Misunderstanding Jesus

I kind of chuckle these days when I read in Scripture, times Jesus tells his disciples something, and they totally don’t get it. I chuckle in part because I think, They had the same problems we have.

This morning I read in the book of John about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. At one point He announces to his disciples His decision to go into Judea to Lazarus’s home. His men express concern because the Jewish leaders had just tried to kill Jesus. He explains that nevertheless, He must go because Lazarus has fallen asleep.

Oh, the disciples say, then he’s already on the road to recovery. They were thinking literally when Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

They did that a lot. On a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The guys immediately started talking about how they’d forgotten to bring bread. They missed that Jesus was painting a word picture.

The disciples, like the others listening to Jesus, missed the point of some of His parables, too, and needed Him to spell things out later.

It’s easy today, having had the benefit of any number of sermons about Jesus raising Lazarus or about parables Jesus explained, to think that the disciples weren’t the quickest fish in the sea.

The fact is, however, any number of problems people have with the Bible come from trying to understand something literally that was written metaphorically, or trying to mythologize that which happened in fact.

Part of the problem comes from our pedantic way of looking at the world. Things have “always been this way,” people will think, so of course when the Bible speaks about things being different, well, of course it must be speaking metaphorically.

Take Biblical ages, for example. The Bible records any number of people living into their 800s (yes, 800s). Poppycock, people will say. Everyone knows that’s not possible. Why look at history (just not Biblical history), and you don’t see any record of people living beyond 120 or so. Therefore the Bible must be understood metaphorically in those pages that talk about those early generations.

Notice the weak leg upon which that argument stands — people today don’t live that long, therefore no one ever lived that long.

In fact, the Bible itself records the change from long life to shorter and shorter and shorter, until the recorded life spans more nearly match ours. If the Bible was simply relating fictitious stories about imaginary people, why not have King David live for a thousand years or Joseph live long enough to lead Israel out of Egypt?

I don’t fault anyone for misunderstanding, though. After all, the disciples sat down with Jesus regularly and they still got it wrong. I think perhaps the biggest blunder they made was hearing Jesus say He was going to Jerusalem to die and thinking He didn’t really mean it. Did they think that He was speaking in some kind of metaphor they weren’t getting? It’s possible, given their history of misunderstanding what was literal and what was figurative.

All this to say, perhaps today we need to tread softly on some of the hard lines we take in case perhaps the Bible is speaking metaphorically rather than literally.

I think particularly we should be cautious about the beginning of time and the end. In the first, no one was there, so we need to rely on what God says, and in the latter, it hasn’t happened yet, so we need to rely on what God says. But was He speaking literally or metaphorically or a little of both?

I suspect one day Peter and the gang will have a full belly laugh at any number of us for getting it wrong. Not as easy as you thought, I can hear them say, figuring out when He was painting pictures and when He was telling it straight. Was it!

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. At a church dinner I was talking to a physicist about the Hadron Collider and the ‘god particle’. Just for conversation I asked him about his view of creation and his answer was “It’s not a game breaker.” He never told me his view. I’ve experienced somewhat the same when talking about end times – people shy from giving their opinion. Yet, as Christians we do our best to make sense of the beginning and the end in our own minds with what’s revealed in scripture.True, it may not be a deal breaker, but It should make for interesting conversation – or debate.


  2. … in the latter, it hasn’t happened yet, so we need to rely on what God says. But was He speaking literally or metaphorically or a little of both?

    The disagreement, while it boils down to which bits are to be taken literally and which should be taken figuratively, goes further than you might think. Most of the passages that most churches assume relate to the “end times” fit the events in the time of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem astonishingly well, so it’s a matter of fierce debate whether they should be interpreted as referring to events in our future at all.

    Also, I’ve always gotten the impression from the passages about the disciples’ misunderstandings that their confusion was cured by the coming of the Holy Spirit, who, we are told “will lead you into all truth.” Their minds were still darkened. Our problems of interpretation tend to stem from an incomplete understanding of the earlier texts to which later passages refer. The apostles, and other early Christians, often knew the Hebrew Scriptures by heart, having studied them extensively from childhood, while many (most?) modern-day Christians struggle to memorize even verses here and there. (A fault which I too will wearily and ruefully confess.)


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