To Whom Else Shall We Turn?
Passage: John 6:60–71
Sermon from John 6:60-71 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, July 21, 2013
Jesus Didn't Enter a Neutral World, but a World of Unbelief
This morning I’d like to set before you four truths that I see the apostle John unfolding in verses 60-71. You probably noticed that there are only two kinds of people in verses 60-71—those who find Jesus’ words offensive and turn away from him, and those who hang on Jesus’ every word for eternal life and remain with him. These are the same two groups of people we’ve seen throughout John’s Gospel. In 1:11-12, there are those who do not receive Jesus, and there are those who do receive him and believe on his name. In 3:19-21, there are those who hate the light of Jesus and turn away to the darkness, and there are those who come to the light of Jesus and remain in his light. In 4:42-45, there are those who welcome Jesus into their town superficially as the Sign-Giver, and there are those who welcome Jesus into their lives as Savior of the World. And then, here, in chapter 6, we again see these same two groups of people—those who grumble and walk away and those who marvel and stay.
John’s point has been the same all along: Jesus has not entered a neutral world, but a world of unbelief, a world of darkness, a world of people suppressing the truth about God, a world of hostility against God’s Son. And when that unbelieving world encounters the person of Jesus Christ, there are only two choices—you either remain in unbelief to your eternal destruction or you believe for eternal life. And John has written these words that you might believe for eternal life. That’s what he says in 20:31, “these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” So, these four truths that we’re about to unpack are written to lift you out of the shaky, life-threatening pit of unbelief and set your feet upon the rock of a never-failing Savior. So let’s walk through these four truths one at a time, so that we might find ourselves all the more pressed into an enduring and abiding faith in Jesus. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ; and that’s true for believer and unbeliever alike. So four truths…
1. Jesus' gospel words are offensive to the natural man.
Truth number one: Jesus’ gospel words are offensive to the natural man. Our passage falls at the tail end of a long exchange Jesus has had with the Jews in their synagogue about the Bread of Life. Very patiently, Jesus has gone to great lengths to show them why he fed the five-thousand with bread; and along the way, Jesus has said some things, which apparently his disciples find rather disturbing. Verse 60 says, “When many of his disciples heard it [i.e., heard what he was saying in the synagogue], they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’”
Now, you might keep in mind that the disciples spoken of in verse 60 are different from the twelve disciples we’re more familiar with. In fact, we’ll see later that it’s only the Twelve who remain with Jesus while all these other disciples forsake him. So when we read “disciples” in verse 60, John means nothing more than those who had committed themselves to following Jesus at that time. They’re not actually Christians—people who have experienced the new birth; they’re simply followers intrigued by Jesus’ signs, wondering who Jesus may be, and curious about what Jesus says. We might compare them to the folks we saw in 2:23-25 who “believe” in Jesus, but to whom Jesus refuses to entrust himself, because all they want is his signs rather than himself. They are followers with—what we called—spurious faith, not saving faith; their faith is an imitation instead of the real thing.
It is these kinds of disciples who are now finding Jesus’ words a bit unpalatable to their spiritual taste buds. The more he speaks, the more they’re growing uneasy with what he’s saying about himself and what he’s implying about them. When they say, “this is a hard saying,” they don’t mean that it’s just too difficult to understand intellectually, but that it’s outright offending them. It’s making the hairs on their neck stand up and disgust to rise in their soul. It’s causing them to blush in front of their Jewish brothers and the synagogue officials.
After all, Jesus has called them out on their unbelief and their refusal to accept him as the Bread of Life (6:26). He’s told them that they’re ultimately spending their lives for food that perishes—the food they want may feed their bellies, but it will still leave them in their sins, perishing (6:27). He’s also mentioned that the works they so much prided themselves on actually contribute nothing to their salvation, but that only a faith-relationship with Jesus is what really matters to God (6:29). Then three times over he tells them his bread is superior to anything Israel ever received in the wilderness; and had they even believed what that manna was pointing to all along, they would understand their need for eternal life and why God’s Son came down (6:33, 35, 50). And then twice he indicates that their Jewish ancestry means absolutely nothing for their entrance into the kingdom of God and that what really matters is the Father’s sovereign work of regeneration—“no one can come to me unless the Father…draws him” (6:37, 44).
And if that wasn’t enough to humble them, he throws into the mix that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood if they want to have eternal life. Meaning, Jesus intends to lay down his unblemished flesh in sacrifice, much like the Passover lamb was slaughtered to deliver God’s people from death. If they wanted life, they must partake of the benefits of Jesus’ sacrificial death by faith (6:51-58). Otherwise, they would die in their sins; there would ultimately be nothing to hide them from God’s wrath, nothing to protect them from the eternal death they deserved for transgressing God’s law.
