The Importance of Developing Understanding
Introduction: Part 1 introduced two fascinating incidents in which Jesus used questions to thwart attempts of Jewish authorities to make trouble for Him. In the first incident Jewish leaders demand Jesus tell them who gave Him authority for what He is doing. In the second the authorities asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. In both cases Jesus used a counter question to turn the tables on the authorities. Part 2 looks at questions revealing things Jesus expects from believers. First, Jesus expects believers to develop understanding.
Jesus Asks, Do you not understand? Sometimes Jesus’ questions are very blunt. In John 3 we find a familiar passage. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to talk to Jesus. Nicodemus begins by saying he knows Jesus has come from God, for otherwise no one could perform the miraculous signs Jesus was performing. Jesus abruptly changes the subject to the necessity of being born again if one is to see the Kingdom of God.
This is more than Nicodemus can grasp and he says John 3:9-12 (NIV), “How can this be?”“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
“Do you not understand these things?” This question Jesus asked Nicodemus is aimed at every Christian. In the almost 2000 years since Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, God has provided a wealth of information. We have the complete Old and New Testaments. We know about the cross and the resurrection, and the experiences of the Apostles. We have faithful testimony from millions of Christians, Bibles in our own languages, commentaries and books, radio and TV programs, tapes and CD’s, faithful preachers and teachers, and Bible studies and discussions with friends. Do we still not understand?
Perhaps Nicodemus had an excuse for his lack of understanding. But, do we? In Proverbs 4:7 we read, “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” God has richly provided resources and opportunities to develop understanding. How is it people so often still miss the mark and fail to understand? Ignorance of even the most fundamental facts of Christianity is widespread. Jesus warned that to whom much is given, much is expected. No people in any earlier time ever had anything like our bountiful resources for developing understanding. Do we dare squander the opportunity?
If Jesus asked me as He did Peter, “Do you love me?, what would I say?” How is love measured? Jesus says in John 14:15 that if I love Him I will obey what He commands. So, I can measure my love for Jesus by my obedience. Do I know what He has commanded? Do I obey what I know? Does love for Jesus and the required obedience truly regulate my behavior? Am I ready for heavenly understanding? All of life is to be permeated and controlled by God’s love. In His grace I am to live for Him and in obedience to Him.
Understanding does not develop of its own accord. It doesn’t fall like rain from above. The Holy Spirit works within believers to transform them into Christ-likeness, but developing understanding requires significant cooperative effort from believers.
Scripture says God’s grace is sufficient for all needs. In 2Peter 1:3 Peter says that, in His grace, God has provided everything needed for life and godliness. But, that provision remains latent, until, with the Holy Spirit’s aid, the we make the elements of life and godliness manifest. Peter suggests that is accomplished in a step-by-step manner, adding to God’s initial gift of faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love.
“Do you not understand?” The question was one the disciples heard again and again. As they followed Jesus, they had a tough time grasping and understanding what was happening in their lives. Do you ever feel that way? I know I do, but it is comforting to know no matter how tenuous our grasp on Jesus may be, Jesus’ grip on us is perfect and eternal. He will never forsake us. Nothing can take us out of His hand.
The disciples’ lack of understanding: As the disciples walked with Jesus, He often chided them for their lack of understanding. Consider, Matthew 13:51. Jesus asks, have you understood all these things? They replied, yes. Their response was kind of like, but of course, why do you ask? However, their understanding was far from complete. Only two chapters later, in Matthew 15:16 we find the disciples asking through Peter for Jesus to explain a certain parable to them. Jesus responds, “Are you still so dull? Don’t you know …?” and then He asks them a series of questions.
Jesus gave the disciples clue after clue to His true identity and mission. Yet, they never seemed to decipher the clues and connect the dots. They didn’t fully understand Him, His mission, or especially what their role was going to be in the future of His mission.
In Mark 8:17-21 Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? “They answered, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
Jesus puts an unmistakable emphasis on developing understanding. We are to pay attention and strive to understand what we observe. Understanding is vitally important. Even after being with Jesus for many months and seeing Him perform miracles, the disciples failed to understand the significance of most of what they were experiencing. Perhaps we think we would have done better. I sincerely doubt it.
Today, we have the advantage of looking back on those stupendous events with 20/20 hindsight. We know the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross, the glory of the resurrection. For the disciples, many decisive events were still in the future. A time would come when their understanding would increase by leaps and bounds but not yet.
What about believers today? Do we follow our gracious Lord from one level of understanding to the next – or do we need again and again to be taught the same fundamental lessons? Do we use and take full advantage of what He has provided? In obedience to Him, we are to make every effort every moment to develop understanding and to use faithfully the light He has provided. The test of our understanding is how we deal with life itself.
