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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

John 6

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-59

Chapter 14

JESUS THE BREAD OF LIFE.

John 6:1-59.

In this chapter John follows the same method as in the last. He first relates the sign, and then gives our Lord’s interpretation of it. As to the Samaritan woman, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so now to the Galileans, Jesus manifests Himself as sent to communicate to man life eternal. The sign by means of which He now manifests Himself is, however, so new that many fresh aspects of His own person and work are disclosed.(21)

The occasion for the miracle arose, as usual, quite simply. Jesus had retired to the east side of the sea of Tiberias, probably to a spot near Bethsaida Julias, that He might have some rest. But the people, eager to see more miracles, followed Him round the head of the lake, and, as they went, their number was augmented by members of a Passover caravan which was forming in the neighbourhood or was already on the march. This inconsiderate pursuit of Jesus, instead of offending Him, touched Him; and as He marked them toiling up the hill in groups, or one by one, some quite spent with a long and rapid walk, mothers dragging hungry children after them, His first thought was, What can these poor tired people get to refresh them here? He turns therefore to Philip with the question, “Whence are we to buy bread that these may eat?” This he said, John tells us, “to prove” or test Philip. Apparently this disciple was a shrewd business man, quick to calculate ways and means, and rather apt to scorn the expectations of faith. Every man must rid himself of the defects of his qualities. And Jesus now gave Philip an opportunity to overcome his weakness-in-strength by at last boldly confessing his inability and the Lord’s ability,-by saying, We have neither meat nor money, but we have Thee. But Philip, like many another, missed his opportunity, and, wholly oblivious of the resources of Jesus, casts His eye rapidly over the crowd and estimates that “two hundred pennyworth”(22) of bread would scarcely suffice to give each enough to stay immediate cravings. Philip’s friend Andrew as little as himself divines the intention of Jesus, and naïvely suggests that the whole provision he can hear of in the crowd is a little boy’s five loaves and two fishes. These helpless, meagrely furnished and meagrely conceiving disciples, meagre in food and meagre in faith, are set in contrast to the calm faith and infinite resource of Jesus.

The moral ground being thus prepared for the miracle in the confessed inability of the disciples and of the crowd, Jesus takes the matter in hand. With that air of authority and calm purpose which must have impressed the onlookers at all His miracles, He says, “Make the men sit down.” And there where they happened to be, and without further preparation, on a grassy spot near the left bank of the Jordan, and just where the river flows into the lake of Galilee, with the evening sun sinking behind the hills on the western shore and the shadows lying across the darkened lake, the multitude break up into groups of hundreds and fifties, and seat themselves in perfect confidence that somehow food is to be furnished. They seat themselves as those who expect a full meal, and not a mere snack they could eat standing, though where the full meal was to come from who could tell? This expectation must have deepened into faith as the thousands listened to their Host giving thanks over the scanty provision. One would fain have heard the words in which Jesus addressed the Father, and by which He caused all to feel how near to each was infinite resource. And then, as He proceeded to distribute the ever-multiplying food, the first awe-struck silence of the multitude gave way to exclamations of surprise and to excited and delighted comments. The little lad, as he watched with widening eyes his two fishes doing the work of two thousand, would feel himself a person of consequence, and that he had a story to tell when he went back to his home on the beach. And ever and anon, as our Lord stood with a smile on His face enjoying the congenial scene, the children from the nearest groups would steal to His side, to get their supplies from His own hand.

1. Before touching upon the points in this sign emphasised by our Lord Himself, it is perhaps legitimate to indicate one or two others. And among these it may first of all be remarked that our Lord sometimes, as here, gives not medicine but food. He not only heals, but prevents disease. And however valuable the one blessing is-the blessing of being healed-the other is even greater. The weakness of starvation exposes men to every form of disease; it is a lowered vitality which gives disease its opportunity. In the spiritual life it is the same. The preservative against any definite form of sin is a strong spiritual life, a healthy condition not easily fatigued in duty, and not easily overcome by temptation. Perhaps the gospel has come to be looked upon too exclusively as a remedial scheme, and too little as the means of maintaining spiritual health. So marked is its efficacy in reclaiming the vicious, that its efficacy as the sole condition of healthy human life is apt to be overlooked. Christ is needful to us not only as sinners; He is needful to us as men. Without Him human life lacks the element which gives reality, meaning, and zest to the whole. Even to those who have little present sense of sin He has much to offer. A sense of sin grows with the general growth of the Christian life; and that at first it should be small need not surprise us. But the present absence of a profound sorrow for sin is not to bar our approach to Christ. To the impotent man, conscious of his living death, Christ offered a life that healed and strengthened-healed by strengthening. But equally to those who now conversed with Him, and who, conscious of life, asked Him how they might work the work of God, He gave the same direction, that they must believe in Him as their life.

