READ : John 6:66-69
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.”
John 6:66-69 rsv
Did you know that in the days of Jesus’ ministry there were many who started out to follow Him but later went back home? Listen to these words 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.” They had been learners in Jesus’ school. They had been interested, enthusiastic, committed, or seemingly so. They had wanted more than anything else to be in the company of this Jesus. But now they have left Him and gone away.
That’s surprising to me, and heartbreaking. But it sometimes happens. Did you know that one of the major thinkers behind the modern communist movement was in his early years devoted to Jesus Christ? That’s right. The first written work of Karl Marx was entitled The Union of the Faithful With Christ. “Through love of Christ,” he wrote, “we turn our hearts at the same time toward our brethren who are inwardly bound to us and for whom He gave Himself in sacrifice.” Later this same man became passionately antireligious. He went back from following Jesus and walked no more with Him.
Why do you suppose things like that happen? Why did these crowds of promising adherents later lose interest and fall away? This passage in John’s Gospel gives us some clues. Jesus said some things, apparently, which were hard for them to accept. On this particular occasion, He kept speaking about His flesh and His blood and of how people needed to partake of Him. Listen: “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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54). Or, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (v. 56). What kind of talk was this? Many shook their heads and said, “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?”
We don’t know why these temporary disciples had originally thrown in their lot with Jesus. Perhaps it had been the rumor that He was the promised Messiah. Many believed that the Christ, when He came, would liberate Israel from the yoke of Rome. Maybe they were expecting that. Perhaps it was the miracles they had seen, blind men receiving their sight, the paralyzed made straight and strong, demon-possessed ones set free, and even the dead called back to life. Who wouldn’t be attracted to a man who did such amazing things? Maybe some of them had been inclined to follow any new teacher who came along. Maybe others were merely curious. But then Jesus began to say these strange things about His flesh and His blood.
There were two ways in which people might find this kind of talk offensive. Jesus was plainly talking about His death. He was going to “give” His flesh and His blood. Everyone knows that “the life of the flesh is in the blood.” Remember Shylock in Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice”? He was a cruel creditor. When one of his debtors couldn’t pay, Shylock demanded a pound of flesh as satisfaction. But the clever judge in the case foiled him. He could have his pound of flesh, she said, but if in taking it he shed as much as one drop of blood, then his own life would be forfeited. Shylock went away, of course, muttering. No one could possibly separate flesh from blood. That only happens in death.
Some today still find it offensive that so much is said in the Christian faith about the death of Jesus, and especially about His death on a cross. They cannot imagine that their need is so great and their sin so damning that only the crucifixion of Jesus as the sin bearing Savior could possibly put things right. They find the Cross, the message of Jesus’ death for us, a stumbling block, a kind of scandal.
But even more, Jesus spoke here of people eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Imagine how that must have sounded to Jewish hearers who were forbidden in their Law even to taste of blood! Now they were being told that if they did not drink Jesus’ blood they would never have true life. For many this was difficult to understand, let alone to accept. This was decidedly not what they had expected from Jesus. They had heard enough now. They decided to go back.
If they had listened carefully, they would have understood that Jesus did not mean this in a literal, physical sense. Eating and drinking were for Him action pictures of faith. To eat His flesh and drink His blood was to receive Him with a believing heart, to welcome Him into one’s life, to rely upon Him and His dying love.
People who had come along to see a miracle or receive a supply of bread, or those who had longed for a conquering king, weren’t interested now. Jesus kept making these claims about Himself. He kept insisting that people had to be rightly related to Him, that they had to be closely identified with Him and to share His life. The claims began to seem too vast and the cost too great. Many of these erstwhile followers began to think of better ways in which they could be spending their time. They excused themselves and went home.
How will Jesus react to this new development, to this wholesale desertion? We learn a lot about the character of leaders when we see them encounter defections in the ranks. Sometimes they become vicious. They call down anathemas on those who turn away. They brand them as traitors. They heap scorn on them or even vow to avenge themselves.
Others resort to desperate pleading. They make emotional appeals or exaggerated promises, anything to keep these stragglers from drifting away.
Sometimes the reaction is one of despair. Those deserted by their followers can begin to doubt themselves and their cause. They’re almost ready to give up, to quit. What will it be with Jesus? Threats? Entreaties? Or some dark night of the soul?
Actually, it’s none of the above. We read that Jesus knew within Himself that some were murmuring, and He said, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (vv. 61-62). It was as though He had said, “If this is too much, there are even more remarkable things ahead.” Then He said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe” (vv. 63-64). Then the gospel writer tells us that Jesus knew from the first who did not believe and who should betray Him. “This is why I told you,” said Jesus, “that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (v. 65).
