Why Did Jesus Speak Obscurely? (Chrysostom)

Have you ever been reading through the Gospels and found Christ’s words somewhat puzzling? I certainly have. To be sure, many of Jesus’ words are quite clear and understandable. But he did say things that are more difficult to understand at first glance. A question arises: Why didn’t Jesus always and in every circumstance speak, openly, plainly and clearly? There are several answers to this question. One might look at Psalm 78:2 and Matthew 13:35 for one answer. On this topic, I appreciate how Chrysostom explained it when he was commenting on Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, specifically John 3:3: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (NIV). Here’s Chrysostom:

[John 3:3] That is, “Unless you are born again and receive the right doctrines, you are wandering somewhere outside, and are far from the Kingdom of heaven.” But He does not speak so plainly as this. In order to make the saying less hard to bear, He does not plainly direct it at him, but speaks indefinitely, “Except a man be born again” – all but saying, “both you and any other, who may have such opinions concerning Me, are somewhere without the Kingdom.” Had He not spoken from a desire to establish this, His answer would have been suitable to what had been said.

Now the Jews, if these words had been addressed to them, would have derided Him and departed; but Nicodemus shows here also his desire of instruction. And this is why in many places Christ speaks obscurely, because He wishes to rouse His hearers to ask questions, and to render them more attentive. For that which is said plainly often escapes the hearer, but what is obscure renders him more active and zealous.

Now what He says, is something like this: “If you are not born again, if you partake not of the Spirit which is by the washing of Regeneration, thou cannot have a right opinion of Me, for the opinion which you have is not spiritual, but carnal.” (Tit. 3:5.) But He did not speak thus, as refusing to confound one who had brought such as he had, and who had spoken to the best of his ability; and He leads him unsuspectedly up to greater knowledge, saying, “Except a man be born again.”

The word “again,” in this place, some understand to mean “from heaven,” others, “from the beginning.” “It is impossible,” saith Christ, “for one not so born to see the Kingdom of God”; in this pointing to Himself, and declaring that there is another beside the natural sight, and that we have need of other eyes to behold Christ….

Schaff, Philip, ed., Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), John 3:3.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015