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Why Conversations with Jesus Can Seem Confusing

By Chase Replogle | Posted In What Does the Bible Say

Studies have suggested that companies lose an estimated $37 billion each year due to misunderstandings in the workplace. Employees misunderstand tasks, committees miscommunicate expectations, the wrong orders are placed, deadlines are missed, and productivity is wasted. But misunderstanding happens beyond the workplace. We misunderstand one another over coffee, over texts, and listening to sermons in Sunday services. It’s no surprise that even well-meaning Christians can misunderstand the Bible. We misinterpret passages and misunderstand the author’s intent. We draw wrong conclusions and make unintended mistakes. To be fair, so much of what we read can initially feel confusing. Jesus’ words can seem perplexing. Jesus often spoke in ways that strike us as mysterious and enigmatic. A whole church history could be written on just what has been misunderstood.

But misunderstanding isn’t just something that happens when we read the Bible; misunderstandings occur in the Bible. They are a part of the biblical story. Nowhere is misunderstanding more central than in John’s Gospel. Misunderstanding was one of John’s favorite techniques for revealing characters and drawing us deeper into Jesus’ words.

Why Is Jesus So Misunderstood?

You don’t have to read very far to find people misunderstanding Jesus. In just the second chapter of John’s Gospel, after witnessing Jesus clear the temple, the Jewish leaders asked Him to explain the meaning of that sign. Jesus explained, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19, NLT) They didn’t understand. It had taken forty-six years to build the temple, they explained. How could Jesus do it in three days? John tells us that they misunderstood that Jesus was talking about His body.

From there, the misunderstandings just keep piling up. Nicodemus didn’t understand how a man could be born a second time. The Samaritan woman couldn’t understand how Jesus would get this “living water” without a bucket or pail. Others were confused about Him being from Nazareth. There was confusion over His power, His relationship with the Father, and His bold predictions of things to come. Even after years of following Him, Jesus’ disciples constantly misunderstood. They were baffled by His talk of a coming hour and the necessity of His suffering and death. Please don’t forget, Jesus is the Word of God. He is the presence of God. He need only speak, and all things are possible. He is the revelation of God and the greatest teacher to ever speak. So how could His words be so consistently misunderstood?

We Find What We Go Looking For

Just after Jesus had cleared the temple, and just after that misunderstanding about how He would construct a new one, John tells us that many people began to believe in Jesus. They saw His signs and believed. That sounds like good news, but Jesus seemed less convinced. John explains, “But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew all about people. No one needed to tell him about human nature, for he knew what was in each person’s heart.” (John 2:24–25, NLT) John forces you to ask: What is in man? What is in me? What was Jesus suspicious of?
For all of the misunderstanding about who Jesus was, there is no misunderstanding on Jesus’ part. He knows the truth of our motives and the source of our misunderstanding and belief.

Search John’s Gospel for every instance of misunderstanding, and you will start to recognize that truly understanding Jesus’ words requires more than hearing them. Jesus loved to use a version of the phrase, “Let those who have ears hear.” Listeners need something more than just hearing.
If you read closely, you begin to recognize that each time Jesus was misunderstood, there was an assumption made, a way of looking at the world which allowed the listener to decide how Jesus fit into the way they had determined things. You know how quick we are to speak, how we are usually thinking of what we will say next before the person is even finished with their sentence.

We often listen not to be changed, but to fit things into our world, to make our own decisions, to keep control of the conversation. We recognize what we listen for. We hear what we want to hear. We bring our assumptions and force Jesus’ words into them. But Jesus spoke in ways that disrupt our assumptions. He spoke in ways that throw us off, that force us to ask follow-up questions—to listen. To those who profited from the temple, He spoke of its destruction. To those hungry for another sign, He spoke of a different kind of bread. To those stuck in the categories and labels of the world, He spoke of a coming day in which all would worship in Spirit and truth. Jesus used misunderstanding and confusion as a means of drawing out deeper questions and pressing conversations beyond the normal conventions.
The misunderstandings were often His point.

Keep Asking and Searching

Some are not willing to listen long enough to overcome all that confusion. They leave scratching their heads or clutching fast to their first impression. But some do stick around. Some continue to ask more questions. They try to understand what doesn’t seem to fit. To these, Jesus continued to talk and to teach.

When we come to Jesus’ words, we should come with a particular kind of humility that is suspicious of our own first impressions and expectations. When we refuse to let Jesus change the conversation, we prove to be among those incapable of listening.
We should also keep ourself from growing frustrated by difficult passages, hard sayings, and things that at first pass don’t make sense. We, too, should press on. We should keep asking questions. Keep seeking answers. Keep listening to Jesus’ words and the Spirit’s leading.

Those who are blind often carry a cane to tap the ground and discern the path in front of them. Each of their taps with that cane is a question, an investigation. Each tap responds and follows up to the previous one. By that constant inquiry, little by little, they discern the boundaries and turns of the path before them. With each question, they bring themselves more fully in line with the way forward. It is that same way with following Jesus. Each question furthers our own investigation into His ways and His path.

To be a disciple of Jesus is not to have every question answered from the beginning. We do not arrive with interrogation lamps and a list of questions on legal pads. Wait until every question is answered, and you’ll never follow Him anywhere. We follow to learn, to hear more, and to understand along the way. Our questions and curiosity humble us and pull us on into more.
One of my favorite lines from John’s Gospel is often repeated in those moments of misunderstandings. John interjects into the story the simple line, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered he had said this, and they believed both the Scriptures and what Jesus had said.” (John 2:22, ESV)

The disciples lived with questions and misunderstandings until sometime after Jesus had died and was resurrected. Suddenly things Jesus had said and done began to make more sense. It is true for us too. There are things we ponder for years, things that only come together later as we grow in our knowledge of the gospel and God’s character.

Come humbly and don’t grow discouraged when questions persist. Count yourself as one of those disciples. For John, misunderstanding and the courage to keep seeking are central to the task of truly following Jesus.
It’s a characteristic of characters of faith.