Last week we discussed how often people misunderstand Jesus in the Gospel of John (If you haven’t read it, it may be a helpful background for this post). It happens all the time in nearly every conversation. I use highlighters to note certain themes or important ideas in my Bible. John is lit up with pink on nearly every page. Why? That’s the color I use when there is some sort of misunderstanding in Jesus’ heavenly teaching. I’d encourage you to read the Gospel of John and pay particularly close attention to how often people don’t understand what He is truly saying.
We posited an explanation that the real reason is because Jesus is from heaven and speaks in heavenly figures, while His audience is from the world and hears only worldly ideas. Or, to use John’s opening illustration, Jesus is “Light” and the world is “darkness” and darkness does not comprehend the Light. In John 9 the illustration is Light vs. Blindness (John 9:5, 35-41).
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:
Perhaps Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic, can shed an interesting light on this theme. The allegory deals with Forms and Ideas, enlightenment and ignorance, and it goes like this: Imagine a deep underground cave with several prisoners, bound and chained in a fixed position so that they cannot even turn their heads. They can only look directly in front of them to a dark wall. They have been in this situation their entire lives; it’s all they know. Behind them a fire is burning and there are people and objects that pass by the fire, casting a shadow on the wall in front of them. All they can see are shadows. Having been in this situation their entire lives, never able to turn around, would they not think that the shadows are reality? They would name the shadows thinking that they are true objects. They would even have competitions to see who was smartest by recognizing the shadow the fastest.
Then imagine that one of these prisoners is released from his chains, and he turns back to see the fire. It would hurt his eyes, and cause confusion when he saw the actual objects. But eventually he could grow accustomed to it. Then imagine that he is pulled up out the deep underground cave to stand free under the sunlight. His eyes would hurt and he wouldn’t understand, he would take comfort in shadows. But eventually he could grow to look around, to see the true objects and eventually see even the sun itself. The light would become natural and comfortable and then he’d understand the wretched state in the cave.
Imagine now that he is taken back to the cave, rechained, and able only to see the shadows on the wall. Now, he would struggle to see in the darkness. As his fellow prisoners would compete to name the shadows and he’d be unable. They would think he understands less than them all; that leaving the cave made him crazy!
The one who becomes enlightened and sees the forms and ideas of reality, understanding the shadows, the fire, and the direct sunlight, Plato would classify this man as the rare “Philosopher King” with a duty to lead the people. But the common people who stare only at shadows, they cannot understand for themselves unless they also leave the cave. They arrogantly and incorrectly think they truly understand.
Now, after discussing His role as the Good Shepherd, consider the reaction in John 10:19-20: “A division occurred again among the Jews because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?’” Jesus is the enlightened One from Heaven. Jesus is the One who sees true reality. But they are still staring at shadows. Jesus brings truth from outside the cave, outside of even the world. The shadow is on earth, but the truth is in heaven. They may see physical light but Jesus is true Light (John 1:9). They can eat bread, but Jesus is true Bread (John 6:32). They may see vines, but Jesus is the true Vine (John 15:1). This is why they have a hard time finding God through Jesus: “He who sent Me is true; and you do not know Him” (John 7:28).
Heavenly Language and Heavenly Birth:
The Philosopher-King Jesus, the wise and enlightened One, is entering the cave to teach and free those who arrogantly stare at shadows. Jesus does this in figural, heavenly, language: “This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand…” (John 10:6). Jesus rebukes Nicodemus, saying, “I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:9-12). Jesus clearly distinguishes between “earthly” and “heavenly” language.
But notice the change in how Jesus speaks to His disciples right before His death: “‘These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father…I came forth from the Father and have come down into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.’ His disciples said, ‘Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech. Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God’” (John 16:25, 28-30).
There are some who do come to understand and believe. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). This is what Nicodemus is told in John 3:3, “unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This rebirth allows to you see the kingdom, which previously could not be seen. This is how you leave the cave. Jesus and His kingdom both came from Heaven to earth (John 3:13; John 18:36). Spiritual rebirth allows you to see heavenly things, rather than just the fleshly and worldly. It allows you to leave darkness and comprehend the Light. John invites you to join in this spiritual rebirth, to be born of water and Spirit, and to both see and enter the kingdom (John 3:3, 5).