Jesus Meant to Confuse You

A lot of Jesus' teaching was intentionally mysterious. Was He trying to keep people away?

In some ways, there has never been a better time than today to be a Christian. Thanks to the wonders of communications technology, we’re able to connect with believers across the globe. We’re able to see what God’s doing in other cities and other countries within seconds—and with the click of a button, we can have access to the best communicators of this generation. But, in all of human history, there has never been a better communicator than Jesus.

In his three-year ministry, Jesus spoke to small groups of followers and massive crowds. So captivating was His teaching that crowds stayed and listened all day, forgetting to even go home and get something to eat (see Luke 9:10-17). Everyone—from the meekest peasant farmer to the mightiest political ruler—wanted to hear Jesus. And those who heard Him were astonished, “for he was teaching them as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:29).

As we read the Gospels, we see that Jesus commonly used parables, stories that illustrated spiritual and moral lessons. And as we read them, we often find ourselves scratching our heads and asking one question:

Why did Jesus choose to speak in parables when speaking plainly would be so much more effective?

Why So Mysterious?

In Matthew 13:10, we’re told that the disciples came to Jesus and said to Him, “Why do you speak to them [the crowds who came to see Jesus] in parables?”

They wanted to know: What did He expect to accomplish by not speaking plainly to the crowds?

His answer is fascinating:

To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:11-17)

This answer is absolutely shocking. It’s shocking because, in effect, Jesus is telling them: “I speak in parables because the truth of the kingdom of heaven is not theirs to know. They think they see the truth of my kingdom, but they don’t. They think they understand, but they can’t. If they did, they might turn and repent.”

That boggles my mind. It’s hard to grasp the idea that Jesus would not want people to know what He was saying. Yet, He didn’t.

Jesus’ explanation of His use of parables reveals that they had a two-fold purpose: to harden the hearts of some who heard, and to cause others to seek out Jesus and ask Him what He meant.

Every time He spoke, He was simultaneously excluding some and including others. Some, after hearing His particularly difficult teachings, turned away and “no longer walked with Him” (John 6:66). But others were drawn to Him. They did not simply accept the unknown, but were fueled by what they did not know to learn more. And the fascinating thing is that when people drew near, when they asked Him to explain, as the disciples did, He was happy to oblige.

Fashionable Ambiguity

Today, it’s considered fashionable by some to speak and write about the Christian faith in ambiguous terms. To “embrace the mystery” of Christianity, as some might say. To leave things mysterious, all in the name of humility. It's true, there is much we do not understand nor can expect to understand about the "mysterious ways" in which God works. But in effect, by allowing vague, ambiguous teachings on Christianity, they’re choosing not to communicate anything at all. In doing so, men and women of faith, and often very popular ones, are actually breaking the prime rule of communication: Communicators communicate.

While there are many things that God chooses to keep secret from us, He does want us to know who He is, what He expects of us and how we can be rightly related to Him. And these things He has made clear within the pages of Scripture. He has made His will known to His creatures. And He expects those who would teach His people to make it known. So, to speak as though we can’t know with any certainty what God has made knowable—especially under the guise of following the example of Jesus—is not humility. It is the height of arrogance.

Jesus was never mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. He didn’t speak in riddles and vagaries to create a mystique. God is not a beat poet. Jesus’ parables were not meant to be a stumbling block for His disciples. Rather, all things were revealed to them by Him, for those who longed to hear.

Similarly, the role of the Christian is to patiently explain all that has been revealed with gentleness and humility, not cloak His message in ambiguity. Acknowledge what you do not know, seek to know more—and share what you can until the day when all things are made clear.

This article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

40 Comments

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Peter Schulte commented…

You could argue that Jesus didn't share everything about himself because he didn't want the people to try to make him a King in the Earthly sense. He knew that he had to die, and he also knew that people wouldn't understand that. (Even his disciples didn't until after he was Resurrected).

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Ron Sprayberry commented…

Contrary to some of the opinions expressed here, I don't believe that Jesus wanted anyone's hearts to be hardened. John 3:16 says "... that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish ..." and 2Peter 3:9 says that God is "... not willing than any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." A fact of life is that the Bible, God's Word, was never intended to be understood by the casual reader. 2Timothy 2:15 says, "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." Jeremiah 29:11 says, "Ye shall seek me and find me when ye shall search for me with all your heart." Those who turn their hearts to Him and seek Him with all their hearts find Him, and they find His wisdom and understanding. God is an Equal Opportunity God. Everyone has the opportunity to seek Him.

Ray Horton

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Ray Horton commented…

There are two ways to celebrate paradox, mystery, and ambiguity. The first is to recognize that all of our knowledge, belief, and opinion is filtered through the lenses of language, culture, history, etc. and as such we must come to faith with an epistemological humility that leaves enough space for God to be much, much bigger than our overdetermined conceptual boxes. This is basically the approach, as I've seen it, among the more astute writers in the Emerging Church movement (Peter Rollins, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, etc.). The second is to write a bunch of content absent fluff and market it on the back of postmodernity. In other words, "It's trendy to use big words and wavy syntax while we're talking about nothing...I bet it will sell lots of books among the emergent types." This, generally, is a bunch of the crap that comes up in the Amazon recommendations...you know, "customers who liked this also bought." For instance, I can't even count how many Rob Bell "Love Wins" spin-off books I've seen (both pro and con) in the past three months. The Christian-Industrial Complex is a scary, scary place.

In "How (Not) to Speak of God," Peter Rollins argues that the "mystery" of faith is not so much from absence or vagueness but from the overabundance of God. That is, God is not less than what we can think or speak--he is infinitely more. Thus, all of our theology and doctrine, interpretation of scripture, etc. is to be done with the recognition that, no matter what we say or do, we're barely scratching the surface. God, in this case, is not "anonymous" but "hypernymous." I think this argument addresses the questions raised in this article quite nicely.

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Thebonis commented…

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Audiosane commented…

As far as God hardening people's hearts go, how can they be held accountable for their actions, at least in part, if God is manipulating their motives this way?

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