READ : John 6:53-69
You probably know that during the course of his ministry on earth Jesus Christ attracted many followers who were drawn by his wonderful teaching and also by the miraculous signs that he performed, but those same things also drove many away. What will they do for you?
Some years ago I picked up a book entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. As you may know, there are quite a few. Jesus said some of the most beautiful, often-quoted words in the history of the human race,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. . . . Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. . . . Our Father, who art in heaven. . . . Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
But he also said many things that were puzzling, cryptic, even shocking. Hard sayings, in other words. Some were hard because they were difficult to understand. Some were hard because they were difficult to accept. And some were both.
We think of Jesus as a very popular teacher, and it’s true; he was that, at least initially at the start of his public career. But what he had to say wasn’t always so appealing, and eventually he became quite unpopular. In fact, the more they heard of his message, the less most people thought of it, and by the end, the crowds had melted away. Finally, the only crowd around Jesus was the crowd of those who shouted for his blood.
Where He Is From
We read about an early instance of Jesus losing the crowd because of his hard sayings in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. This chapter opens with Jesus’ miraculous feeding of more than five thousand people on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The recipients of this free meal were so excited by Jesus’ power they wanted to make him their king. After all, anybody who could feed the multitudes free of charge was an obvious candidate to run the government; that was just as true then as it is now! But Jesus’ has a different mission, another agenda. As he himself would later put it, his kingdom is not of this world. So Jesus withdrew quietly by himself, and later joined his disciples as they crossed the lake at night and headed back home to Capernaum.
The next morning, when the crowd discovered that Jesus and his disciples had left, they hurried after them. And finally catching up with Jesus, the people tried to pursue this business of the bread with him. They were interested in having Jesus make his miraculous provision a more or less permanent arrangement. I mean, think of the convenience: no more trips to the store, no more struggling over the food budget. Just dial up Jesus and put in your order! If they could only get Jesus to take over and provide for them on a regular basis, their worries would be over. But Jesus took the crowd’s interest in physical bread and used it metaphorically to talk about the satisfaction of a far deeper need.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. . . . I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. . . .”
At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
John 6:35-42, niv
“I have come down from heaven,” Jesus stated. There’s the first hard saying. This is, to put it mildly, a rather unusual claim for someone to make. It struck the crowd as simply outlandish; it set them to grumbling. They thought they knew all about Jesus. They thought they knew who his father and mother were. He was a local boy, Joseph and Mary’s son; how could he claim to have come down from heaven!
And when he does claim that, Jesus isn’t talking about reincarnation or some notion of a pre-existing soul being dropped into a body. He is referring plainly and directly to his divine nature. Jesus is speaking as one who is conscious of his eternal existence with God as the Word, the Son of God. To say that he came down from heaven is to say that he came from the position of God, as one who is God in very nature.
The Bread of Life
If heaven is where Jesus came from, salvation is what he came for.
I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. . . . For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
Why did Jesus come down from heaven into our world? He says to the crowd that he has come in obedience to the Father in order to fulfill God’s will, which is to give eternal life to all who believe in him, the Son of God. Then Jesus adds, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35). In Jesus’ day bread was not an extra item that you put on the little plate next to your salad, or something to hold your sandwich ingredients together. Bread was what kept you alive. Bread was to Jesus’ world what rice is to the Orient: it’s the “staff of life.” What Jesus means to say through this beautiful image of the bread of life is that he himself in his own person is the satisfaction of every human being’s most basic need, most heartfelt desire. He is life.
A Hard Saying
What does all that mean to us? Jesus is the true bread from heaven, the living bread who gives eternal life. The bread is his own body which he will give on the cross, dying for the sin of the world. And what must we do then if that is the truth? The answer is: we must receive him. That is what he’s trying to tell us, and he goes on to do so in the most graphic way imaginable:
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. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (vv. 53-55, cf. vv. 56-58).
And we ask: What in the world does that language mean? Even the crowd wondered (v. 52), and so do we. Here is a hard saying indeed. How does one “eat and drink” Christ’s flesh and blood? How does one “feed on” (v. 57) him?
Obviously Jesus was not speaking literally. Nor did he mean these words, I think, in primarily a ritual or sacramental sense, so I also think there’s an unmistakable link between what Jesus says here and what we can experience by faith if we participate in worship in the sacred meal, the meal that Christians call the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, or Communion.
But Jesus was not saying that we receive eternal life by simply eating something with our mouths. He’s not suggesting anything that smacks of magic. It doesn’t work that way. What Christ meant was that we receive eternal life when we receive him by faith. Faith, said a great Christian teacher, is “the mouth and stomach of the soul” (John Calvin). To “come to” Christ, to “believe in” Christ, to “look to” Christ, to “eat [Christ’s] flesh” and “drink [his] blood,” to “feed on” Christ??”those are all different ways of saying the same thing. They are expressions that signify the experience of being personally united to Jesus through faith in his sacrificial death and resurrected life.
Faith is the way you participate in that death, the way you share its benefits, the way you receive his life. Faith is what it means to eat and drink Christ with “the mouth” of your soul. It is claiming him, taking him, identifying with and accepting him. And to do this is eternal life.
All of this talk of Jesus about the bread of life, and eating his body and drinking his blood, was deeply offensive, even horrifying, to the listening crowd. As Jews they had been raised to abhor the very idea of consuming blood. It was strictly forbidden in the Old Testament. So it seems as though Jesus deliberately uses this imagery in order to shock them perhaps. Well, he certainly succeeded. John tells us what their reaction was.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (vv. 60, 66)
There goes the crowd. Jesus the bread-giver is enormously popular with the masses. But Jesus the Bread of life, the only way to salvation, the One in whom we must believe in order to be saved??”well, he’s a turn-off. As the crowds melted away, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked if they too would leave him. But good old impulsive Peter spoke for himself and for other disciples of Jesus, in fact, for everyone who knows and loves him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).
Thank you, Peter! I love those words. I don’t know how many times I have repeated them myself. When I have been discouraged, when I have been struggling with my own doubts, when I’ve wondered if God is there at all, when I’ve been oppressed by a sense of personal failure, when I’ve felt keenly my own guilt and have been tempted to finally give up on trying to follow Jesus, I find myself asking them again. “Lord, where else can I go? You have the words of eternal life.”
So there it is. If you can find someone else who can give you eternal life, then go ahead and leave Jesus. But really, where else can you turn?