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John 6:52-59

Text Comment

 v.54    Notice the close parallel with v. 40. The only difference is that in the one case the Lord speaks of “looking to the Son and believing in him” and in the other he speaks of “eating my flesh and drinking my blood.” What this indicates, of course, is that the latter is a metaphorical or figurative way to say the same thing as was said more literally in the former verse. To eat the flesh of the Son of God means to believe in him.

v.56     It is “real” food because it gives “real” or eternal life. And, carrying the metaphor a step farther, it does that because it enables us to participate in the life of Jesus Christ himself.

v.57     That the Father has life in himself to give to others we have already been told in 5:26 and that the Son has that same power to give life we were told in 5:21. Indeed, v. 57 is a compressed form of the argument of 5:21-27.

v.58     The Jews had brought up the miracle of the manna at the beginning of the discourse in v. 31. The Jews greatly revered that miracle and wanted to know if Jesus could do anything as great as that provision of bread in the wilderness for the entire nation of Israel. The Lord then used it to contrast worldly bread with the bread of life in v. 48 and now, in closing, returns to the same contrast. There is one bread and one only that enables one who eats it to live forever. That bread of life is Jesus Christ.

We have come to the final section of the “Bread of Life” discourse. Following on the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, the Lord spoke to the great crowd that was so enthusiastically following him wherever he went. And building upon their enthusiasm for a man who could miraculously supply them bread, he spoke to them of another bread, the bread of eternal life. He is that bread, Jesus tells them, and those who believed in him would live forever. Just as at the well in Samaria he had spoken of living water, so after a miracle involving bread he spoke of salvation in terms living bread and faith in terms of eating that bread. Bread and water, being the staples of life in that culture, made natural metaphors for what was necessary for eternal life.

He is continuing with that thought in the verses we have read. As you know and could well imagine, these verses have often been applied to the Lord’s Supper. Eating bread, drinking blood – it is an obvious and natural step. And, no doubt, these words do apply, because a true participation in the Supper, a participation by someone who really does believe in Jesus, is a form, if only one form, of the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood.

But the Lord’s words are not primarily about the Lord’s Supper. The people to whom he spoke that day knew nothing about a Lord’s Supper, but it is clear from their strong reaction to his words that they understood perfectly the gist of the metaphor, the figure of speech he used, even if they continued to interpret it in crudely physical terms. They knew he was requiring them to become his followers, that he was insisting that they accept his teaching as the Word of God, that he was telling them that he and he alone could save them from their sins, and, what was still more remarkable, that he was requiring them to acknowledge him as the Son of God, the one who has come from heaven, as he said in v. 33. This was too much for many of them, we read in v. 66, and from this point their enthusiasm for Jesus soured. They were happy to have Jesus perform miracles, they even liked to hear him preach – such authority! such wisdom! – but they had no intention of falling at his feet and calling him Lord and Savior. This is a turning point in the Lord’s ministry and in his relationship to the people.

When, in chapter 4, the Lord had used a similar metaphor, that of living water, in his conversation with the woman at the well, she and her other Gentile friends heard him gladly and put their faith in him. These Jews would not. They were too proud of their own religion to abandon it for this man who claimed to be the Son of God. They were too confident in and pleased with themselves to forsake themselves to take up his cross.

Jesus spoke to them metaphorically about believing in him, putting one’s trust and faith in him for salvation, by speaking of eating the bread that came down from heaven. Then he made his meaning explicit and spoke directly about their need to believe in him and that he was himself the bread of life. You see that alternation between the metaphorical and the literal through the discourse up to this point. But his listeners didn’t like the literal any more than they liked the metaphorical. They grumbled over the one as well as the other as we see in both vv. 41 and 42 and v. 52.

It is by faith in Jesus Christ that one participates in his salvation, it is by faith that one receives his gift of everlasting life. That is the theme of this discourse and, of course, the theme of the entire Gospel of John. John is writing to convince people to believe in Jesus Christ that they might have eternal life. And what is that but the Christian religion in a nutshell.

