Misunderstanding Jesus


Jesus knew that his disciples would not fully understand his message or his mission until after he had risen and imparted the Spirit to them. To prepare them for his impending departure, Jesus promised to send them another Advocate, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:16-17). Jesus made it clear that after his departure, the Spirit would be in them and not just with them, explaining and revealing the truth to them. The shift to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is therefore critical in our understanding of how the disciples came to conceptualize and interpret the purpose of Christ and his teachings.

This study will endeavor to show that after Jesus was glorified, the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to understand and perceive the message and the mission of Christ. In order to do this, we will first track the various Blue and purple misunderstandings of Christ’s hearers prior to his resurrection, offer an analysis of Christ’s remedy for this by sending the Spirit who will guide them into all truth, and address the corresponding change in the disciples’ understanding after receiving the Holy Spirit.


John portrays Jesus’ opponents as having largely misunderstood his purpose and message. At times, this lack of understanding is due to a faulty world-view (e.g. the prevalent view of a one-dimensional messianic theocracy). In other instances, they fail to perceive the spiritual underpinnings of Jesus’ language (e.g. “I am the bread of heaven” 6:32-24). They also fail to grasp the somewhat cryptic use of typological language (e.g. “tear down this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days” 2:19). On other occasions, they demonstrate a fundamentally flawed understanding of scripture altogether, as is the case with their misunderstanding of the Messiah’s origin (7:27). In yet another place, John records that the crowd failed to grasp Jesus’ use of a figure of speech referring to himself as the Shepherd (10:1-7). Lastly, not even the highly educated and accomplished rabbinic crowd was immune to misconstruing Jesus’ words (3:9-11).

This isn’t to say that the unbelieving Jews could not understand anything they heard Jesus say. The quintessential example of this is Jesus stating that “Before Abraham was born, I AM” (8:58). The response of the pious Jews is to stone him for blasphemy. Jesus does not censure them for their accusation because they have correctly understood this as an overt claim of deity. Though they apprehend the meaning of Christ’s claim, they fail to accept it because they are operating under a flawed messianic framework and they do not have a personal revelation of its truth by the Spirit.

The opponents of Jesus do not understand him, or at best have a partial understanding of Christ’s teachings and mission and they refuse to believe. Jesus communicates to them that without a willing heart to believe, they can not possibly understand that he is in the Father and the Father is in him (10:38). Obedience to Christ was essential if they were to later receive the Spirit of Truth who would provide an explanation of “all things.”


To be fair, it is apparent that not even Jesus’ closest followers understood his larger mission and message. The tendency to misread Jesus was a systemic problem among his hearers. The disciples’ misunderstandings of Jesus fall into three categories: First, they simply fail to fully understand something he says or does. Such is the case when Jesus rides into Jerusalem. The Scripture in the NIV states that, “at first the disciples did not understand all of this [emphasis added].” The text makes it clear that they had a partial understanding at the time, and a fuller understanding later after Jesus had been glorified (12:15-17). Second, they fail to recognize the symbolic significance of Jesus’ teaching and actions. This can be seen in the washing of the disciples’ feet and the future understanding of its significance they will receive after receiving the Spirit (13:7-13). Third, they fail to perceive Jesus’ real mission, namely, his passion and resurrection (16:18; 20:9). Thus, John points out in many places that even the twelve disciples were not immune to misinterpreting Jesus’ teachings or his larger program of atonement. The future resurrection of Christ and his subsequent explanation would provide the new conceptual framework for their understanding, and the Spirit would awaken their newly transformed inner man to the inescapable truth of Christ’s claims.

To conclude the matter, one narrative in particular appears to capture this issue of misunderstanding and response. John contains a scene in which Jesus cleanses the Temple, and answers his opponents by saying that if they tear down “this Temple” he will restore it again in only three days. His opponents do not understand and reject him. The disciples also do not understand but choose to follow him. Their faith in Jesus’ unprecedented miracles is not shaken despite their apparent lack of understanding. As Carson states, “Thus, of these two groups which fail to grasp the significance of Jesus’ temple saying, one explicitly misunderstands, and the other implicitly fails to understand until a specified time.” Those who “explicitly” misunderstand are those in darkness to whom the light has shown, but have failed to comprehend it (1:5).


As has been demonstrated above, John has constructed his Gospel to show us that Jesus has been repeatedly misread. Jesus then pledges to remedy this situation by sending the Spirit to those who truly love him and obey his commands (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:1-17). After stating to the disciples that he himself is the truth (14:6), Jesus then assures them that he will send another Advocate who will be with them forever – the Spirit of Truth (14:16-17). The wording of this passage has been the subject of endless discussion and exegesis. It is therefore necessary to briefly provide a working definition of the terms “another” (Gk. allon), “Advocate” (Gk. parakletos), and “Spirit of Truth” (Gk. ta pneuma tes aletheias). We will then examine what this other Advocate will do once he is sent to them.

allon: It is clear from the Greek text that Jesus does not promise to send them another Advocate who is completely foreign or alien to them. The fact that Jesus has told them that the Spirit had been “with” them, but not yet “in” them (13:7), demonstrates that they were familiar with the workings and power of the Spirit. Had John wanted to communicate that the Spirit was entirely “other” than Christ or “other” than what they’d already experienced, he would have used a word such as heteros, meaning “another of a different kind.” Instead he uses allon, meaning “another of the same kind.” Thus, while heteros primarily means another of a contrasting type, allon refers to another of a comparative type. Barrett suggests that either allon or parakleton may be translated adjectively, which slightly effects how we render the passage. Either it is rendered that Christ himself through the agency of the Spirit will be the paraclete (which would fit the epistolary usage in 1 Jn 2:1); or the Spirit of Truth is the paraclete who provides communion and continuity with Christ’s presence (which would fit the successor motif of John regarding the Spirit). Arguably, both constructions allow Jesus to continue his ministry of truth through the Spirit.

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