Cannibalism is considered a horrid practice by most everyone in the 21st Century. In previous centuries, many stories are told of missionaries who have been eaten by tribes, particularly in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. Some of these tribes practiced infanticide and widow sacrifice as well. However, even though many missionaries faced this terrible fate, others soon followed to the same places. And in some cases, God moved in mighty ways to save a people for Himself, in addition to preventing them from destroying themselves.
Cannibalism is nothing new, however. Indeed, it has long been a concern. Evidence of this concern is expressed in the Bible and is actually one reason many people chose not to follow Jesus, as we will see later. For now, turn to John 6 as I set the context for this week’s post.
Setting the Scene
As we pick up the story, Jesus has just fed 5000 men (and an unknown number of women and children). It is important to note that the people were there because of the signs (that is, miracles) Jesus was doing. John 6.2 says this was the specific reason they were following. So, Jesus fed them on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee. Then the disciples crossed to Capernaum, and the crowd started looking for him. They found him in Capernaum (vv. 22-24), asking Jesus when He had travelled there. Really their question was more like, “How did You get here?”
Jesus responded that they were not there because of signs, but because of the food. This statement needs further explanation and, thus, this is where I begin the core of the message.
People Want What God Can Do (John 6.25-34)
In verse 2, John wrote the people followed because of the signs Jesus was doing. In John 6.26, Jesus says they were not seeking Him because of signs, but because of having a full stomach. Thus, we have a potential discrepancy. Therefore, people will use a statement like this to show that the Bible cannot be trusted because it has an error. Their claim is that either John is wrong or Jesus is wrong. The word used is the same, and it is actually the same word in the Greek (semeia). The difference is in how the words are used.
In John 6.2, John uses the word in the form of miracles. That is what the people did see. That is what the people wanted to see. And it is how their stomachs were filled. And thus, the KJV translates the word in 6.26 as miracles. But that misses the point. See, people can see miracles without acknowledging the source of the miracle. So John wrote in 6.2 that people were miracle mongers – that is, they were chasing miracles. But Jesus was stating that they were not truly seeing the signs that God was sending them (6.26). They followed Jesus across the Sea to see what else He might do. They real issue is that although they had seen a miracle, they did not see it as a “sign” of God. And that is what Jesus means in this statement.
Their response: What must we do to be able to do these signs? Jesus answered – “Believe.” Again, nothing we can DO will bring us salvation. It is what we believe. Dissatisfied with Jesus answer, they ask Him to do something to make them believe – maybe something like what Moses did for the Israelites in the wilderness.
Again, Jesus has to correct them in the same manner He had just explained. They remembered the “sign” (the miracle) of the manna, but they missed that the miracle was not something Moses did, it was a sign of God (v. 32). And then Jesus expands on this point by showing that He is the true sign from heaven, the true bread from heaven, the bread that truly gives and sustains life.
The people of that day wanted the blessings from God and thus missed the presence of God. The same is true of us. I think of the letter to the Philippians where Paul writes something I have never heard prayed in my life. Paul wrote that he desired to share in the fellowship of the sufferings of Jesus. We do not pray such words. We pray for health, for healing, for safety, for relief. Paul prayed that if suffering would bring him closer to Jesus, that is what he wanted. The apostles in Acts 4 prayed in thanksgiving for having been counted worthy to suffer, not because they had been released from suffering.
I am not saying that we do not believe. I am saying that most of us have a faith that is weak in comparison. Perhaps that is because we see faith as a noun, whereas John almost always uses faith as a verb (see John 3.36). When Jesus says believe (v. 29), he did not mean think something to be true, he meant be obedient. Most people today are willing to follow God when life is good, but we struggle when life is more challenging. And then, we cry life is unfair instead of seeing the glory of God shaping us in those moments. I know this describes me and I am certain it describes most who read this. But, if we want to be faithful to God, we must believe (that is, have faith). We must obey!
As a part of our obedience, we turn to the first part of the ceremony we call the Lord’s Supper. The rest of John 6 does not mention what we call the Lord’s Supper, but it certainly alludes to it. Thus, we cannot say with any certainty that John was writing this part of the story with the Lord’s Supper as his focus, but I believe it would be fair to say it was on his mind. We are told that whenever we do this, we are to do it in remembrance of Jesus. That is, our faith (noun) in what He did is to be honored and obeyed (faith as a verb). We will take time now to remember the sacrifice of Jesus body as we partake of the bread.
