There are many of Jesus’ sayings and teachings from the New Testament that are frequently misunderstood. Whether the verses are taken out of context or the understanding behind them is simply harder to uncover, Jesus’ words can seem harsh or backward from how Christians see Him.
Read about these five misunderstood passages and see their true meanings with excerpts from Jesus Said What? by Christopher Kennedy.
1. Hate My Family? –Luke 14:26
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.
The English language has few words as ugly as hate. Why would Jesus taint Himself with a word like that? Why would Jesus, Love Incarnate, tell us to hate our family? The world already has enough hate in it. Surely Jesus doesn’t want us to bring such ugliness into our homes and into our most cherished relationships!
It’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t actually use the word hate.
He spoke Aramaic, not English. And Jesus’ Aramaic words were translated into Greek, the language of the New Testament. The Greek word in Luke 14:26 translated as “hate” is miseo. Miseo has two definitions: “to have a strong aversion to, hate, detest” and “to be disinclined to, disfavor, disregard in contrast to preferential treatment.” A simpler way to think of the second definition is “to love less.” My Greek-English lexicon lists Luke 14:26 as an example of the second definition.
“To love less” helps to make sense of Jesus’ words. He’s talking about comparative love. In Matthew 10:37, Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” The pivotal words there are “more than Me.” God always insists on being first above all else.
2. Not Coming to Bring Peace? –Matthew 10:34
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
As far as we know, Jesus never wielded a physical sword. “Sword” in this case is the antithesis of peace. Rather than peace in the family, Jesus would bring the opposite: division. In sorting through these difficult words, we need to make an important distinction: division is not the purpose but the result of Jesus’ coming. He did not come into the world to stir up dissension within families. But the inevitable consequence of His arrival was division.
Jesus’ hearers were always confronted with a fork-in-the-road decision: What to do with this man and His authoritative words? …
Think about the first-century context Jesus entered. It was steeped in generations of tradition. Jewish identity was central to Jewish life—the temple, worship, rituals, the Scriptures, the history of Israel.
Then Jesus came onto the scene and began calling people to follow Him. He approached fishermen and told them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Peter and Andrew dropped their nets and followed. Jesus issued the same invitation to James and John. They not only dropped their nets but even “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed Him” (Mark 1:20).
I’m going to give Zebedee the benefit of the doubt and assume that he encouraged his sons to accept Jesus’ invitation. But he could have responded differently. He could have said, “How could you leave me? How could you forsake the family business? I was counting on you to manage the business when I become too old!”
His sons followed Jesus. They left home and journeyed where He journeyed, leaving behind family. In that regard, following Jesus brought about a form of division.
3. Unforgivable Sin? –Mark 3:29
Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.
Understandings of the unforgivable sin are all over the map.
Some say it’s willful rejection of Jesus. Others say the intent doesn’t matter, only the words spoken.
Some say the eternal sin is a one-time offense—once committed, it’s irreversible. Others say it’s not a single moment but a lifetime of entrenched opposition to Christ. …
Martin Luther wrote that the sin against the Holy Spirit is “blaspheming His work and office, which brings, not God’s command and wrath but pure grace and the forgiveness of all sins.” …
From careful study of the text, some things are certain.
First, Jesus was responding to His opponents. He was not directly addressing His disciples, telling them not to slip into the unforgivable sin. He was not admonishing those who seek to follow Him and learn from His Word. He was addressing those who had set themselves firmly against Him and against the Holy Spirit’s work through Him.
Second, blasphemy is an act of speech, not only of thought.
Blasphemy is an outward expression of defiance against God. Jesus said in Matthew 10:32–33, “So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven.” Acknowledgment of Jesus is a result of faith. Denial of Jesus is a result of unbelief. …
Words reveal what’s in a person’s heart. Faith resides in the heart. In the same way, unbelief, the absence of faith, is a heart issue.
The passage teaches what the unforgivable sin is and what it’s not. The unforgivable sin is ongoing rejection of Jesus, expressed outwardly through words that deny Jesus and His Spirit-empowered ministry. The unforgivable sin is not a threat hanging over the heads of believers.
4. Make Friends through Unrighteous Wealth? –Luke 16:9
Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you in to the eternal dwelling.
As always, the first step in interpreting Jesus’ words is to consider the context. The words punctuate the end of the parable of the dishonest manager. …
In the parable, a rich man finds out that his financial manager was wasting his money. Time for a personnel change—you’re fired! Before he turns in his keys, the manager quickly goes among his master’s debtors and reduces their debts. He leverages his last bit of power to make sure he can justify asking for favors from his new friends later when he’s out of a job. …
Here’s the most surprising part: The rich man learned about the manager’s maneuvering and “commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness” (Luke 16:8)! ...
In the parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus is not presenting the manager as a model Christian. The guy is sleazy! No, Jesus is driving at one main point: Practice shrewdness with an eye toward the kingdom.
5. Always Be Perfect? –Matthew 5:48
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The problem with having God as the standard is that He sets the bar impossibly high. Be perfect like God? We’re all doomed to failure!
The Greek word for perfect is teleios. A better understanding of this word will help us grasp Jesus’ point.
The word occurs nineteen times in the New Testament, though only three times in the Gospels. In some cases, English translations render it as “perfect.” In other cases, it’s translated as “mature,” as in these verses:
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature [teleios]. (1 Corinthians 14:20)
But solid food is for the mature [teleios], for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14)
In these cases, teleios is something achievable. By God’s grace, we grow in maturity.
Even in cases where teleios is translated as “perfect,” its meaning is different than what we might think. We think of perfect as flawless, without defects, passing inspection with a 100 percent rating. The biblical authors were less concerned with that kind of perfection—the kind over which we perfectionists obsess. Instead, the focus was more on being perfect in the sense of “complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). In other words, when you’re perfect, you have what you need in God’s eyes. In this sense, perfect is not an unattainable ideal but a practical concept related to serving God as fully as possible.
Blog post adapted from Jesus Said What? copyright © 2023 Christopher M. Kennedy. Published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
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