2. Our Lord here supplied the same plain food to all.

In the crowd were men, women, and children, old and young, hard-working peasants, shepherds from the hillside, and fishermen from the lake; as well as traders and scribes from the towns. No doubt it elicited remark that fare so simple should be acceptable to all. Had the feast been given by a banqueting Pharisee, a variety of tastes would have been provided for. Here the guests were divided into groups merely for convenience of distribution, not for distinction of tastes. There are few things which are not more the necessity of one class of men than of another, or that while devotedly pursued by one nation are not despised across the frontier, or that do not become antiquated and obsolete in this century though considered essential in the last. But among these few things is the provision Christ makes for our spiritual well-being. It is like the supply of our deep natural desires and common appetites, in which men resemble one another from age to age, and by which they recognise their common humanity. All the world round, you may find wells whose water you could not say was different from what you daily use, at any rate they quench your thirst as well. You could not tell what country you were in nor what age by the taste of the water from a living well. And so what God has provided for our spiritual life bears in it no peculiarities of time or place; it addresses itself with equal power to the European of to-day as it did to the Asiatic during our Lord’s own lifetime. Men have settled down by hundreds and by fifties, they are grouped according to various natures and tastes, but to all alike is this one food presented. And this, because the want it supplies is not fictitious, but as natural and veritable a want as is indicated by hunger or thirst.

We must beware then of looking with repugnance on what Christ calls us to, as if it were a superfluity that may reasonably be postponed to more urgent and essential demands; or as if He were introducing our nature to some region for which it was not originally intended, and exciting within us spurious and fanciful desires which are really alien to us as human beings. This is a common thought. It is a common thought that religion is not an essential but a luxury. But in point of fact all that Christ calls us to, perfect reconcilement with God, devoted service of His will, purity of character,-these are the essentials for us, so that until we attain them we have not begun to live, but are merely nibbling at the very gate of life. God, in inviting us to these things, is not putting a strain on our nature it can never bear. He is proposing to impart new strength and joy to our nature. He is not summoning us to a joy that is too high for us, and that we can never rejoice in, but is recalling us to that condition in which alone we can live with comfort and health, and in which alone we can permanently delight. If we cannot now desire what Christ offers, if we have no appetite for it, if all that He speaks of seems uninviting and dreary, then this is symptomatic of a fatal loss of appetite on our part. But as Jesus would have felt a deeper compassion for any in that crowd who were too faint to eat, or as He would quickly have laid His healing hand on any diseased person who could not eat, so does He still more deeply compassionate all of us who would fain eat and drink with His people, and yet nauseate and turn from their delights as the sickly from the strong food of the healthy.

3. But what Jesus especially emphasises in the conversation arising out of the miracle is that the food He gives is Himself. He is the Bread of Life, the Living Bread. What is there in Christ which constitutes Him the Bread of Life? There is, first of all, that which He Himself constantly presses, that He is sent by the Father, that He comes out of heaven, bringing from the Father a new source of life into the world.

When our Lord pointed out to the Galileans that the work of God was to believe in Him, they demanded a further sign as evidence that He was God’s Messenger: “What sign doest Thou that we may see and believe Thee? What dost Thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; they had bread from heaven, not common barley loaves such as we got from You yesterday. Have You any such sign as this to give? If You are sent from God, we may surely expect you to rival Moses.”(23) To which Jesus replies: “The bread which your fathers received did not prevent them dying; it was meant to sustain physical life, and yet even in that respect it was not perfect. God has a better bread to give, a bread which will sustain you in spiritual life, not for a few years but for ever” (John 6:49-51). “I am the living bread which came down out of heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever.”

This they could not understand. They believed that the manna came from heaven. Not the richest field of Egypt had produced it. It seemed to come direct from God’s hand. The Israelites could neither raise it nor improve upon it. But how Jesus, “whose father and mother we know,” whom they could trace to a definite human origin, could say that He came from heaven they could not understand. And yet, even while they stumbled at His claim to a superhuman origin, they felt there might be something in it. Everyone with whom He came in contact felt there was in Him something unaccountable. The Pharisees feared while they hated Him. Pilate could not classify Him with any variety of offender he had met with. Why do men still continually attempt afresh to account for Him, and to give at last a perfectly satisfactory explanation, on ordinary principles, of all that He was and did? Why, but because it is seen that as yet He has not been so accounted for? Men do not thus strive to prove that Shakespeare was a mere man, or that Socrates or Epictetus was a mere man. Alas! that is only too obvious. But to Christ men turn and turn again with the feeling that here is something which human nature does not account for; something different, and something more than what results from human parentage and human environment, something which He Himself accounts for by the plain and unflinching statement that He is “from heaven.”

