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?

  • 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.
    – user862
    Feb 20, 2013 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!
    – user862
    Feb 20, 2013 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, 2013 at 13:41

3 Answers 3


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.


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?

  • 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, 2013 at 23:08

Some consider Psalm 78:2 to be why Jesus spoke in a roundabout manner, as stated in Matthew 13:35.

Psalm 78:2

I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old—

My NIV has it(Psalm 78:2):

"I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old—"

Matthew 13:35

So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

Also note how Jesus speaks in a roundabout manner even to the disciples of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2-6.

Matthew 11:2-6

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

as compared to how openly John speaks of himself as a fulfillment of

Isaiah 40:3

A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

in John 1:23

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”

When he says "I am the voice of one calling..." although he could have been roundabout like Jesus and said: "A voice of one calling..."

He says he has come to heal the sick

Mark 2:17

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

but also states

Mark 4:12

so that, “ ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Which he then reinforces as he calls people to "repent, for the kingdom of God is near." (Matthew 4:17)

Matthew 4:17

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Also note how Mark 4:11 calls his disciples into "the secret of the kingdom of God" and how Jesus does not intend to share secrets with "those on the outside" Which are apparently not needed to be saved?

Mark 4:11-12

He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “ ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Or perhaps we are just another example like Pharaoh was? And if he is God's one and only son, the Pentateuch is in error, for it states in Exodus 4:22 that Israel is his firstborn son and that sons of God went to the daughters of men to have children by them in Genesis 6:4.

Exodus 4:22-23

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”

Genesis 6:4

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

Parable or parables? Son or sons? Pretty big deal to me. I guess not to others. :/

And how could the secret things be ours?

Deuteronomy 29:29

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

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