Slow to understand. That’s most of us. Another human tendency Jesus pointed out is the tendency to look for loopholes.
Human Nature Looks for Loopholes
Looking for Loopholes: When confronted with a constraining law, human nature looks for loopholes. Knowing how a law will be implemented, what the law includes, what it permits, what it commands, and and what it omits, people try to figure out the least they can do which will satisfy the letter of the law. What can we get away with? This is true whether dealing with human law or God’s law. People tend to justify their bad behavior until there is no option but to confess sin. Think of David’s sin with Bathsheba and how he justified himself until confronted by Nathan.
“Permit” or “Command”? An example of the human tendency to “exploit the loophole” is found in Mark 10. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day held two significantly different views on divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was the source for both views. The two groups interpreted the phrase “something indecent” in different ways. One group said divorce was only to be granted for sexual unfaithfulness. The other group interpreted “something indecent” flexibly, focusing more on a husband’s displeasure than a wife’s sinfulness. They claimed (and it was true) that Mosaic Law included more severe punishment than mere divorce for sexual sin. Looking at the passage carefully reveals it is not primarily about divorce but about the issue of remarriage. Wanting to test Jesus’ opinion of this text, the Pharisees ask Him “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” As was often the case, Jesus responded by asking a question of His own. “What did Moses command you?”
The Pharisees respond by discussing what Moses permitted, but, Jesus had not asked “What did Moses permit?” He asked, “What did Moses command you?” A paraphrase of Jesus question might be “Is there even one place in Scripture in which it says if your wife does the following you are commanded to divorce her.” The answer is an emphatic No! Scripture never commands divorce for any reason whatsoever – it permits divorce but does not command it. Jesus then to talks to them about God’s intention for marriage.
Jesus cut to the heart of the matter. The most important issue was not their views on divorce, as important as that was. No, the really big issue was the Pharisees’ attitude toward Scripture and their search for loopholes.
Exploiting Loopholes: The tendency of people to look for loopholes in laws, thus enabling them to do what they desired in spite of the law, was part and parcel of the Pharisee’s approach to obedience to the law. They developed many specific rules and declared that obeying the rules was obedience to the whole law. This approach allowed them to appear to achieve the impossible task of perfect obedience. Walk this number of steps on the Sabbath but no more. Eat, but do not cook on the Sabbath, etc. Jesus said, nonsense. A person can obey all the manmade rules and yet totally miss the spirit or intent of God’s law which the rules supposedly represent.
The message is clear. It is right and proper to look to Scripture for principles for regulating behavior but not to search for loopholes. One must seek to understand the purpose of commands and principles that regulate behavior, then strive to implement them in life in such ways that each command accomplishes the purpose for which it was given – the spirit or intent, not the letter of a command. Commands are not arbitrary. Each one has an important purpose. When the purpose is understood, it becomes clear that Scripture’s instructions on behavior are in everyone’s best interest. Strive to understand. Strive to be straight forwardly obedient. Failing to understand and looking for loopholes lead to problems.
Parables Answer Questions: Jesus often spoke in parables. Parables are designed to convey a message. They are usually interesting stories even when not fully understood. Parables, like the world around us are in the form of a mystery. Clues are needed to understand them. The necessary clues are usually either contained in the parable or are well-known to the people hearing it.
Without Clues a Parable May be Misunderstood: Consider the familiar parable of the sower (sometimes rightfully called “The Four Soils.” A farmer plants his field by scattering seed. Some falls onto hard-packed trails in the field, some onto rocky shallow soil, some onto ground filled with a tangle of roots, and some onto deep fertile soil. The size of the ultimate harvest is different for each soil type or condition. The story makes sense as it is. But what did Jesus intend it to teach? The key is the answer to the question “what do the seed, different soil types, the birds and the briars, etc. represent? Jesus tells the disciples the meaning of each element and the meaning of the parable becomes clear. The key elements are that the seed is the Word of God and the different soils are different conditions of the human heart. The truth Jesus is teaching is revealed. Without those clues, it is an interesting and familiar story, but the truth being taught is obscured. The question this parable answers is “What happens when the Word of God is heard by people with different presuppositions and other conditions of their spiritual heart?”
A Twist from an Unexpected Question at the end of a Parable: Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
The end of this parable incorporates a question whose answer reveals that we may not understand what Scripture means by “neighbor.” The parable was spoken in response to a question asked by an expert in the law (almost certainly a Pharisee). The man believed not everyone was to be treated as a neighbor. He wished to verify the correctness of his view on who he was obligated to treat as his neighbor. He asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with a parable at the end of which He unveils a different approach to determining who is to be considered a neighbor.
