Preached at Chessington Evangelical Church June 17, 2012
This is an astonishing, mighty, humbling and devastating passage of the Bible. As I have been preparing I have been struggling and wrestling partly because I feel I cannot do it justice in a single sermon, or even five. But mainly because I don’t think I can do it justice at all, so astounding and profound are the truths that Jesus teaches here.
So we need to pray, and I need to urge you that whether I preach well or badly now, that you go away and read and re-read this passage as if your soul and eternal destiny depends on it. Which it does.
There is far more here than we have time to unpack this morning. So let me give you the single most important headline for your life. This is completely critical and urgent for everyone here this morning and everyone we meet this week.
V35-36 Jesus says to a large crowd who are listening to him: I am the bread of life. I am the one who truly feeds you so that you have life. He who comes to me will never be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This is what we really need. You will NEVER hunger. NEVER thirst. He is the answer to every deepest longing of your heart and he will satisfy us forever if we come.
And they didn’t come. At the start of John 6 Jesus has over 5000 people following him. By the end he has 11 and they are less than enthusiastic. That he teaching in this section loses him all those followers clues us up to just how radical, even offensive, it was.
That was the main point for them and it is the main point for us this morning. Whether you believe in Jesus Christ on his terms is utterly decisive for you. It shows one way or the other whether we belong to God and have eternal life or whether we don’t. What is at stake here is your resurrection from the dead.
It always helps to set the scene a little. If you have been here you have probably heard in the mighty chapter 5 Jesus claiming - in v17 and 26 especially - equality with God the Father. For which the religious authorities wanted to kill him. V26 is very clear that God the Father has given it to the Son to have life in himself and to have authority to judge the world. And yet, he tells his hearers, you don’t believe Moses whom you claim to revere, who wrote about me. If you believed him, you would believe what I say.
Jesus is claiming divinity for himself. Claiming that the scriptures are about him. Claiming that he himself can give life, that he himself has the authority of God’s rescuing redeemer, known in the Old Testament as the Son of Man. No wonder he divided opinion.
Then we get into chapter 6 and crowds follow him because he healed the sick. He has a great miracle in mind, perhaps suggested by the fact that they are in the wilderness and it is Passover time when the people remembered God bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and feeding them in the wilderness with miraculous bread from heaven. Manna. When God gave the manna in the desert, he gave precisely enough for each day. Read about it in Exodus 16. He wanted them to rely on him and trust him to keep providing.
Jesus’ miracle in John 6 is very similar in all kinds of ways. Certainly enough for them to say “this is the man Moses promised. He is the prophet who was to come.” But it was also subtly different. When Jesus did it they gatherered basket after basket of left-overs. It was a greater miracle. It didn’t just act as a sign that God would meet their needs, it demonstrated that he is overflowingly abundant.
Subsequently he performed another Old Testament, Exodus related miracle, this time for the disciples alone, walking on the water (cf Mark 6). The message is the same: the one who held you and redeemed you and acted for you and called you to himself at the Exodus is right here.
And then we get to today’s passage. The crowd have followed Jesus around the lake, we read in v15 wanting to make Jesus king by force. When they catch up with him, he is teaching in the synagogue in Capurnaum. Their motivation for following is transparently self-centred. Jesus calls them on it in v26
People’s desire for freebies is nothing new. They had the scent of a free lunch in their nostril. “We will follow him, he is the guy who’s handing out free bread and fish.” In v30 they try to give it a bit of a theological gloss. “Moses, he was obviously from Good because he kept giving them miraculous bread in the desert. You did it once, yesterday, if you want followers you are going to have to keep giving us proof.” And when Jesus declines, they are pretty direct again in v34: from now on give us this bread. Give us the bread!
These people have started to follow Jesus around not because they want more of God or because they are hungry to know more about Jesus but because they want the goodies that seem to accompany him. They are hungry for the wrong things. So Jesus starts to correct their wrong ideas, gently at first, but then with clearer and clearer teaching about what they really need. And they don’t like it at all.
He starts in v27: do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give you. They witnessed the feeding miracle. But they didn’t really see. What they should have seen was that just as God gave manna so they could live, so now he has sent Jesus so they can have eternal life. But they didn’t see it that way. All they saw was bread. They should have seen that he is the great gift of God, the great treasure, the real provision sent from Heaven. And instead they get stuck not on the person behind the miracle but the product. They are religious consumers.
That will describe some of you here today. You may be new, you may have been here for many years, but the reason you are here is for the subsidiary benefits of being with the people of God. The friends, the food, maybe even the fact that you are stimulated by hearing the Bible taught. But essentially you are here to consume the services rather than because you are hungering for Jesus Christ. Jesus is saying very directly to you this morning to get your priorities right. Do not get stuck on the trivial when Jesus is inviting you to have him – and along with him eternal life. He is what you are really hungering and thirsting after, he is the one who satisfies, even if you haven’t known it up till now.
