.
Christians believe Jesus is God. That’s what it means to be a Christian. As Christians we have the great gift of the Holy Spirit to help us understand what Jesus said, but when studying the Bible we face the temptation to interpret Jesus’ words according to our desires. Many a Christian, including myself at times, has said, “Jesus couldn’t have meant that! It must mean something else. What could it be?”
Interpreting Jesus’ words today can be a challenge. He was speaking in an ancient language to people living in a dramatically different culture. Even so, he was pretty clear about who he was and what he was going to do. If we understand Jesus’ identity correctly, then with humility and the Holy Spirit we will grow in our interpretation of the Scriptures as a whole.
Both the Pharisees and the disciples had preconceived notions about who Jesus was, and Jesus surprised them all. Jesus is God, and no amount of arguing would change that. Jesus is the Messiah, and he shocked everyone when he died on a cross for the sins of the world. That was always the plan.