“Got Life?”

12 Sept 04

Texts: John 6:60-71


            What Jesus says can be staggering.  That’s what’s up with this week’s scripture.  The Jews had great difficulty with Jesus’ hard, as in difficult saying, "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 yourselves.  John 6:54  "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  John 6:55  "For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  John 6:56  "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.  We are so accustomed to these thoughts and so unaccustomed to the practice of animal sacrifice that we don’t resonate with the same issues that Jesus’ audience did in Capernaum.  They wondered what He meant.  They wondered if He meant literally--they were to literally ingest His flesh and drink His blood.  That was completely repugnant to them--and, yes, it is also repulsive to us but as I said before out of a different set of religious beliefs.  The main and kindest reason that the Jews in that moment had great difficulty getting to the proper and spiritual understanding of these words is that they had a very different sense of the Messianic mission.  Our problem is, although we aren’t first century Jews, we, too can hold an erroneous view of Jesus’ mission.  They wanted what they wanted, and we want what we want--and neither of those sets of wants necessarily line up with what God wants.  Of course, what God wants trumps all other considerations!  There is also an explanation for their difficulty in that this great crowd of so-called disciples contained some determined malcontents--people determined in their hearts to be discontent, or to find fault no matter what.  Jesus’ rebuke of their “murmuring”[1] establishes this interpretation.  In every “religious” gathering, we find the same mixture of the misguided, the discontent, the un-teachable along with those who truly believe and want to learn more.  Some will be offended and some will be enlightened wherever the Word is preached.


            For example, if I were to declare flatly that God has had it with religious people, some people present just might respond with a degree of shock.  That’s understandable.  They may hold a sociological view of religions and Christianity can be looked at that way, but not exclusively so.  Therefore, it’s fair to ask, “Isn’t Christianity a religion?  Aren’t Christians religious?”  The answer to both is a qualified “yes.”  Why a qualified “Yes”?  Because Jesus didn’t die to make anybody religious.  Jesus died so that the dead might live, that lost sinners might be found and forgiven--both vital distinctions.  That is what Jesus means by “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  He means that unless you partake of the benefits, by faith, of my sacrificial death, you are still spiritually dead.  You ain’t got life! 


            Now, having heard this, we can appreciate more fully how manna may have nourished the physical bodies of the Hebrews in their wilderness experience, but that same manna never communicated eternal life to them.  It was a miracle of provision in this world, but the provision Jesus makes is for fullness of joy, completion and perfection in the age to come.  So, to be religious is to live on the level of manna as provision but to be genuinely spiritual, born-again, is to obtain everlasting life because you dwell in Christ as He dwells in you.  Let me summarize then:  our universal problem is that we tend to have a different sense of Jesus’ mission than He does.  We want help with the here and now--but  He wants to prepare us for the ever after.  Again, the solution is that Jesus has come to make us whole and holy--not necessarily comfortable, or happy--regardless of our expectations.  He died so that we could obtain eternal life rather than prosperity and health for this life.  The cross is planted between our pampered flesh and “religiosity” and the plans that God has for us in Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection.


            Does this text support such a conclusion?  Note, we find in verses 60-62 that Jesus is nonplussed by their temporality, their carnal, or fleshly predisposition.  It’s as if He were asking, “Are you struggling over the spiritual understanding of my flesh and blood being a sacrifice for sin?  You have performed sacrifices for sin repeatedly, why can’t you make application to this circumstance?”  Beloved, It is true that the Jews knew that human sin could not be truly eradicated by the death of an animal--that the ritual of sacrifice was at best a way of talking to God about their private sorrow over sinning, and petitioning God for personal forgiveness.  Perhaps I should note, in passing, that this later action, petitioning God for personal forgiveness, remains a valid exercise.  God does not turn a deaf ear to those who repent from a sincere heart--whenever and however.  But, beloved, the private dimension is only part, and the lesser part of the story.  The sins of the whole world, of the entire fallen race of Adam, pose a problem of an entirely different order.  The cross was a public execution and a public triumph over sin and the devil.  We must take care never to privatize our faith.  God so loved the world means that Jesus died for mankind on a corporate level; Jesus’ sacrifice is transpersonal.  We cannot accept the efforts of some to restrict religious liberty to individual rights and preferences!  When Jesus says, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; “(v. 63a), He is speaking to that carnal predisposition that insists on limiting the discourse to the temporal, the earthbound and religious.  The flesh, in other words, is powerless--this includes religious ritual and cant, or empty talk.. These are things that men do and men control; they cannot communicate life.  The Spirit, on the other hand, grants life.  These words, remember, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves and He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, these words the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.  (v. 63c).


            We also know we are on the right track because of Jesus’ change of topic.  If you can’t get the basics of participation in My sacrifice for sin, My enactment of being broken bread for humanity, then you surely won’t get how my Ascension proves that I indeed have come down from heaven!  Whatever will you make of that future event?!  Again, historical familiarity is the bane of our existence when it comes to recapturing a first century perspective.  We simply assume the Ascension.  We don’t give a second thought to its significance unless prompted to.  It was not so with the Apostles.  Peter’s first sermon, as recorded in Acts 2 interprets both the resurrection and the ascension in terms that complement Jesus’ teaching here:


Acts 2:30  "And so, because he (David) was a prophet, and knew that GOD HAD SWORN TO HIM WITH AN OATH TO SEAT one OF HIS DESCENDANTS UPON HIS THRONE,  Acts 2:31  he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY.  Acts 2:32  "This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.  Acts 2:33  "Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.  Acts 2:34  "For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: 'THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND,  Acts 2:35  UNTIL I MAKE THINE ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR THY FEET."' Acts 2:36  "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-- this Jesus whom you crucified."