All of that can be said nowadays without terrible offense. Unless and until one goes on to say what Jesus said so plainly in v. 53: “Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man you have no life in you.” The Lord does not simply say that if you believe in him you will be saved and live forever. He says in words that cannot be mistaken that unless you believe in him you will not be saved and will not live forever. It is Christ or no salvation at all! He will raise up at the last day those and those only who have trusted themselves to him. Unless you eat and drink this bread and this blood, you have no life in you! There is the rub.

He is claiming an exclusive privilege. He and he alone can save men and women from their sins and lift them up to heaven and they and they alone who believe in him will be saved. This is not the only place he would say such a thing, of course. We are even more familiar with his statement in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

It was this that did Jesus in with his fellow Jews. It was this exclusivity in his teaching. It was the claim that he and he alone was the Savior of the world. The Jews would have been delighted to add Jesus to their already existing religious viewpoint. But he required them to abandon their viewpoint and become his followers, to exchange their faith in themselves and their works for faith in him. At this they left him and for this, later, they killed him.

And from that time to this, this has been the burden that the Christian faith has had to bear in the world. Nowadays, you can tell people that you believe in Jesus for your salvation and they will smile and be glad for you. If Jesus helps you, they think, that is great. But, if you go on to tell them, as Jesus told his contemporaries, that they too must believe in Jesus or they cannot be saved, they will think less well of you. They may very well take offense at the suggestion that they must become Christians like you if they are to live forever. And if you go on to make explicit the implications of what you have said to them, viz. that everyone must believe in Jesus or be lost forever – secular Americans, religious Americans (after all it was to highly religious people that Jesus was speaking here in John 6), Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists all over the world – they must believe in Jesus or they cannot be saved. They must eat his flesh and drink his blood or he will not raise them up at the last day. I say, if you go on and admit that this is precisely the logic of our Christian faith and precisely the claim that Jesus himself made and his apostles after him, they may very well think of you with disgust and perhaps with pity for your arrogance, your narrow-mindedness, your harshness, and your lack of humanity.

The intolerance of such a view! They may rarely accuse Jesus of such an intolerance, though more and more people are ready to do that nowadays, but they will be less forgiving of his followers. How dare we think that everyone must become as we are if they would have eternal life. How dare we say that there is but one way and only one way to God! How dare we pass judgment on the religions of others! It was an offensive thing to claim in the Lord’s own day. It is, if anything, more offensive to claim it today, when people have a hard time believing that there is such a thing as the truth, truth that is true for everyone always, what Dr. Schaeffer used to call true truth.

But to those who are offended by this doctrine, this teaching, this demand that all and everyone must believe in Jesus, let them hear us say that we Christians do not find it an easy thing to believe either! This is probably the hardest thing about our faith for us who are Christians, this hard saying of the Lord Jesus that only those who believe in him can be saved, only those will he raise up at the last day. From time to time we have ourselves thought about the untold millions who toil under the sun who do not believe in Jesus as the Son of God. We too have friends, even loved ones, who do not believe in Jesus Christ and have never looked to him for eternal life. We too know people who are admirable in some ways, likeable in other ways, but who have never eaten the bread that came down from heaven. We shiver too at this thought that they cannot be saved and will not enjoy eternal life unless they eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God. The gospel of God’s love has taught us to feel a true sympathy with our fellow man, God’s love for us has taught us to love others as we have been loved. And with that love in our hearts we lie in bed at night and from time to time a shudder passes through our souls, we recoil at the thought of so many who have never looked to Christ and the Lord’s emphatic teaching that they must or they will not be saved. I tell you straight out, when I have had doubts about my Christian faith, as I have had from time to time – not, to be sure, grave doubts, for they are too easily and too quickly dismissed to be grave doubts –, but when I have had doubts about my Christian faith, they have almost always surfaced at this point, when I was thinking about how many will not be raised up at the last day because they never looked to Jesus Christ for salvation.

