Monday, April 29, 2013

His Words are Spirit and Life (John 6:59-71)

Have you ever heard someone say something, and thought to yourself, “I can’t believe he said that!” This week, someone in another church told me that they were planning a “big ladies retreat.” I remarked that I thought that was a great thing, because “big ladies” need ministry too, and I commended that church for reaching out to “big ladies.” The response was predictable: “I can’t believe you said that.” I’ve actually been on both ends of that conversation before, and you probably have too. I’ll be really honest with you – sometimes I’ve even thought this about things I read in Scripture. There are a number of passages I’ve read that have caused me to do a double-take and say, “Wow! I’m really surprised that it says that!” There have even been times when I’ve thought, “I really wish it didn’t say that!” Have any of you had that experience, or is it just me? Some things are really hard to understand. It shouldn’t surprise us that there are statements in the Bible that are hard to understand. After all, the Apostle Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:16 that some of the things that the Apostle Paul writes in his letters are “hard to understand.” So, if you’ve ever thought that, don’t feel bad – even Peter had the same thought. If our surprises were all limited to those parts of the Bible that we don’t understand, that would be one thing. But a bigger problem seems to lie in the parts of the Bible where the meaning is perfectly clear. As Mark Twain allegedly said on one occasion, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand.”[1] There are passages that we understand quite plainly, and what we understand it to be saying is quite troubling. If you’ve had that experience, you aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last. If we were honest, we’d admit that we’ve all felt that way.

In our text today, we read about a number of people who felt similarly when they heard Jesus speak. In verse 60, they say, “This is a difficult statement.” If we were to translate the Greek quite literally, it would say something like, “This is a hard word.” That word that we translate “difficult” or “hard” here is the Greek word skleros. We have a similar English word: sclerosis. It refers to a hardening, for example like arterial sclerosis, the hardening of the arteries. But the word used here does not mean “hard to understand.” They understood what Jesus saying, and therein was the problem. They mean that it is “hard,” in the sense of “harsh” or “offensive.”

Now what is the “word” that they are having such a hard time with? Verse 59 tells us that they were objecting to the “things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.” And if we go back to the very beginning of this passage in verse 26, we see that Jesus was teaching a lot of things. He told them that they were carnal people seeking their own self-interests rather than the purposes of God. He has taught that they cannot do any works to earn eternal life. He has taught that eternal life is given only to those who believe in Him, and only those that the Father sovereignly draws can come to Him. He has taught that He is greater than Moses, uniquely sent by God from heaven into the world with the authority to give life. And then He said that to have eternal life in Him, we must come to Him and eat His flesh and drink His blood. Which part of this has been so difficult for them? We might rather ask which parts were not difficult for them. This is not the sermon of a smiling televangelist. This is not a seeker-sensitive message that goes down like honey. There is hard truth in these words – not hard to understand, but hard for some to receive, hard for some to believe.
We must not forget that Jesus knows the words of our every conversation as well as every meditation of our heart and idea in our head. Remember that John 2:24-25 tells us that He knows all men, and knows what is in man. This is why the Psalmist prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord.” He knows our words, and He knows the condition of our hearts that underlies those words. And so, in verse 63 of our text, the Lord Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” It is this statement that unlocks the meaning of the entire passage. Because the words that Jesus speaks are spirit and life, then we must be attuned to every syllable that passes across His glorious lips, and we must be very careful how we receive and how we respond to those words.