For my part, I do not see that this can mean anything less than that Christ is Divine, that in Him we have God, and in Him touch the actual Source of all life. In Him we have the one thing within our reach which is not earth-grown, the one uncorrupted Source of life to which we can turn from the inadequacy, impurity, and emptiness of a sin-sick world. No pebble lies hid in this bread on which we can break our teeth; no sweetness in the mouth turning afterwards to bitterness, but a new, uncontaminated food, prepared independently of all defiling influences, and accessible to all. Christ is the Bread from heaven, because in Christ God gives Himself to us, that by His life we may live.

There is another sense in which Christ probably used the word “living.” In contrast to the dead bread He had given them He was alive. The same law seems to hold good of our physical and of our spiritual life. We cannot sustain physical life except by using as food that which has been alive. The nutritive properties of the earth and the air must have been assimilated for us by living plants and animals before we can use them. The plant sucks sustenance out of the earth-we can live upon the plant but not on the earth. The ox finds ample nourishment in grass; we can live on the ox but not on the grass. And so with spiritual nutriment. Abstract truth we can make little of at first hand; it needs to be embodied in a living form before we can live upon it. Even God is remote and abstract, and non-Christian theism makes thin-blooded and spectral worshippers; it is when the Word becomes flesh; when the hidden reason of all things takes human form and steps out on the earth before us, that truth becomes nutritive, and God our life.

4. Still more explicitly Christ says: “The bread which I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” For it is in this great act of dying that He becomes the Bread of Life. God sharing with us to the uttermost; God proving that His will is our righteousness; God bearing our sorrows and our sins; God coming into our human race, and becoming a part of its history-all this is seen in the cross of Christ; but it is also seen that absolute love for men, and absolute submission to God, were the moving forces of Christ’s life. He was obedient even unto death. This was His life, and by the cross He made it ours. The cross subdues our hearts to Him, and gives us to feel that self-sacrifice is the true life of man.

A man in a sickly state of body has sometimes to make it matter of consideration, or even of consultation, what he shall eat. Were anyone to take the same thought about his spiritual condition, and seriously ponder what would bring health to his spirit, what would rid it of distaste for what is right, and give it strength and purity to delight in God and in all good, he would probably conclude that a clear and influential exhibition of God’s goodness, and of the fatal effects of sin, a convincing exhibition, an exhibition in real life, of the unutterable hatefulness of sin, and inconceivable desirableness of God; an exhibition also which should at the same time open for us a way from sin to God-this, the inquirer would conclude, would bring life to the spirit. It is such an exhibition of God and of sin, and such a way out of sin to God, as we have in Christ’s death.

5. How are we to avail ourselves of the life that is in Christ? As the Jews asked, How can this man give us His flesh to eat? Our Lord Himself uses several terms to express the act by which we make use of Him as the Bread of Life. “He that believeth on Me,” “He that cometh to Me,” “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life.” Each of these expressions has its own significance. Belief must come first-belief that Christ is sent to give us life; belief that it depends upon our connection with that one Person whether we shall or shall not have life eternal. We must also “come to Him.” The people He was addressing had followed Him for miles, and had found Him and were speaking to Him, but they had not come to Him. To come to Him is to approach Him in spirit and with submissive trust; it is to commit ourselves to Him as our Lord; it is to rest in Him as our all; it is to come to Him with open heart, accepting Him as all He claims to be; it is to meet the eye of a present, living Christ, who knows what is in man, and to say to Him “I am Thine, Thine most gladly, Thine for evermore.”

But most emphatically of all does our Lord say that we must “eat His flesh and drink His blood” if we are to partake of His life. That is to say, the connection between Christ and us must be of the closest possible kind; so close that the assimilation of the food we eat is not too strong a figure to express it. The food we eat becomes our blood and flesh; it becomes our life, our self. And it does so by our eating it, not by our talking of it, not by our looking at it, and admiring its nutritive properties, but only by eating it. And whatever process can make Christ entirely ours, and help us to assimilate all that is in Him, this process we are to use. The flesh of Christ was given for us; by the shedding of Christ’s blood, by the pouring out of His life upon the cross, spiritual life was prepared for us. Cleansing from sin and restoration to God were provided by the offering of His life in the flesh; and we eat His flesh when we use in our own behalf the death of Christ, and take the blessings it has made possible to us; when we accept the forgiveness of sins, enter into the love of God, and adopt as our own the spirit of the cross. His flesh or human form was the manifestation of God’s love for us, the visible material of His sacrifice; and we eat His flesh when we make this our own, when we accept God’s love and adopt Christ’s sacrifice as our guiding principle of life. We eat His flesh when we take out of His life and death the spiritual nutriment that is actually there; when we let our nature be penetrated by the spirit of the cross, and actually make Christ the Source and the Guide of our spiritual life.

