It Is the Spirit That Gives Life
The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which we will almost finish today, begins with 5,000 men following Jesus. And it ends with eleven. Andreas Köstenberger says in his commentary, “Chapter six ends on a note of failure” (John, 218). From one standpoint that’s right. The resistance to Jesus in this chapter gets stronger and stronger, until almost everyone abandons him. So it looks like resistance is winning. It looks like failure.
So what’s the point of the chapter? I think it goes something like this: Whenever it appears that resistance to Jesus is winning in this world, the people of God need a very robust and clear vision of God’s sovereignty over all things, including resistance to Jesus.
I’ll generalize that point: Whenever it appears in your life that Jesus is not winning, whenever it seems as though he’s not triumphing over your enemy, just at that point and at that time, you need a very robust and clear vision of God’s sovereignty over you and the horrors of your life.
Not What I Expected
When I began these messages on chapter 6, this is not what I expected to say was the main point of this chapter. Not even close. But I have labored long and hard over verses 52–71, and I cannot escape this.
So I am going to tell you what I see as I see it and trust the Lord to use it, even though it’s not the kind of upbeat message most of us want to hear. And here’s my hope. In verse 63, Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” And in verse 68, Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So I believe that if I tell you what’s really here, it will over time and in the big picture lead you to life and not death.
Judas Who Would Betray Him
One of the things that perplexed me most about today’s text (verses 52–71) is why Judas plays such a prominent role. Judas hasn’t done anything in this chapter. He doesn’t say anything or do anything. But John brings him up in verse 64, and Jesus brings him up in verse 70. They don’t have to mention him. Why do they? Because it serves the main point of the chapter — a deep and robust vision of the sovereignty of God over unbelief and resistance to Jesus. Consider John 6:64–65:
“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.”
In other words, Judas hasn’t come to me because it has not been granted to him by the Father. Judas is rebellious, greedy, selfish, and not believing . . . “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Judas Is a Devil
Then consider verses 66–71:
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. [This was the final defection — disciples themselves were leaving him in unbelief] So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 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.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.
That’s the end of the chapter. End of story. And when you read verse 70, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve. And yet one of you is a devil,” don’t forget verse 64: “Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.” Why did Jesus bring Judas into the picture again? And why call him a devil? And why end the story right there? I think I know why.
The unbelief in this chapter is pervasive. And it intensifies as the story goes on. Thousands of people in this chapter are unbelieving — almost everyone who ate the loaves and fish. Most of the disciples themselves abandon Jesus (verse 66). And in the end, a tiny remnant is left believing — the eleven. The most natural question in the world would be: Is the devil winning? The slanderer, the accuser, the liar, the god of this age who blinds the minds of unbeliever — is he winning? It looks like he’s winning.
And the answer of this chapter is: He’s not winning. Jesus has him by the nose. He’s hooked him, and landed him, and put him smack dab in the middle of the Twelve where he will do exactly what God has planned for him to do.
The Ways Divide
Right here the ways people read the Bible divide. You can read verse 70 and see only problems (Why would Jesus choose a man he knows will betray him? And if he knew he would betray him, then he has to betray him, and so how can he be free? And why call him a devil? Is he doomed like the devil? And if so is he responsible?). You can spend the rest of your life simply seeing problems when you read verse 70.
Or you can read verse 70 and see a sanctuary of God’s sovereignty — a sanctuary for your soul when all hell breaks loose in your life, and you feel like everything is out of control, and the devil is winning. Instead of seeing only problems, you can see what Jesus offers you: “Yes, there is a devil in the ranks. But I put him there. I chose him. He will do my bidding. No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord (John 10:18). He is not in charge. I am.”
The Big Overarching Lesson of the Chapter
I think that’s the main point of the chapter. It’s not the only point. But it is the big overarching lesson of the chapter taken as a whole. So to see it more clearly, let’s go back now and walk through the text (verses 52–71). Let’s see the magnificent offer Jesus was making, and how the unbelief and resistance grew stronger and stronger, and how, with that increasing resistance, Jesus made clearer and clearer the sovereignty of God over that very resistance.
Jesus’s Offer to Us
The essence of Jesus’s offer to us in verses 52–58 is stated negatively in verse 53 and positively in verse 54. Verse 53: “Jesus said to them, ‘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.’” And verse 54: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
So if you don’t eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have eternal life (verse 53). But if you do, you have eternal life and Jesus will raise you from the dead on the last day (verse 54). In other words, feeding on Jesus is the way we have eternal life.
Eating and Drinking — Union with Jesus
Verses 55 and 56 give two reasons for this. Verse 55, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” True food and true drink mean that the food and drink we ordinarily take into our bodies will not give the true life he is talking about. Only Jesus is the kind of food and drink that gives true life, eternal life.
And verse 56 explains why that is: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” This kind of eating and drinking means that Jesus is in us and we are in him. That is, this eating and drinking is the way we have union with Christ so that his life counts for our life. That’s why we have eternal life when we feed on Jesus: His life goes into us, and we go into him. There is a union that makes us part of his life and him part of our life. There is no eternal life except in union with Jesus.