“How do we do that” they ask. Jesus says in v29 that the work God requires is to believe in the one he has sent. That doesn’t just mean acknowledge he exists. It means to see that he is infinitely valuable and to make him the treasure of your life. That is the choice.
That is a different kind of shock to them. The answer a Jew would have expected was “obey the commandments of God through Moses. Observe the sacrifices and customs.” As a people they had got into the habit of assuming the blessing of God because they did all the externals of religion. You can read examples in the Old Testament of people assuming they could get away with all kinds of horrendous behaviour and God would still be obligated to accept them whatever they did because the temple of Lord was nearby. “We’ve got the religion, we’ve got the externals, God has to bless. That’s his part of the bargain.”
I think this explains the reason they are asking the question here. What they are really saying is “so what do we have to do for God in order to get you to pony up the goodies, if in fact you really are from him?” They knew Deuteronomy 28 in which God says “if you obey my commandments then I will be your God and you will be my people. And all the blessings promised in my covenant through Moses will come on you. But if you disobey then you won’t be and all the curses promised in the covenant for disobedience will come on you.”
They knew it was a two-party covenant with stipulations and expectations both ways. Of course they broke it all the time and forsook God’s blessing as a result. But when their inability to keep the covenant should have driven them to their knees pleading for his mercy, what it seems to have done – at least for these people here is drive them into a debtors mentality. A pay-back. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. OK, what have we got to do. Tell us what service, what sacrifice we have to do and we will do it for God and then he will bless because we have pressed the necessary buttons.
It’s a pagan way of thinking. God must be appeased in order to bless us. The surrounding pagan cultures said things like this about their fictitious gods. We will offer them this, that or the other and that will make them happy and then we get blessing.
Jesus says you don’t do anything. You believe in the one God sent. He is going to have much more to say about this in John, but what we are witnessing is nothing less than the end of the Old Covenant with Moses. “what do you mean, just believe? In you?? What about sacrifices, what about all the paraphernalia of religion we have added round about it?”
Jesus blows their expectations apart. In fact in this whole section of John’s gospel from chapter 2 onwards, time after time after time, he takes Old Covenant expectations about what God requires, and how to walk with God and with everyone says “with my coming, that has now ceased. I have replaced it.” Remember John 2 the water for ceremonial washing at the wedding at Cana. Why does he get rid of Old Covenant water used for ceremonial cleansing? Because when the person who actually makes you clean is walking among you, you no longer need the symbol and the ritual.
You will read in John 7 that at the greatest day of the feast of tabernacles which was when Jews remembered God’ provision for them in the desert at the Exodus, Jesus stands up right at the key moment and says “this feast is about me. If anyone is thirsty let them come to me and drink”, by which he meant you will receive the Holy Spirit of God.
V32-33 Jesus digs deeper. You thought Moses was the main player with the manna, he says. You were wrong. It was God who gave the bread. And you thought that the critical thing was having bread. You were wrong about that too. The bread in the desert was a sign that he was caring for you in his sovereign love and giving you a sign of someone who was going to come. And is now here. The point of the manna was this: true bread has now come down from heaven to give life. Not to a small subsection of the global population in the desert, but to the world. To everyone who comes to him. Do not miss out on what God is offering you.
They try to hold out for bread one more time and then Jesus totally lets rip. You don’t need bread, you need me. Your great need is not for a full belly, it is for eternal life. The reason I gave you bread was to show you I can do this greater thing for you too. Its an argument from the lesser to the greater. Like when he heals the paralytic man in Mark 2 when he says “I will do this to demonstrate that I can also forgive sins.” Here is is “I have given you bread in order to show that I can also satisfy you permanently and forever.
Look at v33, v35 and v39-40. Jesus says “if you come, this is what you get: life, never hungering or thirsting, I shall lose none that the Father has given me but raise them up on the last day. If you look to the Son and believe in him you have eternal life.”
So at one level Jesus puts in front of them a very simple invitation. Come to me and receive life. You can’t get it any other way. He is the only one who is able to give this gift. But there is something very remarkable I these verses, something that seems counterintuitive, maybe difficult to grasp. V29 he says “you have to believe”; v35 “you have to come and believe”. V36 they seem to be culpable for not believing. It is their responsibility to believe. But then we get v37 “all that the Father gives me come to me”. And v40 “it is the Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son gets saved.” And v44”no one can come to me unless the Father draw them. Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes.”
So which is it? If the Father is the one controlling who comes and who doesn’t, are you free to choose or not? It comes down to whose perspective we are looking from. From our perspective, when we become Christians it seems like a decision we have made. Jesus is saying that all those decisions were made because God, in his sovereign control, drew us. If he hadn’t we wouldn’t have made the decision. And if we don’t come to Jesus it is because the Father left us in rebellion, which is not unfair of him. Everyone deserves that.
