John 6 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Jesus Experiences Rejection by His Disciples

Having recounted the controversy among the Jews over Jesus' claim to be the bread of life (6:52), John now says this controversy divided Jesus' own followers as well. Jesus responds to the people by confronting them with the implications of their reaction, and then he presses the Twelve for their response. He certainly does not change his message or try to make it more "user-friendly." In Jesus' statements and in Peter's confession we learn more about Jesus and what it takes to truly be his disciple.

This section is in two parts, verses 60-65 and verses 66-71. Each part begins with the response of many of his disciples (vv. 60, 66), which is then followed by a statement regarding Jesus' identity and his teaching made first by Jesus himself (vv. 61-65) and then by Peter (vv. 67-69). Each part includes a statement by Jesus about his betrayer (vv. 64-65, 70-71).

What is the relationship between being in the church and being, in fact, a Christian? This question has exercised the church from the beginning, as it did Judaism before. The issue arose in Jesus' own ministry, for these people who have difficulty with Jesus' teaching and who end up turning away from him are called his disciples (vv. 60, 66). They were disciples in the sense of having come to Jesus and heard his teaching. But this level of discipleship would not count for much in the end. The soil in their hearts was not such that Jesus' seed could take root and produce fruit.

The question they raise reveals their real problem: This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it? (v. 60). This is a profound question that points to their own hearts. By saying Who can accept it? they suggest they are not to blame, that this is too much for anyone to accept. But in fact it shows that they are not humbly docile, as true disciples in this Gospel are. A mark of docility is the ability and willingness to listen and receive. In this Gospel one's identity is known by whom one can and does listen to (6:45; 8:43, 47; 10:3-5, 16, 27; 12:48; 18:37). Their question--which is rendered more literally as Who can hear (akouo) it?--alludes to this theme. By saying they are unable to hear or to listen to Jesus' teaching they stand self-condemned.

They are grumbling like the others had done earlier in the chapter and like Israel had done in the wilderness. Instead of cutting them slack, Jesus confronts them with their response by asking, Does this offend you? (v. 61). Here we see the light revealing the darkness. Their offense is the opposite of faith, and Jesus makes sure they realize what they are saying. This question searches the soul of each of us. Do we find any of Jesus' teachings offensive? What causes us to falter? There is much in Jesus' teaching to scandalize each of us. But those who are born from above, those who have faith, trust in Jesus even when his teachings or his ways are puzzling.

In fact, none of Jesus' teaching makes sense unless we realize who he really is. He says as much in the verses that follow about the Son of Man (v. 62), yet he is speaking very cryptically when he refers to the ascension of the Son of Man to where he was before. A reference to preexistence, mingled with associations from Daniel 7, would be very hard to grasp. The one standing before them was claiming to be a person beyond their imagination. The strangeness of his reference to eating his flesh and drinking his blood is matched by the claims he is making about himself. In a sense he is saying, "You haven't seen anything yet. There will be plenty more to come that will be offensive to fallen human reason." For the ascent of the Son of Man to where he was before begins with the cross (cf. 3:14), the ultimate source of offense. If they are offended by this talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, how will they be able to tolerate the cross, which lies behind Jesus' talk of giving his flesh and blood?

Jesus continues his diagnosis of the problem by returning to the twin themes developed earlier in the chapter, the themes of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He interweaves these themes by speaking first of the need for the Spirit (v. 63), then of the need for faith (v. 64) and then of the Father's decisive action (v. 65). The need for the Spirit was already developed in the conversation with Nicodemus (3:3-8). By identifying the Spirit as the one who gives life (v. 63), he provides the foundation for what was said earlier about the necessity of being "born of the Spirit" (3:8).

The life Jesus is talking about is God's own eternal life, which can only come from God himself. He must give the Bread of Life or else the world will remain in death. Human nature in itself apart from God, here called the flesh, is completely incapable of generating such life. Just as God had to breathe into Adam's nostrils in order for his dead flesh to become a living being (Gen 2:7), so must we receive the Spirit of God if we are to become alive with the life God offers us. The Spirit's role in bringing life both physically and spiritually was known in the Old Testament (for example, Job 34:14-15; Ps 104:29-30; Ezek 37; see Bultmann 1971:446 n. 2), but we learn that the Son also has a role; he receives authority from the Father and "gives life to whom he is pleased to give it" (5:21). Here Jesus says, The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life (6:63). The teaching they have found offensive is actually that which could convey to them the truth regarding the Father and the Son, and to know the Father and Son is to have eternal life (17:3). Jesus' words are not just human teaching, but the teachings of the divine agent from God (3:34; see note on 5:21). They are words of power like the divine speech that created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1; Ps. 33:6; 2 Pet 3:5). Keeping Jesus' word enables one to "never see death" (Jn 8:51).