            Thus the physical ascension secures Jesus’ exalted position and identity simultaneously.  Jesus, looking ahead, intimates this future development at that moment in Capernaum.  However, there is another implication of Jesus’ words here that is more specifically tied to the context.  Namely, that if the Jews literally believed that Jesus was asking to eat His actual body and drink His blood--which is not the case at all--what would they do with the unavailability of His body and blood brought about by the physical ascension of the Lord.  I have stressed the physicality of Jesus’ bodily ascension because it is important.  It aligns the ascension with the physicality of Jesus‘ sacrifice--Jesus will factually lay down His body as an atonement for sin, inviting us to enter into the benefits of redemption thus secured.  That truth, His coming sacrificed for sin, is contrary to the Messianic expectations of the crowd.  They wanted a kingly, conquering hero--someone to re-establish the national glory of Israel.  What Jesus came to accomplish was related more to the Kingdom of God and less to national, temporal affairs.  Once again, the importance of being “spiritual” as opposed to being “religious/carnal” is emphasized.  When I say being spiritual I am speaking of both a matter of comprehension and a matter of being quickened--the Spirit acts upon us and as a result we see things as they truly are.  Hence, bare participation in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper is useless--as the Bible says it profits one nothing--but when we are moved by faith, and believing “discern the Lord’s body” (I Cor. 11:29) then it is as if real food were ingested by a living human being.  The “flesh” of His sacrifice is thus effectual to and for us.  Our sins are forgiven us and we are renewed in a covenant of eternal life with our living head.


            In verse 64 we come to a matter of division.  “But there are some of you that believe not.”  There are those who said they’d leave all and follow Him, but they believe not.  They believe not that He is the Messiah on His terms.  They want Him to serve their ends, and to meet their needs.  This same tension exists in the church today.  Amongst all those who call themselves Christian, there are many who are only nominal Christians--when they find the way demanding, or obedience difficult, they turn away revealing that they were infidels all along.  Just as the unbelief of hypocrites was known to Jesus then, it is known to Him today.  So falling away, or spiritual apostasy is sometimes best understood as simply a disclosure of what the heart was really like all along, unconverted, hard and unbelieving.  It’s quite a relief to realize that genuine apostasy is really quite rare--much more common is what we see here, a depth of commitment which is superficial, rootless as the “pretend saints” are discovered.  Yet it is Christ’s prerogative to know the heart whereas we are much safer simply inspecting the fruit.  The visible church is always a mixed crowd and when the Lord brings division, we are sometimes surprised by those who turn back and those who remain.


            Yes, genuine apostasy is quite rare.  What is not so rare is backsliding.  Here’s how backsliding typically sets in.  We hear the challenging standard of God’s Word and we allow ourselves to entertain the thought, “Golly, this is really hard, or harsh.”  Next our immature hearts, still harboring unbelief, develop a secret dislike for the ways of the Lord.  “This is too difficult.  No other Christians have to do this,”  we say.  Eventually, we become explicitly, forthrightly critical even to the level of reproaching, or blaming God for His just demands.  That level of resentment suggests that we are backslidden already.  Sadly those who are in a backslidden state are, perhaps due to reasons of pride, extremely difficult to restore.


            What Jesus knows is that the truth must be preached, the Word sown regardless of how men take it.  And even so the truth of Christian living must be put forward even if some find it either hard, or offensive.  Men must adapt themselves to the Word and not vice versa.  Of course, the good news is that some, the twelve at least, stood firm; they did not turn back.  They voluntarily choose to stay the course--Christ will have none serve Him under duress, under compulsion.  We do not find Him pursuing those who have turned back.  Perhaps you recognize this as a Joshua moment, as in “Choose this day whom you will serve!”  So Peter rejoins, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.  And we believe and we are sure that thou art the . . . Holy One of God.” (v. 69) 


            Jesus replies: "Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?"  Jesus does not say that Judas was under the influence of a devil, but that he is a devil.  This is not then just a matter of evil influence.  Perhaps some light is shed on this declaration in that the same word for devil is used else where for a false accuser (2 Tim. 2:2) and we might correctly surmise that Judas, in betraying Jesus, depicted the Lord as a bad man in order to justify himself and his betrayal.  It over-extends the reach of our imagination to suppose that Judas went presenting Jesus as a good, or innocent man--rather we may conclude that he supported their misguided views of His reputation and nature.  Judas was a fallen apostle, an adversary to Christ, an enemy of the truth.  We must admit that even in the most select of societies, we may meet some who are in reality corrupt and wicked.  The danger is that we will throw out the baby with the bath water, we will condemn the whole society simply because there are a few rotters in in it!  Rather let us be patient, in the end all false brethren will be exposed to the light and finally excluded.


            So, drawing all this together, we should ask do we have life?  Are we functioning on a spiritual rather than a carnal level--are we living up to Christ’s expectation? Or are we expecting Christ to meet our terms?  Jesus mission is to make us holy, to make us alive and then to transform us into His likeness.  If our focus is on the here and now, we need to trade that perspective in, and we need to live for eternity.  Our comfort now, our happiness now are not necessarily what God has in mind for us.  We will have much more contentment and peace if we choose, freely and maturely, to live by His terms.  He came to recruit us to His cause and blessed are we if, by faith, we enter into and advance His Kingdom.


[1] V. 61 includes “Jesus knew within Himself” and this signifies a divine attribute by which God, and God alone, knows what is in the heart of a person.  It is very presumptuous to assume that we know either what a person’s motives are, or even what it is that a person has gone through in experiencing life.