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The large measure of uniformity in the discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel means that these in themselves very soon reach their end. Nevertheless, some misunderstanding, on the part of his hearers, gives Jesus remarkably frequent occasion to prolong them. Sometimes indeed 44it is not surprising that his hearers do not understand him for example, when he tells them that he is the bread come down from heaven (vi. 41 f.), that he will give them his flesh to eat (vi. 52), that Abraham has already seen him (viii. 56 f.), etc.

In other passages, however, we are obliged to ask, on the contrary, whether the intelligence of his hearers could really have been so feeble. Nicodemus—to give a single instance—is said to have been a teacher in Israel (iii. 10), and yet he does not understand Jesus when he says, “whosoever is not born from above, cannot see the kingdom of God.” He asks in astonishment, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (iii. 3 f.).

But perhaps we have not been fair to him. We have rendered the words of Jesus according to their real sense: from above, that is to say from God, must he be born, by God must he be destined and endowed, who is to have admittance into the kingdom of God. But the words admit of another translation: “If any one is not born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is evidently the meaning which Nicodemus attaches to the words when he puts his counter-question, and this, at least externally, is not so senseless. Such ambiguity in Jesus language is no accident; it occurs again on very many occasions. When, as we have just mentioned, Jesus promises to give bread or meat to his hearers, on first thoughts and until we have realised that there is a deeper meaning in the words, we cannot help thinking that he really means ordinary food. It is the same with the water, which, as he sits by a well, Jesus promises to give the woman of Samaria, and of which he says that, after tasting it, she will never thirst again (iv. 13-15); and other 45instances occur frequently (e.g., iv. 31-34; vii. 33-36; viii. 31-33; xi. 11-14; xii. 32-34). We see that it is a peculiarity of these discourses, that in them Jesus chooses an expression with more meanings than one, and thus intentionally provokes misunderstanding, in order that he may afterwards explain the matter more precisely.

But at the same time another purpose is served. How can Philip, who has spent two years with Jesus, desire him to show him the heavenly Father (xiv. 8 f .)? This seems inconceivable even if he did not understand the words spoken by Jesus immediately before: “If ye had known me, ye would have known my father also; from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.” But we ourselves are perhaps surprised at the further statement which Jesus makes in reply to Philip’s request, “Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” We ourselves might still have thought perhaps that the recognition of the Father, as Philip may be supposed to have reached it from his acquaintance with Jesus, consisted in gaining a true idea of God’s attributes, of His power, His wisdom, His goodness. Instead of this, however, Jesus thinks that we ought not to conceive of God here as a Being who has an existence independent of and separate from other beings, but ought to see Him presented to our objective vision in the person of Jesus himself. This in fact goes beyond all that we are accustomed to think we know about God. And so Philip’s misunderstanding—as well as many others in Jn.—serves the further purpose of revealing in a particularly clear manner, on the one hand the lack of intelligence on the part of Jesus’ hearers and even of his disciples, and on the other the infinite depth and unsuspected novelty of Jesus interpretations.


That the lack of intelligence in Jesus’ hearers and even in his disciples was not slight, is indicated often enough by the Synoptics also. On the other hand, their books do not suggest that Jesus teaching contained such unfathomable secrets, nor are they aware that he was so continually misunderstood, or that he himself provoked these misunderstandings by using expressions with more meanings than one.

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