Thus, the word of Jesus is parallel to the flesh and blood he offers. Both are vehicles of his life for they enable one to be united with Jesus and to abide in him who is himself the life. The required response to this divine initiative is faith, and some of his disciples lack this faith (v. 64). This does not surprise Jesus, for Jesus had known from the begin-ning which of them did not believe (v. 64), but this lack of faith had not been evident up to this point. Now Jesus' scandalous teaching has brought it out into the open, and therefore he is revealing their own condition to them. The light continues to expose the darkness. There is also the foreshadowing of further rejection, as he refers to the one who will betray him. The lack of belief among those who called themselves his disciples is here seen to be in fact a form of betrayal.

God knows the condition of our hearts and sends circumstances that will reveal our hearts to us. How do we respond to such exposure? Does it drive us to despair or to deeper dependency upon the Lord? For those whose trust is in God alone, even the exposure of their lack of faith can be an occasion of deeper faith. We are not saved by faith, but by the one in whom we have faith, whom we may trust to increase our faith through a deeper experience of himself as we, by his grace, live in obedience to what we have received from him.

Jesus concludes by returning to the role of the Father. No one comes to Jesus unless the Father has enabled him (v. 65; cf. 6:37, 45). A more literal translation captures better the element of grace here: "unless it has been given to him from the Father." Again we see the Father as the source of all. In this passage the role of the Father, the foreknowledge of Jesus and the life-giving role of both the Spirit and Jesus are all coordinated as an antinomy to the role of the believer's faith.

Jesus has challenged the people who are offended. In saying there are some of you who do not believe (v. 64) he implies that there are also some who do believe. He is not condemning the whole group. They have to decide for themselves what their reaction will be, and John tells us next that from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him (v. 66). So Jesus issues another challenging question, this time to the Twelve: You do not want to leave too, do you? (v. 67). This question tests the heart, like the earlier one did (v. 61). What do they want (thelo)? They must make a choice then and there. Since Jesus knows people's interior dispositions (v. 64; cf. 2:25), he would know of their faith, so his question tests their hearts and reveals their response to themselves and to one another.

Simon Peter responds on behalf of the Twelve: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (v. 68). The others had been offended by Jesus' words, but the Twelve accept Jesus' claim that his words are spirit and life (v. 63). They do not claim to have understood what Jesus' has been saying. They will not be able to understand until after the crucifixion has taken place and the Spirit has guided them into all truth regarding Jesus and all that he has done and taught (14:26; 15:26; 16:13). But they do recognize that Jesus is speaking from God: We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God (v. 68). The verbs translated believe and know are in the perfect tense, which often suggests a state that began in the past and continues to the present. This nuance fits this context, since Peter stands in contrast to those who, although attracted to Jesus by the feeding miracle, were immediately scandalized. The Twelve came to faith in Jesus some time ago and have hung in with him since then, including through this most recent challenge to their faith by his strange teaching.

The Holy One of God may have been a messianic title, but there is no evidence for such a use. It expresses Jesus' nearness to God, who is the Holy One of Israel. This Old Testament title signifies that God is set apart from all others. It is used often in Isaiah to refer to the one who makes and redeems Israel. In Jesus we see the one whom the "Holy Father" (17:11) has "set apart" (10:36). The Twelve recognize the one who is set apart and who is redeeming Israel by offering eternal life--redemption indeed!

Jesus does not address Peter's confession (contrast Mt 16:17-20). They might have expected a pat on the back or some confirmation, but instead Jesus says it is he who has chosen them, not the other way around (v. 70; cf. Jn 15:16). The divine initiative has been discussed throughout this chapter, and it is now coordinated with Jesus' choice (cf. Mt 11:25, 27). But disturbing questions are raised, for Jesus goes on immediately and adds, Yet one of you is a devil! (v. 70). Not only were his disciples (vv. 60, 66) a mixed lot, so were the twelve he himself had chosen! One of them would betray him to his death, thus acting in accordance with Satan, who was "a murderer from the beginning" (Jn 8:44). Indeed, he will be under Satan's supervision (Jn 13:2, 27). The presence of Judas among the Twelve shows us that no group is entirely pure, just as Nicodemus's presence among the Pharisees indicates that no group is entirely alienated from God. John's dualistic language is very stark, but he realizes the ambiguities of life.

This passage also speaks of human responsibility. In a chapter that so strongly affirms the necessity of divine initiative, here we have another note regarding the importance of faith. Even Jesus' choice for someone to be a member of his inner circle of disciples is not going to save that person unless one has faith. We are not saved by faith, but neither are we saved without it. Judas had the most intimate access to Jesus; he had one of the best seats in the house for seeing God revealed in the flesh. But he lacked humble trust and love for Jesus as Jesus actually was. This thought is very sobering in light of much false optimism among Christians today. The human heart is capable of seeing God in his great beauty and of rejecting him. Indeed, all of us are capable of such betrayal, as our sin testifies. What is our inner disposition? Have we found in Jesus the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life? Do we actually live our lives as those who believe this truth? Have we met God in such a way that we can trust his character even when we do not understand his words and deeds?

Previous commentary:
Jesus Reveals Himself to Be the Bread of Life

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