This past week there was a conference on Buddhist/Christian unity at PLU. The director of the conference, a PLU religion professor, considers himself both a Christian and a Buddhist. He does not believe, of course, that Buddhists will fail to live forever because they have not believed in Jesus Christ. And we can understand why he does not believe that. It is a very difficult thing to believe, a hard thing, an unwelcome thing. He would certainly not believe that the Jews of Jesus day would not have obtained eternal life because they did not receive Jesus Christ as the Son of God and follow him only. And we can understand why he would not believe that. It is a hard thing to believe. Comparatively few people believe it, no matter what Jesus said.

You may have seen the newspapers this past week reporting the new biography of Joe DiMaggio that is being published. According to the biographer who was at the bedside, the great baseballer’s last words were to the effect that finally he would be able to see Marilyn again. He was referring, of course, to Marilyn Monroe, to whom DiMaggio was married for just six months, but whom he loved ever after.

Joe DiMaggio was a Roman Catholic but I doubt very seriously that in thinking about reunion with Marilyn Monroe he ever reckoned with the Lord’s emphatic warning here that he will raise no one to life who did not believe in him, really and truly believe in him, eat his flesh and drink his blood, while they were in this world. Is there heaven for Joe DiMaggio or for Marilyn Monroe? Not, said the one who had come down from heaven, unless they look to the Son of God and believe in him.

But imagine the storm of protest if someone of note were to mention that in public. But we Christians can understand that. We too want a woman as misused by powerful men as Marilyn Monroe was to find eternal happiness. And plenty of people whose lives were brightened by Joe DiMaggio’s brilliant career as the Yankees’ center fielder naturally wish him well in the world to come.

We Christians too find the Lord’s words here a hard saying. Which is why, throughout Christianity’s entire history in the world there have been even Christians who have sought to find some way to believe that the Lord did not mean what he seems so clearly to have said here in John 6 and in many other places in the Bible.

But, at the last, hard saying or no, we must believe and must build our lives on this statement of our Lord’s as the truest truth, not only for us but for all men. And for so many unassailable reasons!

  1. It was Jesus, after all, who said this. No man ever loved other human beings as Jesus did. No man ever wanted to see them saved as he did. He came into the world, he himself said, to seek and save the lost. Remember how he wept over Jerusalem’s unbelief and so wistfully wished it had been otherwise. No man ever spent himself or gave more of himself to secure the salvation of men than did Jesus Christ. And it is he who tells us that unless we believe in him, we will not be raised up at the last day.
  2. What is more, it is the inexorable logic of the gospel. I don’t know if you noticed in our reading over several weeks of this “bread of life discourse” that over and over again there is reference to “coming down from heaven” or “from heaven.” Indeed, when the Lord, in v. 58, in the final sentence of the discourse speaks of the bread that came down from heaven – he is speaking of himself of course, as he has made clear – that is the tenth time since v. 31 that there has been such a reference to something – bread or Christ himself – coming from heaven! Jesus is the Son of God. He came from heaven to become a man so as to save us men from sin and death. Nothing less than, nothing short of the incarnation of God the Son and his death on the cross was sufficient to raise sinful human beings to the eternal life of heaven. Had there been some remedy short of the terrible humiliation and suffering of the Son of God, it would have been found and applied. But there was none. Only Jesus Christ could do what had to be done in this moral world that God created. And so, at the last, hard saying though it be, it is right, it is true that only those who are in Christ could ever conceivably be saved. Only their sins could be taken away. Only they could be righteous before a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who is angry with the wicked every day, as the Bible says. Those who doubt that you must believe in Christ to be saved generally doubt that man really even needs to be saved. They doubt God’s wrath, they doubt the judgment day.
  3. And there is one more reason. And it is that the reason men and women do not look to Jesus for their salvation is at the last because they are proud. They are so proud that multitudes of them would rather starve than have to eat this bread and drink this blood and so admit their own sinfulness, their own need, their own badness, their own dependence upon the mercy of God. It is not really because they so much love the practitioners of other faiths that they cannot bring themselves to believe that only followers of Jesus will be saved. They would like to believe that, but careful observation of their lives will prove that they are as selfish as everyone else, as self-absorbed, as self-centered. What offends them here in Jesus’ words is not its implications for other people, but its implications for themselves, just the very thing that offended the Jews when Jesus first spoke these words.

