STUDY 10: JOHN 6 – THE SECOND DEBATE

© Rosemary Bardsley 2009

John 6 opens with the record of Jesus' feeding of the five thousand. This miracle becomes both the background and the kick-off point for the second debate between Jesus and the Jews in 6:25 -59.

After this miracle Jesus deliberately disappeared [see 6:15 -24], and during that disappearance from the crowd another miracle, his walking on water, was witnessed by his disciples.

 

A. MISUNDERSTANDING THE MIRACLE

Whereas Mark’s Gospel omits any comment about the immediate response to this feeding miracle John relates that the people responded with ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world’ then tells us that Jesus knew that they intended to make him king by force [John 6:14,15]. They had, as Mark tells us later, failed to perceive the real meaning of the miracle. They see Jesus purely in earthly terms. They see him as the one who has the potential to set them free from the tyranny of Rome and re-establish Israel as a nation.

As we saw in John 5, they have failed to understand the Scriptures. Here in response to this miracle they are mistaken on two counts:

      • firstly in thinking that this kind of national hero and deliverer is what the prophets promised in the Messiah,
      • and secondly in assuming that Jesus is merely this kind of deliverer.

[See Appendix 2: About the Messiah]

Jesus attacks this mistaken notion: ‘I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.’ [John 6:26].

The miraculous sign, if they had understood it as a sign, should have pointed them to the fact that Jesus is God, but their focus is on the earthly, on the physical. The thing that impressed them was not the spiritual significance of the miracle, but the physical effect of the miracle. Jesus exhorts them: ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life ...’ [ 6:27 ]. The bread they ate has become a symbol for their physical, national aspirations, for their mistaken concept of the Messiah, contrasted to the eternal, spiritual significance of Jesus Christ. Here we see again the divide between flesh and Spirit, between physical and spiritual, that has been with us for several chapters.

[Also involved in this mistaken perception of the Messiah is a mistaken perception of God’s purpose: they perceive God’s purpose as having its focus and its objective in the Jews as a nation, whereas the Old Testament clearly teaches a worldwide, trans-national focus and objective in God’s purpose.]

 

B. THE TRUE BREAD FROM HEAVEN

The conversation we are about to study contains reference to manna. This refers back to the early history of Israel . The references below give you background information about the ‘manna’.

Exodus 16:1-36

Numbers 11:4-9

Deuteronomy 8:1-3,16

Nehemiah 9:15-21

Psalm 78:21-24

 

When the Jews asked Jesus how he got to the other side of the lake he responded, as we have just seen, with yet another statement/command making a clear distinction between the physical and the spiritual: ‘Do not work for food that spoils’, [which the manna did, and which ordinary food inevitably does], ‘but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you...’ [ 6:27 ].

The conversation goes just the way Jesus wants it to go. The Jews ask ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ [ 6:28 ]. His answer faces them with the central issue: ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ [6:29]. The Jews realise that Jesus believes himself to be the one God has sent, for they ask him to tell them what he will do to prove it, so they can believe in him [6:30]. They refer back past the miracle of the loaves and fishes to the miracle of the manna, the ‘bread from heaven’, provided for their ancestors in the desert. It is as if they said ‘This is what Moses did: he gave us bread from heaven. What can you do to prove yourself to us?’

Jesus in reply again points to the earth-bound nature of their understanding. He tells them

      • Moses doesn't give you the bread from heaven
      • It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven
      • The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world [ 6:32 ,33].

The Jews are interested. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘from now on give us this bread.’

Jesus responds with an unexpected, startling declaration:

‘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.’ [ 6:35 ].

If they had not heard it in verses 32 and 33, they cannot escape it here. Jesus himself is the true bread from heaven, the bread of God, the bread of life. He is not saying just that he gives us the bread of life [as he did in verse 27], but that he is the bread of life. He is what he gives. What he gives is himself. Apart from him we die. Apart from him we hunger. Apart from him we thirst. Just as physical life depends on food [symbolised by bread] so spiritual life depends on Jesus Christ.

This is the first of the exclusive claims made by Jesus Christ in this Gospel. It is exclusive in that it rules out all other supposed or publicized ‘breads’ – sustainers, satisfiers - of life. Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life’ not ‘a bread of life’ or ‘one of many breads of life’.

