Listening to the gospel of John over the past couple of days it struck me how often Jesus was misunderstood and how little he did to make himself clear. Moreover, those who misunderstood him almost always did so through taking what he said literally. When he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, he told his critics, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.”
“This building has been under construction for 46 years, but you will rebuild it in 3 days?”
Not even his disciples understood him. John lets his readers know what it all meant, but in doing so, he lets slip that no one got it until after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus makes no effort to explain that he was talking about the temple of his body, but it became a part of Paul’s teaching later on.
Later, Nicodemus reveals his own ignorance in taking Jesus’ talk about being born again as a literal rebirth. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus has to break it down for him. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit gives birth to spirit.” He was talking about a spiritual birth that would open Nicodemus’ eyes to spiritual truth. Paul picks up on this too.
The woman at the well supposes that the living water Jesus talks of giving her will make daily trips to the well unnecessary. He has to explain to her that he is talking about something spiritual. He tells her that God is on the look out for people who will worship him “in spirit and in truth” rather than worshiping in a particular place—and by doing so segregating themselves into “mountain worshipers” and “temple worshipers.”
A couple of chapters further on, Jesus tells the crowds following him that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. To make matters worse, he sounds as if he wants to be taken literally: “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explains. What kind of crazy talk is this? Is Jesus recommending cannibalism? Many disciples abandon Jesus at this point. They can’t make sense of what he is saying. But the Twelve stick with him, not because they understand him any better, but because they trust him anyway.
Again and again, Jesus says things that his hearers try to shoehorn into a literal interpretation. Again and again, Jesus either leaves them to try and work it out for themselves or patiently explains that he’s talking about spiritual things. When Philip insists that Jesus show them the Father, Jesus sounds really disappointed. You can almost hear him say, “Really, Phil? I’ve been showing you the Father this whole time. How can you even say that?”
Even when he is facing Pilate, Jesus continues to use metaphorical language, although he is careful to explain it to the gentile.
So, what does all this mean? I think it calls into question how much we really understand of God’s word when we insist on taking it literally. Jesus insisted that God’s word is true, but the truth he was interested in was not whether 2 million Israelites could really survive in the desert for 40 years or whether Jonah could really survive for three days in the belly of a big fish. No, the truth he was interested in was the revelation of God’s character: his love and faithfulness and righteousness. The truth that the world needs to hear is that God loves them and has good plans for them if they will only turn from trying to do everything themselves and making a mess of things. They don’t need to hear our unscientific theories about how God could have created the world in a literal six days. They need to hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”