Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

97. "Will ye also go away? (John 6:60-71)

The whole tenor of the teaching of Jesus that day was more than the people could stomach. "The true Bread. . . I am come down from heaven ... Work not. . . Believe . .. Eat my flesh and drink my blood . . . I will raise him up at the last day." These were strange words. Whatever they meant, there were certain highly unwelcome implications. An end to both personal and national striving for deliverance. Instead, personal self-sacrifice both by Jesus and those who sought to follow him. Dependence on God's leading rather than on rugged self-determination.

"This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" Even those who reckoned themselves his disciples found their confidence in him draining away. His sayings were hard to understand, hard to agree with, hard to put into practice. Worst of all, he talked in terms of dying, as though he were a needful sacrifice, of greater worth than Passover lamb or altar oblation. And they wanted him as Messiah. What good would a dying Messiah do them? Or is it possible that they found his words "hard" in the sense of "offensive" (as in Jude 15)? As seed of Abraham were they not entitled to eternal life? Who was this Jesus to talk as though without him they were lost souls?

"Ascend up"

As on so may other occasions, even though the murmuring went on out of earshot or behind his back, Jesus knew about it (cp. v.64,70), and proceeded to make matters worse by a yet more mysterious challenge: "Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?"

There has been plenty of divergence of opinion as to what the Lord intended here. Reference to the actual ascension of Jesus at the end of the forty days is natural enough, especially since the mention of the "Son of man" would link readily with Daniel 7 :13, an ascension prophecy. In that case the meaning is: You will surely change your present attitude when you see me ascend to heaven. But—big difficultly!-apart from the twelve, these disciples did not themselves see the ascension take place, so that "ye shall see" will hardly bear literal meaning (1 :51; Mt. 26 :64). Also, "where he was before" would then surely imply a personal pre-existence in heaven. Orthodox expositors are happy enough with this conclusion, but those who hold the Truth in Christ will be unwilling to resolve a difficulty here at the expense of a fundamental doctrine.

Much more likely, because more suitable, is the suggestion that Jesus spoke of his own resurrection: "What and if ye shall see me ascend up out of the tomb to be with you again on the earth as I am now? Perhaps you will understand more readily then." This interpretation harmonizes well enough with the context: "It is the Spirit that maketh alive; the flesh profiteth nothing."

A grammatical difficulty in the way of both of these interpretations is that the question put by Jesus actually presents a contingency (see RV, RSV), not an inevitable fact (as both resurrection and ascension must have been, in his mind).

In this particular respect a third interpretation goes more smoothly. The word translated "ascend up" is used nine times in John's gospel of Jesus going up to Jerusalem or to the temple. The same matter-of-fact meaning goes readily enough here also: 'Suppose you were to see me setting off for Jerusalem with you this Passover (to go into the temple court once again to assert my Messianic authority there, as I did once before). There would be no stumbling over such a policy, would there?' Of course there would not. This was the very action some of them had tried to force upon him, only the day before (v.15).

But, immediately, Jesus threw out such a scheme as morally impossible: "it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing." Neither national revival nor individual rehabilitation is possible through human plan or contrivance. Only through spiritual regeneration-the kind of thing John had taught through his rite of baptism—was there hope of any good. So, Jesus went on, even though my teaching calls you to self-sacrifice and "death", these very words in which I so appeal to you, "they are spirit, and they are life." With double meaning, he bade them understand his teaching spiritually, and not with rigid literalism, and then only would they make progress in understanding the spiritual life to which he called them.

The Problem of Judas

But there was no starry-eyed optimism about Jesus. Even now he knew, and told them plainly, that they were unwilling to put confidence in him— "children in whom is no faith!" "From the beginning Jesus knew who they were that believed not, and who should betray him." If these words be taken to mean that from the earliest days of discipleship Jesus knew what would be the ultimate reaction of each disciple, they involve a serious moral difficulty, especially regarding Judas. Is if credible that when Jesus called Judas to be one of the twelve, he already saw clearly that this man would one day hand him over to his enemies? This would be predestination-to-damnation of the starkest quality.

That such is a serious mis-interpretation is shown by two other very clear sayings of Jesus. "Those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them perished, but the son of perdition"(John 17 :12). So Judas was "given" to Jesus by the Father just as the rest of the apostolic band were. It was only at some subsequent time that he "perished". Also: "In the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Mt. 19 :28). This was spoken only a week before the crucifixion. So even at that late hour it was still possible to include Judas as one of the princes-elect of Israel.

Is it possible, then, that this foreknowledge of Jesus was what the Old Testament Scriptures taught him?—that his own people were they who would "believe not," and that the traitor would come out of his specially chosen band of followers (Ps. 41 :9; 55 :12-14). Or, assigning a different meaning to the word "beginning", was it that from the earliest moment of doubt Jesus knew when men no longer believed in him, and especially when it was that a spirit of disillusionment began to creep over Judas?

If this latter is the correct resolving of the difficulty, then these words included here can only meant that this Passover, exactly a year before the crucifixion, marked the beginning of the end for the traitor apostle.

God in control

Evidently some of those whose loyalty to Jesus was now ebbing away made some crude rejoinder to the effect that he could not expect them to go on believing in him when he said such difficult and discouraging things.

In reply Jesus reminded them of what he had already told them: "No man can come to me, except it be given him of my Father" —that is: 'It may not appear so to you, but I know that without a special guidance from heaven none you can come to me as loyal disciples.'

