Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, was often misunderstood during his time on earth. Even those closest to him, including his own disciples, struggled to grasp the full meaning of his teachings and mission. Below are some prominent examples from the New Testament that illustrate how Jesus was frequently misinterpreted and His words twisted.
During His three-year public ministry, Jesus taught, performed miracles, and revealed His identity as the Messiah to the people of Israel. However, many struggled to accept Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. Jesus did not meet people’s expectations of what the Messiah would be like – He came from humble beginnings, kept unexpected company, and refused to start an earthly revolution against Rome.
As a result, Jesus was constantly misunderstood, misrepresented, and falsely accused by His opponents. Even His own followers often completely missed the point of His teachings. The gospels contain many examples of people interpreting Jesus’ actions and words incorrectly or ascribing false motives to Him.
Looking at examples of how Jesus was misunderstood can help modern readers gain a deeper appreciation for the profound truths He taught. By examining the faulty assumptions and perspectives people had 2000 years ago, we can challenge our own preconceived notions of who Jesus is and what His life and teachings mean for us today.
- Jesus was frequently misunderstood and misrepresented during His life on earth.
- Many struggled to accept Jesus as the prophesied Messiah because He defied expectations.
- Jesus’ opponents often twisted His words and actions to falsely accuse Him.
- Even Jesus’ own disciples failed to grasp His full meaning at times.
- Examining examples of people misunderstanding Jesus can help modern readers gain deeper insight into His identity and teachings.
Jesus’ Birth and Origins Were Misunderstood
Jesus was born into humble beginnings that took people by surprise. Many expected the Messiah to be born into privilege and power in a major city like Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus was born to a poor, young peasant woman in the small town of Bethlehem. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth led many to underestimate or doubt His identity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)
When the wise men from the East asked King Herod where to find the newborn “king of the Jews”, the scholars of Jerusalem had to reference Micah 5:2 to inform them that prophecies pointed to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6). People were apparently unaware that this unimportant town was the birthplace of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.
Jesus’ obscure family lineage also prompted skepticism about his identity. When Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth after starting His ministry, the locals were offended by His bold teaching in the synagogue. They mocked Jesus by referring to Him as merely “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:53-57). They knew Jesus’ family and could not accept Him as anyone special or authoritative.
Even Jesus’ disciple Nathanael expressed doubt when first told the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael questioned, “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:43-46). Nazareth was an insignificant and disreputable town that seemed an unlikely origin for the Messiah.
These examples show how people’s earthly perspectives blinded them to God’s purposes. Humble beginnings did not disqualify Jesus from being the Messiah, even though people expected otherwise.
Jesus’ Association with Sinners Was Misunderstood
The religious elite took great offense at Jesus’ choice to welcome and associate with those considered irredeemable sinners. The Pharisees and teachers of the law reproached Jesus for eating and spending time with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other undesirables (Mark 2:13-17, Luke 15:1-2). In their minds, a righteous teacher would avoid contact with such immoral people.
When Jesus called the tax collector Levi (Matthew) to be His disciple, the Pharisees questioned the disciples about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-17). From their perspective, Jesus’ association with sinners undermined His credibility as a rabbi and inferred He condoned sinful conduct.
Tax collectors like Levi were viewed as traitors extorting their own people to enrich themselves. Yet, Jesus looked past Levi’s disreputable profession and offered him life-changing redemption. Jesus’ embrace of sinners displayed God’s amazing grace, rather than approval of sin itself.
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
By accusing Jesus of condoning sin, the religious leaders demonstrated a lack of compassion for people desperately needing salvation. They prioritized strict adherence to rules and customs over God’s desire for all to come to repentance and faith (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus came precisely because sinners needed a Savior.
Jesus’ Claims of Divine Authority Were Twisted and Condemned
Jesus provoked His opponents’ anger by stating He had the authority to contradict their cherished traditions and reinterpret the Mosaic Law. When Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:14-23), forgave sins (Luke 5:20-26), and healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), the Pharisees accused Him of blasphemy for claiming power that belonged to God alone.
