I'm currently doing some of my daily Bible reading in Greek. After all, I just spent a year studying it and sat 5 exams to verify that I'd done it, so it would be a shame to let it lapse. This morning I read from John 6. This is one of the most difficult episodes in Christ's ministry. This is the point where thousands of formerly adoring followers abandon Him and His closest followers are left bewildered. It really doesn't matter which language you read this story in, Greek or English or whatever, the content of what Jesus said at that time sounds bizarre. And that's the problem with trying to say something with words!
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
¶ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
Words are only a part of our means of communication. This is one of the primary things that I endeavour to teach a couple preparing for marriage (and one of the first things I have to address when I'm dealing with a couple in crisis). As we journey through life and interact with other we learn that communication also involves-
+ tone ("You dag!" could an affectionate compliment or demeaning put-down, depending on the tone with which it is said.)
+ facial expression and body language (some things are better heard when said with a smile on your face. People talk to us differently when our body language invites them to open up and share with us.)
+ timing (If you have something to say that starts with, "Now probably isn't the best time to say this, but..." you've probably picked a bad time and thus ensured that what you have to say won't be heard properly.)
+ emotion (When you ask someone how they are going and they hesitate before answering and then say, "Fine thanks." You may confuse the words they've just used and miss the emotion in their voice and thus what they are really telling you.)
+ actions (When someone says, "I really love you" but doesn't want to spend any time alone with you or you and your friends, their actions communicate something louder than their words.)
Added to this brief, non-exhaustive, list of communicators, is the depth of connection we have with the person we are communicating with. As we get to know someone, we begin to understand them better because we learn their "language". An individual's language is not just the words, tone, expression, timing, emotion, and actions they use, but their meaning that they assign to their words, expressions, and metaphors. Husbands must attempt to learn the language of their wives. (When a wife asks her husband what he is thinking it is not so much an information gathering question as it is an request to engage in conversation with her.) Wives must attempt to learn the language of their husbands. (When a husband is silent and alone it is not that he is emotionally withdrawing, it is that he is emotionally recharging.) This highlights the problem with words.
All of this means that words are rarely unequivocal ('one meaning in all instances'). Words take on the meaning of their context. My Biblical Greek studies introduced me to a confusing little Greek word: epi. I say confusing because the word has around a dozen very different meanings depending on its context! Context is not just derived from their surrounding words. Context also comes from a person. Take the word, hospital. To one person this word means a place of hope and healing. It is where a loved one was cured. It conjures fond memories. But the same word to another person can create fear, terror, and great anxiety. For them, the childhood memory of going to the hospital and being seated on a hard hallway chair in a white sterile corridor just before being told by the nurse who was just about to clock-off, "Your mother has just died" gives the word hospital an entirely different meaning to this person. The same kind of thing might be said for the words, "Father God" depending on the context a person places around these words.
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
The words of Jesus in John 6 highlight the problem with words. The words He used meant something. The words His audience heard meant something else. Christ was often misunderstood. What might surprise the modern reader of Christ's words is just why Jesus didn't publicly attempt to clear up these misunderstandings. John 6 is a classic case in point. After all, this particular misunderstanding cost Christ thousands of followers. He could have clarified, re-worded, or appealed for His hearers not to be so 'literal'. But He didn't. We are left to conclude that Jesus very deliberately, very intentionally, and very precisely chose His words, and we, His hearers, must learn His language. And even though God has ordained to communicate the indispensible means of eternal life through the words of Scripture, He considers the potential benefits to innumerable numbers of people compared with the risk of misunderstanding infinitely worth it. God does not have a problem with words! The record of Christ's words in John 6 confirm this.
Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God's way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.
Second Timothy 3:16-17 The Message
We now have the benefit of Christ's words having been collected into the Gospels. We understand that Christ often used word pictures and parables to make profound points. He has inspired and ordained not only the Gospel writers to write, but to also write what they did (which included strategic omissions - see John 21:25). This collection of Christ's words are sufficient for us to sufficiently understand Him and His language. The entire Bible has Christ as its theme. Therefore, all the Scriptures give us a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, what He taught, and what He has achieved. This brings me back to one of opening observations about communicating. To truly understand someone you have to learn their language by getting to know them - their past, their heart, their vocabulary, their priorities, their achievements. Even after walking with and serving Christ for decades, the Apostle Paul could write -
that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death
Even though the Gospels give us sufficient knowledge of Christ and all the Scriptures give us plenty of further insights about Him, we can still not exhaust the full wonders and infinite pleasures of knowing Christ!
Those who are married understand the problem of words. You marry someone you think you know only to discover that you barely did! Because you love them, you want to learn their language. To do this, you have to spend time with them. You have to ask questions about the moments and events which have defined them. You observe what they do with their time. You learn how secure they are by how they celebrate or criticise the achievements of others. You begin to learn their language - despite their words. Those who are not seasoned in genuine love (due to their lack of having enough trials or adversities together) can not possibly appreciate what I am trying to say. Until you've walked long enough, through many dangers, toils and snares, with another person, you cannot possibly know their true language. Oh, and one last word. A person is more likely to let someone learn their language when another person demonstrates their willingness to learn it. This is why none of us have ever exhausted the treasures of the language of God's Word. To do this, it requires an intimacy with Christ that is best described as eating His flesh and drinking His blood. And each week He invites into such an intimacy with Him.
¶ And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.