This figure of eating has many lessons for us. Above all, it reminds us of the poor appetite we have for spiritual nourishment. How thoroughly by this process of eating does the healthy body extract from its food every particle of real nutriment. By this process the food is made to yield all that it contains of nourishing substance. But how far is this from representing our treatment of Christ. How much is there in Him that is fitted to yield comfort and hope, and yet to us it yields none. How much that should fill us with assurance of God’s love, yet how fearfully we live. How much to make us admire self-sacrifice and fill us with earnest purpose to live for others, and yet how little of this becomes in very deed our life. God sees in Him all that can make us complete, all that can fill and gladden and suffice the soul, and yet how bare and troubled and defeated do we live.(24)

6. The mode of distribution was also significant. Christ gives life to the world not directly, but through His disciples. The life He gives is Himself, but He gives it through the instrumentality of men. The bread is His. The disciples may manipulate it as they will, but it remains five loaves only. None but He can relieve the famishing multitude. Still not with His own hands does He feed them, but through the believing service of the Twelve. And this He did not merely for the sake of teaching us that only through the Church is the world supplied with the life He furnishes, but primarily because it was the natural and fit order then, as it is the natural and fit order now, that they who themselves believe in the power of the Lord to feed the world should be the means of distributing what He gives. Each of the disciples received from the Lord no more than would satisfy himself, yet held in his hand what would through the Lord’s blessing satisfy a hundred besides. And it is a grave truth we here meet, that every one of us who has received life from Christ has thereby in possession what may give life to many other human souls. We may give it or we may withhold it; we may communicate it to the famishing souls around us or we may hear unconcerned the weary heart-faint sigh; but the Lord knows to whom He has given the bread of life, and He gives it not solely for our own consumption but for distribution. It is not the privilege of the more enlightened or more fervent disciple, but of all. He who receives from the Lord what is enough for himself holds the lives of some of his fellows in his hand.

Doubtless the faith of the disciples was severely tried when they were required to advance each man to his separate hundred with his morsel of bread. There would be no struggling for the first place then. But encouraged in their faith by the simple and confident words of prayer their Master had addressed to the Father, they are emboldened to do His bidding, and if they gave sparingly and cautiously at first, their parsimony must soon have been rebuked and their hearts enlarged.

Theirs is also our trial. We know we should be more helpful to others; but in presence of the sorrowful we seem to have no word of comfort; seeing this man and that pursuing a way the end of which is death, we have yet no wise word of remonstrance, no loving entreaty; lives are trifled away at our side, and we are conscious of no ability to elevate and dignify; lives are worn out in crushing toil and misery, and we feel helpless to aid. The habit grows upon us of expecting rather to get good than to do good. We have long recognised that we are too little influenced by God’s grace, and only at long intervals now are we ashamed of this; it has become our acknowledged state. We have found that we are not the kind of people who are to influence others. Looking at our slim faith, our stunted character, our slender knowledge, we say, “What is this among so many?” These feelings are inevitable. No man seems to have enough even for his own soul. But giving of what he has to others he will find his own store increased. “There is that scattereth abroad and yet increaseth,” is the law of spiritual growth.

But the thought which shines through all others as we read this narrative is the genial tenderness of Christ. He is here seen to be considerate of our wants, mindful of our weaknesses, quick to calculate our prospects and to provide for us, simple, practical, earnest in His love. We see here how He withholds no good thing from us, but considers and gives what we actually need. We see how reasonable it is that He should require us to trust Him. To every fainting soul, to every one who has wandered far and whose strength is gone, and round whom the shadows and chills of night are gathering, He says through this miracle: “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”(25)


Verse 37

NOTE ON CHAP. VI., Vers. 37, 44, 45.

Three terms are used in these verses which call for examination,-“giving,” “drawing,” “teaching.” The two latter are used in a connection which leaves little room for doubt as to their meaning. “No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him.... It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man, therefore, that hath heard and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto Me;” but, by implication, no man who has not so learned. Both verses express the thought that without special aid from God no man can come to Christ. There must be a Divine illumination of the human faculties, enabling the man to apprehend that Jesus is the Christ, and to receive Him as such. These expressions cannot refer to the outward illumination which is communicated by Scripture, by the miracles of Christ, and so forth; because the whole of the crowd addressed by our Lord had such illumination, and yet not all of them were “taught of God.” The “hearing,” and “learning,” or “being taught of God,” here spoken of must signify the opening of the inner ear by the unseen operation of God Himself. Most emphatically does Jesus affirm that without this exercise of the Divine will and Divine power upon the individual no man can receive Him. The mere manifestation of God in the flesh is not enough: an inward and special enlightenment is required to enable a man to recognise God manifest in the flesh. The words, then, of ver. 44 (John 6:44) only mean that in order to apprehend the significance of Christ and to yield ourselves to Him we must be aided individually and inwardly by God.

Whether the “giving” of ver. 37 (John 6:37) is intended to signify an act prior to the teaching and drawing may reasonably be doubted. It is prior to the “coming” to Christ, as the terms of the verse prove: “All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me: and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.” Principal Reynolds says it is “the present activity of the Father’s grace that is meant, not a foregone conclusion,” No doubt that is in strictness true. Our Lord, in the face of general unbelief, is comforting Himself with the assurance that after all He will draw to Himself all whom the Father gives Him; and this implies that the Father’s giving is the main factor in His success.


