Staying Power

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 6:66-69

You might call it “a parting of the ways.” A considerable crowd of people had been walking about with Jesus as His followers. One day many of them decided to go back home. Listen as I read about that, from the Gospel according to John, chapter 6, verse 66:

After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.

THESE WENT BACK

Let’s look first at those who turned away, who went back. What happened here that led to their departure? Why did they decide to give up on following Jesus?

To get that in focus, we need to review what Jesus had been teaching them. He had claimed, you may remember, to be the bread of life, the true heavenly nourishment of which the manna in the wilderness was a sign. He had said further that apart from Him no one could experience real life. Apart from His broken body and shed blood, that is, His poured-out life in death, no one could live abundantly. And finally, He said that unless people would eat His flesh and drink His blood, they would remain in death.

In this Jesus was making staggering claims about Himself as the one Savior, as the world’s one hope of eternal life. He also hinted at some sobering things about discipleship. Following Him meant being totally identified with Him, receiving Him into one’s heart and life by faith. John tells us that many of His disciples, when they heard all this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60).

What was it that they found especially hard? Was it the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood, things forbidden by God and abhorrent to Jewish ears? Did that scandalize them? Or was it Jesus’ claim that only His death could bring people life? Could they not bear what we call “the offense of the cross,” the idea that only the crucifixion of Jesus brings to a lost world forgiveness and hope? Or was it the way Jesus seemed to place Himself above Moses and all the prophets as the one Lord and life-giver?

Most likely, it was the total impact of all these things. The drifters couldn’t take in the magnitude and exclusiveness of Jesus’ claims. They couldn’t understand these, couldn’t deal with them. They said among themselves, “Who can listen to this?” Who can take this seriously? Who can embrace such a strange, unheard-of teaching? As they began to murmur about this, Jesus could feel their discontent and disapproval.

I’m struck by the way the Lord responded. He made no attempt to defend His teaching nor did He censure these questioners for their attitude. He didn’t plead with them or persuade them to stay. Instead He raised the question, “`Do you take offense at this?’ Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (v. 62). It’s as though He had said, “If this stretches your minds, if you find this hard to believe, there are even more puzzling things ahead. How would you react if you saw Me taken up from the earth?” He was almost saying, “Well, if this is your attitude now, you’ll surely have even greater difficulty down the line.”

This is strikingly different from the behavior of other so-called “spiritual leaders” when they begin to sense disaffection in the ranks. In the tragedy of Jonesville, Guyana, the cult leader there was adamant that no one should leave his leadership. He would rather see them all dead than let them go. There’s many another street gang in our day which will cost a gang member his life to leave. But Jesus hears the grumbling of His followers, senses their rejection of Him and His words, but doesn’t make the slightest effort to hold them. They are, in the deepest sense, free to leave.

And leave they did. Many of them, we read, drew back and no longer went about with Him. They had been walking around in His company, following Him as His disciples, but now all of that stopped. Disciples no longer, they went back to the life they had left when they first followed Him.

Jesus’ comment about this is instructive. He says, “There are some of you that do not believe.” These beginning disciples had learned now that following Him meant something different from what they had thought. Maybe they had expected a messianic kingdom in line with popular expectations to overthrow Rome. Maybe they thought He would keep on providing them each day with loaves and fish. Whatever they had been looking for, it became evident now that they had not deeply trusted Him. They had a quarrel with what He said. They couldn’t accept His teaching as the truth of God. They didn’t say, “Lord, we believe.”

THESE REMAINED

As He saw the members of this group drifting away, Jesus turned to the inner circle of His disciples, the twelve, and asked them, “Will you also go away?” What was behind that question? What did Jesus expect from these men?

I’ve sometimes heard speculation about that, especially the idea that it may have indicated discouragement on the part of Jesus. The picture given is something like this: Jesus was feeling bereft. He began to wonder if anyone would stay at His side. He was searching for some reassurance about Himself and His mission.

That interpretation may sound plausible, but it is clearly wrong. The Greek language offers a certain way of asking a question which always anticipates a negative response. That’s the construction used here. Jesus is not expressing His fear that they may leave. He’s rather giving voice to His confidence that they won’t. It’s as though He had said it this way: “You’re not going to leave me, are you?” That’s the mood here. He knew where He stood with these men. He was confident as to what their response would be.