(At this point in our worship service we began the observance of the Lord’s Supper by remembering the body which was broken for us.)
People Want What They Understand (John 6.35-59)
The next words John wrote are from Jesus, “I am the bread of life.” Again, John very likely had the Lord’s Supper in mind when he wrote these words decades later, but John does not make any explicit reference to that meal in his recounting of this story. But, if we are diligent we cannot miss the connection. John’s gospel is not meant to be a chronological account of Jesus’ life, but this event obviously occurred before Jesus ate His last meal, and that may be why John omits the explicit reference. (We should also note that John does not focus much on the meal portion of Jesus’ last night; rather John’s focus was Jesus’ teaching directly following the meal.)
If we skip to verse 41, we will see that the people grumbled. Jesus has just identified Himself as the true bread of heaven, indeed, the bread of life. And how do the people respond? They grumble. John trusts that his reader will make another connection here. In Exodus 16 (v. 2), the people grumbled against Moses which was the reason God sent manna in the first place. Later the people grumbled about only have this manna, and no meat (Numbers 11). So, God eventually gave them meat – so much the people would be sickened by it. And, shortly thereafter, the people began grumbling again (Numbers 14, for instance).
Jesus challenges them to stop grumbling, and instead to listen to the teachings of God. Why? Because it is the Father who gives life. It was the Father who gave the manna. It was the Father who has given them a new bread – the life of Jesus. And those who have heard and learned from the Father will follow Jesus. Those who have not, will either never follow or will soon turn away (as we will see later in this story).
Jesus emphasizes this point with a double Amen. Many translations use the phrase, “Truly, truly I say to you…” The phrase begins with “Amen, amen.” In verse 47, Jesus uses this phrase for the third time in this story to show the seriousness of His claim (see also 26, 32). He would use the phrase again in verse 53). His point here is that the bread that was meant to sustain the people in Moses’ day helped them for a while, but was not sufficient to sustain them eternally. They ate and they died. This should be easily understood. We all eat and we all die. As one commentator has mentioned, that would make a quite an epitaph on a tombstone – “He ate and he died.”
So, Jesus has challenged them by alluding that He is the one who is the bread of heaven (v. 33). Then Jesus explicitly says He is the bread of life (v. 35) and that those who believe will have eternal life (v. 50). But then He makes the boldest claim yet by tying these statements together.
As you might expect, this last statement caused a stir. The issue, which caused true concern, was whether or not Jesus was going to offer His body in a literal sense for them to eat (v. 52). Now, lest you think they are reading too much into this idea, take a moment to read John 6.53-58. The issue was whether Jesus followers were to be cannibals.
Jesus again began His answer with “Amen, Amen…” Thus, what He is saying is true. And verse 59 says He said this in the synagogue – which is the designated place for teaching. And notice verse 55. As we will see shortly, this caused many to turn from Jesus. The reality is that we all struggle to understand certain teachings of the Bible. More specifically, we struggle to follow certain teachings of the Bible. What we do know is that Jesus said we are to partake the elements and remember His sacrifice as we do. Do we literally eat the body and drink the blood? I do not believe so. Please see the NOTE which follows which was included in our bulletin.
NOTE: Baptists believe the words of Jesus in John 6.53-58 to be symbolic. We focus on the literal bread and drink that was used at Passover as representing the body and blood of Christ. Catholics believe in transubstantiation which is a belief that when the bread and wine (or juice) enter the mouth, they literally become the body and blood of Christ. Lutherans believe in consubstantiation which is a belief that the essence of Christ’s body and blood are in the elements, but the elements do not literally change.
(At this point in our worship service we concluded the observance of the Lord’s Supper by remembering the blood of the new covenant which was shed for us.)
People Want Their Way More Than They Want The Way (John 6.60-71)
We close our message today with a final thought about how people respond to Jesus. The reality is that most people will choose to NOT follow Jesus. Even those who follow will often turn away. And this last part of the passage gives a strong word from Jesus about these people.