In John 6 it is Jesus’ call that separates them and shows who is who. He was calling them right there and then. If you are not a Christian he is calling right here, right now. Some of you aren’t Christian yet and you are being tempted right now to ignore this. God is offering you, right this very minute, through Jesus’ words in John’s gospel to open your eyes, draw you to his son and save you. I beg you respond. At the end of his book John writes that he put these things down so that we will believe, and by believing have life in Jesus’ name. These are dividing words. If we follow the impulse to come to Christ, we come because we want to but behind it is the Father drawing you. Come to him, worship him, fall before him, give your life to him. He is infinitely worthy and will satisfy your deepest longings forever. Jesus promises.
And they didn’t come. V41 is utterly tragic. The Lord of the universe is in front of them and they grumbled. Which means they are not listening to the Father and learning from him. V42 “this isn’t what we want. He is the Son of Joseph. He can’t be from Heaven. He can’t truly offer what he says he can. He is a fraud. We know where he comes from.” And so they resist because they will not believe what he says about himself. It just seems too incredible.
You would think that Jesus might ease up a bit at this point. Make it easier for them to come. Just massage what he is saying a bit so that it is less difficult and offensive for them to receive. He does the exact opposite. He ratchets up the temperature much higher. Dangerously high. What he says now
causes a fight in v52. Here it is.
Read v48-51, 53
Jesus knows precisely how offensive this is. In v61 he says “are you offended by this? Just you wait until you see the Son of Man in his risen and ascended glory.” If you are offended by him now you will certainly be offended by him then. And lots and lots turn away when he says it. It sounded like cannibalism. It really sounded like disobeying Leviticus 19:26 which prohibits eating meat with blood still in it.
So what does he mean by eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood?
To start with he says “my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.” That is a clear reference to the death he is going to die on the cross to redeem from sin. He is talking about his flesh and blood being sacrificed as a substitution for sin. It’s not 100% explained yet, but it is here nonetheless. Then v55 says my flesh and blood are true food and true drink. The purpose of food and drink is to nourish us in our hunger and slake our thirst. Jesus is saying that he will meet our deepest, most significant hunger, our real hunger, and will slake our deepest, most important thirst. V56 if you eat and drink, he remains in you and you in him. If you know John’s gospel you are immediately thinking of chapter 15 where Jesus says: remain in me and I will remain in you (15:4); if you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given you (15:7); if you obey my commands you remain in my love (15:10).
Process that back into John 6 and it is clear that what Jesus is saying is: receiving him, feeding on him, drinking from him means believing in him and his sacrificial death for us, taking his word deep in our hearts and lives and obeying and following.
Actually it is here in our passage. Just compare with me v54 which says if you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have eternal life and get raised on the last day, with v40 which says everyone who looks to the Son and believes will have eternal life and be raised by him on the last day. Do you see? Those two verses say exactly the same thing, but one phrases it “look to the son and believe” and the other uses the metaphor “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”
Honestly I don’t know which was more offensive, the image of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, or the teaching that if you don’t nourish yourself on Jesus, if you don’t come to him, then you don’t have eternal life. I guess again it is arguing from the lesser to the greater. The flesh and blood language was certainly offensive but he used it because the thought that they had to bow to this man and receive him if they want to know God is even more offensive still.
In our culture today I can scarcely think of anything more offensive to the non-Christian mind. People who don’t understand about Jesus don’t get offended. They just write him off as non-existent, or nice but irrelevant or a good teacher. No, the people who get offended know exactly what he is claiming, and what we are teaching from the Bible, and they hate it. The people in John 6 decided they hated it too. What started off looking like a promising source of free bread all of a sudden made demands on them. Demands on their loyalty. “Yes, you can have the goodies, something far, far better than bread, but you have to come to me. And you don’t get it otherwise.”
At the moment there are plenty of calls from politicians to return to being a more Christian society. By which I think they mean a moral society with values like not stealing or committing adultery. But by which I am certain they do not mean a society that is bowing the knee to Jesus Christ in the way he insists in John 6. That is very symptomatic. We want the benefits but without the cost. We would like a society with a veneer of Christian value but no Christ to whom we have to bow, thank you very much. I have listened to politicians saying recently “we like people of faith doing good things, but for the sake of doing good things and we would like them to leave their faith at the door as they do so.”
There is a personal version of this as well. I come to church because of the benefits but not because I want to know this Jesus. I like this and that, I receive all kinds of good things apparently without having to commit my life to him. Without having to be a worshipper. Without having to believe. That is just like the people who only wanted him for the bread. At the end of the chapter people are divided into two groups. Most grumbled and fled from him because he no longer provided what they demanded, but instead starting making demands they didn’t like. And a very few stayed – reluctantly. Saying “you are the Holy One, you do have the words of eternal life. Where else are we going to go.”
And that’s the choice. I said at the start that whether we believe in Jesus Christ on his terms is utterly decisive for us. It shows one way or the other whether we belong to God and have eternal life or whether we don’t. What is at stake here is our resurrection from the dead. May he enable anyone here this morning who is teetering on the brink of whether to follow or whether to turn away to hear the call of Jesus and turn to him and live. May you hear that Jesus is the true nourishment for you, come to him in joy and find that he satisfies your soul forever.