The gospel exposes the wretchedness of our sins
What Jesus has essentially done is told them nothing short of the gospel: he came from heaven to earth to give his flesh for the life of the world, because that same world as a whole sat under death for their sins and couldn’t do anything about it—and that world includes the Jews who are in bed with the same sins of the nations. Jesus’ words have simultaneously revealed two things—we all are great sinners who deserve God’s wrath and Christ is the only Savior who absorbs God’s wrath in our place and gives eternal life. And here’s where the offense begins to rise for these disciples, because to embrace Jesus’ words is to embrace that your sin has made you so unspeakably atrocious to God, that he must sacrifice no one less than the Son of Man in your place.
This is why they grumble: not only are their scandalous sins exposed, but Jesus hasn’t stopped short of saying that their expected Messiah—the Son of Man—will be slaughtered like a lamb. Jesus presses the issue again in verses 61-62. “Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this [i.e., what I’ve just said about the Son of Man’s sacrificial death (v. 53)?]? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’” So now they have the full story. This is the seventh time Jesus has mentioned the Son of Man, and I see no reason to believe his references are to anything other than Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man in Dan 7:13-14—“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”
That’s where the Son of Man was before he came down; he was with the Ancient of Days. Or, as John puts it, “he was in the beginning with God” (1:2); “[he is] the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14); “[he is] the only God, who is at the Father’s side” (1:18); “[he is the one on whom] the angels of God ascend and descend” (1:51). And now Jesus says, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” So we know where he was before—in heaven with his Father—and now he plans to ascend back to his Father when his work on earth is finished. What Jesus is saying is that “If you’re offended by the Son of Man’s work on earth—namely, dying for sinners on a cross—then how will you respond when the Son of Man’s resurrection and ascension vindicate his work on the cross?” The implied answer is that when you’re offended by the Son of Man’s cross, then you’ll be offended by his heavenly reign. Or, on Jewish terms, if you’re offended by a crucified Messiah, then you’ll never accept the reigning Messiah.
The Reigning Messiah is the Crucified Messiah
The reigning Messiah is the crucified Messiah. The Messiah doesn’t conquer sin and sickness and death and powers and principalities through imperial force; he conquers through the blood of his cross. “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3). “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [the cross]” (Col 2:15). “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals. And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…[All of heaven knows how the Lion-like Messiah conquers: he became a Lamb-like Messiah first.] Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10).
If these disciples don’t embrace the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion, they will not participate in the joys of his crown; and the same is true for all of us. He’s the only immortal One who put on mortality for our sake. He’s heaven’s Treasure who took on our poverty. He’s the infinitely worthy One who became a curse in our place. He’s the One full of grace and truth who was torn like he was a wicked liar and religious hypocrite. He’s the One who is wholly pure, but was rejected like he was an adulterer. He was eternally in the Father’s bosom, but he suffered his Father’s wrath that was rightly due us. The omnipotent One chose not to save himself from our wretched death on Calvary’s tree. Israel’s Lion took the identity of a Lamb for our rescue. If we’re unwilling to accept such a scandalous death as our only hope for salvation, then we will forfeit eternal life with God.
We would do well to remember that we were all in this place of rebellion at one time—some of you may still be offended by the cross. Might you consider that the problem these disciples are having swallowing Jesus’ words is the problem we all have apart from divine grace. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ cannot be embraced by just anybody. It’s far too offensive to our prideful flesh, which refuses to see itself as all that rebellious against the infinitely holy God; and some story of a God-man dying as a criminal seems like a rather foolish plan to save the world. Sure, many can embrace Jesus’ death as a historical event; but simply confessing that Jesus died means jack squat unless we also embrace that Jesus died for our sins. Jesus’ death was a historical event; but the offense lies in what God achieved in that historical event. Jesus’ death is offensive because it exposes how far we’re separated from God and what great length God’s Son went to bring us back to him. When the cross is upheld for the offense it truly is, nobody can embrace it naturally. By nature, people are morally opposed to it.
Paul says the message of the cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 1:23; 2:14). The only people who can see through the offense of the cross to the glories of a Lamb who takes away the sin of the world are only those in whom the Spirit works conversion. That’s the next truth which unfolds in our passage.
2. The Spirit enables us to embrace Jesus' gospel words.
The Spirit enables us to embrace Jesus’ gospel words. I mentioned earlier that we don’t live in a neutral world, but in a world hostile to Jesus. Even Jesus’ own people—the Jews—refuse to acknowledge their own Messiah. When Jesus speaks the word of the gospel, he does so to a morally rebellious world running away from him. What Jesus makes clear in verses 63-65 is that if any person in this world believes, it’s wholly owing to God overcoming their rebellion and resistance through the Spirit.