I. His words are spirit, therefore we must be careful how we receive them.

Jesus’ words in the Capernaum synagogue on this occasion began with a discussion about bread. Just a day earlier, He had miraculously taken five loaves of bread and two small fish and multiplied them to feed a crowd of 5,000 men, in addition to the women and children – a group of upwards of 20,000 people or so. The next day – the day on which Jesus says these words – that crowd woke up to find Jesus had disappeared from among them and they set out to find Him. Coming across the Sea of Galilee to the town of Capernaum, they discovered Him here in this synagogue, and they asked Him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus says to them in verse 26, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” He said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal” (v27). He said that they must believe in Him if they desire eternal life. The people did not deny that they were interested in bread to fill there stomachs. In fact, they asked Jesus to perform some sign to indicate that they should believe in Him. Nevermind the fact that He had done so the day before. They missed that sign. They only saw the food that was given to them to eat. So when they asked Him for a sign on this particular day, they kind of set it all up for Him. They said, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread out of heaven to eat” (v31). In other words, “If you want us to believe in you, how about you give us some more food to eat?” This sets the stage for all that follows, in which Jesus tells them that He is able to do something better than their fathers experienced in the days of Moses, because He had not come to give them bread for their stomachs. He had come to be the bread that would satisfy their spiritual hunger forever. Therefore, He says of Himself, “I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (v35). He goes on to say in vv48-51, “I am the Bread of Life. … I am the Living Bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” And then He proceeded to tell them that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood (vv53-56). In other words, Jesus is saying, “You people came here seeking bread to eat, and I am telling you that I am the bread you need, so My word to you is that you must eat Me.”

But the people who heard Him say this had no idea what He was talking about. In verse 41, it says that “the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.’” Verse 52 says that “the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’” Now, even some of those who claim to be His disciples are grumbling and saying, “This is a difficult statement.” Well, indeed it is a difficult statement. It is perfectly okay to admit that. But where they went wrong is in their next statement. They conclude, “who can listen to it?” Because this word was hard – because it offended their sensitivities – they chose to not receive it. They were hungry for bread – you know, the kind that is made of wheat and flour. This guy is talking about cannibalism or something. But Jesus says here that they are just listening with the ears of their flesh. They are not considering the spiritual truth that underlies His words.

He says in v63, “It is the Spirit who gives life.” It is not bread that makes you alive. You have to eat to live, but you do not live to eat. If you eat all the bread that your hungry belly desires, it will not prevent you from dying. You might die with a full stomach, but die you will, because all human beings are subject to death because of our sin. If we want to truly live, in a way that death cannot touch us, then we must receive life from the Spirit of God. Thus Jesus says, “The flesh profits nothing.” If you were to spend your life gratifying the desires of your flesh, it would profit you nothing. The old saying is not true which says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Rather, “He who dies with the most toys is just as dead as the one who dies with the least.” Jesus says in Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Will you exchange eternal life for bread?
It is the Spirit who gives life, and Jesus says, “The words that I have spoke to you are spirit.” These words are not the deranged ramblings of a wandering vagabond. The source of these words is the life-giving Spirit of God. There is life-giving power in Jesus’ words. That is why when Jesus was tempted by Satan to turn a stone into bread, He responded with the words of Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). Jesus is saying that when He speaks, God is speaking, and the Spirit is bringing life to spiritually dead souls through these words. That is why, when Jesus perceived that they were grumbling about His words, He says to them in vv61-62, “Does this cause you to stumble?” In other words, “Do these words offend you?” He says, “What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” And where is that? He has said multiple times in the preceding verses that He has come down from heaven! He is saying here that if you could see Him for who He truly is, you would not be offended at His words. But to see Him for who He truly is, you must not look with the eyes of flesh alone, or hear with the ears of flesh alone. You must perceive that there is spiritual truth here, spoken by God Himself, with the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

This is why C. S. Lewis so famously said, in his marvelous little book Mere Christianity, that we must never say “the really foolish thing that people often say about Him.” That really foolish thing that people say is this: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” Lewis says,

That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[2]

Is He just a good man? Is He really just a good teacher? Well, He says that He’s greater than Moses, that He has come from heaven as the only way to eternal life. He says that He is the bread of life, and that anyone who wants to live forever must come to Him and eat His flesh and drink His blood. I tell you, if those words are not the truth of God, then Jesus does not deserve an ounce of respect or reverence from us. He is truly a psychopath or a pathological liar. If those words are not true, then to say that He is a good man or a good teacher is nothing but patronizing nonsense! But if those words are true, then He is God in the flesh. That is who He claimed to be. And He said that the words that He speaks are words of spiritual truth that have the power to bring life to us. Therefore we must really be careful how we receive His words – even the hard words that He speaks.