First, I must note that the people grumbling with Jesus earlier were miracle mongers (vv. 24-25) and the Jews (vv. 41, 52), which is very likely a euphemism for the religious leaders of the day. But in this last section, the people are those that are disciples of Jesus. Now, as I have shared before the word disciples means learner or follower. And we must understand that Jesus had twelve who are THE DISCIPLES, but another 60 followed Him (per Luke 10.1 when He sent out the 72) and Paul mentions that Jesus appeared to 500 at one time after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.6). And the passage we are reviewing today makes the distinction as well. John 6.60 mentions the disciples and then verse 67 mentions the Twelve. So, with that, let us turn to this first set of disciples.
They had a hard time processing what Jesus said. They were grumbling (that word again) among themselves and Jesus confronted them by asking would they truly believe if they saw Jesus in all of His glory. In other words, some of those who had been with Him constantly were seeking miracles as well. But Jesus knew their hearts and said that some of them did not believe. This is critical for us to understand. These individuals had given up their lives to follow Jesus, but when the demands became tough, Jesus didn’t say, “Well that’s ok, at least you believe.” Instead, he said, “You do not believe” (v. 64, paraphrased). What happened? Well, in verse 66, they confirmed His thought and turned away. And then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked if they wanted to turn away as well! Peter responds for the group as he was wont to do, and said they were sticking with Him.
What’s my point? Well, first off, please understand that I do not have the insights into the hearts of men and women like Jesus did, and Jesus does. So, what I am about to say, I am saying by drawing from Jesus’ words, but I am not the authority, Jesus is. The truth is that many people choose to follow Jesus for a while and then turn away. But the point is: We cannot know if anyone who turns away is truly saved. Again, I cannot know for certain either way, but Jesus said that many of those who were following Him (His disciples) did not believe. They traveled with Him. They did ministry with Him. But they did not believe.
In the parlance of today, people may go to church for a while. They have said a prayer. They have been baptized. They served with us. But they did not believe. The implication: they will go to hell. This is what Jesus is saying if we compare verse 47 and 64. Again, I cannot know if the people who come regularly do so because they believe. Nor can I know if those who do not come remain apart from the church because they do not believe. Jesus knows. And His words in John 6.64 should give us pause. Furthermore, Jesus command was to, “Follow Me” (Matthew 4.17), and John 6.66 says they turned back and did not walk with Him. Thus, they stopped following. I doubt any of them would deny Jesus existed. I doubt any of them would deny the miracles they saw. But again, belief in the book of John especially is nearly ALWAYS linked to obedience. These people did not obey which was proof they did not believe which means they would not have eternal life; rather they would face eternity separated from God in a place we call hell.
Why do I mention this?
Like the disciples in Jesus’ day, we are called to follow. We are called to obey. We are called to put aside our wants and desires and instead yield our will to Jesus just as He yielded to the Father. We can say a prayer. We can get baptized. We can take the Lord’s Supper. We can do a lot of good things – things Christians are supposed to do. But if we do not believe, it does not matter. If we do not obey, our efforts are meaningless. If we do not follow, we will not know the way to where He is leading, and that means being separated from Him.
So, what is your concern? Do you want what God has and/or offers? Or do you want God? I know I ask that question often, but it is stories like the one we have reviewed today which keeps the question relevant. The group following Jesus loved the miracles but missed the sign. They loved what God could do, but when they could not understand or the demands got hard, they walked away.
What about you? Would you rather have a full stomach or a relationship with God? Would you rather understand everything perfectly or live within the mystery of a God who is beyond comprehension? Would you rather have your life as you want it or would you rather die to self and gain the life Jesus wants for you? For as Jesus said, to gain life, we must first lose it (Matthew 16.25; Luke 14.27; John 12.25). Thus,
Our JOURNEY letter for today is: R – REVERE.
As we have gathered on the Sunday known as Palm Sunday, let us not be like the people who cheered for Jesus one day and were against Him, calling for His death, just a few days later. Let us revere Him, truly lifting Him up, not just above others, but above ourselves. And not just today, but every day for the rest of this month, the rest of this year, and the rest of our lives – proving our love by our obedience (John 14.15) – no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice because of the cost and sacrifice He made for us.
Application: This week take time to LEARN obedience, to LIVE obediently, to show your LOVE for Jesus by LEADing others to do the same. We did that today as a church through the Lord’s Supper. Continue to do that individually or collectively throughout the rest of this holy week.