It doesn’t seem to matter who you are, but from time to time, we are all placed in the position of having the things we say, misunderstood.
For example, it might be what we said was either unclear, or maybe it was just not received as well as we had hoped. With the end result, that our words are taken to mean something completely different to what was intended.
Other times, misunderstandings may occur, because the person we’re speaking to at the time, is in a world of their own. So much so, that what we say is coloured by what’s going on around them, rather than what we actually said.
And other misunderstandings occur because we simply don’t always speak the same language. And this doesn’t mean just foreign languages, but include technical mumbo jumbo, and jargon too.
And there are a couple of personal examples I can think of to do with misunderstandings:
The first, was when I was the Assistant Curate in the Parish of Burnie back in the 1980s. Fresh out of college, with very little in regard to furniture, tools etc, I rang the rector’s wife to see if I could borrow an axe. Well, you can imagine my surprise when she replied, ‘Certainly, it’s just here on the piano stall.’ However, thinking that was an odd place to keep an axe, I wasn’t totally surprised when two hours later she arrived at the door, and presented me with an atlas. Admittedly, a very comprehensive atlas, but certainly not one that was capable of chopping wood.
The second example was a few years later, and had to do with connecting a DVD player. And the conversation in the shop included a number of terms including AV inputs, Audio inputs, and RCA leads. Terms that left me totally bamboozled, and not a little bit frustrated. However we got there in the end, but it did take three trips to the shop, two extra cables, and a lot of misunderstanding.
Being misunderstood then, and misunderstanding others, is something we all face. And it doesn’t matter how careful we are, misunderstandings still occur.
Of course, sometimes the consequences of the misunderstandings are humorous, but other times the consequences can be far more serious.
B. JESUS THE LIVING BREAD
It’s not surprising then, that if we face misunderstandings—with people misunderstanding the things that we do and say—then it shouldn’t surprise us to know that Jesus was not exempt from misunderstandings too. Because that’s exactly what happened to Jesus, in this passage from John’s gospel.
Because Jesus was talking to a group of Jews, and he was talking in terms of their need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But as the group stood around Jesus, they had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. They were confused, and perplexed. It was like he was talking a different language.
And, in one sense, that was surprising, Because one of the things we know about the New Testament period, is that the expressions of eating and drinking were in quite common use amongst the Jews at the time. They were spiritual expressions, and would have been well known to mean the need to take something in internally—the need to internalise the spiritual truths, to accept the religious truths for themselves. So in that sense, for Jesus’s Jewish audience to miss his point, is in one sense quite surprising.
On the other hand, the group that he was talking to, was a group who had just witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. And when Jesus had withdrawn, they had chased after him, and caught up with him on the following day.
This group, then, mindful of the miracle, and even more mindful of their history—and the gift of manna given each day for the Israelites to eat as they wandered in the wilderness—had their mindset well and truly on the need for physical food.
So, even though they should have understood the spiritual term of eating and drinking, their minds were on a much more material plain.
The misunderstanding that occurred, then, wasn’t because Jesus was speaking religious jargon that no one understood. It was because the crowd was living in a different world, and that coloured their understanding of every word that Jesus said.
2. Jesus, the Living Bread (51-53)
Sadly, then, when Jesus talked about himself as the living bread come down from heaven (51a), they had no idea what he was talking about. They certainly didn’t understand him to mean that he had been sent by God, and that he was indeed the promised Messiah that they had been waiting for.
When Jesus talked about the need for them to eat his flesh, they were perplexed. (52b). The people just couldn’t see how Jesus could physically give his flesh. It wasn’t possible. They certainly didn’t understand it in terms of their own common religious understanding—of the need to take him in to themselves, to accepting him as the Messiah, as the one God had promised would be sent for their salvation.
And when Jesus, didn’t retract from his statement, but rather added to it (53)—and he spoke not only about the need to eat his flesh but to drink his blood too—we need to imagine the reaction of the crowd (because it’s not described in the text). But for a group of people who had their minds fixed on a material plain, the whole idea of drinking blood would have been abhorrent. In fact in Jewish law it was forbidden—it was not kosher, if you like. Indeed, they would have been shocked and horrified. As a consequence, in their misunderstanding, they totally missed what Jesus was trying to say, about the need to take him in to their very inner being.
In the whole passage, then, Jesus and the crowd were not talking the same language. Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms— the act of appropriating him in their lives—while the crowd were thinking of their stomachs. Jesus was talking about a one-off spiritual acceptance of him into their lives, while the crowd was thinking of a constant supply of food.
So when Jesus continued on, to talk about the consequences of faith, the crowd had already been left way behind.
4. The Consequences of Participation in Jesus (54-58)
However, ever the optimist, or at least believing that everyone should know what they’re accepting—or in this case, rejecting—Jesus continued, by outlining the consequences of putting their trust in him. And he mentioned five things:
Firstly, he stated that the man who does take him into himself, would be raised up by Jesus on the last day (54). In other words, to those who believe, he gave the promise of being resurrected from the dead.
Secondly, whilst acknowledging that ordinary food had its place and value (55), he promised that only the spiritual food—which he could provide—could meet man’s deepest needs.
