In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster. He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels. But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.
How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?
The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast. He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast). The response of the people seems to be on target. They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king. From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.
Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds. The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something. Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch. But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life. How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us? It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.
Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father. Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people. He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)
This only makes the Jews grumble about him. How can he be the bread? They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking. (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)
I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it. Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal. The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.” It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast. It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.
Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue. Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging. Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming. This new Passover was for eternal life. The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal. Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”
Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything. At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed. What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand. He gave everything, so make him everything.
We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations. We’d rather blend our options. The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed. The popular vote was lost in a day. Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained. Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it. He turned to the twelve. “What about you? Want to go too?”
Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too. We have been drawn to a place of belief. We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative! “To whom shall we go?” Peter’s response is spot on. “You have the words of eternal life.” He certainly does. But those words are not popular.
We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred. To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times. Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives. Will we leave him too? To put it bluntly, where would we go? This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.
And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus. Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal? It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God. But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “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 gave everything for us to have eternal life. Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?