II. His words are life, therefore we must be careful how we respond to them.

My grandfather was something of a master when it came to telling tall tales. He was a Marine in the Pacific Theater in World War II, and he had an old cigar box filled with mementos from his military career that always fascinated me as a child. Among those items were several medals, and when I asked them how he earned them, there was one particular one that he held up and said, “I received this one when I shot down the Admiral Yamamoto.” I believed him. Being an inquisitive child, I looked up Yamamoto in the encyclopedia, and it didn’t say anything in there about my grandfather. When I asked him about it, he said that it was classified information, and asked me to not talk about it with others. Some time later, when I was browsing through some military artifacts in an old salvage store, and I ran across an identical medal to that of my grandfather. I asked the man at the store about the medal, and he told me, “This is a World War II Victory Medal. It was given to every service person who served during the War.” When I went back to tell my grandfather about this, he fell into hysterical laughter. He never considered that I’d spent the better part of my childhood believing that he shot down Admiral Yamamoto. But, looking back, I suppose I am no worse off for having believed it, and no better off for learning the truth about it.

There was another occasion when his words nearly became a matter of life and death for me. He had a huge weeping willow tree with a big branch that stretched out over the lake in his back yard. Knowing that I couldn’t swim, he warned me, “Don’t get out on that limb, because you could fall into the lake and drown.” I didn’t pay his words any attention, and I climbed way out on the limb one afternoon. Sure enough, I slipped and started to fall toward the water below. It was about eight or ten feet up, and the whole experience seemed to take place in slow motion. I remember thinking the whole time I was falling, “This is it! I’m a goner!” Now, thankfully, the water was low that day, and it was only a couple of feet deep, so I just got really wet and muddy. Under normal conditions, that water might have been six or eight feet deep. Under normal conditions, it is very likely that I wouldn’t have made it out of the water alive. That was a time when it really mattered whether or not I believed my grandfather’s words. I never climbed that tree again.

You know every day, you hear a lot of things that it really doesn’t matter whether or not you believe. But when you open the pages of the Bible, it matters a great deal whether you believe it or not, even when the words you read are hard. That is why we must be careful how we receive these words. On this particular occasion, we see a stark contrast between those who believed Jesus’ words and those who did not.

Notice, first of all, the response of the first group we see in these verses. By this time, all of those who were disinterested in Jesus had probably gone away, and the only ones left were those who had become, in some sense, His disciples. Now, don’t assume that means that they were born-again, fully committed followers of Christ. Among those who were following Jesus as disciples were some who had really not made any kind of faith commitment to Him yet. They were curious. He had piqued their interest and so they tagged along. There are similar kinds of folks in every church in the world. We don’t always know who they are, but Jesus does. Verse 64 says that “Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe.” He knows the condition of our hearts better than we do. But sooner or later, these false disciples show themselves by their response to the Word of God. It happened on that day with many who had been following Jesus up to that point.

We see a progression in their response. First, they remark, “This is a hard word.” Well, we can’t fault them for being honest. In fact, they are more honest than some of us are. It’s okay to admit that there are hard words in Scripture. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they move from what we might call confusion to rejection. They say, “Who can listen to it?” They don’t even want to hear these words. The absolute lack of desire to hear God’s word is a dangerous sign. But from this, notice that they move to grumbling about it. That is what Jesus calls what they were doing. They were complaining about His teaching. And they were offended by it. When Jesus says, “Does this cause you to stumble?”, the word He uses is the Greek word from which we get our word scandal. It describes something offensive. But all of these things are symptoms of a bigger issue. The reason that they reject the word, grumble about it, and are offended by it, Jesus says, is that they “do not believe.” And “as a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” They abandoned Him.