I admit that these are very hard words that our Savior spoke that day. But, the longer I live, the more I see how ready all of us human beings are to believe what we want to be true rather than what we have reason to believe is true. Isn’t that so, my friends? We all have so much better a view of ourselves than anyone else does. We are so disinclined to believe unflattering things about ourselves. We are so quick to criticize others for failures of which we ourselves are just as guilty. So much pride and foolishness gets in the way of our believing the truth even when it glistens right before our eyes.

And what is true about ourselves individually is as true about societies and cultures as wholes. In the future people will look back upon this generation and see an entire people in denial, unwilling to admit the connection between the choices they made and the consequences that ensued. The history of the world is a history of cultures collapsing around the feet of people who still have a confused and quizzical look on their faces. They still can’t see what they did wrong!

No, my friends, you will not get to the truth of things in this world by counting noses. And you will definitely not get to the truth of things by discovering what people would like to be true. This is a hard world, full of hard truths, because God made it a moral world, that proceeds on moral principles and in which he exercises a moral judgment – his moral judgment. Men can deny that all they want, but they cannot escape it. Sin pays a wage whether you want it to or not and salvation can be found in no other name under heaven than the name of Jesus Christ, whether you and I wish it were so or not!

We have been reading at devotions recently a little book by Bruce Hunt, an OPC missionary to Korea perhaps known to some of you, known to others by reputation at least. His book, entitled For a Testimony, is about his experiences in the early 1940s when living and working among Koreans in Japanese occupied Manchuria. He was arrested by the Japanese in Manchuria along with other missionaries and a number of Korean Christians primarily because he refused to countenance the emperor worship that the Japanese were requiring of the peoples they had conquered. It is a wonderful account of an intrepid faith under severe trial.

At one point he reports a conversation he had with a Japanese judge at his trial.

The judge was pressing him on this very point. “But we Japanese believe our emperor is a god. Why should we have to believe in your Western God?” the Judge inquired.

“He is not only the God of the West; He is the God of the whole earth,” I said. I pointed out that in many religions and certainly in the common belief of mankind in general there is the concept of one supreme God. I illustrated this point both from the Bible and from my experiences with people in America, Korea, China, and Japan.

“Do you believe then,” he asked almost in sarcasm, an attitude that did not seem in harmony with his general bearing, “that the Japanese emperor must also believe in Jesus?”

I wondered if he were asking it for the benefit of the others in the courtroom, or from real curiosity on his own part, or to involve me more deeply. Regardless of the possible consequences, I knew I must tell the truth. Whatever reason he might have for asking, I had to answer what I firmly believed.

“Yes, I believe the Japanese emperor must believe in Jesus to be saved. He is a mere man and as such, according to the Bible, he is a sinner like the rest of us and in need of salvation. If he does not believe in Jesus he must suffer eternal punishment.” …

There was a noticeable stir among the other men, glances were exchanged, some hostile. The ‘surly interrogator’ [a man who had dragged him over the coals in a previous interrogation] looked down his nose as though to say, “The case is already settled. Why listen to the fools?” Nevertheless the judge was interested.

“You are against the Japanese emperor then,” he pursued.

“No sir, by no means,” I answered quickly. “The reason we come to this country and preach is that we are interested in this country. We believe that what we preach will bring happiness to the emperor and to his people if they will but believe it.”

Is that not right? Is that not what Jesus himself so plainly taught? A hard saying to be sure. It is hard saying especially to those who have some other faith, secular or religious. It is always hard to be told that you are wrong and that you must turn and go in a different direction. The Jews of Jesus’ day found it very hard. Many do today. But, we all know that the truth can itself be very hard, very hard to admit, very hard to embrace, particularly when it offends our pride. But, then as now, it is the truth that sets men free. And Christ Jesus is that truth. He was then, he is now, and he will always be. The bread that came down from heaven, that if a man eat it, he will live forever!