Verse 44-45

lete_me John 6:44-45

NOTE ON CHAP. VI., Vers. 37, 44, 45.

Three terms are used in these verses which call for examination,-“giving,” “drawing,” “teaching.” The two latter are used in a connection which leaves little room for doubt as to their meaning. “No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him.... It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man, therefore, that hath heard and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto Me;” but, by implication, no man who has not so learned. Both verses express the thought that without special aid from God no man can come to Christ. There must be a Divine illumination of the human faculties, enabling the man to apprehend that Jesus is the Christ, and to receive Him as such. These expressions cannot refer to the outward illumination which is communicated by Scripture, by the miracles of Christ, and so forth; because the whole of the crowd addressed by our Lord had such illumination, and yet not all of them were “taught of God.” The “hearing,” and “learning,” or “being taught of God,” here spoken of must signify the opening of the inner ear by the unseen operation of God Himself. Most emphatically does Jesus affirm that without this exercise of the Divine will and Divine power upon the individual no man can receive Him. The mere manifestation of God in the flesh is not enough: an inward and special enlightenment is required to enable a man to recognise God manifest in the flesh. The words, then, of ver. 44 (John 6:44) only mean that in order to apprehend the significance of Christ and to yield ourselves to Him we must be aided individually and inwardly by God.

Whether the “giving” of ver. 37 (John 6:37) is intended to signify an act prior to the teaching and drawing may reasonably be doubted. It is prior to the “coming” to Christ, as the terms of the verse prove: “All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me: and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.” Principal Reynolds says it is “the present activity of the Father’s grace that is meant, not a foregone conclusion,” No doubt that is in strictness true. Our Lord, in the face of general unbelief, is comforting Himself with the assurance that after all He will draw to Himself all whom the Father gives Him; and this implies that the Father’s giving is the main factor in His success.


Verses 60-71

Chapter 15

THE CRISIS IN GALILEE.

“Many therefore of His disciples, when they heard this, said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it? But Jesus knowing in Himself that His disciples murmured at this, said unto them, Doth this cause you to stumble? What then if ye should behold the Son of man ascending where He was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit, and are life. But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who it was that should betray Him. And He said, For this cause have I said unto you, that no man can come unto Me, except it be given unto him of the Father. Upon this many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him. Jesus said therefore unto the twelve, Would ye also go away? Simon Peter answered Him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and know that Thou art the Holy One of God. Jesus answered them, Did not I choose you the twelve, and one of you is a devil? Now He spake of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he it was that should betray Him, being one of the twelve.”- John 6:60-71.

The situation in which our Lord found Himself at this stage of His career is full of pathos. He began His ministry in Judæa, and His success there seemed to be all that could be desired. But it soon became apparent that the crowds who followed Him misunderstood or wilfully ignored His purpose. They resorted to Him chiefly, if not solely, for material advantages and political ends. He was in danger of being accounted the most skilful metropolitan physician; or in the greater danger of being courted by politicians as a likely popular leader, who might be used as a revolutionary flag or party cry. He, therefore, left Jerusalem at an early period in His ministry and betook Himself to Galilee; and now, after some months’ preaching and mingling with the people, things have worked round in Galilee to precisely the same point as they had reached in Judæa. Great crowds are following Him to be healed and to be fed, while the politically inclined have at last made a distinct effort to make Him a king, to force Him into a collision with the authorities. His proper work is in danger of being lost sight of. He finds it necessary to sift the crowds who follow Him. And He does so by addressing them in terms which can be acceptable only to truly spiritual men-by plainly assuring them that He was among them, not to give them political privileges and the bread that perisheth, but the bread that endureth. They found Him to be what they would call an impracticable dreamer. They profess to go away because they cannot understand Him; but they understand Him well enough to see He is not the person for their purposes. They seek earth, and heaven is thrust upon them. They turn away disappointed, and many walk no more with Him. The great crowd melts away, and He is left with His original following of twelve men. His months of teaching and toil seem to have gone for nothing. It might seem doubtful if even the twelve would be faithful-if any result of His work would remain, if any would cordially and lovingly adhere to Him.

One cannot, I think, view this situation without perceiving how analogous it is in many respects to the aspect of things in our own day. In all ages of course this sifting of the followers of Christ goes on. There are experiences common to all times and places which test men’s attachment to Christ. But in our own day exceptional causes are producing a considerable diminution of the numbers who follow Christ, or at least are altering considerably the grounds on which they profess to follow Him. When one views the defection of men of influence, of thought, of learning, of earnest and devout spirit, one cannot but wonder what is to be the end of this, and how far it is to extend. One cannot but look anxiously at those who seem to remain, and to say, “Will ye also go away?” No doubt such times of sifting are of eminent service in winnowing out the true from the mistaken followers, and in summoning all men to revise the reason of their attachment to Christ. When we see men of serious mind and of great attainments deliberately abandoning the Christian position, we cannot but anxiously inquire whether we are right in maintaining that position. When the question comes to us, as in Providence it does, “Will ye also go away?” we must have our answer ready.