He is claiming to be the one and only bread of life. He is claiming that he alone sustains spiritual, eternal life. But it is not the exclusiveness of the claim that offends the Jews; they are quite happy with exclusivism. What bothers them is that Jesus claims to have come down from heaven. The Jews cannot accept this. They think they know who he is. They think they know where he comes from. [6:41,42].

This divine origin of Jesus Christ is expressed in many verses in Chapter 6. Check out these verses and comment on their significance.

29

32

33

38

39

41,42

50

51

57

58

62

 

C. THE CRITICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS CHRIST

In response to their doubts and questions Jesus reinforces his argument. He makes the following claims which in one way or another identify him as God:

      • As we have already seen in the previous point, the Father sent him and he came from heaven 
      • He has the authority and ability to raise people up at the last day [44,54]
      • He, the one who is from God, is the only on who has seen the Father [46]
      • As we have already seen, he is the living bread; if anyone ‘eats’ this bread he will not die, he will live for ever’ [48,51,54,57,58].

In addition to these claims Jesus in verse 51 transitions from speaking of himself as ‘bread’ to speaking of his ‘flesh’, and from the concept of eating this ‘bread’ to the concept of eating his ‘flesh’.

      • ‘If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’ [51]
      • ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ [53]
      • ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life …’ [54]
      • ‘my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’ [55]
      • ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him’ [56]
      • ‘the one who feeds on me will live because of me’ [57]
      • ‘he who feeds on this bread will live for ever’ [58]

If we take verses 51 to 58 by themselves we can easily be persuaded that these verses are referring to partaking of the Lord's Supper, especially if we read them superficially. We can also be easily persuaded that they are pointing us to the crucifixion, the benefits of which are ours through faith. The broken flesh and poured out blood of Jesus Christ are certainly not far away from this passage, as verse 51 tells us: ‘which I will give for the life of the world.’ But an analysis of the above verses, and a comparison of them with some of the earlier verses in this chapter, indicates that the primary focus of Jesus' argument is here not his death, but his real humanity – the fact that he is a real human being – ‘flesh’, who, at the same time, is also God.

 

D. THE STUMBLING-BLOCK OF CHRIST’S HUMANITY

Jesus has already made clear in Chapter Five that he is claiming equality with God. Here in Chapter Six he reaffirms that claim and pinpoints what the stumbling block to that claim is. Had he come with great glory, displaying the awe-inspiring majesty of the Lord, quite evidently not human, these Jews would have received him. They would have recognized that brilliant, glorious figure of Ezekiel's and Daniel's visions. They would have bowed to him in adoration and praise.

But, as they say, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I came down from heaven?' ’ [ 6:42 ]. His very evident human reality is the stumbling block to their belief. He is one of them. Just the man from down the road. They cannot believe that he comes from heaven. They cannot believe that God has taken upon himself human flesh and human blood. For this reason Jesus says ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ [ 6:53 ]. Unless they can accept the fact that this flesh and blood person is the Lord of glory, they have no spiritual life. But this is the very fact that they cannot stomach. It is this very fact that they are rejecting with such vehement opposition that it makes them want to kill him. They will not accept that standing before them in real human flesh and blood is their God.

From Jesus' statements in this chapter we can readily see that this is the key issue. What is promised to those who ‘eat Christ's flesh’ and ‘drink his blood’ is the same as what is promised to those who ‘believe’, that is, the promise of eternal life. Back in verse 27 Jesus told the Jews to work for the food that endures ‘to eternal life’. They asked ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ In reply Jesus said: ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ ( 6:29 ).

From the verses below identify what Jesus promises to people who do what the listed phrase describes. Note the similarity between what is promised to all of these responses.

This response …

Leads to this outcome/promise …

Come to him [35]

Believe in him [35]

Come to him [36]

Look to and believes in him [40]

Come to him [44]

Believe [47]

Eat of this bread [51]

Eat his flesh, drink his blood [54]

Eat his flesh, drink his blood [56]

Feed on him [57]

Feed on this bread [58]

To believe in Jesus, to come to Jesus, to eat this bread, to feed on him, to eat his flesh and drink his blood … all of these actions result in the same spiritual outcome: eternal spiritual life. To believe in him is to believe that he, this man, is God in human flesh, the holy, almighty Lord, standing here before us – visible, touchable, one of us.

But the Jews do not want a flesh and blood God. They do not want to accept that the Son of God stands here sharing their humanity. They will not believe in this one whom God has sent. Even many of his disciples, on hearing the debate of John 6, couldn't swallow his teaching. ‘Who can accept it?’ they asked each other [verse 60]. John tells us [66] that ‘from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.’ Perhaps these were those apparent believers to whom Jesus had not committed himself earlier [John 2:23 -25], because he knew what was in their hearts.