Jesus was not taken by surprise when some did not believe in Him. He knew, you see, that it would take a miracle for people to respond positively to His message. There was nothing in human nature, in the flesh, that could welcome His words, that could receive them with faith. It was only the Spirit of God, imparting life to people, opening their ears, giving sight to their eyes, inclining their hearts, that made faith possible. Jesus was grieved, surely, when people turned away. He cared intensely about them. See Him weeping for the rebellious city. Hear Him say, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (Matt. 23:37). You were not willing. Their refusal broke His heart, but it didn’t take Him by surprise.
Jesus knew that threats or promises wouldn’t change the situation. He was dealing with the inwardly blind, the morally deaf, the spiritually dead. The wonder lay not in the fact that some turned away but that others remained. Jesus knew that no one could possibly come to Him, eating His flesh, drinking His blood, receiving Him with a trusting heart unless it were given to that person by the Father to do so. The great calm in the Savior’s heart lay in this: all whom the Father had given Him would surely be His. So in what was happening now before His eyes, there was both sadness and serenity, a passionate yearning but also a deep peace.
His greatest concern was for the inner circle of His followers, the Twelve. Perhaps the attrition in the ranks was affecting them. Every commanding officer knows the effect on the morale of his soldiers when they see many around them deserting. It’s never harder to hold our ground than when we see others abandoning their positions, fleeing for their lives. Jesus turns now to these closest friends. None is looking at Him. They all are staring at the ground. They’re obviously affected by what’s happening.
“What about you,” asks Jesus. “Do you want to go away too?” How do you suppose the Lord was asking that question: with confidence or with apprehension? Did He think that they would actually leave or did He know in His heart they would stay? Well, we aren’t left to our imaginations here. This is one of those passages where a little familiarity with the Greek language can decide the issue. Jesus definitely asked this question in a way that expected a negative response. In other words, when He said, “Will you also go away?” He was sure, down deep, that they would say no. And that’s exactly what happened.
Peter was the first to respond. That was usually his role among the disciples. He was the spokesman. Sometimes he was the first to blunder. Sometimes he took the lead in the wrong direction. But this was one of his finest hours. Here he didn’t sound like Simon, the man of sand, but like Peter, the rock. All that was best and strongest and truest in the disciples came out in his reply.
Peter answered with a question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” That is, “Where else can we find what we have found in You? If we were to go away, where would we turn? What could we look for? What would we do?” As Peter asked this question, he wasn’t expecting a response – and even the incarnate Lord couldn’t have given one! Now Peter makes his confession, “You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). Others had been puzzling over Jesus’ teachings, quarreling with them, offended at them. Peter felt differently. For him they were “living words.” “Sing them over again to me,” he could have said, in the lines of a familiar hymn, “Wonderful Words of Life.” Jesus, You have the words that tell about eternal life. You have the words that are vibrant with God’s life. You have the words that quicken life in the hearts of people. Yours is the voice that wakes the dead. You are the Lord and the Life-giver.
That’s one of the signs that the Spirit of God is at work in our lives, that the Father is giving us faith, that is, that we respond as Peter did to Jesus’ words. They come home to our hearts with power. They open our eyes. They breathe life into us. We can’t get away from them. We know in the depths of our being that His Word is truth.
Now Peter makes a full confession: “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 69). He’s saying, “We’ve believed Your words, Jesus, and receiving those words into our hearts, and we’ve come to assurance about who You are. We’re staying with You, not simply because there’s nowhere else to go, but because we’ve realized who You really are. You are the Holy One of God. You’ve come from heaven to earth. You’re the Father’s beloved Son. You’re the hope of the world. You are our Savior and our King, and we belong to You forever.”
That’s the difference, friends, between those who go away and those who stay, between those who turn from Christ and those who cleave to Him. The faithful are those who see in the face of Jesus God’s glory, who see in the terrible death He died not shame but triumph. The true believers are those who find in Jesus full salvation. They taste and see that He, the Lord, is good, and their restless wanderings are over. They aren’t looking now for another religion, another redeemer, another source of refreshment. “We have believed,” they say, “and come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
Today, friends, these great words are coming to your ears. Maybe you’re halting between two opinions, as it were, uncertain which way to go. Will you be Christ’s person or won’t you? Listen. He speaks directly to your heart. “What about you? Will you go away?” God grant you today to echo Peter. God help you to say, “Lord, where else? To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”