The answer of Peter clearly shows what it was that bound the faithful few to Jesus; and in his answer three reasons for faith may be discerned.

1. Jesus satisfied their deepest spiritual wants. They had found in Him provision for their whole nature, and had learned the truth of His saying, “He that cometh to Me shall never hunger, and He that believeth on Me shall never thirst.” They could now say, “Thou hast the words of eternal life.” His words made water into wine, and five loaves into five thousand, but His words did what was far more to their purpose,-they fed their spirit. His words brought them nearer to God, promised them eternal life, and began it within them. From the lips of Jesus had actually fallen words which quickened within them a new life-a life which they recognised as eternal, as lifting them up into another world. These words of His had given them new thoughts about God and about righteousness, they had stirred hopes and feelings of an altogether new kind. And this spiritual life was more to them than anything else. No doubt these men, like their neighbours, had their faults, their private ambitions, their hopes. Peter could not forget that he had left all for his Master, and often thought of his home, his plentiful table, his family, when wandering about with Jesus. They all, probably, had an expectation that their abandonment of their occupations would not be wholly without compensation in this life, and that prominent position and worldly advantage awaited them. Still, when they discovered that these were mistaken expectations, they did not grumble nor go back, for such were not their chief reasons for following Jesus. It was chiefly by His appeal to their spiritual leanings that He attracted them. It was rather for eternal life than for present advantage they attached themselves to Him. They found more of God in Him than elsewhere, and listening to Him they found themselves better men than before; and having experienced that His words were “spirit and life” (John 6:63), they could not now abandon Him though all the world did so.

So is it always. When Christ sifts His followers those remain who have spiritual tastes and wants. The spiritual man, the man who would rather be like God than be rich, whose efforts after worldly advancement are not half as earnest and sustained as His efforts after spiritual health; the man, in short, who seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and lets other things be added or not to this prime requisite, cleaves to Christ because there is that in Christ which satisfies his tastes and gives him the life he chiefly desires. There is in Christ a suitableness to the wants of men who live in view of God and eternity, and who seek to adjust themselves, not only to the world around them so as to be comfortable and successful in it, but also to the things unseen, to the permanent laws which are to govern human beings and human affairs throughout eternity. Such men find in Christ that which enables them to adjust themselves to things eternal. They find in Christ just that revelation of God, and that reconcilement to Him, and that help to abiding in Him, which they need. They cannot imagine a time, they cannot picture to themselves a state of society, in which the words and teaching of Jesus would not be the safest guide and the highest law. Life eternal, life for men as men, is taught by Him; not professional life, not the life of a religious rule that must pass away, not life for this world only, but life eternal, life such as men everywhere and always ought to live-this is apprehended by Him and explained by Him; and power and desire to live it is quickened within men by His words. Coming into His presence we recognise the assuredness of perfect knowledge, the simplicity of perfect truth. That which outrides all such critical times as the disciples were now passing through is true spirituality of mind. The man who is bent on nourishing his spirit to life everlasting simply cannot dispense with what he finds in Christ.

We need not then greatly fear for our own faith if we are sure that we covet the words of eternal life more than the path to worldly advantage. Still less need we tremble for the faith of others if we know that their tastes are spiritual, their leanings Godward. Parents are naturally anxious about their children’s faith, and fear it may be endangered by the advances of science or by the old props of faith being shaken. Such anxiety is in great measure misdirected. Let parents see to it that their children grow up with a preference for purity, unselfishness, truth, unworldliness; let parents set before their children an example of real preference for things spiritual, and let them with God’s aid cultivate in their children an appetite for what is heavenly, a craving to live on terms with God and with conscience; and this appetite will infallibly lead them to Christ. Does Christ supply the wants of our spirits? Can He show us the way to eternal life? Have men found in Him all needed help to godly living? Have the most spiritual and ardent of men been precisely those who have most clearly seen their need of Him, and who have found in Him everything to satisfy and feed their own spiritual ardour? Has He, that is to say, the words of eternal life? Is He the Person to whom every man must listen if he would find his way to God and a happy eternity? Then, depend upon it, men will believe in Christ in every generation, and none the less firmly because their attention is called off from non-essential and external evidences to the simple sufficiency of Christ.