A man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho (Jericho is about 3300 feet lower in elevation than Jerusalem), fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. Several people walk by the beaten man. First, a priest who passed by on the other side obviously convinced the injured man was no neighbor of his. All priests were Sadducees though not all Sadducees were priests. Sadducees were very pragmatic. The pious Pharisees and the pragmatic Sadducees typically disagreed about almost everything. The Pharisee listening to the parable probably is thinking, well what can you expect from a Sadducee? Next came another temple functionary, a Levite, and he too passes by without helping. Still no surprise.
Who do you suppose the next person will be? The Pharisee is most likely convinced the next person will be a Pharisee, a godly man like himself. Naturally that man in his goodness will stop and help the injured man. But zap, Jesus shocks the Pharisee. The third person is a hated Samaritan. The Pharisee, like all Jews, knows nothing good to say about Samaritans. But, can you believe it? Jesus says the Samaritan took pity on the injured man, poured oil and wine on his wounds, and took him to an inn and took care of him. When the Samaritan had to leave the next day, he asked the innkeeper to continue to care for the man, pledging that, when he returned, he would pay any expenses the innkeeper might have in caring for the man. Wow! The Pharisee is stunned.
Another look at loopholes: The commandment about neighbors says to love your neighbor as yourself. When the Pharisee asked who is my neighbor, his intent was to explore the loophole possibility that not all people must be viewed as neighbors. Having stunned the expert with the behavior of the despised Samaritan, Jesus completes the shock by asking, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” See the dramatic twist! The key question is not “who do we consider to be our neighbor” but “who will consider us to be their neighbor.”
In this case it’s easy isn’t it? Anyone who stopped and helped the injured man behaves as his neighbor. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Do you want others to treat you as their neighbor, then treat them as your neighbor. Like the Samaritan, as you travel life’s road, have mercy, and show love to those you encounter.
The expert at law received a double whammy – the unlikely behavior of a Samaritan doing good to a Jew plus finding out that the important issue about neighbors is not who you consider to be your neighbor, but whether or not the people you encounter will consider you to be their neighbor.
Life’s Vital Question
Jesus Asks, Who do you say I am? This is a crucial question. As the time for Jesus to complete His mission drew near, He focused on helping His disciples understand more fully who He is and what was expected of them. Luke 9:18-20: “Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Christ of God.’”
Naturally, it is important who other people say Jesus is, but the crucial question for me is “Who do I say that Jesus is?” That is the question of the ages for every person. Everyone must answer that question. The answer determines our future both in this life and the life to come. Who do I say Jesus is? It is not necessary to fully understand everything about Jesus and what He has done. But, it is essential to believe He is who He says He is, has done what He says He has done, will do what He says He will do. It is essential that I commit to love, trust, and obey Him the rest of my life.
As described in John 13:12, on the very night in which He was betrayed, Jesus washed His disciples feet, a task usually done by a slave. Then Jesus asked them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” As Jesus continues to speak, He tells the disciples His menial service in washing their feet is to be an example for them to serve one another. The far deeper truth of the metaphor Jesus acted out is that He was soon going to wash them clean of sin with His blood. As the hours pass, they will learn more and more of the depth of Jesus’ love for them and of their own weaknesses. Jesus is headed steadfastly toward the cross to complete His mission.
Do we understand what Jesus has done for us? Do we understand that He satisfied the Law’s demands on us once and for all, that He paid the penalty for our sin not in part but in full, that He paid the price which redeems us and brings us into God’s own family, that He washed us clean with His blood? No, no one fully understands it all. And it isn’t necessary. But what is necessary is that we strive to understand as much as we can and that we be obedient to what we do understand.
Conclusion: Our Lord Jesus used questions in bold, innovative ways to accomplish His purpose. From the questions we considered, what lessons have we learned?
- The ability to ask good questions at the right time is a powerful tool. Asking a good question can deflect a bad question directed at us and teach truths difficult to teach any other way.
- Jesus emphasized the importance of developing understanding. Over and over again Jesus asked His disciples and others “Do you not understand?” Are you still so dull? Jesus encourages and expects us to strive for good understanding of the things of God. God has provided everything we need to develop that understanding but we must make the effort.
- Jesus expects our attitude toward the Scripture to be such that we seek to understand its commands and principles for the purpose of cooperating with and obeying them to allow them to achieve their purpose in us. We are never to have an attitude that seeks loopholes
- The key question is not, who do I consider to be my neighbor.” It is, “who will consider me to be their neighbor?” Loving our neighbor as ourselves means we should do unto all others as we would have them do unto us. Our actions are to be such that a multitude will consider us to be their neighbor.
- The crucial question in life is, who do we say Jesus is? This life and eternal life hangs in the balance. Knowing Jesus and responding by committing to Him in loving trust is the key issue of life. Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else needed will be added.