Thirdly, Jesus described a fellowship, which was the closest possible relationship with him (56). This wasn’t just a temporary state, but it was one that was permanent.
Fourthly, just as Jesus was sent by the living Father —to do the Father’s will (57)—so Jesus said, the consequences of anyone receiving him, was that they should live for him and should actively participate in God’s mission as well.
And fifthly, Jesus acknowledged that wonderful though manna was, there was no life-giving quality in it (58). Those who had eaten it, he said, had died like any other man. However, the bread, that he provided was totally different. And even though in this world his followers would die physically, yet they would pass through the gateway of death, and live on eternally with him.
Misunderstandings? Can you think of any greater misunderstanding than that between Jesus and the crowd of that day? Jesus was talking about the spiritual life—what was required to have a relationship with himself and God the Father. And the people . . . all they were concerned about was their own material well-being.
But it wasn’t that Jesus was talking a language that they couldn’t understand. No! It’s just the crowd were so preoccupied with the material world—and with things that they could physically do—that the whole concept of a spiritual dimension just passed them by. Sadly, they didn’t understand a word of the vitally important conversation that Jesus was trying to have with them at all.
D. THE LORD’S SUPPER
Now the fact that the concepts of eating and drinking were used as common spiritual motifs in New Testament times to denote taking something into oneself we’ve already noted. And the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’—the words of Jesus—were noted by the apostle John to relate to the one-off acceptance of Jesus by those wishing to be his disciples.
It is perhaps then not surprising that when Jesus was instituting the Lord’s Supper, he used exactly the same spiritual motifs (Luke 22:7-38).
Only this time instead of the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’, he used ‘body’ and ‘blood’. And the difference, this time, was that he used the terms in front of a friendly audience—a group of people who were quite used to Jesus speaking in spiritual terms, i.e. the disciples themselves.
But this time, the command was not for a one-off commitment to him—as it had been to the crowd—but an act Jesus commanded believers to do repeatedly, on a regular basis, in remembrance of him. In remembrance of who he was, what he had done, and (at that time) what he was about to do.
And it is a practice that the church has continued, in more ritualised form, through the ages. However, again, not without its share of misunderstanding. Because before the church was less than a hundred years old, those words, ‘Take eat, this is my body’ and ‘Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood’ were taken by some outside the church to suggest that Christian’s were practicing cannibalism. It was a rumour that was not helped by the fact that non-believers were often physically excluded from the Communion part of services.
Now, we can smile at the tragedy of the misunderstanding of the Jews. We may even be able to sympathise with the Jews whose mindset was so completely on a different track. We may even get confused about the language ourselves—after all, it’s not ours, it belongs to another culture and another time. And we can smile at the misunderstanding regarding Communion in church services. However, for our own sakes, we must make sure that we don’t get caught up in the same mistakes of the past, and misunderstand those vitally important words of Jesus.
Because whereas most people’s response to Jesus and the Bible is still in terms of a physical response—because it’s about the things people do, it’s about the help people provide others, and it’s sometimes even about physical participation in the life of the church. But without first a spiritual response, without taking in Jesus, internally, into one self, we too will have missed the point.
Living good lives, doing good deeds, even regular attendance at church, do not make a Christian. To be a Christian one needs faith. In other words to be a Christian one has to accept Jesus internally into our very being. Living good lives, doing good deeds, and regular attendance at church may be important for believers, but only on the firm foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. Which was the whole point of what Jesus was trying to say.
There are, then, three vitally important questions that we need to ask ourselves.
And the first is: Have we partaken in the one-off eating of the flesh and the blood of Christ? In other words have we accepted Jesus as our lord and saviour, and taken him into ourselves? Is Jesus someone we have accepted internally, or are we stuck on outward physical observances only?
Secondly, if we have accepted Jesus, do we live with the consequences of that faith, day by day? The consequences: That we will be resurrected from the dead; that Jesus can meet our deepest needs; that our relationship with Jesus is not temporary, but permanent; that we need to participate in the mission of Jesus; and that we will inherit eternal life.
And thirdly, as a response to all of that, do we participate, as we should in the Lord’s Supper, in the partaking of his body and blood? Meeting together regularly to share in the memorial of his death and resurrection.
Now we all face misunderstandings. And I’m sure many of you could tell stories of events that you have experienced personally in your lives—some funny, some tragic. However, from the story of Jesus, today, is the lesson: that there is one area in our lives in which we cannot afford there to be a misunderstanding—and that is our relationship with God.
For us, misunderstandings may occur because our words are not clear or are misunderstood. Misunderstandings may occur because we talk at crossed purposes. And misunderstandings may occur because we simply don’t speak the same language. And no matter how hard we try, we will not be exempt from some misunderstanding. However, we need to make sure that our misunderstandings with God, do not have the same tragic consequences as those in our gospel story.
The crowd in the story were fixed on looking at life only from a physical dimension. As a result: they missed Jesus’s spiritual message; they missed out on a true relationship with God; they missed his promise of salvation; and they missed the promise of eternal life.
The warning for us then is clear: we should listen, take in, and live the spiritual life that Jesus spoke of, lest we too miss out on his promises too.
Posted: 24th November 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis