[This is a partial repost of an article from a couple years back, dealing with the original context of the events and teaching in John 6.]
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:60-66)
This is part of a very interesting narrative, covered in all of John 6, on one of the conflicts in which Jesus was involved – where the people wanted him to be one thing, while his purpose was very different in nature.
The typical (mis)use of this passage I’ve heard goes something like this – “Jesus’ message was not a popular one, and so it doesn’t really matter all that much if we’re offensive in the way we present it. After all, Jesus drove away all but his twelve disciples with his message, winnowing out all of the ‘false converts’ in the process.” Such an interpretation of John 6 is unfortunate, and tends to spring from ignorance of the world Jesus lived in, and in this case, the Galilee region.
To get a firm grasp on this passage (and a number of other stories in the Gospels), it is helpful to know the geography and demography of the Galilee region.
On the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee primarily lived the hasidim, the pious ones. Some, primarily of Pharisaic or ‘orthodox’ affiliation (not to be confused with modern Orthodox Judaism), believed that a purity of faith and obedience would bring God to overthrow the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God, and did not condone violence or political power in overthrowing the Romans and unseating Hellenism. The other primary group of hasidim, called zealots, believed that God would use them to overthrow the Romans and Hellenism using whatever means necessary.
The hasidim primarily lived in and around Capernaum, Korazin and Bethsaida (an area dubbed ‘the Orthodox Triangle’ by the late archaeologist Bargil Pixner), and the zealots lived in and around Gamla (just NE of the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights) and Magdala, near Mount Arbel (see the map above, or click it for a larger view).
Tiberius, in the southwest part of Galilee, was where secular Jews referred to as ‘Herodians’ lived. Tiberius, itself, was an unclean city (as it was built over a graveyard), and was cut off from northern Galilee by Mount Arbel, which came all the way down into the water (today, a road has been built, and it is silted in 20-30 meters from the waters edge during dry seasons).
On the east and south shores of Galilee was the Decapolis, ten pagan cities founded by Hellenistic Greeks. No good Jew would be caught in the Decapolis, as almost everything there was ‘unclean’, they ate pork, and worshipped many gods. (It was here that Jesus healed the demoniac amidst the tombs, casting the demon into a herd of pigs.)
As you read about Jesus’ miracles and teaching, you will find that he tailors his methods (and miracles) to those places:
When he is in the Capernaum/Bethsiada region, he uses many more scriptural quotations (particularly invoking remez and other techniques), and when he performs miracles in this region, he is recorded many times telling those he healed ‘do not tell anyone’ about the miracles.
However, when he heals the demoniac in the Decapolis, he tells that man to go tell everyone!
Why the difference?
With the dominance of zealots in northern Galilee, it is likely these people will want to make him into a military messiah who will lead them and throw out the Romans (as they were also recorded, by Josephus, to be the most fervent in their search for a Messiah). Think about it. How valuable would it be to have an army with a king who can feed an army without carrying food, immediately heal any injuries and raise the dead? Sign me up for that army!
Back to the Story
Now, to get the full context of the John 6 passage, we really need to read the whole thing. First, we have Jesus near Mount Arbel on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, where he miraculously feeds the five thousand people. After this, we read:
After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
Mark tells us that he went up the mountain to pray (interestingly, Mount Arbel is known in Judasm to be the rabbi’s ‘prayer mountain’ – a solitary place where rabbis go to pray). From verse 15 (highlighted above), we can see that the crowd must have been heavily zealot influenced.
Meanwhile, his disciples take their boats up to the Orthodox Triangle, somewhere between Capernaum and Bethsiada. In the middle of the night, he walks across the water to meet them. The next day, the crowd figures out that Jesus has left for the other side, and hurries over there to see him. Why, though?
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
So, Jesus notes that the crowd was looking for him to provide food (having already recognized that they were looking for a physical messianic deliverer in v. 15).