One of them, who continued to hang around, went even a step further. He began to plot to betray and destroy Jesus. For Judas Iscariot, confusion, rejection, grumbling, offense, and abandonment produced a hatred for Jesus that Satan capitalized on. It didn’t take Jesus by surprise. He knew “who it was that would betray Him.” He even said, “one of you is a devil” (v70). Judas is personally culpable for the decision he made to betray Jesus, but Jesus could see beneath the surface of things to the true source of Judas’ actions. It was satanic. At the Last Supper, before Judas went out to betray the Lord, John 13:27 and Luke 22:3 say that “Satan entered into him.” Judas stands as a warning to us that if we walk away from the Lord in disbelief, offended by His word, there is no limit to the depths to which we can sink. In a sense, the sin of Judas is unique in history and can never be repeated. But in another sense, the Lord is betrayed somewhere in the world every day by those who have walked away from Jesus with offended, hardened, and unbelieving hearts. Some of the most vehement enemies of the faith today are people who grew up in church. But somewhere along the way, they decided that they could no longer accept His words. They grumbled. They became offended. They walked away and followed Him no longer. And they betray Him with their attacks on His nature and His church.

Be warned by this. To walk away from Jesus because you reject His word is to walk away from life! It really matters whether or not you believe this! His words are life! There is no life to be found away from Jesus. And there are many who hold on to Jesus and His precious words – even the hard ones. We see them exemplified here as Jesus turns to the twelve. As multitudes walk away in disbelief, Jesus asks them, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Peter’s response indicates the heart of a true disciple. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” It is significant than, in spite of His hard words, Peter recognizes Him as Lord. If He is Lord, then we cling to His words as if our lives depend on them – and they do! Where else could we turn if we turned away from Jesus? He alone has the words of eternal life! Apart from Him there is no hope. And while multitudes have walked away in disbelief, Peter affirms his own faith, and that of his brethren as he says, “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” We believed it, he says, but moreover, as we have walked with You, Lord, we have come to know with certainty, that You truly are who You say You are: the Holy One of God!

Lest we who believe and know Christ in this way get the wrong idea, and think that somehow we are more intelligent, more morally upright, or in some way superior to those who walk away from Him, Jesus reminds Peter and the band of true believers, including ourselves, “Did I Myself not choose you?” We did not think our way to Jesus. We did not earn a place in His family and His kingdom by our own works or our own moral character. We are just as flawed and sinful as the rest of humanity. It was His divine, sovereign grace that brought us to Himself. We belong to Him, because for reasons unknown to us, for reasons of His own, so that the glory of His saving grace might be manifested, He chose us. This is the same thing He said in verse 65, “I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” He said it also in verse 44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” And thanks be to God, we have this precious promise in verse 37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” We have come to Him and believed upon Him because we have been drawn to Him by the glorious grace of God, and coming to Him, He has received us, and will preserve us in the faith until the end, when He will raise us up on the last day. Then, we will experience life – life that goes on beyond death; life that is eternal in His presence. And until that time, we go through these days abiding in Him, and He in us, as He promises in verse 56. What glorious promises are given to those who cling to Him, believing His beautiful words, His wonderful words of life! His words are spirit and life. Where else can we turn? To whom else can we go? He alone has the words of eternal life. Sometimes those words are hard. But we believe His word and follow Him as Lord, even when His words are hard. To do otherwise is to walk away from life itself. It is the Spirit who gives life. And the words of Jesus are spirit and life to us who believe them. Let us always be careful therefore how we receive these words and how we respond to them.

[1] Paul E. Little, “God’s Will for Me and World Evangelism” in John R. W. Stott, et al., Christ the Liberator (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1971), 214.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York

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