Jesus realized far better than anyone else could have how vulnerable His disciples were. These were the same men who later would leave Him and run away, denying that they even knew Him. Jesus was aware that the sight of other people turning back might have its effect on them. Nothing is so devastating to the courage of soldiers on the front line as seeing their buddies turn tail and run. It’s immensely difficult to stand your ground when you see others retreating all around you. Yet Jesus still believed that these men wouldn’t forsake Him. And He put it to them that way.

We can learn from that about dealing with people close to us. If we think that a friend will be faithful, he’s likely to prove so, isn’t he? If we suspect him of being false, on the other hand, we give him a kind of perverse right to prove himself that way. We push him or her in that direction. Our confidence, or lack of it, becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

It soon became clear that Jesus was right about the twelve. They had an entirely different reaction to His words than the others. The deserters had said, “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” These disciples say, “You have the words of eternal life.” Others had criticized and contested His words. These men found them creative and life-giving.

Simon Peter had a perfect answer to Jesus’ question: “Will you also go away?” It was this: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Here is the response of those who have come to know Jesus. They are sure that what they have found in Him can be found nowhere else. They have long since stopped their “shopping around.” Why look further when you’ve found the real treasure? It was unthinkable for them to abandon their fellowship with Jesus for anything else.

When I was a very young Christian, I once was cross-examined about my faith by a brilliant atheist. He asked me many penetrating questions I couldn’t answer. He raised problems I had never thought of. But even though I felt under attack and sometimes quite perplexed, my inmost faith wasn’t damaged in the slightest. I knew that Jesus Christ had come into my life and that I had found in Him “the way, the truth and the life.” Even if my questioner had been more learned than he was, I wouldn’t have believed him. I didn’t want to look for another answer, another Savior. I had already found all that I was looking for and more in Jesus Christ. I could say also, “Where else could I go, Lord?”

Peter is speaking for all the others when he says, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” It’s clear from a surface reading that this is an expression of deep confidence. Knowing just a bit about the tense of the Greek verbs makes it even clearer. The verbs are in the perfect tense, which decribes an action in the past which has continuing effects in the present. The disciples are saying, in other words, “This issue is settled for us. We’ve put our faith in You in the past and we’re trusting You right now. We’ve come to know You before and we know now that You are the Holy One of God. This is not a matter of hearsay with any of us. We’re not borrowing the beliefs of others. We aren’t wavering between opinions. We’re among the committed, the convinced.”

What is it they believe and know? That Jesus, they say, is the Holy One of God. This is one of the high water marks in this gospel, one of the greatest Christian confessions. It gives Jesus a unique place as “the Holy One.” But more amazingly, it locates Jesus on the divine side of reality. He is thoroughly human, yes, but infinitely more. He is God’s Holy One come in the flesh, the Lord Himself visiting His people. This expresses not only respect but reverence, not only allegiance but wholehearted worship.

A MATTER OF FAITH

The disciples seem now more sure than ever. And this is how faith works, isn’t it? When the crunch comes, those who lack real faith disappear. Those who have it, on the other hand, stand tall. The crises of life always reveal what’s in our hearts.

A passage like this raises large questions for you and me. The fundamental question is, Who is Jesus? Is He a problem person who disappoints us, or is He the bread of heaven? Is He a false prophet or a faithful witness? Is He a blasphemer or the Son of God? The answers you give will determine whether you move away from Him or toward Him.

Closely related to that is what we think of His words. Are they hard sayings, impossible for anyone to hear? Or are they words of eternal life? Is the gospel for us a word that puts us off or that draws us near? How you and I respond to the Bible and its message reveals a good deal about who we are.

And how shall we respond to the Lord’s question, “Will you also go away?” I think He’s asking that of all of us, even those who for a time may have left. Theirs wasn’t necessarily a complete or final apostasy. Jesus doesn’t berate them, condemn them or say they’re totally hopeless. Maybe some of them reconsidered. Maybe they came back to listen again. And maybe Jesus said to them, “What about you this time? Will you go away or will you stay?”

Everything will depend on whether or not you and I believe. Have we trusted Jesus and are we trusting Him now? Have we come to know who He is and are we growing in our relationship to Him? Do we take Him at His word and find His promise, as these disciples did, to be life-giving? That’s the faith that will hold us, trusting Jesus in that way. Though everyone around us may seem to have second thoughts, that kind of confidence will do wonders for us. It will give us what we call “staying power.”

Prayer: Lord, we too have heard Your word, and we know now of Your dying for us and rising again. May the faith leap up in all of our hearts in response that will give us genuine staying power. In Jesus’ name. Amen.