3 Tips for Understanding What Jesus Said

We’re all familiar with at least some of the things Jesus said. But have you ever wondered what he meant? Join us as we begin a new series exploring some of the fascinating, strange, or even controversial things that Jesus said.

It happens to everyone: you’re out and about, minding your own business, when your phone vibrates, or chirps, or plays the opening to your favorite K-Pop song (I’m speaking generally of course). You look down, read the text message your significant other sent, and thought to yourself, “What does THAT mean?”

Text messages are a very efficient form of communication but what they offer in efficiency they sacrifice in clarity. When all we have are the words on a screen, every capitalization, every bit of punctuation suddenly become vital. “He used a period instead of an exclamation mark – is he mad at me?” I’ve known my wife since we were teenagers; there aren’t many people who know us better than we know each other. Yet we still find ourselves confused, even angry at perfectly innocuous text messages we send each other.

Here’s my point: Have you ever read something that Jesus said and wondered “What does THAT mean?!” Well, not you, personally. I mean other people. Sometimes other people can get confused by what they read in the Bible. These people (again, not us!) might wonder what in the world is happening when Jesus says that anyone who wants to follow him must “hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters.” (Luke 14:26, ESV) Or what’s up with Jesus cursing a fig tree in Mark 11? I get angry at inanimate objects from time to time (I’m looking at you, PS4 controller) but it seems odd for God incarnate to be yelling at trees he made.

If we have trouble interpreting text messages, it’s perfectly understandable if two thousand years old texts give us a hard time too. Whether you’ve been a Christian for fifty years or fifty minutes, you are never going to have Jesus all figured out. But having a hard time understanding Jesus’s words and teachings isn’t the same thing as being UNABLE to understand them.

So, how do we begin to understand Jesus’s words?

We believe that the entire Bible is meant to help us understand God and to become more like him. It doesn’t do us much good if we can’t understand it. So, how do we begin to understand Jesus’s words? I want to give a few suggestions for where to start.

1. Remember who the sender is. When you get a text message that makes no sense, what’s the first thing you do? Double-check who sent it to you. When we come across a passage of scripture that makes no sense, take a moment and remember who sent it to you: the Father who cares for you, who wants you to succeed. He hasn’t given us a book that we are incapable of understanding. We can trust him.

2. Consider the context. The second thing we do when we get a confusing text message is to scroll up a bit, to remind ourselves what we were talking about. Often there are clues in our previous conversation that help us decipher confusing messages. In the same way, take a step back and look at the broader context of the passage. Who is Jesus talking to? What did he say before these verses? Context can help us understand things that would make no sense on their own.

3. Ask for clarity. Our last resort is to text the person and say “…what?” Sometimes we have to acknowledge our inability to understand what they meant. In the same way, there are passages of the Bible we need help to understand. For those, I recommend three things: a good study Bible, a set of commentaries that are readable and that you enjoy, and a community that can come alongside you and help. Naturally, our first stop should be prayer, as we ask God to guide us in our desire to understand his word. And we can be confident that when we ask him for good things, he will answer us.

So, what’s the last confusing “text” you got from God? What passage of scripture has been bothering you lately? Try following the steps above and see if God can help you make sense of some of the things Jesus said.

What about you? What do you do when you come across something in the Bible that you don’t understand? How can you begin to implement some of the steps above?