Jesus says, “‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’” These disciples aren’t fooling Jesus by their apparent allegiance in public. He sees right through them to what is true of their hearts; and their hearts are still full of unbelief. That’s why they keep attempting to understand Jesus’ words in their own limited, sinful, broken, prideful, self-focused flesh; and every time, they totally miss his point.
They prefer heavenly manna over the One who came down from heaven and so they say, “Sir, give us this [physical] bread always” (6:34). Jesus tells them he’s the Bread of Life, and they grumble among themselves about how he could possibly say that he came down from heaven, when they know he’s the son of Joseph (6:41-42). Jesus tells them he’s going to give his flesh for the life of the world, and they dispute among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52). And here again they grumble about Jesus words being too offensive instead of embracing them for eternal life (6:60-61). They’re dependence on the flesh for understanding looks no different than that of Nicodemus when Jesus tells him “You must be born again,” and Nicodemus responds, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus then goes on to expose Nicodemus’ dependence on the flesh as he does with the disciples here: “the flesh is no help at all.”
The Spirit Alone Gives Life
No human act, no Jewish heritage, no particular ethnicity, no blood-line connection, no status as a physical descendent of Abraham, no human wisdom brings sinners into eternal life. The Spirit alone gives life. A person must be changed by the Spirit from the inside out, if they’re to experience the life Jesus is talking about. We saw this very same thing in verses 44-45 a couple of weeks ago. Jesus said there, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him;” and then we looked at how—from Isa 54:13—God’s act of drawing is bound up with the inward transformation anticipated with the new covenant. The way God draws people to his Son is by causing inward transformation, so that they want the Son and love the Son and believe in the Son.
What Jesus clarifies further for us here is that the Spirit and Jesus’ words are the agents the Father uses in drawing people to his Son. We get a very similar statement like we’ve heard before in verse 65: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” And that statement follows what he said in verse 63 about the Spirit giving life and that even the very words Jesus speaks are “spirit and life.” That means Jesus’ words are produced by the Spirit and they generate life in the soul of man. When the Spirit does this in an individual, you know what happens? Faith—faith in Jesus Christ is the first cry of the new birth. Apart from this work, all of us would end up like those disciples mentioned in verse 66: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him."
That’s a devastating statement, isn’t it? Literally, the text reads “After this many of his disciples went away to what was behind.” They no longer walked with the infinitely glorious Son of Man, because they found greater pleasure in what they initially left behind to follow him. The tragedy of unbelief in these verses is much like that of the second and third soils in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1-24). Some immediately receive the word with joy, but it doesn’t take root, and when tribulation or persecution arises, they fall away. Others hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
Why do any of you believe? Why do any of you find Jesus’ words not offensive, but life-giving? What has made you different from the rest of the world who oppose Jesus? If you confess Jesus is Lord, these words teach us that it wasn’t your intelligence that made all the difference. It wasn’t because you grew up in a Christian home. It wasn’t your “rock-bottom” experience that you then learned ‘to do yourself right.’ It wasn’t even finally a matter of your autonomous human decision. Ultimately, the only reason you’ve embraced Jesus’ words for eternal life is that God the Holy Spirit awakened your soul with them. You flew to Jesus for life because the Spirit opened your eyes and gave you wings. I once heard a brother say, “The greatest thing in the world is to be saved.” Is that your heartbeat?
3. True disciples treasure Jesus despite the opposition.
That brings us to the third truth that unfolds: True disciples treasure Jesus despite the opposition. At this point, only the Twelve remain at Jesus’ side. Chapter 6 began with more than five thousand followers; and now we see the crowd of disciples whittled down to a mere twelve. How does genuine faith respond when the rest of the world “flips Jesus the bird”? Genuine faith responds with treasuring Jesus all the more. Look at verse 67 where Jesus challenges the twelve: “Do you want to go away as well?” he says. Now, he doesn’t ask for his own sake. Verses 61 and 64 have told us Jesus already knows whether people believe him or not; he knows everything about our hearts and what our inner-disposition is toward him. The reason he asks is to deepen their faith, to give opportunity for faith to prove its true colors in an unbelieving world. Simon Peter answers, “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.”