2. Peter was convinced not only that Jesus had the words of eternal life, but that no one else had. “To whom shall we go?” Peter had not an exhaustive knowledge of all sources of human wisdom; but speaking from his own experience he affirmed his conviction that it was useless to seek life eternal anywhere else than in Jesus. And it seems equally hopeless still to look to any other quarter for sufficient teaching, for words that are “spirit and life.” Where but in Christ do we find a God we can accept as God? Where but in Him do we find that which can not only encourage men striving after virtue, but also reclaim the vicious? To put anyone alongside of Christ as a revealer of God, as a pattern of virtue, as a Saviour of men, is absurd. There is that in Him which we recognise as not merely superior, but of another kind. So that those who reject Him, or set Him on a level with other teachers, have first of all to reject the chief part of what His contemporaries were struck with and reported, and to fashion a Christ of their own.

And it should be observed that Christ claims this exceptional homage from His people. The “following” He requires is not a mere acceptance of His teaching alongside of other teaching, nor an acceptance of His teaching apart from Himself, as if a man should listen to Him and go home and try to practise what he has heard; but He requires men to form a connection with Himself as their King and Life, as that One who can alone give them strength to obey Him. To call Him “the Teacher,” as if this were His sole or chief title, is to mislead.

The alternative, then, as Peter saw, was Christ or nothing. And every day it is becoming clearer that this is the alternative, that between Christianity and the blankest Atheism there is no middle place. Indeed we may say that between Christianity, with its supernatural facts, and materialism, which admits of no supernatural at all, and of nothing spiritual and immortal, there is no logical standing-ground. A man’s choice lies between these two-either Christ with His claims in all their fulness, or a material universe working out its life under the impulse of some inscrutable force. There are of course men who are neither Christians nor materialists; but that is because they have not yet found their intellectual resting-place. As soon as they obey reason, they will travel to one or other of these extremes, for between the two is no logical standing-ground. If there is a God, then there seems nothing incredible, nothing even very surprising, in Christianity. Christianity becomes merely the flower or fruit for which the world exists, the element in the world’s history which gives meaning and glory to the whole of it: without Christianity and all it involves the world lacks interest of the highest kind. If a man finds he cannot admit the possibility of such an interference in the world’s monotonous way as the Incarnation implies, it is because there is in his mind an Atheistic tendency, a tendency to make the laws of the world more than the Creator; to make the world itself God, the highest thing. The Atheist’s position is thoroughgoing and logical; and against the Atheist the man who professes to believe in a Personal God and yet denies miracle is helpless. And in point of fact Atheistic writers are rapidly sweeping the field of all other antagonists, and the intermediate positions between Christianity and Atheism are becoming daily more untenable.

Any one then who is offended at the supernatural in Christianity, and is disposed to turn away and walk no more with Christ, should view the alternative, and consider what it is with which he must throw in his lot. To retain what is called the spirit of Christ, and reject all that is miraculous and above our present comprehension, is to commit oneself to a path which naturally leads to disbelief in God. We must choose between Christ as He stands in the gospels, claiming to be Divine, rising from the dead and now alive; and a world in which there is no God manifest in the flesh or anywhere else, a world that has come into being no one knows how or whence, and that is running on no one knows whither, unguided by any intelligence outside of itself, wholly governed by laws which have grown out of some impersonal force of which nobody can give any good account. Difficult as it is to believe in Christ, it is surely still more difficult to believe in the only alternative, a world wholly material, in which matter rules and spirit is a mere accident of no account. If there are inexplicable things in the gospel, there are also in us and around us facts wholly inexplicable on the atheistic theory. If the Christian must be content to wait for the solution of many mysteries, so certainly must the materialist be content to leave unsolved many of the most important problems of human life.(26)

3. The third reason which Peter assigns for the unalterable loyalty of the Twelve is expressed in the words, “We have believed and know that Thou art the Holy One of God.” By this he probably meant that he and the rest had come to be convinced that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the consecrated One, whom God had set apart to this office. The same expression was used by the demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum.(27) But although the idea of consecration to an office rather than the idea of personal holiness is prominent in the word, it may very well have been the personal holiness of their Master which bore in upon the minds of the disciples that He was indeed the Messiah. By His life with them from day to day He revealed God to them. They had seen Him in a great variety of circumstances. They had seen His compassion for every form of sorrow and misery, and His regardlessness of self; they had marked His behaviour when offered a crown and when threatened with the cross; they had seen Him at table in gay company, and they had seen Him fasting and in houses of mourning, in danger, in vehement discussion, in retirement; and in all circumstances and scenes they had found Him holy, so holy that to turn from Him they felt would be to turn from God.

The emphasis with which they affirm their conviction is remarkable: “We have believed and we know.” It is as if they felt, We may be doubtful of much and ignorant of much, but this at least we are sure of. We see men leaving our company who are fit to instruct and guide us in most matters, but they do not know our Lord as we do. What they have said has disturbed our minds and has caused us to revise our beliefs, but we return to our old position, “We have believed and we know.” It may be true that devils have been cast out by the prince of the devils; we do not know. But a stainless life is more miraculous and Divine than the casting out of devils; it is more unknown in the world, referable to no freak of nature, accomplished by no sleight of hand or jugglery, but due only to the presence of God. Here we have not the sign or evidence of the thing but the thing itself, God not using man as an external agent for operating upon the material world, but God present in the man, living in his life, one with him.