Rather than considering Jesus might be the promised Messiah, they saw His words and actions as arrogance and cause for condemnation.
But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:10-11)
The teachers of the law also became livid when Jesus asserted His authority over the temple:
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers.'” (Matthew 21:12-13)
Rather than asking if Jesus could be right in cleansing the temple, the chief priests and scribes immediately sought a way to kill Him for speaking and acting with divine authority (Mark 11:17-18).
These examples illustrate how the religious leaders interpreted Jesus’ words and actions through a lens of suspicion and hostility rather than sincerely considering His claims. Even displays of Jesus’ divine identity provoked efforts to undermine and destroy Him.
Jesus’ Reluctance to Conform to Social Norms Caused Offense
Jesus approached social customs and etiquette in ways that clashed with mainstream expectations in Jewish society. He demonstrated respect for women, gentiles, and children in ways that shocked observers. Jesus’ actions in these areas led to false impressions and accusations.
Women – By engaging openly with women, accepting support from female followers, and elevating their status, Jesus countered ingrained cultural attitudes that marginalized women. His behavior brought scorn and false judgments.
When a sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, Simon the Pharisee thought to himself:
“If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)
Simon judged both the woman and Jesus harshly by conventional social standards. But Jesus’ mercy to an outcast woman displayed the kingdom of God inverting worldly concepts about honor and worth.
Samaritans – When passing through Samaria on the way to Galilee, Jesus defied custom by stopping to speak with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-42). The animosity between Jews and Samaritans led Jesus’ disciples to be shocked that He would talk openly with a Samaritan. They missed that Jesus came to save people of all backgrounds.
Children – Jesus’ disciples rebuked those bringing children to see Jesus, thinking children were unimportant and should not trouble Him.
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:13-15)
These examples reveal how Jesus’ actions exposing people’s inherent dignity and worth conflicted with ingrained prejudice and hierarchy. By conforming to social conventions, the disciples at times exhibited an attitude opposite of God’s heart for humanity.
Jesus’ Followers Misconstrued His Messianic Mission
Even Jesus’ own disciples failed at times to understand His identity and purpose as the Messiah prophesied in Scripture. Prior to the crucifixion, the disciples struggled to grasp that Jesus had to suffer, die, and rise again rather than leading a revolution to establish an earthly kingdom.
Peter’s attempt to prevent Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane illustrated this misconception:
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:10-11)
After Jesus’ death, two disciples walking to Emmaus also expressed despair that Jesus was crucified instead of redeeming Israel (Luke 24:13-24).
Even after the resurrection, the disciples’ asked Jesus if He was going to restore Israel’s kingdom at that time, prompting Him to reply:
“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)
These examples reveal the disciples’ struggle to move beyond the common Jewish expectation of a political Messiah to understand Jesus’ mission of redemption for the entire world.
The gospel accounts contain many examples of people interpreting and responding to Jesus through the lens of their own limited perspectives and agendas. At different times, His actions and claims provoked skepticism, offense, charges of blasphemy, efforts to undermine His credibility, and even violence against Him.
Looking back, we can see how fully Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah even when people expected something very different. Jesus compassionately reached out to the marginalized and challenged social convention when it conflicted with God’s values. He asserted divine authority even when it provoked anger from the religious establishment.
Even Jesus’ closest disciples did not always grasp His true purpose. But their journey learning to understand their Lord provides hope for believers today. As we contemplate how profoundly Jesus was misunderstood by those around Him, it can prod us to humbly examine our own hearts for misconceptions. Pondering examples of others interpreting Jesus incorrectly in Scripture can push modern followers to view Him through a biblical lens rather than just our own assumptions and agendas. Contemplating how people 2000 years ago twisted Jesus’ words should spur us to be vigilant against distorting our Lord to suit our purposes.
Let us approach studying Christ by asking the Holy Spirit to correct our faulty notions and deepen our insight into who Jesus truly is. By learning from biblical examples of Jesus being misunderstood, we can gain a more accurate perspective and avoid repeating the mistakes of those who failed to recognize Him.