I love this response. I use this text all the time in membership interviews. It’s just a great response that pushes people beyond a mere mental assent to the facts of the gospel—beyond some of the superficialities of an interview—to actually witnessing what it means to treasure Jesus. If everybody abandons you and the Jesus you’ve come to know, would your heart still cry out, “Lord, to whom else shall I turn? You have the words of eternal life!” Is he like the treasure “hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up? Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field—to have Jesus and his kingdom!” (Matt 13:44)—is that how valuable he is to you? Five-thousand turn back to the world and its so-called leaders, but I’m staying with you, Jesus—you are the Holy One of God! Your words never come up short! They always give life!
Something else I love about this confession is that Peter still doesn’t even understand everything about Jesus. There’s an unwavering assurance about Jesus that Peter has after Jesus’ resurrection that’s not present yet in Peter. As of now, he’s still putting the pieces together about who Jesus is and why he came. He even says in 13:37, “Lord…I will lay down my life for you,” when it’s ironically the other way around. So he’s still piecing the matter together. But what he does know of Jesus, he loves. What he does hear Jesus say, he treasures. You don’t have to know every little theological nuance in order to be a true disciple of Jesus. But a true disciple of Jesus won’t bristle at Jesus when he says things like “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Rather, the more he learns from Jesus, the more a true disciple will grow in treasuring Jesus. Jesus’ words may even confuse us or expose us or even lay us very low; but we’ll keep coming back for more. Despite how much his words may even sting at times, we know they’ll ultimately make us sing. So, true disciples treasure Jesus despite the world’s opposition.
4. Jesus encourages true disciples with his sovereign mission.
Last truth: Jesus encourages true disciples with his sovereign mission. It’s one thing to confess that Jesus has words of eternal life when the world opposes Jesus and you still have eleven friends. It’s another matter when one from your inner circle is in cahoots with the devil. Verse 70, “Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” Then John adds, “He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.” This is the second time we get a side note from John about Judas and his betrayal. The other was in verse 64: “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.” Both there and here, John’s emphasis is that Jesus is heading to the cross not because evil is winning, but because he is fulfilling a sovereign plan. He is sovereign in his choice of the Twelve; and he is sovereign in his choice to make Judas his betrayer. Judas would betray Jesus not apart from Jesus’ control; Judas would betray Jesus under Jesus’ control. In fact, Judas’ betrayal of God’s Son was even planned in the Scriptures.
Look with me at 13:16-19. “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ [That’s a quotation from David in Ps 41:9. Then look at why Jesus tells them this about Judas in verse 19.] I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.” So even when they find Jesus’ cross—and the events surrounding it—totally dark and desperate and difficult and defeating, his word about Judas shows that even the chaos serves God’s sovereign purpose to save his elect. None of the evils—not even the betrayal of a close friend, not even the work of Satan himself—fall outside of Jesus’ control.
Jesus’ words in 6:70 function the same way: they reveal that Jesus’ mission is part of God’s sovereign plan. As Peter preaches it in Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Or as the church prays in Acts 4:28, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
The point is that Jesus is in control as he heads to the utter darkness of the cross; and what that means for us is that the cross should be a continual reminder that the darkness cannot ultimately overcome the light. Many of you experience the darkness of the world—a son walks away from the faith; a friend commits suicide for reasons you’re still confused about; your dad continues to reject the gospel that you’ve preached to him a hundred times; the powers and principalities are relentless in tempting you with dark dreams and depressing mornings; your husband continues to disobey the word of God despite your patient prayers; the pain of your daughter’s broken home shatters your soul as her dad; your besetting sins seem to great to overcome; and on we could go stacking darkness upon darkness that at times feels as if we’re on the verge of being crushed.
But what we gain by looking again at the cross is that even the darkest moment in history—when the infinitely beautiful Son was betrayed and crucified—was not outside of God’s control. Christ entered that darkness as planned—willingly embracing the betrayal, willingly suffering the forsaken-ness of those three hours, willingly swallowing up our sins as he endured his Father’s wrath—that he might conquer the darkness by rising again from the dead. Chapter 1:5 is true: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” (cf. 13:30). We’re often tempted to dwell on the darkness, but when we listen to Jesus’ words here, we see that the darkness cannot ultimately overcome God’s sovereign mission in Christ. We’ll still cry out to God asking, “Why is this or that happening? Why do you delay in your return?” But the cross will not allow us to cry to God in vain. It stands as a continual reminder to God’s saints that darkness is under God’s control and it cannot ultimately win.
God’s Son is sovereign in his mission to save the world. May the Lord plant your feet firmly in his sovereign care as you look to the cross of Christ and listen to Jesus’ life-giving words.
More in The Gospel According to John
May 24, 2015Eyewitness Testimony to the Greatness of Jesus
May 17, 2015Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
May 10, 2015Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus