All meaningful communication is a form of storytelling, according to Walter Fisher, who introduced the narrative paradigm to communication theory. Narrative communication, which is universal across cultures and time, is the manner in which people comprehend life. The narrative form of communication Jesus most employed during His earthly life was informal, fictional storytelling – creating demonstrative fables or parables.
Parables are part of the reason that the scriptures are called a double edged sword, because the hearts of the hearers are exposed by the manner in which they interpret parables. I say that parables are “part of the reason” scriptures are called a double edged sword, but not the entire reason, because even when Jesus did not speak in parables, His words were regularly misunderstood and misinterpreted, even by His own disciples. The gospel of John points out many of these types of situations.
For example, the disciples were concerned about Jesus, because it had been a while since he’d eaten. Jesus told them that He had food that they didn’t know about. They figured someone must have bought Him lunch while they were away, but Jesus clarified that His food was to accomplish the mission for which He was sent.
Another illustration of people misunderstanding Jesus is when He told the religious people that He would tear down “this temple” and build it again in only three days. They marveled at His words, considering that it took forty-six years to build the temple building, but Jesus was not referring to a building, He was talking about His body that would be crucified and then resurrected three days later.
When Jesus met one-on-one with one of the more open-minded religious leaders, Nicodemus, Jesus told him that people can’t recognize the reign of God unless they are born again. Apparently, Nicodemus hadn’t been born again, because he didn’t recognize the reign of God in Jesus’s words. He actually asked Jesus (and I wonder if there wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in his voice) if a full grown person must reenter his mother’s womb! Jesus put him in his place, telling Nicodemus that he shouldn’t be surprised to hear the concepts Jesus introduced, explaining that flesh produces more flesh and spirit produces more spirit. Jesus pointed out that Nicodemus, a religious leader, supposedly should already know these things.
In Jesus’s time, the Jewish males did not associate with female strangers or Samaritans, yet Jesus struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman who was drawing water from a well. He told her that if she knew who He was, then she would have asked Him for living water. She didn’t understand Him and assumed He was talking about actual water. He explained that people who drink His water are never thirsty again. But she still didn’t get it. She told him what a pain it was to have to lug heavy jugs of water back and forth, and, for practical reasons, said that she would like to have some of His living water.
Perhaps Jesus’s most profound words, “I am the bread of heaven,” caused many of His followers to dismiss Him as a madman. They figured that Jesus intended to be cannibalized! Even the twelve, hand-picked disciples didn’t understand that Jesus was using the imagery of food and drink, necessities for survival, to communicate that He is the imperative requisite of spiritual sustenance, that without Him we perish.
The religious leaders got hot-headed over the fact that Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, an act which they considered “work”, and according to the law, no on was supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus equated their reaction of judging by appearances with attempted murder, knowing that their judgmental condemnation would eventually turn into murderous hatred. He asked plainly, “Why are you trying to kill me?” They accused him of being demon possessed, because they didn’t recognize their own predispositional hostility toward Him.
In the age of law, people saw everything and everyone through the lens of law, especially Jesus. When Jesus said,”You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” their first reaction was based on legality. The only people who needed to be set free were slaves. Since they were not slaves, they had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Jesus asked them why His language was not clear to them, and then He answered His own question, saying something very reminiscent of the conversation He had with Nicodemus, “…because ye are not able to hear my word.”
As you can see from the few (of many) examples I’ve given, Jesus was regularly misunderstood in normal conversations. How could someone who is considered to be one of the world’s top communicators fail to effectively communicate? Different people might give different reasons to explain the communication breakdown, but the only explanation that really matters is the one that comes from Jesus Christ, Himself. I’ll expound on this shortly, but first, I’d like to point out that if Jesus was misunderstood when He spoke plainly, it is increasingly likely that His message was misinterpreted when He spoke in allegories and parables! The fact is, if Jesus wanted His hearers to understand, then they would have understood. He did not fail to communicate; He purposed it. This might be a hard concept for people to wrap their brains around, but it is true. Jesus, on many occasions, instructed people NOT to tell anyone Who He was. Jesus healed people and instructed them NOT to tell anyone. Jesus told His disciples to keep the fact that He was a the Messiah a secret. Why? Jesus explained to His disciples privately (from Mark 4),
To you it hath been given to know the secret of the reign of God, but to those who are without, in similes are all the things done; that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they may turn, and the sins may be forgiven them. Have ye not known this simile? and how shall ye know all the similes? […] There is not anything hid that may not be manifested, nor was anything kept hid but that it may come to light. If any hath ears to hear — let him hear. Take heed what ye hear; in what measure ye measure, it shall be measured to you; and to you who hear it shall be added; for whoever may have, there shall be given to him, and whoever hath not, also that which he hath shall be taken from him. To what may we liken the reign of God, or in what simile may we compare it? As a grain of mustard, which, whenever it may be sown on the earth, is less than any of the seeds that are on the earth; and whenever it may be sown, it cometh up, and doth become greater than any of the herbs, and doth make great branches, so that under its shade the fowls of the heaven are able to rest.
(And with many such similes he was speaking to them the word, as they were able to hear, and without a simile he was not speaking to them, and by themselves, to his disciples he was expounding all.)
The important thing to remember is that Jesus does not permanently hide the truth. There is an appointed time for the truth to “come to light” for the hearer. Most of the hearers, during Jesus’s earthly ministry, were not given “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”. Jesus selected twelve among many thousands of their peers to reveal things that were hidden, just as Jesus, throughout the ages, has selected thousands among many millions of their peers. The reign of God is, indeed, like the mustard seed of the ages.
This blog is actually an introductory blog for the section of Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell, that makes claims about a parable regarding what Chan calls “second chances”. I totally disagree with Chan’s interpretation of the parable, found in Luke 13:22-30:
And [Jesus] was going through cities and villages, teaching, and making progress toward Jerusalem; and a certain one said to him, “Sir, are those saved few?”
and he said unto them, “Be striving to go in through the straight gate, because many, I say to you, will seek to go in, and shall not be able; from the time the master of the house may have risen up, and may have shut the door, and ye may begin without to stand, and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us,’ and he answering shall say to you, ‘I have not known you whence ye are,’ then ye may begin to say, ‘We did eat before thee, and did drink, and in our broad places thou didst teach;’ and he shall say, ‘I say to you, I have not known you whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of the unrighteousness.’ There shall be there the weeping and the gnashing of the teeth, when ye may see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the reign of God, and yourselves being cast out without; and they shall come from east and west, and from north and south, and shall recline in the reign of God, and lo, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.”
According to Chan (and fundamental, orthodox theology),
Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem, and His disciples ask how many people will end up being saved. Jesus answers that few will be saved, but even worse, many who think they are saved will end up on the “outside” of the kingdom, so to speak. […] This passage “gives no hint whatever that the door will remain permanently open.” If Jesus believed in second chances for those who reject Him in this life, then this parable is dangerously misleading.
Chan, like the people in Jesus’s audience who did not have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”, has misunderstood the glorious truth in this fable. Yes, glorious. In the next blog I will demonstrate exactly how Chan has misinterpreted this parable and offer an explanation about the likely meaning of the parable.
Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Croissants Falling from the Sky