Upon our faith nothing is more influential than the holiness of Christ. Nothing is more certainly Divine. Nothing is more characteristic of God-not His power, not His wisdom, not even His eternal Being. He who in his own person and life represents to us the holiness of God is more certainly superhuman than he who represents God’s power. A power to work miracles has often been delegated to men, but holiness cannot be so delegated. It belongs to character, to the man’s self; it is a thing of nature, of will, and of habit; a king may give to his ambassador ample powers, he may fill his hands with credentials, and load him with gifts which shall be acceptable to the monarch to whom he is sent, but he cannot give him a tact he does not naturally possess, a courtesy he has not acquired by dealing with other princes, nor the influence of wise and magnanimous words, if these do not inherently belong to the ambassador’s self. So the holiness of Christ was even more convincing than His power or His message. It was such a holiness as caused the disciples to feel that He was not a mere messenger. His holiness revealed Himself as well as Him that sent Him; and the self that was thus revealed they felt to be more than human. When, therefore, their faith was tried by seeing the multitudes abandon their Lord, they were thrown back on their surest ground of confidence in Him; and that surest ground was not the miracles which all had seen, but the consecrated and perfect life which was known to them.

To ourselves, then, I say, by the circumstances of our time this question comes, “Will ye also go away?” Will you be like the rest, or will exceptional fidelity be found in you? Is your attachment to Christ so based on personal conviction, is it so truly the growth of your own experience, and so little a mere echo of popular opinion, that you say in your heart, “Though all men should forsake Thee, yet will not I”? It is difficult to resist the current of thought and opinion that prevails around us; difficult to dispute or even question the opinion of men who have been our teachers, and who have first awakened our mind to see the majesty of truth and the beauty of the universe; it is difficult to choose our own way, and thus tacitly condemn the choice and the way of men we know to be purer in life, and in every essential respect better than ourselves. And yet, perhaps, it is well that we are thus compelled to make up our own mind, to examine the claims of Christ for ourselves, and so follow Him with the resolution that comes of personal conviction. It is this our Lord desires. He does not compel nor hasten our decision. He does not upbraid His followers for their serious misunderstandings of His person. He allows them to be familiar with Him even while labouring under many misconceptions, because He knows that these misconceptions will most surely pass away in His society and by further acquaintance with Him. One thing He insists upon, one thing He asks from us-that we follow Him. We may only have a vague impression that He is quite different from all else we know; we may be doubtful, as yet, in what sense some of the highest titles are ascribed to Him; we may be quite mistaken about the significance of certain important parts of His life; we may disagree among ourselves regarding the nature of His kingdom and regarding the conditions of entrance into it; but, if we follow Him, if we join our fortunes to His, and wish nothing better than to be within the sound of His voice and to do His bidding; if we truly love Him, and find that He has taken a place in our life we cannot ever give to another; if we are conscious that our future lies His way, and that we must in heart abide with Him, then all our slowness to understand is patiently dealt with, all our underrating of His real dignity is forgiven us, and we are led on in His company to perfect conformity, perfect union, and perfect knowledge.

All that He desires, then, is, in the first place, not something we cannot give, not a belief in certain truths about which doubt may reasonably be entertained, not an acknowledgment of facts that are as yet beyond our vision; but, that we follow Him, that we be in this world as He was in it. Shall we, then, let Him pursue His way alone, shall we do nothing to forward His purposes, shall we show no sympathy, address no word to Him, and pretend not to hear when He speaks to us? To drag ourselves along murmuring, doubting, making difficulties, a mere dead weight on our Leader, this is not to follow as He desires to be followed. To take our own way in the main, and only appear here and there on the road He has taken; to be always trying to combine the pursuit of our own private ends with the pursuance of His ends, is not to follow. Had we seen these men asking leave of absence two or three times a month to go and look after the fishing, even though they promised to overtake their Master somewhere on the road, we should scarcely have recognised them as His followers. Had we found them, on reaching a village at night, leaving Him, and preferring to spend their leisure with His enemies, we should have been inclined to ask an explanation of conduct so inconsistent. Yet is not our own following very much of this kind? Is there not too little of the following that says, “What is enough for the Lord is enough for me; His aims are enough for me”? Is there not too little of the following that springs from a frank and genuine dealing with the Lord from day to day, and from a conscientious desire to meet His will with us, and satisfy His idea of how we should follow Him? May we each have the peace and joy of the man who, when this question, “Will ye also go away?” comes to him, quickly and from the heart responds, “I will never forsake Thee.”

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on John 6:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/john-6.html.

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