A Hard Teaching

Why would you not follow Jesus? Why would you not be his disciple? He had healed the son of a nobleman from Capernaum, in the synagogue of which he was teaching. He had fed the 5,000 on a mountain across the lake. He delivered a powerful message in the synagogue. Yet, because of what he said, many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. This, like the comment the crowd made, is a hard teaching, John 6:60-71. We have a fuller knowledge of who Jesus is, and yet many seem to follow, then no longer do so. That is something that is being worked out in the life of the church, including this congregation.

A large crowd had begun following Jesus. He had performed miracles of healing, then had fed the 5,000. The crowd recognized an echo of Moses, who had provided manna. The crowd had been ready to make him king, willing or not. They continued to follow him to the other side of the lake, but, as Jesus told them, it was because they wanted to fill their bellies. But as Jesus refused the kingship, as he told them he had come, not to meet their felt needs, but to do his Father’s will, they began to argue. He went on to the challenging call to feed upon him, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. With that many of the disciples began to leave.

Many disciples of Jesus today follow for similar reasons. The question often are, what do I get out of church, what benefits do I receive. What would be the result if, in some of the televised services of mega-churches, the message focused on your sinfulness and depravity, and on the suffering and death of Christ? The idea of blood theology, of a Savior who has to suffer and die, who has to shed his blood to redeem his people is not only unpopular in liberal churches. Even in some evangelical circles this teaching (on which Jesus places so much emphasis in this chapter) is questioned or is ignored in practice. Jesus emphasizes his ascending. As with being lifted up in John 3, the triumphant ascension begins with his ascending to the cross.

None of this takes Jesus by surprise. He knows that true followers come only because the Father draws them. He emphasizes a theme that John will develop through the Gospel: the life-giving work of the Spirit. He focuses on a crucial matter: the words that he speaks. Your commitment to the Word is vital to persevering as a disciple of Jesus. Read it. Hear it proclaimed. Let it permeate your life. Are you willing to really hear the words of Jesus? Do you recognize that feeding upon him means being united with him in his suffering and death before sharing in his exaltation?

As you ask yourself how you can continue to be a disciple of Jesus, look at how John narrows his focus to Peter’s confession on behalf of the 12, and Jesus’ words about Judas Iscariot. Peter affirms that the 12 believe and have no other place to turn. Yet, as Jesus looks at the 12 who remain, he speaks of having chosen the 12, but that one of them is a devil. John here identifies Judas as the one who would betray Jesus.

Can you read this and not be troubled? Judas, with the other 12 disciples, had been selected by Jesus to follow him throughout his earthly ministry. He had heard Jesus preach. He had witnessed the miracles. And yet he earned the title “a devil” by betraying Jesus. Hebrews warns you against falling away. Jesus says that in the last day many will address him as “Lord, Lord” as they recount the many things they have done in his name, but he will say, “I never knew you.”

How do you persevere as a disciple? It certainly involves introspection. Examine your heart. How solid is your commitment to Christ? What are your motives for following him? But don’t let the introspection descend into self-absorption. Every time you look at your own sin and misery, look outside yourself to the cross and the empty tomb.

Peter’s confession is extrospective. He focuses, not on the quality of his faith, but on who Jesus is and what he does. Jesus has the words of life. To whom else can you turn? There is no other religion that has the Savior who suffered, died, and rose again for his people. You cannot turn to non-belief, for everyone believes in something. Peter and the other disciples have believed and become convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Herman Ridderbos comments on Peter’s confession: “Peter’s answer is a genuine confession not only because in it he adopts Jesus’ words as his own (cf. v. 63b) but also because the faith that comes to expression in it reveals the awareness that Peter is confronting a radical choice: when life is at stake there is no other way to go than that of following Jesus.”

Are you a disciple? Do you continue to follow him?

[In preparation for a sermon on July 29, 2012]

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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