At the end of the rather amazing narrative in John 6 Jesus asks the twelve remaining disciples, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’
The context was that 5000 were following him at the beginning of the day but now the last of them has drifted off and only the original twelve remained.
Peter replies for the twelve, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’ And his reason was, ‘You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the holy one of God’.
The day started spectacularly. Jesus had travelled from the west side of the lake to the east side the Golan Heights side of Lake Galilee. It’s about 8 kilometers wide. A large crowd followed him because of his miracles of healing the sick. They become hungry so Jesus provides bread in abundance miraculously, a great ‘sign’ from God pointing to his ‘oneness’ with the Creator, who is the ultimate giver of bread.
This food reminded them of the time when, as they wrongly thought, Moses gave them ‘bread from heaven’. It also reminded them of God’s promise, recorded in Deuteronomy 18, that God would send them a prophet like Moses. The crowd thought, ‘Well this is it. This is the prophet’.
Those were bad times. The very corrupt local ruler, Herod the younger, was based just across the water in Tiberias. It was an oppressive regime, propped up by the even more corrupt Roman Empire. So the people who had been fed, who had found the God-sent prophet, attempted to force him to become their king.
Jesus forthwith withdrew privately to pray and packed the disciples into a boat back to the other side.
Back on the Western Side
John resumes this exciting narrative on the western side of the lake, at Capernaum.
‘You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. They had not looked beyond the bread to the bread-giver.
He cautions them, ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…’ Bread goes mouldy after a few days and is inedible. But not the bread the Son of Man will give.
Do we see what is going on here? Is Jesus’ message transcendental or temporal?
There was a big debate about that recently in the Australian newspaper.
It’s not an either/or question is it? Jesus speaks the words of eternal life. That’s transcendental. But he had healed the sick and fed the hungry. That’s temporal. So with Jesus it’s not either/or but both/and. But there is a priority: the transcendental. That’s really the message of John 6.
We easily think that the world back then was like ours now. We have pensions, they had pensions. We have schools and hospitals, they had schools and hospitals.
Wrong. They didn’t. For the poor, the widows and the orphans there was nothing.
The first Christians went to their world with Jesus’ words of eternal life and they also cared for the sick, and widows and orphans. Carthage mid 200s was overtaken by a severe plague. People fled, leaving their sick behind. The Christians stayed and cared for their own sick, but also other sick people. Good Samaritans. These temporal acts were a factor in Constantine adopting Christianity as the religion of the empire.
The emperor Julian, Constantine’s nephew, gave up the faith and attempted to de-convert the world back into the old religions. He was angry with the ‘Galileans’, as he called them because they cared for people outside the churches as well as their own ? schools for children, hospices for the dying, hostels for the poor.
That’s a snapshot of history. Christians have pioneered many things that the welfare state now does ? provides schools, hospitals, universities.
But with Christians, as with Jesus, the temporal flows out of the transcendental. First the transcendental, then the temporal.
The Bread of God
So Jesus said, ‘the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’.
Then, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry…’. Jesus identified himself by the name the Lord revealed to Moses. The Lord was, is, and will be; always. So, too, Jesus was, is, will be, always…bread for hungry hearts to sustain eternal life.
Throughout the remainder of John 6 Jesus becomes more specific and pointed and the crowd becomes correspondingly more restless. ‘How can he be bread come down from heaven when we know his mother and father. He’s a local boy’.
Even more specifically Jesus said, ‘ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’.
The people began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
He tightens the screw even more. ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’.
No wonder they were perplexed. What does he mean? The words are a metaphor for violent death. Blood separated from flesh is a figurative way of referring to a violent death. Jesus meant crucifixion.
Jesus is the bread from heaven not just as the Son of God, but as the crucified Son of God.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
The king they wanted was a military figure like Moses, a Messiah who would drive out the Herods and the Romans. But Jesus is speaking of himself crucified, as a defeated figure. A loser, not a winner.
Their reaction corresponds with Paul’s comment in First Corinthians, ‘We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews’.
Fitting in with Jesus
So from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
The crowd of 5000 who had been filled with the bread and who hailed him as a king, now melt away. A crucified king was a contradiction in terms.
They were probably angry. We all want a god to fit in with us and our ideas. A tame god, our designer god.
He says, ‘You must fit in with my definition of who I am’. Part of discipleship is to follow Jesus as he reveals himself.
Jesus asked the remaining twelve, ‘Do you want to leave, too?’ The Greek of that question expects the answer, ‘no’. Jesus expects them to stay with him, because he has chosen them. All that the Father gives to him will come to him. Jesus even knows that one of the twelve will betray him.
Peter replies for the twelve, ‘To whom else could we go? You have the words of eternal life’.
Many people have words, lots of them. Politicians, philosophers, experts, commentators, all these bombard us with their words and seek to win our admiration and agreement. But none of these have ‘the words of eternal life’ that Jesus has spoken during this chapter.
When I think about life in a macro sense whose words do I want to hear? When I am at my deathbed whose words do I want to hear? Jesus was qualified to speak ‘eternal words’ because he was the Son of God, something historically confirmed by his miracles and his resurrection from the dead. So when he says, ‘Come to me, I am the bread from heaven’ I say to him, ‘I come, I believe’.