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Jesus seems to be misunderstood pretty consistently throughout the Gospel According to John:

John 2:19-20

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

John 3:3-4

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

John 4:10-11

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?

I could multiply examples, but this seems enough for the purpose of the question, which is why? What is John trying to say by showing that everyone (including the disciples) pretty much fails to understand Jesus throughout his ministry?

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The reasons why they wouldn't literally mean what he said is because they're all impossible if taken literally. The Temple that took 46 years to build couldn't be built again in 3 days. Such a feat was physically impossible for that civilization. Again, it took 46 whole years to do so. Normal water doesn't give eternal life. And, a man cannot be born again a second time in his mother's womb. Those were the clues that what he said should not have been understood in a carnal or literal manner. – Simply a Christian Feb 20 '13 at 4:59
You know what it is weird though...sometimes they misunderstand him, and sometimes they know exactly what he means (cp. John 8:58-59). Odd! – Simply a Christian Feb 20 '13 at 5:22
Ironically when Jesus finally begins speaking 'plainly' to his disciples about his death. They do not seem to believe him and take his literal style metaphorically. – Mike Feb 20 '13 at 13:41
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The pattern of misunderstanding is charachterized by the following elements: (1) Jesus makes a statement, (2) it is misunderstood and (3) he or the narrator in turn must decipher the meaning of what has been said. The pattern itself suggests its function.

In his book the Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, R. Alan Culpepper notes that the misunderstandings blatantly instruct readers on how they should read the gospel.

The misunderstandings call attention to the gospel’s metaphors, double-entendres, and plurisignations as well as guide the reader by interpreting some of these and ruling out the literal, material, worldly, or general meanings of such references. Readers are therefore oriented to the level on which the gospel’s language is to be understood and warned that failure to understand identifies them with the characterization of the Jews and the others who cannot interpret the gospel’s language correctly.”

The misunderstanding in the temple cleansing, for instance, calls attention to Jesus word for temple. Before Jesus says, "destroy this temple" both the narrator and the Jews have used the Greek word hieron. Hieron is only ever used in the New Testament for the physical temple. But Jesus calls them to "destroy this naos", a word that can refer to either a literal temple or a figurative one. For instance in the New Testament it is the word naos which is used in reference to believers as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). When Jesus uses the word naos the Jews have a decision to make. They can interpret in its literal sense or they can interpret it spiritually. Its the later which Jesus appears to intend.

When Jesus tells Nicodimus he must "be born again" it is the word again which possess two different meanings. In English "again" only means a “second time.” But the Greek word anothen, which Jesus uses here, can mean both "a second time" and “from above.” Once again we find that Nicodimus errors in choosing the more physical or earthly meaning. Jesus is not speaking about a second physical birth but rather a new heavenly birth from above.

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Two scriptures immediately come to mind. I'm not striving for best answer, so excuse the brevity.

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

If I have told you earthly things, and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

I suppose we need to ask the following questions:

  1. Did those to whom Yeshu'a spoke have the Holy Spirit?
  2. If not, could they have understood those spiritual and heavenly things?

There's no doubt that the Holy Spirit was typified by water in the Tanakh (cp. Ezek. 36:25-26; Isa. 12:3, Isa. 44:3, etc.). Now, we know such things in hindsight, so it's easy for us to say that.

But if we were in their shoes at that time, could we have known that? Could that have been understood except by revelation of the Holy Spirit?

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I think you're on the right track here. I'm trying to put together a compelling argument that this is the case from within John. 3:12 will be helpful. – Soldarnal Feb 19 '13 at 23:08

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