Incredibly Offensive Language
But what does eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking the blood of Jesus mean? This was incredibly offensive language. It sounded like cannibalism. And it was especially offensive for Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries because the Mosaic law prohibited eating any flesh with the blood in it, let alone drinking blood itself (Leviticus 19:26).
The answer is the same thing we saw in John 6:35. There Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Coming to Jesus as the bread of life to still the hunger of your soul is the same as believing in him. That’s what believing is. It is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.
Now see the same thing with the more graphic language of flesh and blood. Notice the very close parallel between verse 40 and verse 54.
Verse 54: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Verse 40: “Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
This parallel (just like the parallel in the first and second half of John 6:35) shows that, in Jesus’s mind, eating his flesh and drinking his blood are a figurative way of saying: Believe in me, trust me, receive me, get your nourishment from me. Get life from me. St. Augustine said, “Believe and you have eaten” (In Johan. Tract. xxvi. 1).
So the pervasive offer of this chapter from beginning to end is: Anyone may have eternal life if they will receive Jesus and trust in Jesus and treasure Jesus and be satisfied with all that God is for them in Jesus. Whoever feeds on my flesh — that is, whoever believes in me — has eternal life. I abide in you and my life becomes your life — forever.
Pointing Forward to the Cross
And we can be more specific about how Jesus gives us eternal life. When he says in verse 51, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” he is referring to giving his flesh as a sacrifice for the world. He is talking about his flesh and blood being given as a substitution for the world. In other words, he is pointing forward to the cross.
Remember he already referred to the cross in John 3:14–15 where he said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” So when he talks in chapter 6 about eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus, he means trust him as one who dies for you. Receive him as one who gives his life for you. Treasure him as one who bears God’s wrath for you (John 3:26). Feed on all that God is for you in him because of his suffering flesh and shed blood.
Eternal life is possible for sinners like us, not only because we receive Jesus, but because the Jesus we receive suffered in his flesh and shed his blood so that our sins could be blotted out because Jesus took our place. We receive him as our perfect substitution — as our punishment and as our righteousness.
That’s the great offer of this chapter. Receive Jesus as the all-satisfying bread from heaven who gives life to the world because he would die in our place and rise again.
As If the Devil Is Winning
Now the resistance to this increases throughout the chapter. In verse 41, they are grumbling because of what he said. In verse 52, they are disputing and questioning. In verse 60, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” In verse 64, Jesus says, “There are some of you who do not believe.” In verse 66, it says, “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” And in verse 70, one of the inner circle is a devil.
It looks as if the devil is winning. Or if you leave the devil out of it, it looks as if the decisive purposes of autonomous, unbelieving man hold sway. It looks as though God calls to faith in his Son, and man says no and walks away. So man frustrates God’s purposes. Man holds the key to his own soul and locks it from the inside, and God can’t get in. Man makes the decisive move, and he moves away from Jesus. God’s purposes fall. And the devil wins. Is that the way it is?
The Resistance Is in His Hands
I’ll close where I began. The overarching lesson of this chapter is: No. That is not the way it is. And John makes it clearer and clearer as the resistance rises, that the resistance itself is in God’s hands. He can overcome it any time he chooses. The devil is not in charge. And man is not in charge. God is in charge.
We see it four times.
The Lesson Taught Four Times
Verse 44. Don’t grumble. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Your grumbling and disputing are not decisive; my Father’s drawing you is decisive.
Verses 61–63. In verse 61, the disciples are grumbling again and instead of saying, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him,” Jesus says in verse 63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no help at all.” In other words, God rules over who has life; we in our flesh can’t create it.
Verse 64–65. There are some of you who don’t believe. “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” Your unbelief is no proof of your sovereignty over God. On the contrary. You will stay in your unbelief until my Father grants it to be otherwise.
Verses 67–70. Jesus asks if the Twelve want to forsake him like everyone else. They say, “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.”
Finally, someone believes in this chapter. What will Jesus say? Verse 70: “Jesus answered them, “Did I [myself!] not choose you, the Twelve?” In the same way that he warned the unbeliever not to presume autonomy (in verses 44 and 65), now he warns the believer not to presume autonomy. Beware, Peter, of presuming that you are the decisive cause of your faith. It was I myself who chose you. You didn’t choose me first (John 15:16). “I know whom I have chosen” (John 13:18).
And then he says to the Twelve: And to make sure you all realize how supreme I am over this whole affair that looks so much like failure. One of you is a devil. And I put him there (verse 64). And that’s the way it ends. And that’s where I will end.
The Sovereignty of God: Sanctuary for the Soul
May the Lord grant that you will be among the number who find in Jesus’s teaching not a stumbling stone, but a rock of refuge when it looks as though God has failed. May you be among these who see in God’s sovereignty a sanctuary for your soul when sin and sickness and sorrows like sea billows roll.