John 6.63: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.”
Jesus has just wondrously fed the crowd from a meager amount of food and they end up looking for Jesus. As they approach Him, Jesus recognizes that they are concerned about food and not the meaning of this sign, and so he says some things that any public relations expert would tell Jesus “Don’t do it!” Jesus says: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6.53). The crowds argue with him and many His disciples leave him when Jesus’ doesn’t give what they deem to be a satisfactory explanation.
Jesus’ explanation to his disciples amounts to a way of veiling His meaning from them. Much like the parables of Jesus kept most people on the outside on their true meaning, Jesus’ words about eating His flesh and blood left a lot of people mystified. Instead, understanding Jesus’ words requires understanding them from a different vantage point. Rather than looking at what He said in the regularly, fleshly way of life that takes eating and drinking literally, it is the Spirit that gives life that makes known the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ teaching.
We see a somewhat similar pattern occur in Jesus’ discussions with Nicodemus in John 3.1-15. Jesus talks about being being birthed so as to enter the kingdom of heaven. What Jesus says can be interpreted as either born again or born from above. Nicodemus takes Jesus’ speech literally, thinking that Jesus is talking about a second birth, whereas Jesus is actually talking about a birth from above, as heaven as the domain of God’s residence was metaphorically conceptualized as being above the earth. Nicodemus does not quite understand what Jesus is referring to, but those who are born from above by the Spirit would know about it, even they don’t know the Spirit’s origin or destination (John 3.8). To understand what Jesus says about being born from above entails having a transformative encountering of the Spirit who give us entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
Most of the time we take the communicative power of language for granted, assuming that we know what the intended meaning and reference of words are. However, for Jesus, many of His words can not be understood by their usual meanings, but one must have an experience of life from the Spirit in order to begin to comprehend them. In a similar manner, Jesus’ parables were intended to be understood by those people who learned from and knew Jesus.
This principle has some dramatic implications for what it means about the Christian life and understanding. It is perhaps the case that many of us don’t truly understand the meanings of Jesus’ words and teachings. This isn’t that shocking if one pays close attention to the Gospel of John. There is a difference between those who believe in the name/reputation of Jesus, who simultaneously have the right to become a child of God but yet at the same time Jesus does not entrust Himself to them, and those who believe in Jesus as the One who truly has the words of eternal life and has been sent by the Father. Nicodemus as an example of the former doesn’t understand what Jesus means as Jesus ultimately veils it from Nicodemus, but yet Jesus’ words to him may provide an invitation for Nicodemus to later come into and receive the Spirit’s life (perhaps this would push Nicodemus to further study the Scriptures as the teaching of the Father that serve as a witness to Jesus; contrast John 5.39-40 with John 6.44-45). Niocodemus doesn’t understand, although he can be drawn in as the Gospel of John later implies throughout the gospel narrative. The crowd that Jesus fed certainly believed in His name/reputation, but they didn’t understand Jesus.
To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that there is a cadre of people that are properly known as true or enlightened believers who understand everything Jesus says perfectly. That echoes the sentiments of gnosticism. Nowhere do the Gospel suggest that there is a group of believers who perfectly understood everything Jesus said and did. The insider disciples who knew Jesus best were themselves routinely ignorant and dumb-founded, failing to stand up to the call of a disciple when everything they understood about Jesus looked to fall apart. Yet, as they continued in Jesus’ word, their own experiences of life in following Jesus and from the Spirit would give them the eyes to see and the ears to hear. They could come to a place of comprehension because the Spirit remained with them and lead them for the journey of their life, teaching them and reminding them of what Jesus said.
So, we as believers today are beckoned into a journey that doesn’t always comport with the interpretive and theological certainty that is often presented among the prominent teachers of Christian faith, both in the academy and among the churches. Not that academics or clergy are on the outside of understanding of God, but that academic credentials in theology and Bible or a recognition of one’s ordained status does not procure for someone the understanding of Jesus’ words towards the true life they point towards. It usually entails some sort of mastery of specific forms of words, speech, ideas, and practices, while the ultimate direction and telos of these discursive and non-discursive actions for the purpose can not readily be assessed. While study and discipline is certainly a fruitful part of the Spirit-led disciples life, it is the Holy Spirit who directs our paths that provides us the experience of true life that gives us the ability to grow in comprehension and understanding. Otherwise, our religion is simply a cognitive and behavioral structure we develop from our fleshly interpretations and earth-focused behaviors, lacking the ultimate experience and reference to the true life of God seen and known in Christ and given through the Spirit.