In this way Jesus came to terms with what was surely one of the most difficult at disheartening situations in his ministry. And with this philosophy he would fain have his disciple in every generation face their own problems and disappointments: God knows-and He knows best!

It was a point of view which the faithless self-determinist outlook of this multitude could stomach. So, "as a result of this many oft disciples went back, and walked no more with him." The Walking (Halakah) has always been the Jewish word for the rules of daily living lot down by the rabbis. So here is intimation that these who lapsed ceased to accept the Lord’s authority, they no longer obeyed his commandment. When they said. "This is s hard saying: who can hear it?" they meant, as in common Old Testament idiom: 'Who can obey such a teacher?'

"Will ye also go away?"

Not without some dismay (for what leader could view such a situation and be altogether unmoved by it?), Jesus turned to the twelve with the question: "You also don't want to desert me, do you?" By a certain dramatic irony, this the very expression which Mark was to use later on (14:10) to describe Judas going off to the chief priests (with an interesting contrast in 12:11).

Before any of the rest could muster courage to give uneasy expression to their own doubts (which were certainly real enough), Peter jumped in to assert unwavering loyalty or, behalf of all of them. In effect, he gave three reasons for standing firm:

"To whom shall we go?" We need a teacher. Then if not you whom can we follow? A ruthless implacable Barabbas?
Your "words of eternal life” have left their mark on us already.
Even though we seem to hesitate, on experience with you has left us with a confidence of knowledge we can't shake off.

"We believed and we still believe, and we have learned and we are still convinced that thou are the Holy One of God" (see RV). How Jesus must have warmed to Peter for this! In spite of much discouragement, twice within a few hours he had shown, that neither things present nor things to come would be able to separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord.

"The Holy One of God"

But what made Peter refer to Jesus as "the Holy One of God"? The only other time in the gospels that this title was given to Jesus was when at the beginning of the ministry the demoniac screamed out in the synagogue. Then, has John preserved this here in his gospel because, looking back, he saw Peter as viewed in a similar light by some of his fellows? Only a lunatic would now accept Jesus of Nazareth as God's Holy One!

Or is this detail retained in the narrative to recall the great psalm of Messiah's resurrection?: "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption" (Ps. 16:10). Had not Jesus repeatedly insisted: "and I will raise him up at the last day"?

Yet another possibility is that Peter, a man of real Biblical insight, had recognized his Lord's allusions to Psalm 78, and now added his own flash of insight: "They turned back (v.66), and tempted God, and limited (LXX: provoked) the Holy One of Israel" (v.41).

Alternatively, if the suggestion made in the last study is correct that Hosea 11 was one of the prophecies Jesus had appropriated to himself in his discourse that day, then Peter may have had that in mind: "for I am God, and not man; the Holy One in the midst of thee" (Hos. 11 :9).

The Betrayer

"Did I not choose you the twelve?" replied Jesus, "and one of you is a devil." The implication here would appear to be: 'I could surely count on the loyalty of you twelve; yet even among you there is one who has begun to think wrongly of me.' Nevertheless it took Judas a full year to make the break with a cause which he now deemed to be lost. As the months went by, and Jesus spoke increasingly of suffering and death at Jerusalem, "they understood not his saying, and were afraid to ask him" —but Judas understood. Had he understood as clearly the prophetic Scriptures about resurrection and glory, he would have been a different man. But that insight came too late.

"Have I not chosen you the twelve?" Making the link between the words "chosen" and "elect", one ancient commentator very wisely observed: "There is therefore an election of grace from which one may fall." The name of Judas was "written in the Lamb's book of life." Within a year it was to be "blotted out" (Rev.3:5). He was one of those given by the Father to His Son. Soon he was to become "the son of perdition" (Jn. 17 :12). He-Jesus' own familiar friend—who had but a few hours before eaten of his bread, was now for the first time of a mind to lift up his heel against him (Ps. 41 :9).

Notes: John 6:60-71

A hard saying. But not too hard, as the prophecy In Dt. 30 :11 RV insists. Whocanhearit(him)?\.e. Who can be a disciple of such a man?
It is the Spirit that quickeneth. The Spirit, the word of God (Is. 40 -.7,8), either shrivels humanity away to nothing, or it gives life. Here begins the very common New Testament idiom which uses Spirit for the new life in Christ; e.g. 2 Cor. 3:4,6; Rom. 8:9,10; 1 Cor. 15:45.
They are spirit; i.e. to be understood spiritually, and not literally. Is there another Ps. 78 allusion here?: "He remembered that they (Israel in the wilderness) were but flesh, a wind (spirit) that passeth away, and comethnot again" (v.39).
Except it were given him; cp. v.39,44.
Went back. Ps. 78 :41 (again!) In v.68 Peter's word for "go" supports the idea of going off to join Barabbas or some such leader.
The twelve. John tacitly assumes that this detail (12 special apostles) is known to his readers from the other gospels. Similarly, in ch .18, 19, he introduces Pilate and also Mary Magdalene without a word of explanation.
Believed and are sure (have learned). Then why the different order in 17 :8 and 1 Jn. 4 :16? A thing of no importance?

RV: the Holy One of God. There is excellent textual support for both AV and RV. But Ps. 78:41 surely settles that RV is correct here.
Is a devil. Not: has a devil, as orthodox ides would require.
RV: Son of Simon Iscariot is correct. Does this imply that Simon was known to some readers of this gospel?

Previous Index Next