All that remains here at the end of this debate in John 6 are the twelve. Peter's reason for their remaining is ‘You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’ [6:68,69]. Yet just as Jesus did not commit himself to the many apparent believers in John 2, so here he knows that one of these twelve who remain does not believe.

 

E. ADDITIONAL TRUTHS IN JOHN 6

In focusing on the main flow of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 we have over looked several significant truths:

E.1 John’s use of the miracle

John’s purpose is not to record every miracle Jesus did. His intention is to get us, his readers, to believe in Jesus Christ, and included miracles [which he calls ‘signs’ to that end]. His inclusion of the feeding miracle is directly related to Jesus’ claim to be the bread of life.

E.2 Jesus’ quiet and deliberate commitment to the divine agenda

It is very evident in John 6 that Jesus was not swayed by human agendas and human expectations; nor did he allow himself to be swayed by the tyranny of the urgent and the immediate.

      • Rather than allow the crowds to come and make him king by force he withdrew to a mountain by himself [15]. He did not want this human, physical acclaim and kingdom.
      • His disappearance was despite the fact that he had an already enthralled crowd right at hand whom he could have continued to teach and to heal.
      • He did not return to the crowd who had stayed where they were waiting for him overnight [22-24].
      • He doesn’t even answer their question about when he had got there; it was irrelevant [25].
      • He does not, at this stage, answer their question as to what sign they would give them to verify his claims [30]
      • He does not modify his teaching to make it more palatable to them, rather, he intensifies it [61ff].
      • He is not personally put off his mission by the lack of response, false belief, or withdrawal of ‘belief’ [64-70]

E.3 Further truths about the Son of Man

      • The Son of Man gives eternal life [27, see also verse 53]
      • God has placed his seal of approval on the Son of Man [27]
      • The Son of Man returns to where he was before [62]

E.4 Insight into the wrongness of a works-based mindset

When the Jews wanted to know what they had to do to do the works God requires, Jesus mentioned nothing normally called ‘work’ in a religious sense; the work of God is simply to believe in Jesus Christ [28-29].

E.5 Perspectives on the will of God

Verses 28-29 also act as a curb on the contemporary obsession with ‘finding the will of God’. What God wants us to do, over and above all, is to believe in his Son. This is no mysterious, hidden, individualized plan for my life that I have to find. Similarly, God’s will is that all of those he has given to Son will be not be lost, but will be raised up on the last day [39-40] – that is, God’s will is our sure and permanent salvation.

E.6 The essential divine initiative in salvation

Several times in this chapter Jesus refers to the divine initiative, intervention and empowerment necessary for anyone to come to genuine belief:

      • ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me …’ [37, see also 39]
      • ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him …’ [44]
      • ‘They will all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me’ [45].
      • ‘… no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him’ [65].

This perspective reflects the truth Jesus told Nicodemus in Chapter 3: that a person must be regenerated by the Spirit of God before he/she can see and enter the kingdom of God . In Paul’s teaching this divine initiative is referred with the emotive words of ‘election’ and ‘predestined’; here Jesus refers to the same divine action, with much more ordinary, but nevertheless powerful, words.

E.7 Assurance of salvation

The divine initiative mentioned above gives assurance to salvation. In addition, assurance of salvation is taught in the following:

      • The ‘food’ Jesus gives endures to eternal life [27]
      • Those who come to Jesus will never go hungry and never be thirsty [35]
      • Those who come to him he will never drive away [37]
      • God’s will is that none of those he has given to Jesus will ever be lost [39-40]
      • Jesus states that he will raise up at the last day all that the Father draws to him [44] 
      • Whoever believes in Jesus already has everlasting life [47,54]
      • The man who ‘eats’ Jesus [the bread from heaven] will not die [50]
      • Whoever ‘eats’ Jesus ‘flesh’ and ‘drinks’ his ‘blood’ remains in him and he in them [56]
      • Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever [58]

These are strong assurances of the permanence of salvation, and they are spoken by Jesus himself.

E.8 About Judas

In 70 Jesus makes reference to the disciple whom he knew to be non-genuine in his faith and commitment. Jesus, in fact, called him ‘a devil’. Although physically aligned with Jesus, spiritually he was aligned with the devil.