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’“
They still didn’t get it. They were still looking for Jesus to provide food. His message wasn’t even second, third or fourth consideration. So, Jesus becomes a little more direct in his answer:
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”
Are you starting to notice a pattern here?
Some have argued that the reason for the single-mindeness on provision of food could be attributed to general poverty in the area. However, this region of Israel was (and still is) on of the most fertile in all of Israel, and many Second Temple period scholars believe that the Galilee region was fairly well off (comparable to ‘middle class’ in the First Century culture) because of the rich natural resources in the area. It is much more likely that the desire for miraculous provision was in line with providing for a standing army or preparation for a siege (NOTE: Mount Arbel was the site of a siege, where zealots held out against Herod for a period of time. Later, Gamla would be the last stronghold before Masada to fall to the Romans).
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
It was becoming clear to them that Jesus wasn’t going to be feeding them that day. The key word here is ‘grumble’ (Jesus repeats this word back to them in the following verse).Â As in many cases in scripture, using such a specific word often refers back to its first use – in this case, Exodus, where people ‘grumbled’ to Moses because of what they would eat and drink there in the desert. This fits with the discussion that has already come up because the people asked about manna in the desert when their ancestors were with Moses.
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Jesus has now chosen to stick with his ‘bread’ metaphor (after all, His is the ‘bread of life’ and he was born in Bethlehem (lit. house of bread, or bakery)), which fits with his role as an atoning sacrifice. Some have taken part of this literally to develop the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was never intended, but rather that one would have to accept Jesus flesh and blood as an atoning sacrifice, and no longer the blood of doves, rams and goats. We, fortunately, have the gift of hindsight and the Holy Spirit to understand Jesus’ words and the prophetic import. His audience, however, wanted him to be a miraculous provider and to lead them (i.e. to be the next Moses).
At this point, Jesus had not only lost the crowd, but he was also going to lose those who followed him solely as a physical messiah. This had to do not so much with ‘hard teaching’ as we think about it today (repentance, self-sacrifice), but with ‘hard teaching’ for those people who believed that Jesus was going to deliver them from Roman oppression. It cannot be expressed how huge a let-down this was those people.Â The idea that the Messiah would save them from Roman oppression as a ruler and king in Jerusalem was at the core of Messianic belief – but that this salvation would not be a physical one had never entered their minds.
Later, in 68 A.D., it would be these zealots rebelling under the leadership of Simon bar Giora (who some believed to be a messiah) that led to the fall of Jerusalem. However, because the Messianic Jews chose not to fight against Rome, instead fleeing to Pella (per Jesus warning in the Olivet Discourse), many were later persecuted by Jewish zealots in retaliation (though far worse persecution of the Jews would come later from those who claimed to follow Jesus’ teaching).
And so, with the crowds upset and/or gone, we finish this passage of scripture:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)
One last item to note here is that the name ‘Iscariot’ is indiciative of Judas being a zealot, as well.Â The name ‘Iscarior’ comes from sicarii, the knife often carried by zealots when they assassinated public figures. This coda to the story is one more indication that it is the zealot idea (changing the world through violence and political intrigue) that Jesus is rejecting, and that those who seek Him for such purposes will be disappointed, because that is not his purpose.
Going back to the original thesis, this passage of scripture has nothing to do with winnowing out ‘false converts’, or acceptability being offensive in one’s presentation of the Gospel. This has everything to do with keeping the purpose of the Kingdom in focus, and Jesus’ (and only Jesus!) role as sacrifice and salvation for all men who will listen to the Father and comes to His Son. If you drive the weak and wounded out of the kingdom, you are just a resounding gong or clanging cymbal, nothing more.
Additionally, as we’re now into the four-year-cycle of the “silly season”, it is likely that Christians will be putting hope in the government being the solution to the problems we face – specifically problems linked to the purpose of the kingdom.Â For those of us who start being seduced by this idea – that Jesus will bring his kingdom about via political means – John 6 is a warning to us, as well…